Category Archives: Travel

Cape Town and Durban

I’m back from a lovely, week-long vacation with my cousin Amanda (and, for the last two days, Al). I met Amanda at the Joburg airport on Monday — she had flown in from San Francisco, via London — and we went straight to Cape Town for four days. While there, we got up to the usual Cape Town things: Table Mountain, Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope, wineries, penguins, seafood, shopping. It was glorious, as expected.

Here are a few photos of our visit:

View from Table Mountain

View from road to Table Mountain

Camps Bay

Camps Bay

Beachside playground

Beachside playground

Amanda and me at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Amanda and me (and a dog) at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Stark Conde

Stark Conde

Great views along the Cape

Great views along the Cape

Baby ostrich being petted

Baby ostrich being petted

Beach ostrich

Wild ostrich

Penguins

Penguins

The ostrich farm we visited was a total kick. Ostriches are weird looking to begin with, but baby ostriches are both extremely weird AND cute. They look like baby dinosaurs. I took a short video of some of the babies:

Hilarious!

Amanda and I had a great time in Cape Town, but on Friday morning, we left and flew two hours northeast to Durban, the third largest city in South Africa, known for its beaches, sub-tropical climate, Indian food, and adventure sports. We stayed at the truly lovely Rosetta House, where Al met us later that evening.

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

Durban was awesome. It’s a very relaxed, pretty city, with beautiful homes, lots of lush green plant life, warm beaches, and cute outdoor cafes and bars. One of the things that struck me most about Durban is how ethnically integrated it is, as compared to Cape Town or Joburg or, really, any other South African city or town I’ve ever visited. I was pleasantly surprised to see people of different races eating at the same restaurants, drinking at the same bars, hanging out on the same beaches. I know that sounds sort of sad, that this is something I’d be surprised by, but South Africa, despite its claims of being a rainbow nation, can often feel very segregated. Durban was a refreshing change. Al and I kept remarking on it (“Oh, wow, there are actually white people AND black people AND Indian people at this [bar/restaurant/beach/garden]!”) which tells you a little something about what we’re used to in Joburg.

We went to the beach on Saturday, which was beautiful and relaxing. The waters of the Indian Ocean in Durban aren’t as warm as they were in Mozambique, but they weren’t freezing, either (unlike the water in Cape Town). I went for a dip and came out feeling refreshed (and salty).

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On Saturday night, we ate at 9th Avenue Bistro, which offers a six-course wine pairing tasting menu, and it was fantastic. The food and service were outstanding; however, the ambience was a bit dampened by the fact that the restaurant looks out over a parking lot. Oh, well. Still highly recommended!

On Sunday, our last day in Durban, we spent a few hours wandering around the gorgeous Durban Botanical Gardens, which were heavenly. The Gardens are Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens and they are very well maintained. I took a ton of pictures because everything was so beautiful.

Giant tree (and Al)

Giant tree (and Al)

Bamboo copse

Bamboo copse

Gingko seed?

Gingko seed?

Bees on dahlia

Bees on dahlia

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One of my favorite parts of the Gardens was a little pond that was filled with all sorts of interesting birds, including an African Spoonbill, a giant pelican (which I think might be a pink backed pelican?), a big red-beaked goose, and several kinds of ducks and ducklings.

Pelican

Pelican (Pink Backed, I think)

Paddle beaked bird

African Spoonbill

So, this was a trip of many odd bird sightings: pelicans, spoonbills, ostriches, penguins, and, while we were in Cape Town, a flock of wild flamingos flying overhead. Pretty cool.

Now I am back in Joburg and beginning to acclimate to the chilly weather and the fact that I have to, you know, start working again. Amanda is on safari now and will be back in Joburg on Thursday, so I have a little more cousin time to look forward to. In the meantime, it’s back to the grind: blogging and writing. Luckily, I happen to really enjoy the grind. Vacation is great, but the grind is good, too.

Ilha de Moçambique

No Book Review Tuesday today – I am currently mid-book(s) and so I will use today’s post to update you on our vacation to Ilha de Moçambique, which is more interesting, anyway.

Ilha at sunset

Ilha at sunset

For Easter break, Al and I went to Ilha de Moçambique, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the former capital of Portuguese East Africa. According to UNESCO, Ilha was originally inhabited by a Bantu tribe, and then occupied by Arabs around the year 900 AD. Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, reached Ilha in 1498 and “was well received by the sultan and the people, who thought the Portuguese were Muslims.” Oops. Eventually, Ilha became a major Portuguese trading post and then became the capital, until 1898, when the seat of Portuguese East Africa was moved to Laurenço Marques (now Maputo).

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Today, Ilha feels like it’s stuck in a time warp. The island is full of crumbling old buildings, some of which are from the 16th century (such as the São Sebastião fortress, which was built in 1558!), with very little evidence of modernity. The place feels like it’s falling down around your ears as you walk through its streets, but I guess that’s part of the charm.

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Macuti (straw) town

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Catholic church

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São Sebastião fortress

IMG_2719 IMG_2711 IMG_2707 IMG_2709While the rusticity of the island is charming, it can also be off-putting. For example, the island’s decaying public hospital was horrifying. It looked – I’m not kidding – like it was haunted, even during the day, with large, empty corridors of crumbling stone and peeling paint, outdoor breezeways full of litter where sick people sat on the ground waiting to be seen, and broken windows and doors. I could not believe that it was a functioning hospital and it made me feel so badly for the people on the island who have no choice but to go there when they are sick. Somehow, unlike most of my vacations, I managed to avoid a visit to the emergency room, and I am so grateful for that!

Exterior of hospital

Exterior of hospital

Radiology department

Radiology department – sign says that those with a cough will be prioritized

Turns out, there’s not a whole lot to do on Ilha, so this was a very relaxing vacation for us. On our first night out, we were sitting on a rooftop at a restaurant called Flor de Rosa eating fresh squid and lobster and drinking chilled red wine, when a couple next to us said hi. They had heard us talking and they were also American, and we ended up eating together that night and then hanging out every day for the rest of our trip. Our new friends – Eric and Alison – live in Beira, a coastal city in central Mozambique, and were the only other Americans we met on the island. However, the island was teeming with Canadians – teeming, I tell you! – and we even met a guy who was not only from Ottawa, but had grown up on Al’s street in a small suburb of Ottawa (Stittsville) and – get this – they KNEW each other as kids. O, Canada!

One day, we hired a boat with Alison and Eric and went to a little island called Ilha de Goa, where we looked at the old, square lighthouse, collected shells, drank beer, and played in the warm, clear water. Then we boated to the mainland and went snorkeling in a natural saltwater lagoon. We were out for most of the day and by the end of it, we had drunk a lot of beer and taken in a lot of sun, so we were all exhausted, but it was glorious.

Urchin skeletons

Urchin skeletons

Fishermen

Fishermen

Water

Water – seen from the boat

On another day, Al and I went on a tour of the Palace and Chapel of São Paulo, which was originally built in 1610 as a Jesuit College but was then taken over and used as a residence for the Portuguese governor. The place is now a museum and has been beautifully restored, and includes much of the original furniture, decor, fixtures and finishings, including an exquisite collection of Ming vases. A guide led us barefoot through the palace and we ogled at the old beds, woodwork, carvings, and paintings. It was one of the coolest things we did on the island, and normally we are not museum people.

Peixe grelhado - grilled fish

Peixe grelhado – grilled fish

The rest of our time we spent reading, lying by pools, napping, speaking Portuguese, eating grilled seafood, and sweating, because Ilha was crazily hot, you guys. We stayed at a really lovely guesthouse called Patio dos Quintalinhos, which was great in every way except for the fact that it was right across the street from a Sunni mosque that BLASTED its call to prayer directly into our bedroom every morning, which made me think of this, every single time:

I took a little (12 second) video of the much less jarring evening call to prayer:

Pretty cool, huh?

Overall, we had a great trip and came back to Joburg feeling rested, full of seafood, and only slightly sunburnt. Ilha is not one of those places where you visit and then fantasize about moving to it, but it’s a fascinating, unique place, and I’m so glad we went.

Rustenburg

Al and I have embarked on a month-long detox from booze and in his case, candy, and in my case, cheese and dessert (which are often one and the same with me). This is necessary. Very necessary. I’ve spent the last month and a half flitting from place to place, eating rich food and drinking fine (and not so fine) wine, and it has been GLORIOUS, but I feel that my liver is about to give out and the buttons on my pants are about to pop, so it’s time to take a break. In this new spirit of healthy living, then, we decided to have an outdoorsy kind of weekend, so we drove two hours to Rustenburg, the “bustling” provincial capital of Northwest Province, to do some hiking and biking.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Rustenburg itself is pretty low-key – the owner of the lovely B&B we stayed in listed the many dining options at the local mall’s food court when we asked her if there were any nice restaurants nearby – but it’s home to a provincial park called Kgswane Mountain Reserve that has hiking trails and bike paths. On Saturday morning, we went to the mountain reserve with big plans to go biking. We had loaded up our road bikes – which have sat gathering cobwebs, literally, on our porch since we moved to South Africa – and a newly purchased bike pump and we were ready to go. Only problem was, the bike pump didn’t work. After a frustrating half hour of attempting to force the bike pump to work, we gave up and decided to go for a hike. We set off on a hiking trail called the “Vlei Ramble,” but we turned around after a few minutes when it became clear that a machete was necessary to effectively break through the underbrush. And the brambles. Oh, the brambles! Al joked, of course, that the trail should have been called the Vlei Bramble. We hiked a trail called the Peglerei Interpretative Trail (huh?) instead, and it was much better. Great views, plus the whole trail was littered with rose quartz. The weirdly rock-obsessed eight-year-old inside me was geeking out the whole time.

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That night, we decided to go to a “nice” dinner at a place we had read about in one of our guidebooks, the Kedar Country House, which is attached to a hotel and a museum devoted to Paul Kruger. There were several clues along the way that this restaurant was not going to be good: when the parking lot in front of the restaurant was dark and virtually empty, when the man in the hotel lobby seemed baffled that we wanted to eat at the restaurant, when we walked into the restaurant and it was empty except for a harried looking family with several screaming children. It wasn’t until we saw that the restaurant was buffet-style, with steam trays full of unidentifiable meat mash and a table of wilting salads preserved under saran wrap, that we decided to try to find somewhere else. We hastily made our exit. All of the employees seemed to understand.

We made the bold decision to drive another 20 kilometers to Sun City, the self-billed “kingdom of pleasure” of Africa. I guess the other kingdoms in Africa aren’t putting up much competition in the pleasure category (looking at you, Swaziland), so fair enough. Sun City is, in a word, ridiculous. It truly is a little city, containing a golf course, hotels, restaurants, casinos, a wave pool (the grandly named “Valley of Waves”), and even residential facilities. That’s right, people live at Sun City. We had heard that there were some good restaurants there, including something called the Famous Butcher’s Grill. After driving around and seeing no such grill, we asked a valet at the casino, who told us the restaurant was in the Cabanas Hotel. We parked and went into the hotel and asked the concierge about the restaurant. She told us the Famous Butcher’s Grill has been closed for “ten years. Maybe four years.” At this point, we had been driving for an hour, we were hungry, and we were nearing defeat, so we decided to give up and eat at the hotel’s new restaurant, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a name, other than “Hotel Restaurant.” It was truly the most generic of hotel restaurants: open plan seating in the middle of the hotel, kids running around and playing on a plastic play structure, and – you guessed it – a BUFFET. Resigned to our fate, we sat down and ate our buffet dinner, which was fine. Not great. But fine.

After dinner, being the old farts we are, we were too tired (from the hiking and the driving and the disappointment) to gamble, so we headed back to the B&B. Plus, we all know that gambling’s not fun unless you have a little liquor in your system to make your choices just bad enough to be interesting.

The next morning, we bought a new bike pump and headed back to the mountain reserve. We successfully pumped the bikes’ tires (huzzah!) and had a really nice bike ride. We did something called the Sable Loop (twice), all the time keeping our eyes peeled for sable antelope, which are very rare but apparently live in the park. We didn’t see any (although we did see zebra, kudu, and impala), but it was still a good ride, and we left Rustenburg feeling satisfied, like we had accomplished something. All in all, a good weekend. Who says you need booze and cheese to have fun?

Drakensbergs, revisited

This weekend, fresh off my safari, I went back to the Drakensberg Mountains with Al and some of his McKinsey colleagues for a so-called “team weekend.” Based on past (semi-traumatic) experiences with McKinsey “teambuilding” “retreats,” I feared that this weekend would involve flow charts, PowerPoint, and small-group breakout sessions. To my relief, it just ended up being a weekend away — no brainstorming or teambuilding involved — that McKinsey paid for. Not bad!

The Drakensbergs

The Drakensbergs

We (that is, Al and I, his colleague Mattia and his girlfriend Isabella, and another McKinsey colleague, Martin) drove from Joburg on Friday afternoon, all five of us cramped into a tiny Suzuki Alto. In case you’re not familiar with the Suzuki Alto, it looks like this:

Suzuki-Alto-2009-hd

Don’t let the smiling faces of those Europeans fool you: the Suzuki Alto is not a good car. It is slow, cramped, and most definitely not suitable to seat five adults – and their luggage – comfortably. But we made it. Somehow.

We stayed at the somewhat grandly named Champagne Castle hotel, and it was a mixed bag.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Good things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Very close to the mountains
  • Decent buffet with a good cheese selection
  • Meals included in price
  • Many interesting animals on the grounds (including peacocks, parrots, and baboons).

Bad things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Neither a castle nor filled with champagne
  • Confusing and unnecessary “dress code” enforced: no shorts or “slipslops” after 6 pm – unclear if this prohibition also applied to one’s room, but we decided to chance it. Also, what are slipslops?
  • Spa was booked until Monday, and also did not appear to be open/actually a spa
  • Many “strictly enforced” rules about checkout time, attire, meal seating, etc. – one must always be on one’s guard at the Champagne Castle
  • Internet only available in “internet hut” on grounds
  • No fitness center
  • Shrieking parrots, marauding baboons

We were baffled by the many and varied rules enforced at the Champagne Castle, and decided that the boss, an affable Belgian who checked in on us multiple times during each meal to make sure we were enjoying the fettucini alfredo, must have it in his head that “fancy” hotels involve dress codes and dinner bells and assigned seating, whether the guests find those things charming or not. Or else maybe the place is run by Nazis. I could see it going either way.

The Champagne Castle

The Champagne Castle

Apart from abiding by the Champagne Castle’s rigid code of conduct, we spent most of the rest of our time in the Drakensbergs sleeping, eating, and hiking.

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On Saturday, we had planned to do a four-hour hike that ended up turning into a seven-hour death march because the guy in charge of the map sort of didn’t know how to read a map. But we made it back, seven long hours later, a little worse for the wear and extremely hungry, but alive. Then we pigged out on buffet food, so it was all good.

Me, at the beginning of our hike

Me, at the beginning of our hike, while I was still smiling

It was a nice weekend, overall, but it’s refreshing to be back in Joburg. I haven’t really been able to work for a month, so I’m looking forward to bearing down and getting a lot done this week. I do love traveling, but you know what they say: the best part about traveling is coming home.

Elephant Plains

I’m now officially back from my month-long vacation(s); I got back to Joburg from safari yesterday. What a week! My friends and I spent four nights at Elephant Plains Game Lodge, in the Sabi Sand private game reserve just north of Kruger National Park.

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

I had been on safari before, of course, so I thought I knew what to expect from this trip, but staying in a private game reserve is a very different experience from staying in Kruger itself. For one thing, in a private reserve, you can go off-roading. Which means you can follow animals and drive right up to them. I mean RIGHT up to them.

Oh, hello.

Oh, hello.

Also, all of the rangers have radios so they can communicate with each other about where the good animals are. Thus, we saw, in short order, lions (including cubs), a leopard, elephants (with babies), a rhino, giraffes, hippos, zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, jackals, waterbucks, kudus, nyalas, impalas, a crocodile, and more. Now, I saw most of these animals in Kruger, as well, and it was a wonderful experience. But at Elephant Plains, we got right up in the animals’ grill(s).

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

To see the above rhino in action, here’s a video I took of him drinking, which gives you a better sense of how CLOSE we were.

A couple of times, things got a little scary. For example, a herd of elephants (with several babies) were not happy to see our van and the matriarch, who was quite large and intimidating already, started flapping her ears at us to appear even larger, which is what elephants do when they’re gearing up to fight. Turns out the elephants were mostly bluster; they flapped their ears and gave us threatening looks and then hurried past us, although one stopped to turn and stare us down before moseying down the road.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Then, a few minutes later, another group of elephants appeared, and one of them – I kid you not – sort of charged the van, trumpeting. I had been drifting to sleep because we had gotten up at 5 am for our morning game drive but the sound of an angry elephant three feet from my face woke me up real quick. Again, the elephant was bluffing, and it trudged off into the bush after scaring the living crap out of all of us, but still. Here’s a short video of the first group of elephants, before the matriarch started getting ticked off at us.

The scariest thing that happened – although, at the time, it didn’t seem that scary – was when Elise, Allison, and I went for a bush walk with our trusty ranger, Louis. The point of a bush walk is to see the plants, insects, and small animals that live in the bush, not to see big game, since it’s not safe to be on foot around predators (or other aggressive animals like buffalo or hippos), since they can, you know, kill you. So we were walking along and Louis was showing us a tree with interesting leaves when we spot, maybe 100 meters away, three lionesses. Unlike all of the other times we had seen lions in the reserve, these ones were not lying around listlessly, full from a big meal of impala or zebra. No, these lionesses were coming toward us. Ruh-roh. Louis calmly loaded his rifle (yeah…) and told us to form a single-file line and back slowly toward the nearest tree. Once we were behind the tree, he told us to keep walking and get behind the next tree, and so on, until we were close to the gates of the lodge. At the time, we thought it was cool and exciting, and maybe a little scary, because we didn’t realize that normally, when lions see people on foot, they stand still and then move off into the bush. These ones, though, were hungry, and one of them even crouched down, which is the position lions take when they’re hunting. Um. Close call?

A female leopard

A female leopard

All in all, it was a fantastic trip, truly an experience of a lifetime, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to see these incredible animals up close (and to have emerged unscathed). This will probably be my last safari for the foreseeable future, and it was a great one. Here are a few more photos, although I took so many it’s hard to choose which ones to share. Hope you enjoy.

Waterbok

Waterbok

Me and a giraffe

Me and a giraffe

Female kudu with bird friends

Female kudu with bird friends

Zebras

Zebras

Two young males playing

Two young males playing

 

Cape Town

Hello there! I must apologize, once again, for the intermittent bursts of blogging. I am still mid-vacay and won’t be back full-time for another week, but I wanted to tell you all about the five days I just spent in Cape Town.

View of Table Mountain from hostel

View of Table Mountain from hostel

After Stellenbosch, I bid my in-laws and Al adieu and stayed on in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends from DC, Elise and Allison, who were kind enough to visit me in South Africa. We stayed at a somewhat famous backpacking hostel called, appropriately enough, The Backpack. It was named one of the 10 “coolest hostels” in the world by The Guardian in 2010 and has won awards for being sustainable (they use all recycled materials, no bottled water, etc., etc.). It was indeed a very nice place with a cool vibe. The only problem is that I am too old for cool vibes. It’s official. We were put into a room that was right next to the common area, so we were treated to thumping bass, loud bellowing, and assorted screeches for all five nights of our stay. My crotchetiness came out full force last night (or, technically, this morning) at 2:15 am when I marched out into the common area and told the jerks who were playing annoying techno music to please, kindly shut. it. off. already. Youngsters these days, am I right? But, noise pollution aside, I’d recommend The Backpack; if nothing else, it has incredible views of Table Mountain.

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

We got up to a lot of stuff in Cape Town, including some shopping, wine drinking, and delicious dining. We even did some outdoorsy stuff! On our second day in town, we decided to hike stunning Table Mountain, which is the impressive, flat-topped mountain overlooking Cape Town. At the top is Table Mountain National Park, which is a World Heritage site and one of the “new seven wonders of nature,” which may or may not be a made up thing. Although, after seeing the views from the top of the mountain, I’m pretty convinced this is one of the top natural wonders of the world. For real. Check out these views.

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Not bad!

The next day, we went on a wine tasting excursion with a company called Wine Flies (be warned: their website has music — sigh). I had pretty low expectations for the wine trip, since I had just spent the weekend with some veritable wine experts (i.e., my husband and his mom) in Stellenbosch and I figured whatever packaged wine tour we went on would pale in comparison. But actually, the tour was fantastic. The guide was knowledgeable without being condescending, we went to some really good wineries (and had a great cheese tasting at one of them), we met some adorable (and naughty) dachshunds, and we ended the day with brandy and dried apricots.

My new best friend

My new best friend

A lunch companion

She joined us at lunch

Middlevlei winery

Middlevlei winery

Brandy cups

Brandy cups

Needless to say, by the end of the day, everyone on the tour bus had become best friends. At least until we all stumbled out and went our separate ways. Then we totally forgot one another’s names.

The next morning, bright and early, we went on a tour of the Cape Coast, which included stops at an island full of seals, the penguin beach at the nature reserve within Table Mountain National Park, and the Cape of Good Hope itself.  The penguins were my favorite part, obviously. They’re so cute and weird and awkward! And they have a pretty sweet beach they get to hang out on:

Penguin beach

Penguin beach

Nature reserve, Table Mountain National Park

 

We also saw some pretty stunning vistas as we drove down the coast toward the Cape of Good Hope. Here are just a few photos to give you an idea of the landscape:

Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

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To round out a trip full of natural beauty and wildlife, we spent our last night in Cape Town stuffing our faces with awesome seafood, wine, and beer, and then dancing at one of the best bars I’ve been to in quite a while, The Waiting Room. The DJ, the so-called Daddy Warbucks, looked like a nerdy, less bald version of Prince William and he was awesome. After dancing for an hour or two, we came back to the hostel and I watched Juno on TV in one of the common rooms, by myself, sitting on a beanbag chair, until I realized it was past 2 am and time for my old bones to be in bed.

Cape Town

Cape Town

This morning, we said goodbye to Cape Town and headed back to Joburg. And even though Cape Town is, by pretty much any standard, way better than Joburg, it still feels good to be back home.

Joburg

Joburg

Stellenbosch

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past three days in beautiful Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Stellenbosch has something for everyone: amazing food, outstanding wine, and stunning scenery.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is the second oldest European settlement in South Africa (after Cape Town). It was founded in 1639 (!) by a man named Simon van der Stel, who was governor of the Cape Colony (incidentally, Stellenbosch means Stel’s Bush, so the ever-humble van der Stel named the town after himself). It’s sometimes easy to forget how long the Dutch have been kicking around South Africa, but in places like Stellenbosch, you realize that they’ve been here a super long time, making wine and playing sports and generally being rugged.

Anyway, Stellenbosch has come a long way over the last 374 years and is now a beautiful, touristy university town situated among various mountain ranges.

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Art at Tokara winery

Art at Tokara winery

IMG_4261It’s the ideal spot to launch a wine tasting weekend, since many of the country’s best wineries are right here. We did just that, arriving on Thursday night and setting out bright and early on Friday morning to begin quite the decadent weekend of all-out wine and food gluttony.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Al’s mom is a sommelier in Canada, so she had a professional interest in going to some of the best wineries to try their wares. I won’t try to summarize all of the wineries we visited (I’ll leave that to the expert, my mother-in-law), but we went to a lot of beautiful wineries and had some excellent wines.

Tokara winery

Tokara winery

 

Some of my favorites, both for scenery and wine, were Thelema, Tokara, Boschendal, and Winery of Good Hope, where we had a private tasting of FOURTEEN WINES with the winemaker. We fairly stumbled out of that one and had to spend the rest of the day recuperating.

The remains of the day

The remains of the day (Boschendal winery)

The highlight of the weekend was probably our dinner at Rust en Vrede (“Rest and Peace” in Afrikaans), one of the top restaurants in South Africa. We opted for the six-course tasting menu with wine pairings and holy crap, it was awesome. It actually ended up being more like nine courses, what with all of the amuse-bouches and pre-desserts and post-desserts and mid-desserts, and every course was spectacular (with the notable exception of the meat course that included beef tongue and sweetbreads, blech).

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Everything about this dinner was impeccable: the food, the wine, the service, the atmosphere. Afterwards, we spoke to the chef, John Shuttleworth, who looked to be approximately 15 years old, and congratulated him on a job well done.

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Today, we’re off to another top South African restaurant, Jordan, and I can hardly wait. Then Al has to go back to Joburg (noo!) while I stay in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends, Elise and Allison, who are visiting from DC (yaay!). Should be a good time! I will try my darndest to write another post or two during my vacay. In the meantime, hope everyone’s having a fabulous weekend, and happy Sunday.

Kruger

Last night, I got back from a wonderful weekend trip to Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers over 7,500 square miles. Parts of the park have been protected by the South African government since 1898 and it became a national park in 1926. Because of its long history of conservation, the park is home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna, including, according to the official website, 336 species of trees, 49 of fish, 34 of amphibians, 114 of reptiles, 507 of birds, and 147 of mammals. Wow.

I went with Al’s mom and step-dad on Thursday afternoon and Al met us late on Friday night. Over the course of four days, we saw a dazzling number of animals, some of which are quite rare in the park (including a leopard – there are only 1000 of them in the whole place). I’m not sure if we just had amazing luck or whether the park is always like this – filthy with animals, I tell you! – but it was awesome. I kept a list of the animals we saw and here it is: hyena, rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, wildebeest, kudu, impala, giraffe, baboon, hippo, many birds (incl. vulture, African fish eagle, various starling, European roller and Guinea fowl), rabbit, leopard tortoise, zebra, Vervet monkey, bush pig, warthog, white mongoose, ground squirrel (we think), and water buffalo. And probably others, but those were the big ones.

Here are just a few of the photos I took this weekend:

Warthog

Warthog

Sunset on safari

Sunset on safari

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

Starling

Starling

Baby zebra and mother

Baby zebra and mother

Giraffe

Giraffe

Elephants in a row

Elephants in a row

Male impalas play fighting

Male impalas play fighting

Mini croc

Mini croc

Baboon mother and baby

Baboon mother and baby

Elephant eating

Elephant eating

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Shy leopard

Shy leopard

 

Swaziland

We spent this weekend in Swaziland, at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a national big game park.

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Our modest plan, as per usual, was to hang out in the park, go on a game drive, maybe go horseback riding, braai, and see a new country.  And, once again, our plans were thwarted.  In fact, I’m starting to wonder if maybe Al and I were criminals in a past life and are now being punished for our past misdeeds by Vishnu or whoever is in charge of karma.  I don’t think we were felons or anything – but maybe shoplifters? How else to explain the rash of bad traveling luck we’ve had recently? This trip wasn’t as out and out disastrous as our Botswana trip, which, admittedly, is a low hurdle to clear, but things definitely did not go as planned.

The road to Swaziland

The road to Swaziland

Al and I set off from Joburg on Friday at 2 pm with a trunk full of food, hiking gear, and — optimistic fools that we are — bathing suits.  Four hours later, we reached the border with Swaziland.  The drive was remarkably painless, except for a steady drizzle the whole way, and we were feeling confident — TOO confident.  We stepped out of our trusty* old Yaris and were walking towards the customs/immigration building when a police officer pointed at our car and said, “You’ve got a flat.”

Understatement of the year.

Guys. This is what our tire looked like:

NBD, we just drove over some knives.

NBD, we just drove over some knives.

Yeeeah.  Al and I immediately spiraled into a state of deep denial, followed by nervous (bordering on hysterical) laughter, followed by rage, followed by resigned acceptance.  These are the stages of African car trouble.  We know them well.

A few South African police officers changed our tire, putting on the spare in our trunk, at lightning speed while Al and I stood around uselessly and pretended to be helping (“Yeah, get that spanner in there. There you go.”).  Then we drove over the border into Mbabane, the bustling capital city of The Kingdom of Swaziland, where literally everything was closed.  It was 7 pm.  I figured we needed to get our tire changed that night before we attempted driving into the wildlife park, because I was pretty confident that the road into the park would be the kind of pothole littered, rocky, lake-sized puddle obstacle course of horrors that we’ve come to expect on our trips out of town.  However, after driving around for an hour in search of a mechanic or anyone else with the ability to repair a tire, we realized that we were not getting the tire fixed that night and began the slow, rocky, bumpy road into the wildlife park.  About this time, it started to pour down rain.

After an excruciatingly slow 4 km drive over an unpaved, potholey, wet road to the gates of the park, we were met by a guard who told us that the road to the backpackers’ hostel in the park was “too wet” and we’d have to take an alternative route.  Suppressing our desire to beat this man with his own shoes, we turned around  and made it back to the main road, where we began following the extremely vague directions we had been given to the hostel.  At 9 pm, when we still hadn’t found the hostel, I started to lose it.  Right at the point where I was ready to jump out of the car and hitchhike back to Joburg, we found the hostel, where we were showed to our room and told that we would be sharing a bathroom with everyone else on the hall.  We were not pleased.

Five minutes later, the power went out.

Are you getting the picture here?

That first night, after braaing in the dark and carrying our plates back and forth in the pissing rain, Al and I told each other, like always, that things would look better in the morning.  Neither of us really believed it.

Later that night, our friends Josh and Ken showed up, too.  The next morning, it was pouring rain, and the four of us were told — you guessed it — that a game drive was simply impossible.  Impossible!  Since nearly all activities in Swaziland are outdoors/safari oriented, we were in sort of a pickle.  Not to be discouraged, we decided to take care of business and get our tire fixed.  We eventually found a tire garage, which could more accurately be described as a shack on the side of the road that contained tires, but the guys there were helpful and only charged us about $30 for a new tire.

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Turns out, though, we needed TWO new tires.  I’ll spare you the ridiculous details, but after much ado, we ended up with two new (to us) tires and an instruction from the guys at the garage/shack to get our back right tire looked at as soon as we got back to Joburg, because it was about to separate from the wheel. Awesome.

After getting the car taken care of, more or less, we checked out one of Mbabane’s famous attractions, a concert venue called House on Fire, which has a reputation for being one of the coolest concert venues in all of Southern Africa.  Hopeful, as always, we showed up to see what was going on that night, a Saturday.  The woman who worked there told us that the staff was on vacation that week so there would be no concerts. Of course.

So, we looked around the venue, which is filled with really cool art.  Some day I’d like to go back and actually see a concert there. Imagine that!

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The rain had still not stopped, but in the afternoon, the four of us decided to go for a hike in the park.  The people at the hostel looked at us like we were insane, but we wanted to see some animals, gosh darn it, and we were going to go for a hike, rain be DAMNED.  Since Al and I had not brought ponchos, we made our own fashionable slickers out of trash bags and set off on a soggy two and a half hour hike around the park.

This happened.

This happened.

Although we were hoping for hippos, we didn’t see any.  But! We saw antelopes of various descriptions, Wildebeest, warthogs, birds, and — my absolute favorite — zebras! For anyone who has been on a real safari, zebras are old hat, but for me, they were incredible.  I also sort of wanted to steal one and keep it in our apartment.

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That night, we had a braai and drank wine and sat around, satisfied in the knowledge that we had made the most of our time in Swaziland, despite the flat tire(s), despite the rain, and despite the intermittent power. The next day, I took some pictures as we drove back to Joburg, which should give you an idea of what Swaziland looks like, more or less.

The driver

The driver

HIV/AIDS awareness

HIV/AIDS awareness

Cow

Cow

Overall, given the circumstances, not a bad trip.  It probably would have been nicer had everything gone to plan, but what can you do? We should know by now not to expect things to go perfectly.  Message received, Vishnu.

*Read: not trusty at all

Hartbeespoort

Joburg can be a bit boring on the weekends.  So on Friday, Al and I drove an hour to Hartbeespoort (known by locals as “Harties”), a resort town in the North West Province.  Harties is home to a picturesque cluster of adorable cottages sitting around a large, lake-sized dam, plus a bunch of tourist attractions such as a cheesy “African crafts market,” a snake park, a monkey reserve, an elephant sanctuary, and an aquarium.  It’s kind of a weekend getaway for rich Joburgers who want to escape the traffic and noise of the “big city” (although Joburg on weekends is one of the quietest cities I’ve ever been in – but whatever).

We stayed in this cute lodge/bed and breakfast called the Hartbeespoortdam Lodge, which I highly recommend.

View from the lodge - not bad!

View from the lodge – not bad!

It’s located in an upmarket but aging gated community called Kosmos, which reminded Al and me of a cross between the chi-chi Colorado resort town Beaver Creek, southern California, and Italy.  It’s all narrow winding roads and jacaranda and cacti and glimpses of blue water past the front gates of houses looking out over the dam.  But, being South Africa, directly outside the gates of this cozy little resort community is an honest-to-God shanty town, where poor black South Africans live in tin shacks — looking out over the same blue dam.  Very sad, very weird, and very typical of the huge discrepancy between rich and poor that is often visible (even in such close proximity) in this country.

On our first night in Harties, we ate dinner at a restaurant called the Silver Orange, which was very good, and shockingly affordable.

The Silver Orange

The Silver Orange

The next day, we got up, ate breakfast at the lodge, and then wandered to the “flea market”/African crafts bazaar down the road.  The craft market was a veritable explosion of what one of Al’s friends once dubbed “Africrap:” wood carvings of naked African women with weird, alien-shaped heads and pointy breasts, bottle openers carved out of giraffe bones, preserved ostrich eggs with taxidermied baby ostriches popping out from within, paintings of Nelson Mandela, lava lamps, Hello Kitty bling, painted wood jewelry strung together with cheap elastic and glue, and so on.  Aggressive sales people would reach out and grab us by the hand and try to lead us into their stall, where they’d promise us a “special price” for that beautiful wooden hippo they knew we had our eye on.  Ugh.  My husband, bless his heart, has a soft spot for all things Africrap, with a particular weakness for bottle openers in the shape of safari animals, and he’d pick things up and admire them, which led to much fruitless haggling and bluffing with the salespeople.  I got tired of the crafts market quickly.

We had a mediocre cappuccino and a milkshake at a “coffee cafe” (they should really consider changing their name) and then went to Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary.  I was excited for the monkey sanctuary because I love animals and thought it would be cool to see monkeys up close and personal.  Turns out, though, monkeys are kinda creepy.

Apie stealing sunscreen from Al

Apie stealing sunscreen from Al

Throughout the hour-long tour of the sanctuary, which rescues abandoned monkeys (many of whom were kept as pets by a**holes), we were accosted by a capuchin monkey named Apie, who searched all of our pockets, took what he could get, and then ran off into the trees.  Then he’d come back and do it again, often settling on people’s heads and wrapping his tail around people’s necks.  Awkward.  At one point, he stole Al’s sunscreen out of his back pocket and escaped into a tree and proceeded to eat the sunscreen.  We were watching the monkey bang the sunscreen bottle against a tree branch as if it were a coconut, when our guide, the improbably named Simba, told us in a grave voice that the sunscreen would make Apie very sick, and that he would probably spread his sickness to the other monkeys.  Uh, guilt trip alert.

At some point, Apie got tired of the sunscreen and dropped it into the underbrush, and Simba went down to retrieve it.  Apie seemed remarkably unaffected by his consumption of the sunscreen and went back to marauding, trying to extract water bottles, purses, keys, cellphones, and cameras from everyone else.

Apie's antics got pretty old pretty fast

Apie’s antics got pretty old pretty fast

To my surprise, I found myself wanting nothing to do with Apie.  I didn’t want him on my shoulders, I didn’t want to pet him, I didn’t want him staring at me with those beady little eyes. He creeped me out.  This was weird for me, because normally I love all sorts of animals, but something about this little kleptomaniac with finger toes and sharp teeth didn’t sit right with me.  I think Apie had a bad streak.  At one point, he tortured a big, black monkey of a different species because she had come into his “territory.”  Then, when he was draped over the head of some lady who clearly did not want him draped over her head, Al offered his arm to Apie and Apie quite matter-of-factly turned his head and bit Al on the arm.  He didn’t break the skin but he nipped him through his shirt.  And at that point, I was pretty much done with Apie.

After the monkey sanctuary, we went to a cheese farm we had seen signs for along the road.  We had high hopes for this cheese farm, since we like cheese, but the cheese was lackluster.  But the countryside itself was beautiful and peaceful, and we sat outside for a long time while a couple of dogs slept under our table.

Overall, our trip to Hartbeespoort was a very successful mini getaway.  It’s fun to get outside the city without spending hours and hours on the road.  Methinks that more of these little trips need to happen before we leave South Africa.  Except no more monkeys, please.

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