19 December 2010

Florida - August 2009

My dear girlfriend had planned a romantic beach holiday for the two of us in late August 2009. Now, having grown up in Durban, South Africa as well as having spent time in Mozambique and Cuba - I knew full well that beeches the world over are much the same. They are quite sterile in fact, populated either with over weight and ageing tourists with too little clothes on or very oiled up muscular types with equally little clothing. 

The Everglades had been a dream destination as a child, even before I knew where in the world they were. All I had to do was satisfy the holiday remit and spend a day or two on the beech, then I could go off and look for feathered friends all I liked. Not that it stopped me from gazing at various hawks form Key Largo’s rather dodgy marsh beeches. Beech duty completed, I duly set off early for the Everglades as soon as possible. In all fairness to my girlfriend, I was actually allowed to disappear as and when I wanted and to this extent I took full advantage. What follows is a trip report of a rather truncated venture to south Florida. We stayed in Key Largo and Marco Island, hence most of the venues I visited were within easy driving distance.
Logistics

Aug 29 
BA flight from London Heathrow to Miami Florida. 

Aug 29 - 31 : 2009 Marriott, Key Largo
Sept 1 - 5 : Hilton, Marco Island
Sept 6 : Miami Airport, flight delayed by 24hrs
Sept 8/9 : BA flight from Miami Florida to London Heathrow.

This was never going to be one of my typical scrounger trips of cheap hotels and restaurants. Both the Marriott and Hilton were well over a US$100 a night with plenty of additional charges. The only saving grace : a favourable exchange rate and cheap fuel.

Despite my continued love for the USA, Florida was in many ways a detraction. The people are typically friendly, the birding venues are well maintained, roads are great. Florida and in particular Miami International and Key Largo are tired and stuck in the 1970’s. Miami International is a shocking airport and not worth me wasting my breath over any further. Key Largo could do with a lick of paint and some general maintenance of the properties. Admittedly, most people who go to Florida are either off-shore fishing or diving and perhaps the weathered appearance is not of great importance. As we spent most of our time on terra firma, we soon ran out of things to do and ultimately left the Keys a day early for Naples and Marco Island. Outside of the birding, we spent some time on boat cruises - glass bottomed boats were very interesting, jet skiing and enjoying some sun. 


Marco Island was/is or was depending on what the property crisis has done, a very upmarket holiday destination. Unlike Key Largo, it didn’t seem as if many people actually lived here permanently. Even at this time, many of the vacant plots were unsold and some of the new builds boarded up. Which was rather useful for the local population of Burrowing Owls. In contrast to Key Largo, there was even less to occupy oneself with here. At least there were a number of very good birding venues nearby. In all I may have spent half a day in the vicinity of
the hotel and even that was too much.


After a satisfactory break we or I at least was rather looking forward to our return to Blighty. However, in a continuation it seemed from our Cuban holiday a year before our departure was bodged again. That was where the similarity ended though. While Virgin Atlantic and the Cubans dealt with our delay impeccably, the same could not be said for British Airways who bungled everything, starting four hours before our flight departure. No one is ever going to want to fly on a faulty plane, but we’d just like some idea of what is going on and what and where we should be. The lack or fear of communication is an incessant British problem afflicting not just BA, but almost all enterprises in Britain. If you are afraid of telling us face to face, get a Twitter Account at least! (I am editing this in late December 2010 - if you ever needed proof of these problems, have a read of the current travel crisis at London Heathrow. The over riding complaint is a ‘‘lack of communication’’.)

13 December 2010

Iceland - November 2007

My brother Adrian and I spent four days running about south west Iceland searching for a handful of localised western palearctic birds as well as the local scenery. We managed this rather successfully albeit not without error and near death.

21/11/2007 Heathrow, London to Keflavik, Reykjavik

Flew to Iceland on Iceland Air, an easy flight over Britain, Northern Ireland and the north Atlantic to Iceland. Food a little dodgy however. Minor delays at customs, perhaps customs officials had never seen a South African passport? By the time we had picked up the rental car it was already midnight. Tonight/this mornings accommodation (Alex Guesthouse) was only a mile from the airport though. Pity this trip could not have been recorded on video camera. Steering wheel on the wrong side, direction on the road incorrect etc. Even though the drive was only two minutes, it took myself to drive and Adrian to remind where I was supposed to be aiming the bonnet. Wrong way on the roundabouts and gear stick definitely an issue… Decamped and got a few hours sleep. Set alarm for 08:30.

22/11/2007 Keflavik, Reykjanes peninsula, Nesjavellir

Up ‘early’ for Iceland, car completely frozen over. Could not get ice off and jets would spray bugger all. Tried to obtain supplies from the local supermarket – did not open until 11:00am. Finally got going, drove down the coast road to Hafnir to start our leg of the Reykjanes Peninsula drive. Excellent birding from the get go. Totally deserted landscape except for ourselves. Sun was thinking about getting up, but not certain. Adrian got us started with a Harlequin Duck. Exquisite species with massive tick factor – only place in Europe that one will find this bird. I managed to weigh in with a Common Loon. Just a little further down, Adrian pulled another trick out of the bag with a low flying Gyr Falcon – another massive tick for us. Continued on to the Continental Divide where the North American and European plate are pulling apart at around 2cm a year. Double-backed to the Hafnarberg peninsula in order to search the bird cliffs, being winter there was nothing much about except for extensive lava fields. Drove past a large saltpan with a few Whooper Swans that had not yet left for Britain. Then came the Gunnahver geothermal site. Both made note of not introducing dad to this place, he’d never leave – way too much technology and automation. Walked along an outlet where the high temperature water runs into the sea. Adi tested the water – hotter than a bath.

Drove on to the Blue Lagoon and had a swim. Fantastic experience although not very good on the hair. Got changed into trunks (Adrian had the foresight to realise that I would not bring a costume – so bought a spare – well done Adi), then made very swift dash from safety of building to warmer water conditions. Things went from 25°C to -2°C back to 35°C in a few seconds. Continued on from the Blue Lagoon to Reykjavik where we proceeded to get extremely lost trying to get back out. After screwing about for over an hour (had to have been driving in circles – only so many roads in such a small city) we hit a road and stuck with it for a while and amazingly bumped into the right area. The maps we had and the names and numbers of the roads didn’t seem to match all to well as we would appreciate yet further in times to come. Now that we had bumped into the right road, we both felt a lot better as it was starting to get dark. Fortunately there had been no snow or ice about and the roads are in very good condition. Just prior to reaching our destination, we suddenly climbed up a steep pass before descending said pass just as quickly. Two part of the pass had gradients of 15% which I understand to be about 1:6, bloody steep regardless. Difficult to describe the feeling of coming down such a steep pass with the cold wind in our hair, a beautiful full moon and snow capped peaks all around us with such clarity of visibility, as I’ve never seen before.

Welcome to Nesjavellir, the immediate stench of sulphur hit us as we climbed out of the car. There is another geothermal plant situated at the base of the mountain. We are not far from the plant, and smell becomes unnoticeable after a few minutes. Mind, it is about -5°C outside and there is little reason to be running about outdoors. At 17:00 it is properly dark with only the moon to cast light on us. Now we wait for the aurora borealis, not that either of us has a clue as to what we are looking for exactly. We sit in the lounge with a coffee comparing notes. The bloke in charge, much like a guide rather than a hotelier (this was a backpackers after all) is Guðmundur Halldórsson. Guðmundur waltzes into the lounge and asks if we have seen the lights. Of course we haven’t otherwise we would not have been sitting inside. By the time we got outside they had gone though, we didn’t realise at this stage that this was as close as we were going to get. Clouds have started to cover the moon and there will be no more chance of further astronomical displays. There is a tempting hot tub outside, but this is a little longer of a sprint and perhaps it can wait for another day. Overnight at Fosshotel Nesbud.

23/11/2007 Nesjavellir, Pingvallvatn, Pingvellir, Reykholt, Selfoss

Snowed heavily last night covering everything in a wash of white. Left the hotel for Pingvellir. Road was driveable as snow hadn’t formed into ice, more of a slush. Scenery absolutely amazing, stopped periodically to photograph landscape. Road ran along Pingvallavatn, sometimes within yards of the lake. 
Drove up to Pingvellir and stopped to walk about the seat of the Icelandic parliament. Historically all the major decisions about the country and its governance occurred here. Even today, parliament begins its sessions here. The countries sovereignty from Denmark occurred here in the 1940’s. It is also a more dramatic depiction of the plate tectonics than shown at Hafnarberg. Leaving Pingvellir we ambled about in the wrong direction before turning back and heading down the side of the Sog River searching for White-tailed Eagle. 
We turned north after this and headed for our overnight accommodation at Reykholt. Stopped along the way at Kerio, the remains of a volcano that has collapsed in on itself and subsequently filled with rain water/underground water. The water was certainly not liquid; being boys we couldn’t help but throw some rocks in. They didn’t so much bounce as go splat. So the water was in a gel transition state prior to becoming ice. After more photos we moved further up the road to Reykholt. 

After driving about for a few minutes it became obvious that the hotel we were looking for was not there. We headed down to the local bank to enquire after directions. The very helpful teller says that the chain of hotels that we were looking for did not occur in ‘this’ Reykholt. There are two Reykholt’s in Iceland he says helpfully. Out comes the map and he shows me where the other one is. ‘In these weather conditions, it should only take two hours to get there.’ It looked a hell of a lot further and it was starting to get dark to I though this was a daft idea to make an attempt on it. We turned around and headed toward Selfoss where I had planned on staying the following night. I had by this stage worked out that we were actually staying at the same place we had been that night. I am still pissed at the on-line agencies that I booked the accommodation through. They completely miss-sold the places to me using different names for the same places.

Anyhow, we drove down the road and checked into the first place that looked like it had accommodation. Which unfortunately for my credit card happened to be Iceland’s version of the Hilton (Hotel Selfoss). Place cost ISK13800 (£110), even drinks that we knew were expensive came in at ISK700 each (£5.60). Adi didn’t sleep well, so he isn’t posh at all. Dinner was a rushed KFC (yes they have them in Iceland and only in English funnily enough) – and they are a lot healthier than anywhere else in the world I dare say. Iceland has an embargo on all steroid or chemically modified feeds to any of it’s animals or imports – hence they are not only the most expensive country in Europe but also the healthiest and happiest apparently. Beer was only legal in the mid 1980’s. Watched some CNN in order to get back into the real world. Had enough of the ‘serious’ Icelandic news of shock and horror at the first murder in the country for two years. Even then it was understandable in some aspects, bloke shot the man sleeping with his wife.

A quick aside : By my mathematics – 1 person is killed every two years per 300 000 people, therefore, your chances of being murdered are 1:600 000 per year. Compared with our favourite country at government figures of 65 gun related deaths per day (23 725 per year) gives you death by gun ratio of 1:2000. In other words, your chances of being killed in South Africa are 300 times that of Iceland… Statistics can be manipulated to suit your argument in almost all situations – but even the most powerful spin-doctor is going to battle with this 
one.


24/11/2007 Selfoss, Gullfoss, Geysir, Nesjavellir

Left Selfoss for Gullfoss (The Golden Waterfall) around 10:00am. Moon still very much in evidence. Not much happened on the drive as we drove north towards the mountains. About 5km short of Gullfoss we suddenly had a little car trouble. Felt just like a flat tire, so pulled over to have a look. Tyres were all inflated and pointing in the right direction. Road we had come on was a little bumpy, so I thought I may have broken a shaft, but no such luck there. Reversed and got back onto the road only to start slipping about. The road was covered in at least an inch of ice. Decided to continue onwards to Gullfoss as there didn’t seem to be any major inclines on the way. Only disappointment of the trip was the two busloads of tourists that rocked up with us. Bleeding Japanese get around. It was absolutely freezing, tried to smoke a fag but couldn’t have my glove off for more than a minute at a time. The waterfall as big as it is freezes over in harsh winters and it is already starting to go even at this time of year.

Next we travelled just down the road to Geysir, the famed origin of the word and site of one of the largest of the lot until 1960 when it suddenly stopped. The roads were still extremely icy and had to negotiate them at about 30kmph in 2
nd and 3rd for a total of 120km. Geysir fortunately was only a few kilometres away. Next to the now dormant Geysir is currently the 3rd largest in the world, Strokkur. After leaving here, it was more sapping concentration at 40kmph on the iced up roads. While we had seen a couple of natural wonders, the birding had become quite depressing with only a few Snow Bunting to talk of.


Stopping at a small plantation of trees (there aren’t many on Iceland), we hoped to find something with feathers on it. I heard the unmistakeable call of the Redpoll. (There aren’t any other arboreal seedeaters – so this was identity by exclusion rather than call recognition). We saw them periodically flying over but never a good binocular shot of them  – elusive buggers. Coming around a bend in the path, I found a Ptarmigan in resplendent winter plumage. Quite obvious since it is white in a brown background. Sure as hell beats the flash of feathers I had recorded in Scotland two years earlier. Travelled down the Sog River again, but still no White-tailed Eagle’s to be seen. We returned to Nesjavellir for the evening, conditions being perfect for Aurora borealis. Overnight at Fosshotel Nesbud.

25/11/2007 Nesjavellir, Reykjanes Peninsula

No bleeding northern lights! Clouds moved in eventually and the scientists went to bed, so we did as well. Left early again (09:00) after getting an invite from Guðmundur to visit his farm in the west country. The drive out of Nesjavellir is back up through the steep mountain that we came down initially a few days before. The initial steep climb found me in 2nd gear and slowing before the inevitable happened. The higher I went the more I realised I was going to be in big trouble on the ice. One must bear in mind that at this time of the morning it is still pitch-black outdoors and ice is difficult to judge in such conditions. However, when the wheel slippage started, I can’t say it was particularly unexpected – bollocks or language to that effect, only the sheep if any would know any different. The incline steered to the right when I started to slip, so the reverse was back down and off the mountain. At this particular moment, I had one of three choices:

1. Reverse back down the hill
2. Put the car into the ditch on the mountainside to avert the fall.
3. Continue sliding in the current direction straight off the mountain and die…

So in reality two options, although at this current stage, the car was taking Option 3 and there wasn’t much I could do about it. The initial panic and breaking, which wasn’t going to work, was now over, Adrian fortunately wasn’t panicking and advised gearing backwards. I lumped it into first after having been in neutral for some reason. Plenty of smoke and disagreement form the engine but I finally got some grip. Three metres away from the edge of the road and with Adrian looking out the back for me, we somehow managed to descend to a more level area. At some stage in this process the car must have stalled as I had to restart at the bottom. Turned the car around, lit and fag and drove in the opposite direction as if nothing had happened. It was only once I was jumping out of the cab at my house that I apologised to Adrian for almost killing him, quite nonchalantly said it wasn’t  problem, made him feel alive. Positive bugger.

The reverse route had been driven a few times as it was, so I knew the route. Still the ice was about and we had to drive carefully. Once I got onto the main circular route I was much happier, for about 5 minutes. The road disappeared up another bloody mountain that was now in the midst of a slight snowstorm. Back into 2
nd gear for 10 miles to negotiate this section. Finally getting out of such terrible conditions, we headed south of Reykjavik to the Reykjanes Peninsula for one last shot at a few birds we still needed to mop up on. No sooner got out of the city and we were confronted by a blizzard of horizontal snow. Bird we were going to do, no matter what. Arrived at a lake that featured an American Black Duck, a very rare tick anywhere in Europe, but thanks to the Internet, we knew exactly where the lonesome chap was. Sitting on the only bit of open water surrounded by ice – silly thing. 


Off we went in search of the two Gull species that we had left to tick. But with such bad snow flying about, birding was almost impossible, especially when the difference between the species was minute and needed very close accurate observation. Driving around the peninsula, I decided to head down from Grindavik on the north section of the peninsula to Sandgeroi further southwest. This provided us the opportunity to see the gulls from a sheltered vantage point, namely the car perched on a pier above the harbour. We quickly identified the gull species we were after, the Glaucous and Icelandic (another name anomaly as it only occurs in Iceland during the winter, non-breeding season). It was getting time to move on and barring another flutter for more species on the mudflats, we headed back to Keflavik to get ready to fly back to London.

In conclusion a thoroughly enjoyable experience which has enhanced our worldly enjoyment a little more. Personally learnt a little more about how to drive under ‘interesting’ conditions. Won’t be forgetting my ice driving anytime soon.


Accommodation

Alex Guesthouse
Aoalgata 60
Keflavik
ISL 00230

+354 421 2800

Fosshotel Nesbud
Nesjavellir
Selfoss
ISL 00801
+354 482 3415

[I never could find a direct website for this hotel and it’s name is very problematic in that ‘Fosshotel’ is a completely different hotel chain, nor is it in the town of Selfoss!!!]

Hotel Selfoss
Eyrarvegi 2
Selfoss
ISL 00800

+354 480 2500

Fosshotel Reykholt
320 Reykholt
Reykholt
ISL 00320
+354 871 226 0808

[We didn’t stay here as it was not the intended destination in the first place. Different Reykholt!!]

6 December 2010

Viet Nam - November 2011

Viet Nam

With a limited time frame of only 9 days, I was never going to do Viet Nam justice. Hence after useful advice from Richard Craik, I limited myself to two southern Viet Nam areas - Da Lat and Nam Cat Tien. In all I managed a decent checklist of 221 species, my first trip to South East Asia, totally unguided.

12/11/2010 - 13/11/2010

Evening flight from London, Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City, Tan Son Nhut on Qatar Airways. A useful route, as the stop-over in Doha is only an hour. Flight is evenly broken up into 6½ hours each way on the flight out. Customs and baggage collection in Vietnam is swift to say the least. Not much in terms of Duty Free if that is your thing, all the stalls are essentially Currency Converters cum Taxi operators. ATM’s are available outside the main building and you can draw up to VND 2 000 000 at a time. Rough Exchange Rate: $1 = VND20 000,  £1 = VND30 000

I stayed in a local hotel as I was due to fly to Da Lat early the next day. Taxi fair was arranged inside with one of the operators rather than picking one up outside. Hence taxi was pre-paid and no potential for rip-off ($8.00). Dinner at a restaurant next door to my hotel ($3.00). Having arrived late evening, I had the privilege of being driven through rush hour Ho Chi Minh City. The striking absence of cars versus the inundation of motorbikes was astounding. I had of course been warned about this, but until you are actually amongst the thousands of bikes it is impossible to appreciate. To call it chaos would be unfair as the locals clearly knew what they were doing, but to the untrained eye it was absolute mayhem of the short lived kind.

A striking blue sign next to the lift in my hotel had the following useful guest information - I quote verbatim :“Prostitutes are not allowed on the hotel’’. [This lot are all size 6 and less, so that was never likely] “Do not cook (laundry in the room)”. [What?]“Do not bring into the hotel : weapons, toxics, explosives (including pets)”. [I have tried my best to imagine my German Shepherd carrying an AK47 or a few kilos of P4 - failed miserably]I do not mean to patronise the Vietnamese, after all English is not even a second language out here. Given that the large majority of the western English speaking tourists are from the US, it is possible that no-one else has seen the error in signage in any case.

14/11/2010

Early morning, 35 minute flight with Vietnam Airlines from HCMC to Da Lat. What excitement and concern at the same time, I find out at the airport that I have inadvertently purchased Business Class tickets. Hell, I had gotten nervous about paying £100 for a return trip on an unknown airline, to find out that this was perhaps double the Economy cost had me rather concerned! (I don’t fly on any low cost airlines such as Ryan Air, EasyJet etc, don’t trust the mechanics and can’t stand the scum clientele). Tootle about for a while waiting for the Lounge to open so that I can get my first taste of a Vietnamese breakfast. In fact, I am getting quite concerned that I may have to board my flight before I can use the bells and whistles of my Lounge Access. I end up with a half hour window and find breakfast to be rather appetising if not completely unusual.On boarding my flight, I see I have little to be concerned with. New aircraft and competent looking staff. Most European Airlines would do well to visit Vietnam Airways just to gawk at the stylish silk ‘au dai’ tunics that the staff wear. Very impressive, even to an anti-fashionista like me. Flight departs on time and arrives on time - even the baggage is deposited within minutes of landing. The Unions over here don’t seem to exist in order to strike rather to facilitate ‘work’ - a seemingly foreign concept in the west.

As expected, Da Lat is merely a runway with a small terminal building. Although it will handle International flights soon. I don’t expect a mass run on the airport requiring A380’s though.Caught a local taxi to my hotel on the outskirts of Da Lat. I paid near enough $20 for this taxi only to be told at the hotel that I was ripped by 100%. The taxi owner was in for an earful from the hotel proprietor apparently - ripping off tourists is bad for business and they have an agreed rate of $9.00. So again, as you should on every occasion, get the cost checked first before you ride.As time was getting on for 10:00, I decided not to go to any of the major birding venues and instead walk around the town. I am still heavily sedated on medication for my lung infection at this time. This aspect slips my mind and along with my ‘forgotten’ cap causes some serious sunburn in the rarified air. With the mild breeze, the facial irradiation goes un-noticed until I return to the hotel. I can’t remember the last time I burnt so badly - consider contacting Hans Blix in order to obtain a cure for my nucleated epidermis.Tuck into a plateful of Spring Rolls for dinner and beat a retreat to bed. Shower feels like acid rain, but at least the damage is specifically restricted to my face only.

15/11/2010

I figured that a steep climb would help clear my lungs quicker than the dodgy meds. Off to Mount Lang Biang, one of the highest points in central Viet Nam. A ‘‘Say An’’ (chap who drove me on the back of a motorbike) picked me up at 06:30 and we were at the entrance for 07:00. For one reason or another I did not make use of the traditional 4x4 trip up to the trail. Figuring that many birders do not see the section between park entrance and trail, I thus decided I would. Initially this seemed to be very promising with a number of good bird parties amongst the lower reaches of the climb.However, with fatigue and the increasing temperature, birds tailed off and by the time I reached the start of the trail I was already shattered, and late. The 4 km hike up took an hour and twenty minutes to ascend - and it is not pleasurable! I must have seemed an old man to any voyeurs, plod, plod plod, hack, hack, hack, spit, stop, breath - repeat ad nauseum all the way up. In hindsight, at least this had been on a tarred road. The trail itself quickly descended into a rather muddy and very slippery path suitably wide enough only for anorexics. [by the end of my trip, I would have fitted into this category quite well actually]

The birding soon dried up and I started to ascend the peak proper for no better reason than it was there. I could and should have learn’t not to do these things in Costa Rica, but my pull up mountains is almost equal to the vertiginous attraction to the ground that I suffer from standing on precipices. I turned back within 20 metres of the summit as it became impossible to free climb the remaining steps on the slippery mud. Getting down was going to be issue enough without having to jump down sections.Descent accomplished, I still had the 4km of tar road to complete and this was perhaps harder on my legs than the going up. My inner thighs are still hurting from the jarring hop, skip, jump action required in descending a 1 in 3 hill.Caught the local bus back to Da Lat and then a taxi to the hotel. Arranged for another motorbike taxi to take me out in the afternoon. A much shorter trip that required much less movement. Caught the local bus again which proved to be a cheap and very efficient means of transport. More unlikely was the fact that most of the English speaking Vietnamese were met here. Unlike in the UK, speaking to one another on Public Transport is considered ‘de rigueur’ here. Spring Rolls followed by some beef and veg stir fry for dinner.

16/11/2010

By today, I had given up on arranging early morning transport as it seemed un-reliable. Everyone here is very keen that you have breakfast at all costs - it is good for you apparently! None the less, I arranged to rent a motorbike for a few days so that I could move about more freely. This was arranged through the hotel I stayed at. Daily rental costs around VND90 000 and a full tank of fuel is never much more than VND60 000. I headed off at 06:30, still too late! I got to Di Nong Trai (Ta Nung Valley) in less than 20 minutes without getting lost. However, not getting lost on the way there was no precursor to success in staying located at Di Nong Trai. I tried using the maps made by Henk Hendriks, but they are very much out of date. Again, only after I found the excellent report by Vincent van der Spek did the place make better sense. Although, there have been further changes to the site. I spent the better part of the morning rambling through undergrowth, being cut and bitten to pieces in a vain attempt to find the ‘‘upper trail’’. Due to various fallen trees and recent logging, even the lower trail took a long time to locate.After getting fed up and disconsolate with the area, I left late morning and headed off to Ho Tuyen Lam for an expeditionary investigation. Having the motorbike allowed me to travel the newly constructed roads around the dam and see what areas were available.I stopped at the dirt track near to Datanla Falls to see if any White-cheeked Laughingthrushes were to be found. None were, but it was quite un-necessary as they are to be found quite easily at Di Nong Trai in large flocks as well as below the dam wall of Ho Tuyen Lam.

17/11/2010

Having now improved on my locational knowledge and not about to forgive myself if I didn’t have another go at the Crocias, I decided to make another trip to Di Nong Trai. I now told the staff what time I was leaving, rather than asking. Hence I left the hotel at 05:30 to be in position for 06:00. I drove all the way to the lower end of the valley and hardly moved from the forest/river interface. There was little need, admittedly the forest was not any busier than it had been the day before at around 07:30, but the species content was. As opposed to the previous day, many new species were found early, but were not seen again after the first hour and a half. Perhaps mere co-incidence, but on both occasions that I saw grey-crowned Crocias, they were singular birds mingling with White-cheeked Laughingthrushes. This early in the morning, neither species were making any calls, simply feeding quietly between 6 and 10 feet off the ground. Having satisfied myself here, I devoted mid-morning to investigating the opposite end of Ho Tuyen Lam.Still having a few hours available in the afternoon, I re-visited the former section of the lake. This was in a last ditch effort to see one of the Nuthatches rather than climb Mount Lang Biang again in search of Collared Laughingthrush - given my poor success with the Laughingthrushes, I figured this just wasn’t going to be the Family for me on this trip. As it happens, the first rain of my trip fell and there was little to be done except get soaked.

18/11/2010

I spent most of the day transferring from Da Lat to Nam Cat Tien. The journey by vehicle is around 200km and takes approximately 4 hours to complete. En-route we descend the Da Lat plateau, the pass seems to be covered for miles in every direction with fantastic pristine forest. We pass at least three motor vehicle accidents, one of which looks as though it may involve fatalities. Given the nature of the driving, I am oddly surprised that it has taken this long to see an accident. Motorbike carrying capacity is infinite, we pass amongst other delights, a 125cc carrying two huge tractor tyres!Eventually we pull up to the Dong Nai river, the only entrance to Nam Cat Tien is via a boat transfer. I arrived a little after two and after signing in and dropping my gear, was out for the remaining few hours of daylight or greylight as things have become over the last two days. Birding was near enough impossible in the lighting conditions and then it started to rain. The rain did clear off after an hour and I spent a decent 45 minutes birding before the light failed completely.

19/11/2010

Woke up at 06:00 to find that I was late, sun-up is earlier than in Da Lat. Got dressed half asleep and stumbled out to get the late morning birds. Started with the tar road towards Uncle Dong’s Trail before entering the forest. Walked about Lagerstroemia Trail connecting back to Uncle Dong’s Trail. By this stage, birding had exited my priorities and I left the forest via the shortcut. Mosquitos and leeches had become quite unbearable. Due to a slight oversight, I had left my Insect Repellent in the bungalow and passed up on the leech socks! This hour in the forest gave me a fraction of an idea of what it must have been like to be an American GI during the war. I was under such complete assault from leeches and mosquitos that I could not concentrate on anything else, let alone an invisibly lethal enemy. In fact it isn’t difficult to see how soldiers became more fearful of the environment than the enemy.Morning was slow with only a Bar-bellied Pitta responding to playback - but not enough to reveal itself. After a quick breakfast of Beef Noodle Soup, I headed back out, this time in the direction of the grassland area.

Although it was mid-day, many birds were still available and there were no pesky leeches or mosquitos. Almost equally irritating though were shiny name plates lauding HSBC - of all things to find in the middle of National Park! HSBC have provided sponsorship for the reforestation of disturbed areas with indigenous trees. Which is all good and fine, but why put shiny metal name tags with the sponsors logo all over every sapling? One big signboard, which is already there would surely have sufficed? HSBC, it is the jungle so to speak - green, brown, not shiny... Good intentions but lacking in tact.The afternoon I spent walking towards Heaven’s Rapids trail. With imminent rain and dense cloud cover, the birding was again good - although lighting was a problem. Finished the day pretty dry and with most of the commoner birds, the major targets would have to wait until tomorrow. Dinner tonight includes the obligatory Spring Rolls (I order at almost every meal they are that good) and a some pork and rice.

20/11/2010

I’m up for an early morning drive to Crocodile Lake. Although my transport was arranged for 05:30, there was little movement until 06:00. While Vietnamese Time is no where near as bad as African Time - anything earlier than 06:00 seems ‘difficult’. Not much happening on the roads en route to the Crocodile Lake trail. The trail itself fortunately had less leeches than the ones closer to HQ. Birding was slow to good in parts, but even with less undergrowth - it was still very difficult to get clear views of anything. Had one response from a Blue-rumped Pitta but nothing further. One Bar-bellied responded and came for a closer look, enough time for a decent naked eye view only, coy bugger. Crocodile Lake itself was a little disappointing, way too much Water Hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes in evidence. The typical species were present, but no ducks, adjutants or fish eagles.In the afternoon, I went for a long walk towards Heaven’s Rapids searching for a dead tree that contained Collared Falconets. I never did find this tree, but perhaps did not walk far enough past the Heaven’s Rapids drop off area. The track was extremely muddy, but the habitation was drier and more open. Patches of bamboo interspersed with mature forest and occasionally some open grass areas. The walk back was barren other than a Germain’s Peacock Pheasant that dashed across the road.

Having heard many bad reports of the Night Drives, I figured I would go on one anyway and judge for myself. Unfortunately, the reports are well founded - anyone who has been on an African night drive, much less guided them will be sorely disappointed. Obviously expectations are lower due to the lower density of wildlife, but it is the method of zooming up and down a single track on a great big diesel Bedford type vehicle that disappointed the most. As it was the odd Sambar was the only mammal on show. My main attraction however was to get to the grasslands at night and who knows what may turn up in nightjar/frogmouth terms. A single Large-tailed Nightjar followed by a flushed Spot-bellied Eagle Owl. While the bird was flushed several times from one road-side tree to another, we never had long/particularly grand views. The non-birding tourists weren’t sure what was supposed to have happened during the 45 minute rush around, but I was rather stoked.


21/11/2010

I had by this stage met up with a Spanish couple, Fran and Helen who had invited me with them to bird the Heaven’s Rapids track on their last morning. A fine morning we had, not so much in the quantities of birds, for they were scarce as they had been the day before - but the quality that we eked out. Neither of us had had a sniff at a Trogon in a combined 7 days of birding, but Fran somehow picked out a perched Orange-breasted. There was a little head scratching when a very unexpected/lost Peregrine Falcon turned up. While this would not be the first record for the park, there seems little in the way of suitable habitat nearby. Records being as scarce as they are, I found it impossible even to have a stab at which sub-species this may be, the predominantly Indian/Bangladeshi/lower Chinese peregrinator or the Philippine/Malayan islands ernesti. Given the time of year, it could even have been one of the long migrators such as calidus.

Spent mid-morning having coffee and chatting at Forest Floor Lodge. The afternoon found me peddling a rickety childs mountain bike (the only bike of 20 that worked) back down Heaven’s Rapids in search of the Falconet tree. Even though Fran had described the approximate location to me, my journey proved frustrating and I never did locate it. A consolation came in the form of a small tribe of Black-shanked Douc, only around 100 of which occur in the park.My last night in Viet Nam and perhaps it was not the worst day to be leaving. A noisy group of adolescent Australians had pitched up. Their poor teacher seemed quite embarrassed by the racket they made, although they were good kids - no profanity or alcohol etc, just hopelessly out of their depth in this jungle or anywhere outside of the city actually. Never the less, their noise was drowned out by the sudden downpour which exposed the restaurants numerous roof leaks.

22/10/2010

My last day in Viet Nam was spent walking the main tarred road towards Crocodile Lake and back again. I stopped at the fork again and played the drumming call of the White-browed Piculet who immediately responded and gave very good views. When I passed the same area later in the morning, he was still present drumming away on the bamboo. By this stage I had seen most of everything I had targeted in Cat Tien although I did fall a little short on the Woodpeckers and Cuckoos in particular.My pre-arranged driver was due to meet up with me at 12:00. A quarter of an hour later he pitched, pointing excitedly to his left rear wheel in defence of his tardiness. Unlike my previous driver who spoke a little English and was rather chatty, this chap barely spoke two words and it was fully two hours before we attempted communication.

Now, for people who know me, I am quite capable of being incommunicado even when surrounded by people - but this was more to do with exhaustion. Our car seemed incapable of moving in a straight line, instead we fish tailed back and forth the whole way. Perhaps this had more to do with the recently changed flat than my drivers twitchiness. The excitement was not over however, the heavens suddenly opened in a way that I had not experienced since I left South Africa many years ago. The wall of water became more impenetrable when the drivers side windscreen wiper ceased operation. With limited visibility and trucks and motorbikes all over the place, even pulling off the road was an exercise in faith alone.How convenient it was that we seemed to have pulled off near a mechanic who was able to help. Whatever the fault with the wiper was, we were not fixing it. So the mechanic unscrewed and reset the passenger wiper to cover the entire windscreen rather than just my side. So, single wiper working in the same vein as most Mercedes, off we went only for the rain to stop within minutes.

Driving though afternoon HCMC traffic was not as exciting as driving a motorbike had been. The port is located north of the city, meaning that the vast majority of the motorways are clogged by 16 wheelers driven by drivers who think they are still driving their scooters! Two of them rattled containers ahead of us, causing one container to tilt and slip half way off its bed. Crumbs would have been all that remained had said 50 ton container come off and landed on the taxi next to it. Having cleared this section of the motorway, the remaining hour to the airport was relatively peaceful if not very congested with bicycles, motorbikes and scooters. With such few cars and a limited number of large busses, traffic while seemingly very congested actually keeps moving at a decent pace. Watching the activities of the motorbike and scooter drivers was fascinating. You actually have to drive a scooter in this traffic to understand that there are well established intricacies not immediately obvious to untrained eyes. However, texting while driving in this can’t be good for anyones health and some stealthy police pulled one chap over. Besides much protestation from the ‘texter’, the Police seemed to be in no mood for any bull.The rains came in heavy again prior to departing Tan Son Nhut, but there were no delays. The return flight was remarkable for it’s uneventfulness. Transfers were on time, we landed early at Heathrow and even the baggage handlers got our luggage out early. The biggest shock came with the 30 degree C drop in temperature!It has been a while since I visited a country and had such a universally positive experience (Cuba was the last). I would like to take the opportunity of thanking the People of Viet Nam for being such accommodating and friendly hosts. I should have no trouble in recommending your amazing country to everyone I know. Do please strive to protect what remains of your wildlife, Viet Nam would be all the poorer for not having the diversity it currently enjoys.

Accommodation and organisation

I used the services of Vietnam Birding to help with a suitable plan of action for my limited time frame as well as arrange Taxi Transfers and Accommodation at Cat Tien National Park. Richard provided very informative advice, not so much on where to go, but how long I needed as well as the best methods of arranging this. I arranged my own flights, long-haul and internal as well as accommodation in Da Lat. I must of course thank him for providing 2 items of clothing which were extremely useful, leech socks which I had neglected as well as a cap which I had forgotten. These were unexpected bonuses which saved my face from further sun burn and my body from further hidden leeches!


Vietnam Birding Richard Craik

3rd Floor, 71-75 Hai Ba Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

www.vietnambirding.com
info@vietnambirding.com

+84 8 3827 3766




Da Lat
YK Home Villa Hotel

9 Yet Kieu, Ward 5, Da Lat.

www.ykhomevilla.com
info@ykhomevilla.com

+84 633 561 466


I took a chance and booked a hotel with limited reviews (albeit very good ones) via Agoda. As it happens, the hotel is slightly outside the main town centre - thus not much noise. I would hate to be staying in central Da Lat. I never thought I’d say this, but there is a country where the populations drivers toot horns more than those in India, they are Vietnamese! Besides being quieter, the hotel is run like a home. Almost everything can and does get done very quickly - all you need do is ask. The hotel is run by sisters, Huong and Thu Nguyen. A most delightful pairing who looked after me as if I was family. After the first day, they had tuned in to the way I worked, coffee arrived whenever I sat down - they even gave me ‘breakfast’ at 14:00 in the afternoon because I had skipped it while out birding. Everything from arranging taxis, to motorbike taxis, motorbikes, laundry etc was handled superbly. I was normally quite shattered after roaming about that I couldn’t be bothered to eat in town, hence I had dinner in house every night. Food was very tasty as well as being plentiful. At a little over £12.00 a night this was more than just a bargain.

Cat Tien

Standard bungalow booked via Vietnam Birding.

** A new hotel development has gone up since most other reports were published. While I did not stay at the venue, I was able to have coffee on the balcony and have a look at the rooms and tents. This is most definitely up market by comparison to the typical bungalows of the National Park. Nor is it cheap, at a minimum of $100 a night in the low season. However, if you are coming to the end of a long and grueling journey or money is not an issue, then this is certainly a viable option.

Forest Floor Lodge
Cat Tien National Park

www.forestfloorlodge.com
enq@forestfloorlodge.com

+84 631 669 890

5 December 2010

Morocco - October 2009

Friday evening flight from London Gatwick to Marrakech Menara International (3h10mins). Flight cost around £85.00 per person return through Royal Air Maroc website Royal Air Maroc (flight is operated by Atlas Blue). 



Car Hire – searched through Car Trawler Agent : Argus Car Hire. Car hire is expensive – approximately £200 for 6 days. I’d advise you don’t take the Extra insurance on offer from the website, as the rental company is going to bill you an extra £6.00 a day regardless. Avoiding dings, scratches, windscreen chips and accidents in general is extremely difficult – driving conditions explained later.

Fuel costs around D10.00 a litre. Typical meals cost around D250 per couple, while accommodation in modest hotels costs around D300 – D350 per twin room. 



Driving conditions

Moroccan driving standards are atrocious, particularly the local Mercedes Taxis, Tour busses and newer trucks. Overtaking 3 or more vehicles around a blind cutback is ‘normal’. It is advisable to allow taxis and tour busses to overtake you as soon as possible – I took to slowing down so that they could do this before I entered any bends in the road.

Traffic police are all over the country and it is best to stick rigidly to traffic laws. You can expect to encounter Road Blocks at least twice a day. I was pulled over for two minor infractions which carry a D400 fine each. Co-operation and good manors meant I paid a D200 unofficial fine. I wouldn’t suggest attempting to bribe any of the officers, my unofficial fine was a slight surprise and accepted as much. I also did not have to pay either of the other fines as I was honest and apologetic to the officers. However, plenty of the leniency was directed towards us due to the fact that we were South African. Talk immediately moved towards football and the impending World Cup. Morocco at this stage were still likely to qualify. After chatting football for a few minutes, we were normally allowed to depart as a ‘special favour’.



09/10/2009

Flight departed Gatwick an hour late – no surprise. Customs is fairly straight forward if not reminiscent of a communist style state. Baggage collection is long and tedious – you are best to move baggage off the carousel otherwise further baggage will not be added to it. Hire car process takes some time and we were hit another £30 for ‘late’ pickup! 



10/10/2009

Our intention was to drive from Marrakech towards Ouarzazate through the morning (Road N9). Roads are well signposted. The drive itself though is long and difficult. While the roads are decent dual carriageway, the cutbacks through the high Atlas take time. I would however suggest that driving this road at night is preferable to driving during daylight hours as there are fewer vehicles and one is able to see oncoming traffic much easier. 

Ultimately we did not quite reach Ouarzazate as I was too tired to continue driving. We pulled over for 2 hours of sleep before continuing on through Ouarzazate towards Boumale-du-Dades (Road N10). Driving conditions were much easier over this section of the journey. Birded intermittently along the way, stopping at Mansour Eddahbi Dam and various unnamed spots en route. Arrived in Boumalne-du-Dades around 15:00 in time to check into the hotel (Hotel Soleil Bleu) . After checking in, spent a few hours on the Tagdilt Track.



11/10/2009

Woke up late to have breakfast before attacking the Tagdilt Track proper (the entire road all the way to Tagdilt and back can be done fairly comfortably with a typical saloon car during decent weather). Completed birding in the early afternoon before departing for overnight in Ouarzazate. Checked into hotel late afternoon (La Perle du Sud Hotel). Drove back out to Mansour Eddahbi Dam for remaining few hours of daylight. 


13/10/2009

Departed Agadir for Essaouira (Road N1) at 06:00 with the intention of reaching Cap Rhir for some pelagic birding and Oued Tamri. Winter sea mist made pelagics impossible. Continued further north into Argan habitat. Arrived in Essaouira at 14:00, checked in at hotel (Bahja de Mogador). Birded Oued Ksab for the rest of the afternoon.



14/10/2009

Our intention was to continue to Marrakech today, but changed plans due to lack of Northern Bald Ibis at this stage. Departed at 04:00 for return journey to Oued Tamri. Still no Ibis, but bumped into some birders who gave us excellent info. We continued on to Agadir and further south to the fishing village of Tifnite. Local guide marched us across the dunes in search of Ibis. Left Tifnite at 13:00 for Marrakech (Road N8). A new road is currently under construction for this route – it did not look as though it would be ready for at least another year or so. Road conditions as per the rest of the country, but many mountain passes to travel on this road with the addition of heavy truck traffic. Arrived in Marrakech around 16:30. Stayed at Ryad Mogador Marrakech.

15/10/2009

Early morning flight out of Marrakech Menara.

 Final Distance covered: 1850km

Tagdilt Track



Just outside of Boumalne-du-Dades en route to Er Rachidia. A number of various routes available, although the suggested access is from the ‘New’ Tagdilt Track – right turn just prior to kilometre marker ‘Tinghir 48’. The track is a loose road through the desert that unfortunately plays home to more plastic refuse bags and broken glass than you can shake a stick at as well as having a large smouldering rubbish dump near it's start.If staying at Auberge Soleil Bleu, check the sightings book for updates. 

There were also a small number of excellent hand drawn maps of the Tagdilt Track specifying the likely location of the main species. 

Long-legged Buzzard - few at ‘rubbish dump’

Barbary Falcon - single near human habitation

Black-bellied Sandgrouse - 1 covey near Tagdilt town

Crowned Sandgrouse - 1 covey near start of track

Theckla Lark - common throughout

Greater Hooper Lark - 1 flock, very near to Tagdilt town
Greater Short-toed Lark - small numbers

Thick-billed Lark - small numbers surrounding wadis

Temminck’s Horned Lark - common at start of track

Black Wheatear - small numbers near human habitation

Desert Wheatear - common on track

Mourning Wheatear - 3 birds neat start of track

Red-rumped Wheatear - common throughout

White-crowned Black Wheatear - common on power and telephone lines

Great Grey Shrike (elegans) - at military compound

Trumpeter Finch - common within wadis



Target Species missed : Cream-coloured Courser, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Bar-tailed Lark, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.



Oued Massa



Reached comfortably from Agadir. Drive south for approximately 55km, taking turnoff at signpost ‘Massa / Sidi-Rabat’ (it is located on the left hand side of the road!)



Greater Flamingo - large flock present

Marbled Duck - small flocks

Red-crested Pochard - common

Barbary Partridge - small coveys in farm lands en route to river end

Bonelli’s Eagle - 2 individuals

Kentish Plover - common on beech

Audouin’s Gull - common on beech

Yellow-legged Gull - common on beech

Ring-billed Gull - at least 3 present on beech amongst Yellow-legged Gulls
Moussier’s Redstart - common

Southern Grey Shrike (algeriensis) - singles seen relatively often

Sardinian Warbler - common

Melodious Warbler - at least 2 individuals present, showing very well

Spanish Sparrow - small numbers in farm lands

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler - 1 bird in reed scrubs at river end

Cirl Bunting - common in village en route to river end



Oued Souss



Just south of Agadir, turn right at Golf du Soleil and drive towards Royal Palace. Park just before Palace on the left side of the road and walk along lagoon.


Slender-billed Gull - 4 adults still with pinkish underparts


Lesser Crested Tern - 1 adult amongst commoner Sandwich Terns

Oued Tamri




Located just past Cap Rhir, the river mouth will come into view, shortly after and gravel road will lead off the road. Park up walk to edge of lagoon. The lagoon cannot be traversed particularly far.




White Stork - single adult amongst European Spoonbills

Marbled Duck - small flock
Red-crested Pochard - common
Common Kingfisher - single amongst reedsNo Northern Bald Ibis today



Essaouira (Oued Ksab)




The Oued Ksab is easily reached just prior to entering town. A bridge is currently under construction over the river, but access between south and north bank is still available. 




Eleonora’s Falcon - common along the Oued Ksab


Plain Martin - common

Moroccon Wagtail (subpersonata) - common
Black-crowned Tchagra - heard a number of times along river bank



Tifnite



Easily reached approximately 25km south of Agadir. A fishing town, it is approximately 10km from junction. Road stops about 500metres from village and it is necessary to walk the rest of the way. Start searching on the western dunes above the village. Ibis often feed within the black bag infested dunes here. It is likely that a local guide will pick you up whether you want them or not. Expect a fee of D100 for their successful services. It was necessary to ascend and descend a number of steep dunes for up to 3km before finally finding the birds. According to our guide, they will be in the area, you may have to walk the full length as we did or get lucky and have them feeding near the village (best early in the morning between 06:00 and 08:00). 



Northern Bald Ibis - approximately 300 individuals on sea facing dunesPeregrine Falcon (brookei/minor) - 2 individuals hunting – exact sub-species is still considered debatable.

Literature



Collins Bird Guide Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D. & Grant, P. 1999.
ISBN: 0-00-711332-3Birdwatchers Guide to Morocco Bergier, P. & Bergier, F 2003.
ISBN: 1-871104-09-2

Species Lists

Please see Global Twitcher for our full Morocco list – Morocco Bird List

Accommodation


Boumalne-du-Dades


Hotel Soleil Bleu
Highly recommended – email the hotel directly for accommodation, payable in Euros.
 Hotel Soleil Bleu

Ouarzazate



La Perle du Sud Hotel39/40
Boulevard Mohamed V, 45000. Highly recommended – made arrangements via Travel Republic


Agadir



La Petite Suede Avenue Hassan II, Agadir, 80000

Would not recommend this place to my worst enemy. Shoddy part of town with overzealous car guards who attacked the vehicle on departure. 
Booked through Hostel Bookers

Essaouira

Bahja de Mogador

596 Avenue Al Aqaba, Essaouira, 44000

Again, not recommended due to location. Car guards around the sea front lie about directions and are impetuous beyond belief. Steer well clear of downtown! No restaurants anywhere near. Booked through Hostel Bookers


Marrakech



Ryad Mogador Marrakech

Angle Boulevard, 11 Janvier, Prince My Abdellah, Bab Doukkala, 40000 Fairly average location, but hotel itself is good.

7 November 2010

Texas - April 2010

16/04/2010

After months of planning and logistics, today I depart on a two part journey to Texas, USA and Costa Rica. Or not as nature has conspired against me in the most lurid way. Everything started to unravel on Wednesday morning with the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano. Cancellation of flights started yesterday followed by the inevitable air space closures. Continental’s website finally listed the flight as cancelled late evening yesterday. Apparently you get re-booked onto the next available flight, with or without your knowledge and consent. Realizing that little was likely to change by Monday, I called to reschedule for next week Friday. The whole debacle puts me off securing accommodation or anything else in advance - everything is non-refundable to move.


So, I could simply go to work today and continue as normal until next Friday. We’re in theatre today and my mind is simply not up for it. Grab the golf clubs and head for the nearest course with the aim of venting my frustrations with all and sundry on the little white ball. Ever since arriving, there has been this nagging feeling of ‘something is missing’, but being so preoccupied with whacking the golf ball it take a full 9 holes for me to realize what. Richmond Park sits directly under the Heathrow flight path and there is a consistent but dull scream of engines overhead throughout the day. Only today there isn’t, and having just started to enjoy my golf - I am reminded why I am standing on Richmond Park Golf Course when I should be 3 hours over the Atlantic already. The next shot strikes the ball noticeably harder. Ends up being a good day on the golf course, must remember to play ‘angry’ more often.
It takes the rest of Friday afternoon to amend my Virgin rental car booking. Most of it on the phone to some chap in an Indian call centre. To rebook dates is going to cost another £20. ‘Would I like to pay over the phone now?’, what choice do I have before reading out my details. Part of me is resigned to the fact that a clone of my card has already been made before the payment is even processed.Spend the rest of the week at work with a distinct air of ‘I shouldn’t be here right now, so stop asking me questions.’ Nor am I certain that this damn volcano is going to alter much over the next week either. Fortunately the Germans and Swedes put a few scientists on their carriers and prove that you do not in fact fall out of the sky after a little ash exposure. Develop a greater degree of respect for Willie Walsh after he puts himself on a BA flight just to ram the point home. Eventually the Health and Safety brigade are satisfied with their 15 mins of fame and are quietly told to eff off so that we can ‘Carry on Flying’. It really was that bad, I had visions of Sid James in a pilots outfit...

23/04/2010


This time it is for real, I have monitored my actual plane’s journey via the handy app. on Continental’s website. Somewhere in the Website design office there sits an anorak like me. Quite some journey my plane has been on actually, Houston, LAX, Narita, somewhere else, Tel Aviv and then Heathrow before completing it’s circumvention of the world back to Houston.
Flight is as quiet as it can be for a Friday morning. Quite uneventful until landing that is. The Captains remit was surely to test the landing gear on this leg. Eventful landing were to become the hallmark or Continental’s Pilots, from heavy and hard to loose and fast. For the first time since I started flying I bothered to pay attention to the location of the emergency exits.

On terra firma, and rather excited to have made it to Texas. Of all the States in America, this was the one I had longed to visit. I couldn’t think of a good reason why this was so, it just was.
Cleared security very quickly by American standards and off to pick up my rental. A fancy black Toyota Prius. Driving in the US has always been easy for some reason, wrong side of the car, wrong side of the road, no gears and yet it all seems to make sense. Struggle for weeks on my return to the UK to drive on the correct side of the road.Being the afternoon, I figured it best to travel to my hotel for the night in the Texas/ Louisiana border town of Beaumont. It’s rough, but cheap and it had vacancies. This being the high season for bird watching in the area, the nearest town of Winnie was completely full. Probably had been for years. Large electrical storm had recently cleared off giving the area a clean, fresh smell. Accommodation was typical a rather typical motel, rooms are clean and more than adequate for it’s purpose. The neighbours were a little redneck but pleasant enough. They even took an interest in where I was from - which has been a noticeable disinclination of most Americans in other states I have visitedAfter settling in, I ventured outdoors for some form of dinner. So far I had made do with 2 bags of Doritos. As it happens, sit down restaurants are very thin on the ground and they are certainly closed by 21:00. Another bag of crisps.

24/04/2010


Up at 04:00 for the 40 mile drive to High Island. I reach the town as dawn is thinking about clearing up. First stop today will be at Boy Scout Woods. There are so few trees and water for migrating birds to aim for that this location is hardwired into thousands of birds brains as a stop over after flying the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, it is so predictable that a wooden grandstand has been built. You can sit on you’re arse all day long and simply wait for the birds to come to you. A small walk around the reserve to locate some of the many Warblers before moving on. Midday there is a walk around the mud flats of the Bolivar peninsula. The drive is scenic, the Gulf of Mexico is but a few metres from the road in places. Hundred of double and triple story wooden home are built in the sand between the beach and road. You start to wonder what part of wooden home, Gulf of Mexico, lack of elevation and hurricanes these ejits have yet to appreciate.

Either way, the midday sun does nothing to the many hundreds of waders on offer. Cleanup the major species I am after. 
Late afternoon is spent roaming Smith Oaks. The quantity of birders means nothing is missed, not even a major national rarity (Fork-tailed Flycatcher). As darkness descends it is time for the return trip to Beaumont. Still haven’t had any proper food and my prospects are not good. It is starting to dawn on me that thoughts of giant Texan steaks are nothing but a mirage. I order a pizza online direct to my room. Another early morning to look forward to.

25/04/2010


Arise at sparrows fart again. Today is a 50 mile drive to Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. I have arranged to join an official walk through the barely dry grasslands in search of the Yellow Rail. Approximately 40 people end up on the walk. We drag a line of plastic milk bottles filled with stones through the grass lands hoping to flush a rail into flight. We succeed on two occasions. Great views of this rare skulking bird. Our guide David Sarkozi has been here for years and his experience and knowledge were very impressive. See Contact Details below.
Having succeeded with the rail, it was time for a little birding on the Gulf of Mexico itself.

Although there was little to see and I called it quite. The heat was getting oppressive and I had the small part of a 360 mile drive to get through yet.
Drove along very scenic country roads. Farm and big Texan hats for mail boxes. This was more like it. Houston must be one of the best city views I have yet had from a car. Certainly entering Houston via Interstate 10 gives you a panoramic entrance. On leaving Houston, the roads became straighter and less populated. Traffic picked up again towards San Antonio but soon died off. In fact as I traveled north west of San Antonio everything seemed to get drier and more desolate as I made my way onto the Edwards Plateau.

The vegetation noticeable changed to a dry brown colour interspersed with snakes of vivid green trailing various rivers. With darkness due in a few hours, I popped into the nearest Super Store (even in small towns these things are huge!). I intended on camping two nights in the Lost Maples State Park so needed a few basic commodities. After much consideration, it looked like Doritos on white bread rolls for dinner and breakfast again. 
Got terribly lost, bloody TomTom can’t find a thing it seems. Resorted to standard map reading (at least the maps I had saved on the Mac). Eventually arrived with perhaps an hour of light left, but after the main office had closed. The US operates this wonderful honesty system whereby you fill in an arrivals form, put in the appropriate amount of cash and post the envelope into the main office. Although I did struggle with the various fees and ended up overpaying - I only knew this as I was given change the next day! Lost Maples is a stunning mountainous area with various dappled shades of colour.

With the sun descending, the deep blue and purples further enhanced the areas remote feel. Indeed for the first time that I could remember, there was no mobile signal - anywhere. This was as isolated as things got. My one man tent went up and I settled in for an evening of crisps on bread, a cup of stale coffee and some preparation for tomorrows targets - Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.
It is a rare thing for me not to exhaustively plan any part of my trip, but to neglect the aspect of height, clear skies and and the resulting near zero temperatures was a big oversight. Froze my proverbial balls off and waking intermittently in an attempt to find some more things to cover myself with.

26/04/2010


There is no way I am going through another night of that, so I need to connect with my target species today or not at all. Even my flask has suffered, the stale instant from yesterday is now tepid. Am now rudely awake, my body still shivering from cold and my mouth retching at the residual ‘coffee’ taste. I haven’t smoked for 3 months, but something told me I best have a box nearby for days like these. The head rush from the first drag in months further disorientates me. Pack my gear away and head up the trails in a foul mood.  After a few hours, the wind picks up, my target birds have both escaped me. By now, I am cursing myself for such a monumental oversight and my mental state of mind is hardly conducive to finding these birds in the worsening conditions. Having now departed from my original plans, I need to find a place to aim for this evening. I settle Zapata, near to Falcon Dam. Another 270 miles to cover, but the drive will hopefully cheer me up a little. 
Drive due south on Interstate 83.

As I get nearer to Mexico, the temperatures start to rocket upwards. By the time I enter Nuevo Laredo, the mercury or however digital thermometers work are hitting 100F. There is nothing ‘New’ about Laredo, it is a shithole in every sense of the word. I daren’t stop here, every second Latino is a gold chain wearing skinhead driving a fancy SUV with silver revolving rims. Given the neighbourhood, I’ll forgive myself for generalizing about the nature of their wealth - sure as the shit in this town, it isn’t legal!
Find a local hotel in Zapata for the night. Take a walk on the banks of the Falcon Dam and come across the carcass of a huge Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. What a shame, I don’t want to leave Texas without seeing a live one.Dinner for the first time this trip is taken in a sit down restaurant. I excuse the plastic table and chairs, at least they are serving. Something approaching a steak is found, but it is not very ‘Texan’, at least not how it was supposed to be in my mind anyway.

27/04/2010


Early morning around Falcon State Park after erroneously ending up in a secure US military area. Plead ignorance and wonder if asking heavily armed officer to lend me his weapon so that I can execute my TomTom would be interpreted as a hostile action. The park is quiet and I spend more time looking at the ground for snakes than I see birds. Hazy early morning mist clears off and the bird life picks up too. Heat is becoming oppressive though, the air feels charged and about to spontaneously combust. Now birds from under one tree to the next. Morning ends with the emergence of a Roadrunner, cue much reminiscing over child hood cartoons. This certainly is a bird with character though and I spent the best part of 10 minutes watching him watching me watching him.
Midday I am back on I83 heading east towards MacAllen and Edinburg. I stop periodically along the way for views of the Rio Grande. At times, the river is barely 20 metres wide and I can see why the American worry about illegal immigrants, it is a relatively easy hop skip and jump. I stop at Roma, turns out to be a town of major historical importance. To me it provide a scenic out look across Mexico proper, the Rio Grande many metres below. A well worn path below suggests it may be possible to get good views of the river, which I need in order to find the various Kingfishers I am after. 

I trundle down to the river bank and barely get my binoculars up when all hell breaks loose. US border patrol officials descend the hillside at speed yelling and screaming. I find myself flat on my face, hand on my head with Glocks drawn before it dawns on America’s finest that even in my most tanned state - I am struggling to look Mexican. Never mind that that sought after illegal had to swim the river and hence get wet? Anyhow, thankfully this lot weren’t as trigger happy as they had and have been since then. I dust off and get asked to vacate the area while they look for the suspect proper. Various Mexicans on the opposing river bank start to throw rocks at the officers on this side. It all starts getting David and Goliath. Head down the Interstate again in search of the Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. Spend the afternoon prattling about picking up a number of raptors. Still no snakes though and I getting concerned that I may miss the Rattlers. Hotel is located in the dodgiest part of town, most shops have been closed. At least there is decent broadband, should have gotten that Domino’s loyalty card as it is pizza again tonight.


28/04/2010


Early morning start at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. TomTom fails me yet again, cannot believe that National Parks are not considered Points of Interest. Useless bloody thing. The morning in Santa Ana is well spent with more of the targeted species being ticked off. In fact, the point of another night here is becoming increasingly nullified as almost all my target species have been seen. Drive into MacAllen in an attempt to find the towns Botanical Gardens. After a few attempts it turns out my information is either old or duff, nothing doing. My trip information does make mention of the MacAllen water treatment facilities and as they are near I head off to see what gives. Mention is made of a large concentration of Rattlers here, so tread with caution. The area has been done up by a local conservation unit, turning the surrounds into educational gardens and the like. Withe temperature hovering around 100F, it is a case of moving from one shaded area to the next. Since I am looking mostly for Kingfishers, I take leave of my feet and wait for action. According to the available literature, the Western Diamondbacks are more commonly seen in the water here. Almost on cue, a large Rattler slithers into the water from the bank in front of me. What an amazing creature! I do have a thing for the Viperids, having kept Puff Adders in South Africa and wishing to have kept some Rattlers as well as a few South American Bothrops. As evening started to fall, I found only my second sit down restaurant and feasted on steak Tacos and Fajitas.


29/04/2010


My last day proper in Texas. That feeling of an imminent end to the holiday crept in, even though I was heading for Costa Rica rather than London. I visited a number of local areas including a return to the sewage works. Once things got hot again, it was time to leave southern Texas behind me and head back to Houston, another 350 miles up US77. The drive was pleasant enough, although the ‘border post’ situated 100 miles north of Brownsville was a little odd. No stamp in the passport, but looked a permanent road block to check documentation etc. Arrived in Houston late in the afternoon and checked into yet another hotel room. John F Kennedy Boulevard sounds rather more impressive that it turns out to be. Dinner at the local diner, still no steak...
With an early morning flight to look forward to, I had enough time to do some laundry and start booking accommodation in Costa Rica. Rather late planning by my standards, but given the debacle of volcano induced adjustment, I was glad not to have to adjust another weeks worth of accommodation.

Unfortunately Texas did not stand up to what I had expected. While I didn’t expect anything particularly, there wasn’t the arrogant swagger to things as I had hoped for. And no steaks, those huge Texan Steaks we used to eat in South Africa - marketing bull. Many parts of Texas are decrepit dusty affairs, it’s hard to see why the Americans went to war with Mexico over southern Texas. Never mind that most of Texas is now mostly Mexican in any case. Problem now is that I don’t have an alternative state to get excited about. Florida is old and peeling, New York - hated it, Washington DC was fantastic though. Alaska, I think that is my new Texas.


Contact Details :


Texas Wildlife Trails, my main source of planning
Website :    Great Texas Wildlife Trails


Yellow Rail Walk
Website :    Friends of Anhuac