N71°21’10”

To the real north, and back

I did find it rather funny. I know as a South African in Germany I don’t have a full understanding of history, geology, culture, past conflict, and context, but as we drove into Schleswig-Holstein, the Bundesland signage next to the road seemed a little near sighted, pun intended. ‘Schleswig-Holstein – der echte norden’ it said. Garmin profusely disagreed with a thick pink highlighted line and distance to destination clearly stating I had at least 2830km further to go to my ‘echte norden’ destination; The Nordkapp in Norway. I was wise enough not to be disappointed that I have ‘reached my destination’, and that I’ll have to stop enjoying a road-trip in my brand new LenieBus.

In German they refer to it as a ‘Kastenwagen’. In English we can therefor probably call it a Box Van, or maybe a Box Wagon, Panel Van, or Box Truck. If this was the 70s, maybe Passion Wagon or something similar that rhymes with truck. Whatever it’s called, it’s a midsized RV (Recreational Vehicle/motorhome) which puts us straight into the popular culture of van-life. LenieBus is our most recent travel equipment upgrade.

Heleen and I started our camping life and trips with borrowed tents, cooler boxes, sometimes Ventertjies (South African brand trailers), and flat cars such as VW Golf, VW Jetta or similar. It was fun and simple and allowed us to see many places. However, in South Africa, there are so much more to see and experience if you have off-road and dirt road capability, and thus we upgraded in 1998 to a VW Syncro Bus, but still sleeping in pitched tents and on the floor using blow-up mattresses. By then, we have become a family of four and in 2003 we upgraded to 4×4 ‘bakkies’ (pick-up trucks) when I bought my Echo 3 Off-road trailer with rooftop tent and my first Ford Ranger bakkie. We were kitted out and conquered every inch of dirt road, from ‘Kaap’ to Kalahari, Kruger to Molopo, Mapungubwe to Keimouth and ventured into the fantastic neighbouring countries like Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia.

We now live in Germany, and camping and road-tripping is slightly different than in the ‘platteland’ (rural) areas of South Africa. For starters, you really must go far and wide, and with a pinch of luck, to find a dirt road. Off the beaten tracks are however plentiful and within mainland Europe you can cover decent distance when you’re in the mood. 

I was in the mood. 

‘Let’s head north’ said Heleen.

‘Okay, but let’s go all the way north’, I replied.

Our great Nordkapp road-trip was now reality. Nordkapp is Europe’s most northern point. After all kinds of delays with the delivery of LenieBus, we eventually received her keys and the go-ahead that she is now ours from Herr Dahlem at 15:00 on 2 August. We loaded stuff for a three-week trip and by about 21:00 we hit the road. That night we had our first ‘vanlife’ experience of sleeping in the parking area of Rastplatz Stettin, 181km from home on the A1 heading north, en-route to way beyond ‘der echte Norden’.

Allemannsretten (meaning “everyman’s right”) is a law that allows everyone to roam free on uncultivated land in Norway. … In practical sense this means that you are free to hike, camp and enjoy the fresh air in forests, mountains, and coastal areas, which make up most of the Norwegian nature, and for free nogal. This is what LenieBus enables us to do, and we were going to exploit this fully. Cara took it on herself to be the finder of great nature and secluded camping spots using mobile apps such as Park4night and Caravanya and after a stunning day of driving 830km in Germany, through Denmark and over and under the sea between Copenhagen and Malmo in Sweden we rolled into a beautiful nature spot called Rövarekulan for a well-deserved night’s sleep. One thing that I’ve learned in Europe, and on that day as well, is that the scariest people you meet while traveling are these young blonde police women manning the border entries in Europe. Four South Africans driving a van on SA passports in Scandinavia raised suspicions with this Swedish cop and it took decent scrutiny, computer checks and all for her to wave us away after about 20 minutes, looking a little jealous of the adventure that awaits us. 

It was with a deepened sorrow that I drove north on day 3. I just received the news of the passing of Prof Johannes Hatting, a friend of mine from the ‘Kampvuur’ chat group, to which I belong. Johan was a professor in travel and he specialised in the Boer War history, mostly in and around Bloemfontein. The last message Johan posted in Kampvuur read ‘Ek stry hom al di (sic) afgelope week. Dis n fokop’ referring to his battle with Covid19. Johan passed away on 4 August, and is missed.

Planning trips generally are easy. You determine where you want to go, enter that into Google Maps or your Garmin and divide that reported distance by 100 to give you estimated driving time. Ouma Koekoe will differ with my calculation though, as I tend to wander even when driving, and she’ll instinctively know that my 8 hours will turn out to be 10 or more hours. However, Sweden and Norway taught me a valuable new reality. Even if it’s tarred and national roads, not all roads are equal. If you manage an average of 70km/h you can count yourself lucky. So my 3163km from home to Base Camp in Skarsvåg reported by Google to be 36 hours of driving does not equal my planned 4 days. It turned out to be day seven when we arrived at Skarsvåg which would be our Base Camp for the next three days. I should be fair to the roads however and confess that the slow drive has a lot to do with the immaculate scenery, a hotdog or two or six, the euphoria of the entire trip, the constant stop for photos at spots such as entering the arctic circle, the first sight of a real fjord, reindeer, to celebrate the Springboks’ series win over the British and Irish Lions on the shores of the Barents Sea in Altaelva plus the constant search for moose, bears and even wolves. We all realised that the chances of seeing bears or wolves from the seat of your vehicle on a public road were very slim, but I really expected to see a few moose. The proof was clearly visible that they are there by the number of spotlights on all the local vehicles, even the sedans.

So far, we had 6 nights in LenieBus, with just the one night in a caravan park. The others were all wild camping, of which three were exquisite nature spots next to lakes or in woods. One was next to the road because I decided before the time, as a matter of trip principle, that I do not want to drive after sunset. Though LenieBus have seats for four adults, the extra two passengers, my adult children, had to pitch a tent every night. For them it probably was a bit of a schlep, but for Heleen and me, sitting on a camp chair with a beer watching them pitch their tent, it was no schlep at all. Camping was now really easy. As Johan Bakkes wrote in a review in a South African magazine, camping with a campervan remind you of a tortoise, ‘you’ve got your house on your back’. You just pick a spot, push a button to let the little step shift out, so that you don’t pull a hamstring when you reach for the fridge, and open two camping chairs and two beers. The children will bring their chairs when their tent is pitched.

Day 1 at Base Camp camping site in Skarsvåg was supposed to be to do laundry and freshen up, but we had such a good camping spot and such good weather, that we sort of just sat around, enjoyed a lazy brunch, some short distance cycling and obviously threw some meat on the grill for a leisurely braai, while even having a swim in the arctic water of the Storvatnet lake on our doorstep. Day 2 was a little more serious, but this was why I brought the four bikes along. From Base Camp, it’s a further 16km to the actual Nordkapp, and this I wanted to do by bike – a nice leisurely 32km roundtrip with a total elevation gain of 721m. Nordkapp is situated at N71°21’10” and is the most northern point of Europe; thus for me it was a real bucket-list tick-off objective. To put this location into South African context; if I would go to 71°21’10” South, I would actually be on ‘dry ground’ in Antarctica, roughly 4070km south af Cape Agulhas! That’s a cool travel thought for me. (Africa’s most southern point at Cape Agulhas is at 34°49’59,6”). 

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, to gain all while you give, to roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live.” (Hans Christian Andersen)

Turning south from Nordkapp I did some brief estimates and realised we had two weeks to get back home in Germany, but there were many things I wanted to see, places to stop at and photos to take. We could fortunately build in a few detours and there’s enough time to head south-west through most of Norway and visit places such as Lofoten, Bergen, the Trollstigen and the Preikestolen, to name just a few, … and which we did. Norway must be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The scenic splendour is endless, the 1700 named fjords range from the massively large Sognefjord which stretches 204km inland to the narrowest Nærøyfjord which spans a mere 500m in width at some places. The European Road E39 is the main road leading south, but it is by no means a highway. Traveling at averages of about 60km per hour is common, and you should not be in a hurry when you decide to road-trip in Norway. Heading south we leisurely meandered and attempted wild camping as often as possible. It’s hard to highlight the best overnight stops but worth specific mention are the nights

  • next to Fjord Kjaeken, facing west and just enjoying the sunset at about 23:00, while a bottle of Roodeberg, two otters and some dolphins add to the tranquility, plus here I found some dirt road,
  • the night at Vevang on the Atlanterhavsveien or Atlantic Ocean Road with those magnificent sea crossing bridges,
  • the night next to a remote road on the banks of Dam Sunnfjord and swimming in the icy waters for the brave amongst them (or stupid?),
  • and the camping in basic campsites such as
    • Solnaset Gard (farm), and
    • The Preikestolen campsite where the owner who frequently travels to South Africa and the Kruger National Park, actually installed braais similar to those well-known ones the South African Parksboard have in all their camps.

Lofoten is an archipelago located at the northwest of Norway, where the dramatic mountain- and sea views are never ending, and where the entire peninsula is lined with picturesque fishing villages. Probably the most famous and definitely worth the visit is the town Henningsvær, with its soccerfield virtually build in the sea on a small peninsula. A fascinating learning experience, and excellent thick vegetable and reindeer soup, is available at the Lofotr Viking musem, with its restored longhouse and Viking boats. This house belonged to the powerful Chieftain of Borg and dates from the years 700 AD. I am not sure what Borg’s relationship was with Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons was, but Borg himself had quite a dwelling of note.

When traveling in Norway, you are going to use ferries and toll-roads, and its completely justified when you consider the infrastructure of these tunnels and ferries and time saved by using them. With some routes it simply is not wortwhile to search for alternative routes, and though some bloggers and travel writers criticise the cost, in the end I didn’t think it was overly pricey. On most of the toll-roads and ferries, you simply use them, and get billed later. Photos are taken of your car registration, and the bill is then posted or emailed to you. Its wise to preregister on the website of the Toll Collection company Epass24 and just let the transactions get paid automatically from your preregistered credit card, at a discounted tariff because you’ve registered. Below is a summary of my toll and ferry costs.

One or two toll gates were paid in cash though, including a real expensive €125 for the road crossing between Denmark and Sweden, as well as the ferry crossing between Norway and Denmark (Kristiansand to Hirtshals).

Part of travel experience is obviously to enjoy local cuisine and learn a little about the tastes, flavours and sources of sauces of the country. Since we were on a self-catering self-drive adventure, I can confirm that Cara makes a mean spaghetti bolognaise, Heleen all kinds of traditional ‘padkos’, Stean a mean ‘braaibroodjie’ and I can still ‘braai’. We did now-and-then eat out and in Norway you have plenty of excellent fish, reindeer meatballs with sauce (called kjøttkaker) and potato dumplings (called raspeball), stew (called lapskaus), and lingonberry cream (called trollkrem) for dessert as local dishes. However, by far the biggest traditional dish, from our personal experience are hotdogs. To Norwegians ‘hotdog’, is like ‘braai’ to South Africans; the go-to solution to everything. Hotdog is not really a verb, but in Norway it is. We hotdogged a lot. It’s not a massive exotic hotdog at all. As a matter of fact, its smallish, with the bun way too small for the sausage, but its tasty, with a choice of sauces and I think the big selling point is the bun is soft, not one of those palate breaking baguettes that frequents most of Europe’s bakeries. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a fresh baguette, but if you have them too frequently, you kind of end up looking like Dracula with the blood from your cut palate streaming from your mouth; and it hurts! These Norwegian hotdog buns are like freshly washed thick towels emerging from the tumble dryer, compared to wind dried towels washed with Sunlight soap in a river. To elaborate more on this, should rather be left to the professionals, and thus I refer you, to https://www.scandikitchen.co.uk/hotdog-scandinavian-way/ though I can affirm for the Norwegian hotdog as being the go-to snack, every time you stop for fuel, coffee, groceries, or, … er, well, when you stop. Its dirt cheap, delicious, and available everywhere. 

Atlanterhavsveien or The Atlantic Ocean route is a roughly 9km road between the towns Kårvåg and Vevang. The road runs across an archipelago of partially inhabited islands and skerries and consists of eight bridges, four resting places and plenty of dramatic scenery. We traversed the road on a beautiful summer’s day with a calm sea and absolute exquisite scenes of natural beauty around us. We stopped, probably had a hotdog, and drove parts of the route more than once just to provide the opportunity to take it all in, and to let the drone do it’s thing. 

When you think of the tourist attractions of a nature paradise such as Norway, there obviously are a few that form the basis of your trip planning. Nordkapp, a couple of fjords, Atlanterhavsveien, Trollstigen and the Preikestolen were sort of my reference via points to plan my route on. It doesn’t mean that’s it, as everything in-between is just pure splendour (remember that I’m talking 8327km here). However, you should at least plan for these four, and the fortunate thing is that you will see a couple of fjords in the process. 

Serenity

After a stunning drive from Lofoten, which included the Atlanterhavnveien, we found a secluded wildcamp site next to a small road and sat down to reminisce about everything we have seen, and still are experiencing. 

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like the people or hate them than to travel with them.” (Mark Twain)

I love them.

Time was starting to become an issue, traveling was slow, and the road home still far. But I had two more sights to see, and I was adamant. 

The Trollstigen is a famous serpentine mountain road and major tourist attraction due to its steep incline of 10% and eleven hairpin bends up a steep mountainside. It is the ascent (or descent) at the end of the beautiful Isterdalen (valley) which, while driving the pass, provides excellent views of the valley as well as the Stigfossen waterfall. Trollstigen means the troll path or troll trail. I’m not sure what Norway’s big thing with trolls are?

At the foot of the trail to the Preikestolen (Pulpit rock) is the Preikestolen camping ground. We arrived in the afternoon, and were slightly under time pressure, since we wanted to visit the actual pulpit rock that same day, so that we could travel home the next day. We (I mean the children) pitched their tent, and we put on our walking shoes. I consulted Google Maps and planning fell into place – 57min walk, Google said, 3.9km Google said, and ‘mostly flat’ Google said. Google lied! However, after a 9.6km roundtrip (4.8km one way) and a climb of 605m and a 3:06:05 moving time (3:52:57 elapsed time), I opened a beer very very satisfied back at the campsite. We were tired, but happy. The scenery is out of this world, the last tick-box of our Norway trip was ticked off and we sat around a campfire build on a Kruger National Park lookalike ‘braaier’. The owner of the campsite is a fond traveller to South Africa, and he particularly loves the Kruger National Park. So much so, that he installed similar braaiers in he’s Norway camping ground. 

I was happy and I felt extremely blessed. Except for two more days of driving, this was the end of an absolute epic and wonderful family holiday. 

Now, as I write this trip report in my warm lounge at home on this freezing December morning, I cannot wait to turn LenieBus’s nose in some new direction and get going again. I must remember to order a case Springfield The work of Time.

Logbook
Some wild-camping suggestions

Epic trip north – appetiser

‘Let’s head north’ said Heleen.

‘Okay, but let’s go all the way north’, I replied.

Everybody has some sort of travel wish list, and since I landed in Europe, 10 years and 3 days ago, driving to the Nordkapp, Europe’s most northern tip, have been one of my tick-box items.

Coming to a screen near you very soon, will be the trip report, photos and video footage of an epic 8327km driven to the northern most point of Europe over a three week epic road trip.

Road trip South Africa

Part 1 : Meandering the Karoo

“At first encounter the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety.”
― Eve Palmer, Plains of Camdeboo: The Classic Book of the Karoo

 

Disclaimer note: I often use the Afrikaans terminology referring to this part of the world since I grew up with that terminology, and its been embedded as acceptable terms, e.g. veld – open, uncultivated country or grassland in southern Africa. It is conventionally divided by altitude into highveld, middleveld, and lowveld. There are other such terms I use throughout.

As soon as we decided to ‘go back home for Christmas’ I was in secret planning mode. And when Stean remarked, ‘I don’t really know the Karoo’, it was the last straw; my planning and dreaming and longing became acute. I asked Stean whether he wanted to see the Karoo and ‘He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you

We’ve been living in Germany for eight years, and though we’ve been back home many times, we’ve not been there for Christmas – a summer Christmas with family and friends like the days of old beckoned. I knew the underlying idea was to visit family for Christmas, but my wanderlust convinced me very quickly that driving the 1338km down to the Garden Route should never be done in just one day. There’s just too many distractions, stops to be made, and I needed time to show my children the Karoo en route to Wilderness.

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Enjoying the maize fields, irrigation system and wide open sky of the Highveld

I’m fortunate though, I have a brother who lives on the Highveld some 100km east of Pretoria, and a weekend relaxing there with a braai, good South African wines and long chats catching up on all and sundry to get rid of Europe’s cold before embarking on my road trip seemed the perfect start to 3 weeks of bliss in the South African ‘platteland’. The ‘Hoëveld’, or Highveld is that large portion of the South African inland plateau which consist mostly of rolling grassland and open open spaces.

 

 

In die Hoëveld, waar dit oop is en die hemel wyd daarbo, 
Waar kuddes waaigras huppel oor die veld,
Waar ‘n mens nog vry kan asemhaal en aan ‘n God kan glo, …

Toon van den Heever

 

Very freely translated it will read

 

On the the Highveld, where its open and the heaven wide above,

Where flocks of waving grass skips over the veld,

Where man can still breathe freely, and can believe in God, …’

Continue reading “Road trip South Africa”

Budapest, imitation, fake or glorious?

“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.” 
― M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart

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Well, I’m not sure, and to be fair the quote does stem from 1992, but what I am sure about is that visiting places for a third time is a privilege providing opportunity for looking at the same stuff afresh. This was my third visit to Budapest, 26 years after my first.

My first visit was in January 1994, when Budapest and Hungary were actually still busy stepping out from behind the Iron Curtain. In those days you could still feel the cold eastern atmosphere in the Budapest streets.  Strolling the streets in those days, you could see and feel the cold, grey and life’s weight on the residents but from a traveller’s perspective it was gloriously exciting. Since that trip, it has changed a lot. Budapest nowadays is a vibrant city, with a modern feel, many tourists ensuring the worldwide irritation of pedestrians texting while walking, selfie-sticks in abundance and English spoken everywhere. Don’t get me wrong when I refer to the latter negatively, but the globalised impact of being understood everywhere does dilute some of the traveling experience of old. It was exploratory on my first trip in 1994 to struggle being understood, adventuring through menus and using sign language to get to destinations or pointing at which ‘torta’ you want with your coffee. Nothing in Hungarian hints in any way to its English word, not to even think Afrikaans. Sitting in Ferenc Liszt Budapest airport just after arrival I was, for example, trying to find links between the Hungarian I saw on restaurant signs and English. Who would have thought that ‘péksütemények’ means ‘pastry’, or even shorter ‘deeg’ in Afrikaans? On that first trip, 26 years ago, there were no translate apps, no Googlemaps, nor commercial GPS’s, no Costas nor Starbucks and hardly any English; just the decent and proper ‘old world’ classy ‘cukrászda’ coffee establishments, such as Gerbeaud. Furthermore, in those old days, the clientele of Gerbeaud did not stroll in wearing hiking boots, loose hoodies and backpacks, they were dressed in old fashioned classy coats and scarves and vintage Fedora hats. In a sense, travel has become too easy, and dare I, who love wearing shorts, say, too casual?

Continue reading “Budapest, imitation, fake or glorious?”

About Belgium; the Battle, the Bulge, the Beer and the Braai

Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.

We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.

Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African

Continue reading “About Belgium; the Battle, the Bulge, the Beer and the Braai”

To ski, or not to ski, that is the question

‘Koukus’ was an old radio comic story done by Leon Schuster and Fanus Rautenbach on Radio Suid Afrika in the 80s. It was Afrikaans radio comedy and sometimes hilariously funny. One particular story I remember was the one where the school ‘1ste rugbyspan’ went to support the 1st netball team as a little team building event. That’s the way it was, the boys extended gtremendous courtesy to support the girls occasionally, while it was expected that everyone supported the boys, ak ‘die manne’! The boys were slightly clueless about the game, and life for that matter, other than bashing each other in the hunt for that lovely oval leather ball, in those days branded as Super Springbok (sadly that has probably faded into oblivion) and the glory of scoring a try, winning a line-out or achieving a tight-head victory. However, on that fatal afternoon, the long-legged, blond pony-tailed captain, let’s call her Ansie, of the 1st Netball team hurt her ankle and true to his rugby coaches’ pep-talk on chivalry before the time, the ‘1ste Rugbyspan Kaptein’ ran onto the netball pitch and carried Ansie to the side-lines where he helped her massage her ankle, probably initially with Deepheat. I can even smell that ‘wetter green’ smell of Vicks chewing gum that was the distinctive smell of Deepheat. A little later the ‘1ste Rugbyspan Kaptein and Ansie moved to a more private spot for the ankle rubbing, which lead to him missing the kick-off of his rugby match later that afternoon!

That Monday at school, when the furious coach saw the ‘1ste Rugbyspan Kaptein’ at school he naturally confronted him; ‘where were you, we needed you, we counted on you, you’re the captain!!’ and then the laconic reply came, ‘I don’t know what they call it Sir, but I’m done with rugby!’

 

I can say the same about skiing, which incidentally I have said before in my blog post Skiing is believing

 

Skiing is a similar joy. It’s a recreational pleasure out in nature, wonderful scenery all round and a freedom of speed and movement beyond description. I do acknowledge that with age, the limitations start to appear, such as knee-strength and general fitness, but nonetheless its at least just as good as ankle rubbing on the netball field and what follows!

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Late afternoon fun

Since we’ve arrived in Europe in October 2011, we’ve spent a week or more of every December holiday-break skiing in either France or Livigno.

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Freezing and misty at -10°

Livigno is a quaint Italian Alpine village with all modern amenities, state of the art ski slopes, infrastructure and a town vibe to adore. Restaurants are in abundance for all tastes to build up strength for tomorrow’s energy sapping ski-slopes, but the main refuelling is obviously the late afternoon après ski, somewhere with real loud music, or next to an open ‘street fire’ lazily people watching. This is where I recharge my batteries for both body and soul. This is where you relax, chat, meet new people, share stories, trade contact info, advise on restaurants and slopes; or just stare into the flames.

 

Though skiing is obviously the key activity, a very close second place is just, well, being in the snow. Being in the snow brings a pleasure and intrigue, as well as just plain fun. Helping some locals to recover their car from the ankle deep snow after a nice dinner with pushing, broken Italian (with a good mix of broken Spanish as substitute for the lack of broken Italian) and laughter together are the memories that stick. And while we, as South Africans not used to snow marvel at the splendour, you realise that it has a practical negative side too, when the local Italian utters is first words after we’ve recovered his car, in pretty good English, ‘fucking snow!’

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Snow will always be marvellous and a splendour to enjoy. It is cosy, it is beautiful, it is sporty and it is playful. But, it is also dangerous, yet adventurous. It felt as if I was in a James Bond movie scene, when we headed home through the Alps.

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Indeed, Why Not, for best burgers

In this post, pictures speak louder than words, I hope.

 

 

Cold and Grey, with protesting rays of sanity and beauty

Feb 2017

Can you imagine having been intimidated, interrogated and abused in the ‘old days’ of madness, and then many years later, after walls came tumbling down, you bump into your bully in a grocery store?

That’s the story our hotelier in the amazing city Schwerin shared with us at breakfast. His wife was clearly still shaken up by this experience, but that is so much reality in many parts of Germany, or the larger previously communist Eastern Europe.

Heleen and I decided to explore the far northeast of Germany for a week and to see what surprise destinations, in both sights and history we could find. And oh boy, did I enjoy it.

Schwerin is the capital city of German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is particularly known for its breath-taking palace. The palace is currently the office of the state government and is situated on the lake island just out of town. It was February and as can be imagined, the weather was not ‘African friendly’ weather, but we were brave, tightened the scarves and strolled the beautiful island, amazed at the majestic palace before we sniffed out a delicious traditional German potato-, leek- and ‘wurst’ soup with bread and a glass of nearly acceptable quality wine in the well preserved ‘altstadt’.

IMG_7010Schwerin Palace
Schwerin Palace

I attempt to also appreciate the extremely interesting other historic periods strolling the town and sights, but the Stasi- and the cold war period is constantly in my head. So much more after having a very absorbing conversation with our hotelier and being informed that the big empty building 200m from the hotel is actually the old Stasi Head Office, where his wife had her nightmare experience many years before. It was actually right there on our doorstep and one of many places where so many serious atrocities happened resulting in numerous innocent people’s life so dramatically influenced by the communist and socialist bully methods. This incident, of the hotelier wife and her face-to-face years later with her interrogator immediately reminded me of Anna Fulder’s book, Stasiland, and that particular comment Miriam made to Anna when she said, ‘And I think about those Stasi men. They would never in their lives have imagined that they would seize to exist and that their offices would become a museum. A museum!’ She then further says ‘I like to drive up to the Runde Ecke and park right outside. I just sit there in the car and I feel …. triumph! Miriam makes a gesture which starts as a wave, and becomes a guillotine. ‘You lot are gone’.

 

Schwerin Stasi Office
‘You lot are gone!’

And that’s the lesson. Nothing lasts. Not Eric Mielke and his Stasi nor the Gadaffi’s, Sadam Hussains, or Robert/Grace Mugabes and their cronies.

I like driving around in these remoter parts of the over developed Germany. Here you still get a feeling that its slightly remote and rural – definitely not Karoo remote – but at least slightly less built up than Northrhein Westfalen, where we live. Once you’ve succeeded in shifting the Stasi history out of your head for a while, you realise how scenically beautiful this part of Germany is. Schwerin sits next to a beautiful lake, the Schwerin See, (yes, the Europeans call a lake a sea and the sea a ‘meer’, but then again, Obelix did repeatedly state that they are slightly crazy!). This northern coast provides some extra scenic splendour including the white cliffs at Putgarten on the island Rügen. It’s a worthwhile destination to go hiking, even in bad weather. Bad weather here has the knack to shut you off from the rest of the world. Its just you, the grey of the air and sea and the beautiful green of the coast, with a bleak hint of the whitish cliffs in the distance. And just before you freeze, you end your hike back in town in a small pub-like restaurant with thick vegetable soup and fresh bread. Winter here is grey, but it’s a grey that has its own peculiar excellence.

Putgarten Clifs

Further east and on the border with Poland is the holiday town, Heringsdorf, on the Usedom Island. The area is known as Kaiserbad, as it was the favourite spa destination of the German Emperors in days gone by due its its clean beaches and the long sandy stretch. It actually is the longest sand beach in Europe, being 40km in total distance. Heringsorf was our base for a few days from where we visited the astonishing Świnoujście (Swinemünde) which has a harbour in the river mouth of the Swine river. This was a major German naval base during WW2 as well as the Cold War period. On the beaches of Heringsdorf the military lookout towers are still plentiful. The irony about these is that they were mostly used, similar to the Berlin Wall, to keep the ‘free’ people of the German ‘Democratic’ Republic from defecting, and not so much as defending against external threats entering!

Beach whatch tower
Keeping your people from defecting, not enemies from entering

Some 40km to the west of Heringsdorf we strolled in fascination through the museum in Peenemünde. Here an Army Research Centre was founded in 1937. Many serious weapons, including guided missile and rocket weapons were tested and designed here using the nearby concentration camp inmates as forced labour – forced to build weapons they knew would destroy their homeland and massacre their own people. During the Cold War Soviet days it was rumoured that the Soviets revived Peenemünde for their space program.

 

Heading back home to Bad Honnef, I decided to drive via the historic towns of (Lutherstad) Wittenberg and Erfurt to spend a few hours in the footsteps of Martin Luther, the father of the German Protestant movement. It is 500 years ago (October) since he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and certainly was a door I needed to see. The Luther church was inspiring to see, but as a town the old part of Erfurt was something extraordinary. It was here, in Erfurt where Martin Luther was ordained in the Cathedral of St Mary, which dates back to the 8th century and where he also delivered many of his sermons. Still intact in Erfurt is the Krämerbrucke (or merchant bridge) and its medieval houses spanning the Gera River. The original bridge was an important part of the trade and pilgrims routes connecting Rome with the Baltic Sea. It was originally a wooden bridge but was destroyed many times by fire. The current stone bridge, which is lined on both sides with half-timbered houses, was completed in 1472.

 

En route back home to ‘West Germany’, we stopped a last stop to sort of exit ‘Eastern Germany’ officially at a fantastically interesting museum called Point Alpha. Its one of many ‘Grenz’ museums where the ‘iron curtain’ became real. Point Alpha specifically was the border between the towns Rasdorf in the west and Geisa in the east. It has an excellent museum depicting the inner German border as well as some well-preserved samples of various stages of the original border.

 

After a thoroughly enjoyable week back in history and into a cold grey era, I must admit that there was a feeling of relief that we were heading west, and that it was into an era well beyond 9 November 1989, the day when such important walls came tumbling down. Walls aren’t the answer.

Routemap

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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The Vikings have gone soft

Click the photos to enlarge

My view of the Vikings are really a scary image in my head of Hägar or Hiccup’s Dad being afraid of nothing and causing fear in everybody crossing their paths. But that reality has long gone. It is sort of generally accepted that that age lasted from the Viking raid on the Lindisfarne Monastery in Northern England in 793 until the battle of Hastings in 1066, a seriously brutal 273 years in northern Europe. Denmark is seen as the historical home to the Vikings and though once feared across Europe for their raids and killing sprees they have significantly calmed down. The modern day Viking, if we consider the Danes’ Viking heritage, is a ‘peaceful bunch that traded their long-ships for bicycles’ (according the the Visitdenmark website).

I think, after my week long traveling through Denmark, I can concur that they are actually a civilised and peaceful looking bunch, with plenty of modern engineering evidence in some awesome bridges and beautiful nature being preserved. Maybe too civilised as well. Denmark is regarded as the world’s happiest country, measured on criteria such as a strong social support system, freedom to live as one please and low perceived business and government corruption. Especially number two, living as one please was very insightful for me, as we went for a short stroll through the notorious free town of Christiana.

Christiana is sort of a hippy commune, to this day. It was founded in 1971 in an abandoned military camp in Copenhagen. For about 4 decades it was nothing more than a hippy squatter camp where selling and smoking all sorts of funny stuff was ‘accepted’ by turning a blind eye. Since 2011, the property was negotiated to belong to the community and residents could apply to get a living space. Its still a dump, don’t get me wrong, but its an interesting dump. Hippies trade and live and smoke and seem generally happy, but according to some warnings, you should not be too relaxed. Specific warnings against taking photos are plentiful and can apparently turn violent if disobeyed. However, we strolled deep into Christiana, up to a point where the hairs in the back of your neck told you to rather turn back and head out. Scrutinising eyes and disapproving gazes started to feel threatening. We turned back before we could see if there’s still a bit of Viking smouldering in the modern day Dane living in Christiana.

Copenhagen in general is a beautiful city, with plenty of sights and interesting spots to explore. Its also small enough that its okay to stay in town, have two days at leisure and by foot see most of the city and if you’re lucky enough, even stumble onto the changing of the guards. As with most first visits to new destinations, I do believe you should tick off the obvious attractions, be it only to chat along in the future with a ‘yes, the Copenhagen Mermaid is smaller than I thought, or ‘no, I thought Christianshavn was as beautiful as I imagined, and not overly touristy! Is it overly touristy if there’s always a Chinese restaurant as well?’

A sad reality, which stayed with me since I saw Out of Africa, was the fact the Karen Blixen never returned to Africa after she ‘had a farm in Africa’ for 17 years. I had to see for myself how wonderful a place she had in Denmark to permanently give up her African farm, and I found that surely the family pressure to give up that farm must have been huge. We visited her home in Rungstedlund but unfortunately the museum house was closed. It’s a nice enough setting and beautiful manor and I hopefully one day will get the chance to see the inside, but that farm in Africa!!

Denmark is fairly small. To put it in perspective, from Karen’s house on the east coast to our destination, Esbjerg on the west coast, is a mere 318km or just just more than twice the size of the Kruger National Park back home. Furthermore, for comparison purposes and simply because it is interesting, there are according to the 2011 census 6.85 million Afrikaans speakers (first language) in South Africa, while there are about 6 million Danish speakers (first language). Adding all the expats nowadays, there’s probably a million more Afrikaans speakers spread all over the world; I personally know of at least 7 in Köln.

Thus, it was a easy leisurely drive east, stopping at Roskilde’s Viking Museum to have a coffee and sandwich with Hägar and company, before having the coldest photo-shoot of my life at the awe-inspiring Storebælt suspension bridge at Halsskov. If the Vikings have gone soft, they surely make up for that loss in their gained skills for building infrastructure. This is a magnificent bridge, consisting of three ‘sections’; a suspension motor highway (pun intended as its 65 meters above the sea) and 6.7km long. With its 65 meters clearing, the world’s largest cruise ship class can pass under the bridge with its smoke stack folded. This ‘East Bridge’ part is the third longest suspension bridge in the world and is complemented with a twin tunnel rail system which provide thorough fare for trains, under the sea, with the two tunnels being 8 km long. From the little island Sprogø to the mainland at Knudshoved the cars and trains commute side by side across a box girder bridge that is 6.6 km long and with an 18 meters clearing. But let me say again, this place can be cold. That wind blows from Greenland across Iceland and the icy North Seas, makes a sharp right turn before Gothenburg to come and freeze curious travellers who dare to exit their cars for a photo or coffee break. Dress warmly!

Denmark is a fascinating country, but the best of the best sights for me surely was the natural wonder and the pure awe of the Creation visible at the west coast Wadden Sea islands, such as Rømø. Here, we waded on the beaches of the Wadden Sea (Vadehavet in Danish) where its wide, long and flat and beautifully serene. I constantly had the images in my head from a translated TV series I watched as a kid, where ‘Sill se Lobke’ roamed the beaches with her farther as ‘Strandlopers’ (beach drifters) to collect the wreckage and stuff washed up on the beaches from ships, and which they could use or sell. I know Sill was from Sweden, but the scenes were the same. It took me back in time to my childhood and reminded me how I always wanted to travel and see places such as those beaches Sill and Lobke frequented, and now I was so blessed to be able to that, with my best travel buddy at my side. The Wadde Sea is a large part of the north-western coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark and is listed on the UNESCO World heritage lists. Some parts are well developed, such as the German island, Sylt (and then seriously expensive too at €95 to ferry your car over by the compulsory train), but there are magnificent natural and nature rich areas kept in its natural conservation state. It must be visited, even just to see that you need to time your visits carefully. We booked a room through Booking.com without realising the reality of the area, on the island Mandø. Approaching the town of Ribe en route to Mondø, we received a call from the innkeeper saying we can’t come, ‘ve are flooding’.

We then Google searched and realised the road from the mainland to the island is a dirt road, thus not really ‘flat car’ accessible for one-, but a more significant reason, its covered by anything between 50 to 100 cm of sea during high tide, and this was high tide.

Wadden2
Waders on the beach

Wadden1
Rømø island Wadden Sea beauty and my beauty

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The ferry in a distance between Rømø and Sylt

The world is small. We booked into an Air B&B near the rural town of Skærbæk on a farm for one evening. The owner was not around and the farmhand came to provide the necessary towels and stuff. After chatting and discovering that we are South Africans, he confessed to also being a Saffa, Wilhelm Schutte, from Schoemansville, a little town on the outskirts of Pretoria. Then we spent a lovely few hours chatting in Afrikaans over a South African red wine we bought in the Danish ‘platteland’ with a ‘Danish’ farmer who’ve been working in Europe for more than 20 years.

After a quick overnight visit to Sylt, we headed home. Sylt is beautiful, but to my taste, the more natural and less touristy islands in the Danish part of the Wadden Coast are a much better destination. I’ll go again.

Rivierboot

Heading home, meant crossing the Nord-Ostsee Kanal, one of the other engineering sights I had on my to-do list for this trip. This canal crosses Germany’s neck and allows larger seafaring ships to cut hours from their trip between the North- and the Baltic Seas. Our timing was good and I was able to see a large ship deep inland crossing the continent.

 

It was a terrific week of driving through Denmark, and my conclusion in this day and age; ‘Something is not rotten in Demark’!