Mossman Gorge

Mossman Gorge
Through the by now familiar cane fields to the unremarkable settlement of Mossman.
The Mossman Gorge visitors’ centre is open and spacious. It is run by local indigenous people and has a quiet, well ordered and efficient air about it.
There are Dream Time guided tours available based on the local culture and mythology.
We opt for the shuttle bus and the free, unguided walks along the tracks. There are short ones and long ones. The bus ride of a few kilometres immediately takes you into what we used to call jungles in the days when the Empire and Commonwealth featured large in the curriculum.
The rainforest is a quiet, lush, sombre green. We walk on solidly constructed wooden walkways past the bathing point on the river where a number of people are already cooling off. The Mossman is a sizeable river. At this point it flows over huge boulders and creates a number of natural plunge pools.
We choose the longer walk. The tracks are well tended and have many information points describing the local flora and fauna, it’s uses and the local mythology attached to it. The woodland we walk through gives every indication of being pristine, apart from the tourist track of course. There is a wide variety of trees and undergrowth. Many have huge buttress roots. We are reacquainted with the charmingly and appropriately named strangler fig which has preyed on and killed a number of trees to further its own ends. From time to time there are glimpses of the towering, cloud smeared, wooded slopes of the surrounding hills. This is a rugged area. There are little byways which take you to leafy pools and streams and particularly impressive trees. There is an exquisite little forest dragon keeping a wary eye on us from behind a rock.
Walking at a sedate pace it doesn’t feel too hot in the shaded wood until you stop whereupon you are enveloped in a dense blanket of air and find yourself dripping sweat within seconds.
We return to the pool and this time take a plunge ourselves. Or at least I do. Alison does a rather uncharacteristic maiden-aunt-on-the-beach act by wading in with her shoes off and her ‘kiss- me-quick’ hat on until he water is up to her ankles. The water is delightfully cold and there is plenty of sand on the bottom.
Back to the centre on our return ticket. ‘Two returns to the rainforest, please’ isn’t a request that I’ve often made to a bus driver, but there you go. We write a suitably complimentary comment in the visitors’ book. We drop in on the gallery which displays original works on rainforest themes, mainly prints, by local artists. The work is attractive, often elegant and presented in a very stylish way. The prices are comparable to works in other professional galleries. We’re not in the market for anything more bulky or expensive than T-shirts at the moment so are just looking.
Verdict: an excellent and potentially very cheap day out in these touristy parts. The whole presentation and conduct of the place is commendable.
Night. And a hot one. No change there then. We take a brief walk around Port Douglas. Interesting to visit but not a place where we’d choose to live.

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Total Solar Eclipse

Under the brilliant starry sky we are waiting for dawn and the eclipse. It’s just after four am and similarly minded folk are on the move. There’s a lot of traffic on the road. But we’ve got our spot. We wait.
The Milky Way and then the fainter stars disappear as the sky shifts from black velvet to deep blue. Venus is well risen, our guide for a clear view to the east.
By a quarter to five we see a distant cloud bank, dark in the pale sky. Coastal clouds. A long way off, but how far up the sky will they rise? It’s all back in the melting pot again.
The sun will only be about fourteen degrees above the horizon at the time of the eclipse. If the clouds stay as they are I reckon we’ll have a few degrees spare. We breakfast on fruit cake and bottled water. Alison insisted on a full tank, at least a gallon of water and basic rations on board before she would embark on such a perilous anabasis into the outback. She may have a point. Anxiety has whetted our appetites and the warm air is dehydrating.
The sun rises around five thirty. Small patches of light cloud drift over the sky to the north. A sense of panic rises. Do we make a further dash westward? Or do we hold our ground here? This is not good for the health.
We make the decision to stand and fight, observe, whatever. The sun now becomes partially visible through the clouds. We put on our eclipse spectacles bought for a few dollars a couple of days back. We can see nothing though them. Have we been conned by the grasping locals? Ten to six and we get a clearer view of the sun. Now the spectacles provide a fine view of the half-eaten sun. The honest yeomen of Queensland are exonerated. We see a fat crescent which I can project with the binoculars onto a sketch pad.
The sun has now cleared the cloud bank. My confidence that we will have a clear view of totality is increasing, but it’s still a tense situation. By six twenty the crescent of the sun is very slim. The quality of the morning light is changing, it is dimmer, less vibrant.
Six thirty, the crescent is a sliver which is clearly visible to the naked eye without much discomfort. The light around us is very eerie. It is not like dawn. It is not like evening. It has a dead, colourless quality which is disturbing. I place the blank sketch pad so it’s facing the sun. I’m sure I see faint, rapidly moving shadows on it. This is a diffraction effect on the last rays from the sun which I have heard about.
Totality!
It’s here, and astounding. The sky suddenly dims to a deep, deep twilight and the brighter stars appear. A tiny, brilliant necklace, Bailey’s beads, surround the dark moon for an instant and I seem to see a deep redness within them. The pale corona of the sun pushes out from the black disk of the moon like a gas stove being lit..
There are ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’ from further up the road where a lot of people are parked. We chime in too. ‘Wow!’ Is the most articulate comment I can muster. ‘That’s just wonderful’ gasps Alison.
The scene before us is something the mind has difficulty taking in. We’ve seen it so many times before in photos and video. But this is different. There is a stark sense of the enormous scale of the event we are watching, like seeing an unbelievably high mountain. If you didn’t know what was going on this would be terrifying. I attempt to use the camcorder. It turns out that I get a few seconds of decent video but the camera is all over the place, a fair reflection of my state of mind. We’ve only just been lucky though, a cloud is very close to the sun.
Then a brilliant spot appears on the upper left of the disk. The diamond on the ring grows and as suddenly as it started totality is over. We are back in the eerie twilight. I have a poignant sense of the passing of a magic moment. This incredible event will happen again, millions of times. But it may well be that I never see it again.
Driving back down to Port Douglas feelings of quiet elation and contentment take over. I get quite jingoistic. Our defeat by cloud at Rheims in 1999 has been avenged! We have seen the total eclipse of the sun!

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Night Drive and Stars

Drive from Port Douglas, early morning, 14th November.
The evening is tense. We are trying to decide whether we drive inland or stay put. The weather satellite pics shows a narrow coastal fringe of cloud. The same is forecast for tomorrow, the morning of the total eclipse. It should be clear west of Mareeba according to the latest Weather Bureau report. Eventually we come down on the side the drive inland. It won’t be worse than on the beach and may be better. Not as far as the Palmer Roadhouse though. Ten thousand people have congregated there. Sounds like it will be overpopulated by those of the New Age. Unappealing.
We set off at two am. The drive out is through the warm darkness and across the flat, coastal area of the Cook Highway beyond Port Douglas. We climb into the hills to Julatten by an incredibly long and winding road. We turn North onto the Mulligan Highway. Graeme has warned us of the danger of kangaroos and stock on the roads. Signs on the road repeat the warning as does the squashed body of a roo. There are very few cars. This is a relief, we had feared a mass exodus. Clearly not everyone is as worried about the weather as we are. Then we are on to the long, straight road beyond Mount Carbine. We see A number of cars that have already parked on the roadside as we drive. The road verge is of sunbaked mud with scattered trees beyond. We spot a broad area, drive off the road and park. It is around three thirty am.
We get out into a silence rendered more intense by a quiet, insect background. The air smells delicately spicy, sort of vanilla. It is warm but not the humid oppression of Port Douglas. Then we see the starscape in the sky above us. It is just stunning. The sky is totally dark. The air is clear. The exquisite bright band of the Milky Way rises from the south east to cross the sky. The bold brilliance of Orion is vertically above us and Sirius a little to the west. Canopus leads the stars of the Ship scattered along the Milky Way. Suddenly I realise that the four stars just above a tree in front of us is the Southern Cross. Hello at last! The Coal Sack is clearly visible. A hole in the Milky Way just below the Cross as we see it. Above that there are several patches of nebulousity. Once again I’m using SkySafari with its compass setting. It really is good. There’s eta Carinae, lambda Centauri and the Southern Pleiades. The whole area is incredibly rich. Sweeping it with binoculars takes your breath away. There’s kappa Crucis, the Jewel Box in the Cross. I need to get a look at that with a telescope. Now, low in the sky through the trees, I see alpha Centauri. For the first time in my life I see the third brightest star in the sky.
Time for a little ceremony. The only luxury item in my luggage is the old ‘Norton’s Star Atlas’ I used to use as a teenaged amateur astronomer. I have the glossy, greatly expanded and updated version at home. I used to look at the plate of the South Polar stars and say to myself; ‘ Someday I’ll see you.’ Well, today’s the day! Alison takes a photo of me with the battered old volume open at that page standing in front of the Southern Cross. There’s no way you can see the Cross but I know it’s there.

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Port Douglas

Port Douglas, Impressions. 13th November
On Monday we leave Lake Eacham. We take the road down from Mareeba to the Captain Cook Highway. It is a spectacular descent through dense forest. The highway itself is a very scenic drive with some fine views of the coast.
Port Douglas: luxuriant tropical foliage, heavy and humid. Overall effect of walking through a hothouse. An Australian Santa Barbara though slightly more flamboyant and marginally downmarket. Tiled pavements and shops which aspire to boutiquehood. Pricy craftwork, much of it claiming to be of aboriginal provenance. Australian schools must be offering GCSE Aboriginal Art on the curriculum these days.
Graeme is the owner of our cottage which is well appointed and very well situated. He wears a tweed fishing hat over his long, beach boy locks and is very helpful.
We have a detached, two storey residence. It is surrounded by large tropical trees and plants filled with loud and brightly coloured birds. It is very secluded. It has a plunge pool which we make use of in short order. Greatly refreshed we binge on free and fast Internet access. It is now hot and windy with a few spots of rain. This seems to play havoc with the TV reception. The programmes, as usual, are largely second hand English productions. Quizzes and Stephen Fry seem to be staples. Eventually we locate a suitably sober news channel.
We take a stroll through the hot town. There’s a guy with a dobro-type guitar. He plays random phrases and hits the instrument from time to time with his metal bar. He interjects comments about sunglasses. There’s an oriental girl of very delicate appearance sitting cross-legged and using beautifully graceful arm movements to play what appears to be an electronic gourd. Perhaps a twenty first century gamelan. There are crowds of tourists and rugged looking Aussie holidaymakers up for the eclipse.
We return to the cottage, hermetically seal it as far as possible and turn the air conditioner on full blast which produces a habitable environment in a relatively short time. After dinner we stroll to the beach. There is a first aid kit of vinegar for stingers. Further along the breezy shore is a life guard hut with a poster depicting the various native stinging beasties. Further still is the smart premises of the Port Douglas Surf Life Saving Club. We return via the Ice Cream Planet on the corner of our street and sample their wares. The verdict is positive.
On Tuesday we walk to the lookout on top of the hill behind our cottage through a very tropical mix of spectacular palms and other exotic plants and swish holiday residences. At the top there is a toposcope showing us that we are as far from London as we are from New York. There is a sweeping view of the bay and Four Mile Beach and the huge, green hills beyond. It is a steep walk. Some people have hired scooters or used the local trike service which seems to be the Aussie holidaymakers’ vehicle of choice.
Coffee in town. A tropical downpour is in progress as we sit under a parasol. The rainwater is probably stronger than the coffee. Back for a plunge in the deliciously cold pool and a simple lunch. We chill with iPads in front of the news channel on exceptionally comfortable loungers. It’s a hell of a job but someone has to do it.
Later we scan the weather reports for the next morning anxiously. It is not looking great. We take a late and very warm evening stroll through the town to an eclipse market. A live country band is playing in a nearby bar. It is all strangely subdued.

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Of Stars and Snakes

November 11th November, late
The night has fallen with the rapid onset of darkness and sudden, unnerving burst of cicada activity we have noted before. We eat to the accompaniment of Sarah Vaughan (via the iPhone) and the cicada aubade.
It is very clear outside. We decide to go down to the lakeside and take a look at the stars. We get out at the lakeside car park in pitch darkness. There is a wonderful display of stars. The trees around are a bit high for a perfect view but this is the best sight we’ve had so far of the southern sky. There is a cloudy patch of light low in the west which is the star clouds in Sagittarius. The teapot shape is diving, spout first, towards the western horizon. I find other familiar stars. Altair then Deneb, the inverted Pegasus and Andromeda and the Pleiades very low in the north east.
Our eyes are now accustomed to the dark. It is still very warm. This tropical night seems to induce synaesthesia. I feel the sky as dark velvet. The stars are like tiny, brilliant drops of some exotic pine resin. I can smell them. OK, maybe its the surrounding trees, eucalyptus and the like. But this is really exciting. This is my first good view of the southern constellations.
Fomalhaut is close to the zenith and I clearly see the shape of the southern fish. Below it is another definite shape, Grus really does look like an aboriginal stylised crane. Achernar I had picked out even in the glare above Brisbane and it is high to my left.
I’m using the iPad app SkySafari (set to show the sky at Cairns since I don’t have internet connectivity for the ‘Current Location’ setting) and, as a self luminous star map, it really is good for navigation.
I locate alpha Pavonis. The remarkable app informs me that it was named ‘Peacock’ by HM Nautical Almanac Office in the 1930s. From Peacock I can identify stars in Indus and Tucana. Between Pavo and Sagittarius is the exquisite circlet of Corona Australis looking unreal as it is so precisely drawn. From Achernar I can trace the river Eridanus. I always thought it a bit of a cheat to have a river as a constellation, after all, any group of stars can take the shape of a river. But the stars of Eridanus seen from this latitude link together beautifully like a pearl necklace, reinforcing the velvet feel of the sky.
Above Achernar the Phoenix is another moderately convincing bird shape. Below Achernar alpha and beta Hydri are easy to spot. And just above beta the faint patch of light that is the Smaller Magellanic Cloud. That’s definitely 25 points on my ‘I Spy’ score. My app tells me that the larger cloud has risen but the trees around the lake are too high and dense to make a sighting. A treat for another night, but not I think, tomorrow when we’ll be in Port Douglas and back in the bright lights. We call it a night, and a very satisfying one too.
On the way back as we make our way down the dark track to our cabin Alison cries ‘Stop!’ I peer at what I take at first to be a large root across the path. It is not. It is a large snake motionless in the headlights. It must be close to eight feet in length. We wait for it to move. It doesn’t. I get the impression it is basking in the warmth of the path rather than crossing it. Eventually I get out of the car, approach it gingerly on the assumption that any snake that size is going to be a constrictor rather than a venomous one. I poke it very gently with a stick. I must admit I checked the stick carefully before picking it up. The snake turns and moves back towards the side then stops again. Another gentle nudge. The huge beast slides gracefully and unhurriedly back into the undergrowth. We drive on.
This is not the sort of incident you associate with an evening’s star watching, not in Northamptonshire, anyway.

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The Atherton Tablelands

Sunday 11th November
Late start again. Fed the local birds. Alison calls me over to the public area, a few chairs under a sunshade with the statutory barbie equipment. There are two exquisite finch-like birds dipping in the water of a little ornamental stream. They are slate blue trimmed with brilliant scarlet on rump and eyemask. We sit for half an hour and see a beautiful bird which looks like a miniature emperor penguin which has remembered how to fly. There is a larger green bird with rich olive plumages, a lizard sitting on a piece of pink granite and and our first genuine kangaroo. Well OK it’s a pademelon, (a small wallaby) but if it looks like a kangaroo and hops like a kangaroo….
We decide to visit Herberton, a heritage village around 25 miles from here. As we leave we spot a couple of antechinus close to the cabin, a reminder to keep the net door closed.
We drive through the strange, Edward Lear landscape of the Atherton tablelands in brilliant sunshine with the Aussie commentary from the Gabba on the car radio. Herberton heritage village is the old mining village. There is old equipment outside baking and rusting in the sun, the place is deserted, perhaps because it is 25 dollars to get in. It’s getting late anyway so we decide to move on. The lady who’s in charge comes out, I imagine she is going to regale us with tales of hardship and heartache and implore us to come in. This is not the Aussie style. She is friendly,open and genuinely interested in our travels and chats for quite a while.
We carry on to modern Herberton. We both think it reminiscent of a Wild West township or the last Spanish town we met on our abortive day out to Portugal. This latter impression is reinforced when we sit at a cafe table with our iced teas and ice cream and the radio plays a selection from ‘Carmen’.
On through Atherton, another Wild West township, to the Hypipamee crater. An enormous hole in the ground of volcanic origin and scary dimensions. It is next to the Dinner falls, an impressive series of cascades. On the way in we encounter a sign telling us to report ‘…all cassowary sightings and incidents.’ Regrettably we have neither to report.
Back towards Yungaburra with a magnificent vista of high hills surrounding us in the far distance as the sun drops low in the sky. At Yungaburra we call in on the Curtain Fig Tree. This is an aboriginal site centred around an extraordinary tree which started out as a parasite on another tree, long since killed and rotted. The structure that remains is huge. A vast curtain of roots or suckers as the name suggests. The site is well presented with a walkway around it and well worth a visit. The animated group of Japanese tourists in front of us clearly seem to think so.

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The Yungaburra Platypus

Saturday 10th November, afternoon
The township has the spread out, casually end of the world look we’ve seen on the Scottish isles. Admittedly its a different end of the world. The trees might have been sketched by Lear and the birds too. We wander into a bookshop in our search for a coffee shop. The owner is seated in one armchair and his associate, mate or cobber in another. The shop is a large shed filled from top to bottom with books. ‘I can get you a coffee’ says the owner. It turns out to be a three dollar coffee rather than the complimentary one I’d sort of been hoping for but it looks good and we sit outside with him and his mate. He was Born in Swansea and came over with his family in the 1950s. He is an interesting speaker and tells us of his adventures as a book dealer and collector. He compares the obsession to gold prospecting. He speaks of trips to Paris to hunt down rare volumes, of how he sells at a profit but sometimes keeps a plum item for himself. A hard bound edition of ‘The Devil’s Regiment’ is such a volume. He defends the book against ‘Kimbles, kindles whatever they’re called.’ He looks forward to the time when they’re obsolete and people return to the book which he will then sell at a vast price.
We ask about the platypus. They are supposed to inhabit he creek just beyond Yungaburra. ‘Oh, yes ‘ he says ‘you can see them often’ speaking so casually about the fabulous beast.
We walk to the creek. It is muddy and brown, surrounded by trees. We follow the path through it to the road at he end of town. We’re about to retrace our steps thinking to return tomorrow when we meet a couple who ask us if we’ve seen any. He tells us they’ve seen platypus for the last couple of days. We stroll back down the creek. The couple stop frozen by the water. The man is pointing. There is a dark shape crossing the brown stream. It disappears into he bank. We wait. The platypus reappears and crosses the stream again. I rush to capture it on the camcorder. For half an hour we follow the antediluvian beast as it zigzags its way upstream. I get a lot of good shots. It is not timid. It is photogenic and knows it is the star if the show. We cannot believe we are looking at this living fossil, this legend, this icon, this epiphany of the bizarre. And its as real and as everyday and as matter-of-fact as a cat or dog. We are elated as we walk back towards the township.
The Capricorn night is falling at breakneck speed as we shop in a well stocked food store for spuds and biscuits and an eight dollar map which is mainly adverts and largely useless for navigational purposes as we miss the Lake Eacham turn on the way back and have to turn back at lake Barrine. We find our turn and drive into the living myriaphonic dark.

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Morning, Lake Eacham

Lake Eacham, Saturday 10th November, morning
I’m awake very early. The surrounding forest is alive with complex, subtly multihued noises which build an intricate, mesmerising structure. It is like being inside a Paul Klee painting except I hear it instead of seeing it. It lulls me back to sleep. I wake at 9.40. The light has pushed the forest sounds into the background.
We breakfast from the hamper presented to us on our arrival. We set aside our putative vegetarianism to engage with the generous helping of bacon and sausage.
Sitting outside we place bananas and grapes on the posts beside our veranda. Within a very short time the birds descend on it and clear it. There is a slim and delicate bird with a long bill with a long tongue in it. It is green and olive with bold cream markings. There is a large, bully-boy sort of bird with a glorious green back and a massive beak. It’s call sounds like a tomcat out for a night on the tiles. Further investigation in the cabin’s bird identification book suggest the spotted cat bird.
We stroll through the dense woodland. It is overcast, close and warm. We arrive at the lake’s edge. There is a sign describing turtles and beneath it in the water the real thing.
The lakeside area is set out for the worship of the Australian goddess Barbie. A number of families are seated at meals while some youths splash in the water. It looks tempting but a paranoia about leeches, parasites and other dark realities keeps us out.
We do our washing then set out to Yungaburra a few miles up the road.

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Cairns and Beyond

We flew up to Cairns from Brisbane today. A nice, short flight, only two hours, can you imagine! Out of the window we saw some inshore parts of the Great Barrier Reef.
Cairns is seriously hot. We picked up a hire car at Hertz. There was a longish queue. Many people are now arriving at the airport for the eclipse.
Picked up some veg at a market with a rather down-at-heel backpacker-cum-hippie feel to it though the produce was good. Many of the exotic fruits grown in this tropical area were on display and you could buy freshly pierced coconuts to drink the milk. Round the corner was an up-to-the-minute, air conditioned shopping mall where I suspect many of the hippie type stall holders do their own shopping.
We drive out on the main road and up a huge climb into the hills behind Cairns. on the radio two Aussie voices comment on the test match at the Gabba. We are in the Atherton tableland and located our next lodging, a cabin at Lake Eacham. We are right in the rainforest, it’s exciting. The guy running the place is very much into ecology and tells us all about the birds and beasts we can expect to see including duck billed platypuses in streams nearby! Meanwhile parrots and emerald doves flew around outside his office.
The cabin is done out in the style of a beach hut but there is nothing twee about it, apart perhaps for the lighthouse style lamp, but even that is robust. My favourite feature is the real ship’s porthole on one of the cupboards and the model of the diver’s helmet. The cabin is spacious, clean and very well appointed.
We are greeted at our cabin by a guinea fowl type bird and a pondful of frogs making a weird clacking noise. As the night does its trick of falling so fast you don’t realise it’s fallen there is a piercing, almost deafening outburst from the cicadas which dies back quickly to a continuous background. The trees around are definitely alien, jungly, big and dense. We have to keep the net protectors shut because of insects and the antechinus, a rat like creature which is inclined to run into cabins given half a chance!
Reassuring fact from one of the guides left in the cabin. Of the twenty seven species of snakes in Northern Tropical Queensland (NTQ) only half are venomous and only eight species have a potentially fatal bite, including the most venomous species on earth. We’ll sleep the sounder knowing that! There are also sixty one species of frogs.
We’ve come up to the office where the Wi-Fi hub is to post this. We used a wind-up torch to light our way through the almost palpable warm darkness. Only a small circle of sky is visible through the tall forest trees but that is dark and filled with alien stars.

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Impressions of Brisbane, Thursday

Further Impressions of Brisbane, Thursday 8th November
Again into Brisbane by bus from Rosalie. Rosalie could be the name of a suburb only in Australia. Then to the Roma Street Parklands. This is another tropical garden, more formal than the botanic gardens on a large natural amphitheatre. The varied glass verticals of the CBD are seen in the background, the huge, luxuriant trees in the foreground. A pleasing contrast which provides a great sense of space. We made our way to Southbank again over the Kurpila bridge an imaginative structure with the elegant curve of the bridge supported on cables from obliquely placed pylons.
We met Christine, a local lady who I have been in contact with via the WetCanvas website. She very kindly presented me with one of her watercolours of her cockatiel as a welcome to Australia gift. We took a look inside the Brisbane art gallery which has some fine paintings by van Dyke, Sir George Clausen and Raeburn among others. Also a couple of lively bronzes by Degas. On the way out saw a number of brilliantly coloured lorikeets feeding in the bushes beside the art centre.
I really like he sweeping curves of the bridges and roads on the waterfront of the city. There is a tall building with coloured glass such as is used in a number of Queenslander houses we’ve seen, a cultural reference?
A piper was playing on the bridge as we crossed back into the city. I bought at first it was some robotic noise being made by one of the very modern buses standing nearby.
Looked out on the balcony when we returned. the scorpions tail, inverted of course, was setting in the west, ie on my right
Later. out for dinner at the Indian in Rosalie.

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