Feet First Australia

exploring Australia (and sometimes further afield) on foot

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Shooting Birds

Some bushwalkers approach every hike as a boot camp challenge, treading from A to B as fast as possible and paying only passing attention to the kaleidoscope of colours and textures, flora and fauna, and the geological artistry on show around them and underfoot. But not me. I stop so often for the views, the smooth, coarse, peeling, scribbled tree trunks and tangled canopies, the prettily patterned fern fronds, the insects on wildflowers and fungi on mossy logs and moist ground, that I rarely finish a walk within the time suggested in park notes and on park signs.

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Setting aside my 10-year old Nikon D300 DSLR camera last year (parts no longer available) for a LUMIX G9 mirrorless – thanks for suggesting this upgrade Ewen Bell – has considerably lightened my photographic load when bushwalking; I frequently check my camera bag because it feels as if I have left my camera somewhere back along the track. But pairing the G9 with a Panasonic Leica 100-400mm zoom lens has slowed me down even further, because now I photograph birds!


The big lens doesn’t accompany me on every hike, and rarely on overnight pack walks, even though the combined weight of the G9, 12-35mm lens and zoom is less than my old DSLR with standard lens. But it is ideal on walks promising bird life, such as the Sale Wetlands loop in Victoria’s central Gippsland region.

images feather 1It took me five hours to complete this flat 15km walk from the Port of Sale, around town lakes and down through wetlands to the historic swing bridge over the Thomson River.


Here’s why:

New Holland honeyeaters



red cheeked wattlebirds


scarlet honeyeater


Sale butcherbird VIC 2018 P1025368 1butcher bird


little wattlebird

The Sale Wetlands walk is mapped, photographed and described in detail in Top Walks in Victoria, the 2nd edition of which is due out later this year.



Doff your cap to a classic Tasmanian hike

A landmark for colonial-era sailing ships navigating Tasmania’s west coast, and convicts mounting escape attempts from brutal Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, Frenchman’s Cap first appeared on my radar in the early 1990s, when I swam (naked and goose-bumped) in the Franklin River to celebrate its escape from being dammed for hydroelectric power.

Frenchmans Cap TAS MEL_9128Strung above the rocky shore from which I waded into the near-freezing water was a flying fox that carried walkers and packs across the river. Hikers losing fingers in its mechanism saw the flying fox replaced with the suspension bridge I crossed a quarter of a century later to begin the multi-day hike to the top of the quartzite dome that crowns Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Some bushwalkers bag the 50km-return Frenchman’s Cap hike in three days, making a push for the top on a long, hard day walk from Lake Vera. But the weather in this part of the world can change suddenly and dramatically so allowing four or five days, with a night/s at Lake Tahune, at the base of Frenchman’s, gives you more opportunities to summit – and longer at the top if you make it. You’ll need 6 days to do a guided trek with Tasmanian Expeditions (www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au), as I did, thinking it unwise and unsafe to tackle this adventure hike solo.

And I’m glad I didn’t go alone, for the route is littered with hazards obvious and unapparent. Early on our first day, on a benign section of track (compared with what was to come), a group member slid two metres down a bank into a creek and (we later learned) cracked three vertebrae. Our guides Maddy and Will teamed brilliantly, organising John’s after-dark evacuation by helicopter and getting the rest of us to camp.

Day 1: 15.7km (4-6.5 hours) Carpark to Lake Vera Hut

On day one, we negotiated the Franklin and Loddon rivers, boggy button grass plains, stands of eucalypts, she oaks, wattles, and pockets of rainforest suggestive of Middle Earth in Lord of the Ring, on boot-wide suspension bridges, gravel tracks, boardwalks, roughly rooted ground, rock and wooden steps, and the Laughton’s Lead reroute.

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Opened in 2013 as part of an ongoing 10-year track upgrade jointly funded by entrepreneur Dick Smith and the Tasmanian Government, 4.6km-long Laughton’s Lead detours the infamous “sodden Loddons”, on-line photographs of which show hikers hauling companions out of thigh-deep bogs!

Views of the surrounding ranges and the distinctive quartzite dome named for its perceived likeness, from some angles, to the Liberty cap worn during the French Revolution (1789–1799), lured us southwest to Lake Vera Hut.

Day 2: 7km (4-6 hours) Lake Vera to Lake Tahune

Day two kicked off with a memorable walk-cum-clamber along Lake Vera’s boulder-strewn and root-entwined north-west shore, navigating logs slippery with moss and lichens and tree-trunk ladders with no handholds – a kilometre of careful foot placements through a fairyland of greens that took more than an hour.

Then the climbing started: about 400m in altitude over 3km, to Barron Pass. This grandstand lunch spot, nestled between pointed peaks, overlooks a lake-jewelled valley surrounded by mountains painted red and gold with fagus (deciduous beech) in autumn.

From there, we traversed the steep south-west face of Sharland’s Peak (1140m) before the track flattened out across a plateau planted with skeletal King Billy pines killed in a devastating 1960s bushfire. This leg of the walk gifted us a panorama of the Overland Track ridgeline and a daunting view of tomorrow’s route up Frenchman’s Cap.

Steep ladders took us down to Lake Tahune hut (2018) at its foot.

Day 3: 4.8km return (3-5 hours) Summit

It’s only 4.8km return but an almost non-stop climb to the top of Frenchman’s Cap from Lake Tahune, initially through fagus and pandani (the world’s tallest heath) then up a scree slope and rocky tiers. Part way up there’s a chute with narrow handholds which several members of our group, including me, couldn’t climb solo, so it took teamwork to get everyone beyond this spot.


The view from the summit, roughly the size of a footy oval and sloped southwards to a precipitous drop, is worth every challenging step to get there. On a perfect day you can see the Southern Ocean but moody grey sky and snow drifts added physical and visual drama to what awaited us.

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We later learned that our evacuated companion underwent surgery in Hobart for his broken back as we stood there, surrounded by multiple shades of blue Wilderness.

Days 4 and 5

Some people set out from Lake Tahune in the dark to catch sunrise from atop Frenchman’s Cap. An alternative option is to begin day 4 before dawn and take in sunrise from the plateau above the hut. After our grey day on the mountain, the sun put on a spectacular show for our departure, rising behind the Overland Track ridgeline and illuminating the quartzite dome behind us.

From there we backtracked to Lake Vera for the night and walked out the following day along the same route we trod on day 1.

Frenchmans Cap TAS MEL_9166The group celebrated surviving the Frenchman’s Cap hike with a scrumptious burger at the Hungry Wombat Café in Derwent Bridge (gateway to Lake St Clair), about 25km east on the Lyell Highway from the Frenchman’s parking area.


Tasmanian Expeditions’s 6-day Frenchman’s Cap Trek operates January to May. The cost of $1795.00 per person includes 4 dinners, 5 lunches and 4 breakfasts, minibus transfers from/to Launceston, and national park fees. Go to http://www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au

I was a guest of Tasmanian Expeditions.

The Frenchman’s Cap trek is described in detail in my third book, Top Walks in Tasmania, published by Explore Australia and available on line.


Foot-Sure in the Snow

Having tried downhill skiing as a young woman – I fell off International Poma, at Falls Creek in Victoria’s high country, part way up, and lacking the confidence or experience to ski down the run I walked up the slope carrying my skis, reaching the top too weary to tackle any slope other than the gentle Home Run back to our chalet – and cross country skiing more recently, I have found the white season alpine sport for me and others happiest on their own two feet.

Last Friday, Lake Mountain turned on the perfect late winter day for me to tread the 5km Snow Shoe Trail, an easy loop through regenerating snow gums and across heath plains thick with snow sparkling in the sun.

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I first encountered snow shoes at 16 when I visited Canada with my Dad. I didn’t try the sport then but bought a pair of traditional children’s snow shoes (the adult ones were too big to bring home). Resembling elongated tennis racquets, with wooden frames criss-crossed with strips of animal hide, these travel souvenirs hung on my bedroom wall for years.

The snow shoes I hired on Lake Mountain last Friday were very different beasts. Made of red plastic – I was never going to strap on the blue alternative – with metal studs, they were about 25cm wide and 40cm long and, unlike pesky skis, didn’t slide anywhere when I placed one foot in front of the other!

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One of the many things I love about bushwalking is getting away from civilisation and crowds and, I’ve now discovered, I can escape snow-loving crowds wearing snow shoes. The glorious weather had attracted hundreds of tobogganers and cross-country skiers to Lake Mountain but I was mostly alone on the well-signed snow shoe trail that loops east out of the village/resort and then north, within a network of groomed cross-country trails. Trailing yeti-like footprints, I walked for two hours through the skeletons of snow gums killed in the Black Saturday fires and the leafy, green-and-yellow barked sapling eucalypts growing among them, and across heath plains pillowed with snow cut through here and there with creeks and patched with ice-crusted pools.

While I saw skiers through the trees and heard others, for much of the time the only sound was the snow crunching beneath my feet and the thumps of branches weighed down with snow dumping their load on the ground and rebounding skywards.

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Back in the busy village, noisy with tobogganers and builders of snowmen, I assumed that the popular 800m uphill walk to the top of Lake Mountain would be groomed and removed my snow shoes for the climb. I was right, and safely negotiated the summit track and the uncleared short detour to Marysville Lookout, for tree-framed views over the valleys and town.

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The snow on the 300m side trail to the Alps View, which I can only assume was stunning, was deep, however, and after sinking up to my thighs several times within a few metres I reluctantly gave up and, cursing my foolishness in abandoning my trusty red weight spreaders, and too tired to climb back up again wearing them, I headed back down the hill.

A snow shoe convert, I climbed into my car and headed home to spread the word.


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Falling for Tasmanian Waterfalls

Tasmania is so flush with natural wonders it’s a wonder the island state isn’t brash and boastful. Rather than spruik its wares like an over-loud footpath vendor, however, Tasmania lures you across Bass Strait with hints of treasures and then enthrals.

Tasmania enthrals with beaches imprinted by sea birds and fringed with turquoise shallows; dripping rainforests thick with mosses and lichens; windswept moors where flora and fauna hug the ground; wilderness accessible only by the adventurous and determined (and escapable only by the well prepared and lucky). And with a cornucopia of waterfalls.

Waterfalls of Tasmania, a community of volunteers endeavouring to visit and document every cascade in the state, has documented 132 of the 230 known falls so far – cascades that burble through boulders, pour over tiers and plummet off escarpments. And the best time to see them, and lick spray off your lips, is after winter rains and as the snow begins to melt.

Some of Tasmania’s waterfalls are visible from roadside lookouts; most involve a leg stretch. Five of my favourites are:

Marriott’s Falls (Hobart region)

Marriotts Falls FotoJetA near neighbour of the better-known waterfalls in Mt Field National Park, Hobart’s forest and mountain playground, Marriott’s Falls is a scenic 70-minute drive from the state capital via the road to Lake Pedder.

An easy 6km return walk takes you downstream beside the rocky Tyenna River and then briefly cross-country, past a gnarled old acacia, and up into the verdant moss forest where Marriott’s Creek, a Tyenna tributary, falls more than 10m over a hanging garden of curved stone.

This is a beautiful walk on a misty day, when the forest drips and the greenery glows.


Liffey Falls (Launceston region)

Liffey Falls FotoJet

Many people’s pick as the state’s prettiest waterfall – a big call! – Liffey Falls pours over sandstone tiers at the north-east foot of the Great Western Tiers within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

An easy 2km-return walk from the upper car park is the shortest route to the falls but an easy-moderate 10km return walk from the lower car park and camping area, much of it on old logging track, immerses you in the lush regrowth forest enfolding the Meander River and its cascades.

Photogenic fungi thrive in damper weather and can dramatically slow progress on this walk.


Meander Falls (Launceston region)

Meander Falls FotoJet

Born in the Great Western Tiers, the Meander River launches itself off the dolerite escarpment and down a precipitous cliff as Meander Falls.

The 10km return walk (4-5 hours) to this dramatic drop, about 30km south of Deloraine, is a steady climb on a very rocky track that demands you place every foot with care. (The alternative longer loop, returning via Split Rock, involves lots of rock clambering across a scree slope.)

Winter ice and snow make this walk challenging but the falls can freeze in winter, rewarding experienced and well-prepared hikers with an unforgettable sight.


Montezuma Falls (west)

Montezuma Falls FotoJet

Tasmania’s longest single-drop falls (104m) is named not after Mexico’s last Aztec Emperor but the mine that won gold and silver, the treasures of the Aztec empire, from the surrounding hills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The 11km return walk to the falls, from just outside Rosebery, follows the route of the old North East Dundas Tramway. Virtually flat and often muddy – the local average rainfall is 3m! – the track passes through multiple cuttings floored with old sleepers, walled with mossy stone and roofed with lacy forest.

You can walk all the way to the foot of the falls but the best, if slightly wobbly, view is from a narrow suspension bridge strung across the gorge just below the drop.


Philosopher Falls (west)

Philosopher Falls FotoJet

The lush, leafy world in which you find Philosopher Falls, in western Tasmania, an hour’s drive south of Burnie, epitomises the takayna/Tarkine: verdant, complex, ancient and precious.

The 90-minute return walk starts on a good track that zigzags downhill through ancient tree ferns, native pines, sassafras, myrtle beech and leatherwoods. A flatter walk continues downstream from a bridge over the Arthur River, following an old water race.

Several hundred steps then descend to a platform overlooking a multi-tiered drop named after James “Philosopher” Smith, who discovered tin hereabouts in 1871 (but not so close these falls were destroyed). Smith’s find gave birth to Tasmania’s mining industry and saved its troubled economy.


All these walks are described in detail and mapped in my new book, Top Walks in Tasmania (published by Explore Australia), due out in September this year.


What are your favourite Tasmanian waterfalls! I’d love to hear.

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Keen for a Winter Walk? Head to Tasmania!

Don’t delay going bushwalking in Tasmania because the island state has a reputation for harsh winter weather. While many of the classic walks are snowbound, and suited only to experienced hikers, hundreds of kilometres of less challenging cold-weather leg stretches await you. (The oysters are at their best in winter too!)

One way to appreciate Tasmania’s winter on foot is to explore the coast; five of my favourite coastal walks are:

Three Capes Track – 46km, one-way – moderate

Tasmania’s southeast coast can be wild and woolly in winter but that only makes its heath covered moors and sea cliffs, the tallest in Australia, even more spectacular. The 4-day lodge-based Three Capes Track is over-engineered in places, and some may welcome the occasional legs that aren’t stepped or boardwalked, but the scenery will leave you open mouthed and each day’s walk ends at welcoming rain- and wind-proof accommodation.


Freycinet Peninsula Circuit – 42km, 4 days – moderate-hard

There’s much more to Freycinet than its headlining Wineglass Bay. Circumnavigating the east-coast peninsula on foot takes you through she-oak and eucalypt forests, around pink granite boulders festooned with lichens, along white beaches impressed with the footprints of plovers and oystercatchers, and over mountain tops presenting dramatic 360o views over land and sea. Sheltered camp sites protect you from some weather but beware the possums, which have learned to undo pack zips to find food!


The Docks to Killiecrankie – 8km A-to-B – easy-moderate

Boulders burnished orange with lichen feature in every photo spread of Flinders Island, off Tasmania’s northeast coast, and rock is the star of this Bass Strait island walk. There are cliffs that attract rock climbers with pitches called Toblerone and Trust Me I’m An Idiot; natural granite paving; rock formations resembling modern artworks and intergalactic travellers; and a layered, fractured archway cut by the sea.


Rocky Cape to Sisters Beach – 19km loop – Moderate (with lots of rock hopping)

Rewarding the careful step work necessary to navigate the rocky coastline injury-free, this all-day loop hike through Rocky Cape National Park takes you from treeless hills gifting views east and west along Tasmania’s north coast to shoreline paved with fingers of paper-thin layered rock reaching into the sea. Along the way you visit caves once used by local aborigines and pass through Tasmania’s only stand of saw banksias.


South Cape Bay – 15km return – easy

Treading the South Coast Track in winter tests endurance and survival skills, but it’s worth driving as far southwest as roads go in Tasmania to tread the first/last leg of the famous wilderness trek. Leaving from Cockle Creek, this walk meanders through eucalypt forest and traverses button grass moors on its way to a shaly black bluff overlooking the Southern Ocean, South Cape Bay, and South East Cape, continental Australia’s southernmost landmass.

Have you got other favourite winter walks in Tasmania? Tell me about them.

These five walks are described in detail and mapped in my new book, Top Walks in Tasmania, published by Explore Australia, due out September 2018.









Treading a different Spanish trail

The Camino de Santiago is not the only walk in Spain. And, while online and printed travel blogs and journalism can suggest otherwise, kilometres of walking trails across the country lead to places other than Santiago de Compostela. 

The following is an article I wrote about walking in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, almost as far from the well-trodden pilgrims’ route as you can get.

Buying 3kg of Spanish weaving is a foolish final preparation for a two-day walk in the Sierra Nevada. But the blanket, worked in green, red, yellow, white and black, will perfectly cover our cat-shredded settee at home, so my new husband chivalrously offers to carry the souvenir in his backpack over the 26.5 kilometres ahead.

Simon and I have come to Las Alpujarras, the valleys and ravines on the Sierra Nevada’s southern flank, at the end of our honeymoon, for a taste of rural Spain after overindulging in cities. And the mountain town of Pampaneira, where we disembark the Granada bus, could not be more different from the Andalucian city that wears the Alhambra as its crown. Pampaneira’s modest landmark is the steeple of the whitewashed 16th century Iglesia de Santa Cruz.

A prosperous silk-producing region during Muslim times and the last Moorish stronghold after Granada fell to the Reconquista in 1492, Las Alpujarras was repopulated by Christians from northern Spain, yet its white towns retain their Berber look. Facing south, away from the worst weather, two-storey houses with flat roofs and chimneypots are wedged shoulder-to-shoulder along twisting alleys. And a few steps from the shops and cafes around Pampaneira’s Plaza de la Libertad, villagers still live in first-floor rooms above their animals and manure smears cobbles outside wooden ground-floor doors.

Pampaneira was almost blindingly white in the sun shining on our arrival but it’s raining now so I hug my paper-wrapped blanket protectively and splash back to our iron bed on terra cotta tiles in Hostal Pampaneira (www.hostalpampaneira.com/en/). In the hotel restaurant, through a door off the busier bar, we tuck into croquettas, rabbit casserole and honeyed eggplant under the glassy stare of a wall-mounted boar’s head.

Ours is the gentler, and lower altitude, of two Alpujarras walks in Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Spain” guide, a walk on village trails and way-marked long-distance footpaths through towns, farms and national park. With hiking poles, guidebook pages and maps bought in Madrid, we set off after breakfast, climbing from Pampaneira (1055m) to Bubion (1300m), the second of three towns stepped up Poqueira Ravine. Above us are only Capileria and the Sierra’s autumn snow.

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Having taken a last look at the three white towns from a ridgetop (1809m) – and caught our breaths – we enter pine and oak forest, emerging from trees above a broader valley, all green leaves and golden poplars beneath blue sky and wisps of white cloud. Pumpkin patches and leafy corn stalks and trees thick with mulberries and almonds line our way. Dogs bark. Roosters crow. Simon yelps when he turns his ankle on a hard, green walnut hidden under softly spiked fallen chestnuts. (We should have worn boots rather than walking sandals and runners.)

Red geraniums and strings of drying peppers festoon the houses in tiny Capilerilla and Pitres, where it’s market day. We buy oranges in front of the village church before refuelling with cheese-and-tomato bocadillos (sandwiches) at the nearby bar.

Fifteen minutes further on foot is Mecina, the largest of three clustered villages. Leaving Simon to rest his ankle in Hotel de Mecina Fondales (http://hoteldemecina.com/), I continue, down through Mecinilla and Fondales, and more steeply down a muddy track to an Islamic-era stone bridge over Rio Trevelez.

Daydreaming about the bridge builders, the men who worked the adjoining ruined mill, and the people and animals that have crossed it since, I am nearly skittled by five mountain bikers careering through history.

We have booked dinner at L’Atelier (https://www.facebook.com/lateliervegrestaurant/), a vegetarian guesthouse and cooking school on Mecina’s edge. Then-chef/owner Jean-Claude Juston greets our marginally early arrival with stereotypical French censure, “This a guesthouse, not a hotel!” But between seating us and retrieving menus from his kitchen, he becomes a charmer. He soon proves his culinary prowess, too, with chestnut soup (“I gathered them this morning,”); parcels of spinach, pinenuts, onion, raisins, rosewater and cinnamon; and a vegetable paella as delicious as the seafood one in Madrid’s Plaza Major was disappointing.

A stroll to the town of Busquistar first thing on day two warms us up for the zigzag cobbled walk down to the river and up the far side in the footsteps of silk traders and pack animals, like the handsome donkey at the road junction up top.

With Simon choosing the ankle-kinder bitumen route to the next town, I solo down to Notaez, a hamlet below a red bluff from which a mountain goat with don’t-mess-with-me horns observes my descent: through aromatic wild thyme, fennel, and rosemary, past olive groves, grape vines and vegetable beds. I walk to the rhythm of irrigation waters and sheep bells.

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The track beyond Notaez is poorly marked and I briefly lose my way but a prickly uphill scramble to rejoin the track is rewarded with a walker’s-only view of the town of Castaras, sat on a rocky outcrop ringed with poplars. I rejoin Simon outside the lone bar, behind the church, and watch a dog move grudgingly from the middle of the road four times to let cars pass during a lunch of crusty bocadillos.

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A woman patiently waits for me to photograph the age-old village spring in Nieles before collecting the water she needs for her kitchen, and from there we start up and down. The air is ripe with quinces and sheep. We pick a pomegranate and eat its juicy seeds. Then we are wading across Rio Guadalfeo and starting our last climb.

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I am relieved to reach Alqueria de Morayma (www.alqueriamorayma.com/en/) but equally sad, for foolishly we have booked only one night in this renovated farm complex before an early bus.

Our timber-beamed room is too small to swing a jamon and the only barrier between sleeping area and bathroom is an Alpujarras woven curtain much like my recent purchase, but we need nothing more except a shower followed by refreshment in the main house.

The barman easily persuades us to toast our walk with the property’s organic syrah and as we drink, four people behind us chat over a shared plate of fish and an older couple reads beside the crackling fire. Worn farm implements hang on the walls and long-life eco bulbs illuminate old lanterns.

Dinner starts with jamon, olives and cheese. Pumpkin and yabby soup follows. And the chicken cooked with fig, quince and prunes is, Simon declares between mouthfuls, “As good a plate of food as I’ve ever had.”

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Twenty four hours after spooning the last crème caramel and boozy sultanas from a terra cotta pot in the old farmhouse, we are in Cordoba’s Parador hotel, drinking Pedro Ximenez and watching satellite television, both of us wishing we were back in the mountains.


Alsina Graells/ALSA (www.alsa.es/en/) operates buses to the Alpujarras; Granada to Pampaneira takes 2h and the return trip, from Cadiar to Granada (passengers can board at Alqueria de Morayma’s front gate) takes 3h.


If finding your own maps and plotting your own route sounds too much like hard work, you can join a wonderful self-guided walking tour of the Alpujarras with Outdoor Travel:



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Watching My Step on African Shores

Ten minutes’ walk from where ceiling fans stir potted plants as diners savour steak brochette and seafood bisque, women wrapped in multicoloured fabrics wade out from a riverbank slimy and stinking from decades of drying and salting fish, to meet a pirogue returning with a late catch. Such are the disparities of life in Saint-Louis, in the Republic of Senegal.  And herein lay the frustrations and fascinations of this West African country.

dsc_1763Senegal The Ghambia

Senegal meets few of the requisites for a relaxing holiday or a “normal” honeymoon. Travelling is not easy here, even in a group; rather, my new husband and I are visiting Senegal, and the Gambia, which it enfolds, for an adventure in cultures very different from our own.

Day three of a two-week Peregrine tour of Senegal and The Gambia puts eight travellers and guide Mohammed in a Toyota Coaster heading north from Senegal’s sprawling capital, Dakar. (Peregrine’s ground tour operated only this once; they now run adventure cruise tours that do not visit Saint-Louis.) Sharing the smooth-ish bitumen with donkey carts, trucks, and crowded public mini-buses with live sheep on their roofs, we drive through towns swamped by plastic rubbish and bristling with satellite dishes, and pass clusters of solar panel-capped thatched huts set amid harvest-ready corn and millet. We see countless weaver birds attending bauble-like nests on acacias and a trio of vultures hunched over road-kill before we cross Gustave Eiffel-designed Pont (bridge) Faidherbe and stop outside Hotel de la Poste in Saint-Louis.

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Founded in 1659, on the river island of N’Dar, Saint-Louis was the first permanent French settlement in Africa. It became a wealthy centre for trade in goods and slaves, with a vibrant metis (Franco-African Creole) culture. The capital of Senegal until 1957, three years before the majority Muslim country’s independence, Saint-Louis was briefly capital of French West Africa but its status waned from 1902 when Dakar took that title.

Saint-Louis was also a fuelling stop on the colonial airmail route to Africa and South America, and the pilots, including Jean Mermoz, who made the first trans-Atlantic flight between Africa and South America in 1930, stayed at La Poste. Period posters and photographs decorate the hotel’s walls and the dining room ceiling is painted with a map of the mail route. Aeronautical nostalgia continues in the rooms, with B&W portraits of pilots and air conditioners that sound like propeller engines.

dsc_1970Senegal The Ghambia

An hour after checking in we regroup in the lobby for a walking tour.

Saint-Louis has long since outgrown N’Dar island, colonising the mainland and the Langue de Barbarie Peninsula, a sand spit running 600km down the Atlantic Coast. From Place Faidherbe, the town square and main venue for the renowned Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, held each May, Mohammed leads us across the muddy Senegal River to the sand-spit suburbs.

dsc_1733Senegal The Ghambia

Dozens of colourful pirogues stripe the riverbank. Afternoon sun gilds children dripping from a swim while others chant verses in an open-air Koran school. And sheep and goats are everywhere, oblivious to their roles in the upcoming Tabaski Festival, which celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to prove his faith, before God provided a sheep instead.  Moslems are expected to buy the biggest sheep they can afford, says Mohammed, who spent $100 on an animal for his family in Mali. “And God knows if you don’t pay enough!”

Grazing among the sheep to be killed, their meat then shared with family and friends, are robust red-collared animals. These lucky sheep are pampered because the longer they live the better their owners’ fortunes.

Further along the sandy road are new homes that Mohammed says cost over $150,000; they belong to fishers who started with one boat and now run half a dozen. The women who dry and salt their catches day after day for local sale and export earn dramatically less, however, yet the three we come upon working amid racks of fish heads and fillets covered in flies still smile broadly for photographs.

dsc_1755Senegal The Ghambia

We escape the squelchy fish market in need of a lungful of sea breeze however a chorus of voices and rhythmic drumming divert us. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing dusk wedding party for twin brides married in the mosque earlier (our language skills don’t run to finding out where the new husbands are). There is gold and beading everywhere and I feel embarrassingly underdressed in sandals and fisherman’s pants.

dsc_1791Senegal The Ghambia

At 2km long and 400m wide, Saint-Louis island is easily explored on foot, but horse-drawn carriages are popular too so our second afternoon is spent clip-clopping the town’s length.  We stop at the 1828 cathedral and the twenty-years younger Grande Mosque with its distinctly Christian clock tower. Everyone admires, and some of us buy, lengths of Manjak (Catholic ethnic minority) textiles at Ateliers d’Art. Weavers string looms across a small yard around the corner, two days’ work selling in the shop for about $20.

And every street we roll along is lined with double- and triple-storey buildings with wrought iron lace-trimmed wooden balconies and shuttered ground-floor doors outside many of which sit women roasting peanuts in hot sand over braziers. The nuts are scrumptiously dry and crunchy.


Saint-Louis was World Heritage listed in 2000, but while some buildings have been/are being restored, many need urgent work. What we need, though, is refreshment, so it’s back to Hotel de la Poste’s Safari Bar for a very colonial gin and tonic among glass-eyed animal heads.


Emirates flies to Madrid, Spain, from where Iberia connects to Dakar via the Canary Islands.

Stay at Hotel de La Poste: https://www.hoteldelapostesaintlouis.com (French only)