Monaco Yacht Show 2016

It’s not often that you get to Monaco. Maybe three or four times a year? And it is always an experience, one way or another… This time it was for a delivery of Mirabeau wine for Edmiston Yacht Management during the twentieth Monaco Yacht Show. Yes, I know, a delivery is normally not a big deal, right? But if you get offered a free pass to the biggest yacht show in Europe, what would you do…? Perhaps spend an hour in search of parking?

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Belle – getting the grin back from chagrin

There is a particular enjoyment to be had in a vehicle where every change in engine-note, every rattle and every pebble and bump on the road is a tactile experience. Along with a nagging doubt whether you will reach your destination! Every shimmy of the suspension or grinding of gears is aurally evaluated with a subconscious crossing of fingers and each completed journey is celebrated to the consternation of bystanders… What does this have to do with wine, I hear you ask? Well, in order to deliver the wine you need a suitable vehicle, right?

Our subject is a 1979 Citroën Acadiane in original blue. It is the company mascot and the epitome of a french delivery-van from the ’70s with a history dating back to the 2CV. This particular car has been ever more sparingly deployed onto the road and always with extreme hesitation for delivery duties. The reason? Reliability. Unwillingness to idle, a refusal to start when hot and a noticeable lack of power (relatively speaking). The keys on the key rack became ever-more dusty as time pressure and dependability supersede the allure of a French classic on French roads… Eventually, the car became part of the decor in the boardroom (watch video here).

But as a symbol of the Mirabeau embrace of Provence, it deserved to be let out onto the road! Would we be able to trust the car again?

A few weeks ago, as providence would have it (some call it luck) we had a visit from some friends who are absolute Citroën fans. That they owned an identical car as a daily-driver and were thus armed with a depth of mechanical knowledge. Impressive enough but even more so was their willingness to ‘have a go’ at rejuvenating the old girl. A brief description of symptoms made it fairly obvious (to them, of course) that a few parts were worn-out and needed replacement. In another fortuitous twist, we were informed of the Mehari Club – specialists in all things 2CV and derivatives thereof. This ‘Citroën Mecca’ was situated only an hour away and became the obvious destination for a mission to collect some parts.

Thus we proceeded to dismantle the front of the car to get at a fiddly little part embedded behind the cooling fan. The whole nose and front bumper had to come off to get there and I wondered how small the hands were of the person building it at the factory as I dropped yet another bolt into the blackness of the engine bay. Yet while I was busy (helping and receiving instruction from René) my appreciation for the philosophy behind the design grew. It seemed to be the Land Rover of France except that everything was downsized to the minimum you could get away with. Tiny eleven- and eight-millimetre (head) bolts would never be allowed onto the Defender production line, yet it is testament to the design and engineering that the car is still running (albeit somewhat hesitantly) 35 years later.

We installed a number of new service items and adjusted the valves (which were far too tight). Setting the timing was another piece of fine-tuning crucial to performance. A new coil sitting proudly on top of where you would normally find the radiator in a normal car was the ‘piéce de resistance’ (excuse my French). As René sat in the sagging driver’s seat I expected long seconds of cranking and pumping the throttle. With a grin and a wink, he flicked the ignition and Belle sprang to life in a second! My slack-jawed wonderment became a wide grin as he revved the old girl in celebration. It sounded glorious and with a satisfied and knowing shrug, he motioned for me to start clearing away the tools as she idled.

But she fought back.

She wasn’t done yet! And the eager thrumming died out slowly into a spluttering silence as I was putting the last spanner away.

We turned in horrified unison, after all, everything we had done was spot-on, so why did this happen? First we tried the obvious and filled the petrol tank, but no joy came of that. Then we diagnosed a leaking carburator which was worn-out and dripping petrol constantly – not exactly according to spec. Another trip to the Mehari mecca ensued and the new carb was installed in shiny contrast to the oily dust on the rest of the engine. Still no joy! It is rather frustrating when all your efforts are strictly according to the guidebook and yet the old girl stubbornly refused to start. After double-checking everything there remained one last possibility – the condenser. Which meant stripping the front of the car once again. Would you believe the new part had failed? René later also diagnosed a tired and faulty voltage regulator which must have had something to do with it.

What should have been a few hours’ work became an arduous and frustrating objective lasting the better part of a week. But we got there in the end and the engine has been brought back to life. We christened the car ‘Belle’ (which is the dutch for Beauty and the Beast – we had tamed the beast and the beauty has returned). A pair of new seat springs and covers as well a rubber floormat added to the relative comfort onboard.

So next time you see a blue Acadiane zipping along the vineyards in Provence with a smiling guy behind the wheel (and possibly a Jack Russel as a passenger) you’ll know why I can’t get that grin off my face…

Click HERE for a video of the first engine test:

And HERE for a (short) subsequent test drive:

Some geeky Acadiane stuff:

  • Number built: 250 000
  • Build years: 1978 – 1987
  • Engine (approx.): 600 cc 2-cylinder boxer.
  • Power output: a heady 30 HP
  • Weight (empty): 680 kg
  • Cruising speed: 65km/h
  • Acceleration: glacial
  • Grin factor: five stars

DriftSport basic driver training in drifting

Our buddy Rob is a motorhead of note. We first became friends through a shared passion for Land Rovers, and have been taking part in all kinds of adventures since. He also happens to be a drift-driving instructor in Lelystad, and we signed up for a day’s basic training at DriftSport.

Terrifying and fun

With all of Marcel’s driving experience, he took to it like a duck to water. It took me a good hour or so to get the knack of turning the wheel sharply going into the bend, and then counter-intuitively spinning it the other way to bring the car into what feels like it’s floating. Exhilarating when you get it right.

Merci Marcel, for letting me spend so much time behind the wheel. Next time, we take our own cars! xx

Snorkelling Ras Mohammed (Egypt) aboard Almira III

Picture it, day 10 of a tough two weeks in Egypt: tanning, swimming, eating far too much at the buffet, another beer, more sun, more tanning, more swimming… how much of this can you take??!! Time for a snorkel off the coast… The day starts of with the usual routine – hurry-up and wait… Wait for the taxi to the marina. Wait at each resort to pick up some sleepy guests. Wait for the forms to sign. Wait for a wetsuit. Wait for permits from the port authority. Wait for the boat (nowhere to be seen). Wait for… the usual bureaucratic ‘importance’. Nevertheless it is a glorious day… does it ever rain here? The boat comes into view and it IS a pretty picture among the dozens of white diveboats. The good ship Almira III.

A two-masted vessel with thirty sunmats on her deck. Not a bad way to spend a day in the sun! We all get onboard and find a spot to spread our towels while the crew casts off and heads into the Gulf… Music is inserted into the environment… never thought that Enrique Iglesias would be suitable for anything, yet it fits the mood…

We motor into a calm sea and the perpetual sunshine is glorious… In the background are the mountains – stark and beckoning. The backdrop is amazing – sunshine, blue sky, dusty-tan desert, light blue shallows and the deep dark blue of the depths… We settle down on the roof of the cabin and relax for the next hour and a half. Our destination is Ras Mohammed. Most famous and also most beautiful of reefs in the area. It is a national park (thank goodness some sense has prevailed) and therefore protected from development. Although it is still very ‘touristy’ with a lot of diveboats in the area – can you imagine if they started putting developments down like hotels and resorts…. We DO pass a lot of boats and divers in (under) the water and continue to what seems like the furthest point.

The boat slows and launches the rubber dinghy in search of a mooring point. We don our masks and fins and jump into the water, heading for a small reef. A world opens beneath us through our ‘goggles’. Hundreds of fish and bright coral. It’s a small reef flanked by sandy bottom and the ‘dive guide’ is over-enthusiastically keeping everyone together. So much so that getting flippers in your face becomes rather annoying, but we persevere. Seems to be a quick lesson in snorkelling… But nevertheless we enjoy the warm(ish) water and the smallest of reef fish. Returning to the boat we emerge into a chill breeze that reminds us that it IS winter here… We dry off, take a drink and settle down for a short sail to an ‘island’. More of a glorified sandbank really. Needs a palm tree and some coconuts… However, the brave climb into the overloaded dinghy and are deposited onto a small stretch of sand in the middle of the water. About 80 meters long and maybe two metres wide when the waves recede. Does feel strange to stand there in the middle of the water… Especially when the dinghy disappears towards the motoryacht to collect a couple more ‘Robinson’s Crusoe’. All around there is nothing but water and in the far distance the desolate mountains offer little comfort…

Back on board for lunch. Always impressed by what a cook can do onboard with a small burner… Tasty and delicious and enjoyed ‘al fresco’ in the lovely sunshine. The boat is now retracing its steps back to port, although now somewhat slower and closer to shore. It seems unreal how the desert stops and becomes water. The shoreline being devoid of life. Sandy, dusty and bleak. Yet right on the edge, under the water, there are long lines of reefs. Teeming with fish and colourful and bright. The contrast is immense and fascinating. A bright blue water set against a dusty tan backdrop. Abundance of life meets no life at all… The breeze is now becoming rather chilly as we follow the coastline. Most onboard are donning jerseys and warmer clothing or wrapping themselves with their towels. An announcement is made: a last stop to snorkel. This time we are allowed out on our own.

Considering the chill wind, we are not surprised that only a handful grab the opportunity. The water may be pleasant but the wind is picking up… Once again we are taken by the dinghy. This time a small group of us. To a reef clinging to the side of the desert. This seems to carry on all along the shore. We jump in and are confronted with an amazing wall of coral – stretching from the surface to what seems like about thirty meters! An amazing sight and an even better feeling to swim along this beautiful underwater garden with an enormous amount of sealife. Fish in all shapes and sizes – Victoria even manages to photograph a lionfish! Well spotted. Far more relaxing to drift along on the current with head down admiring the underwater scenery and wildlife. Really enjoyable and reminded us of our diving experiences. Next time we will definitely have to book a few hours underwater.

On a comical note: as I backrolled off the dinghy (as taught and practiced during our diving in South Africa – see here:, I made a full 360, due to the lack of a ‘tank’ (or cylinder to my more pedantic friends out there) and ended up banging my head on the boat. Now… this is pretty hard (underwater) and dislodged the sunglasses that I had forgotten were still perched on my head! These floated down into the murky depths probably never to be seen again. But for an eagle-eyed (older) guy who surfaced clutching them triumphantly and made me feel rather small…. Ah well, this joins other incidences involving: the lost sandals pushing a raft, camera (a waterproof one in a muddy canal, so useful for distant generations), a cap blown into the Red Sea (on a previous visit) and now probably off the coast of Moçambique, an SLR onto a tile floor from two meters (terminal) just yesterday, and so on…

Nonetheless, a great day, even though it was getting chilly in the late afternoon. The relaxed atmosphere and laid back charm of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba seducing us once more with its charms. It’s tough! Believe me, I know… But someone has to do it…! Just when we thought that we had ‘done’ Egypt and the next destination was somewhere further afield… we got pulled right back and will have to return again….

From Sharm to Cairo for a camel ride…

The highlight of this year’s trip to Egypt was Cairo! What an incredibly long and tiring day! But worth every minute of the tortuous journey. We were picked up at the hotel in Sharm el Sheikh at 1:00 am by a small bus (twenty seater) with 15 others. The only problem was that the little truck had no suspension! Combine this glaring oversight from Toyota with roads that are worse than in South Africa and our day was starting off not too well …

Every couple of hours en route we stopped at police checkpoints. A quick twenty minutes toilet break at dawn and attempting the sad little lunch packet from the hotel. Left and right only desert – not a tree or a blade of grass in sight! Piles of rubble and sand all along the route – like construction sand that had been dumped there, for later use maybe? Battling for roadspace against the ancient trucks (not roadworthy in Europe but given a second lease on life in Africa working even harder than before…). Transporting what looked like sand from one place to who knows…?? Fascinating… We DID pass under the Suez canal though – how often does THAT happen in your life?!! A journey of 7 hours (seven hours!). So we arrived in Cairo, at 8:30 – 9:00 in the morning (at least the mornings are nice – always sunshine), battered and slightly the worse for wear…

Luckily it was friday (part of the weekend in Egypt), so the traffic was relatively lighter than usual. ‘Relatively lighter traffic’ means still chaos though! No lines, no lanes, donkey cars, battered old peugeots and lada’s, scooters, taxi’s smoking away, busses barreling along…. All ignoring the traffic lights and each other and just making their own roads through the congestion! Felt like a meat grinder – until everything ground to a halt! And took ten minutes to get moving again – after a tiny car had extricated itself from a bottleneck at a junction. Navigation by hooter and flashing headlights. Brilliant!

The best part (bonus): splitting into two groups and into another little taxi for the day. The german tourists (a party of ten) went one way, and us, dutch, the other way… Which meant our group was five man strong plus a guide and the driver… Excellent! Small group and some nice laidback young individuals: me and Vix, a young couple from Belgium and a dutch girl from Eindhoven… Felt like the famous five on safari or something…

First stop was the mosque in the old citadel. This was on a hill overlooking part of Cairo – masses of buildings, mostly apartments about four storeys high, dusty, sand-coloured with satellite dishes everywhere. A smog hung over everything, but the sunny weather was great. The mosque was named after the builder: Mohammed Aliy. And no, there’s no relation – but it is the only mosque in Egypt that you can enter as a tourist… Very ornate inside and definite influences from church cathedrals. There was a clock tower outside – donated by the french (in exchange for the obelisk from Egypt that now stands in Paris (you know the one?) …

Back in to the van and merged into the traffic being thankful that the driver was a local. We headed for the museum of antiquities in central Cairo. This building is smaller than it looks in the movies. Older style – also built by the french during their short occupation, maybe somewhere during the twenties? (The french did a lot…). At the entrance we were made to part with our camera’s and cellphones (this to protect the exhibits from flash camera’s apparently). A pity, because inside there are masses of historical artifacts, from enormous carvings and statues to small models of old reed boats and ancient jewellery. A photo or two would have been great. All ancient and genuine, like an archeological dig that had had been put on display (which it was). We kept being reminded that it was all real – no replica’s and all of it about three thousand years old! Incredible! The colours were even genuine and still retained some of their brilliance, most objects not having been restored or enhanced. Naturally the main exhibit was the contents of Tutankhamon’s tomb (the boy-king).

This young man’s tomb is (still) the only one that was not looted by robbers over the centuries. It gives an accurate indication of just how much effort was expended to get themselves into the afterlife. And the boy had style, man! His mask is one of the most beautiful of the pharoahs (personal opinion) and he took THE LOT with him: His entrails and organs sealed in urns, jewellery, beds, walking staffs, chariots, urns of essences, thrones and so on… Everything a king would need to continue his lifestyle, even boomerangs for hunting and his other interests. Naturally his personal servants went with him (one for every day of the year) in the form of small statues. All of it sealed, like a russian doll, in boxes and containers that fitted into each other. His mummified body in three coffins that encapsulated each other. Each more ornate than the next. Texts of hieroglyphics everywhere. And most of it all gold-plated as well… Apparently his was the smallest of the tombs (because he died so young) – but he got a lot done in his short life and it shows the amount of capital and power he had as pharoah. All of it meticulously photographed and documented by the man who found his tomb back in the early twentieth century. Incredible to see and amazing (for want of a better word) how it has all remained so well preserved (after three thousand years!). A lot of it still looked like new….

Time for lunch. On the Nile – as you do…. A floating hotel-cum-restaurant that was singularly uninspiring but for the fact that it was on the Nile river in central Cairo. Lunch was okay… but very brief – because our little band was itching to see the main event – Pyramids. So once more a short journey to the outskirts of the City where the built-up area suddenly dissolved into desert sand. Through the buildings on the way we could make out pyramids on the horizon, slowly getting bigger and bigger. Having been to Luxor and Karnak, we had mental images of the huge structures being surrounded by housing and buildings. As we drove up the small hill we could see, with some relief, that behind the three pyramids was only sand and desert. Surreal experience though. Suddenly you’re there! Half expecting that you would need to enter some sort of parallel dimension or step through a portal… I mean these are the PYRAMIDS!

Naturally, as everywhere in Egypt, the only portal you step through is the metal detector and the pay booth…. And there we were… In the shade of Cheop’s monument! Felt a bit strange, trying to let it all sink in… would take a day or two, or even a couple of weeks. So photo opportunities all round – some how failing to capture the scale of these huge achievements. Even today it would seem to be a herculean effort to build something like this! Can you imagine the man’s vision?! His imagination?! Picturing this grand structure and presenting his idea to his court… How do you come up with something so mind-bogglingly tremendous?!

The camels around the back were the best fun though. We couldn’t refuse a saunter (as camels do…) a short way into the desert in order to capture the three pyramids on film… Nice animals. Always look as is they have not a care in the world or that they are merely tolerating your presence and humans are ‘beneath’ them – which they are… unless your’e sitting on its back. Life looks a little less of a ‘rat-race’ from up there and the slow rocking motion is somehow relaxing. After pausing for a couple of pictures (never manage to do it justice – this country), an old guy rode up on a donkey and offered us an ice cold Coca Cola from one of those little old glass bottles – it even had COKE written in arabic on it. How he managed to get it THAT cold out in the sand at midday, on his donkey, is still a mystery. We happily parted with 5 pounds egyptian, and sat there on our steeds overlooking the pyramids and the city of Cairo beyond… A nice moment… Our ‘driver’ then gave us the reins for a little ‘race’ back to the Pyramid… Good fun! Ever raced a camel? Pleased to say that ‘Casanova’ (beautiful camel – perfect name) and I beat Victoria back to the shade (if only because her camel’s reins were tied to my saddle, but let us not get too pedantic…) Had a good laugh! We’re adopting one – if the council will permit us having one in the backyard here in Holland. Imagine the neighbours when you take it for a walk? A bit bigger than a dog…

The sphinx was also one of those surreal moments. You sort of need to stand there for a while and just stare… Built to protect the pyramids from intruders. Our guide made the comment that it wasn’t very good at its job (looking at the masses of tourists surrounding them). Also apparently the nose was shot off by Napoleon – just for fun… Another of those unsubstantiated claims that permeate Egypt… Although I must commend Táriq for his knowledge, subtle charm and passion for his country… Made the day all the more enjoyable, what with a strangely compelling english accent (learnt in Egypt and sculpted by many a british tourist – sort of Cockney-Geordie (if anything like that exists). The elevation sort of makes you look down on the Sphinx from behind and up to it from the front. The scale and proportions change as you view it from different angles – from the front it looks almost right but from above and behind the head looks too small… strange. Also that it is looking onto the KFC and McDonalds a quarter of a mile away just somehow seems wrong…

Just around the corner, with half an hour to kill, we visited an essence shop. These are apparently the base for all perfumes in its purest form. Interesting how the extracts don’t evaporate (like the urns found in the tombs still had their contents after thousands of years). Naturally we were encouraged to buy something, as everywhere – mobbed by vendors – but we respectfully declined, after a cup of tea, and headed for the museum again for our rendezvous with our little desert bus and the germans. We waited in the gardens in the falling light for about half an hour for them to arrive (the comment was made that germans are renowned for their efficiency, but today were soundly beaten by the dutch) then bid Táriq and his driver ‘má-salaáma’ and headed for the desert ‘highway’ knowing that it was to be another seven hours of torture before we would see our beds again. ‘Highway’ is also a bit of a misnomer – a narrow dual carriageway of patchwork tarmac, sporadic potholes and jarring transitions in the tarmac that seemed to be spaced just far enough apart to jolt you awake just as you got comfortable enough in the cramped seat to close your eyes and nod off…. Extremely irritating and incredibly draining…

Around 11:00/11:30 pm we finally reached the lights of Sharm el Sheikh and were dropped in front of the hotel, feeling slightly nauseous with exhaustion. We made our way to the restaurant which they opened for us after a bitter shouting match between clerk and chef and we had our ‘dinner’ in the gloom of a deserted room, trying to reflect on what had just happened… A midnight ‘rodeo’ drive through the desert, old Cairo, crazy traffic, king Tut’s mask, ancient artifacts in an old museum, the Nile river, Pyramids, the Sphinx and a camel race!

What did you do on your 40th birthday? I rode a camel in the shade of the pyramids in Cairo! As you do….

Day trip from Punta Cana to Samana, Dominican Republic

Good morning! Yes… once again we’re up before dawn during our holiday… “What is supposed to be a relaxing time to rest and recharge from a long year of hard ‘graft’, feels rather less-so at five a.m!” I think to myself, standing in the open-air foyer of the hotel … but it’s about 23 degrees – nice and cool – and the stars in the sky mean it’s going to be a sunny day. The busses arrive and we manage to get the front seat of a twenty-seater and settle in for the three-and-a-half hour journey to Samaná – where the humpback whales are. Maybe we’ll get lucky and manage to find them.

A rather large gamble to be driving half a day on a ‘maybe’… But what a great country! Rather larger than you would expect. Thick bush and forests. Palm trees, sugar cane, dirt roads… We pass little shacks built from board and tin. Old buildings probably built by the Spanish and never been renovated. Litter all over the place. Potholes everywhere. Meat hanging by the roadside. Small farmshacks cobbled together from driftwood and selling fruit. People walking along the road in the middle of nowhere. Houses that are but empty shells. A general appearance of unkempt-ness (is that a real word?)…

It reminded me of Mocambique when we used to go diving in Ponta d’Ouro. The Portuguese colonials had invested a huge amount of time, energy and money to build roads and some rather large houses. When they left, and as a result of the civil war, it was just left to crumble. Nowadays the shells of the houses are still there – windowless, doorless, shutters hanging and the roof only partially covered. They are inhabited – by the locals – but maintenance seems to be put on hold, permanently.

Everyone is smiling and even waving though, as they lie under a tree or on the beach and let the day develop. Naturally, if I were looking for a reason, it might be a lack of funds to keep the infrastructure going. Although, what was noticable were the bright colours. Yellows, greens, blue-painted walls… There always seems to be time and a couple of dollars for a tin of paint. No matter how dilapidated your house is, at least it looks good in the sunlight!

Colourful is another word I would use to describe the Dominicans… And teeth – a lot of smiling. Maybe all that rum?… One senses that Africans and also the decendants in the Caribbean are unencumbered by the European instinct to keep everything ordered and tidy. This I can only describe as admirable and enviable. Nothing wrong with that! I guess the weather also plays a huge role. Why rush around when it’s another beautiful day! As well as the countryside. To our eyes it looks wild, but our reference point for the last ten years has been Holland. Having to do without the luxury of space and a large population living in close proximity sort of forces you to be stricter about things. It’s clean, neat and tidy everywhere: roads, cycle paths, gardens, verges, parks, even the forest is tidy… In stark contrast with the Dominican – as seen from our little bus.

The pace is rather different to the mad rush in Europe as well. Nobody seems to be in a hurry. From the smoking scooters in town, ancient cars and pick-ups way past their useful life, old American schoolbuses, to the donkey cart ambling along in the countryside. The relaxed atmosphere sort-of creeps up on you. We start to mellow and take it as it comes. The bus dodges a pothole and clambers up another hill. A boy on horseback trots past us as we stop to stretch our legs. And a lot of people just sitting around. But the palm trees, banana trees and Çana trees just kind of ‘make’ the backdrop a picture postcard. Lovely and green – a beautiful setting if your going to hang out under a tree…

Bacardi Island & Humpback Whales

Welcome to Samaná Bay! To the left you will see fishermen with their small canoes and dug-outs. Fixing nets and clearing boats for another day on the water… Ahead you will see a mass of people crowding the end of the pier. Waiting for the speedboat to ferry another load to the larger vessel anchored half a mile away. Join the queue, let’s see if the whales are in town … Once everyone is aboard the captain weighs anchor and guns the throttles… The boat slowly gathers speed until we start crashing over the swells and soon we are getting drenched by the spray! This sets the mood and everyone is grinning stupidly in the sunshine, like kids playing in the surf. What is this draw and fascination with water…? Our video camera doesn’t seem impressed and promptly gives up just as we see a number of boats – of all sizes – in the distance bobbing up and down in the gentle swells.

All the boats are loaded to the gunwhales (pun unintended) with tourists craning over each other to get a snapshot of some sea… No wait… look over there… Despite the activity – with shouting and excited pointing as well as the engines of the maneuvering watercraft – there are some dark shapes in the water. They seem oblivious to everything going on around them. I hadn’t expected that. I always thought that these creatures are stressed-out and irritated and basically trying to get away to calmer waters. I guess that’s what I would have done, but then again, I’m not a whale…

Mommy and junior – two humpbacks – just floating and seemingly motionless. Perhaps drifting on the current… Or snoozing… who’s to say? A burst of air and spray signals a quick breath… The whole boatload is now on the port-side causing the a sharp listing angle. This actually works to everyone’s advantage for a better view. All snapping away with a multitude of digital devices. Convinced that theirs’ is THE SHOT… Well I hate to disappoint; but it is not easy to get a flattering picture of a whale from amongst a hundred heads and hands and fingers pointing… The whales were holding up their end of the bargain though. Great models on the day, even waving a fin… Maybe they enjoy coming to see the people? Like they are also on a tour: “…Come on son, let’s go look at the crazy humans. It’ll be great!…” I must admit, that even though it was packed and busy, it was fantastic and humbling seeing these massive mammals. Worth the long ride in the bus from Punta Cana.

The moment was gone in, what seemed like, the blink of an eye. We left the whales and headed for lunch. By now we had all been up since before dawn so a quick meal would be welcome… The island we were steering towards was actually quite famous. En route we were told that the Bacardi ad was filmed there. This was a while ago (not sure which one it was…), but now forever re-christened: Bacardi Island. And we could see what all the fuss was about. Picture postcard? Understandable that a camera crew would come all the way here for a minute worth of video footage… Perfect beaches, palmtrees (of course) and relatively isolated, until the boatloads of tourists descended upon it…

We were directed into a clearing in the trees where a simple roof covered what looked like a field kitchen or open-air cafetaria. A long line of hungry mouths waited for the cooks to bring out the food. A plastic plate and utensils was offered and a small beaker for juice. We found a seat at one of the picnic tables and had what can be described as a mediocre meal. After the excitement and serenity of the whales this was a quick return to earth. “Lunch-is-served, sir” – but on an industrial scale. Best to eat and then head to the perfect beach for a (half-an-hour) swim. Nice, but once again, too many people on a tiny little island. At least the laid-backness (another enigmatic word) and vibe was chilled and the sunshine was glorious.

Then it was the queue at the boat again and a boat ride back to the mainland. At the pier a throng of locals and tourists. Possibly the only negative on the day. Wholesale mass-tourism exposed. But a nice buzz as we strolled back to the waiting busses. A long ride back to the comfort of our beds awaited us. However – we were now in the ‘zone’. Dominican style. And nothing seemed to phase us, even a kamikaze minibus driver intent on getting us there before midnight. A good day! Whales close-up isn’t something you do everyday. Exploring an island – and pretending to be Robinson Crusoe for five minutes – also… A bus ride through a fascinating and beautiful countryside? Yeah, I’d do it again…

Three weeks around the coast in South Africa

The plan was simple. We wanted to see as much of the coastline of South Africa as possible, as we were emigrating to Europe. Having shipped our belongings, we closed the door of the house for the last time and handed over the keys to the new tenants. There was now no turning back and we had three weeks until our flight from Johannesburg International Airport. Armed with our trusty white VW Golf (no aircon), a handful of maps, a bag of clothes and some cash, we decided to head west. Firstly because we had never been that way to the coast before and also following our instinct to “Go west, young man”… Here follows our diary of the trip.

Day 1

We hit the road fairly late, heading towards Kimberley, about 400 km from Johannesburg. We passed by quite a few open mines and the townships supporting them. The road was not, as expected, a highway, so progress was sedate, but traffic was light and it felt good to leave the bustle of the city behind us. We soon settled into “holiday mode” and “what will be, will be”. Arriving in Kimberley after dark therefore didn’t phase us, although it was clearly not part of the ‘plan’. Doing a quick lap of the town we decided to book a room at the Protea hotel, and settled in for our first night ‘on-the-road’.

Day 2

Quick tour of the ‘Hole’, large open mine, now purely a tourist attraction but a huge operation in diamond mining in its day. Interesting museums depict life at the turn of the century (1900s). Not much else in town our opinion, and we had some mileage ahead of us. There was no plan as such, but a rough idea of how far we should be going each day. Passed through Upington (nice town on the river, greener than expected) and on into the Augrabies national park, unfenced and full of Quiver trees and an awesome waterfall. Decided to camp the night as we had carted our camping gear along and we wanted to get ahead on our budget, oblivious to the fact that it was mid-winter in South Africa. Little did we know that the temperature would drop to minus 1 that night … Our air mattress was the perfect conductor for the cold air and there seemed to be a mysterious lack of firewood. Didn’t sleep much that night…

Day 3

Woke early (couldn’t sleep anyway) and had some coffee overlooking the Augrabies falls. Lovely to watch the sun clear the mountains. Decide then and there that this was our last night in the tent for this trip! Destination: Springbok. What an awesome road. Truly felt as if we were the only people there. At each crest of a hill we could see the road snaking into the distance as far as the eye could see. Not even a tree, just miles of grass and dust, flat and featureless. Turning around the way we came, we saw the same, a ribbon of road and some telegraph poles… and that’s it! Truly awesome. We finally make it to the fabled town of Pofadder. Incredible! In the middle of nowhere, a few houses, a church, a petrol pump and a general store. Like the set of a western movie, and not a blade of grass in sight. The ‘gardens’ of each house were simply fenced-off, well swept, dust bowls … How do these people make a living? Springbok looms up suddenly, nestled in a rocky bowl, not ideal as this makes it uncomfortably hot and humid. Also surreal, cactuses and rocks, grass and some trees dotted around the place, seems very inhospitable. Found a B&B in an old house, felt very suburban. People are giving us strange looks, probably wondering why we’re here. So are we, there’s not even a view…

Day 4

Decided to head for Lambert’s Bay (from hearsay) and stick to the main road. We have a long way to go, so visiting each town on the way is impossible. A relaxing drive, the countryside changes from endless fields of grass into rocky cliffs with stunning views of the craggy cliffs. Once again there are few trees, but each corner brings a new Kodak moment, difficult to capture the great ‘nothingness’ and vast space on a photograph. We get to Lambert’s Bay with an afternoon to spare. Nice lunch on the ‘docks’, actually a couple of fishing boats supporting a fish factory, but quaint and a laid-back feel. Book an apartment right on the beach. Have the place to ourselves, sundowners on deck watching the sunset…

Day 5

We ain’t goin’ nowhere … decide to stay another day. Lovely and relaxed atmosphere. We visit the outdoor ‘dune’ restaurants, closed but interesting to see, and the local bird life, thousands of gannets on Bird Island. End of the day is the perfect time for a barbecue. Red wine, chicken and sunset round off a great day of soaking up the sunshine from the deck and watching the Atlantic doing its thing against the rocks.

Day 6

Head on to the road early. Decide to follow some less well-marked roads and see where we end up. Dirt tracks leading nowhere are explored and many miles racked up looking for that connecting road. Finally back on the highway and heading south again. Good fun tossing the map aside and winging it a little. Scenery changes as we enter the upper boundaries of the wine country. Valleys become greener and more farms with citrus trees line the road. Every few km’s a farm stall pops up proffering juice, jams and some curios. Disappointed by Saldanha bay, what was mentally a tranquil little bay with sailing ships anchored and a bistro and a family of whales, is actually just an industrial fishing community and an army base. Langebaan is totally different. Definitely for the poseurs, large cars and even larger boats are only dwarfed by the neighbour’s house and presumably the size of your wallet. Nice B&B though, the find of the trip – neat, clean, big and fresh rooms with a nautical theme and a great full spread at breakfast. If only this place was down the coast…

Day 7

Head inland again. Towards the vineyards. Lots of towns dotted about, with immense valleys covered in grapes… Land in a small town called Riebeek-West. Very arty feel and a great guesthouse, actually an antiques store doubling as a restaurant. You can buy the lampshades or the chair you’re sitting on. But settle the tab first… The wine is good… Really good. Creaky bed with no springs in the middle, ancient house and even an outhouse out back (not in use). Can feel the creative vibe in the town, art studios and wine making.

Day 8

Time to go. Take the long road, even though we are a stone’s throw from Cape Town. The road winds through immense valleys, towering cliffs on both sides. A thousand km’s ago it was flat and featureless, now the mountains are simply breathtaking. The Hex River Valley must rate as one of the most beautiful gorges. I call it a gorge because the road seems to carve through the mountains with steep cliffs on each side almost leaning in towards you. Finally we ease into Paarl. Famous for its wines and a rocky outcrop that shines like a pearl (paarl) when the sun catches it right. Seems to be a bustling little town after all the sleepy villages we’ve passed through. Book a room in a guesthouse (probably one of the worst on our trip, but cheap enough) and decide that today is laundry day… Take a drive to the ‘rock’, very misty and chilly, but quiet and peaceful.

Day 9

Keep the room for another night in order to explore the region. That way our laundry can get done and we won’t have to worry about finding another room if we are going to stay in the area anyway. We ‘do’ Cape Town and surrounds. Having been there before, its mystery has disappeared, but we do manage to find a sign for Atlantis next to what is basically a township set among the trees on some road. Not exactly inspiring… Lunch in Franschhoek. Must stand out from the rest as being the most picturesque. Nice main road with plenty of choice in lunchrooms. Come away from the day with the feeling that most of the towns here are modelled along the same lines, farming communities, wineries and little more besides guesthouses. Time to move back to the coast.

Day 10

Take the main road to Strand and Gordon’s bay. The little road from there to Hermanus along the coast is stunning. Sheer cliffs on one side and the crashing waves on the other. Hermanus appears out of nowhere and we need lunch again. Head for the Wimpy, definitely the way to go. Your order arrives almost before you order it and the breakfasts are perfect and reliably constant no matter where you go. Nice little museum on the old ‘docks’, or slipway. The whale watching capital of S.A. – but not today it seems. So we meander on towards Gansbaai, the shark-viewing capital. The roads are good and well signposted, and follow the coastline fairly well. Very laid back, makes you relaxed and content to just amble along. We find a guesthouse right on the beach. Seven rooms and communal kitchen. It must be low season for great white shark diving as we have the run of the entire house. Sleepy little town…

Day 11

Feeling rested, we continue along the coast. Each corner brings something new and the towns become smaller and further apart. Find it impossible to follow the coastline, as the road turns inland with branch roads leading to the sea. Time consuming. But Cape Agulhas beckons as the southern-most tip of Africa… Strange feeling to stand on the end of a continent, ahead there are thousands of miles of open sea and nothing until you hit Antarctica. Feel small, and somehow in awe of this great country. Pocket a pebble as a memory. Continue to Arniston, and rent a house. Strange place, literally miles from anywhere, with one shop and two very good restaurants. The rest are premium houses hugging the beach and a few fishing boats. A place to really get away from it all…

Day 12

Enjoying the trip so far… Nice that we have no idea what to expect. Decide to head straight inland to the highway. Rolling hills with only wind pumps dotted around the place. Farm workers herding sheep down the road, causing chaos. Can’t help but smile. Pass through Swellendam, nice old town set against the hills. Beautiful setting, but with the world’s highest concentration of guesthouses, surely. Mossel bay beckons… the road seems to stretch longer and longer, we pass mines, townships and huge cattle farms, the countryside flattening out, but finally we enter the main road without even realising it. The Cape has the best tourism office in the country in our opinion. Easy to find, friendly people and tons of brochures. The back seat of the car is filling up and I’m certain it’s affecting our fuel consumption… We settle on a quaint old guesthouse, really old and a great view of the huge bay. Take a walk through the hills and visit the cultural centre. Pizza for dinner, with sea spray in the background. Don’t you just love the sea?

Day 13

Oudtshoorn is the destination. Leave quite early in the morning and cruise slowly, it’s not far. Seems to be getting drier and more arid. Amazing how a narrow strip along the coast is green and suddenly it changes… Head for the tourist board to find a room. Pick one out according to price and head for the other side of town. Turns out to be an old couple’s garage that they have transformed into a room en-suite. Flowery blue tiles line the shower and an eiderdown with frilly bits hangs over the bed. A white mirrored dresser stands at the end of the bed and bright green carpets on the floor. Like stepping back in time, to somewhere in the 70’s. We pay the man; feeling slightly sorry for them, and armed with a little knowledge, head out on a circular route to try and get back for a late dinner in town. We explore the caves, awesome! Head for the Swartberg pass. Heard about it, but nothing prepares you for it. Gravel road winds through the pass, incredibly steep, and with drop-offs right next to the car. A real experience… At the other end in a valley is Prince Albert, small town next to a river. Old houses and a laid back atmosphere. Take the other road back to Oudtshoorn, it’s getting late as we cross through the gorge, awesomely huge again, but after the pass we fail to take it in. Nice little road leading back to town, farmhouses, and streams…

Day 14

Set out for the coast and George/Knysna. Garden route is stunning. Check in to a tiny room in the ‘Caboose’ hotel, like a railway cabin. Find the railway station and board the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, an old steam train running between Knysna and George. Awesome! Cutting right through the forests of Knysna and along the sea. Lovely to see an old engine at work, how they build steam and take a run-up in order to crest a hill, almost slowing to a crawl at the top and then…made it, and free-wheel down the other side. Great stuff, what fun they must have had a hundred years ago. A bus delivers us back to Knysna and we stop at an oyster farm for a bite to eat. The most delicious, fresh oysters are grown right there and the deck of the restaurant provides a beautiful view of the lagoon. The restaurant at the ‘Knysna heads’ also deserves a mention for an excellent setting and great food.

Day 15

From Knysna we follow the main road to Port Elizabeth, making excursions en route to explore a dirt track or some minor road leading into the trees. It’s raining, or rather drizzling and it’s perfect mood and setting as the mist hangs in the trees, giving the forests a sense of mystery. Once again, off the beaten track, we are alone, sliding our little car down the tracks, through the streams at the bottom of the valley and up the other side. Thanks to some nifty navigation we always find the road again and head off in search of the next side road. We pass through Plettenberg bay, and head towards St. Francis bay. Somehow everyone raves about this place, with it’s canals and Cape Dutch style thatch roofed houses, but the drive there is flat and barren and the place seems to have an artificial feel. Once you get to the sea though everything is cool, and you quickly forgive anything. Get to P.E. latish, find another tiny room and have a steak before catching some shuteye.

Day 16

Getting to like this nomadic existence. Just point the car in the right direction and see where you end up… Always new, always different. Better not to have a plan, just a rough idea of the mileage we need to cover that day. Today it’s East London. Not too far, so we find the alternative route again. Can’t believe the beauty of this country and the diversity. Never stops changing… Grahamstown is quite interesting, old town, lot of history and older buildings. King Williamstown less so, masses of people and not much in the way of tourist amenities it seems. So many of these places deserve a second visit as we have little time and a lot of miles to do. Hogsback is lying in the snow, lovely little place, hardly a town, with houses scattered amongst the pine trees, and a beautiful view of the outstretched valley at the other side. East London has a nice vibe to it, very laid back, although the size of a city. Seem to do their own thing in relation to the rest of the country, like the land that time forgot. It’s there, but nobody’s noticed. Relaxing evening at the pizzeria right over the rocks, and the sound of waves crashing coming through the window of the hotel room.

Day 17 D-Day

Heard a lot of stories about the Transkei. Robberies and stuff, not very safe, don’t stray from the main road, etc. Find it very rural. Seems obvious, but you never really think about it. People walking in the road, heading who knows where, permanent road works all over the place, thatch huts all over the hillsides and cows grazing right next to the road. On a whim we turn off towards Coffee bay, a road stretching 80 km straight to the sea. Will have to return along this to get back to the main road. But we’ve never been here before… Feel very uncomfortable because of all the stares from the locals, like we don’t belong here. The car even gets hit by a stone, thrown by a child in school uniform … But Coffee Bay is simply unbelievable, probably due to the seclusion, but untouched and awesome rough crags overlooking the sea. Stay a little longer than planned and urge the car to the highway and on towards Margate, where we find the first place with rates posted and call it a night. What a day… it seemed like the ‘wild Africa’ of old, where explorers first found a country pristine and wild and untouched. Stunning to see.

Day 18

Spend the morning meandering along the South Coast, on the old road. Scenery changes again, with banana leaves making way for sugar cane. We pass Durban by and continue, trying to follow the old roads that pass through the towns. More sugar cane fields, and rolling hills. We break our unwritten rule and head to St. Lucia, despite having been there before. On our balcony overlooking the estuary, we light the barbecue and relax to the peaceful sounds of the evening. Truly an amazing place, can understand why it’s the fisherman’s best-kept secret….

Day 19

The Kruger Park beckons… We amble along though, enjoying the scenery and the freedom of the open road. We come up (on the map, it’s up) through Nelspruit, on a lovely little road. Beautiful vistas and valleys, hills and mountains in the distance. Seems like it was put here for us alone (and the locals) as there is hardly any traffic, bar a group of cyclists from Holland on tour. A thought sneaks in, that we have to leave soon … After buying some oranges at the roadside we head to the Kruger gate. At Skukuza we pitch our tent on fairly level ground and make fire. When in Africa, do as the… Looking around the rest of the campers who are also doing their best to provide themselves with sustenance after a long hard day in the African bush. We have to smother a laugh when we spot a satellite dish on top of a caravan. Some people can’t rough it… but later a crowd gathers and the volume is turned up, proving the adage that – Rugby rules… Ah sweet dreams…

Day 20

Wake early to try and catch the dawn. Gates open at six a.m. but we’re too late, everyone is up and a queue has formed at the gate. Patience prevails as we take another cup of tea and wait for the rush to subside. Finally we clear the gate into ‘Lion Country’! There’s nothing like the ‘Park’ to make you appreciate the earth we live on. Here all the rules we know are out the window and we march to a different drum. A charging elephant just inches from the car. Face to face with a lion sitting right next to the road, knowing that if you got out of the car… A fish eagle calls in the distance, a hippo grunts and a cheetah slinks off as we approach… Spotting a little Duiker on a hill, tiny animal. The Impala’s everywhere… Birds chirping away with long excited stories to tell. A lone vulture sits atop a dead tree… We head to camp at day’s end, careful to be inside before the gates close. Dinner at the restaurant buffet and an early night, the stars bright on a clear black night. At least it’s warmer than our first night in the tent three weeks ago… During the night a hyena enters the camp through the damaged (by floods) fence. It sniffs around the tent and I have visions of being dragged into the dark. We take refuge in the car. Trashcans are thrown over by the scavenger, the disturbance lasting a few hours… Everyone seems oblivious. Finally drift into slumber, crickets chirping…

Day 21

Last day in the ‘Park’. Head north on a circular route. Don’t even need to see game. Being here is somehow enough. Awed by the splendour of the bush. Feeling saddened that we are leaving this beautiful place. Spot birds in the morning mist whilst having coffee in the riverbed, a honey badger storms past us, on some or other mission. That fish eagle calls again, a crocodile sits motionless at a waterhole, prey in its mouth… Driving down a lonely dirt road we spot a rhino a hundred metres into the scrub bush. It turns toward us and walks in our direction. I frantically engage reverse and give it some room, the lumpy idling of the car a slight worry as the huge animal stands in the road facing us. Time for a few photo’s and then it’s off again into the thorny trees. We feel somehow honoured that this powerful beast would give us a Kodak moment and then disappear once again. We are silent as we move on again. We have a good day ‘spotting’, as they say, but unlike some, seeing an animal is a bonus, just to be here is enough… We end the day parked on the weir outside the camp to watch the sunset. Incredible…

Day 22

Time to go… We spot a leopard hidden in the foliage of a tree as we head for the southernmost gate. First time to spot a leopard, very shy animals, and feel that warm glow again. An eagle in the treetops, just in binocular range rounds off a great couple of days. It never seems long enough… feel a strong urge to stay. Driving along we rethink our trip. It seemed really quick in retrospect.

There were so many towns to explore, hills to climb, roads disappearing into the distance. The sound of crashing waves…. The smell of dry earth and long grass…. The setting sun framing a thorn tree…. The energy that is Africa! Hard to describe. Incredible. Feel honoured to have been able to see this much of the country. Somehow saddened by the fact that there is so much more to see. Want to see it all, experience everything. Want to know all there is about this beautiful land…

Somehow it dawns on me that we will leave Africa, but Africa will never leave us…

We arrive in Johannesburg in the afternoon after another slow drive, trying to prolong the moments… Head to the car dealer and hand over the car. Give it a pat on the roof in parting. It served us well. Many miles of tarmac and many experiences under it wheels….

Our lift arrives to take us to the airport, and it seems so final. We’re unable to drive there ourselves any more… Like our freedom has been snatched from us. After a long wait at the airport, we are finally allowed to board the ‘plane. I turn and take one last breath… I’m going to miss that smell.