The Farne islands are mostly made up of rock (that sounds like a remarkably stupid comment, but I hope you will understand as you read) – rather stark shards of stone, though some of the larger islands have a heavy head of grass in which puffins have made their burrows. The other islands have mainly guillemots, and cormorants etc with just a few puffins sitting like wooden carving on the top. Should you visit the islands, there are some trips that enable you to get out onto one of them where the puffins have their nests so you can walk amongst the birds (which are cordoned off), and you can spend a an hour just admiring them.

2015 Satanic & Moon 008The boat trip starts with a visit to the rocky outcrops of islands, where the other sea birds were nesting. The guano covering the tops of the cliffs look as though someone had inadvertently dropped a large can of white paint over them. Noisy and odorous to say the least, and I’m glad to say we didn’t stay long around them and soon moved on to Puffin Island, (actual name Staple Island Bird Sanctuary) and it is here you can disembark and walk amongst the birds.

They are quite extraordinary. 2015 Puffins etc 421 - CopyOnce you gain the top of the footpath you find a small number of puffins just standing having their photographs taken – even before you are really up on the top of the headland and at that point there are a large number of people taking numerous photographs. Some of the people there, I am sure never get beyond this ‘landing’ in the path and so don’t see the rest of the island and have the true puffin experience.

As you stand on the island the puffins whir like oversized feathered bumblebees, beaks full of slim fish, whose tails are bright in the sunlight, the fins seeming pushed into the body as though clipped together like a piece of Lego. The puffins land beside the burrows and comically look around. Sometimes walking a few paces before suddenly dropping into their holes as though they have never been.

They are there one moment, and are suddenly not.

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They appear again just as suddenly to gaze at a black-headed gull, perhaps too close for comfort, before suddenly paddling the grass and whirring back low overhead into the sky. Some of the cormorants nest near the landing stage, yellow beaked, throat undulating as they watch the arrival of these peculiar birds whose outline is nothing more than a curve from the tip of the beak back over to the tip of the tail.   There are sudden flocks widelyspaced with birds flying just above your head, wings whirring (they soundlike wound up tin toys), as they turn and twist to land near

2015 Puffins etc 237their holes. Some stand and gaze out to sea; others watch the gulls and gannets. Others drop into the water and bob, little flashes of yellow from their feet beneath, a sharp contrast to the dark blue of the water. They are strange and wonderful, and I feel that like bees they shouldn’t be able to fly – though in their case no one has said they shouldn’t, unlike bumblebees, which I believe aren’t supposed to be able to.

Perhaps 2015 Satanic & Moon 261no one has looked into this – they really are gorgeous, eccentric and unlikely birds. Every year they lose their bright beaks in the winter and at sea and only gain them again when they come in to find a mate and nest. I don’t suppose anyone has ever found a cast off beak – they must sink to the bottom of the ocean, which is a pity – I would love to have one, a unique and very special piece of natural history ephemera…

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We also visited Lindisfarne Castle situated on Holy Island – and a friendlier beautiful castle I have yet to find, though the outside belies the beautiful décor and architecture within. Gorgeous arches leading in two directions, lovely old fire places, and prints adorn the upstairs hall, taken I’m afraid from a probably rare French falconry volume – depicting owls being trained, and a heron hunt. There is also a small reading room looking out to the water. The views in all directions are superb; I have always had a hankering to live right by the sea… The castle looks forbidding from the outside and there is a long walk up to the rock on which the fortification perches, followed by another, steeper climb to the front door, but from then on it is one of the most captivating castles I have visited. It was renovated by Edwin Lutyens – and has distinct Arts and Crafts elements throughout – including a beautiful weather vane. Some way away – is the small walled garden, planted and designed by Gertrude Jekyll – useful, simply and gorgeously designed, but so inconvenient should you want to add some mint to your spuds, or have forgotten to collect some other essential ingredient for your meal. A touching element is the stone and chain affair to ensure the gate closes behind the gardener…

To me though the highlight of the weekend though was the puffins – so unbelievable they really should be part of the fauna of Madagascar…

The Grand Tsingy is an outcrop of limestone escarpment in the west of the island (Bemaraha National Park – Madagascar).

The notes provided by my tour operator (Undiscovered Destinations) stated that though it could be a challenge for some, many felt it was the highlight of the holiday. I wondered long and hard about whether I should go. On walks with Clare in Yorkshire I have been known to balk at a slope, which has been frustrating for everyone concerned.

The group discussed the idea the evening before. There was much laughter. Some it was obvious were fit (one a silver medallist trampolinist), one or two were definitely not. On the whole the gentlemen were ‘up for it’, whilst a good number of the rest of us decided that they preferred to remain at the hotel and to hear of our adventures on our return. There was a lot of laughter when I asked that if we went, and decided we couldn’t go on, if there was a way to return. It became quieter when Ollie our guide said it was a good question. There wasn’t – we would only be able to continue, irrespective of how we felt.

In the middle of the continuing discussions he told me that I’d be fine – and so, I thought I’d give it a go – after all Ollie had

said, he believed I could do it 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 085– and for some bizarre reason, I believed him.We drove to a small clearing and were fitted up with harnesses and then began to walk down the valley, towards a wood we could make out in the distance. I initially followed one of the men, one or two after the local guide. Strangely my harness tightly belted around my waist, and around my thighs didn’t help my nerves that were beginning to make themselves apparent.

I suppose I really began to realise quite what was ahead when after strolling through the wood spotting lemurs we came up against a rock, taller than I, with a smaller stone in front. Stretching my arm up I could just reach the top of the boulder and then put my foot up on the stone, and brought my now wobbly other leg up, past the first to near where my hand was…and scrambled to the top. The start of the Tsingy proper, I suppose, and the start of many scrambles. Most of the rocks at this stage were just round heavy boulders, with the odd tree growing between them, others were thin, incredibly hard slices of very thin limestone…

I began to think of ‘now’, rather than think about what was around me; where to put my foot this time and not to look down into the hole that seemed too deep, or at the vertical slithers of stone rising beneath me. Then there were the times where I didn’t know what to do next. Where was I supposed to put my hand, and then a panic, to call out that I didn’t know what to do with my other foot, the first balanced precariously cross-wise across a piece of thin hard sheer limestone, the fear in my voice becoming clearer as I began to wonder if I was actually going to manage this, or be the first person left, hanging onto a sheet of limestone…which was when Charlie the local guide, quietly took over.

Carefully and patiently he told me what to do. Where to put my feet, my hands, when to move quickly and with the confidence that Ollie (our wonderful Undiscovered guide), had shown the previous night (‘You can do it.’) and with some

determination encouraged me to clip onto 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 119the cables, then to unclip again – which always seemed a very silly thing to do. He showed me the small rocks bolted to the sheer limestone, making small stepping-stones, rising up the sheer limestone until we reached the viewing point, a few hours later.

Actually probably only two or three perhaps, I suppose, though for me, that climb took all day, except it didn’t.

The viewing platform was made of wooden rough posts and planks with a nice waist high horizontal barrier and a view that was astonishing. In the far distance I could just make out a plant that had managed to grow

right up above the tops of the trees that we were looking down on. 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 115Charlie gleefully took photos, and then came the problem of coming down from the platform, which I did, using that wonderful piece of anatomy designed for such times and slithered on my bottom until my feet could find a ‘stable’ starting point to begin the transverse across the escarpment.

Once more Charlie guided my feet and ensured the front of the group were moving (there were times when I wanted just to ‘stop’ and never move again), and Ollie brought up the rear with a nonchalance that was embarrassing. Not long after the first viewing point, I was offered another, but declined and with a rare burst of confidence asked Charlie if over the ridge was the much talked of rope ladder, and boldly left the group to climb over one of the edges to find the bridge hanging over space. That was something I suddenly found would be easy. A doddle – One or two of the early planks were a little irregular, but the others were clearly in place and I thoroughly enjoyed walking the bridge – somehow my fear there diminished considerably. I was quite chuffed with myself, and having not taken any photos for some time (my mind had become very focused, I was pleased to have had Charlie offer to take my camera after the first viewing point, he took some lovely photos, including one of me in the middle of the bridge. On the other side I was surprised to see a second, shorter

bridge and was pleased to be able to stride 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 106over that, but came abruptly to a halt to wait for Charlie again as a new cable twisted down the side of one of the slices of rock and I really wasn’t sure again. The darkness beneath my feet between the shards of limestone suddenly looked very black.

The Internet has photographs of some of the lemurs we saw at the beginning holding on to pieces of limestone, in the midst of the Grand Tsingy. Usually an element of ‘animal’ has the effect of distracting me enough to deal with the ditch or slope. We didn’t see any, or at least none was indicated to me whilst we were navigating our way around the shards of limestone. I’m absurdly pleased about

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 133 - Copythat. I’m not sure I’d have seen them, certainly not enough to have appreciated them. Unless of course they had been sitting delightfully on the rope ladder…

We crawled through some tight passageways, and at one point working around one piece holding on as I did with everything (including I think my toes, even though they were encased in my foot-ware), I was astonished to find the sheer limestone sheet was too hot to handle and complained to Charlie, who just said, ‘Quickly quickly, it’s the sun, on the stone…’

I will never go pot holing – I have never thought that being underground was a good idea.

I have however, crawled on my hands and knees through a cave (a short distance, but it was a cave, and I did), and squeezed through rocks almost too close for me to get through.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 095I have glanced up with my torch, and seen a large moth, sitting against the roof of the cave, its red eyes glinting in the light. I have also fed a small Madagascan rat, most of a

chicken sandwich, which to be honest I really didn’t want or 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 145need. I have sat in that cave whilst the guides went back to help someone else in the group who got into trouble (he fainted and arrived a few minutes later), and have smiled and laughed at myself.

Apart from bruises where I braced myself too hard against the limestone, I have climbed The Grand Tsingy and arrived unscathed,hot and emotionally exhausted on a path above a small ravine and walked back up to the clearing with a rest in the sun part way, as I wondered about what I had just done, until I reached the coach and was helped from my harness.

I have climbed The Grand Tsingy – not everyone has done that.

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We travelled around Madagascar in a small coach, and whilst we were in the West of the country in four by fours. After our trip around the Grand Tsingy we climbed into these to make our way back to our hotel, not a great distance away and I was really looking forward to just sitting on the veranda of my chalet and watching the evening come in.

Brian who’s bride had decided the trip to the Grand Tsingy was not for her accompanied me in my four by four and we both relaxed as our driver started to navigate the murrain roads back. We had become used to large holes in the road, some of which stretched from one side to the other and were often deep and filled with the soil-red coloured water. Which can be disconcerting. We didn’t have any trouble really, sometimes we would take a ‘water jump’ twice if the car refused – but we

became if anything a bit blasé until this journey, when we rounded a corner in2015 Madagascar Red Camera 160 murrain track to find it had become nothing more than a bog, stretching from one side to the other, with vegetation and forest preventing a new path being made.

The car swung from side to side, slipped rapidly and we tried again. Suddenly we reversed back up a side road whilst the others tried, their higher axels enabling them to forge through the mud. We tried again. Mud sprayed everywhere. Out of the blue the track was surrounded by local Malagasy, women with children on their backs, heavy loads on the heads stood back to watch, young men shouted at our driver – he shouted back. The other drivers returned to give suggestions and young boys materialised out of the bush and stopped to watch. Small toddlers ran around the back of the four by four as the wheels spun and it slid violently from side to side. We started a roller coaster ride, but it seemed at every attempt our driver wasn’t doing something that someone thought he should, and as is the way of the world, everyone had a different idea…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 163A small boy aged around four or five with a bright yellow t-shirt and very little else suddenly stood close to our back window. Very tentatively he raised his hand in a shallow shy wave, so I waved back really enthusiastically. He grinned and waved some more. So I stuck my tongue out at him and he grinned even more, if that were possible, and stuck his out and we started a non-verbal conversation together through the glass as our car swung back and forth. With no warning he turned tail and bolted into the forest.

There was more talking, more reversing, back and forth, everyone helping, and I was becoming increasingly tired after an already long day, when suddenly I spotted a boy whom I think of as ‘the hunter’. He stood a little back from the rest; face very serious, shorts and a cap on his head were the only clothes he was wearing. He was carrying though, a small packet, held in place by a long piece of cord over one shoulder, so it lay flat against his opposing hip and he stood with a catapult in his right hand, well used, and ready.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 162He looked for all the world as though he was wondering what we were doing there on his land, a little aloof, and certainly very serious. I watched him for a while, as I took photographs of the turmoil out of the windows as everyone tried to help us out of the mud, when the car wheels span wildly and a spray of mud flew up from the back wheels and obviously covered someone, I assume someone important, or at least someone who thought they were, and ‘my’ hunter laughed and laughed, his grin splitting his face for pure joy…then he remembered where he was and became serious again…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 164Not long after that one of the slim finely built Malagasy young men walked in front of the car and taking a long hoe like tool started to dig the central mass of mud away, swinging the tool over his head and flicking the mud into the two deep tracks that had been made by the wheels, slowly lowering the mud in front of the axel and raising the height of the mud where the wheels would go. Wearing just long shorts he worked methodically, and quickly, the tool he used could only be about five inches across the blade but it was obviously a very efficient piece of equipment. He became muddier and muddier as he worked until he seemed to have a second skin of mud coating him. The other Malagasy stood and watched periodically commenting. After a while one of the drivers started to help and I thought we might get back to the hotel before dark.

Watching through the window I was startled to see my yellow t-shirted friend was back, standing close to the car again and watching. I waved, he waved, and we both grinned. I realised that he was standing very close to the side of the car, and was worried he might get pulled under the wheels, so I raised my hands and ‘pushed’ away from me and he nodded and stepped back a good six feet, but looked rather sad… Just as we started up again, I realised why, I think he thought I wasn’t going to ‘say’ goodbye and so turned to him just as our wheels at last made contact with more solid earth and waved frantically at him and his face bloomed into an enormous smile and he waved too; both of us looking slightly demented, but both understanding more than could be said without words…

We crossed two rivers on our trip, both in the West of the country on our way to and returning back from the Bemaraha National Park. We arrived at the bank of the river sand running down to the water to find that our ferry, that had been booked had been snatched from under our noses, by another group. An irritation that I think bothered Ollie and the drivers more than it did us – we were able to people watch and spent a lot of time sitting in the slightly cooler four by fours waiting for the return of the ferry. The only problem we had there was that there were some very large and to be honest quite evil looking insects that flew around and periodically entrapped themselves in the vehicles. These were large, black and seemed to be flying vertically with the majority of their bodies hanging down below them with the head and thorax horizontally above. Though advised there was nothing in Madagascar that could cause us harm, I felt these in particular, along with the scorpion we were introduced to, should be given a very wide berth.

We waited I suppose about an hour before the ferry returned, with about four large four by fours lined up on the wooden pontoon. The ferry was brought to the side of the bank and a couple of ramps made out of iron were dragged from them

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 046and tied somewhat haphazardly to the edges, and wedged into the sand. Without a by your leave, but with some care, the drivers drove off the wooden pontoons and onto the ramps, across to the sand, where they pulled themselves up with their engines revving. The ramps were then shoved along so that they were ready for the next four by four, once more tied with bits of cord to the pontoon, and the whole process was repeated again, and again for each vehicle.

To load, the principle was in reverse, and was not a little disturbing – especially if you were in the car, which had to be evenly distributed with weight – the drivers seeming without thought ran their cars down onto the rails and with a lot of energy drove quickly onto the ferry, throwing their breaks on at the last minute to prevent them from driving off the other side…

Once loaded the whole thing was propelled down the river by an outboard motor – run by a Malagasy man who controlled the engine with his feet, periodically dousing the engine with water, his legs and feet slowly getting coated with fuel whilst black smoke regularly engulfed that end of the pontoons…It took some while to cross, and we took great pleasure in watching another ferry returning like ours heavily laden with four by four vehicles, their tourist passengers standing next to

them along with locals, with small children at hand looking beautiful as 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 051they waited for the ferry to dock, when they would stride off the ferry, baskets and bags carefully balanced on their heads, small children running ahead…

Once on a smaller crossing we did the whole thing in the dark, arriving after a long day’s drive, the ‘port’ lit by lights from the headlights of traffic coming and going. That was more disconcerting…but as usual our drivers did us proud and with a quick rev of the engines we were up the other bank and on our way to our hotel.

The following day after our trip to the Grand Tsingy we had the opportunity to attempt the Petite – lower and less arduous, they said. I thought I had done enough really to ‘challenge’ myself after the Grand, and said I would sit that one out, which I did. Probably a wise decision, my legs ached abominably four – five days or so after the Grand; I think because they had been going into spasm whilst I was climbing.

The evening after the Grand Tsingy, we discussed as we did each night the following day’s fun and games. It was then that I said I had thought I had challenged myself enough, but was interested to hear what else we would be doing in the afternoon after the others had returned. It seemed we were to do something remarkably dangerous – We were to be punted down a river. Jane asked if she could do some punting and was told that this wasn’t possible. Immediately we asked why not. ‘It’s dangerous,’ was the response.

At which point I started laughing hysterically, which confused poor Ollie. When I explained that that day’s efforts to get me around the Grand Tsingy was actually very dangerous, he looked puzzled. ‘But you see, the river, it has crocodiles…’ he said.

My reply was to ask how many, and what was the chance of meeting one. About 10% – they don’t come near where we were to go, but even so, the trip was dangerous, and there would be no chance of Jane attempting to punt us down the river. I did think that after that day’s adventures that I just might have smacked a Nile crocodile on the nose, should I have met one…but the chance was not to be.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 272Actually it was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip. The river was wide and calm. We saw a kingfisher and our punters were expert. The boats were a little disconcerting. Two long thin crafts tied at both ends with bits of cord and planks just dropped on the top of the edges of the boats on which to sit…

The purpose of the trip was to see a grave high in the cliff that rose over the river, the polished skulls of the remains

glowing out from 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 278the sacred burial site high above our heads. We stopped too to climb into a cave, the sands slipping under our sandals as we navigated away from the boats. Some of the others climbed higher into the cave, however I voted to stay where we were looking out onto the boats, until encouraged to crouch down and to make my way further into the cave to view small bats that fluttered around our heads and the stone formations within. It was a beautifully peaceful day after the challenges of the previous one.