Namibia – Land of beauty and space

‘On day four, it was time to move on. Francois and Talitha said their goodbyes and headed back to Wildernis, while we headed north-west, towards Mata Mata and its border post. We still had 10 days ahead to explore the vast distances and rugged beauty of the Namib and Etosha. Distance for today was 774km of dirt road; pure ‘lekkerte!’’

Mata Mata is one of the three conventional camps in the Kgalagadi and lies on the eastern border of Namibia with the convenience of a border post. One can enter and exit Namibia at this post if you stay in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for two nights, preventing the park becoming a transit route, which is obviously a good rule. Namibia has vast distances and travellers more often than not underestimate the travel distances and times. I too made that mistake. Not so much in my planning, but more so in my execution. Enjoying the goodbyes with Francois and Talitha, the showers in Twee Rivieren and the game drive from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata too much, meant that we exited South Africa about three hours later than initially planned. We still had 570km to cover from Mata Mata to Sesriem, and it was already after lunchtime. Of the 570km 90% was dirt roads, which translates to at least 8 hours of driving. Its normally not a problem, but this being wild country with plenty of wild animals, its not wise to travel after sunset. That clichéd quote ‘its better to travel hopeful than to arrive’ really rang true that evening, with frequent encounters with oryx, zebra, kudu and other large animals roaming the roads in the dark. Fortunately, we travelled well and arrived safely at Sossus Oasis Camp Site, Sesriem.

IMG_2450

Namibia must be one of the best-kept secrets and I actually don’t want to promote it too much through my blog, as I’m afraid of more people traveling there and spoiling it for us selfish ones. It is pristine, wild, mostly dry, tranquil but rough and expansive. And why I have a very selfish stance on trying my little best to keep it that way is because people spoil things. Sitting and enjoying our campfire late afternoon the next day, sipping a Pinotage from Tulbach and not speaking much, the serenity was abruptly ended by an Englishman and a German entering a particularly abusive shout-fest over their camping spot and access to the electricity. Right there and then, Europe spoiled a perfect African setting for the better part of an hour. But the rough beauty of the place convinced me to ignore them and enjoy the splendour of God’s creation.

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Kgalagadi

Though Lufthansa may be at risk, due to their lack of customer service (see my previous post Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story), we eventually did arrive in South Africa, and we did enjoy all the promised ‘braais’, ‘kuiers’ and catch-up with all and sundry; exactly the things Expats do when returning home for a visit. It was fortunately not ‘allesverloren’!

A truly special place is the Kgalagadi. Its one of those places which I truly wish I could show off to everybody I meet in Europe. It’s a pristine wilderness in the dry western parts of South Africa and Botswana as God intended and where wild beasts roam freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth, and that was the first destination of our two week Kgalagadi and Namibian safari.

Special places require special equipment. Though the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has normal dirt roads and its theoretically accessible with a sedan, its not advisable. Even when the roads are well maintained, you are still confronted with high sand walls next to most of the roads, which means while we are scanning the wide plains for Oryx, Springbuck, Lions et al from the raised elevation of the Land Rover, the sedan driver scans a meter high sand wall for ants, grouse and desert rats! To fully enjoy the Kgalagadi, one needs to have a bakkie, kombi or similar high, big tyres vehicle.

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and into Yugoslavia (in 2015)

please click the thumbnails for a better view

From my previous post

If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave

My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest,

Golden grand piano

My beautiful Castillo’

For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.

Though often missed as a tourism destination, I made up my mind that Zagreb is a gem and secretly beautiful while genuinely worth a visit.

Its small and I was enthralled while strolling the inner city, just sitting and people watching (photographing) on Ban Jelacic Square or while browsing the open market Dolac. August though, was extremely hot and uncomfortable and after properly enjoying the shortest funicular in the world to elevate us to Gornji Grad or up-town Zagreb enjoying the magnificent Baroque architecture and descending throught the 13th century Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate) to Donji Grad or down-town, it was time to head into the hinterland, where the breathtakingly beautiful Plitvice Lakes awaited.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of those destinations better described by photos.

6.Plitvice Watervalle
Plitvice array of waterfalls

Its waters flow over limestone chalk, building over time various natural dams and waterfalls reminiscent of beaver dams over which one can only stand in awe and take in the wonders of Gods creation. The wooden walkways at the side of the lakes and little bush footpaths provide the opportunity for a leisurely workout in nature, building up a nice sweat while deciding which angles will make the best pictures and traversing the many ups and downs of this nature walk. Its not a tough walk, but it does take time and one should be prepared by at least carrying sufficient water with you. It’s a natural wonder, though, and should be included in any bucket list venturing in the direction of Croatia.

8.Plitvicemeer

 

But man steps in

 

Plitvice is also the sight where the first shots were fired in March 1991 when a policeman was killed as the start of the Croation independent war. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia during the communist era but splintered relations brewed as conflict for many years before the violent eruption in 1991. Croatia and Slovenia had a more liberal (imagine that irony, liberal communism) view and pushed for more autonomy versus the conservative hard-nosed Serbian side. Yugoslavia was a communist country since after WW1 and was made up of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

Traveling is not sight seeing

 

Therefor we enjoy and mostly try to find slightly more ‘authentic’ places to stay. Renting self-catering accommodation in these parts directly from local homeowners provide that ideal opportunity to meet and chat to the locals. We stayed with Ana, in Apartment Ana, in the sort of town area Smoljanac. The beauty of staying here was that you experienced rural Croatian daily life as well. You have the opportunity to buy your beer at the local little crocery shop, and take a seat at the wooden table outside on the street where the local labourers offer you their seats. Maybe because we’re foreigners or maybe because we had our parents with us, but still, six hardworking men, at the end of a long day and enjoying their Ožujsko beer without hesitance giving up their seats made me feel welcome, in an area where right in front of Apartments Ana you still see the sadness of a recent war in the soldier monument guarding the valley. Even today, some houses and building still show the bullet holes in the walls. Except for the tourism and accommodation side of this rural community, the existence is very much small scale farming where beans, tomatoes and corn are picked by hand, goats are milked by hand and all fresh produce produced locally for daily consumption.

9.Bulletholes
Bullet holes still clearly visible in some buildings along the route in the rural areas

 

Dinner at the friendly (or rather I think it was friendly judged by the smiles, service quality and interest in us as we have no idea of the Croatian language, and they very little of English, German and no Afrikaans) Pansion žafran, Smoljanac 88 was delightful. We started to learn more about the Croatian cuisine, realising the influences of what we know as Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and a few regulars from Germany featuring on our plates. There were amongst others schnitzels and pizzas but also cobanac (a delicious spicy meat stew), cevapcici (a type of skinless spicy sausage), burek (a type of pastry dish) and for desert rozata (a flan like caramel covered desert) to name just a few.

 

Self-drive hands you the scenic route

 

Take the scenic route. Stop at the war memorials and plan the extra time to enable you the wonderful sights of the Dalmation coast. That’s what I believe! There are 101 or thereabout stops to be made, photo opportunities or cafe’s to be experienced and simply wondering about life out here when you venture off the beaten track. Taking route 25 through the heart of where serious battles were fought all the way to Karlobag at the coast and across the amazingly beautiful mountain passes to get there proved an excellent choice providing us with a stunningly scenic drive, feeling like an extended Chapman’s Peak, for the entire day. Our end destination was Split.

 

‘Split is nie vandag se kind nie!’               (Split is no youngster)

 

Split is an ancient city with some sources taking economic activity as far back as 2,400 years ago. It was Greek and Roman in its day, but today Split is a proud Croatian city providing a tourist destination ‘par excellance’ including access to many stunning Adriatic islands, perfect for a day tour in the sun and on the salty sea surface. That’s what we did. Chartered a skipper and ski-boat and we explored the fascinating Adriatic Sea, its islands of Hvar and Vis with a first stop in Komiža. We would occasionally dive into the crystal clear blue waters to cool off and then head further exploring. There is never enough time, but we did have time to visit one of my personal highlights, the ex Yugoslavian shelter for boats and submarines on the island Vis, just off the town of Rogačić. This is a 75m deep shelter carved into the shore and which forms part of an entire network of tunnels and underground shelters which the Yugoslavian army occupied for decades.

Further around Vis is the little island Ravnik and the Green Cave, where we ventured in with the boat, had the opportunity to snorkel and enjoy the beautiful images of the sun piercing through a hole in the roof to provide stunning scenes in the crystal clear water inside the cave. I know my home country is ‘the most beautiful country in the world’, but once you’ve broadened your horizons you realise how often beauty is in the eye of the beer holder!

 

Our charter captain for the day, Alex, was a wealth of information and a delight to chat with. While relaxing for lunch at Restaurant Zori, Palmizane, I was able to get him talking about the history, the war and the modern day Croatia. The irony of the situation stays with me. We were having the time of our lives, thinking about Croatia as the best thing since sliced bread and making plans to come live here, while he was only interested to move away, where he can find a ‘proper’ job and be away from the ugliness of what the war reminded him of. He went on about the day the war ended, the evacuating senior officer giving orders to bomb Split, even though his family were still living in Split and how, though he saw the beauty and exciting future of a modern day Croatia, he preferred to move on.

 

The more I learn about Europe, the less I understand war.

 

North of Split is the bay area with is seven Kaštels making up the seven towns, before you reach the walled little gem of a town, Trogir, with its ancient architecture, zillions of photos to be taken, cafè’s to be tried and corners where you can duck behind to just restore your jaw into place after hanging open at the sights. Wealthy families built these seven Kastels in the 1500s mostly as summer residences but also as fortification against the attacking Turks who would come from the sea. Those young Turks certainly were a menace!

10.Kastel
Kastel Gomolica

 

Stumbling onto a gem

 

Starting the long journey back, my daughter took initiative and secured our last stop. We were now taking the highway and not the small roads as we had many kilometres to kill, but it was still a scenic route through the central mountainous terrain, which is Croatia.

 

Ševlje, is a small little rural village in Slovenia, but it’s ideally situated for what we needed. We needed scenery, little mountain roads, a day trip opportunity and a warm shower. Then we would be happy. The fact that we got all of this, plus a delicious home cooked Fettuccini Alfredo courtesy of Linda and Pieter, some good conversation and a sip of wine to discuss the day’s events over, was pure bonus.

 

As is my nature, I selected the smallest little roads to get to Bohinjsko Jezero, or Lake Bohinj. It’s the slightly less famous lake in the Slovenian Alps with that clear Alpine mountain water as forefront and the snow peaked (its August yes) in the background. Old architecture of bridges, churches and more provide amply photographic opportunities, while there’s always sufficient coffee and ice-cream available in Europe. Lake Bled is the more famous one of the two lakes, and has the world famous Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja (maybe slightly more pronounceable Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria) on the Island of Bled in the middle of the lake. After some canoeing on the lake and criss-crossing through and over the mountains to photograph the lonely Church of St Primoz with its majestic outlook over the world, we knew its time to move on.

A fantastic three week road-trip from Cologne, through the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria had to end with quick stopover in Munich, just to show off the Marienplatz to Pa Cas and Ouma Koekoe before embracing the autobahn all the way back.

 

It was a magical three weeks, 4,131km and uncountable photos, laughter, wow-moments, lessons from history, hope for the future and just pure wonderful nature experiences making me realise once more, ‘what a wonderful world’ we have.

Croatia
Our Croatian route

The Italian Job : ‘Veni, vidi, vici’

‘A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority; from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see!’ – Samuel Johnson

 

Click on the photos to enlarge

 

I have seen It, I have traveled It, I have driven It, including that magnificent Amalfi coastal route, I have experienced a cutthroat Italian shave and now I have to share these travels as I simply cannot see so many inferiority complexes continue. However, I doubt if I can even slightly give justice to the experience, pleasure and sights I have seen on my three-week trip in this blogging attempt. If, however, I can inspire just one to visit Italy because of this blog, I’ll be happy.

So, please, go and just do it ✔

To add to an experience such as traveling Italy, its not a bad idea to take some of your best friends along. Sharing the beauty, the tastes, the wine, the music and friendship chatter with Andre en Rentia added that cherry on top satisfaction, which we had. It was good.

The first delightful stretch of road I discovered was still in Austria where I traversed the Alps between Zell am Zee and Heiligenblut over the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße, all the way up to the Edelweißspitze. I seriously suffer from fear of hights and this road tested me to the extreme of my bravery as far as hights go. I will, however be tested further on this journey as far as narrow, winding roads and Italian bus, car and scooter drivers are concerned. I believe I am now an accomplished driver and may even appear as a guest ‘Stig’ on Top Gear. Jeremy must just first discover me!

‘Ah Venice’ unfortunately is rapidly becoming ‘o no Venice’. The once magnificent icon on my third visit there was certainly the disappointment of the trip. Though the little alleyways, canals and architecture obviously are still there constantly posing for the Canon lens,

The Venice architecture is still glorious
The Venice architecture is still glorious

the Italian charm is mostly gone and replaced by a cheap plastic feel where shopkeepers are all but Italian and where the Gondola boats-men chat on cellphones and smoke rather than sing there once famous opera arias! Even those rows and rows of restaurant chairs on San Marco’s Square were pathetically empty, with some restaurants providing music to not a single customer at dinnertime. The once classy establishment had made way to a cheap ‘follow-the-flag-and-quickly-take-a-photo-from-a-distance’ type traveller who sees, but does not feel nor experience. Have the many years of exorbitant prices caught up with Venice, or is the Europe-wide influx of cheap labour and associated cheap stuff more to blame? It was a sad sad situation to observe. Very disgruntled by what we saw and experienced in Venice we were adamant to find some of the old charm for lunch and Cara took the lead out of the main streets. We were lucky. Seeing a little osteria (Da Mario at Fondamenta de la Malvasia Vecchia San Marco) tucked away in a quiet street we peaked through the door to see it filled with gondoliers.

Mama is still running the show
Mama is still running the show

Surely, this is the local hangout and we must try it. It was the real deal, with cheap great food, beer and wine as well as an Italian ‘mamma’ running the tiny kitchen with all the charm, sweat and noise which one would want and expect as the scene from an Italian restaurant. Venice was not yet completely lost!

Despite the disappointment of Venice, our stay was a delight, even though we camped. I opted for the lessor advertised and harder to find Agricampeggio Mose on Punta Sabbioni.

Aggricampeggio Mose is part of a working farm
Aggricampeggio Mose is part of a working farm

This camp is part of a working farm where they have a little stall selling the farm produce and which is run by (another) ‘Mama’, who even offer free transport to the ferry-bus and who runs the tiny café-bar, reception, shuttle service and no-English loud and fast Italian conversation with true Italian aplomb. Prepare for your survival by learning some life saving Italian phrases, such as ‘due espresso macchiato per favore’ and practice to say it in the required Italian rhythmic tone, with hands pointed backwards, all fingers clenched together and giving the beat of the request. Very important to then respond to Mama’s question, ‘latte caldo o freddo?’ with a confident ‘caldo’ (for hot milk) and not with a ‘huh!’ to prevent Mama whipping the floor with you! Even with the communication gap firmly in place, Mama’s sense of humor and joking with our ignorance regarding Italian ways and customs will make me recommend her camp-site with great pleasure. Just remember, Venice has plenty of water, take mosquito repellent.

On the west coast in the famous Cinque Terre region is another magic, yet slightly menacing to reach campsite, Campeggio Il Nido, which has been owned and run by Roberto for the past 28 years. Reaching Campeggio Il Nido was, even including the drive across the Alps in Austria, my first real driving challenge, negating the winding and narrow roads with crazy death challenging Italian drivers, each in his own mind totally convinced that his Vespa, Fiat 500 or even Piaggio 3-wheel delivery van/scooter thingy was a full-blooded Ferrari! Il Nido is truly tucked away in the coastal bush, on the edge of the mountain and with the most amazing views of the Mediterranean imaginable. The campsite consist of a few terraces where mostly only two- or three-man tents will fit and since its not in town, its little restaurant is where the entire camp will gather in the evenings and leisurely sit, eat, chat or catch-up on their Facebook status! It was here where I noticed the small interesting little library, with a particularly interesting book, for this part of the world.

One particular book intrigued me
One particular book intrigued me

Corneglia
Corniglia

Although the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre (remember cinque means five) can be reached by train, taking the hop-on-hop-off boat proved to be a stunningly relaxing way to visit the towns, with the added advantage of providing those exquisite views from the sea on the towns. The five towns that make up this must-visit destination are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Five old world fishing villages consisting of one or two mentionable little streets lined by the most exquisite and quaint buildings proudly inviting the camera lens for more and more. This coastline is rugged, with each town, except Corniglia, hugging a small bay/harbor where ‘the fish know all the fishermen and boats know each other’s name’, as Valiant Swart puts it so eloquently. Cinque Terre should be very high on any prospective traveller’s bucket list. Whether you love simply wandering around, browsing the many little stores, dipping into the clear clear water of the Mediterranean, sitting and sipping something cold to wash away the salty anchovies or actively hiking, taking photos and ‘ticking off’ your bucket list items, you will be happy in Cinque Terre.

The beauty of Cinque Terre
The beauty of Cinque Terre

Terre2

Perched on the edge
Perched on the edge

And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful five towns and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi. But that’s the next post.

The charm
The charm

and the breakfast
and the breakfast

Waka Waka …….It’s time for Africa

‘London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, …. and Balule’

Blasé it may sound, and rightfully so. I have seen and travelled to stunning cities through Europe in the past 18 months and have enjoyed every one of them. However, you reach them all on tarred roads! Some times you need back to basics, back to dirt roads, under stars and in nature; wild nature where beasts roam free and spaces are open and wide. I was hungry for the kind of basics that doesn’t exist in city streets and built-up rural Europe.

 ‘I had a dream, a dream of bushveld braais, game viewing, friendship en early mornings in the veld’

Southern White-faced Scops Owl
Southern White-faced Scops Owl

I organised such a trip with family and friends and headed off to South Africa for a three-week holiday recently. When living abroad, you cannot just pitch-up at OR Tambo and announce you’re here. It’s important to plan seriously what should happen when, simply because there are so many people to see and chat to, it gets hectic. Vacation planning to neither me, nor Heleen comes naturally. In our minds a good holiday is setting up location and then having nothing specifically to do, and having the whole day to do it in. But we have learned the value of planning visits back home by now, to get the most out of our time, and to get the most out of friends and family. We also have the enthusiasm and help of a sister-in-law to make it happen which proved invaluable when more than 20 people festively showed up at her place for ‘our’ Sunday welcoming (okay, I must probably admit that there also was a 60th and some other birthday which added as motivation for all to attend) ‘braai’, even a little rugby, plenty sunshine but no Chevrolet. To my few European readers, let me repeat, ‘plenty of sunshine’. Two pairs of grand parents and a wide spectrum of friendship complimented a perfect Sunday braai where all were simply dressed in shorts, t-shirts and bare feet, because they could. It has been a long cold winter in the north. But I’m sentimentally digressing.

We saw this leopard about 3 km from the Timbavati picnic site
We saw this leopard about 3 km from the Timbavati picnic site

 Balule (named after the Tsonga word for Olifants river) is very close to heaven (at 24°03’12,79”S, 31°43’59,83”E). Balule is very centrally located north of Satara and lies on the banks of the Olifants River, in the true bushveld savannah of the big five sanctuary in the Kruger National Park. It has very basic facilities, no electricity and a lowish, thinnish fence, which means you really get the best of that wild exposure only Africa can provide with hyena and hippo frequenting the fence. This was to be our base for the week from where we would recce every little dirt road, every little river loop and every picnic site within a day’s travel from Balule. And we did.Leopard

Struggling to chew those sinewy bits
Struggling to chew those sinewy bits

To speak about Balule and not sharing the Kruger National Park info to provide context (again for the few European readers, and to be read in conjunction with the ‘sunshine’ remark earlier) will simply not do justice to this world class, nearly 2 million hectare tourism destination.

 The Kruger National Park was established in 1898 to protect the wildlife from us! And unfortunately, we are still struggling to protect them as the 618 rhino’s that were killed in 2012 and 203 in 2013 (up to 3 April only) show.

Facing the true brutality of survival is a humbling experience
Facing the true brutality of survival is a humbling experience

 The Kruger is home to an impressive number of species (http://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/), which includes 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals. Also included are bushman rock paintings and two majestic archaeological sites, Masorini and Thulamela.  So, its obvious that from a conservation point of view the Kruger is setting the pace. I’m proud though, to also say that from a tourist point of view, it must be one of the best destinations in the world where one can get back to nature without having to fork out hundreds of rands, euros, dollars, pounds or zillions of Zim dollars. For a campsite you will pay a mere R210 for the first two persons on that site; that’s a mere €17.6830192 for two persons per night!

'Dik gevreet'  That drowsiness after a big Sunday lunch
‘Dik gevreet’
That drowsiness after a big Sunday lunch

Enter at Orpen Gate in the Timbavati region and you immediately recognise that you are now in the real deal. In 115 years there were no cattle grazing, no ploughs and tractors or any other civilized activity on this beautiful bush landscape, except for establishing the excellent infrastructure to allow us to enjoy the bush. This is where God’s original creation is still intact and driving at 30km/h with windows down with birdsong and bush scenes engulfing you, I confirmed to myself, ‘it indeed was time for Africa’.

Photographers
Photographers

The bush, and nature as a whole, is not predictable and this is not a zoo where you can simply stare through cage barriers to tick off your list animal sightings. Man is the foreigner here and you should find the sights for yourself, not as the Aussie tourist I met around the campfire in Lower Sabie many years ago unwittingly suggested, ‘its too difficult to find lions. They should have a few cages at each camp where they keep the important animals for people to see them easier’. Duh!

European Roller enjoying his last few days of African sunshine before heading of to Eurasia
European Roller enjoying his last few days of African sunshine before heading of to Eurasia

However, we were extremely lucky this time around not only with the big five ticked off successfully (and I’ll let the few photos and video-clip confirm that) but also a few gems such as honey badger, jackal, civet and close to 80 bird species positively identified. The highlight though was the stunning leopard sighting near Timbavati as well as the 12 lions that killed a giraffe 2 km’s from our camp’s gate. We were provided with ample photographic opportunity and by the end of the week even the stench of the decomposing carcass to fulfil all the senses of the brutal reality of the African bush.

Purpose number one of the Kruger Park is obviously nature conservation with educational, natural and travel enjoyment a definite second on the list. A huge part of the tourism aspect is the opportunity to share experiences, share time and share anecdotes, jokes and simply ‘saamwees’ (togetherness) with close friends and family.

Black backed jackal
Black backed jackal

Sometimes not all can make every trip, and that was unfortunate that a few friends and family members could, due to personal circumstances, not make this trip. We rented two-way radios to enhance the experience and communication, as we were a group of 26 in 8 vehicles and this proved to be a great success. We were able to chat the whole day while driving, share sights and annoy those who forgot the coffee flask at Balule. I truly believe every person in the world should at least once enjoy the African bush in all its glory. It is here where people still take the time to slow you down, look you in the eye when you hastily order a Cadac ‘skottelbraai’ for your ‘urgent’ breakfast, and calmly say ‘Hello, I am Joel. How are you?’ before delivering on your blunt request, making you realise you have ample time, stop rushing.

All is not always well, though. The Kruger Park is located in a malaria area, and it is always strongly advised to take malaria medication as precaution.

White Rhino Disaster in progress with increasing poaching
White Rhino
Disaster in progress with increasing poaching with 27 Rhino killed in the Kruger in the last 10 days!

As all medical advice will say without exception, ‘there is no debate, take the precaution and be safe’. I stopped at The Moot Hospital in Pretoria to get a prescription to buy the malaria tablets. We are a family of four and the verdict at this hospital was, just for the doctor to write the prescription each person will be charged the R700 consultation fee! Fortunately we made the call to walk away from these money clowns and stop at our old service provider, Intercare in Southdowns where the doctor did not hesitate to give us the prescription for free for all four, ‘since the medication is already very expensive’. Thank goodness for common sense.

Eastern Free State beauty
Eastern Free State beauty

I was, after the bushveld fortunate enough to also have a few days with my parents in the Eastern Free State’s sandstone haven around the Sterkfontein dam and Golden Gate National Park. This, as opposed to the warm savannah bushveld where I spent the previous week is the grasslands and sandstone Maluti mountain area of exceptional natural beauty. This is where one can find the bearded vulture (which unfortunately still evades me) and breath-taking rock-face and flowing hill scenery. A vary valuable lesson I’ve learned when travelling is to enjoy the moment, that Carpe Diem cliché, and this surely paid off. Again set in awe inspiring natural beauty and in the company of my appreciative parents I toned down on pace, stopped frequently to take pictures and share with them the beauty, enjoyed ‘roosterkoek’ in Clarens and chatted nostalgically about so many things we hardly get time for in our hasted everyday life.OosVrystaat1

Two world-class natural and tourist destinations, and add to that the friendliness of Pretoria and the passion and clinical athleticism displayed at the two rugby venues, LC de Villiers and Loftus Versfeld which I attended during my South African visit made me realise again what a great place South Africa is. If only those in power would realise the potential of the assets they already have in their hands, and positively optimise that.OosVrystaat3

For the sake of future enjoyment, I have drafted the following list of things to do when planning a similar trip:

  • If you plan to attend the Varsity cup semi-final (and this proved true for the final too), support Tuks
  • Buy your meat at Toits butchery
  • Rent a strong diesel powered microbus if you plan to tow your off-road trailer. Hyundai’s H1 bus is ideal, but their 2l petrol engine might just add a day to your travel time!
  • Have your beers very cold when you pitch camp in 38° Lowveld sunshine
  • Ensure your iPod interfaces with the vehicle
  • Take anti-malaria medication, but choose wise where to go
  • Choose wise who joins you on a trip such as this. Basic camping always is hard work. My friends and family comes with high recommendation, contact me if you want to ‘lend them’
  • Do bird watching
  • Take photos
  • Take good wine
  • Take it slow
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously

Viva España! But this is not España?

That well-known, and more than once used by me, saying ‘traveling broadens the mind’ is just so true that I cannot but use it over and over again. I love it so much when paradigms are shifted, and so much more when it’s my own. What I thought will be a two-week visit to Spain turned out to become a two-week visit to a few of the ‘Spains’, consisting of Aragôn, the Basque country, Navarra and La Rioja, Cantabria, Asturias and Catalonia and no Spain at all! Thus, I will somewhere in the future have to spend time in Spain. One simply cannot fit so much to see, so much history, conflict, culture, restaurants, roads, art, architecture, photographic potential, beaches and people into two weeks.

However, let me start at the proper beginning. To do a road-trip, one has to be equipped well, and I have learnt on this trip that the most essential piece of travel equipment to ensure a successful road-trip is an integrated iPod system, though if you allow the wrong family members to influence the playlists too much, you will end-up ‘clubbing’ down the highways in the early hours of the morning in tune with the Pitbulls, Iglesias’ and alike.  With roughly 4000 songs just a finger-click away its easy to let ‘die kilometers vlieg verby, with a wicked wicked back-beat’; that is if the traffic conditions allow you. I have also learnt that one of the best reference books on Europe, its history, cultural differences and happenings must be Goschiny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series.

Traffic is still the same, after all these years

Each and every car owner north of the Pyrenees is heading down south to the beaches of southern France and Spain, as was the case when Asterix and Obelix went to help Huevos y Baçon and Pepe against that rip-off maestro Julius (why does this now have a South African ring to it?)and a 350km drive took us in excess of 6 hours with many occasions the highway coming to a complete standstill. At Bordeaux I decided enough is enough; I have a GPS and ventured onto those scenic small little roads closer to the coast. I don’t know whether its actually faster, but at least we moved and we saw some pretty awesome scenery.

Some-one’s not telling the truth

Spain is not at all a single country. The different regions all have their own and very strong identities and this adds to some serious confusion when visiting them. I mutht thtill figure out when to uthe ‘th’ for the etheth ath in Barthelona, Than Thebathtian, Thergio Ramoth and whether to thank thome-one with a grathias or gracias.  Furthermore, I have learnt that ‘ll’ is pronounced ‘jj’ as in David Villa is actually Dahveed Veejja and Seville is pronounced Sêwiejja (take note Chris de Burgh, you’re not saying it right). ‘Actually’ is always pronounced actually and never ever actuajjy, though.

But I’m dwejjing, I mean dwelling, so let me get back to our first destination, a rural retreat in the mountains of the Basque area, where Basque is spoken and not Spanish, and foreigners apparently not often seen, as the shepherd remarked when we had to wait for him on a tiny little mountain back-road to herd his flock of sheep past us, ‘we don’t often see English people around here’, in pretty OK English, I must admit. We were so in awe with the scenery that we completely forgot to take a picture of us being surrounded by sheep. Hotel Rural Mañe proved to be a stunning little Basque country hotel where part of the farmhouse is converted into a beautiful little inn, complete with home cooking and La Rioja wine for dinner. And to cake it all, from the premises they also run a commercial bakery, which means breakfasts too are a delight with various pastries, salamis and jamons for the taking. Furthermore, the friendly and easygoing manager Naiara with their one-year old daughter on the hip and her husband Miguel running in assistance complements the true homely atmosphere and we thoroughly enjoyed our two-day stay.

Hotel Rural Mane

Basque is said to be the oldest language in Europe, not from Latin origin and thus totally different from anything else spoken in Spain. This was very evident even on the road-signs where plenty of ‘x’s’ occurs in the place names, which sometimes even provided some Xhosa feel to the names, though ‘only in my mind.’ The Basque country is an autonomous community within Spain and many towns are indicated by their Basque names on the information signs. The city San Sebastian for example is known as Donostia, which is important to know if you thought you were searching for San Sebastian on the roadside directions. Neighboring the Basque country are the kingdoms of Aragón, Navarre and La Rioja, and in all my travels this was the most pristine example of the medieval kingdoms I have yet seen. Driving through the countryside and observing the castles, houses, monasteries and towns, I could imagine that the movie ‘Ladyhawk’ was taken straight from this scenery. Visiting the exceptional medieval town Olite (pronounced Olite) and its castle with the view across open land towards Ujue (pronounced Ogoeje) in the north, it’s very easy to lose yourself back into the days of King Carlos III aka ‘The Noble’ in the early 15th century who went for broke and built the magnificent castle, with its hanging garden, exotic trees, elegant galleries, and towers. Incidentally, Navarre, Aragón and Basque are the only parts of Spain that was never ruled by the Moors from North Africa. Here they did not ‘just swallow their pride but they fought back’ and retained their own land.

They say you should not live in the past, and thus, just to keep the balance we also stopped by at Durban and enjoyed a calamari lunch. Durban is the restaurant of Javi Martínez, the Spanish international footballer now playing for Bayern Munich (formerly from Athletic Club Bilbao) in the town Ayegui (I don’t know how to pronounce it) who opened the restaurant after the 2010 Soccer World cup and named it ‘Durban’ in honor of his ‘pleasant experience’ there. Durban (KZN) is a nice town if I may say so, I grew up in Durbs, plus this is where Spain beat Germany 1:0 in the semi-final through a Puyol header in the 73rd minute in 2010. I suppose Durban makes more sense in Navarre than Moses Mabhida.

And then you stumble onto and into these gems of destinations that are probably deliberately kept secret for the exclusive use by the locals, such as Donostia (San Sebastian) and its festival. Our idea was to stop, look around, have a light lunch and venture further down the coast towards the west.

Traveling can be extremely thirsty work

One look at the down-town old part of the city made us look for accommodation immediately, and I saw that if you stand back and leave some things to your kids, their natural initiative simply comes to the fore. Stean saw the little inn, and with Cara’s Spanish skills the two of them secured a four bed single room in the middle of the old-town hub of San Sebastian. I was initially worried that we will not be able to change our minds in the room, so small was it, but eventually we managed.

We unintentionally stumbled straight into the heart of the town and it was the week when they have the town festival, probably the best week in the year to be in San Sebastian. That afternoon, as part of the town festival, it was the annual float race in the harbor and bay of the town. The young people of the town build their own floats with crates, planks, blown-up pillow type thingies and similar megafters, then enter the water and try to stay afloat while drinking, rowing and trying to tip the vessel next to you; one mega big town jol!

One big jol …
… and even Paul was there
Donostia main beach and bay

Back to our accommodation! They say ‘location, location, location’ are the key indicators when considering accommodation, and this we did. However, we did get a little more than we bargained for. We were the proverbial 5 minutes’ walk from everything important when on vacation; the beaches, the restaurants, the shops, the Spanish ROCK SHOW, (which continued until 01:30), the street parties (that never stopped) as well as the municipal city cleaning services and deliveries who start their days just after 04:00 in the mornings. ‘Location, location, location’ clearly does not have anything in common with ‘sleep, sleep, sleep’! And that was not the end of our surprise for the day. When we went to get the car from the parkade, there was this little note at the ‘casse’ stating that ‘due to the festival and a cycle race, the parkade was closed until 19:00! We were locked in and (un)fortunately had to spend another day in the festive streets of Donostia! More time utilized on sun, beach, sea-kayaking, whale hunting museum and a typical Basque lunch with ‘sardinas’, paella, fish and wine.

We unpacked our tents, inflated the mattresses and went camping!

Pitching accommodation

Such is the beauty of this part of the world, that if you don’t force yourself to stay in the car and drive, you will not progress more than, say 43km per day. We did stop over in Bilbao to fit a Bilbao Athletic stadium tour into our schedule (its clear how football has become part of our travel criteria). Did you know that to this day the Bilbao club is Athletic (English, since it was the English dock yard workers who established the football club in 1898 and which became Athletic Bilbao in 1903) and not Atletico as is the other similarly name clubs and that Athletic Bilbao still holds the record of beating Barcelona 12:1 (1931). Athletic Club Bilbao still maintains the rule of only playing Basques in their team.

What fascinates me is how this part of Spain is not Spanish at all and when reading and digging deeper, the most interesting political tales comes to the fore. It was noticeable that it was not the Spanish flag flying outside buildings, except for official government institutions, but the Basque ‘national’ flag. Even to this day the separate identities continue to strive and one should not make the mistake to think a Basque or Catalan is a Spaniard. One of the most despicable acts of modern warfare was the bombing of Gernika in the Basque country. On 26 April 1937 German and Italian fighter planes bombed the town of Gernika in a three-hour raid on the town. According to our travel handbook, the Footprint Travel Guide on Northern Spain, it was the market day, which means so many extra people from the surrounding countryside were in the town. And not only were the bombs dropped, but for maximum effect, the fleeing people were machine gunned down. To put this into perspective, remember that this was 1937; it was the Spanish civil war and not yet World War II. General Franco, the leader of the Nationalist forces denied that the bombing ever occurred and claimed that the damage was caused by Basque propagandists. The Basques resisted the advance of Franco’s nationalist forces and Franco offered the Luftwaffe the proving ground of their troops for the war that was to come. Herman Göring, at the Nurmburg Trials had this to say, “I urged him [Adolf Hitler] to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.” Though Germany did officially apologise in 1999 (yes, that’s 62 years after the event), Spain has not said another word about the incident. Pablo Picasso produced a painting by the name Gernika after the incident to commemorate it.

Venturing further west through Cantabria and into Asturias brings even more stunning and rugged coastline with plenty of old-pretty-fishing-town after old-pretty-fishing-town scattering the coastline. The flexibility of two three-man tents and inflatable mattresses we now used for accommodation enabled us to change plans and venues on short notice and it proved to be the perfect travel solution for scenic destinations such as Northern Spain. You see a town, you like a town and you find the camping spot, as easy as that. We ended up for a two night stay in Comilla and then two nights in a ‘nature’s valley’ like Playa de España some 10km out of Gijon resulting in four days of a blissful summer, sun, beach type holiday, reminding of my summer holidays at Scottburgh on the Natal South Coast in years gone by.  Both me and my teenage son will obviously profoundly protest and deny  any hint whatsoever that we particularly enjoyed the beach holiday that little bit extra due to the very tasteful beach attire of the Spanish girls. It was purely because we are so starved of proper sun and surf after two consecutive winters and 11 months living in northern Europe and not the Spanish beachwear (or lack there-of).

The difference of camping in Europe is that there’s not a braai in progress in front of each caravan at night,

Delicious

but rather pedestrians roaming the streets scanning little restaurants, their Asturian paella and stews (which for some bizarre reason I missed out on), jamon iberica, sardines and other seafood delicacies. The looks on the kids’ faces were not always that impressed when a huge pan with crab and other seawater kreepy crawlies landed on our table amongst the huge quantities of rice to complete the paella.

Not just for show, there’s method in this madness

Interestingly in the Asturias is that the main drink is cidre and not beer or wine. It has its own ceremony when ordered. Asturian cidre is ordered by the bottle and then decantered in a very specific semi show-off way, to the uninformed onlooker, that is. The waiter lifts the green bottle as high as possible with the one hand and then pours into the glass held as low as possible in the other hand, without looking at the glass. They do spill, and you have to mind your feet not to get them covered in cidre, but that’s just part of the ritual. The idea is that the height of the drop must create bubbles, which are an essential part of the drinking process. The drinker has a short little window of opportunity where the bubbles remain in the glass, and it must be drunk within this period.

As Chris de Burgh so eloquently describes in The Storyman when he sings ‘take me back to the places I’ve never seen’I can also plea to be taken back to northern Spain as I have missed so much in Cantabria, Asturas, Navarre, Aragon, La Rioja and Basque. A week is far too short. We did, for example drive through the Cantabrian Picos (picos de Europa), but it is one of those destinations where you should have the time to venture off-road, up the mountains and into the valleys. Though its in the middle if modern day Spain, there are still Cantabrian brown bears and wolves roaming the remote peaks. The Picos de Europa is a magnificent mountain range roughly 20km inland and apparently derives its name from the fact that it was the first sight of Europe for those early day sailors returning from their pleasure cruises in the Caribbean or around Africa.

The stunning Picos de Europa

Once through the Picos, we headed east to Zaragosa as a sleepover before hitting the sights, sounds, sun and soccer of Barcelona. But that’s another story.

‘Country roads take me home’

I often feel very robbed when journalists write articles under the banner of country roads, roads less often travelled or “heelpad grondpad”. You see, in my head, I started it all, its my concept! My I’ve been doing it for years, and simply love the less traveled back roads.

I remember in 1995 when my firstborn was 2 months old; Heleen and I did a trip through the Groot Karoo of Britstown, Carnarvon, Williston and Calvinia. We camped at Algeria in the Cederberg and travelled through the Overberg and Klein Karoo. At that time I was traveling with a CLi Jetta and my ‘ventertjie’ was a Glider! Just outside Bredasdorp, at the Karsrivier, I turned onto the dirt road to De Hoop and Malgas, which I desperately wanted to see. However, here I realized that my equipment is not really suited for the road conditions. 70km of rock strewn dirt road with low profile tyres and towing the Glider with my wife and 2 month old baby on board suddenly made me doubt, and I reluctantly took the tar and crossed the Swartberg via the Tradouwspass to Barrydale. Spending a lovely night in Calitsdorp chatting with a du Plessis gentleman if I remember correctly, who was once a traveling journalist for the magazine “Panorama” I decided that the Jetta will just have to let me see the Swartberg Pass and that’s exactly what we did the next day. Fortunately without any hassles we saw the Swartberg, but once back in Pretoria I started searching for a more appropriate dirt road capable vehicle.

And I found more than once that a “normal” dirt road would prefer a 4×4 rather than just a 4×2 or soft-roader.

Ever since that trip, I loved to navigate these gem little back roads of South Africa and often do the back roads, simply because now I could!

In 2009 we did a trip driving through a little bit of Eastern Free State with the destination being the New England Wartrail area in the Witteberge of the Eastern Cape. After picking up Heleen in Sandton at 5pm, on Wednesday, we headed south to Heilbron, where we temporarily got lost! Now this is some sort of funny phenomenon, that with a GPS, on a pre-determined route, on a road you have traveled before and sort of know, you can still doubt all the electronics and follow your own head. But I suppose it is a well known male thing and therefore consider myself excused. I wanted to do the dirt road not going over Petrus Steyn but since it was already dark and “we should have been home by now” (if I may quote Andrew Lloyd Webber and Meatloaf), plus I knew Dora was waiting in Rosendal at the guesthouse and thus couldn’t make up my mind immediately between dark and dirt or safer on tar. The S219 and S1296 had me on my preferred R725 towards Lindley in a flash and we were on our way again, just to be further delayed by the local farmer doing his “voorbrand” next to the road. The smoke was so intense and fire near the road that we waited 20 minutes before carefully passing with very limited visibility. Without further incident we reached Rosendal and fully took advantage of a hot bath and warm beds in the stunning House Beautiful (www.housebeautiful.co.za).

My route through the Eastern Free State to New England

Next morning, after a lengthy chat with one Mr Kriek, who simply stopped his car in the middle of the road next to me and started enquiring about me taking photos of the town and then telling me about the town, its NG Church with its 52 confirmed members, the grazing and weather of Rosendal in typical “platteland” hospitality and after a delicious breakfast we hit the scenic Maloti route towards Wartrail. Since I was going to do the Lundin’s Neck pass, and didn’t want to do it in the dark, I stayed on the tar and simply enjoyed the scenic splendor of this stunning part of South Africa. I obviously did stop at the marvelous padstal outside Clocolan for biltong, koekies and jam, however.

My route navigated us through the little towns Clocolan, Ladybrand, Hobhouse, Wepener, Van Stadensrus, Zastron and then south-eastwards towards Sterkspruit and Tellebridge. It is here that we again started the dirt road driving and what became such dramatic scenery that it urged me to write this trip report. It was now late afternoon, the mountains were speckled with snow and the mood was so terrific with the kids relating the bits of snow with their recent fortunate skiing trip in Italy.

Top of the Lundean's Nek Pass

I know that our skiing areas and snow covered mountains can never be directly compared to the Italian Alps, or any part of the Alps for that matter, but I must emphasize that in South African context, this was absolutely magnificent scenery of scattered rural villages and friendly people in severe cold conditions surrounded by stunning scenery and covered in patches of snow, nogal! It was what I planned the weekend for, and it turned out to promise exactly what I hopefully anticipated.

T.V. Bulpin described this as “one of the most spectacular scenic roads in Southern Africa. It is gravel throughout with tremendous gradients, and there is no pleasure in doing it in wet weather. But in fair weather, in summer or when the mountains are covered in snow, it is a dramatic experience”. Though Bulpin wrote these words in 1970 it is still 100% applicable, and we did it with the mountains covered in snow.

During our abovementioned Italian ski trip, we incidentally became friends with the grandson of one Joseph Orpen, who still farms the family farm in these parts. Joseph was the surveyor who laid out the district in 1864 and who named them meticulously from the gazetteer from the UK resulting in names such as Snowdon, Balloch, Rosstrevor, Avoca, Faskally, Pitlochrie, Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis, even with the scenery being so magnificently African.

Our accommodation was Bidstone (http://www.wartrail.co.za/bidstone.htm) on the “Wartrail unpaved route” ala mapsource. It is the farming property of Andrew and Janet Viedge who provides very good, comfortable and scenic accommodation on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. The dinner part of it is so necessary due to the remoteness of the venue. It is also the dinner part which added so much to experience and enjoying of the four nights we spent with them.

Bidstone Guest Lodge

It is here, around the dinner table, where you chat the night through with Andrew and Janet, and other guests if there are any, while really digging into Janet’s three course dinners. Warm and delicious soups, bolognaise, mutton bredies, lamb shoulder and the likes were on the menu and ensured for excellent dining every night. And not to mention the deserts afterwards. The thing about this format of accommodation is that you make great new friends. So was the hospitality that Andrew volunteered to show us the double caves on a neighbor’s farm. In the end, he spent most of his Sunday entertaining us on a magnificent walk/climb through the thick grass, on steep inclines and over slippery iced rocks to show us these caves. Besides the affect of the unexpected exercise on my unfit family, it turned out to be one of the highlights. Towering sandstone cliffs, caves and the Joggomspruit down below while a couple of fish eagles glides leisurely on the thermals completed the majestic creation around us. What a beautiful and serene setting. So much has the new friendship grown in just a weekend that my 11 year old son abandoned us, his family, for the rest of the day to go with Andrew and his family to look at newly found dinosaur fossils on a neighboring farm and have lunch with them.

The interesting railway linking Barkly East with Lady Grey to the northwest is also in the area. Because of the mountainous landscape, a system of eight “reverses” was incorporated into the line, which has an incline of 1 in 36. I once read that its one of only two in the world using these reverses, the other being in Peru. This fact needs clarification though.

My personal other highlight of the weekend away was obviously that I had the opportunity to drive the Bidstone Pass up and down with plenty of snow, ice and mud ensuring little adrenaline rushes. I have to state though, and not for the sake of being mucho, but more since I was the driver and thus experiencing the Forkie’s control on the road-condition that the adrenaline was more pumping through my passengers than me J. And this probably brings me to the essence of the everlasting debate whether it is necessary to buy a 4×4 or whether 4×2 is sufficient.

Idling up the Bidstone Pass in icy conditions

Since my Jetta trip I have driven a Syncro kombi, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Ford Ranger 2.5 4×4 and now the newer Ford Ranger 4×4 30TDCi. My finding time and again is simply that driving a 4×4 enables you that little extra, where other vehicles have to turn around, and I’m not talking serious off-roading only.  I’m definitely not on about saying which 4×4 is the best, but simply that 4×4 capabilities adds an extra dimension to normal travel, where you don’t really even expect to go 4x4ing.

Bidstone pass is the first 5 km of the Bidstone to Tiffendell road and is a steep pass up the mountain which will be accessible to most vehicles, in good conditions.

Our conditions were not extremely bad, but there was ice, snow and mud, while the gradient is sufficiently steep to create unease. I did the pass twice up and once down and every time with equal ease. The second morning certainly soothed the 4×4 driver ego in me when two bakkies met us at the foot of the pass. They stopped and asked whether I was planning to go up the pass and when I confirmed they enquired whether my Forkie was a 4×4. There’s were not and they turned around after a few 100 meters because of the conditions. This again confirmed to me that the combination of double the traction and drive of 4×4 drive, plus the availability and control of that lowdown power which the low range gears provides plus probably the good grip in those conditions of the BF Goodrich AT tyres enabled me to idle up the pass without even once experiencing spin or slide. Coming down I also had a guy stop next to me with a 4×2 vehicle, stating they “sh&t” themselves coming down sliding while again we came down in a complete controlled low range “foot far away from clutch” fashion, not a hint of sliding.

And this whole rationale above simply to state that I was able to experience one of the most stunning 20km drives I ever had.

Cara and the horses
Stunning views

Mountains around us covered with snow, iced stalactites hanging down from the excavations on the mountain side of the road and frozen dams complementing the dramatic scenery. This is a drive that is truly recommendable for its overall scenery and driving pleasure.

It was one of those long weekend trips where I have 300 plus photos to share, indicating the photogenic splendor of what we experienced, probably 2 extra kg of weight to shed, indicating Janet’s culinary skills and treats, more than a couple of letters of thanks and appreciation to write, indicating the friends made and hospitality experienced and many joyful hours of planning to do on a next trip, indicating the benchmark challenge I have set myself. Though this is merely a trip report to share a nice weekend, and by no means an advertisement paid for by some-one, I can with a clear conscience say, go visit the Wartrail, it is truly worth it.

(An edited version of this story appeared in Leisure Wheels magazine in October 2009)