Provence sabbatical day 6 – sparky and the rocking pot

Maybe it was all the fresh air, olives and excitement, or maybe it was sheer exhaustion, but I slept like a baby. We woke up late 🙂 Even Mado seemed to understand and only meowed once. Our first task of the day was a semi-panic SOS call to Christiane … during the evening, we sniffed out and traced a dreaded burning plastic smell to the main’s fuse box (of all places). Christiane has looked after and worked on the farmhouse for 8 years, and knows its deepest secrets. The stories she can tell …

Christiane came around as soon as she could, and we showed her the problem, and what we’d done. Nothing out of the ordinary really; plug out the washing machine and plug in a little blower heater to help dry the washing. She phoned Bruno, the local sparky, who said he was working in Brignoles and could only come around after 5pm. Because the trouble came from the fuse box, Christiane prepared us for the possibility of it only getting fixed in the morning. Gulp. It’s pretty damn freezing without any heating. And the chimney sweep only arrives on Friday, so any fires made would have to be small. She showed us secret wood stacks in the garden, and we saw the old donkey shed. COOL!!

Marcel then helped me coax the sun-battered shutters and window frames from their slots, and I started removing the window panes. It went really well. Until I got to the cracked pane, and nicked the corner. It spread like a spider’s web. I hoped superglue would work, but managed to glue my fingers to the glass instead. Luckily the Terps was at hand. Think we’ll be getting a couple of spare panes just in case …

It seemed like DIY was in the air. Our neighbour was tinkering outside the whole day, and sharing his penchant for the Blues with everyone. Further down the hill, someone else was going wild with chain saws and drills. Marcel even got the ol’ sander out and tackled the shutter door sides – taking off just enough so they close again. Every bit helps when you don’t have heating inside! He also secured the wood panelling back on the bath and replaced the leaky shower hose with one that we found in the bathroom cabinet. He also installed a little shower hook so we can use both hands when soaping up.

It was still light when Bruno arrived. With our broken French, and his broken English, and Christiane on the phone we managed to find out that the fuse box had “fondued” (melted). It was just too old. Nothing that we’d done. PHEW! He phoned EDF and asked them to replace it. They said they’d come around this evening. Really? Wow. Bruno smiled contentedly. Christiane phoned to make sure everything went okay. We feel so lucky to have such excellent help. We started a fire, and got the camping gas light and burner at the ready. Around 7pm the electrician arrived, switched off the mains, replaced the box, was bemused by my request to take a photo, and hey presto. Before we knew it, a sparkling new fuse box!!

Turning on the heaters, we phoned Christiane with the great news. She was as relieved as we are that the farmhouse is safe. It gets under your skin … you can’t help but love this old dame. Hell, even the “Snert” was rocking on the stove!! It could be that the pot holding the Dutch pea soup had a round bottom, and the thick bubbles caused it to go off balance, but we believe it was just as happy as were are.

Provence sabbatical day 5 – beekeepers and olive groves

Back in ’99 when Marcel and I first started getting to know each other, we discussed a gazillion things, like the things we’d love to do. On my list, was the romantic notion of picking olives and grapes in France or Italy. So when Patricia told me about hoping to achieve 300kgs to have her own pressing, I couldn’t resist offering my help. She’d organise the picnic, and I’d get fresh bread in the morning.

The alarm clock went off far too early after another night of insomnia. But I thought of the day ahead and got up, splashed my face with icy water, grabbed one of Pen’s hats (she wears them so well) and trundled down the lane.

I couldn’t get over the light. It was all sparkly as sunshine mingled with frosty air. The Pentax worked overtime, as I stopped every two seconds in my attempt to do this magical place justice. I took “the other route” Pen showed me, and got myself a little “lost” – best way to discover a place – and then found my way to the market. A bunch of organic veggies … for EUR 8! Wow. Locally grown, and yummy (writing this after dinner).

A beekeeper asks me something in French. I apologise and say I’m learning French. He says, “which language do you speak?” A British expat who’s been living here for decades. He was a mechanic and gave that up 6 years ago. His story gets interesting, when another client rocks up. Turns out she also speaks English. I giggle for ages at the number of expats; and trudge back up the hill … I wanted to get fit again 😉

I dropped off the veggies and went for my bicycle. Flat front wheel!! Argh. Pump doesn’t work. Try the new one we got yesterday. Helps a bit, but as soon as there’s weight on the wheel … flat! Argh!! I leave the bike out for later and start walking. The roads can be very narrow. When we arrived last week, getting the big Renault van (and trailer) past this farmhouse was quite tricky. I considered myself lucky to be in Muddy Boots with his gammy clutch. Ha ha.

By the time I arrive, Patricia and Phillipe have already started. Being used to manual labour (installing laminate flooring with my honey) I expected a tough day ahead; seeing the electric fork, I almost felt cheated.It took longer to set out the sheets than to get the olives on the ground. So to make me feel better, I tried the little plastic forks that are used for manual picking. Bah, didn’t work for me. Hand picking was better. We took stragglers off the trees, and from a small olive tree on a big hill. That made me appreciate the fork a whole bunch more.

We worked really well as a team. I was expecting netting, but apparently the plastic sheets work better … guessing they don’t get caught in the underbrush. Handling them is like volumes of tulle on an over-sized wedding dress. We giggled a lot as we disappeared under them to funnel the olives. We managed to collect 4x 25kg buckets!! Great feeling. The olive trees have done their bit, and we’ve done ours.

Around 1-ish Patricia and I fetched the lunch goodes. Her home is gorgeous; something Hollywood would ADORE to get their hands on. But then again, this whole valley is so inspiring. It’s very difficult not to fall hopelessly in love. We felt very privileged with short-sleeve weather, fresh bread, camembert, pate. A lovely, lovely experience. But it didn’t end there … and got back into moving sheets and gathering olives. I left around 4-ish before it got too cold or dark.

Patricia, thank you for helping me cross off this bucket list item in such style and fun. But I suspect this won’t be the last day of picking olives?!?

Provence sabbatical day 4 – taking care of the supplies

3am and I can’t sleep. Wide awake and thinking about everything and nothing at all. A little blue light on the screen casts a lovely shadow of Marcel on the wall. He looks like a reclining Moore sculpture. Tossing this way, turning that way, I eventually nod off again. Mwaauwwww. It’s late-o’clock and Mado, the cat, reminds us of our obligations.”Hey, I’m here. Feed me.” First time he’s reminded me.

Feeling ever so groggy, I decide a bath in the Hobbit’s cove is just what I need. The plug system is the same as ours at home. Some stupid knob you turn to lift the plug in/out of the water. And just like ours at home, the mechanics have rusted away. A great idea … on paper. Only, I realise this after the bath is full. And I can no longer get the plug out of the bath!! Much swilling later, the plug finally lets itself loose 🙂

Feeling out of it, I move from one thing to the next. And finally, Pen’s brass candlesticks can taunt me no more. The one sits perfectly taught, and the other is like me after an evening of too many rosés – way too wonky for it to be safe. They’re dismantled, old wax removed, and soaked in boiling water. Marcel helps out with a particularly sticky stick and we manage to reassemble them tight and proud. Hoorah. A SEAL team would be proud.

“How will we know which shade of green to use?” “I have no doubt you’ll be fine.” Aunty Pen has full faith in us. Nothing like a bit of pressure then. Trying to match a piece of heaven? Marcel and I looked around for an easy-to-loosten piece of painted green. The flaking pieces in the front are sun-bleached and have gone yellow, and the garage door looks decidely blue. The bath panelling has come loose, and I’d made a note to fasten it down, but then we figured .. that’s got to be perfect!! Marcel expertly wiggled it out, and we had at least something to go by. And what a choice. At Mr. Bricolage in Brignoles, about 20 kms away, I was happy to settle for “Verte Provence” but comparing it to the slat … way too blue. Hoo boy!! We organised a whole bunch of other stuff, like window putty for the bedroom windows where the glass panes are “hanging in there” and even found a universal plug with a little loop handle thingy for bath time bliss.

After 14 years, I know the secret to shopping with you is to keep moving. If you spend too long in one place, you zone out … so c’mon …” I’ve said it before, shopping is not my thing. Especially on a few hours of sleep. Thanks honey, for knowing me so well 🙂 The drive home was pretty fabulous. In the dark, no street lights, no protective barriers and windy bends.

Provence sabbatical day 3 – watch paint dry or visit the village?

After the gentle rain yesterday, we woke up to sun dashing past the curtains and finding it’s way to our eyeballs. A day of rest! And it wasn’t from getting wrapped on the knuckles for working too hard, I had every intention on taking it easy today. The big question, however, was do I watch the paint in Pen’s room dry, or even more exhilarating, the washing in the basement? Or do I stroll down to the village?

Triiing triiing (the phone is only allowed to make that noise, even if it doesn’t) and Patricia said she was on her way to village … I didn’t hesitate and invited myself along. In Marcel’s words, “I’m on sabbatical from my sabbatical” so I comfortably left him here with his e-books.

Don’t know why I thought the shops were closed on Sundays?!? The Spar is open until noon. Check. We won’t starve. It’s one of the friendliest Spars I’ve seen, and stocks pretty much anything you might need. We met the rest of the gang for a “vin rouge” (or blanc or rosé). They are such nice people! Even after I informed them we’re keeping a photo blog of our sabbatical, they they agreed to being photographed for today’s entry. I tried setting the Pentax up on “auto shoot” but couldn’t get the right angle, and flailed a Scandanavian passerby to assist. The first photo took 12 seconds 🙂 Umm. I set it back and we got a lovely group shot. Everyone smiling, fantastic. Me looking like a Mexican, priceless.

After facing my level of (un)fitness climbing back up the hill, I opted for a cuppa coffee in the sunshine. This yellow tree against an azure sky is quickly becoming my shrine! I love the sound the leaves make when the breeze gently rubs them against each other … as if they’re saying “Good-bye” before shedding for Winter. Thinking of Uncle John in Barrydale, and how he named his dog “BE” to remind him to be in the moment, I found a deck chair in Pen’s shed, and christened it “BE” … it’s the perfect position to lie back and enjoy. Did I drool? My husband didn’t say anything, and I didn’t ask 🙂

Provence sabbatical day 2 – the sun has deserted us

It’s amazing the difference between being a guest and being a caretaker. Don’t think I got a wink of sleep last night. Where I’d rolled over and gone back to sleep the nights before, I was alert to every noise and non-sound. Madonna, the cat, is settling well with us, and was active last night, as Pen had said he would be. At one point I heard a doorbell .. and there isn’t one here! Okie dokie … 1 night in and I’m losing it!!!

Despite it being overcast, I grabbed a cuppa tea and some yoghurt and claimed Wolf’s special breakfast spot. Oui, I can understand. Determined sun beams find their way to flush your cheeks while your nose is protected from the oncoming winter breeze. I had no choice but to grab my camera and discover the garden. There are still loads of flowers and insects (I even got a mosquito bite!!) and buds on the bushes. Hello … don’t they feel the minus degrees we’ve been having?

Marcel spent most of the day reading … fab to see my guy relaxing!! I tackled the painting again, and this time with better luck. The paint was indeed better in a warmed room. Every now and then, however, I saw bubbles on the wall 🙁 arghh. With the slightest encouragement, the old paint just peeled away leaving a nasty bald spot. A little trick I hope will work … I scraped away as much as I could, and then sanded the spot and edges. The new paint seemed to stick better. I slowly built up levels of paint, so it kind of matches the rest. Another coat of paint will be needed.

By 2:30pm the light isn’t good enough to carry on … well, that’s my excuse. We’re still finding our feet in our “new home”. When you’re away for so long, you’re kind of between travelling and living somewhere. But one thing hasn’t changed, me … I’m still in my work clothes. My jersey is getting decidely more speckledy-white. I can only imagine the white band of paint on the back of my head from leaning too close to the wall. My husband hasn’t said anything and I haven’t asked.

On Monday, we’re going back to Mr. Bricolage to get green paint and other stuff for more reparations. We should have enough food until then … the shops are closed from Saturday morning. Á bientot!

Provence sabbatical day 1 – it officially begins

We’re looking at each other in bemused wonderment. Who would have thought that we’d be overwintering in the South of France? But here we are for much-needed R&R and to look after “Madonna” (an elderly, sometimes grumpy cat) in a gorgeous old farmhouse in a picturesque village?

Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

During our 4 months in Cotignac, we’ll be doing some TLC on this fab home in exchange for electricity, etc. So to make sure we’ve got the right tools, we drove down with “Smiley” (our Renault work van) and with “Muddy Boots” (Land Rover 90) for exciting adventures despite the wintery roads.

Enroute however, Muddy’s clutch decided to start packing up. What do you do? It’s Saturday afternoon and you’ve promised to be 1000km’s away by Monday. There’s no time to wait for a tow. So we figured leaving him in 5th gear was the best option and headed straight for the Autoroute du Soleil, instead of taking the back roads. We were handsomely rewarded with the first sunshine we’d seen in ages.

On our arrival, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction. Auntie Penelope and Uncle Wolf introduced us to their friends and showed us the hows, wheres and whats. Pen had written a great A-Z of names, numbers, services, entertainment, and loads more. They want to make sure we enjoy our stay as much as possible, and that we don’t get cabin-fever. Actually, we get asked that a lot … 4 months of doing nothing??

Pen and Wolf left for Istanbul this morning, enroute to South Africa. It felt weird saying good-bye and walking back into their home … without them.

To thank Marcel for his humungous effort in Holland, I’ve insisted that he come here and do NOTHING. Okay, reading is allowed. And writing. But for the rest, I’ll do whatever I can to take the pressure off him so he can RELAX. Alongside Madonna, who has spent the whole day snuggled in Pen’s chair. He’s missing them already, but is allowing us to stroke him more and more. I’ve missed having a kitty to look after!

Sabbatical in Provence (day 1)
Sabbatical in Provence (day 1)

We will be moving from the guest room to Pen’s room, with it’s most fantabulous views across the valley, but it needs to be painted after the roof leak. So after a bunch of other “settling in” chores, I stripped the paint bubbles and started painting. But it didn’t go 100% to plan … it got all thick and chunky. Hmmm. My hubby gently reminded me that painters don’t usually work in Winter, and the room probably needs heating. C’est la vie! Tomorrow is another day. I’ll switch the heater on in the room first thing and make a fresh start.

My education with Pen’s stove continued as I set my attention to a yummy chicken and lentil soup; loosely based on Pen’s winner recipe with Balsamic vinegar that we enjoyed during the Apéro on Wednesday night … and of course, too many vins rouges.

Radio “France Bleu Provence” is playing in the background – nice combination of songs from all genres and a good balance of talking. It’s encouraging being able to recognise some French words, and get the ear in on those accents.

Not sure what tomorrow holds … but all we can say, is that it’s simply awesome to be here!! A huge thanks to auntie and uncle. And also to our good buds in Holland for handling our matters there xxx

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

Catalina PBY-5A flight in Lelystad

Far from the deadly task of being a patrol bomber during the second world war, this grand old dame is delighting historic plane enthusiasts with a “Splash & Go” in Lelystad. Every time we’ve seen and heard this magnificent water plane fly over our house, we promised ourselves “to have go”. Well, Marcel got fed up with the constant promising, and booked us two tickets.

The weather gods played along very nicely, providing the perfect temperature, just enough wind to cause a ripple on the water surface (so the plane could land) and loads of sunshine with dramatic cloudy backdrops.

It was a dream-come-true!

From the moment the old engines roared to life, to the 3x water landings (and take-offs) to when we returned … you couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. My favourite thing was being to walk around the plane, and peek over the pilot and co-pilot’s shoulders. What an amazing experience!!! Check out their website at: http://www.catalina-pby.nl/

Best apple pie in Amsterdam (day trip)

Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where you can easily while away the time absorbing the vibe, looking at centuries-old buildings, and watching people. Yvonne and I met at central station and our goal was a leisurely stroll through the Jordaan and then to partake in a high tea; the English tradition being surprisingly popular with Dutch ladies.

We made our way to the Jordaan, where the Farmer’s organic market is held each Saturday. Magic seeing lots of lovely fresh produce, as well as other goodies. All the browsing left us a little thirsty, so Yvonne recommended coffee and the ‘best apple pie in Holland’ at Cafe Winkel 43. She wasn’t wrong as we patiently waited our turn to grab a piece of steaming pie fresh out the oven. YUMMY!

We meandered our way to PC Hoofdstraat; the high street to be seen shopping in. At those prices, I was more than happy only sticking my nose in to take a pic. We visited all kinds of interesting stores and stopped to listen to the ‘draaiorgel’ a traditional mobile organ.

Still satiated from the unexpected apple treat, and expecting scones and cucumber sandwiches, I was a little disappointed with the high tea. The pastries were a tad greasy, the sandwiches a little weird and I could only swallow one spoon of the overly sweet cake. Note to self: go to London and see how it’s done there! Fortunately it didn’t dampen our day out. The sun was shining, we’d enjoyed fab markets, caught up on some natter.

Amsterdam is very entertaining with people from all over the world, doing their own thing. I love the canals, trees, pot plants, buildings and especially the house boats! A wonderful day out …

LRCH coldest Easter weekend in 100 years

Karen and Taryn came to Holland over Easter; and that was the tipping point for us to join the Land Rover Club Holland in Germany for a little camping in the snow. We’d been considering selling our offroad trailer because it was too big, but after lugging tents, blankies, sleeping bags and a gazillion pillows, we figured it’s better to hang on to it. Literally, of course. They’re known as “hang on wagons” in Dutch [aanhangwagens].

Brrrr … especially when you’re camping!

The Easter bunny’s arrival was announced by Landy hooter and the excitement of kids around us was infectious, “the Easter bunny, the Easter bunny is heeeere!!!”. Then as the sound faded along with most of the kids, one little boy said forlorny, “the Easter bunny is gone”. Ah man. You could see the Easter eggs vanishing in his eyes.

I must say that my favourite thing about these weekends is the family time, and kids being kids outdoors and getting ridiculously dirty. How childhoods are meant to be!

But it’s not just the little kids that have all the fun. Check out the grin on my husband … Marcel and Simon took his 90 for a test drive, after it had been modified for more extreme offroading. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before a little TLC was needed.

All in all, a fabulous unhurried long weekend. As they say in Dutch, “Niets hoeft, alles mag”. Nothing is necessary, everything is possible.

Crouching Man and Christmas dinner in the snow

When most people light up their Christmas trees and stoke their home fires, we chose to celebrate the unusually cold weather in Holland by dining alfresco.

We parked our landies as close to the Crouching Man as we could, and then took out the old tumble dryer drum to make a fire.

Diana had prepared confit de canard and veggies, and I’d made a hot Christmas pud. All of this was kept warm in thick polystyrene boxes, until the moment we were ready to serve. When it’s minus 5°C one’s food gets cold very quickly!

The flickering lights from the city, our candles, and the fire added a wonderful ambience, albeit enjoyed through frozen eyelashes 😉

Ho ho ho, happy Christmas!

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: https://asimplyfab.life/tiger-shark-dive-aliwal-shoal-umkomaas), 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….

Laguna Vista Beach Resort, Sharm el Sheikh

We’re making idle chatter with our hostess when a rather grumpy couple climb aboard the shuttle bus. An onslaught of arbitrary complaints follow in Dutch. We roll our eyes. Great … it´s going to be a long ride! Especially considering that Laguna Vista is nestled further up in Nabq, the new suburb of Sharm el Sheikh. Perhaps sensing the rest of their travel companion’s desire to “let the holiday begin”, they eventually settle down and keep quiet. We make it to Laguna Vista’s reception around 9pm. Cigarette smoke infiltrates my nose. Wow. That´s been a while. Smoking in public places? The receptionist is friendly and suggests we take some dinner before the restaurant closes for the evening. The foyer is gorgeous! However, in the restaurant we find ourselves queueing for shrivelled potatoes and dried out veggies. Hmm, not great. But we’ll reserve our judgement for now … We’re guided to our rooms. The resort is beautifully lit at night. Our luggage is waiting for us. Room is nice and big, just been sprayed against the miggies.

We wake later than planned, shove on our costumes, shorts and tees and head for breakfast; a little hungrier than the night before. Again we’re greeted with dehydrated nosh. Okay, we didn’t pick this resort because it’s renowned for its food. We’ll eat what we can and enjoy the rest of the experience. We head outside for a quick recon. What looked like African huts in the photos, the cottage roofs look more like little pyramids. Nice suprise. The gardens are beautiful. Outdoor pools are well maintained and inviting, yet no one is swimming. The sun is warm but not too hot. Another plane flies overhead, smell of kerosine drenching their air. We organise some towels to soak up some sun. Getting a little hot, we slip into the water. Huh, huh, ooooh … our breath snatching the words from our belly. It’s freezing!! Okay, maybe 16-18 deg C but much colder than we thought. The warm sun concealing winter. We don’t swim long. Opt for a walk on the beach instead, which consists of teeny pebbles that blister tender feet. Aqua shoes are agreeable.

Coral reefs hug the coast of Sharm so most resorts have a pier that takes you past the owie-bits so you can snorkel and swim with stripey fish. Sunsets are gorgeous. Soft rosey-purple skies and luminous turquoise water as the sun tucks behind the Sinai mountains. Camels on the beach are led away by their Bedouins. Night lights flicker gently. Party music picks up. Tents with water-pipes get fuller. Remembering a guest comment that we’d read on the net, we head back to catch an early dinner. Yummy! What a difference. After dinner we take a nightcap in the lounge bar, where a pianist is accompanied by a violinist. Lovely relaxed vibe. Happy with our choice of resort, we enjoy a good night’s rest.

We meet up with our hostess to book some excursions, trying to find the right balance between immersing ourselves in this exotic location and our much-needed destressing at the pool. “Aqua-jogging!” we watch a sporty Italian trying to entice guests to relinquish their loungers. The idea is to hop up and down in bikini’s to music that’s way too loud. Surprisingly, there are some takers! The water being too cold, they go in up to their ankles. We’re surprised by the amount of Italian and Russian guests. We later hear rumours that an Italian company has purchased Laguna Vista. More rumours suggest a thriving buzz of Eastern European women seeking romance who are taking full advantage of the lack of Egyptian women working in Sharm.

During some of the excursions, we come across the same Dutch couple from the shuttle. It doesn’t look as if their holiday is turning out as planned. They’re complaining about the food, the people, the pushing, the culture, and … possibly wondering why they left their comforts at home. Isn’t it funny how we want to discover exotic worlds but through the standards and expectations of our familiar surroundings? “The tourist sees what he has come to see. The traveller sees things as they are.”

A metre high promise greets you at each roundabout in Nabq, “Charming Sharm”. Created to pander to the needs of its visitors. Tourists can choose between row upon row of sun temples and souvenir shops. However, the beauty of Sharm is not this fake world, but in it’s people and natural heritage. On one side of the city, you have the alluring Red Sea, and the other side, the Sinai desert. You can’t help but be drawn into it’s magic. Marcel learns some Arabic/Egyptian words and grows a beard to match his Sheik turban. The locals respond favourably and share a part of their world with us. We are charmed by the tour guides and staff at Laguna Vista. Our room attendant, Saber, is thoughtful and evens greets us by name. At the pool, Mohammed is jovial and eager to share encounters of our different worlds.

A few nights before we leave, we discover you can dine outside on the balcony. Groan. We’ve been rushing through dinner in the ambience of a loud canteen only to discover peace and quiet, candle light and romantic garden lighting. We take our time. Especially with the bottle of red wine we ordered – EUR 25,00 a bottle! Have you got a special occassion? Be prepared to fork out EUR 250,00 for a bottle of Moët!! Do we mind? Nope. Not really. All things considered, we’re grateful to have a bottle of wine in a Muslim country.

In those first couple of days, we feel that we’ve “done Egypt” and don’t really want to return. By the end of it, we’re even more captivated by its culture, history and natural wonders. With so much of the world we’d like to see, it’s unlikely that we’ll return to Sharm, but we’re certainly planning our next Egyptian destination.

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…

Muzi Pan Canoeing: Zulu Culture, Hippos, Wetland Creatures

Rob and Janet Cuthbertson work very closely with their local Zulu communities. They believe that low-impact tourism is an excellent way to provide much-needed employment in the area and to preserve the magnificent beauty of Zululand. During our stay with them, they organised a guided canoeing trip for us with Temba, a Zulu guide who is perhaps the epitome of responsible eco-tourism. Not only has Temba set up his own tour operating company, he is also encouraging his community to become more involved in eco-tourism.
Guided canoeing with hippos in South Africa

We drove from Leopard Walk Lodge just outside Hluhluwe, on Sodwana Bay road through the corridor to Muzi Pan. Muzi is the Zulu word for home. Muzi Pan is home to a multitude of species, including hippos, crocodiles and flocks of wetland birds. It’s a very important marshland area that acts as a filtration system for False Bay Lake and Lake St. Lucia, both very important water bodies for the World Natural Heritage site, called Isimangaliso Wetland Park.

En-route we noticed people gathering to collect water in large drums from trucks. Apparently there is piped water, but it gets turned off at certain times, because people were filling up their tanks and selling the water elsewhere. This is a sad reminder of just how poverty-stricken this region is.

The current methods of subsistence farming is not sustainable for the local communities and the land soon becomes infertile, forcing them to move on to other grounds, which inevitably brings new challenges with it such as land disputes and human-wildlife conflicts. Wildlife is mostly snared for “muti” which are potions made by witchdoctors / sangomas, as well as for subsistence meat and for the bush meat trade.

Age-old forests and indigenous vegetation is usually decimated. To help preserve the environment, Janet and Rob have initiated a Young Environmental Ambassador’s Leadership Course, which shows Zulu teenagers sustainable farming methods, water and sanitation management as well as how to care for and respect their natural heritage.

Coming from South Africa (and experiencing the end of the Apartheid era), it was a privilege and delight to meet Temba. He is a registered Tour Operator running his own business. What a positive, success story! He’s embracing his natural and cultural heritage and encouraging his neighbours to do the same. He can see how tourism offers a win-win solution for everyone – the communities, travellers and of course for nature and the environment.

marcel-victoria-working-muzi-panAfter chatting about the challenges and triumphs, Temba briefed us on the safety procedures and explained what we were going to do, then we headed out. I’m a bit of a birder … okay, I sheepishly acknowledge I don’t know enough to proclaim that “I am a birder”, but I loved seeing Jacana’s hopping around on lily pads and paddling past a flock of Whistling Ducks, ah man. What a beautiful sound.

You can see Temba’s passion for Muzi Pan and his love of nature. He was pointing out little specks far away, which turned out to be large birds ready to take flight. A trained eye! Aside from appreciating the nature and wildlife of this gorgeous region, what I enjoyed most about our canoe trip, were the tid-bits explaining Zulu culture and how these surroundings are interpreted.

With Janet’s involvement in wildlife protection, Temba took us to a carcass of a dead dog that had been used to bait a crocodile, which should have been snared to be utilised for muti. The Parks Board had removed the snare, but the dog was still there. There is such a fine balance between meeting the needs of people, (wild) animals and nature.

Temba also demonstrated how the local folk utilize what nature has provided, as in the water lily example shown in the video, and how they’ve adapted to living alongside a pan teeming with danger in the form of crocodiles and hippos. It’s amazing to think that more people are killed in Africa by hippos than lions – the hippos look so docile and sleepy in the water!

Mind you, on our way back we heard a small splash and saw two little ears and nostrils pop out of the water. Temba quickly instructed us to paddle on the other side of him and do our our best to avoid any danger. Just as quickly as the head appeared, it disappeared again. As did we. Hippos can hold their breath for about 5 minutes, but by that time we were long gone. Only the sound of our beating hearts lingered …

Things to do at Leopard Walk Lodge

The world needs more people like Temba, Rob and Janet. They also care passionately about conserving natural and cultural heritages. As responsible travellers, we need to choose and support tour operators who are actively involved in preserving what’s precious to us.

Orpen bush walk in Kruger Park

In the hot, baking sun we drudged ourselves, albeit rather willingly, behind two armed game rangers from Orpen Camp in the Kruger National Park. Our guides, Carol and Thomas, had fetched us in their open game-drive vehicle from the ablution facilities at Tamboti Tented Camp where we were staying. After introducing themselves and giving us a briefing of the walk, we headed out into the bumpy bushveld.

The best part about going on bush walks like this, is that you get to go into the “no-go areas” and are allowed to ignore the no-entry sign posts intended for the “normal visitors” in Kruger, as we had done earlier that morning. The drive was very pleasant, making general chit-chat over the weather, wildlife and South Africa. We came across a rather difficult patch in the road and Thomas hopped out the car to guide us through. Up until now, the ground had looked very dry, but this patch looked rather muddy. I asked if they’d had some rain lately, and Carol happily answered, “Yes, in January”. It was March. In the Netherlands, we’re happy if we get a week or two without rain …

We reached the spot where we could park the car, and while Marcel and I readied ourselves, camera and video camera, the guides readied their rifles. Just a quick reminder of the eminent dangers … lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, … without there being any rivers in the immediate vicinity we were relatively safe from being attacked by hippos or crocodiles. As instructed, we headed out quietly in single file, whistling softly or slapping our thighs gently to let the guides know we wanted to take photos or ask a question. I have no idea how they saw it, but way in the distance they spotted a giraffe moving through the brush. My word! They must have seen it enroute to fetching us … at least that makes me feel better in my spotter’s inadequacy.

Along the way, Tomas and Carol told us about trees and bushes, and their medicinal uses for both animals and indigenous people. We encounterd orb spiders, a territorial wildebeest and a lone Kudu. We discovered traces of the Shangaan Tribe who were displaced with Kruger was proclaimed as a nature reserve. We even saw remnants of clay-pots from their ancestors scattered behind an old termite mound. It was nothing for them to travel tens of km’s to fetch water each day. Being used to cycling relatively long distances, the walk itself was fine, but the sun was relentless. Even though we carefully and consistently sipped our water, by the end of the day we were knackered and my head started to pound.

Tomas then decided to play a little trick on us. He encouraged us to try the leaves of a Spiky Thorn tree to make our mouths feel all silky and smooth. Naively we nibbled on the greenery, which turned more powdery with every bite. Then Thomas couldn’t contain himself and packed up laughing. Spiky Thorn leaves are renowned for making your mouth dry. It turns out that not even impalas eat these leaves, because they make you thirsty. Animals are smart enough not to eat food that makes them more vulnerable … like needing to go to a water hole. An amazing plant however, as the leaves are also used medicinally to stop diarrhoea! Trying to be good-humoured, I managed a weak smile. “We are not amused” I was thinking in my name-sake.

On the way back, we joked about the European Roller needing to pay conservation fees during their four-month sojourn at Kruger. And perhaps to compensate for the spiky leaf trick, they dropped us off outside our tent at Tamboti. It was a hot but interesting bush walk. It’s far more sensible to stick the morning walks during Summer and leave the afternoon walks during Winter.

However, if you also enjoy the luxury of being alone on a game drive, then keep a panado ready for the inevitable head-ache, wear a good hat, lots of sunscreen and take lots of water along.

The Festive Season, As It Should Be

Oldenburg in Germany is some four hours away from us, but we took a drive there on the 16th of December, to meet up with our cousins for just a few hours at the Christmas Market. These German markets are renowned for their festive spirit and good cheer. It was worth the effort and we found the greatest gifts … love, care, attention and time with family and friends.

Why the title? I’m horrified at what the Festive Season has become. The first news report that appeared on Dutch television after Christmas was about people placing their unwanted gifts on auction websites like e-Bay. Gee, isn’t this just a sad reflection of what the Festive Season has become? Instead of showing our loved ones how much we love them by giving them our time, care and attention, we buy each other gifts as a replacement or representation of our love.

And because we’re too busy rushing around leading hectic lives to be able to afford these unwanted gifts, and to maintain our materialistic lifestyle, we don’t have the time that is needed to find out more about the recipient, or to discover what he / she might actually enjoy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love getting and opening presents as much as the next person. We should give each other gifts. Giving a gift is a personal, vulnerable thing. What if they don’t like it? Is it the right thing to give? Will they understand why I want them to have it?

Perhaps these questions play a big part in why so many gifts are unwanted? People don’t necessarily want to expose themselves like that, so they buy a generic gift that carries the promise “people will love you for giving it”. We eagerly listen to marketers and their big promises. But the recipient often looks at the gift in disappointment. How does it make us feel when we receive an unwanted or a strange gift? Do we wonder why that person bought that item? What were they thinking of (us) at the time of purchase? Was it just the quickest thing at hand? Or was it … er … gasp … a re-gift?

In the spirit of giving

The whole idea of giving gifts (and Santa Claus) originates from a Dutch / Flemish festival called Sinterklaas, which is a shortened version of “Sint Nicolaas”. Nicholas lived in Myra (present day Turkey) between 271 and 343 AD. He inherited his parent’s wealth when they died of an epidemic. Unhappy, he distributed the wealth among sailors and merchants, and then became a priest.

The Dutch and Flemish still celebrate his life on the 5th of December each year, giving small hand-made gifts and making good-natured rhymes that poke fun at the recipient. “The emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift.” Sadly this tradition is giving way to the commercialism of Christmas. Even more sad is that our Western culture discourages hand-made gifts. Things are said to only have value if they’ve been bought. But how can the hours and care taken to make a gift be worthless?

Surely the greatest gift we can give each other is our time, care and attention? I would love to see the Festive Season return to being about spending valuable time together, caring for each other and sharing special moments, and being less dependent on the gifts that are given.

Our Breakaway To Hurghada, Egypt

Our RYA sailing course was cancelled at the last minute, so we booked a last minute trip to Hurghada on the Red Sea in Egypt. We snorkelled, scuba dived, quad biked and visited Luxor including Valley of the Kings and Karnak Temple. This was the first “last-minute” all-in booking that we’ve made. And we can see what the fuss is about. We’d booked a week from 28/08 until 05/09 in 2006 through a Dutch online travel agency at the Hilton Hurghada Long Beach in Egypt.

The Hilton has a five-star rating, but the rating system in Egypt isn’t the same as in other places. A five-star hotel in Egypt is more like a 3-star hotel in Europe. Our room was clean though and what we expected from a hotel room, but the bathroom was ready for botox.

Sky International has got Dutch-speaking Egyptian guides who give all newcomers a briefing about Egypt and the various day tours that can be enjoyed. We’d agreed beforehand to enjoy a typical sun holiday, lying by the pool, soaking up the sun, and just relaxing. Well, after our briefing, it was impossible. We’re in Egypt right? Why not make the most of it?

So we booked a day’s snorkelling, a refresher course in scuba diving (it had been five years since our last dive), quad biking in the desert and a bus trip to Luxor, to see the Valley of the Kings. And we’re very happy with our choices. The scuba diving was fab, with the second dive being better than the first (once the nerves had settled down). The visibility was amazing, but the water is much saltier than in South Africa (where we earned our stripes). My dry mouth missed the apple lollipops that our SA divemasters used to give us at the end of the dive. We did learn however that sucking a lime is excellent for curing sea-sickness!

For a more relaxing time in the water, nothing beats snorkelling. You don’t have to worry about the bends or running out of time (or air) and you can swim at your own pace. Putting suntan lotion on regularly is essential. With the water trickling over your back, you don’t feel yourself burning.

Oh yes, a tip … we’re avid fans of SPF 30 waterproof suntan lotion. But, on our second last day, we decided to try the suntan oil option. We’d figured that the lily-white skins that had taken on a golden hue were ready for a deeper tan. The bottle said it was 30 SPF, so we thought, “Cool!”. Not a good idea, we came home looking and feeling like boiled lobsters.

Through our various day-trips, we visited different hotels and were quite shocked with the hygiene in some of them, especially their outdoor non-public ablution areas.

I was really happy to see a camel up close and even ticked off my number 15 on the list of things I’d like to do before I die … Ride a camel in the desert. But if you get too close to the camels they can be like a bear with a sore head. It was less fun watching European ladies attempting to pull off ridiculously teeny bathing suits that the (Muslim) locals were scoffing at.

Uncovering our Euro-African roots

“No matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African. No mind your nationality, you have got the identity of an African”. Albeit in reverse Peter Tosh sings about the way I felt a lot of the time while growing up in South Africa with my pale skin – I felt out of place in my country of birth. The old apartheid “European Only” signs indicated that a white skin meant that we were European, but we felt African. So, who and what are we? Are we South Africans? Are we English? Are we Dutch? What about the French influence?

In June 2004, we embarked on a quest to discover the similarities and differences between Holland, England and South Africa. The most obvious similarities are the names of cities and towns that you also find on the South African map and of course the Afrikaans language (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), which stems from Dutch way back when. Driving through the flat countryside in The Netherlands somehow reminds us of the Karoo. Just a lot greener. With well-fed cows and horizontal horses (not knowing they CAN sleep lying down, I thought they all had colic and were going to die). And of course there are loads of sheep, which remind us of that succulent Karoo lamb. The biggest difference between Holland and South Africa is the water. South Africa is sunny and dry and Holland is the land of water and canals. In our limited knowledge, we vote Amsterdam as one of the most beautiful cities in the world with its canals and willows accentuating stunning gables on buildings dating back hundreds of years.

We swiftly moved on through Belgium – the roads enroute to France aren’t very different to Holland. Flat and boring, uh … industrial. But hey – we’re in another country! Then we headed into France, and just having watched the WWII memorial service, we were excited to be leaving the Continent from Dunkerque. We’d organised a late arrival with the hotel, but with 10 minutes to spare and panicking slightly, we got lost (in France in love … remember from the song?). The hotel staff didn’t speak English or Dutch, but handed the phone to an English guest who gave us directions. That’s when it really strikes you that you’re in a different country!

We got an early start to catch the ferry to Dover. I’d been wanting to see the White Cliffs as far back as I can remember. The ol’ English country songs and scenic movies (from whence many a soul had flung themselves) and Dover Street in Randburg with its office block ‘ White Cliffs’ (corny, I know). The real cliffs did not disappoint. They seemed so small at first but loomed ever closer, changing from white to a multitude of pastel hues. I was in my element!

We headed due North, past London, waving hello to Essex (where Dad was born) and ambled up country roads reminiscent of Cape Town and KwaZulu Natal (no wonder they became English strongholds). Quaint is a good word. All our childhood picture books appeared before us. Scenic Christmas cards without the snow. Stone cottages, farm houses and well-fed cattle are a sharp contrast to scrawny cows and shanty-towns dotted around South Africa. Skirting past Sherwood Forest, we craned our necks to spot Robin Hood, but not enough in fear of catching an arrow.

As dusk was falling, we entered Newcastle and joined our family for a private celebration. From Newcastle, we took the scenic coastal route to Edinburgh. We love this epitome of mediaeval, even the soot on the buildings is centuries old. The city-tour bus is an absolute must, with its dramatic recall of history. You can hear the cry of people on the bandwagon en-route to being hung. As a South African/Dutch couple speaking English, dining in an Italian restaurant in Scotland, served by a French waiter, we’re beginning to wonder if perhaps the world is too small to worry about which nationality we belong to?

Further north we wanted to pop in and visit Nessie at Drumnadrochi, so decided on the high road to Inverness and then back down the other side of the Loch. The more North we went the more isolated the roads became, a dejavu from our road trip in SA where the Northern Cape is just as lonely. But warmer. Midsummer, you think you wouldn’t need a jersey? HA HA. We didn’t pack one! And froze our socks off. We missed the last Nessie-ferry by two minutes, and tried to find her from the roadside, but she was swimming elsewhere. So we went to the pub for a whisky instead. Yummy. A definite must-come-back!

The next day we needed to “fly south” for our return trip as we were spending the night in Brighton. So munching on shortbread, we darted through loch-hugging hills and vales. The images still flash before my eyes. We passed through Glasgow and then back into England. The low stone walls criss-crossing the landscapes are gorgeous. A hectic day of solid driving followed – 12 hours in the car, with just enough time to get a drive-by-lunch.

The English countryside has a soft, gentle feel. South Africa is bright, sharp and intense. Fortunately it was still light when we arrived in Brighton (no, it wasn’t the reflection from the pier). Our hotel was grand, on the corner, right in front on the esplanade. Definite old-school Colonial feel. Popular with the old-folks. Optimistically I brought my cossie (swimsuit) for a dip in the sea. Taking a look at the murky water we realised how lucky we were with the beaches in SA …

The rest of Brighton reminded us of any Jo’burg or Cape Town suburb. Same style houses, gardens, parks, road signs, it was quite startling. We had an amazing dinner at a Thai restaurant where you could also buy the decor and furniture, like the one in Riebeek’s Kasteel during our SA road trip. The pier did seem a little cheesy though, like a freeze-frame from the 70’s.

Our last day of the whirlwind tour was another mammoth 12-hour day of driving. Back over on the ferry to Dunkerque. Then retracing our steps, we contemplated our past, our present and the future. Had we achieved our goal? Did we feel more European? Could we see where we’ve come from? Had we identified the influences on our lives? Well we’re a few steps closer.

A lot of what we have seen feels like home, and at first glance we belong here. People assume we’re local. Until we start speaking and our accents betray us. A cross-pollination of South African, English, Dutch, and worldwide exposure, sometimes we’re even mistaken for Australians or Americans (obviously not by Australians or Americans).

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.

Diving career dreams end with a tiger shark dive in Aliwal Shoal, Umkomaas

We were planning on becoming scuba diving instructors in the Caribbean, having turned our backs on the corporate world. Marcel had already passed the “Guppy Course” (Open Water 1) and kept me company as I learned mine. Together we followed Open Water 2, Rescue Diver and Master Diver courses.

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