Kakadu National Park, Australia

Cattle egrets fly over a billabong in Kakadu.

“You’re going to the North? What for? There’s nothing there but crocs and stinking heat.”

This was the encouraging conversation I had with someone from Queensland, Australia, when I mentioned that our next destination was the Northern Territory. Given that Queensland itself has no shortage of either crocs or heat, his opinion of the north was worth noting.

The answer to his question was simple, however: Kakadu. The park had been on my bucket list since we watched Kakadu: Australia’s Ancient Wilderness, part of the PBS series “The Living Edens.”

Recognized as a World Heritage Site for both its natural environment and its cultural significance (thanks to over 20,000 years of Aboriginal occupation), it’s one of those places that you don’t get to by accident. You’re not toodling along a pleasant country lane when you notice a sign “This way to Kakadu” and you decide on the spur of the moment—because you have nothing to do between lunch and teatime—to pop in for a bit of a look-see.

From the west coast of North America, we flew 17-plus hours to Cairns (in Queensland) and then a further 2.5 hours to Darwin, the closest town. We then drove 3 hours to get to the centre of the park, the little village of Jabiru, where we rented a tiny cabin for four days.

Yes, it was stinking hot. And yes, we saw lots of crocs. But we also saw thousands of birds, remote and unforgiving landscapes, peaceful billabongs, and awe-inspiring rock paintings.

Kakadu isn’t always this dry and dusty; we visited in August, probably the driest part of the year.

The magpie geese are plentiful and happy after a season of good eating.

 

Little corella in Jabiru town.

Sunrise on the Yellow River cruise.

Nanking heron hiding along the Yellow River.

White-bellied sea eagle enjoying her breakfast along the Yellow River.

Gum tree.

Great egret spear-fishing.

Big croc on the Yellow River.

Rainbow bee eater.

Billabong. Yes, as in: “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong….”

Forest kingfisher.

Aboriginal rock art.

Rock painting of Tasmanian wolf.

Red-collared lorikeet

Loved this Wicked Campers Beatles tribute spotted in a Kakadu parking lot.

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen Part 2

Sunset from aboard the MV Reggae Queen.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the boat’s name, the Reggae Queen. Being the naïve person that I am, I merely thought, Oh, reggae music. How nice! The connection between reggae and smoking slipped my mind completely. I should not have been, but was, surprised to see that the guide was a chain-smoker and six of the 15 passengers smoked as well. The dining area was frequently filled with smoke. Thank goodness it was open air or it would have been intolerable.

They didn’t smoke during meals, but as soon as they finished eating, they would all light up, so we would flee. As a result, we missed some of the social chitchat and the guide’s information. The passengers quickly sorted into two unspoken camps: puffers and non-puffers. The puffers mainly stayed on the dining deck and the non-smokers hung out on the top (sun) deck. There was no animosity, we were all very friendly, but since the guide was in the other camp, we did miss out on some stuff.

What else to say about the tour leader? One online review read: “R who runs the trip is…a great character.”  A “character” is a good way to put it. You either enjoy his style and think he’s a barrel of laughs or you find him brusque and annoying. Let’s look at a couple of other online comments.

“The snorkeling tour…was very disappointed [sic]….We believe that in this island the only one that enjoy were Mr R and those who spent the time drinking with him. Instead of making the guests happy, he spent his time drinking and smoking a lot of reggae style.”

Another customer complained:

“The German owner smoked and drank beer the whole day long (even started before breakfast and smoked at the same time the guests were having breakfast).”

Our most generous interpretation of his behaviour was that he has probably been doing this tour too long and is simply burnt out. He didn’t seem to care much whether we had a good time or not and he certainly wasn’t going out of his way to ensure that we did.

When we all had to cram ourselves into a small zodiac, he literally screamed at people to move, even though we were already packed in like sardines and the boat was madly tossing about on the waves. As we climbed into the zodiac, instead of telling us the safest way to get down, he waited until after several people slipped and nearly injured themselves before yelling at us not to do it “that way.”

The Thai crew, on the other hand, were very solicitous and helped everyone on and off the boats as much as they could, and we passengers helped each other as necessary. R never once bothered to help anyone (as far as I saw).

Although there was a white board on the ship for him to leave notes on each day’s schedule, he didn’t bother doing this, so we never knew when to show up for lunch or dinner.

Brahminy kite off Koh Bon island.

This was all in contrast to a couple of other guides that we had in Thailand and Cambodia, who went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed ourselves and couldn’t have been more polite and helpful. We aren’t looking to have someone hold our hands, but we expect clear information, courtesy, and concern for safety.

Having some mobility issues (I have a total knee replacement with some limits on range of motion and my other knee is also not 100%), I inquired prior to booking about the ladder for climbing out of the water onto the boat after snorkeling. I have encountered many boat ladders that are impossible for me, as they are too short or angle away, requiring the skills of a rappelling rockclimber to scale. The person who answered my inquiry sent me photos and a description of the boat ladder which reassured me. In fact, I had no trouble with that ladder. However, she did not mention that half the time we would not be using that ladder, but would be climbing from the water into a small zodiac instead, one with a very different kind of ladder. In the end, I was able to manage—awkwardly and with help—but it would have been nice to know in advance.

Transferring between the boat and the zodiac was another challenge. Two vessels leaping and plunging in the waves on separate schedules x slippery decks on both sides + two shaky knees = disaster waiting to happen. Again, I have to thank the Thai crew for their steady hands always ready to aid. I got the definite feeling these young men viewed me with the respect they would give to their infirm and slightly dotty grannie.

Our final run to the harbor was fairly short, disembarkation was quick, and we were all loaded into various vehicles for transfer to our next destinations. I think we had the longest journey and we were at our hotel in time for dinner.

In summary, there were a lot of great things about this trip, but those who book should go into it with their eyes open. This not a mini cruise ship. You can expect hard beds, rough and ready conditions, and lots of smoke. Don’t expect clear information or much concern for your comfort. You must take things as they come, stay on top of what’s going on so you don’t miss out (i.e., don’t relax and expect to be taken care of), and adapt to the conditions on board, especially the moods of the guide. If you have any mobility challenges, be doubly cautious about booking.

Have you done any small-boat cruises? Share your experience in a comment.

 

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen

The MV Reggae Queen. Image source: http://andamansnorkeldiscovery.com/

Three days and nights cruising the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand. A dream come true, right? Fun snorkeling, lovely laid-back times resting, reading, chatting on the sundeck, living in my swimsuit, not setting foot on land for the duration. The weather was perfect. I managed to dodge seasickness (I get motion sickness pretty easily). Saw masses of amazing fish and coral, a couple of turtles, and one shark. Visited uninhabited spots far off the coast where our little group of 15 was often alone. Watched the sun rise each morning over the ocean. Marveled at schools of small flying fish skipping across the water as we slipped through the calm water.

That is the side of Andaman Snorkel Discovery that makes it into the brochure and onto the website. Our experience was not exactly what you see in postcards, however.

We were picked up at our hotel in Khao Lak around 1:00 pm  and had a drive of several hours to the departure point, picking up other passengers along the way.

The first challenge was getting aboard. As we waited on the dock, I eyed the boat beside us. There was no gangway. Boarding required half-leaping from the side of the wharf over an open gap of water of several feet onto the boat’s thin metal railing, teetering precariously, then stepping to a life ring hanging on the side of the boat, and from there onto a ladder. I went first, and with the help of several crew, I managed, but it was a close thing and I noticed several of the other passengers looking askance at the proposed route.

Standard cabin.

We next checked out our cabin, which was clean and in good repair. It consisted of bunk beds: one wooden shelf built into the wall at chest height, the other “bed” directly on the floor underneath. The beds are reasonably long (says my six-foot companion) and wide (says wide me), but the mattresses are thin (2-inch), mainly useless. There are fans and the windows open to allow in cool breezes from the sea. The only good part about sleeping in the cabin was laying with my face next to the open window, just a short distance from the open water, watching the waves moving gently below and (craning my neck) the stars above. There is air-con in the cabins, but we didn’t use it, as we preferred the fresh air circulating.

Size-wise, the cabins are just big enough to stand next to the bed. Two people inside would have trouble getting changed at the same time. From my bunk, I could easily reach out and touch the wall on the far side of the cabin. The cabin has some useful hooks for hanging stuff out of the way and one small shelf built into a corner, but no ladder or steps for accessing the top bunk. I suppose that taller, younger, and/or spryer folk might use their arms to haul themselves up through sheer strength. I resorted to standing my small suitcase on end and, while my companion did his best to hold it steady, I clambered precariously up, and hurled myself desperately across the bunk like a salmon migrating up a rocky stream. Another passenger admitted to me that she had found an ingenious solution: she put her back to the bunk, braced her feet against the opposing wall, and “walked” up the wall. I did try this, but couldn’t quite get the knack of it.

We actually spent quite a lot of time sleeping on the top deck at night under the stars, as it was cooler, there were few biting bugs, and the bean bag “chairs” could be molded into more comfortable beds. Lying up there with the boat gently rocking, watching the full moon rise over Koh Bon island was magical.

There are four toilets (heads) on board, which seemed to be fine for 15 passengers. While not up to the standard of a decent hotel, the heads are about as good as one can expect on a small boat; I actually expected worse. The heads double as showers; however, I never used them as such, preferring to simply rinse down with fresh water on the aft deck after snorkeling and taking my frequent plunges into the salt sea and a generally piratical lifestyle as a convenient excuse not to shower.

One of the online reviews complained that the food was monotonous, but, really, it was standard Thai fare, with rice plus various veg, fish, and meat dishes that changed each day. It was not gourmet, but it was decent, hearty food and there was plenty of it. I considered it a miracle that the cook produced such meals from the miniscule galley.

More next week.

 

Calidris Reads: World Heritage Sites

In my house, there’s a book that never gathers dust on the shelf.

It’s in almost constant circulation: sometimes in residence on the back of the toilet,* sometimes resting on my bedside table, ready to furnish a quick read before I nod off, sometimes shared out loud in the living room as we discuss our destinations.

Currently, I count six Post-It notes protruding from its pages, marking sites of probable or possible future destinations. If you flipped through its pages, you would notice the handwritten checkmarks sprinkled sparsely throughout; my way of keeping track of which sites I’ve visited, from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada to the Fossil Hominid Site Sterkfontein in South Africa.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) catalogues, names, and conserves sites around the world that have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Each year, they add to their list, and every few years, they publish a guide to all the sites on the list: World Heritage Sites: A complete guide to 878** UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Sample entry from World Heritage Sites.

In the guide, entries are given in chronological order by the year in which UNESCO recognized the site. Indices allow you to search for sites by country or site name. Each entry provides info on the year the site was recognized, in which country the site is located, a small map showing the site’s general locale, the criteria under which the site qualifies as a World Heritage Site, and a short description. Many, but not all, entries include a photo.

A typical opening sentence for an entry might be: “The karst formation of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has evolved since the Palaeozoic era, some 400 million years ago, and is the oldest karst area in Asia.” Not exactly scintillating prose, but it does provide a very brief summary of why you might want to visit that site.

I use the book in two ways. When I begin to research a country that I might visit, I use the country index to discover which sites lie within that country. Some I already know—like the Galapagos in Ecuador. Others are an intriguing surprise, such as the works of Antoni Gaudi in Spain. (I knew of Gaudi, but didn’t realize his architecture had been recognized as a World Heritage Site.)

But for me, the real pleasure of this book is in the browsing, just opening it at random to any page and reading. Who knew, for example, that “[t]he Solovetsky archipelago comprises six islands in the western part of the White Sea….They have been inhabited since the fifth century BC and important traces of a human presence from as far back as the fifth millennium BC can be found there”?

Yes, I realize it’s a completely subjective list that is almost certainly culturally biased and I don’t care. It simply provides me with one more focus for my travel. I figure, hey, if a place has internationally recognized importance to the heritage of all humanity, it might be worth an hour’s detour. Besides, I’m just childish enough to get a kick out of ticking off the ones I’ve visited.

Rating: 5 knots Highly recommended

*You don’t want to know.

**The number changes with each edition. 878 was the number on the first North American edition in 2009, the edition I own. There are now 1073 sites on the World Heritage Site List and six editions of the guide.

World Heritage Sites is published by UNESCO Publishing (Firefly Books in North America).

Which books inspire your travel? Let me know in a comment.

Knot Spots: August 18, 2017

A good friend was visiting Ireland this spring and thoughtfully mailed me this picturesque postcard of old sailing ships.

On May 20.

I received it on August 18. Yes, that’s three months on the road.

But the best part was that an affixed sticker reads: If undelivered, please return to Budapest 1005-Hungary.

The mind boggles. Somehow a postcard sent from Belfast to Canada ended up in Budapest and was then sent on to North America? But first, a kind soul in Hungary wanted to make sure the card didn’t get lost, and so marked return mail to Budapest.

The “special” stamp.”

My friend’s best guess was that the stamps might have been to blame. Apparently, when she bought the stamps at the visitors’ centre, she was told they were “special stamps” only good for mailing postcards internationally. Curiously, of the various cards she sent with the stamps, several have been delayed, although only mine seems to have enjoyed a leisurely holiday in Eastern Europe.

 

 

Calidris Compares: Artisanal Ice Creams

Two hot summer days.  Two gourmet ice cream outlets.

 

Travel—even around town—can be tiring on a hot day, so it’s always good to know where to find a refreshing ice cream cone.

Yes, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it: slurping down back-to-back desserts of frozen ambrosia in order to uncover the real story. Bravely, I threw myself into this challenge on behalf of you, my faithful reader.

A gentle reminder that on a baking-hot day, the line-ups for ice cream anywhere can be daunting, and at artisanal outlets, even more so. Mentally prepare yourself to be patient. Only you can decide whether it’s worth waiting for.

Earnest Ice Cream

Outlet: Branch & Butter, Bowen Island ferry terminal

The hype: “Our goal [is] to create ice cream that expresses our passion for flavour and a business that embodies our values.”

Single scoop cone: $5 plus tax

Flavour: Whiskey hazelnut. Excellent taste of whiskey & hazelnut, with lots of chunks of crunchy (not stale) hazelnut.

As I peered into the glass counter to choose my flavour, I noticed that all of the ice creams were runny and half-melted. When I ordered a cone, the servers looked unhappy and recommended a cup instead, as the ice cream was too soft to put into cones. A bit of a disappointment, but what the heck, go with the flow (in this case, the flow of dripping ice cream), I say.

Sadly, the single scoop was not only half-melted, but it was tiny. Since they weren’t giving me a cone AND the product was substandard, I thought they might be a bit more generous with the portion. Nope.

I don’t know if the skimpy scoop should be blamed on the outlet, the ice cream company, or the servers, but it wasn’t an error, as my companion received an identical small puddle of semi-liquid product. She summed up the experience: “We should have gone to the OTHER ice cream place.”

Rocky Point Ice Cream

Outlet: Rocky Point Park kiosk, Port Moody

The hype: “At Rocky Point Ice Cream we hand craft ice cream in small batches ‘with love’ using as many local ingredients as possible.”

Single scoop cone: $3.75 (double scoop, $1 more)

Flavour: Salted caramel. Delightful combination of sweet and salty. Really good.

Waffle cone was fresh and crunchy.

Single scoop was generous—far larger than the Earnest scoop. Plus the mere $1 extra for a double made it hard to resist trying two flavours. So I didn’t. The chocolate peanut butter flavour was also delicious.

Oh, and both flavours were the perfect temperature.

Rocky Point wins this comparison hands down, but to be fair and confirm the results, I should probably repeat the experiment. As soon as possible.

Earnest Ice Cream and Rocky Point Ice Cream are made and sold in the Vancouver, BC, area.

Do you have a favourite local ice cream or gelato? Make your opinion known in a comment.

In Search of Folk Music: Princeton, BC

The Didgetary Do’s on stage at the Princeton Traditional Music Festival 2016.

Every August, I pack up my breeziest dresses, my best sun hat, and my music sheets and head to the tiny town of Princeton, British Columbia, about three hours east of Vancouver.

There’s a big, busy highway that rips through Princeton, but once you’re away from that thoroughfare, it’s the kind of place where you can lay down in the middle of the road and take a nap. A couple of pick-up trucks going in opposite directions down the main avenue will stop side by side while the drivers lean out their windows and chat for a few minutes. I’ve not yet seen anyone mosey into town riding Ol’ Paint and tie up at the pub’s hitching rail, but it’s the kind of place where you feel that just might happen.

Fiddler Michael Burnyeat performs at the festival in 2016.

Though Princeton isn’t exactly the town that time forgot, modern and trendy aren’t really the right words to describe it, either. It is, in short, a place where traditional isn’t a dirty word. In fact, it feels pretty good rolling off the tongue as part of the Princeton Traditional Music Festival.

Traditional music—as in “music so old that you don’t know who wrote it”—is not the stuff of popular radio. Instead of three minutes of “baby, baby, I love you,” you get eight minutes of anything from two crows discussing how to eat the corpse of a dead knight to a bawdy song about old men marrying young women. There are drinking songs, sea shanties, ballads about sisters murdering each other, songs celebrating sheep, mourning songs, ancient instrumentals, and, yes, the occasional equivalent to “baby, baby, I love you” e.g., “I have loved you, fair lady, for long and many the day.” There are duels, enchantments, suicides, diseases, disguises, cruelty, faithlessness, and fidelity. So much richer than the tiny palette from which modern music is painted. There are bouzoukis and banjos, dulcimers and djembes, and lots and lots of guitars.

At the Princeton festival, two main stages run through the daytimes of Saturday and Sunday, with a small additional acoustic performance space in the library on Saturday only. Saturday evening is given over to parties, jamming, and songcircles.

Audience participation at the festival dancing.

The festival founders like to point out that venues for traditional music are scarce, particularly in western Canada. Princeton’s event thus serves as a gathering place for both performers and enthusiasts; many attendees return year after year and greet each other as old friends. Volunteers do most of the organizing and running of the festival and musicians donate their time and talents on stage. Because of this, there’s a warm, friendly feel to the weekend that has long been lost in the big-name “folk” festivals. There’s dancing in the streets, singing on the sidewalks, and a unofficial big splash in the cool river with brass instruments and kids shrieking and who knows what else.

And did I mention it’s FREE? Yes, you heard that right. Donations are solicited and warmly welcomed, but there are no tickets and no ticket prices. So you can afford the gas to get there, stake out a tent and heat beans over a Bunsen burner, or reserve a motel room and squeeze into one of the restaurants (all stuffed to the rafters for that one weekend). Bring your little folk, bring your elders, bring your dog. Do it your way, but do it.

Under the gazebo, a centre of action during the festival.

The Princeton Traditional Music Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this August 18-20. More information is available on their website http://www.princetontraditional.org/

 

What’s your favourite summer festival? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Controversy: People Safaris

Tourists visiting a San community.

Imagine, for a moment, if every morning at 11:00, your doorbell rang and 20 strangers stood on your doorstep. As you welcomed them, they would troop through your home, peering at everything from photos to furniture, asking questions about your family and living, what you eat for breakfast, your clothes, your hairstyle, your bathroom habits. They might poke around in your possessions or want to hold your baby. They might express incredulity or disgust at your cultural practices. Later, you would be expected to demonstrate how you do your laundry or apply make-up. Most of all, they would want to photograph you in every imaginable setting, including with them draping an arm over your shoulders. You smile through all this because you don’t have a lot of money and you know these strangers do, and you hope that at the end of all this, you can sell them one of the paper airplanes you fold in the evenings.

On a trip to Thailand earlier this year, we sailed off on a three-day small-ship cruise in the Andaman Sea. The first morning, the captain informed us that we’d be using the Zodiac to head ashore and visit a village of the Moken, sometimes called the “sea gypsies.” My companion and I discussed it and decided we did not want to participate, and I told the captain we’d be staying aboard. He seemed offended and demanded to know why. In the moment, all I could come up with was “We prefer not to.” As paying customers, I don’t think we really owed him any further explanation, but later, as we watched the others pile into the dinghy for the transfer to the island, I mused over my resistance to the excursion.

Wildlife and birding safaris are a thrilling blend of excitement—you never know exactly what you’ll see—stalking, waiting, patience, and photography. But “people safaris,” trips to “authentic” spaces where people really live their lives and are willing to sell their privacy for the entertainment of tourists, are a different kettle of fish.

The Web abounds with awkward snappies of grinning tourists posing next to locals who look anything but happy about the situation. While I’m interested in how other cultures live, I respect indigenous people too much to want to invade their homes, gawk at their families and customs, and buy cheap facsimiles of traditional crafts.

The staging of stale tourist-focused demonstrations of artisanal techniques that once might have defined an entire family’s identity and standing in the community disturbs me. A craftsperson is meant to create, to challenge her skills by practicing her craft, not mindlessly repeat the same dumbed-down routine over and over each time a boatload or busload of foreigners shows up.

Almost invariably in these “cultural tours,” the visitors are “given the opportunity to buy” locally made products, racks of poor-quality carvings, beaded keychains, baskets, or painted clay knickknacks that are churned out somewhere and designed to fit a price-point attractive to tourist wallets. While the sellers may not be allowed to apply real sales pressure, there is an unspoken expectation: the items are cheap for a “wealthy foreigner” like yourself, the sellers are indisputably poor, you’ve presumed upon their community and their hospitality, the least you can do is buy some souvenirs, right?

Except that I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid buying useless stuff. Gone are the days when I filled my suitcase with doo-dads and cheap gifts for family and friends. I walk through the Salvation Army thrift store aisles lined with crude Somalian carvings of giraffes, crappy toy musical instruments from Guatemala, and shabby embroidered placemats from Thailand, and I know I’m not the only one who is rejecting this flotsam.

I also don’t see this kind of relationship with the displaced as sustainable in the long term. Will the grandchildren of these people still be selling tourist junk and staging demos of traditional medicinal practices in order to scrape by financially? I sincerely hope not.

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe these human zoos are a good way to bring much-needed cash into subsistence-level communities. If people choose to do this because they can earn money at it, I certainly cannot say they shouldn’t do it, but I don’t feel comfortable being on the receiving end. Since we, the tourists, come and go as we please, and we have all the money, there’s a power imbalance and a whiff of colonialism that makes me very uneasy.

How do you feel about “people safaris”? Have you experienced one? Did you enjoy it?

Vingerklip Lodge

The road to Vingerklip.

During my years of travel, I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels, motels, lodges, inns, and b&bs, from an elephant stable in South Africa to a monastery in Trinidad. Most were completely forgettable; comfortable to a greater or lesser degree, but nondescript. Some I remember because of the bloodstains on the wall, the dead rat in the hallway, the bullet holes in the door, or the bed that collapsed under me as I slept. Ah, the “adventurous” side of travel!

Then there are the ones that leap to mind as soon as I reminisce about the highlights of past journeys—like the Vingerklip Lodge in the Ugab Valley of northwest Namibia, where we paused on our way from Etosha National Park to the coastal town of Swakopmund. We had spent a week in the park on safari, and while we hadn’t exactly been roughing it there, we were looking for a few plush and easy days of rest.

The lodge is named for the nearby Vingerklip rock “finger” that towers above the surrounding flatlands. You can hike to the bottom (if you want to brave the blistering heat), but other than that, there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area; no impressive herds of wildlife, no manmade entertainment. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. No, my enjoyment had nothing to do with outside activities and everything to do with the lodge itself.

One of the pools set into the hillside.

Set in a stunning location surrounded by rock plateaus and formations, the lodge features lovely arid gardens with many inviting nooks and crannies where you can sit and relax. Swing seats, loungers, chairs, umbrellas, tables, and benches are scattered around the grounds. There is a hot tub and two pools, cleverly located one on each side of the hill, so that no matter the time of day, one pool always has shade. Birds, butterflies, and small lizards find their own corners to feed, rest, or sun themselves.

The lounge, bar, and restaurant are top-notch. As per the usual African lodge custom, meals are presented buffet-style, but the quality and variety staggers the mind, while the number of food attendants assures that you get exactly the cut of meat you prefer or a custom-prepared dish.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a meal at their Eagle’s Nest restaurant, perched on top of a nearby plateau—you hike a long path and clamber up a staircase to get to it. The climb and the view is spectacular, but not for people who are afraid of heights or can’t manage a lot of stairs! You can also just climb up for the view and not have dinner; it’s free. If you want dinner, be sure to book as early as possible; the restaurant is small, and popular among guests.

Our room was okay but could have used some refurbishing. The latch for the sliding door to the bathroom had the hook mounted on the wrong side of the door, while the toilet seat had two puncture marks that looked like something had sunk its fangs into it. (What bites toilet seats??? Quite a worrisome idea when you think about it….) On the up side, the room boasted a nice porch looking over the isolated landscape and a small, lightly used, waterhole.

Ruppell’s parrot (above) and rosy-faced lovebirds (below) visiting the drippy pipes outside our window.

In any case, as birders, we were prepared to overlook any minor flaws in the room in favour of its unique feature, one that I doubt ever showed up in a promo brochure. From the side of the porch, we looked onto a large water cistern. The tank itself was covered, but the pipes and faucets leaked and dripped. In a place surrounded by bone-dry desert, any source of water becomes a magnet for birds. We had an unbeatable view of the birds that arrived in flocks to drink, including the local specialty, Ruppell’s parrot, and the charming rosy-faced lovebirds.

At night, stargazing in the desert-clear air and comfortable temperatures was all the entertainment we needed.

Day visitors are also welcomed at Vingerklip Lodge; check out their website for more info.

Is there a special lodge, hotel, inn, or b&b you discovered while traveling that lingers in your memory? Let’s hear about it in a comment.

Vingerklip room with rock escarpment behind.

 

Calidris Compares: National Birds

Quetzal.

The recent debate in Canada about designating a national bird got me thinking about a couple of other “national birds” I’ve encountered.

Country: Guatemala

National bird: Resplendent quetzal

Without doubt, one of the most spectacular birds on Earth. With a metre-long tail cascading behind him, the male sports iridescent plumage on his head, back, and wings that shimmers from green to blue to gold, depending on the light, while his breast and belly are scarlet red.

The quetzal’s tail feathers were prized by the Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the bird as the god of the air and as an embodiment of goodness and light. Because it was long believed that the quetzal could not live in captivity, it was also seen as a symbol of liberty.

The quetzal is a celebrity who values its privacy; I once spent an entire day with a specialist guide in the mountains of Costa Rica, seeking the elusive bird. When we finally heard and then saw one magnificent male high in a tree, it was truly breathtaking. We enjoyed its company for a couple of minutes, then off it flew, trailing those fantastic tail feathers.

The quetzal must be the only bird on Earth to have a currency named after it: the Guatemalan quetzal (currently worth about 18 Canadian cents).

Reason for being named national bird: If being the flashiest feathered fellow in the forest wasn’t enough, there’s that historic association with freedom, always a popular theme in nationalism.

Clay-coloured robin.

Country: Costa Rica

National bird: Clay-coloured robin

The name gives you everything you need to know about the appearance of this bird: it looks very like our American robin, but with feathers the colour of dried mud. The Latin name is no better: Turdus grayi. Where the quetzal is resplendent, this robin is clay-coloured, with no markings. And where the Guatemalan symbol is scarce and hard to find, the Costa Rican bird—known as yigüirro to localsis ubiquitous, hopping around human habitation everywhere from city lawns and gardens to rural fields.

On a nature tour near the Arenal Volcano, I asked the guide why, with so many gorgeous birds to choose from, Costa Rica settled on the humble robin. I must admit, I half expected him to say, well, the quetzal was already taken. But his response, while slightly defensive in tone, as though he was weary of having to champion the drab and commonplace bird, was enlightening.

Firstly, the yigüirro has a lovely song (actually quite similar to the American robin’s, to my ear), which Ticos value more than brilliant plumage. That song is most typically heard at the start of the green season, which has led farmers to associate hearing it with the arrival of much-needed rains.

In addition, the clay-coloured robin is found everywhere in Costa Rica, is seen often by everyone, and is thus a better representative of the country as a whole than a bird with a limited range. Because it lives in close association with humans, the yigüirro has become a feature in Tico culture, appearing in folk songs, poems, and stories.

Two countries, two very different national birds. The quetzal is the Cher of the bird world, undeniably exotic, inimitable, and eye-catching, an obvious candidate for glorification. The clay-coloured robin is more like the guy at the hardware store who helps you find the right size of screw: affable, down to earth, getting the job done. Although I initially questioned the Costa Rican choice, I now feel that the clay-coloured robin is an apt symbol for the Ticos I observed: not flamboyant, but going about the business of day-to-day living with an unpretentious determination and a song in the heart.

What national birds do you know? Do you think they are good representatives of their countries? Let me know in a comment.

Resplendent Cher.

Clay-coloured hardware guy.