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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

East Anglia

I had hardly time to get my breath back after Argentina before it was time to set off on an overdue trip (14th - 24th November) to East Anglia to catch up with some old school, and other, friends. I planned the route to include Leicester and some of my old bird-watching and sailing haunts in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, sometimes camping in my X-trail and sometimes staying with friends.

First night was a stopover with my Décor Advisor Carolyn, followed the next day by morning coffee with Drinking Ken in Leicester. In the evening I camped on the promenade at Great Yarmouth (quiet at this time of year) and I awoke to a frosty Friday morning and moved on to see nearby Oulton Broad where I spent many happy childhood sailing holidays with my parents and sister (Lorenzo the Llama).

Oulton Broad on a Frosty Morning. Little seems to have changed in 40 years

Next stop was the RSPB Reserve at Minsmere where I spent the day walking around the reserve (and purchased my Christmas cards in the visitor centre). It was a glorious sunny winter day, with the ice on shady parts of the mere still unfrozen from the previous night. I bedded down in the car within walking distance of the Eel's Foot Inn at Eastbridge, right on the periphery of the Minsmere swamps, where a couple of pints of Adnams Real Ale could be enjoyed without further driving.

Reed beds at Minsmere: habitat of Bearded Tit and Bittern

After calling in at Southwold, it was time to locate the tiny village of Kenton in deepest Suffolk to meet up with the first of two old friends from Colchester Royal Grammar School, Stuart, and his wife Christine. Shortly after arrival, a cycle ride to the nearest pub in Debbenham (The Woolpack) was called for. A more detailed account of the ride is found at TCA, here.

Stuart and I set off to "the local". Barney, the cocker spaniel, did not come with us

A Sunday-morning walk in the local countryside with Stuart (during which I harvested a road-killed pheasant that later stewed up well on my camping stove) was followed by a sumptuous Sunday lunch at which another CRGS Old Boy, Howard, with wife Hai-Ying, was present. The next day I headed south into Essex to camp the night near Mersea Island, another location where many happy summer days of sailing used to be enjoyed.

A November evening draws in over the mudflats at Mersea Island

The following day it was time to progress deep into the Essex Marshes at Tolleshunt D'Arcy to meet the second of my school mates, Jeff, and his wife Sue. It was with Jeff that I made my very first foreign trip: a post-A-level jaunt (1962) in a Morris Traveller around France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Andorra. I believe that during the years that have ensued we have bored countless people to tears recounting our adventures on that trip.

Our main objective was to explore the marshes of the River Blackwater estuary on a 10.1 mile trek from Tollesbury to Goldhanger, where Sue kindly collected us and a pub lunch and hot soup was enjoyed, as a prelude to her excellent cooking in the evening.
Jeff and I set off to explore the Blackwater Estuary

The Blackwater at Tollesbury on a calm morning

An afternoon's shooting was also attempted, but strictly with "clay" pigeons!

A final reunion with both Stuart and Jeff, with Christine and Sue, was dinner at the Crown Inn at Stoke-by-Nayland. It is hoped that a chorus of the Old School Song by the three men over liqueurs did not embarrass the girls! Floreat sodalitas - 'tas Colcestriensis!

Jeff, Sue, Stuart, Christine and me at the Crown Inn, Stoke-by-Nayland

I departed with gratitude to both my hosts and with resolutions all round that the next reunions would be in Cumbria.

But that was not the conclusion of my East Anglian sojourn. I had in my pocket a treasured ticket for a dance performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, in the Snape Maltings concert hall, by my favourite ballerina, Sylvie Guillem. Although this was not a classical dance, she was nevertheless superb with her partner Russell Maliphant in the performance of his ballet Push, and additional works. A splendid conclusion to an excellent ten days.

Inside the Snape Maltings concert hall. Once one of the largest barley maltings in East Anglia, it was converted in 1965 into a concert hall for the Aldeburgh Festival

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant dance in Push

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Patagonian Pilgrimage Part Three (of three)

Our final stay in Argentina was on the Valdes Peninsula, which lies about half-way up the East coast - see map three posts down (for those who have seen the remarkable David Attenborough film of killer whales attacking young sea lions on a beach - it is there). Our accommodation was in the grounds of the Faro Punta Delgado, a lighthouse on the south-eastern point of the peninsula. The area was in the heart of the dry desert-like Patagonian Steppes which stretch for hundreds of miles towards the Andes.
Faro Punto Delgada
The location is very close to the spot where the first group of Welsh pioneers landed to found the Welsh Patagonian colony and there is a plaque to commemorate the event.

One of the first missions was to explore the coast for Elephant Seals and other wildlife. Almost upstaging them, however, was a cliff of eroded sedimentary rock strata packed full of fossil marine shellfish (oysters, clams, etc.) dating back to the Tertiary period (3 - 10 million years ago). These may well have been among the fossil deposits encountered by Darwin during his visit to Patagonia in 1832. The presence of these marine fossils (sometimes high above sea level in the interior) were his clue to the actual age of the Earth and the upheavals that occur in the Earth's crust.
Eroded fossil-bearing strata near Punto Delgado

Marine fossils exposed by erosion

Evidence of palaeo- lithic cultures abound in Patagonia

Wildlife of Patagonia

Here are some images of the wildlife of the area

Southern Right Whale with Kelp Gull


Elephant Seal (a young male)

Rock Cormorant

Darwin's Rhea

Mourning Finch

A pair of Mara, a rodent the size of a hare but related to the guinea-pig

Southern Sea Lion

Mole Cricket

Sand Lizard

The climax of our stay at Valdes was a trip to Punto Tombo, a headland to the south of Valdesthat supports thousands of breeding Magellanic Penguins.

Magellanic Penguins steal the show
These few pictures of course represent only a sample of the wonderful diverse wildlife to be found in Patagonia (I recorded 173 birds species alone). It was an eponymous "trip of a lifetime" and I must acknowledge the Travelling Naturalist for such excellent organisation. Thanks in particular our due to our leader Keith Grant and local guides Luis Segura and Marcelo. And finally, a hurrah to fellow group members who made the trip so much fun and so memorable.

Click on the arrow to start the video

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Andes

Patagonian Pilgrimage Part Two (of three)

After Tierra del Fuego we took a flight to El Calafete, up on the Patagonian plateau just to the east of the Andes. The terrain was arid steppe country, with miles of dry scrub and grassland.
The Patagonian steppes in the foothills of the Andes

An important feature of the district was Lago Argentino, the largest lake in Argentina. We stayed at Estancia Alice, a ranch where I was able to hire a mountain bike for a spin along the shore of the lake.

Lago Argentino is in the middle distance with the foothills of the Andes behind

Two days were spent exploring the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares by bus, boat and on foot. Here we were able to see the Andean peaks in their magnificence and approach closely the faces of some of the glaciers poring off the icefields of the Andes.

The Moreno Glacier with Chilean Firebush in the foreground

Below are some pictures of the Moreno, Speggazinia and Upsala Glaciers.

Birds of the area included (apart from little things that lived in the scrub) mighty Andean Condors, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles and in the lake were several sorts of duck, Upland Geese and flocks of the rosy Chilean Flamingoes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tierra del Fuego

Patagonia Pilgrimage Part One (of three)

On the trail of Darwin

My ambition to follow in the trail of the world's greatest ever biologist became fulfilled with a trip to Patagonia with the Travelling Naturalist Company. After arriving in Buenos Aires we took a flight straight down to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the most southerly town in the world at Latitude 55° South. Almost immediately we found birds like Kelp Goose, Upland Goose, Flightless Steamer Duck, Dolphin Gull and Blackish Oystercatchers foraging on the shores of Beagle Channel just by our lodge. (Picture: Charles Darwin as a young biologist).

The southerly town of Ushuaia on Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego dwarfed by the Andes mountains

A handsome male Upland Goose

The rather dapper Dolphin Gull

The shores of Beagle Channel at dawn after a blizzard during the night

The highlight of the visit to Tierra del Fuego was undoubtedly a day-trip by boat out into and some 40 miles along Beagle Channel where stunning views of the mountainous coastline were to be had. Seabirds like Antarctic Fulmar, Black-browed Albatross, Magellanic Diving Petrel, Giant Petrel, Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins were present in the channel. Rocky skerries were covered with breeding cormorants, Southern Sealions and even a few Snowy Sheathbills.

View of the north shore of Beagle Channel

A skerry with breeding King Shags, Southern Sealions and a Snowy Sheathbill (centre)
It was indeed a memorable day to trace the route of the Beagle in which FitzRoy and Darwin had surveyed this Channel in 1832.

Happiness is.... tracing the route of Darwin and FitzRoy

The following day was spent in the Tierra del Fuego National Park and although the weather had closed in a little the stunning beauty if the area was still very much in evidence. The Notophaga beech forest was brightened by the orange flowers of Darwin's Berberis (Berberis darwinii) and the highlight of the day was finding the largest of the world's woodpeckers, the magnifcent and rare black and red Magellanic Woodpecker.

Forest of the Tierra del Fuego National Park

The colourful flowers of Darwin's Berberis. If the berries of this shrub (known in Patagonia as "Calafate") are eaten, is is claimed that you are sure to return to Patagonia. I enjoyed some ice-cream made with this fruit ("Calafate bombon"), so who knows...

The birding highlight of the forest - the iconic Magellanic Woodpecker

The next phase of the trip was to the Patagonian Andes, a land of glaciers and snow-capped mountains.... to follow...