Travelogue Eastern Cape 3: Grahamstown & Colchester

GRAHAMSTOWN & COLCHESTER
30 Nov - 02 Dec 2020

Leaving Bathurst we travelled along R67 for a quick stop-in at Grahamstown en route to Colchester, where we'd be staying for the next couple of nights. It was just a short hop down the road and held the promise of lunch at the end of the journey.

Pulling into town, we paused at the 1820 Settlers Monuments, which we were expecting to be a single statue but turned out to be a conference centre with a few statues, a small locked-up fort, a sundial and a very solid lay-of-the-land viewpoint for the town below.

Leaving the monument, we drove down and parked outside one of the many red brick buildings we assumed to be part of the Rhodes University campus, intending to explore the town on foot. It appeared that most of the campus was locked up with occasional signage stating the obvious, 2020 measures in place. 

We walked down High Street, noting the contrast of the elegant brocaded buildings with the modern street level experience, the usual collection of brands every town has (no matter the size) and how relatively easily reversible the neglect could be, to restore some of the town's lost charm. 

When we'd asked a Grahamstown local we happened to meet in the Pig and Whistle in Bathurst the night before what he recommended for our sightseeing, he'd responded enthusiastically that his hometown highlight is the new curry den. On our loop back up New Street we spotted the very same. The Curry House. Large as life and definitely, by the smells of things, worth a try.

We ordered a pair of bunny chows with a giant samoosa to start and since Covid rules prevented the eatery from seating customers, we walked back to get the car, thinking we would drive to the Botanical Gardens and have a picnic of sorts.

Obviously, it turned out that the Botanical Gardens were right by where we'd parked the car so we drove to get our food and then back again (probably no more than a kilometre or two roundtrip). 

Botanical Garden is a bit of an oversell of a name - lest it create mental images of rollong manicured lawns or structured flowerbeds - but let's say that 'lunch in the park' was a success.

We ticked off the last sight on the list, conveniently (and coincidentally) next door to where we were. The old Grahamstown Prison which now serves as a cafe and bakery. With only a handful of cells, the little prison has been delightfully converted with a themed private dining room in each of the cells, several tables in the open courtyard that served as an open exercise area for the inmates and the kitchen and (self-)service area in what was the guard house. Very quaint. And worth a visit for a meal from what we saw on display.

Having whipped around Grahamstown quicker than expected, Christian suggested that we overshoot our day's destination to pay a visit to Port Elizabeth for a stroll along the promenade and an early sundowner.

Less than half an hour added onto our journey, it was a splendid idea and we were soon wandering along the beachfront in PE, with the bright sunshine balancing the chilly bluster for which the Windy City is famous.

Chris had spent some time in PE for work so was able to give a vague lay of the land and point out some landmarks. A lovely little big city indeed. Hard to believe we hadn't visited before.

We rounded the tour with a quick toot at Barney's beach bar, which was already buzzing with patrons even though it was mid-Monday afternoon.

Back in the car we retraced our footsteps to our next home, in Colchester. We'd been attracted to this sleepy little town since 2020 and it's pandemic had robbed us of our plans to visit Colchester in the UK for a wedding in July.
We were wowed by our accommodation; a brand spanking new, immaculate and tastefully decorated studio that had the best of everything you'd expect - and all sorts of things you wouldn't (like a sandwich press, a humidifier, an electric beater, Netflix etc etc). We also had a private walled garden (good for keeping the wind out) and a pretty little plunge pool.

We took a wander around our neighbourhood, knowing from the map on the booking site that we were on the Sundays River but not much more than that. Houses were built far from the riverbank with open pedestrian access so we were able to walk alongside the wide, sparkling waters that stretched and slowly ambled from the nature reserve on the right to the sea on the left. 

Being in a secured estate our explore was hampered by the electric fence perimeter, which was our cue to get the car and take a drive to view the other wildlife, at the local pub, Grunter's. 

It was very quiet (it was a Monday evening after all) but we were pleased with our surf n turf dinner and happy to call an early night since we had an early morning ahead of us.

Our early morning was to get into the Addo National Park while it was still cool enough to favour good animal sightings. With our nest literally across the road from the Southern entrance of the Park, we'd saved ourselves any additional early rising or unneeded car time. 

We were able to fashion a modest breakfast with our patchwork of supplies and the amply equipped kitchen and rolled into the park, determined that we wouldn't leave until we saw at least an elephant.

The park issues a map with a checklist of animals each with a points allocation. Christian was thrilled when the first sighting for the day was his; a Dungbeetle scoring him 8 points. Things got tense when he then spotted zebra for an additional point. But, turning a bend that saw the brush give way to an open veld, I evened the scoreboard with not one but two elephants!

From there it was a landslide; kudo, elephants, eland, zebra, elephants, warthogs, elephants, buffalo, camels. It's a very rewarding game drive experience, getting saturation point of sightings within a couple of hours!

Smug from a very successful morning in the park, we retired to our studio where we enjoyed the rest of the day lounging around, able to relax because there was nothing else unseen or undone in this sleepy little enclave. What a great day.

Travelogue RWC 2019: Yokohama

YOKOHAMA
20-22 September 2019

Always up for a travel adventure, I heartily agreed with Christian’s suggestion of attending the Rugby World Cup 2019 since it was to be held in Japan.

Having been to Japan 4 years earlier, we decided to split the trip into the key bits we hadn’t seen on the previous trip, with an add-on hop to South Korea, to which neither of us had been before.

With the rugby ticket lottery so far in advance, our travel arrangements being made months before and a lot (more than usual) going on on the home front, the trip kind of snuck up and it was quite surreal arriving at the airport for our departure.

We had been squirreling Skywards Miles hoping to upgrade our flights for the long haul to Japan, but there was no chance; the flights were full to bursting. The first leg (Joburg to Dubai) was not so bad in a big new airbus, but it was a bit of a squeeze in the 777 on the second leg (Dubai to Tokyo).

On the brightside though, the menu reflected that our holiday had truly begun, with a salmon teriyaki for breakfast and sweet and sour perch with fragrant Japanese rice for lunch. Even the drinks trolley had switched tea for green tea.

The plane was packed with rugby fans – lots of Saffas and a collection from all over the UK – so the fact that Emirates (excuse the term) flights matches live was a massive hit. And the plane very soon ran dry of its beer stocks and a great deal of its single-serving bottles of hard tack, mixed with a splash of cola in very impractical little plastic cups. I wish I’d taken a photo from the back because I’d imagine that it’s pretty rare that almost an entire planeful of people watch the same thing when there are over 2500 content options to choose from!

We cleared customs just before midnight and were glad we’d booked a driver to take us to our hotel. He was ready and waiting for us and obliged our request to wait while we got a SIM card with a smile and a head bow.

Our hotel was a little tricky to find, but after circling the block we were deposited at the front doorstep. Reception was on the 20th floor and we were soon checked in to our 15th floor room… And out the door to get ourselves welcome drinks from the 7-11 on the ground floor, which we enjoyed while surveying the harbour across the road.

After our very late night, we had a bit of a lie-in on Saturday morning. Our pre-scoping of Yokohama had revealed very little tourist value so the rationale was to renew energy levels at the expense of sightseeing time.

A peep out the window revealed a grey and overcast day. It was little surprise as the weather forecast – which I’d consulted for packing planning purposes – had been “20 degrees and raining” for the day.

Decked in jeans with hoodies and rain ponchos in our backpack, we hit the streets.

And didn’t even get to our trusty 7-11 downstairs before Christian turned backs and traded jeans for shorts. Their 20 and our 20 are clearly very different. The coastal mugginess added a blanket of warmth – and if the rain stayed away, it would be perfect!

Our first impression of Yokohama by day was how clean it was. Every road was spotless, without as much as a cigarette butt or a stray plastic wrapper flapping in a gutter. Even with all these filthy foreigners in their town, Yokohama had sustained its pristine Japanese orderliness. They’ve got it so right.

Moving down the street revealed the magnitude of this skyrise city. Our hotel, at 20 floors, was dwarfed by our neighbours! And the vast number of massive blocks and shops along the street front alluded to a live-work-play apartment lifestyle.

We took a turn past the Rugby World Cup Fan Park, which was already buzzing with activity. We passed several people also in Springbok jerseys and did the obligatory head nod and ‘howzit’, expressing kinship like we all knew each other.

First stop was Chinatown for lunch. It might sound off for our first excursion in Japan to not be a local venture, but this Chinatown is credited as being one of the best in the world. Plus, it was the farthest point from the stadium relative to our hotel, so made practical sense too.

We wandered up and down the narrow streets, adorned with patterned buildings, decorated with gold trim and bright red lanterns, and completed with street-level food stalls, boiling, steaming and frying all sorts of deliciousness.

Our first course choice was an easy one. A delicate Peking duck parcel, like a tiny schwarma. It oozed flavour and the duck was tender and juicy with a crisp crisp skin. For main course we chose to sit in a restaurant because the streets were so full – and they had an English menu. We had pork mince noodles (essentially a salty sticky spag Bol) and a chicken stir fry.

By contrast, our walking tour took us to Motomachi with its structured streets and elegant grey buildings, skirted with the world’s top label brand stores.

There happened to be a ‘Charming Sale’ on for the weekend so the pedestrian walk was heaving with people amped to get their bargains. And the many restaurant snack hatches had queues of people waiting patiently for their turn to be served.

With severe baggage restrictions on our internal flights, we resisted the urge to investigate any of the stores or their sales and moved along swiftly to the Landmark Tower, from where there are supposed to be magnificent views of the city and beyond.

Being a grey day though, there was small promise of being able to see anything, so we just went to the mezzanine viewing level which had pretty good near-sight views of the harbour.

We were now perfectly positioned to jump on the metro at Queen’s Square to head through to the stadium, giving ourselves lots of time to get there based on the warnings that the trains get crammed and the security process into the stadium was bound to be beyond thorough.

With precious little English instruction to guide us, we managed the 2 train combination to get to the stadium and were in our seats (nosebleeds, riiiight at the back) with an hour to spare before start of play.

Christian enjoyed watching the players warm up, while I used the opportunity to write this travelogue.

The game was sold out so the stands were packed with spirited rivals, making for lots of pre-game chanting and warcries. Even for the uncommitted rugby fan (nudge nudge, wink wink), there was going to be plenty of energy and entertainment value both on and off the field to make for a memorable event.

We managed to work out way down to much better seats early in the first half so had a brilliant view of the field, along with 63647 other people. Our team, nothing if not consistent, started strong but then made some rookie mistakes, conceding 2 tries and losing the game.

After the game we made our way back towards home and stopped in at a metal bar called Thrashzone that served a wide selection of craft beers.

As the only Westerners in the tiny bar (with a capacity of maybe 40 or 50 people), we were fortunate to seat ourselves next to an English-speaker who had been a pro snowboarder in Canada for 10 years before returning home to Japan. He told us a bit about Japan and asked lots of questions about South Africa. We were the perfect ambassadors on the wonders of our country (consistency of rugby play aside).

It had been a long time since lunch and we had an early start in the morning so we made our way back to the hotel and grabbed a heat-and-eat meal from our trusty 7-11.

It was clearly quite late for dinner so we were limited in what was left and each chose a spaghetti meal; Christian’s with chicken and mine with shrimp.

Our pasta meals were heated in a minute and a half and, admirably, were still steaming when we got up to our room – and were surprisingly delicious. Easily on par with some of the Italian restaurant chains at home.

We wolfed them down while watching a completely unfathomable Japanese game show and then called it a night, leaving the blinds open to wake us for our next day’s adventure, taking us to Sapporo.

Travelogue French Riviera 5: Nice

NICE
19-22 June 2019
Deciding upfront that we’d get all our roadtripping done and then homebase the final stage of the journey from Nice gave us the freedom to stay in the Old Town which with it’s windy narrow cobbled streets would be a nightmare to navigate in and out of.
A very wise call.
Strategically, we’d committed to return Noddy Car to the rental place (at Nice Airport) later in the afternoon in order to give us time to check in at our apartment and drop off our suitcase en route. It was quite a harrowing journey, getting the one ways sussed and breathing in to squeeze through the skinny alleys with the odd tourist darting into a doorway or plastering themselves to a wall to avoid our wing mirrors.
We only found out when we arrived that our host doesn’t live in Nice, so we had an hour and a half to kill before collecting our keys and, worried that we wouldn’t get the return journey to the airport done in this slot, put it to good use with a 3 course lunch!
Our apartment was ideally placed, half a block in from a busy piazza with restaurants spilling into the square to provide a sea of checkered tablecloths and umbrellas offering shade and fabulous food to scores of people.
We found a table right on the edge, sat next to each other and people-watched as the waiter brought us plates of delicious local Niçoise specialities. The duck in creamy mushroom sauce stole the show for me!
Our apartment was tiny (by home standards) but immaculate, clearly recently renovated and light and airy with the massive old school shuttered windows that looked down into the cobbled streets below and the Irish Bar across the street.
We didn’t have much time to revel in it though, with our car return deadline looming. Fortunately though, the Nice Airport is close to town and we were there around 15 minutes later, including the nail-biting exit from Old Town and a pretty scenic drive.
It was easy enough to catch a train back and alighting at the central station gave us a chance to see another portion of Nice.
In stark contract to the cobbled charm of the Old Town, new Nice is grand! Beautiful old and elegant buildings line a long, wide shopping high street with all the designer labels you can imagine lining the ground floor of the street fronts and the two or three storeys above them bearing tall, elegant windows, filigree balconies and finely decorated cornices.
At the far end, a massive stage was in process of being set up on the square and the stage was already busy with a collection of musicians doing soundcheck – and entertaining passing shoppers in the process. As we drew closer, we saw this was the annual Fete de la Musique celebration plan, with a free concert scheduled for the night of the 21st June. Looked like it was going to be huge!
Our walk took us back through our old town whose high street counterpart was filled with chairs and tables from restaurants displaying menu boards, seafood showcases or using live music to lure you in.
We resisted for the time being in order to pass through to the promenade to see the beach. A heavenly crescent that looked like the Copa Cabana except without the stripey pavements and with grey smooth pebbles instead of golden beach sand.
6pm but with the sun still holding its place in the sky, the beach was still occupied with sunbathers and the pavements busy with joggers, family strollers and tourists.
The perfect time for a sundowner, so we hit the high street and found ourselves a comfortable spot with live music and crazy happy hour specials that run from 5 to 9!
Having saturated with culture at our extended lunch, we took the opportunity to squeeze in a curry dinner. Consulting The Fork app (that we’d discovered and loved on a previous trip to Italy), we chose a curry den called Bombay Palace around the corner in the Old Port and since it shared its name with our local curry den at home, we figured it kismet and definitely worth the research.
Quite different presentation (and portions!) compared to what we’re used to. And definitely a different view, overlooking the multi-storey yachts moored on the other side of the road as opposed to the parking lot at our All Saints Shopping Centre!
THURSDAY
We’d pre-booked a free walking tour meeting at the square where we’d seen the stage set up.
We had no trouble finding our way back (amazing how much more you take in when you’ve walked a route as opposed to driving it!) and no trouble finding our guide, marked with the red umbrella and surrounded by the easily 50 other tour group members.
We were introduced to our guide, Isabella from Argentina, and thankfully spared the chore of introductions to each and every group member.
Isabella started the tour with some of the vital statistics: Nice is a city of 350000 inhabitants (5th biggest in France) and enjoys more than 5 million tourists (making it the second biggest after Paris) and more than 300 days of sunshine per year which, along with the high concentration of museums, is why it gets so many tourists.
Nice had quite a patchwork history between the major empires. It was founded in 350 BC by Greeks en route home from Marseilles, and originally named after Nike (the Greek word for Victory). It was a thriving port town until a neighbouring city, Saminello, burned to the ground and all the people moved to Nice so it became quite a big city quite quickly.
Nice was part of the Savoy Empire – with its capital in Turin – until the 19th century. It was bounced back and forth between Savoy and France for 500 years until Italy became a country in 1860 and a referendum was held in Nice to see if the people wanted to be French or Italian. They decided to be French. It was a bit of subterfuge though because it was actually already predetermined as an exchange between Italy and Napoleon III who supported Italy against Austrian invasion.
In the middle of our tour we heard a loud bang. Isabella calmed us and recounted the story of one Sir Thomas Coventry, who came to Nice in 1860, travelling with his wife who was a terrible timekeeper. Since this was affecting the serving of his noontime meal, he asked the city’s permission to set off the canon at midday, as was customary in his home town. The city allowed it – and liked the idea so much that they made it law to let off the midday canon each day. It is now a firework rather than a canon, and has been set off by the same chap for the past 27 years. He’s looking to retire now, so possible job vacancy for someone who is punctual, reliable and never leaves the city.
We emerged on the beachfront, where Isabella explained that it’s a pebble beach, apparently, because of the stones that are washed through from the Paillon River. She also revealed that the Promenade des Anglais is so called because the English paid for the construction of the walk for the comfort of the hordes of Brits that flocked to Nice in winter to seek sunshine and wanted a nice place to walk along the seaside.
Just like we were doing.
We walked to the end of the Promenade but instead of rounding the cape to take us down to the port where we’d been the previous night, we were taken up to the citadel where we had the most spectacular views of the long beautiful stretch of beach, the magnificent azure sea and the infinity of blue sky and sunshine that has made this coastal town so famous for so long.
Isabella also pointed out on the other side, while we were overlooking the port, what lay beyond and how easy it was to get there… Which is when we hatched a plot to go and see the neighbouring village and its sandy beach.
We departed the tour group and made our way back down the hill to the port where we had no trouble finding the bus stop, and no more than a minute or two wait before handing over our €1.50 fare and moving on to Villefranche-sur-Mer.
On arrival we were delighted – and very surprised – to find an OPEN tourist office. The chap at the desk was very helpful, providing us with a one pager easy simple map and circling the things we needed to do and see. He was emphatic that the citadel was the way to start, so that’s what we did.
Villefranche-sur-Mer was founded in 1295 by Charles II of Anjou, Count of Provence. It fell into the hands of the Duke of Savoy for 5 centuries and was returned to France in 1860. It has an impressive stone fortress ordered by Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy in 1557 to defend the old town which is open and free to visit, and which houses a number of exhibits and displays telling the story of the citadel, the town and its people.
Obediently following our map, we wound down the hill through the Old Town. It’s built into a hill so the town is a network of staircases with some quite ingenious uses of the space.
After an easy amble we were deposited at the beachfront. Short on real estate and big on appeal, the beach was crammed, so we retired to a cafe across the road and had a lovely cold beer while we rested our weary selves.
Refreshed, we trotted back up the hill to the station to grab a train back to Nice and our homebase, now old hat to us with all our comings and goings, was a doddle to navigate so we were soon back in our ‘Hood.
I had been angling for a rotisserie chicken for days after seeing them served all over the place so we picked one up from the local butchery on the way home and savaged it with lovely fresh baguettes by way of an early supper while we prepared to head out for the evening.
The Nice lifestyle so suits us when we can get the day’s action out of the way, have dinner early and then still have a couple of hours to sundowner after we’ve been fed. We put the sunlight to best use, visiting a few of the pubs in the market strip, enjoying their live entertainment.
As it so happened, it was the FIFA Women’s World Cup being hosted in France over the period we were there and there was much excitement in the Old Town over a few key games that were being played that evening. Big screens were front and centre, and some of the live acts on bricks temporarily while the focus shifted.
We shifted to Paddy’s Pub (in the same road as our apartment, so very much on the way home) to watch the second half of the USA vs Sweden match that was getting a lot of attention.
The pub was lively with American supporters, we logged our Guinness Index and from our vantage point at the bar we kept an eye on the Irish folk dancing troupe that continued business-as-usual in the back room, twisting and twiddling along to the accordion playing their traditional songs.
FRIDAY
We had pre-booked our tour to Monaco for Friday, which left gave us a deadline for getting up and out. So far from what we’d experienced, mornings were a leisurely start on the Cote d’Azur, so getting up and out at 9.30 felt like quite some pressure all considering.
It had been a long time since the rotisserie feast the night before though, which helped with motivation to get fed before a strenuous few hours of walking tour.
See: Travelogue French Riviera 4: Monaco.
We had been watching the set-up of the concert on the Place Massena (the main town square) with eager anticipation as the days had gone by and tonight was the night! … So on our return from Monaco, we went past the Place to see what was going on.
By now fencing had been put up around the entire area to restrict access and implement strict security controls – and there was a bit of a frenzy with people arriving and streaming into the gates.
Quite relaxed about the whole affair, we took the ticket that the poor promotions chap was madly tearing out of his book and that we needed to present to the security heavy to get into the gate, but ended up not going in, thinking a shower and change into flip-flops would make for a far better start to the evening.
We went home, showered and changed, headed to the market and got absorbed into trying some yummy local dishes, with no rush to get to the concert because there were La Fete de la Musique things going on everywhere already.
Good thing too because when we finally headed over – at maybe 9 or 9.30 – things were only then really starting to get going.
It was superbly organised and we had no trouble flashing our tickets to get in, the security was super efficient and there were no queues at either the bars or the portaloos, even though there were easily 20,000 people there (our tickets were numbers 16125 and 16126).
We didn’t recognise any of the artists, but they must have been big names in France because everyone around us knew the words, the moves and sang heartily and danced merrily along to the hip hop chap and his band of neon-tracksuited dancers, the songstrel that belted out her radio tune, the aging rocker who growled his song at us, the McDreamy crooner in his leather jackets, the works!
We didn’t stay until anywhere near the end and were delighted to be able to had our tickets over to 2 very optimistic faces in the sea of optimistic faces at the gates hoping for exactly such an opportunity.
Getting closer to home, Old Town was a chaotic wash of activity. There were serving stations set up outside of pubs and bands set up in the street. We even accidentally collided with a street carnivals drumming squad as we swam upstream of their procession! It was great fun and we saw a lot of great acts (and of course, quite a few less good ones).
By the time we circled around to our road, we feared we’d never get any sleep because there bands were packing up for the night, DJs were setting up. And one such street party was right under our kitchen window! All in the name of a good time though and, kudos to the French, they seem to be far more restrained than most nations. Despite all the festivities, there were very few drunkards ruining anyone else’s experience. Just lots of energy and celebration. A wonderful thing to be a part of.
We’d had such a great (and long) day that even with the party going on right outside our window, when we eventually went home, shut the double glazeds and retired, both of us were asleep before heads hit the pillows.
And again, kudos to the French, when we got up and headed out for our last breakfast the next morning, everything was already cleaned up. Besides the odd bit of bunting still strung between street poles, you’d never tell that the city had hosted a bash at all – let alone of that magnitude – the night before.
What a hero of a town. And what a memorable night. Totally worth planning a repeat visit around.

Travelogue Reunion 2: Saint-Gilles

SAINT-GILLES

28 Dec 2018 – 01 Jan 2019

As far as roadtripping goes, we’d thought Ireland took the cake for Country With Most Manageable Drive Time Between Cool Things. Reunion was going to give that a run for its money when Day 1 was the transfer from the capital, St Denis, to beach town, Saint Gilles, totalling 43km… Including passing through 3 little towns en route!

That said, it can still be a white-knuckle experience thanks to the left-hand drive car, driving on the wrong side of the road and quite narrow roads at that. Even the main N1 and N2 are narrower than we’re used to. But it seems like a solution is in sight based on the mammoth bridge / fly-over that’s in the making in the ocean close the shore running more or less from St Denis to La Possession.

We were delighted at our first sightings of the next few days’ home as we rounded a bend and there it was! The sunny seaside town of Saint Gilles. Picture-perfect and every cliche in place as we took in the main road with its restaurants, shops, patisseries and boulangeries. Like a little French Margate.

Our digs were even more of a delight when we discovered that we’d been assigned a little standalone bungalow, complete with our own stoep, a dressing room (they called it a second bedroom) and, best of all, aircon.

Our host, Jacques, welcomed us in his very best English, which was a translator app that he spoke into in French, then pushed a button and it returned the translated equivalent in a posh English accent. Well, in Polynesian the first time, but that was easily remedied with a setting adjustment and a giggle.

Jacques (and his English Lady) told us where to find the best local amenities – everything was close by – and recommended a few must-do places. He also advised, by way of itinerary-planning that we have a local beach, a beach 1km down the coast, a beach 1km up the coast and another beach 6km up the coast.

As soon as he was gone, we put on our swimmers and headed for the beach down the coast, L’Hermitage.

We didn’t economise on the walk to the beach, checking a few of the recommended locations en route, taking a wander past the harbour so we could see where our Plongee (dive) shop was and generally enjoying the no-need-to-hurry-anywhereness of it all.

The beach itself was a bit disappointing. Quite gravelly sand and with a coral reef starting virtually from the shore, lots of rocks and stony bits to contend with on your way into the water. The water itself though was Azure blue, crystal-clear and bath-warm, so once we were in we were quite happy to bob around and, obviously, being South Africans, watch our bag on the shore.

We also people-watched and based on the lack of shore front accommodation (holiday or otherwise), the smattering of tents and the generous allocation of picnic tables under the trees just off the beachsand as well as the general demographic, we reasoned that this must be a locals’ beach. We hadn’t gone far enough along it to get to Saint Gilles’ only 5* resort and we’re curious to see what that was like. Another day.

For now it was time to get home for a sundowner, which was a couple of Phoenix beers we acquired from the hole-in-the-wall bottle store at the end of our road, creatively named Night Shop since it was only open (all) nights.

We pored over the tourist maps and books that Jacques had left for us and plotted our next few days. We also debated dinner since we weren’t wildly hungry, but had to eat.

We headed into town with no particular intention and wandered past a double storey cafe that caught our eye so we stopped and had a fantastic seafood wrap and chips, sitting on the top storey to admire the view of Roches Noires, the local beach Jacques had described as up the coast.

SATURDAY

Allocated as our day of exploring by car, Saturday started with a visit to the famous beachfront market in neighbouring Saint Paul. Mostly fresh produce and souvenirs, the market makes for an excellent breakfast-on-the-go, snacking as stalls catch your interest.

We were barely into the market before we had a bag of assorted samoosas to work through – pizza, smoked cheese and curried fish fillings among our favourites. We sampled the fresh strawberries and nibbled on some sweet pork strips as we marvelled at the unfamiliar tropical fruits and how different ordinary veg like onions and bananas looked.

Without any specific shopping to do (and we had no intention of cooking on this holiday, despite our bungalow being fully equipped), the market is a quick excursion, so we rounded off the outing with a quick whip around St Paul’s centre; a neat grid of a couple of narrow roads in either direction.

Hot and sweaty and ironically motivated to get back into the car (for the aircon), we began our drive up to Maido, the highest point on the island.

Only 29km away, but an hour’s drive because of the narrow and winding roads to get there, we could not have picked a worse time to do the excursion. Having read of its sometimes freakish microclimate, we didn’t believe it until it happened to us. Having left blue skies and 30+ degrees behind us, we had pouring rain halfway up the mountain and finally arrived at the top as the last of the cloudcover swallowed what we’d read to be the spectacular view! The mist was unbelievable, billowing like it was being generated by a smoke machine. And, insult to injury, it was 17 degrees, according to the car’s thermometer.

Determined not to waste the drive up, we wandered around the “view” points, in our shorts and flipflops, in contrast to our counterparts passing through the spot from the many hiking trails in the area, all appropriately attired with hiking boots, anoraks and most with those multi-functional wrap things that can be headbands or scarfs depending how you wrap them.

True as Bob, on the way down we passed through the same belting rain and we’re greeted with the same blue skies sunny day at the bottom again. Odd.

Fortunately, even a failed excursion isn’t enough to dampen spirits and the West Coast of Reunion is much like our beloved Eastern Cape coast in that there’s always something else worth doing. So we set the car toward Boucan Canot (the “6km up the coast” beach that Jacques had told us about) to see what we could see.

And what we saw was a holiday-makers paradise. Waterfront of restaurants and cafés, facing golden sands and warm waters.

The red flag was up, restricting swimming to the area of ocean cordoned off with orange buoys. Being such a proverbial drop in the ocean on the busy beach, it made for quite a concentration of bobbing heads. But the vibe was good and it was a great cool-off for a couple of hours after a day’s sightseeing.

Back in our own neck of the woods, we dropped off our car and walked down to Roches Noires for sundowners and to test it as a possible location for our New Years Eve festivities. We were nice and early so got a primely located table right at the water’s edge.

Sipping on ice cold local Fisher beers, we watched as the sun went from being low in the blue sky to turning the horizon orange before slipping away completely. A very nice way indeed to spend a(nother) couple of hours doing nothing!

With evening upon us, we headed back up to the main drag and tried a few spots closer to home. We managed to tick off another destination on our Guinness Index, at Chez Nous where they serve 33cl bottles for a hefty €6. Not for sissies either; it is brewed under licence in Mauritius and is weighty 7.5% alcohol!

SUNDAY

With our dive booked for 1pm that afternoon, we wanted a light and easy morning so took a drive 16km down the coast to St Leu to get a spot of breakfast.

We were getting accustomed to the roads and subjected to the slightest of traffic since we were based at the far end of St Gilles, closest to the direction we were headed for the day.

Arriving in St Leu we drove down the high street to get a lay of the land and then circled back to the start of the town to repeat the exercise on foot, walking along the beach and back through the town.

There were cafes dotted along the beachfront and we stopped at one of the huts, Les Filaos, to get some breakfast.

Breakfast had had us very confused. There seemed to be no “eggs and bacon” style plated options; rather, breakfast was a visit to the Boulangerie for some fresh crusty bread or a pastry or two. We had even tried to order a sandwich to fit in with the crusty bread theme and were told it was too early.

Fortunately, Les Filaos seemed a bit more relaxed and gave us a sandwich (a massive baguette slathered with creamy butter and layered with lovely ham) – hardly surprising since they were serving other patrons beers and Chardonnays and it was barely 10am.

Wonderful setting for a breakfast and we engulfed the view as much as our crusty brunch.

To balance our rebellion with local custom, we visited a Boulangerie in town and got a pain au Chocolat to nibble on as we walked through the little town and back to the car.

With everything so close together, our urban time management kept getting us ahead of schedule and the time we’d budgeted to drive home, drop off the car and walk to the Marina was way more than we needed an ended up at the dive shop almost an hour early. We were offered coffees while we waited (in that heat!) but opted to take a wander around the quay to the beach and back instead.

Back at the shop we had a heart-stopping moment when the dive shop couldn’t find my PADI accreditation on line… Which would have meant I would not have been able to dive! But they found me on the website and it turned out to be a Case of The Missing Initial and all that had started questionably was well.

We were required to set up our own gear so it was fortunate that Christian had so recently completed his dive course and was still fresh on the “what goes where”. The dive master checked out gear, assigned us as buddies and paired us with Jerome and Anais as his group. He also briefed us that we would be doing the Canyon route up and down the natural dales in the coral.

The boat travelled no more than a couple of hundred metres out and we plunged into the blue blue sea. We were to be exploring the far side of the coral reef just off the shore where we’d been complaining about the coral underfoot on the L’Hermitage beach on our first day’s exploring.

The water was crystal clear and like a bath so an absolute pleasure to dive in. We could see everything – lots of coral, bright fish, octopus and 3 sting rays! – and were light on oxygen, not needing as much to keep warm. We did 48 minutes at around 18-20 metres under water.

By the time we were back on pier, we were starving so it was a quick wash of the gear (no helpers to do that for you here!) and we were off like a shot to the Sandwicherie on the corner of our road.

La Salsa Du Pain had been sending wafts of freshly baked bread up to us since we’d arrived and was always busy, so was a Must Do on our itinerary. This was the perfect opportunity.

We walked the short way around – amazing how much smaller this town was, now that we had a proper lay of the land! – and ordered a tuna sandwich because, well, it was the only thing we recognised from what was left in the display.

As dumb luck would have it, it was delicious. As all sandwiches we’d experienced, it was a massive baguette loaded with creamy filling and crunchy garnish. Oh, and the reason it was so busy wasn’t actually the life-changing baked goods, it was the betting window it shared a space with. As we were trying to find a peaceful spot to engulf our breaded bliss, there were locals peering round us trying to grab snatches of the Trots on the screen behind us!

Not really the dulcet sundowner experience we had in mind as the setting to our reverie of the day’s memorable events. So we trotted ourselves up our driveway and enjoyed home-sweet-home on our cosy little deck.

Heading our for dinner we tried the main square. With a row of restaurants that had been quite shut in the off-hours we’d passed them, our curiosity was piqued. Hardly surprisingly, we were drawn to the pizza/pasta restaurant and it felt double serendipitous that we were offered a table in the busy restaurant while we reviewed the menu at the door with Google Translate.

We had a fabulous breakfast pizza (yay for something being bacon and eggs, even if it was dinnertime) and a salmon lemony with homemade tagliatelle. Yum!

MONDAY

As our last full day in Saint Gilles, we had a lot of experience and research behind our plan for the day. And it was perfect. Another blue-skies-sunny-day (which is all this island paradise seems to have, unless you’re trekking up to Maido) and snorkelling at La Salle Les Bains.

Rated to be the best snorkelling on the island, all you had to do was put on mask and snorkel and fall into the sea because the coral started about a metre in and the water was, obviously, crystal clear.

Jacques had given us snorkelling and beach gear, so we drove the 13km down the coast to La Salle Les Baines plage, followed Google Maps to a Sandwicherie, ordered a Poulet baguette and Hot Dog Gratiné like pro’s, stuck our brollie in the sand and flopped in the water with our snorkels like we owned the place.

It was everything the reviews described. What makes an average swimming experience is quite something else when it comes to snorkelling. The rocky bed becomes the view, the shallow waters become the vantage point and the stillness becomes the playground for the wildlife. We saw loads of fish and I really wish I knew more about our underwater friends to make this account more interesting; needless to say, there were big ones and small ones, stripy ones and spotty ones, and a small shoal of big silvery white fish with whom I attempted to school, but they weren’t having any of it.

It was a baking hot day (same as every day) so we were grateful to have our borrowed brollie to huddle under so we could prolong the doing-nothingness on the golden sands without being chased away by the sun.

Aware that it was New Year’s Eve and we hadn’t booked anywhere (everywhere was fancy multi-core set menus that cost a mint) we headed home to get showered and changed to opportunistically grab a sundowner somewhere and see where the night would take us.

We started at trusty Roche Noire and finally succumbed to the rooftop bar, La Nouvelle Vague, overlooking it all, which Christian had resisted thus far based on its direct exposure to the setting sun, which clearly was as a direct result of it being the best vantage point by far to see that very setting sun. We played musical chairs so much trying to trade off the sun and the sunset that even the barman teased us about getting our value for money!

Oddly, at 6 on the dot he booted everyone out and closed up shop. Lots of places were already closed, which struck us as very strange for a New Year’s Eve in a beach holiday town. Still spoilt for choice, we made a night of it with a circuit of the town, stopping in whenever took our fancy and had the most unexpectedly magnificent dinner to round off 2018; a proper steaky mouthful of a cheese ‘n bacon burger at a biker-themed bar called Burger 66.

Travelogue: Maastricht (Pink Pop)

MAASTRICHT

14 – 17 June 2018
Another great night’s sleep had us up and out at the requisite time to meet our growing group (Kieron joining us from SA and Harry from London) at Central Station at 11am to catch the train to Maastricht.
Yet again, Burger King saved our bacon and restored good humour for the train ride that was taking us to our music festival. And after a two hour train ride through the pretty Dutch countryside, we arrived at Maastricht Station for the second part of our trip.
Neil had booked us into a hotel right across the road from the Station so it was easy as pie to get there and checked in. Kaboom Hotel was new and neat and had functional and fun decor. Perfect for our stay!
We wasted no time getting moving: Back across the road to see how to get to Landgraaf, where the festival was actually being held. Instinctively splitting into teams, we (sort of) efficiently sorted train tickets, cash (oddly, lots of places in Netherlands only accept Maestro cards, which none of us had) and a bargain Heineken festival kit comprising waterproof backpack cooler + 10 beers for €10 with a couple of Amstels for good measure.
Soon on the train to Heerlen, we opted for the bicycle cabin with the flipdown chairs along the walls that face each other so we could pass the short hop with a giddy round of a drinking game called Fives that requires little more than being able to make a fist / open your hand at will and to correctly predict – in multiples of five – the total number of digits being shown by the people participating in the round.
We organically absorbed a Laurel and Hardy pair of Dutchmen who happened to be sitting in a couple of seats amidst our rough circle and who had earned themselves one of our Amstels for what looked like a passing interest in our game. On arrival, assuming that they knew where they were going, we followed them to the bus stop… Only to find we had another train to catch.
Back to the platform and on board the next train, we had a forty minute journey to get us to the correct stop.
The Landgraaf station was very busy. The shuttle buses (free, included in our ticket) didn’t seem to be operating so quite a queue had formed at the bus stop. We gave it a 10 minute wait but then, super eager to get started, just walked to the venue instead. It wasn’t that far – maybe a K and a half – and gave us time to see the sleepy town surrounds and suppose what the locals thought of this annual thrall. The last stretch up to the main entrance was lined with banners from previous years. Anyone who’s anyone has played! And that’s a lot of anyones seeing as next year will be the 50th Pink Pop festival!
The festival grounds were MASSIVE and a bit overwhelming all at once. The whole festival was cashless so we started with making an investment in the green plastic squares currency (called Munten) printed in sheets with serrations so that you could easily break off whole or half tokens. One token got you a small beer or a tiny wine, served in plastic cups on paper trays of 6 servings.
With a welcome beer in hand, we decided to acclimate with a base close to the main stage, so found a table in a long open marquis with rows and rows (and rows and rows) of tables and benches opposite a long line of bar and food trucks.
Cleverly, the festival incentivised recycling by offering a token for every 50 cups or 25 trays returned. With the rate that beers were going down, it was a very manageable proposition. And resulted in a remarkably clean and tidy beer garden.
Our warm up served us well and we were in fine fettle for our first true festival performance, Snow Patrol.
We worked our way to a central position between the massive banks of speakers that fed the music to the back of the field, ensuring that the anticipated 60,000+ capacity could all hear what they came for. We had a good view, both of the stage and on the big screens flanking it on either side and it was an enjoyable performance in the afternoon sun.
Our much-debated pickle was whether to dash from the main stage to the smaller stage adjacent to see The Offspring and then dash back to the main stage for the night’s headliner – and main reason for our trek in the first place – Pearl Jam. Now, with some firsthand experience, it was clear that there would be no ‘dashing’ and manoeuvring the crowd and keeping our merry band together seemed a highly unlikely combination.
Kieron and Harry braved it while the remaining 5 of us put the time between acts to good use, topping up with supplies, visiting the (astoundingly clean and dry) portable toilets and strategising on how to best immerse ourselves in the crowd for the best position closest to the stage.
The last objective was the least successful. The Dutch are a very organised concert audience. They assume position and do not, under any circumstances, move from their spot. They are also very (very, very) tall.
Despite only managing intermittent glimpses at the actual bodies on stage, the performance was unbelievable. Eddie Vedder has a magnificent voice and the quality of both sound and visuals was so flawless that the experience wasn’t hindered by lack of line of sight. Eddie also related an anecdote about playing Pink Pop in 1992 where he’d climbed onto the video cameraman’s boom and launched himself from there into his adoring fans, crowdsurfing across the audience and back to the stage. We later realised he was wearing the very same T-shirt he’d worn that night, which is an amazingly sentimental touch!
Minds officially blown, we shuffled back to the train station with the tens of thousands of people that weren’t camping and needed to get back to wherever they’d come from. It took a good couple of hours to get back to Maastricht, by which time we’d dissected the day and the performances and all aspirations of an afterparty had dissolved.
Saturday morning was a leisurely start and since there were no early bands that anyone particularly wanted to see, we took a walk through Maastricht’s cobblestone shopping streets to get to Vrijthof Square, the centre of Old Town, known for its beauty, being lined with trees and a variety of quaint restaurants and pavement cafes.
A solid feeding under our belts made a world of difference and set us on our merry way for Day 2 of festivalling, which was a much easier mission to repeat seeing as we already had our train passes and knew where to get the Heineken coolers (we got a few).
This time we managed to catch the shuttle transfer and were soon entering the festival grounds. We repeated the easy start at the beer tent – and even bumped into our Laurel and Hardy duo from the previous day, making us feel right at home!
We worked our way onto the field for a band called Nothing But Thieves (a name we collectively had a mission remembering so they were mostly referred to as Barking at Cars or similar) and managed to get separated, which was a bit scary with so so SO many people. Fortunately, with some navigation on WhatsApp we got reunited, so all’s well that ends well.
A bit more ambitious than the previous day, with both the confidence of having better bearings and less pressure from the lineup, we bounced off to one of the other stages to see A Perfect Circle, bought merchandise, ate pasta, chilled in the pretty little cider garden, saw some of Noel Gallagher‘s set (shame, his solo career seems to be a bit watery and he only really got a rise with the Oasis songs he now covers) and were soon on our way to see the evening’s main event, Foo Fighters.
The concert was a bit self-indulgent with the singer and drummer swapping places for songs, lengthy drum solos with the drum podium elevating into the air and Dave Grohl calling people up on stage. Not my favourite at the best of times, it was a particularly gruelling task to deal with all the ad-libbing and showmanship.
We left just before the end to get ahead of the madding crowds, which made a world of difference to the length and comfort of our commute.
Motivated to rise only because of check out time, we left our lovely hotel to catch the midday train back to Amsterdam, opting to picnic on the couple of hours’ journey on the train to allow more time at our destination.
Arriving in Amsterdam, we stowed our luggage at the Central Station lockers and did a flash tour around the city centre, stopping for a traditional waffle (finally!) and ending up at a Mexican restaurant, of all things, serendipitously as the Mexico vs Germany World Cup match was on.
A last lunch, a farewell Heineken, some cards for old times sake and the group disbanded as first Kieron and Harry headed for the airport and then, an hour or so later, so did we.
What a rockstar getaway!

Travelogue Namibia 5: Etosha

ETOSHA
30 September – 2 October 2021

Nearing the end of our grand roadtrip, the drive from Palmwag to Etosha mapped at 322km. We had done enough driving in Namibia to know that the mileage meant nothing; the terrain would dictate the travel time.

Spotting 5 giraffe almost immediately upon exiting the gate at Palmwag Lodge was a clue that we were in the bush and should expect slow going.

What we did not expect was the 10km of the Grootberg Pass, with its white-knuckle narrow roads, and the car occasionally slipping and sliding on the loose gravel, nudging toward the low pile of rocks acting as a guardrail between the road and steep gorge. We were grateful to be in the big and burly Hilux – and wondered if the burnout cars commonly found along our route had proved powerless in these circumstances and just been abandoned in favour of something more suitable.

Our midway stop proved to be a fail. Fortunately for us we had had more than our fill at the Palmwag Lodge buffet breakfast because Kamanjab turned out to be a bustling petrol station and Spar; more of a rank than a one-stop.

The intersection did herald the start of 61km of glorious tar road, on which we could make up some lost time and perhaps even get in the afternoon swim that has eluded us the previous day!

There was much excitement when we spotted the first Etosha Conservancy sign and, with kind roads at our disposal, we arrived just after 15h00 at our camp, Okaukuejo.

Etosha is one giant pan, and the basin of a massive prehistoric lake that was around 300m deep in places. With scale like that to contend with and the park’s reputation as one of the greatest in the world, we had been entirely pragmatic in our choice of Etosha accommodation – chosen purely for being the shortest, easiest drive back to Windhoek for our flight home. And we had gotten very lucky.

Okaukuejo Camp’s claim to fame was a floodlit watering hole that attracted animals throughout the day and night. And our chalets were right on the edge of the watering hole, so we had swathes of animals coming right to us! This suited the agenda for our last stop perfectly: see as much as possible while doing as little as possible.

There were 4 rhino lazily wallowing in the watering hole while we unpacked our bags from the car and settled into our homes for the next two nights. They paid little attention to their onlookers, observing from the benches dotted around the rock-wall crescent that separated the human domain from the animals’.

With a giraffe silhouetted in the background and elephants entering from stage right, we knew we were in for very easy animal-spotting at Okaukuejo and could afford to take a load off with some wallowing of our own in the human swimming pool.

The Camp was compact but had everything you might need – a restaurant, a bar, a tourist office, snack shop, filling station and even a castle with spiral stairs you could climb to get a 3-storey high vantage point of miles and miles around. We took advantage of all but the filling station, revelling in being able to park the car for a solid 36-hours of downtime.

We had booked a dinner, bed and breakfast package, so the biggest task for the evening was to choose a meal from the set menu. Opting for an Oryx steak (for the third day in a row) was a great decision. Yet again juicy and tender, fast becoming a favourite that was bound to be craved and missed on our return home.

….

We had already seen enough wildlife at the watering hole to completely discount the need for a game drive, so there was no rush to get moving on the last day of our roadtrip-proper.

Easing into a buffet breakfast just after 9 (to meet the 09h30 cut-off) was about as pressured as the day was going to get. And even that warranted a little lie-down, after the obligatory check-in of the watering hole.

There was always something to see, with what looked like a hundred or more Springbok taking their turn, while a handful of Kudu were slowly edging in from the one side and Wildebeest trundling in from the outskirts. By the time we resurfaced, the players had again changed and a dazzle of zebra were playing swapsies on the far edge of the watering hole, with a few remaining Springbok who paced skittishly in anticipation. Ever faithful, a pair of giraffe obliged in the background to complete the (current) picture.

Our game play had been to hit the swimming pool at midday in the hopes of securing a set of loungers. A complete holiday cliche, all loungers had been spoken-for the previous afternoon, with towels and belongings claiming territory for absent persons.

Our thinking paid off and the pool area was near-deserted. Whether it was lunchtime, siesta or the crazy desert heat we head to thank didn’t matter, we got our loungers. We showed our appreciation by spending 3 long and lovely hours poolside, enjoying the day, the water and snacks from the tuckshop.

We were packed up and ready to go back to our chalet when we overheard another guest announcing excitedly that there were elephants moving towards the watering hole. We chivvied along and were rewarded with the sighting of a lifetime.

Almost on cue, as we got back to our homebase vantage point, 3 elephants came trotting in – literally trotting; I have never seen elephants move so fluidly – and entered the water on the edge closest to us. Then another 3… And a baby elephant… And a few more… And then a few more. They streamed in, a long line of all shapes and sizes, motivated to get to the watering hole and slotting in very neatly side-by-side so all could access.

There must have been 30 or more by the time the whole herd arrived. Some were drinking quietly at the edges, some splish-sploshing in the water, one was shooting water into the air from her trunk, two younger males were playfully locking tusks (until they got a stern look from a massive male).

And then, as organised as they had arrived, the leader started making tracks back into the bush, the herd restored its trail and within minutes they were gone again. I can’t recall having seen anything so mesmerising on any wildlife shows – and have seldom seen so well-executed a show as the effortless and seamless display the herd had put on for us.

Somehow our splish-splosh in the shower was less spectacular, but a necessary process to prepare for sundowners – on the chalet patio, watching some more “Watering Hole TV” – and another dinner on the terrace at the restaurant.

An early start the next day (necessitated by time constraints to get our mandatory Covid test results in time for our flight on Sunday) warranted an early night.

I happened to wake up in the middle of the night though and on the off-chance popped by head out the front door to see what was going on at the watering hole. Not much, just a mother and child set of rhino, being observed by some very diligent nature-mad humans. Good night, everyone!

Travelogue Namibia 4: Palmwag

PALMWAG
29-30 September 2021

Banking on a relatively short (3 or so hour) next leg on our journey, there was time for a run along the beach and a hearty steak (Oryx), egg (scrambled) and hash potatoes (imitation of the night before) breakfast.

We pointed the car toward Henties Bay and began to drive the requisite 70km along the Skeleton Coast.

We stopped to view a shipwreck, grounded as recently as 2008; surprisingly recent given the assumption of modern nautical navigation technology as well as the dilapidated state of the rusted remains that bear testament to the brutal weather that probably drove the ship ashore in the first place.

We had little to do in Henties Bay with no sights or excursions to speak of – and not ready to eat again yet. However, it was a good opportunity to pitstop (last loo for 200km of dirt road, and we knew from firsthand experience that you never know what might happen on these treks) and stock up on roadtrip essentials (water and biltong for the drive; beers for arrival).

There was precious little to see and do on our route, so big ups to Chris for planning ahead for a lunch break in Uis, which was more or less halfway through the 420km we needed to do for the day. And was a “blink and you’ll miss it” town, at best.

Brandberg Rest Camp was modest and welcomed in equal parts; allowing a leg-stretch around the terrace and a laugh at the novelty decor (including an L-shaped pool table) while we waited for our toasted sarmies.

The second half of our drive seemed to stretch on and on, slowed as we navigated the mountains, with their narrower roads, uneven surfaces and twists and turns that we hadn’t had to negotiate on the flat, straight, endless desert roads. During our planning, we had read on several reviews that drivetimes are guesswork at best and it’s always advisable to add 1-2 hours allowance on each leg. True story!

We arrived in the Palmwag Lodge camp at around 17h30, much later than we had intended, thinking we’d arrive mid-afternoon and lounge around in the pool, to beat the heat.

Nevermind though, our glamping tents were spacious and comfortable, each with a table and benches on its private patio, and fully-kitted for self-catering, including steel wine glasses, which was all the sign we needed to open our bottle of red to accompany the sunset.

Palmwag is famous for the elephants in the surrounding area, so it was hardly surprising but still delightful when all it took for elephant-spotting was to walk into the open-air dining room for dinner!

The thatched A-frame had clearly been designed to provide for a panoramic view, with no more than a wooden bannister across the far end. The few diners already seated were watching as a herd of elephants casually made their way across the veld, with a perfect orange ball of sun setting over the silhouetted horizon behind them.

Dinner in the restaurant was a multi-course affair with wine pairings, which was beyond our current appetite so we opted for the a la carte pool bar restaurant instead. A far better fit, with wraps, burgers and melt-in-your-mouth Oryx steaks.

Thankfully, we’d already seen the elephants so there was no pressure get up early to go on a game drive, so we could lounge at the pool area after all, with a few beers and shooters to loosen up after a long day in the car.

The glamping tents offered the best night’s sleep! Equipped with anything and everything you’d expect in a hotel building (including a portable aircon), the beds were every bit as comfortable, with light duvets, warm blankets and soft pillows that worked with the dead-of-night darkness and middle-of-nowhere silence for optimal slumbering.

I was very surprised when a gardener pointed out some footprints, showing that elephants had walked through the camp the night before! They must have tip-toed for us not to hear them…

Travelogue Namibia 3: Swakopmund

SWAKOPMUND
27-29 September 2021

With a spring in our step for the daily desert rise-and-shine on a work-free workday, we started the day with running a loop of our camp, down to the main gate and across and around a neighbouring camp we discovered had been hiding behind the rocky outcrop against which our chalets were nestled. Thankfully we were out early enough to benefit from the flat and dry desert course, before the sun sapped all energy and any will to move at all.

Having worked up an appetite, we were grateful for the leftovers from the braai the night before, wolfing down our Oryx, fried onion and cheese steak rolls.

We packed the truck and hit the road, with 346km – of mostly dirt road – to contend with to get us to Swakopmund.

The Namibian countryside is so vast and varied that parts of the journey seem disconnected, like you’re on a completely different road on a completely different roadtrip to the one you were on a few kilometres back (or a few kilometres forward, for that matter). Sure, a lot of the view is arid, deserty desertness… But then a massive charcoal-coloured rocky outcrop will appear, or you’ll drive through a deep gorge that must have been a raging river at some point, or tightly overlapping golden hillocks that looks like someone took to the land from above with a massive rotary beater.

Most of the journey is flat and wide dirt road, dry and compacted to allow for some speed, but rocky enough to caution against going too fast lest your tyres pay the price. The bits through the gorge can be quite harrowing though; steep and narrow, and making us grateful for the stability of our big, heavy double-cab truck with its 4×4 capability that we hoped not to need.

Arriving in town, we had little trouble finding our Airbnb accommodation since it was adjacent to a substantial landmark, the sparkling new Platz Am Meer shopping centre. In a light and bright modern complex, our fully-kitted duplex promised to serve us well for the next couple of nights.

Hungry from a long day’s travel, we dumped our bags and headed straight out. Surprisingly, the temperature had dropped radically and it was barely 20 degrees! Fortunately not windy as Luderutz had been, so perfectly manageable with a change of holiday uniform, into jeans and a hoodie.

We found a cosy garden cafe called Wurstbude, across the road from the beach and sheltered by overhead vines, and settled in for a leisurely late lunch/early dinner, with a very cosmopolitan mix of samoosas, seafood, pizza and goulash.

Although it was chilly, it was still worth a walk back across the Paddock Gardens to the Platz Am Meer, and braving a seafront terrace table for the sunset. It was good to round off the day with making plans for the rest of our stay, before heading home for movie night.

We awoke to a grey day. Not quite raining but not quite not raining, the air was thick and wet. Not great for sightseeing… But perfect for a morning run along the promenade.

With no clear intention, we ran around the beach side of the mall and past the pretty Paddock Gardens (that already had the sprinklers going).

Conveniently, there was a paved path that ran along the beach – literally, a few metres from the water, not the usual roadside pavement! – on the whole stretch between our mall and the waterfront and lighthouse on the other side of the strand. It was an easy run, at sea level and in a light mist from the cool morning. As an added bonus, our loop encompassed the local Park Run route, so another box incidentally ticked.

Juices flowing and appetite stoked, we showered and jumped in the car to go explore Walvis Bay.

The roads were good, but there was not much to see en route bar the odd sprout of a suburb on the sea side and sand, sand, sand on the inland side. We stopped for a photo opp at Dune 7, so-named (according to Google) because it is the 7th highest in the world, at around 383m. To give perspective, the Big Daddy at Sossusvlei the day before had been around 350m… Although it did look a lot bigger, probably because of the context of the setting.

There are 4×4 and quad biking excursions available at the dunes and, judging by the odd trail of footprints, some souls choose to hike up and barrel down, but we had a different agenda so kept moving to Walvis Bay.

We planned our arrival as a drive-through experience to see us to the quayside for some fresh seafood, but had to make an obligatory stop to photograph the flocks of flamingos treading gingerly in the shallow foreshore.

The modest waterfront had a handful of restaurants and shops; we chose the anchor and were soon feasting on delicious fresh battered hake and fried calamari.

We had left Ian at home, working, so made our way back once our lunch was done.

After a rest stop, Chris and I drove to the Swakopmund old Town – no more than a few kilometers away – and used an online walking tour to self-guide through the quaint little town, making note of what to show our friends when we returned as a group later.

The town is remarkable since most of the buildings date to the turn of the last century and have been maintained in pristine condition. The town has all the old-world charm of yesteryear, but look like they were painted yesterday!

Being a holiday town, there is a high concentration of pubs and restaurants. The walking tour circuit had given us a chance to see a lot of them up close – and review the menus displayed outside.

With experience on our side, the evening’s running order was a relatively simple choice: Butcher & Brewer on the waterfront for sundowners (because it housed Swakopmund craft brewery), then Fachwerk beer garden (because it was the oldest building we’d seen, 1899) for pre-dinner and lastly Brauhaus for dinner (because the internet reviews placed it as undisputed best German food restaurant in town).

It was a winning combo. We were back at the waterfront well in time to enjoy a couple of draughts while lapping up the seaside view. Then we had a fun game of giant Jenga in the Fachwerk beer garden, while the other patrons were participating in a very leisurely game of Bingo. Then the Brauhaus dazzled us with perfect schnitzels, eisbein and crunchy bratkartoflen (roast hash potatoes).

Travelogue Namibia 2: Sossusvlei

SOSSUSVLEI
25-27 September 2021

Leaving behind lovely Luderitz, we hit the road to take us into the desert at Sossusvlei. The roads in Namibia are really well maintained – which must be no mean feat with the wind and the desert constantly trying to cover them – but also very economically distributed between landmark towns.

Consequently, we needed to retrace our route, past the Ghost Town we had passed on our way in and then visited properly the previous day, and about another 100km inland to get to the turn off to move north towards Sossusvlei.

This new route, although a main artery, was a dirt road, which slowed our progress somewhat. With the first item on the day’s itinerary being lunch at a German restaurant pitstop, Helmeringhausen, there may have been sense of humour issues had it not been for our holiday high spirits, a downloaded playlist (we had already learnt that consistent cell network is not a thing in Namibia) and the benefit of experience meaning we’d planned and packed padkos snacks.

Once again, our landscape view shifted from light sand to rocky outcrops to the sort of desert you see in the movies (dark peppercorn knobbles of shrubs on a red sand scalp) and then to the golden longer brush you expect in a game reserve back home. With a low mountain range – we suspected to be the Tirasberge – framing on all sides, the view could contend to be what Uncle Peter would call a vistarama.

We attempted the much-talked-about game of I Spy, but once we’d gone through Sand, Rock, Fence, Road, Sign, Sky and Telephone Poles, the options were pretty much to start again or quit. We chose to quit while we were ahead.

Arriving in the booming metropolis of Helmeringhausen revealed nothing more than a handful of buildings; a general dealer, a house, a post office, the hotel/curio shop/restaurant lunch stop and a 2 pump service station … Which proved usefully-timed as Chris spotted our back passenger tyre was flat as we left the restaurant.

The garage attendent popped a plug into the tyre and we were off, crisis averted.

Except it wasn’t.

About 100km later our back driver-side tyre burst. Argh!

Fortunately, the boys knew what to do and – besides a big mission to get the jack in the exact right place to hoist up the massive car – it was a relatively smooth operation to change out the dud tyre for the spare, which had been nested under the car.

We had been very fortunate to break down somewhere with cell phone signal – which had been at best erratic on all roads – so I was able to make myself useful and contact Avis to report the mishap and get instructions. The lady at the Avis call centre found a matching tyre at Maltahohe, 80km down the road (and not a whole lot off our route) and we dutifully obliged; spending a half hour in another of Namibia’s tiny towns while the tyre was replaced and the spare renested.

The detour meant that we arrived in our homebase for the next two nights much later than expected. It was after 6.30pm and we were chasing last light to get safely to our haven in the very remote and daunting terrain. We were relieved and delighted to arrive at the Desert Quiver Camp in one piece (and 5 functional tyres) as the darkness enveloped the road.

Sossusvlei and surrounds are famous for the dunes and the desert experience, which are immensely popular with international tourists and nature buffs alike. Consequently, accommodation options vary from camping to glamping to eye-wateringly priced luxury camps. We had taken our chances with the reasonably-priced chalets at Desert Quiver… And our bet had paid off.

Simple but tasteful, modern and very comfortable 2-sleeper chalets with aircon (essential!), kitchenette, braai facilities, and generously spaced for unobstructed views of the desert on all sides, with a serviced clubhouse with pub and pool, if you felt social.

After a fairly harrowing extended day on the road we declined the option to drive 4km down the road to Sossusvlei Lodge for buffet dinner, opting rather to have a sundowner at the pub and fashion a picnic dinner from our leftovers from Luderitz and our padkos supplies.

Great decision, leaving us to appreciate the great outdoors and continue with our newly-acquired amateur star-gazing hobby while Chris stole the show, whipping up fried cheesy hotdog toasties on the hotplate in our kitchenette.

Awaking to an already-warm 7am, we applauded ourselves for heeding the advice of the receptionist the previous night; she had warned us that leaving for the dunes too late could ruin the experience because of the oppressive heat.

With fruit and leftover hotdogs in the fridge, it was quick n easy to get a slap-up breakfast together and hit the road.

We were ideally placed, with the Gate to the Namib-Naukluft National Park a few kilometres down the road (just beyond the restaurant we had declined the previous night). However, once in the park it was another 60km to get to the shuttle that transports tourists around the dunes.

The shuttle drivers were very friendly, got us packed into the game drive vehicle efficiently and before you could say “so much sand”, we were trundling across dry salt pans and over the silky red sand dunes to get to the Dead Vlei valley with its graveyard of trees, unable to survive the dry saltiness of the ground in which they had been seeded.

The Big Daddy Dune arched above and was a 1 – 1.5 hour hike to complete end-to-end but, with the sand already as hot as it was, there was no incentive to commit to more than a few mid-dune pics for posterity and perspective. No regrets; it’s an awe-inspiring landscape and the magnitude and rugged beauty can be appreciated from any level!

The shuttle then took us across the plain to the smaller curved Big Momma dune, which sheltered a watering hole below. We were able to walk from the parking area where the water was little but a mirage on the horizon, and cross the caked clay to the water’s edge. The driver told us that when the floods come, the entire basin gets filled – way beyond the area where we were currently parked – demonstrating exactly how extreme the ecosystem is.

By then it was past 11am, over 35 degrees and a long time since breakfast, so we jumped back in the car, retracing our footsteps and stopping for the occasional photo as we drove back to the permit office at the Gate for lunch in the adjacent restaurant.

We got back to camp at around 1 and since we’d been admin-forward in ordering a braai kit from reception in the morning (they offered a shopping service where you select meats, veg, salads and breads from a checklist and they deliver in the evening), we had absolutely nothing to do all afternoon besides relax at the clubhouse and enjoy the pool.

We thanked our lucky stars that we had gotten all our sightseeing done early; by now it was baking hot – around 40 degrees – and there was a blustering hot wind. The wind was so strong and so consistent that I had to position myself to sit facing into it to avoid a faceful of hair like Cousin It from Adams Family. It was also so hot that it was like having a massive hairdryer pointing at you. Fortunately we didn’t have to lift a finger because everything would have been an effort!

Once our braai pack arrived, we set about making our fire. The pack included a homemade firelighter that required us to gather dry sticks from nearby bushes to act as kindling for the wooden logs provided.

We had ordered generously, so feasted on delicious Oryx steaks, Namibian lamb chops and local wors, with foil-wrapped potatoes and onions as well as tubs of coleslaw and pasta salad. A fitting finish to a fantastic day.

Travelogue Namibia 1: Luderitz

LUDERITZ
24-25 September 2021

A Namibian trip had been on the cards for years; deprioritised for the very many other adventures that had swallowed up all the not-enough leave days.

Having robbed us of a planned trip to Lesotho in July with our friends Michele & Ian, finally the pandemic provided the perfect window of opportunity for a cross-border flit, between a brutal winter 3rd Covid Wave and any hope of travel abroad opening up again while South Africa was on the Red List.

Highly motivated, Christian took it upon himself to sketch a magnificent roadtrip for our Awesome Foursome that would include desert, sea, mountains, bush and city breaks all wrapped up in a 10 day whirlwind tour. With the magnitude of expansive Namibia, it was going to be a lot of driving. But with good company and lots of exciting excursions ahead, we jumped at the chance!

We booked our flights; holding our breath that the Covid infection numbers would stabilise and the borders remain open. When things looked promising, we booked all the accommodation and the rental car and that was it, the (impatient) countdown began.

You could tell we were hot to trot because we’d booked the red-eye flights out to make the most of our first day of holiday. This meant leaving home at 03h30 for the airport – and a very long hour’s wait between check-in and boarding, in an eerily quiet airport, with “closed until further notice” signs in the Lounge windows.

The flight was uneventful (no doubt thanks to the ridiculous hour and the smattering of passengers sleeping off the early start) and we were soon disembarking the little plane, on the runway in what looked like the middle of nowhere. No city to be seen in any direction; just dry brown semi-desert. How awesome.

We got our rental – a big double-cab Hilux that would see us through even the most rugged parts of our route – and hit the road, with an ambitious 500km of open road standing between us and lunch in Keetmanshoop.

Heading South, the miles sped by on well-maintained roads with little traffic. And not much to see bar the same dry barren veld on either side of the road.

Needing to break the journey, we randomly settled on Kalkrand as a roadside dot on the map. It proved to be little more than that when the reality presented itself; dry, closed petrol pumps, a dodgy pub, a rip-off tuckshop and public toilets at N$2 per person for the pleasure (loosely-termed, with no toilet seats or cisterns and toilet paper rations allocated on upfront cash payment – with exact monies required or no change issued).

Back in the car with massively overpriced water and chips, not 10 minutes later we drove through Namibia’s version of the Harrismith one-stop. Would have been far better suited to our intentions. Typical!

By 2 o’clock we reached Keetmanshoop, which was the town at the crossroads at which our southerly journey turned west towards the coast. It proved to be an awkward time to get lunch, with several places already concluded their lunch sitting and only reopening for dinner at 5.

Determined not to do a fast food chain lunch, we found the Bird’s Nest Hotel was open, and happy to serve us in their courtyard terrace. We ordered wraps and had our first Windhoek draught to celebrate our arrival in Namibia.

Far from done with driving for the day, we were back in the car by 3.30 with another 330km yet to do to get to Luderitz.

The terrain gradually metamorphosed from the dry veld generously dotted with brown shrubs, to rocky landscape and then to the sandy desert we had been expecting all along. Not an ideal drive to be playing I Spy, with so little stimulus!

We were very pleased when we eventually got our first glimpse of the shimmering Atlantic. Even though it was just gone 18h30, it was still light and we got to enjoy spectacular views from our digs for the next two nights; sea-facing suites in an Airbnb on the Shark Island peninsula that jutted out into the ocean from the base of town.

Luderitz is a sweet and compact little town so nothing was very far from our homebase. We decided to get moving to catch the last of the sunset at the Luderitz Yacht Club, a few hundred metres away at the waterfront, obviously.

The barman served us ice-cold Windhoek draught in ice-cold beer mugs and we celebrated our arrival before heading off to The Portuguese Fisherman, which our host had recommended to us for dinner. We saw why, with a magnificent meal of fresh seafood plucked straight off the local coastline.

Curfew and the long day curtailed any further shenanigans and we were pleased to get an earlyish night to recharge the batteries.

We had driven past Kolmanskop on our way into Luderitz and had a sneak peek of the famous Ghost Town, which was #1 on our To Do list. A few enquiries revealed that there were guided tours at 9.30 and 11, so we chose the latter to allow for a breakfast in the restaurant in the Ghost Town beforehand.

The tour was brilliant. Our guide set the scene with the story of Luderitz, named after a tobacco dealer from Bremen. Looking for copper, he had completely overlooked the diamonds that existed in abundance just down the drag. Over 5 million carats were mined in Kolmanskop; 90% gem quality diamonds (10% industrial) compared with 60/40 in Kimberley.

Although even that was relatively short-lived when 1927 saw the start of the death of Kolmanskop when bigger diamonds were found on the other side of the Orange River so all the people and equipment went there. There was mass exodus from the town which eventually died completely when the hospital closed in 1956.

Kolmanskop is an open air museum, where visitors are guided through the existing buildings to get the history and anecdotes, and then are free to wander at will in and out of the houses and businesses of the deserted town.

The tour began in the Town Hall, which sounds pretty lush for this weird manmade oasis in the Namib, at the turn of the last century. The Hall had a champagne lounge for the ladies, a smoking and poker room for the men, with a restaurant that had bell strings suspended from the ceiling and over the tables such that each could command personalised service from the kitchen, where you can still see the original stoves that prepared hundred of meals a day. It also had gym equipment and housed the first library in southern Africa. Below was the bowling alley – complete with still-operational mechanism to return the ball from the skittles end to the start of the lane! – with the original bar and bar-fridge still in place.

The Hall was on Kaizer Wilhelm Street (Millionaire’s Row), where you are still able to walk through many of the buildings, including the architect’s house, the Quartermaster’s house that also acted as B&B for the VIP guests and international artists who came to put on shows on the stage in the Town Hall.

Our guide told us that the houses were very advanced for their time. There were seawater taps in the houses. Fresh drinking water was imported from Cape Town in barrels, by the thousands of kilolitres! There was even a seawater swimming pool with diving board.

The hospital was also very advanced for its time and could bed 250 people at a time – which seems like a lot since there were only 300 German adults, 44 children and 800 Namibian workers living in Kolmanskop – and first Xray machine in Southern Africa, which was an essential not for health purposes, but rather to detect diamond-smuggling. There was also a wine cellar below because the head doctor believed all patients should have a glass of wine every day.

Even though the town was established in 1911, every house had a telephone and electricity. There was an ice factory that used sea water tanks, amonia gas and electricity to freeze in about 24 hours. Complimentary frozen blocks were delivered to everyone each day to put into their cold cupboard to keep their food cold, along with a crate of lemonade and soda water; all delivered by mule-drawn taxi.

One of the colourful anecdotes shared was in the butchery, where the story goes that the menfolk would get hammered in the bowling alley bar, get into trouble with their wives and then break into the butchery to steal all the sausages when their wives refused them dinner. The butcher would then consult the barman to see who had been at the alley and consequently send them a bill for their haul. Sounds like a fun caper – and like a reasonably good existence in general, bar the actual living in the remoteness of the desert and the punishing windiness.

We suspected the excursion was going to be the highlight of our tour. A great start that was going to be hard to beat!

Still full from the sumptuous breakfast, we skipped lunch in favour of a drive around the Peninsular that we could see across the bay from our deck. Our hosts had put together a printed album of the highlights of Luderitz so we knew to expect a 60km loop with several bays and lookout points.

We picked the more interesting ones; Diaz Point (for the cross placed there by Bartholomew Diaz in 1488) and Halifax Bay for views of the Penguins on Halifax Island and the grave of George Pond of London, who had been outcast from Luderitz and walked to Halifax Bay to reach his only friend on the island, but died of hunger and thirst waiting for the low tide so he could get across. It was, as we suspected commonplace, blowing a gale, so George probably had quite a miserable end of days, poor chap.

Very pleased with our day’s achievements so far, we took a time out at a pizza bar in town called Ritzi’s to grab a cold beer before our walking tour of town. With everything so close together, we figured there was no rush.

Good thing too, because the 2 sights we’d earmarked in town turned out to be literally a couple of hundred metres apart. It was a 20 minute affair to see the famous Lutheran church with its spectacular views and original stained glass windows and Goerke Haus, which was built on Diamond Hill by the richest man in town for his lady, for her arrival from Germany. No expense was spared and he built a fabulous mansion, with everything fully imported from Germany. All for nought though; she got to Luderitz and couldn’t abide the wind so left him and went straight back to Germany.

To be fair, it really is a windy town. But we still enjoyed the view from our relatively sheltered deck as we recounted the many highlights of the day, so this Mrs Goerke might have been a bit hasty.

We closed off our time in Luderitz with sundowners at a fun local pub in town called Bottles, dinner at Essenweitz at the Waterfront and then star-gazed from our deck, thanks to the clear skies and carpet of bright stars that seemed so much closer than at home.

Travelogue Northern Cape: Part 2

NORTHERN CAPE Part 2

KAKAMAS
3 August

Having already spent our first night in the Green Kalahari belt, the plan was for our second day to be spent travelling to the farthest end such that the remainder of our trip would be spent winding our way back (slowly) in the direction of home.

This meant that Wednesday’s plan began with a visit to Augrabies Falls and had us sleeping in Kakamas.

With only 70km to cover and very relaxed hosts at Bezalel Wine Estate, there was no hurry to start our day. With the sun up and the makings of a lovely morning, it was very refreshing to put on our running togs and take a jog through the vineyards again while we discussed the finer details of the plan for the day.

We settled on a picnic at Augrabies Falls. And we already had all the supplies. Bonus.

On the road with our friends, Motley Crue (the audiobook into which we were now thoroughly engrossed), the time (and the endless bushveld scenery) whizzed by and we were soon at Augrabies Falls National Park.

We pulled up at the main building and – whether it was because of Covid, being midweek or just winter in the Northern Cape – discovered we had the place to ourselves.

Taking the winding path down to the gorge, it was a now-rare pleasure to be able to enjoy the open-air excursion mask-free. The Park has set up wooden walkways and viewing decks along the edge of the gorge and we walked end-to-end, able to admire the fierceness of the falls, the magnitude of the gorge and the scary drop between us on the overhanging viewing deck and the water so far beneath us.

Having done 2km along the walkways, we were ready for our light picnic lunch and enjoyed our sarmies, watching the little dassies sniffing and scurrying about the place, like chubby little Daxies.

The Kakamas Hotel was also directly on the N14 which runs from Upington to Augrabies so we’d passed it on our way through and, with the hotel being on the far side of Kakamas from the Augrabies side, by the time we checked in we’d had two passes through Kakamas which, thanks to boundless graphic signage, was enough to give us locals-level qualification on lay of the land and a very clear agenda. Wine-tasting and pizza at Die Mas.

The Kakamas Hotel for all its small town lodge charm boasted a 4-star rating, which showed in the efficient way we were managed from car to our ultra modern suite, with slimline admin consisting only of our obligatory Covid declaration form and the three little words everyone is always excited to hear: Breakfast Is Included.

Pausing ever so briefly to appreciate our pretty home for the night – from the gravel pathway across the shaded lawns down to the pond where the local gaggle was lazily sliding across the still waters – we were motivated to get back in the car and on our way to our next adventure.

Die Mas had come recommended to us by friends in Jo’burg, and lived up to the anticipation that had been set.

With Wine, Brandy and Gin tasting on offer, we settled (as the only customers, spilt for choice) at a bench table at the outer edge of the grapevine-covered terrace to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and wonderful view, and ordered the white wine flight.

The chap serving us had no sooner poured into the tasting glass when a gust of wind came along and blew it right over! With no intention of wasting any more wine, we moved inside to an upright-barrel table.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the white flight, we ordered the red as well. While swirling and sniffing and sipping and critiquing, a couple of swarthy chaps came in and sat at one of the sets of table and chairs.

With awe, we watched as they ordered the wines, the brandy and the gin tastings all in one go. AND a Brandy and Coke long drink each for in between. They did a bit of swirling and some sniffing, but mostly slinging and giggling and having the best time.

We, meantime, had been served the bad news that the kitchen was not operating. So no pizza. But, when in Rome and all that, so we did a brandy tasting (seemed to be working for our neighbours) and ordered a bottle of Rose Pinot Noir instead.

The wind had died down so we moved back outside and enjoyed the start of sunset with the lovely local’s finest, pleased to see our super-tasters from inside leaving with arms laden with the cases they’d bought to take home.

An extensive Google to try and find a dinner alternative revealed a distinct lack of options. Not believing what we were seeing, we took a drive through the part of town that seeped inland from the N14 and despite finding schools, the usual handful of town buildings, a compact and neat suburb and after a brief foray into the local settlement, we found that Google had indeed been telling the truth.

Fortunately, our hotel had a restaurant, so we had a very pleasant poolside dinner with another bottle of Die Mas Pinot Noir for good measure.

UPINGTON
4 August

While our hotel was a pretty slice of the countryside, it was also right on the main road, which left nowhere to do our now-ritual morning run.

Good opportunity for a sleep-in and a hearty brekkie before the hop back along the now-very-familiar N14 to Upington.

We’d called ahead and arranged early check-in at our hotel, the Oasis, which soon proved to be a lot of value for our money, from the prime location on park-and-walk-anywhere Schroder Street, to the airconditioned reception to the access to the amenities at the Protea next door. And yes, Breakfast Was Included.

Since it wasn’t yet midday, we had plenty of time for a session in the fitness centre in the Protea. Chris opted to do weights and whatnot while he had access to the equipment and I filled the gap of my missing running partner by running along with the Olympics contestants on the telly in the gym. I did 2 sets of 3000m steeplechase with the world’s finest athletes, cheating a bit since I didn’t think the hotel would appreciate me leaping on the treadmill or splashing through the kiddies pool for authenticity of my virtual event.

Our pre-planning had uncovered a local offering called “Sakkie Se Arkie” that looked worth a try. The review promised a relaxing couple of hours of sunset cruise down the Orange River, which sounded about our speed. Showered and ship-shape, we prioritised going down to the jetty to book so that we would work timings around that excursion.

Fortunately we had taken the car purely because the Orange River Wine Cellars tasting rooms were 4km from the hotel or we would have felt very foolish driving to Sakkie Se Arkie, which we’d assumed as a turn of phrase when the Oasis receptionist had told us it was ‘around the corner’, but which turned out to even be understated since it was just on the other side of the Protea Hotel building!

Sadly, the cruise season had not yet begun (combination of weather and lack of demand) so there would be no Arkie for us. But there was wine-tasting, so all was not lost.

And neither could we be since the tasting rooms were literally on our road. Four short kilometres straight-straight down dead-straight flat-as-a-pancake Schroder Street.

We were very soon seated at a table at Orange River Cellars with a flight of 7 of their finest wines to sample; 3 whites and 3 reds of our choosing + a bonus red one that was new and being promoted.

We worked through the rainbow of generous tasters while lunch was served and then, with nothing else on the agenda, ordered a couple of glasses of our favourites and frittered away the afternoon, absorbed in the novelty of wine-routing.

We had hoped to get a pint of Guinness somewhere in the Northern Cape to add to our online Index. Some Google research had offered the promise of an Irish pub in Upington. And of course it was said to be on Schroder Street.

A few doors down from our home base, we had driven past it on our way out. It looked shut at the time, but we irrationally hoped it was something odd like small town hours or curfew-related restrictions or somesuch.

No such luck. On our return to our side of Schroder, a close up inspection revealed a note in the door that advised the pub was closed owing to lockdown and it was unknown when or if it would reopen. Equal parts sad for them and disappointing for us.

This only left the Red Ox for us for sundowners.

A complete surprise, the Red Ox proved to be a particularly shiny hidden gem. Upmarket enough to be associated with Sandton’s Butcher Shop or Rosebank’s Grillhouse, but with the added appeal of being riverside with spectacular sunset views over the Orange, our only regret was that we had eaten so recently since the delicious cuts on display in the counterstyle showcases and in the “Buy to Braai” fridges at the entrance were nothing short of mouth-watering.

We made do with sampling the local Kalahari Lager and Red Ox pilsner as it got dark and we planned our next day.

KURUMAN
5 August

When we had done our planning, we had only booked up until Upington, leaving the last couple of nights free in case we wanted extra time anywhere or got referrals along the way. Neither being the case, we were flying a bit blind, with the internet as our guide.

Scrutinising the route home, we made two decisions; firstly, to spend Thursday night in Kuruman (because we’d heard of it and there was a hotel in the same chain as the Kakamas Hotel that we’d so enjoyed) and secondly, to return home on Friday since the remaining distance was manageable and there was nothing else ‘must do’ en route.

Thursday morning began with a last run in the vineyards, accessing them by crossing the Orange on the bridge we’d seen from the Red Ox the night before, followed by a hearty breakfast at the hotel – a rare-pleasure buffet, carefully managed by the banqueting staff in line with rigid Covid protocols.

The only stop we made on the trip to Kuruman was at Kathu.

Established as an iron ore mining town, our limited view of Kathu gave us the opinion that although nice enough, there’s not a hell of a lot to see and do, so we settled for a quick visit to the local mall.

Leaving Kathu, it would appear that the town holds future promise with a lush looking country club and some adjacent residential development.

We did not hold a similar opinion of Kuruman which, sadly, was dusty and delapidated by first impression.

When the hotel manager at check-in warned us off the town’s claim to fame, the Eye of Kuruman, because of threat of vandalism and theft, the day’s fate was sealed.

We had booked a garden unit and it was right next to the pool so we did with our last afternoon on this roadtrip what we so seldom do on holiday. Absolutely nothing. And loved it.

Travelogue Northern Cape Part 1

NORTHERN CAPE

31 Jul – 07 Aug 2021

After a long year of ups and lockdowns and the bitter disappointment of a cancelled skiing trip to Lesotho in July, a roadtrip getaway was exactly what the doctor ordered. And, with international borders a challenge, the Covid virus still in a brutal Third Wave and a country recently ravaged with violence, where better than the most remote part of the country, the Northern Cape.

Knowing little about the region, surface-deep research revealed that we’d uncovered a hidden gem. Having thought of the Northern Cape as desert, we were delighted to find that it is also home to the Green Kalahari, a lush fertile strip along the Orange River with all sorts of unexpected and exciting things; most notably, a wine route!

Intentions set, we plotted a fun and relaxing week-long roadtrip. And having booked our leave at short notice, were in the car a few days later, heading off on our adventure.

The first day was the longest drive with 480km to Kimberley. A relaxed departure, good roads and traditional Wimpy pitstop had us at our hotel late afternoon, to enjoy the last of the sunshine. And to revel in being in short sleeves after having struggled through weeks of gruelling Joburg winter.

We’d picked the Protea Marriott because of its location overlooking the famous Big Hole of Kimberley, fancying drinks on the terrace while taking in the biggest hand-dug pit in the world… 

But a hole is honestly not much to look at, so we went to the Big Hole Museum (literally next door) instead.
The Museum is housed in an Old Town reconstruction of the early buildings that sprung up around the mine and became the first beginnings of Kimberley.

The museum (and access to the Hole viewing deck) was already closed when we got there, but we were free to wander the dusty streets with its quaint collection of examples of the shops and offices that must have serviced the miners that flocked to dig their way to fame and fortune.

The experience includes an Old Town pub and grill, called The Occidental. Decorated like an old world tavern, but with the benefits of new world technology and a very modern menu, we settled into the sepia setting to spend the evening watching the Springboks play the Lions, while munching on delicious deep fried pork belly and rump strip nachos, washed down with the local Vokof craft beer.

On Sunday morning we decided to do our own jogging tour of the newer part of town to build up to breakfast, so hit the roads on a winding tour that took us past sportsgrounds, university, schools and shopping centres.

A quick Google had revealed that a lot of coffee shops and breakfast spots weren’t open on Sundays and nothing much opened before 10, so we figured we’d squeeze in a quick walking tour of the old Victorian suburb of Belgravia to give Kimberley a chance to wake up properly.

We showered, checked out, and drove (no more than a few minutes) to Lodge Road to go and see the beautifully preserved building, some 130+ years old. 

Belgravia is a stark contrast to the modest suburbs we’d run through earlier in the morning, with manicured lawns and water features bridging pretty fences and the neat and sturdy brickwork that had so well preserved this slice of history.

Using the internet as our guide, we matched house numbers with significance, which centred mostly around the Oppenheimer dynasty. 

Unfortunately the museum and gallery were not open (unclear as to whether a Sunday thing or a Covid thing), which motivated us to get to the breakfast that had morphed into a brunch.

Good thing too, because when we got to the Crazy Horse to get their famous Full English (and then some) breakfast, we were initially disappointed to be told that they were no longer serving breakfast… 
But fate was on our side because this forced us to try a Kimberley special; crumbed and deep-fried rump drowned in cheddamelt sauce. Served with the most buttery mash. What a treat! 

The kitchen was not only epic but also super quick, and we were on the road again just after midday, heading towards Groblershoop for our Sunday night stay.

Driving the Northern Cape really is ‘the open road’. With decent highway slicing through the flat dry bushveld, barely any traffic and continuing the audiobook we’d started the day before (the story of Motley Crue, as told by the band members), the two and a half hour drive was almost relaxing. 


GROBLERSHOOP

Sunday 1 August

As a pitstop to break the journey, we’d chosen Groblershoop for its remoteness, and a quaint little farmstay cottage overlooking vineyards and pecan nut trees on a working farm.

We were most pleased with our choice and were soon lazing on the deck chairs on the sunny stoep – exactly as we’d imagined we would be from the moment we’d seen the ad on Airbnb – admiring the lush lemon trees in our oasis garden, with the grey wintery vineyards as backdrop.

There’s really not much to report about the rest of the day, since we barely moved more than a few metres from the deck chairs to the bench table to play backgammon for hours while the sun set and the stars appeared on the pitch black blanket of sky.

On meeting our host, we had asked about running trails in the area. He’d indicated that we were welcome to run through the vineyards, which would lead us to the Orange River. So, since we awoke to a perfect morning, that’s exactly what we did.

We were fortunate to be exploring this part of the world at this time of the year because any sooner and it would have been too cold and any later too hot to have both a refreshing morning trot and a leisurely start to the day. What a novelty to be able to run in these surroundings and deposit ourselves on the riverbank (which looked remarkably like a beach!).

Also in no particular hurry – with our host having invited us to take our time checking out and to just leave the keys in the door (!) – we were able to take our time exploring the farm and still fashion a relaxed brunch from the things we’d brought with us in our cooler, planning ahead for our remote location and self-catering.


KEIMOES

Monday 2 August

Having previously enquired, we were expecting no-option self-catering at our overnight on the Bezalel Wine and Brandy Estate, so we broke the 130km-odd journey up with a quick stop at Kalahari Mall (which an inadvertent slip of the tongue had us calling it Calamari Hall from the get-go) in Upington to get a few supplies. Nothing fancy, just snacks and treats to see us through, with lunch to be the main meal of the day.

It was very easy to spot our home for the night, with a very conspicuous castle-like entrance on the main N14 road we were travelling from Upington.

We knew immediately that we’d chosen the right place when we were met at the door by an enormous chocolate coloured dog, who took to us immediately and spent the better part of the afternoon bringing us things to throw for him to retrieve.

With the afternoon’s primary entertainment being a wine and brandy tasting, we prioritised getting a good lunch on board to line the stomach. For once we, never usually liking to be the only people in a restaurant, were grateful for the freedoms it allowed, so we could take off our masks and enjoy the garden and playing fetch like good humans.

With a hearty lamb pie and delicious springbok ciabatta behind us, we started our tasting at around 3pm. 

Martiens, the owner and 4th generation farmer on the Dyasons Settlement, narrated us through a captivating couple of hours, effortlessly mixing tastes of their wine, brandy and infusion products with education on how everything is made and colourful anecdotes of his family’s heritage and experiences.

There was lots to tell, bearing in mind his great-grandfather had started Bezalel Estate, having moved to the Kalahari from Johannesburg, where his grandfather had been the Bezuidenhout who owned the farm that included the current Bez Valley!

We walked away richer for the experience and with a selection of bottles of what was available for sale.

The area and industry had really suffered from the prohibitions of the last couple of years so we were pleased to be able to support local industry with such self-satisfaction.

We returned to our cottage at around 5, in time to crack open a bottle of the Colombard we’d just procured and wile away the sunset overlooking the vineyards and the tranquil little pond that completed the picture.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 4: Port Alfred

PORT ALFRED
2-4 Dec 2020

It was our decision to end off in Port Alfred - the closest big dot to the East London airport, from where we would need to depart for home on Friday - that our 'few days in Kenton' became a roadtrip of the Eastern Cape. Port Alfred was just that little bit too far as a homebase from which to satellite to the places we'd earmarked as of interest.

We'd had to make some big decisions and trade-offs to make everything fit, one of the more difficult ones being foregoing staying over in Kenton. We had rationalised that it was the most likely destination we'd return to for a longer stay and so comprised to a drive-through on this trip.

We left a murky Colchester behind and drove through a chilly and drizzly Alexandria to pause in Cannon Rocks to see what there was to see (not much; 2 canons and 2 anchors) and then emerge in a sunny Kenton-on-Sea. Quite a microclimate experience in only 80km!

We parked in town, did a bit of window-shopping (mostly of bakery and restaurant menus; can you ever really be too informed??) and walked down to the beach. Even though it was clear skies with the lightest breeze, the beach was empty. Maybe the inclement weather had been there earlier, maybe it was because it was a weekday and shoulder season or maybe Kenton does lunch or siesta in a big way. 

It was quite nice to have the blue flag beach to ourselves though.
Also nice to have taken the walk rather than drive down. Gave us time for a proper gawk at the big and beautiful holiday homes, choosing which would be ours should our ship come in.

It was then just a short hop (a bit like the Garden Route) to Port Alfred, where we had no trouble finding our accommodation, one road before a massive bridge and one road on from the main road. Even the navigationally-challenged like me could not but help find the place!

Wiltshire cottage is a little granny flat in the garden of the main house, on a road dotted with Wiltshire rental properties. Owned and managed by a lovely couple, we were warmly welcomed, given a tour and some great advice on what to do and see in the neighbourhood.

Not in any rush to go dashing out again, we enjoyed the comfort of our cosy lounge with an episode of The Crown, which had us hooked after the episodes we'd watched in the downtime enjoyed at our Colchester studio.

Sunset saw us taking a wander down to the beach - an easy walk and near impossible to get lost with beaches curling our neighbourhood on two sides - and along the beachfront to seek sundowners at The Highlander pub, opposite the St Andrews Golf Course.

With Prawns as the chef's daily special, sundowners soon turned into a seafood feast, which seemed very fitting for our seaside surrounds.

Always a treat to be able to walk home from dinner and en route we smelled the most delicious aroma wafting from a heavenly restaurant that we resolutely decided would make for the perfect farewell dinner.

With precious little to do on our last day, we started the day with a slow run around the golf course and along the beach. When we got back and were cooling off on our little patio, our host's stopped to chat and gave us both advice on what to do for the day and an invitation to join them for a social in the evening.

Following their advice, we took a little drive down the coast to see the Lighthouse. Even though tours had been cancelled because of the pandemics, it was still possible to drive right up to the lighthouse - and get some great pics from the prime location.

Our host, Roy, had recommended a roadside diner for our lunch. On arrival we found them mid- power failure and apologetic that things were taking longer than usual. We were in absolutely no hurry, so settled in at the beer garden at the back. It was worth the wait and our surf n turf and seafood combo were both excellent (in value and in taste). 

That left time to retreat back to the couch for a few episodes of The Crown before taking Roy up on his invitation to visit his bar in the early evening, while Leanne was hosting her bookclub in the main house.

Popping across the garden with the last of our beers, we were greeted by a tableful of gents, communed for their ritual bi-weekly social. 

Roy had an impressive bar, walls lined with memorabilia that it had clearly taken a lifetime to collect. Beer bottles, Stein's, framed pictures of important event... His flash guided tour didn't do justice to the treasure chest of memories!

Roy also had a private library annexed onto his bar, with an enviable collection of hardcover books that concentrated on biographies and autobiographies; right up Christian's alley so led to an energetic back and forth about which ones were best, which stories were believable and what gaps remained to be told of protagonists who were still alive and making history.

On completing the tour, chairs were added to the table for us and, as cameo guests to this clique, we were faced with the usual set of questions (where we're from, what we do there, what we were doing here and for how long) and then were peppered with appropriate stories in response from group, who were mostly retired to Port Alfred from Joburg, Durban and CT.

They were great company and had it not been our last night, we might have been tempted to stay longer. But alas, it was, so we made a break for it and headed down to the beach for the sunset.

Of course, I'd completely misjudged the directions and so the spot we'd earmarked for sundowners was on the wrong side completely and already well into dusk by the time we got there!

No mind, we still had the restaurant to look forward to and so we made our way over there.

What a gem of a find! Only open 2 months, KC Italia was an intimate eatery with a very focused menu of no more than 8 pasta specials. A good thing too as we still struggled to choose from those limited options! In the end, the coastal theme drew us to the prawns linguine and the salmon tofe (fancy name for shells pasta). 

Able to see into the kitchen through the wide window connected to the dining area, we could see the chef working his magic and creating his masterpieces. It was very up our alley to be able to watch him swirling delicious things in the assortment of pans and scooping our steaming food into bowls, to be picked up immediately and served to us at our table seconds later. 

We had a long and lingering dinner, enjoying every bite of our meal. It was so wonderful I would have licked the bowl if I thought I could get away with it! And I said as much to the chef when he came out to check on us and he beamed, obviously thrilled at the sincere compliment.

His partner, the hostess, spent quite a bit of time chatting to us, excited by their impetuous decision to open the restaurant - post both of them being displaced by Covid closures - and optimistic for their chances for a busy December holiday period. She said that there was fortunately still consistent appetite for restaurant-eating in Port Alfred since there is a large retired community, who have been less economically affected by the pandemic.

A portion of that community were still having a whale of a time when we got back to Wiltshire Cottage. The bookclub had become a lot more audible and we caught snatches of the conversation and intermittent roars of laughter from the gents at the pub. 

With a plane to catch the next morning, we snuck into our cottage and popped on an episode of The Crown rather than getting tangled in the raging nightlife in our back yard.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 2: Bathurst

BATHURST
29 Nov

We dropped our friends off at East London Airport and drove along the coast as far as Port Alfred, where we turned inland for the 10 minute stretch to Bathurst. We had chosen to stay at the Historic Pig & Whistle Inn because it houses the longest running pub in South Africa and puts on a legendary Sunday roast.

Cutting it very fine for the kitchen's published 3pm close, we called ahead to secure our roast (lamb) dinners and made it in the nick of time, pulling into a parking bay in front of the hotel with mere minutes to spare. There were a few tables of diners and drinkers being entertained by a live band positioned underneath the hotel's sign on the wide curb.

The chefs had waited to plate for us, so we were served fresh piping-hot roasted goodness smothered in a rich gravy - and for that moment all was right with the world!

With a full belly we were newly excited to explore our surrounds, so without bothering to complete check-in or unpack the car we embarked on a self-guided walking tour of town. 

Established in 1820, it's hard to believe this peaceful little village on the banks of the Kowie River had such a turbulent start.

Established on the frontier, it was an area of fierce conflict between settlers moving northwards and African pastoralists and refugees from the Mfecane moving southwards.

The settlement was named after the secretary of State for the colonies at the time, a Lord Henry Bathurst, and was intended to be the administrative capital of the Albany Settler Country, but that was moved to Grahamstown because of its superior military position.

Bathurst is now renowned for its quaint and old architecture, counting among the visible relics - all on our short self-guided walking tour of the town centre - the oldest unaltered Anglican church building in South Africa (St John's), the oldest functioning primary school and the oldest continuously licenced pub in the country, housed in the historic Pig and Whistle Inn, which is where we chosen to stay for the night.

The inn building was originally built as the Bathurst Forge in 1821 but converted into a hotel in 1831 and has housed endless guests in its first floor 10 rooms, with countless more guests "having a swig at the pig" or enjoying the traditional Sunday roast lunch as we had. 

On finally checking in - a process managed by a local patron from the bar in the tender's absence - we were escorted to Room 8, a corner room which overlooked the town's main crossroad, and we were delighted with the hardwood floors, the old-world 4-poster bed and in-room basin (with the rest of the facilities shared and accessible from the landing). 

Opening our windows we could hear that the Bathurst Arms across the road was rather festive so, after having an obligatory Guinness in the Pig and Whistle (for Indexing purposes), we made our way to see what was going on. 

The pub was full to bursting, with an open mic style live music show drawing and holding the patrons. Some were more conventionally talented than others, but the small crowd cheered all gamely and sang along whenever the words were known. No doubt both the brave showmanship and the good spirits were fuelled by house beers sold in quarts.

Not particularly hungry, but spurred by the numerous mentions of the town's epic pizza place, we rounded the evening off with a pizza to share at Pickwick's seeing as it was across the road from our hotel. We could see what the fuss was about as we enjoyed our large, topping-laden cheesy nightcap.

Waking the next morning we filled in the gaps left on out on the walking tour from the previous day, with a jogging tour that would see us completing the further afield sights within an hour or so, on a wider 10km route.

First target was the Old Powder Magazine, which is the oldest building in Bathurst and was erected as a military supply shelter in advance of the establishment of the town. We headed off, thinking we knew where we were going but ended up taking a few wrong turns - easy to do when your destination doesn't have a formal address and none of the roads are marked. Nonetheless, we found it and were pleased that besides the landmark itself, the position on top of the hill offered a worthwhile panoramic view of the surrounds. 

From there we ran past town and up another hill to the Toposcope. This is a stone beacon that was built for land surveying purposes and still shows the plaques indicating which settler families from where were allocated which farms and what distance from the beacon. An open air and free experience that is a wonderful slice of history.

Running down the hill and back to the main road, we ticked the last box with a visit to the giant pineapple which, despite the rich history of this living relic of a town, is most often the first thing to be mentioned. 

Situated on Summerhill Farm, the Big Pineapple stands three stories high with a viewing deck on top and a pineapple museum inside. At 56 feet tall, it is officially the biggest pineapple in the world and was built by members of Bathurst's agricultural community in the 80s to pay homage to the prickly fruit as it had provided salvation to the farmers in the 1800s who had struggled to grow anything until they planted pineapples. 

Completing the last dash home along the main road, we washed, dressed and packed up, ready to head to Grahamstown for the next adventure.

on the move