Tag Archives: hiking

An adventure in the Free State

Yesterday, Al and I and two of his work friends, Ash and Sarah, spent the day in the Free State, one of the provinces bordering Gauteng, where we live. Free State is a province that’s known in South Africa for being pretty boring and solidly Afrikaans, even though white Afrikaans people make up only 10% of the population there. However, I had read online about the Vredefort Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Center right in the heart of Free State and only an hour and a half drive from Joburg: how could we resist?

The Vredefort Dome is actually the remains of huge crater caused by a meteor. According to the Vredefort Dome website, “The Vredefort Structure can be considered to be a gigantic scar that was left behind when a huge meteor (estimated size 10 km diameter) collided with the earth about 2023 million years ago.” Whoa. Apparently this ginormous meteor caused a crater that was “in the order of 100 km and some odd tens of kilometers deep,” but the crater was eroded away over millions of years. Bummer. But now there are cool hiking trails with waterfalls and birdwatching, so we decided to go and check it out.

Ash picked us up at 9 am and we all bundled excitedly into his car wearing our hiking gear. I brought my spiffy new hiking hydration backpack, which I am so obsessed with, I want to wear it ALL THE TIME, even to sleep, and we chowed down on biltong as we drove to the Free State, anticipating hours of challenging climbs and stunning vistas. Ninety minutes later, we arrived at the gate to the Vredefort Dome UNESCO World Heritage Site Interpretive Center (huh?) and – you guessed it! – it was closed. Cuz this is Africa. We considered jumping the fence but, this being Free State, decided that the risk of being shot with a rifle for trespassing was a tad higher than we were comfortable with, so we decided to keep driving and see if we could find another entrance to the park or a trailhead for one of the many hikes we had read about. Two hours later, we hadn’t found anything, so we took a break, parked in the little town of Parys and ate at one of Parys’s “best” restaurants, O’s Restaurant.

Koi pond

Koi pond

O, what to say about O’s? Well, it was pretty. I’ll give it that. There was a cool koi pond and a river (which smelled only a little funky) and the place was positively bustling. The parking guard outside told us proudly that it was the “one of the best restaurants in Parys.” We had high hopes. The food, though, hovered somewhere between mediocre and crap, and the service was glacial. About thirty minutes after we finally paid and left, one of our party started to feel ill from the ill-advised calamari platter he had ordered and we had to make an emergency pit stop. Not awesome, O’s.

Eventually, 3:30 rolled around. We had been driving/being slowly poisoned at O’s for six and a half hours and we had not done one step of hiking. My hydration backpack was going to complete and utter waste. So we pulled off at a place called Suikerbos (Sugarbush), which promised hiking trails. While Suikerbos technically did have hiking trails, they were all approximately 300 meters long and ended abruptly in barbed wire fences, so we just sort of walked in a circle for an hour and then called it a day. We did see some cool flora and fauna, though. We think this thing is an actual sugarbush flower:

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And we saw this guy crossing the street/lying motionless in the street. He may or may not have been dead. Jury’s out.

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In any case, he was scary.

At a quarter to five, we packed it in and went back to Joburg. We might not have accomplished what we set out to do – e.g., hike Vredefort Dome, see an awesome crater scar, not get food poisoning – but we still had a good day. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving here, it’s not to expect things to go as planned – ever. Rolling with the punches, cuz this is Africa.

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:

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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.