Sunday, 31 December 2017

A 2017 Review

***note - edited 1/02/18
It is once again the end of the year and my birthday (sigh, 39). I am slightly baffled as to how and why this year in particular went so fast, it literally feels like 10 minutes since the end of 2016. My blog has gone virtually untouched this year and I am determined that 2018 will not go the same way. This has been a bit of an intense year and so busy that I have not had chance to keep up. Must try harder next year as from where I am sitting right now, it does not look like it will be any less busy....

So what happened? Well, mainly, work did. By mid January it was clear that we had, {redacted} a huge, rapid incline ahead of us. I struggled with this on many levels and it is only in the last month or so - when we hit the finish line - that I was able to process and let go of the stress {redacted}.

Basically, my work-life balance was sacrificed this year - but that was not the hard part, the stress and anxiety that delivering this beast caused were awful. Asking my colleagues to commit every ounce of their strength and sanity to obtaining this goal, when we did not have clear sight of, or information on, what the product was, took a huge amount of trust and loyalty - and it is in those elements that I found solace and positive vibes that got me, personally through it.

I think I should park it on the whole 'M Word' for now. I could literally fill a whole book with what this project taught me and taught us as a team. But I do not want to give it the air time. It is done. Let's move on.

On a personal level, there were some achievements and opportunities that were amazing and which almost compensated for the business of most of my working days between February and December. In addition, two of my amazing ex-colleagues (from UniSA and e3) joined us in April and made everything feel like at least we could have fun. I will always be very thankful to both Alex and Dee for taking a punt on our project (and trusting me) and for the fact that they both brought exceptional talent and incredible teamwork skills to us when we needed them most.  

One of the things I am proudest of this year (and in fact in my career to date) is that I got the incredible opportunity to attend Microsoft HQ in Seattle in late February and presented to them and a number of MOOC makers from other institutes (including Harvard, Berkeley, MIT and TU Delft) about what we do and how we do it at Adelaide. I was more nervous ahead of this presentation than I have ever been before - but I did it. It also made me realise after a year in the job at Uni Adelaide that I DO, in fact, know what I am talking about in this field. It was that moment of clarity and reassurance that I needed. I really do intend to stifle the self doubt in 2018 (new year resolution #1) I love working in HE and I started to feel like I had found my people at this point in the year.

Following on from this, I also had a week in September which I think will stick with me for a long time - on the Monday I got the chance to stand in for my manager at lunch with the VC. In the strange world of HE, this is kind of a big deal - and I felt very honoured, as part of a group of 10 colleagues who had contributed to Innovation within the Uni to sit down to a formal lunch in his (massive) office. I even got to chat with the man himself while we ate and he seemed like a genuinely down to earth and approachable man. One downside was that the lunch was a large, fancy piece of sea bass - and anyone that knows me knows I really do not like fish. Somehow I managed to eat the it (swallowing every bite was difficult) whilst smiling and making polite chat. I am SO EFFING BRITISH.

This same week continued in a crazy vane, with Wednesday being the day that all of the colleagues from the Microsoft event (now officially a 'Consortium') arriving at Adelaide for round 2 of our assessment symposium. At some point in Seattle (over dinner, with plentiful wine) my colleague Nick and I had flamboyantly volunteered to host the next leg following an agreement that this should be a 6 monthly event. I don't think we really thought everyone would be willing to fly to Adelaide (though the invite was very much genuine). We were absolutely thrilled when the decision was made.....and then I had to organise the biggest and most esteemed event I had ever even thought about, alongside the crazy MicroMasters delivery which was in full flow at this point.

I have to say, I have a whole new respect for event planners following this experience - but the 3 days went incredibly well and Nick proved an excellent co-pilot while everyone was in town. I was so shattered at the end of that week that I basically slept for 24 hours, straight through Saturday. Interestingly, I presented at the event too - but second time round, I was too preoccupied with the logistics to be nervous and now presenting to this fab group feels like a pleasure and nothing to be nervous about. For me, that personal growth is a real achievement.

The relationships that are developing out of this Symposium have been so amazing and valuable and are now spawning lots of very cool collaborative projects and conversations, the world feels like a very small place these days. Oh, and in the middle of the Adelaide event I was awarded higher duties and a new job title of Partnership and Portfolio Delivery Manager - which I was very pleased with. I have wanted 'partnership' or relationship manager officially in my role for some time as it is the area of my work that I enjoy the most, and thanks to some considerable effort and positioning by my manager it came to be. 

I have been working on another project which took me to Hong Kong for a few days in November and then I got to go to Whistler in early December for the annual EdX Global Forum which was incredible - both for the networking opportunity and the absolutely stunning and very festive scenery. The travel is still feeling like a perk at this point - and it looks like next year will be more of the same. I feel excited by that and already have a trip to California (round 3 of the Symposium) planned for March.

Hong Kong in November

2018 has some amazing personal things going on too. Stu and I plan to apply for our Australian citizenship at some point in the new year and June 28th will be our 15 year wedding anniversary. We also both turn 40 next year so there will be some celebrations planned for that too. As far as other resolutions go, I have been toying with cutting out all meat except chicken/turkey and might well start by reducing everything else. I want to learn to cook tofu properly (so it does not taste like a soggy sponge) and I intend to improve my cake decorating skills.

And Fin. Always Fin. Through 2017 he has grown into a wonderful dog - no longer a puppy - and I am very proud of him. That we can now walk the whole length of the beach with him off the lead and know that he will stay with us and (mostly) behave has been a major achievement, he has also learned to chill out and behave in cafes and cellar doors - which for us means we can take him with us on our social events quite often, Adelaide is a pretty dog friendly place which suits us well. We already have some trips planned for 2018 which we will be doing with Fin too - he is family after all.

Fin looking majestic earlier this year

Stu surprised me mid-year 2017 with a difficult to beat anniversary present which was the trip to Laos we have just returned from. How lucky am I? And so, after we got the crazy MicroMasters across the December 1st finish line I knew I had a break coming. It was just what we needed, some QT together after a year of both being flat out and heaps of seperate travel. It also needs saying that Stu has been the most awesome support while my work life has been insane this year - he has made it easy for me to do all the travel, looked after Fin alone for big chunks and still makes me laugh in the downtime we do get together. For that alone, I know I am incredibly lucky.  

Me in Laos last week

And so, onwards to 2018. Starting tonight, when our Glenelg gang of mates will help celebrate my birthday and see in the new year. It is a bit odd that for the first year of my entire life I have not seen my family in person over the Christmas break, but given we have lived in Australia for nearly 5 years now, it is actually pretty good going. I have missed them all of course, but social media and photos and skype have made it easier. 

Enjoy your new year wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I shall raise a glass to everything 2017 was at midnight and for once be very excited about the year to come. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Travel Diaries #1 - Vancouver Alone

This is part one of some travel diaries I wrote while in Canada and USA recently and didn't publish at the time...

Today has been one of those days where a poignant combination of jetlag, gratitude and awareness of privilege have rendered me particularly introspective and reflective. 

Firstly, my Sunday has been 35 hours long so far and is starting to feel a tad Groundhog Day-ish. I mean Sunday is a weird old day to start with, even when it is in its usual 24 hour format. I usually treat it with a mixture of derision and passive aggression. A need to "DO SOMETHING" with the day so that I can claim to have had a weekend, tempered with an inherent desire to DO NOTHING and stick the middle finger up to the world. 

Today, I got up at 5am Adelaide time, my amazing husband drove me to the airport, I flew to Brisbane on a Qantas flight which managed to irritate me by not providing a toastie for breakfast (I know, #firstworldproblems and all that but it is mindfuckery when the last 6 Qantas morning flights I have been on all had a toastie and this morning, the offering was FUCKING CORNFLAKES). 

A very disappointing breakfast.

I transferred to the International terminal at Brisbane and boarded a 13 hour flight to Vancouver, which was absolutely chock full and where I had the delightful experience of sitting in an aisle seat with a 6'5" dude in the middle seat who could not help but man-spread into my seat because he was far too tall and wide to stay within the acceptable boundaries of his own. Helpfully he fell asleep within 20 minutes of take off and therefore relaxed further into my space thus rendering any hope of snoozing myself completely untenable. 

I therefore did the only rational thing I could in the circumstances. I selected a wine from the trolley and started watching films. I watched (Oscar nominee) Manchester-By-The-Sea, Bridget Jones' Baby and Deepwater Horizon back to back. All three had me in tears at some point. Also, I can confirm for you right now that the best bit of Bridget Jones' Baby occurs during the opening titles when she mimes to House of Pain 'Jump Around' whilst pissed and in pyjamas and spilling wine everywhere. I experienced a strange sense of attachment to this scene. I also unconsciously found myself miming along with impressive accuracy and I am sure my nearest fellow passengers enjoyed this display of hip hop skillz before I realised and came to an abrupt halt.

Anyway, 13 hours later I was in Canada (ACTUAL CANADIA!) and ready to mingle with Mr Trudeau and his band of singing Mounties. Sadly, they were not in arrivals to meet me and I had to wrangle my suitcase on my own and other annoying shiz because of an annoying lack of amazeballs husband. Between getting off the plane and exiting the airport I checked that I had my passport at least 15 times. Such has it been drilled in to me not to lose the damn thing. 

Bizarrely, when we landed it was 7am. On the same day I had left Australia. I had actually done a Marty McFly and gone back in time. My brain could not deal. This also meant that I was VERY early for check in at my hotel. As my room was still a few hours off being ready I headed over the road to a Tim Horton's (Canadian coffee chain) and got a latte and free wifi #winning 

Vancouver city view

Thank goodness for my kindle, I managed to while away 3 hours before heading back over to see if a room was ready. The team at my hotel had awesomely found me a room on the back of the building and let me have it super early. I was relieved that it overlooks the back because the road out front is very busy, this room is relatively quiet. I fell into bed and slept for 3 hours but managed to then drag myself out to explore.

Wow. The air here is so crisp and cold and clean. Every lungful feels like it is almost burning with purity and it makes me nostalgic for the European winters I grew up with and chilly blue see-your-own-breath days. Vancouver is a pretty stunning city with proper snow capped mountains ringing the city centre. I walked along the edge of the water to a Craft beer place I had read about and just enjoyed the Sunday afternoon pace of the city, people out with their dogs and kids, all wrapped up in many layers. 

Cool beer house in Olympic Village, Vancouver

Beer offerings - so much choice!

There is something quite liberating and empowering about being alone in an unknown city and I am so lucky to get the chance to do this for work. Sure, I miss Stu and would love him to be here and sharing this with me, but being here alone will not stop me getting out and seeing things. 

Years ago I might have felt a bit intimidated by walking into a heaving, vibrant bar on my own and sitting on my own, amusing myself. These days, it actually feels like a rare privilege and opportunity to legitimately people watch and the fact that I am alone bothers me not one jot. I think one of the best things about getting older is feeling far more confident in ones own skin and giving far fewer fucks what anyone thinks. 

Anyway, I passed a wonderful few hours and chatted on and off to a barman and sampled a few ales. All very civilised. Then I wandered back to my hotel and collapsed into the kind of sleep that can only happen when you have been travelling; un-moving, deep and restorative - ready for the crazy schedule I would be on for the next few days.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Happy New Year?

Happy new year one and all.

Wasn’t 2016 just a joy? Actually, I can logically and rationally see that many positive things happened in 2016, including, for me personally, the below:

The birth of my niece Lydia in January.

A new job with University of Adelaide which finally found me happy and sufficiently challenged in my work life in Australia.

An awesome visit by my aunt and uncle in May with much reminiscing and happy time together.

A new car which has finally given us security and freedom to explore the state further.

An AMAZING trip to Africa and Mauritius in August/Sept which took in some incredible safari experiences and concluded with the wedding of my little brother. We met an incredible bunch of people on our G adventures tour and I know that many of them will be friends for life.

This beautiful bunch of awesome people was a highlight. Africa 2016.

Some great QT with my mom in October/Nov when she stayed with us whilst doing a course.

An exciting visit to the NT with my folks and Stu for Christmas which included memories I will treasure for years.

About to fly over Kakadu - utterly wonderful!

So, there you go, on balance some good things really did happen. Sadly, we also had our fair share of sadness and heartache and it felt like the world had lost its collective shit with some of the unbelievable political decisions and global acts of terrorism which also occurred.

I have stalled in blogging about the Africa trip due to us having an unexpected and completely shocking family bereavement which, to be honest, we are still kind of reeling from and which has prevented me from being able to concentrate on much else.

You see, my lovely father-in-law passed away suddenly in early November and it has rocked our world on its axis in a way I never could have predicted. I guess I should be thankful to have got to the age of 37 before experiencing a bereavement like this. Supporting a spouse through the loss of a parent is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is not something there is any guide book for and the hardest part is not being able to heal their pain in any visible or rapid way. Add to this my closeness to my brother and mother in-law, both fully in the grips of overwhelming loss and shock and pain, and who I also cannot help in any real, tangible way. The helplessness is crippling.

I miss my father in law greatly and am grieving myself too, though I can appreciate I am one level removed from the intensity of the grief for Stu and his mum and brother. I have been part of this family for 18 years this year and he has always been this incredibly kind and warm personality in my life, so welcoming of a “daughter” into his family. He has left a huge hole in our collective lives and I am still finding myself regularly shocked to remember he will not be with us for various family plans and special days. New Year was incredibly hard. I do not feel ready to draw any kind of metaphorical line under last year because that feels like we are drawing a line under him and it feels so wrong. I know it needs time but it breaks my heart on a regular basis and I guess will continue to do so for many months yet. 

I will pick the Africa blog posts back up soon, I just need to get back in the mental head space to be able to do it justice.

Other things on the horizon for 2017 are helping me to think positively but I am considering some CBT for a few things (including the grief) which I can’t seem to process at the moment.

Anyway, Stu has booked a weekend in Moonta for my birthday which includes the beloved pooch and so for now I am just aiming for that, mid-February. I refuse to feel in any way defeated by 2016 because it was just an extreme year and one which included many things I never thought I would have to see or deal with at the age of 37. It taught me a lot. 

The sun is out here in Adelaide, our dog is a constant source of joy and the best therapy is walking him on the beach with the sand between my toes. A book I received for my birthday is called "May you live a life you love" and I intend to do just that this year, more of the good stuff and less of the crappy stuff I feel obliged to do. That, I think, is the extent of my "resolutions" for 2017. 

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

It's A Family Affair


That one word holds so much meaning and emotion for people that it is hardly surprising to find that family units are rarely simple or perfect or describable things. If you know someone who claims to have a ‘perfect’ or ‘simple’ family then you know a liar.

It is often a ‘loaded’ word. One which infers what you should do, how you should behave. I do not like being told what I should do or how I should behave. I like to take the word "family" and fit it around what it means to my life and the people I love. I do not believe in the tribal, Mitchell-esque, loyal-to-the-day-that-I-die and ostracised if I am not, model one iota. I would like to think I am intelligent enough to judge for myself what family means to me and I absolutely will not be made to feel guilty for that.

Platitudes Ahoy

My family is absolutely, 100% dysfunctional. And I bloody love them for it because, guess what folks? It makes them human.

My central family group could be defined as the people who will invariably sit round my mothers table for a Sunday lunch and treat the place like Picadilly Circus, swanning in and out, pillaging for food and tea and begging for trousers to be turned up (or is that just me?) and it consists of my mom, my step-dad, my brother and sister in law, two step sisters plus their partners, my Nana, my step-nan, my nephew and my niece. Oh, and my husband of course, who manages to cope with the eccentricities of us all, so different to his own, quieter and much smaller brood.

Only four of these people are blood related to me but it matters not a jot, I love the bones of all of them. However, I remember when my (then) 7 year old nephew asked me whether I was blood related to one of my step-sisters and it suddenly became a bit tangled. He was at that age where he was seeking to figure out how it all fits together. I didn’t blame him for being confused; our tribe is a bit of an unorthodox jumble to say the least.

It is the one social grouping in life which we do not choose, but inherit. A very close friend of mine always says ‘friends are the family we choose for ourselves’ and I think this is bang on the money. I have written extensively about friendships and how I think they should work in an earlier post and to my mind my friends are indeed the family I choose. Many of them know me much better than the majority of people I share actual DNA with and I value them as highly as members of my family. I would also add that depending on your workplace, colleagues are an additional ‘familial’ group in your life. My team at work spend more time with me than anyone else does and invariably some of them know my day to day life very well.

This applies even more so now that Stu and I live 10,000 miles away from where we grew up. Our Adelaide (and Australia in general) friends have become a massive safety net, a reliable infrastructure and a source of untold support and pleasure since we moved here nearly 4 years ago. 

With our blood relations it stands to reason (as we have no choice in the family group we are born into) that some of these people you would never naturally cross paths with or choose to spend time with. This is normal. Obligations to stay in touch only mean something and work if you actually happen, purely by luck, to genuinely like the person anyway - but this is not a given. 

We understand this dilemma even more now that we live so far away, on two levels; firstly, maintaining relationships is much harder and we sacrifice many hours a week to keeping in touch with people in the UK via Skype. Also, whenever we visit the UK we spend all of our time visiting people and catching up and it feels NOTHING like a holiday (it pisses me off enormously when people suggest that is what a UK trip is). It's brutally honest to say this, but intense catching up in this way often means repeating the same thing over and over again (for us) and as time goes by some friendships just don't weather the distance. Increasingly, our lives are so different and so hard to relate to that conversations can be reduced to platitudes and small talk unless you (and they) make a huge effort. It really does sort the wheat from the chaff whether you want it to or not.

Going back to central family groups though, the ones you are deeply embedded in and (unconditionally?) love - essentially your parents and siblings. You may be given a place within this for free as a child but as an adult, I believe that you earn your place in a family. In the same manner you can also lose it. To keep it healthy you have to nurture it, like any relationship.

This means that when you screw up or let go or lose contact there is generally always a way back, but it takes work on both sides, forgiveness and the ability to move on and stop raking up what happened in the past. Unfortunately some people are simply not equipped to do this. In fact, some people believe holding a grudge is an Olympic sport.

What matters to me is the well-being of my central group. After that I have a lot of time and love for other members of my family and would always do what I can for them if they needed me, although I may not see them or speak to them on a frequent basis. Then there are the members I do not really know but have nothing against and will happily be civil to. Finally there are those that I literally, teeth grittingly tolerate at events where I cannot escape. Now, be honest, you just read that and mentally identified which members of your family fitted which group. That’s fine! That’s normal.

Unless you live in cloud cuckoo land of course where everything is awesome and everybody loves each other and lashings of ginger beer flow freely and people really say ‘golly gosh’. 

Anyway, blood means nothing unless you are lucky and I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have my step dad in my life. To say he is ‘like a father to me’ is wrong. I already have a dad and he is ace and I love him loads. My step dad gives me a ‘bonus parent’ role, one which is brilliant because you get the best bits from both a best friend and someone you are allowed to ask to fix your car and know they will do it because they love you. My parents divorcing was a blessing, both are now in happy, healthy relationships and I have two ‘bonus’ parent roles, both of whom I love. I was lucky.

My mom is an amazing person in so many ways. She is an amazing role model to me as a woman and the person I always want to run things by in my life. We can quite happily spend hours on skype talking about anything and everything. As I get older I value this more and more. As she gets older I find myself adopting the parent role with her more and more (“you really should stop smoking/go to the doctors about that/stop reading the Daily Mail”), I can amusingly see she does the same with her mother, my beloved Nana. The three of us would often sit and chew the fat when I lived in the UK and I am glad I got to do this. I miss it, living this far from home. This mother-daughter-grand daughter relationship is precious to me but not because we are blood related – that is incidental, but it gives us the basis of a bond which we choose to embrace and enjoy.

Sadly, human nature means that people are not naturally inclined to just get on. Life was not meant to be simple and the Middle East would be a fantastic holiday destination if everybody would just chill the fuck out. Really.

So…..there was a period, a few years ago now, which was difficult in our family for various reasons, mainly due to the aforementioned human nature issue. I spent the whole of 2009 and 2010 feeling like a cornered tiger protecting it’s young in relation to my parents, defending them and trying to repair damage and hurt. I had many difficult conversations with members of the family and it was a tough road for a long time, but we got through it. On the plus side I think we could probably field a family team at the next Olympics for the Holding-a-Grudge relay. This guide suggests sensible solutions to unresolved family conflicts – unfortunately it takes both sides to make a resolution happen and I am thankful that we got there in the end on the headline issue at least. Other issues continue to rumble on which assures me that we are indeed normal.

No human being is perfect. All of us make mistakes, say things we don’t mean, can be downright hurtful to the people we love and occasionally behave like complete and utter imbeciles. I know I have in the past and I am sure I will again at some point. Admitting it is easy when you put it in context, apologising, picking up the pieces, moving on and drawing a line under it is harder. And far more painful. And sometimes needs time. But it is never really a closed door until you make it so.

And I guess this is my point. Families come in many shapes and sizes. Some are pretty conventional, some are not. All will at some point and on some level go through crises. It is highly normal for Auntie X to not be speaking to Cousin Y or some kind of variation of this. You get arseholes, idiots, absolute gems, comedians, good eggs, bad apples, princesses, petty thieves, dictators, diplomats and the perpetually vacant. It is sort of like the most recent (UK) coalition government but closer to home.

How you make it work is entirely down to you. Stressing about it will get you nowhere. Black and white thinking will not help one jot. Holding a grudge is the greatest symptom of the narrow minded and should be avoided. And sharing blood does not determine ranks of importance within your life, nor should it.

Tell the people you love that you love them as often as you can, spend as much time with the people that matter as possible whether they are blood related or not. Tolerate those you have to and avoid the ones that cannot be tolerated and take no regrets to the grave because seriously, people, life is too short.  

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Africa – Part 4 – Kruger National Park

After two nights at Shalati we were back on the road with another fairly early start that involved taking breakfast with us in paper bags (how exciting!). Stu and I shared the back seat with Vlad on this first day in Kruger and it was a great opportunity to learn about he and Michaela’s lives in New York and their history as a couple. Stu and I came to have a great affection for this pair with whom we had a lot in common despite leading very different lives. I loved listening to them chat to each other half in English and half in Russian with seemingly no logic to the changeover points (though there clearly was to them!).

Anyway, we were only about an hour from the gate of the Kruger that we were going to enter through and so we barely had time to gauge what was in the paper bags (boiled egg in a confined space anyone?) before we were in the Kruger proper.

This was a slightly strange day as we had been on two game drives in game drive vehicles over the preceding days and so now, travelling through another reserve, but in a vehicle that wasn’t really designed for the purpose, the experience felt a little restrictive. For the keen photographers (this would be Vlad, Stu, Daryl and Tony who between them must possess every size lens known to man) it was difficult to get the good shots with both reflection from windows and the cramped conditions to take into consideration.

On this day I pretty much decided I was just going to be “in the moment” and stop worrying about photos – partly for the logistical reasons described above and partly because I was trying to make a conscious effort to engage with life around me without a screen of any kind as a filter. I am aware that I spend far too much time looking at my phone/ipad than I do actually soaking up events around me and sometimes, especially on this kind of trip-of-a-lifetime, it feels empowering and liberating to choose to create memories first hand instead of capturing them on a device of some kind for later reflection. For that reason I have used Stu's (very impressive!) photos throughout this post.

We entered the Kruger and stopped for coffee and bathroom breaks at a little lodge just inside, there were monkeys in the trees all around and the coffee was actually pretty good for a roadside stop. While we were stood drinking our delightful beverages a family of warthogs crossed the road in front of us, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Pumba (Warthog) in Kruger

And so, we made our way through Kruger park, delighting in the amount of zebra, giraffes and elephants we saw, which were in abundance. There were heaps of birds too, but I have to admit I find it very difficult to get excited about birds and kinda zoned out while people snapped various eagles and vultures and tried to identify the varieties against the Kruger guidebook pictures.

For me, the highlight of this day will always be Oliphants River where we stopped on the bridge and were able to get out and enjoy the extraordinary view on both sides across the water. In one single sweep of the eyes it was possible to see a herd of elephants, a couple of rhinos, a group of hyena picking the bones of a kill, baboons, zebra, giraffe and various boks. It was truly incredible to see all of this wildlife just right in front of you, seemingly oblivious to the tourists on the bridge above, pointing hundreds of lenses at them and gasping in awe.

Tegan and I watching the elephants in Oliphants

Elephants crossing the bridge

How many animals can you spot here?

After a good half an hour watching the world of African wildlife go by below us, we made our way to Letaba Rest Camp which was to be our base for the evening. We arrived around 1.30pm and were pretty hungry but due to go out on a game drive at 4pm. Surely this was sufficient time to order and eat lunch in the branch of Mugg & Bean they had on site, right? Well, we cut it pretty close actually. By the time we had checked in, got changed and headed to the restaurant it was gone 2pm – but we still figured we had time and ordered a couple of flatbreads and a couple of beers. It was a beautiful spot as the deck overlooked another section of Oliphant’s river delta and far below us we watched some hippos swimming dangerously close to a large croc on the river bank.

Our traditional hut at Letaba

Beers arrived, other members of our group turned up and ordered food, Sam took this great shot of Stu and I – one of few of us together on the holiday, as it happens. 

Other people’s food started arriving, I chased up our flatbreads and was told they were on their way. Stu realised he should probably go stock up on water etc for our room as it was now 3pm and we might not get time before heading out on the drive. The rest of our group were now starting to head off to prepare for the drive. At 3.30pm our flatbreads arrived. It was a TIA moment I believe. I did wonder if they baked the flatbread from scratch, hence the delay. Oh well.

So, we jumped in the game drive truck and headed out into the Kruger once again. This game drive was interesting in the fact that the first hour and a half we thought we were pretty jinxed and we saw next to nothing. Elephants from a distance, the ubiquitous impala of course, a couple of antelope…nothing we had not yet seen before. And then, crawling along a track, just as the sun was setting, we saw it. Two leopards in a tree with a fresh kill.

Tony lost his mind. It was the funniest, sweetest thing in the world to hear him swearing his head off in shock and excitement at seeing the last (and most magnificent) of the big 5, at sunset, with a kill. Not just one leopard either, but a pair of them. Our driver went to turn the vehicle around and by the time we came back to the tree, one of the leopards was lying in the middle of the road, soaking up the heat from the tarmac. It was utterly magical to see these incredible beasts and they did not seem too bothered by the proximity of the vehicle, we stayed and watched them for a good 20 minutes before starting to head back towards the lodge.

And then, ten minutes later, Stu spotted two hyenas on the side of the road and shouted to the driver and we stopped. This was the first time we had been up close and personal with hyenas and they padded over to our vehicle and checked us out like potential prey which was intimidating and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My goodness they are bigger than you think and look like they are built of pure muscle. They had a good old sniff of our vehicle and eyeballed the occupants for a good few minutes before continuing on their way.

Being eyeballed by this guy...

It goes to show how the game drive experience can turn on a sixpence and you can swing from feeling resolved to seeing next to nothing to utterly on the ceiling with excitement in the space of five minutes. It also highlights the enormous role that sheer luck plays in each one – and it was for this reason that Stu and I decided you have to be in it to win it and went on literally every game drive option which we could.

Back at Letaba, Hardy was already seated at a long table with our driver Jan and a couple of our group who hadn’t done the drive, waiting to order food. The buzz in the room as we came back was incredible, everyone was so excited from what we had seen in our vehicle and everyone talking at once, I was desperate to hear what Sam and Merri might have seen from the other vehicle and it turned out they had seen a snake in a tree fairly close up so had also had a great night.

Dinner was another hugely TIA affair, which did not surprise Stu and I, given our experience at lunch. It took at least an hour to collate orders for everyone for both food and drink and then food came out sporadically, in a seemingly random order, over the next hour and a half. Stu and I had actually forgotten we had ordered a side of wedges to share and had both finished out mains when it arrived 20 minutes later. Oh the lols. Stu had actually been back to the lodge and had a shower between ordering and food coming out, such was his belief that there would be time, and he was right.

I decided, after finishing dinner, that I desperately needed a shower too and headed back, leaving Stu to pay for the bill. It will come as no surprise to hear that splitting the table’s bills to individuals (even though we all ordered on separate tabs) took an hour. I was starting to wonder whether Stu had gone for drinks with Hardy by the time he reappeared. I was sat outside our lodge with a bottle of wine, in my pyjamas, reading my kindle, when he finally came back looking bemused. A TIA end to a truly staggering day.

Next day we would be heading out of Kruger and up towards the Zimbabwe border, with one final stop at Mashovhela before we crossed the border out of South Africa. 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Africa - Part 3 – Panorama Route and Manyaleti

Day 3 of our tour saw us getting up rather early again and embarking on pretty much a whole day in the minibus to get to our evening accommodation at Shalati Adventure Lodge.  Shalati is right on the edge of Manyaleti Game Reserve, a private reserve bordering Kruger, which we would get the chance to explore on two game drives the following day.

Luckily, our plan was to take in the beautiful “Panorama Route” which meant lots of stopping to take photos of incredible scenery and a more manageable journey, with frequent breaks and opportunities to stretch our legs. This was lucky, as on this first long bus stint Stu and I had scored the “sitting over the wheel arch with no leg room” seats. Lol indeed.

One of the first stops of the day was actually at a motorway services which bizarrely had a game reserve type area out the back. We could see zebra and ostrich from the terrace section and the view from the bathrooms was incredible – in fact I would go as far as to say they were the most enjoyable service station toilets I have ever encountered(!), if also being the weirdest. We bought snacks and water and carried on our way, soon reaching the more rural section of our route and some amazing views of rolling hills and greenery.

One of the viewpoints along the Panorama Route

For lunch we stopped at a little town and Stu and I indulged in a Wimpy which was almost exciting in a childhood-nostalgia kind of way. In the UK Wimpy is a deceased brand of fast food from the 80s, in South Africa it is still a chain of successful restaurants (go figure!?) What was most interesting was that inside there was a contained smoking area (quite busy) – which would of course be illegal in the UK (and Australia) as it was inside a public building. I had a fairly unremarkable burger and felt smug because there was free wifi (#winning).

A few hours later we passed through a strange little village called Pilgrims Rest which is now almost a ghost town but is a quaint nod to the mining glories of the past when this was a thriving community. I haggled with a local market stall holder to buy a (quite frankly) ridiculous hat as I was becoming conscious that I really should be protecting my head and face from the sun (which was stronger and more continuous than I had imagined for the time of year).

In the afternoon we passed by Bourke’s Luck Potholes and the Roundavales – both of these are recommended stop points on the Panorama route and offer impressive views as well as a chance to get your feet wet at the potholes and some great gorge/waterfall photo opportunities. 

Me at the Potholes

Bourke's Luck Potholes

The Roundavales (Stu's photo)

At the potholes, Sam got mobbed by school children who seriously took him to their hearts and demanded heaps of photographs, the funniest thing was that we then ran into the same group at the next few viewpoints and each time they greeted him like a celebrity and I have to say he handled it with wonderful grace and warmth, qualities which sum up this lovely man so well.

Eventually, after quite a long day, we made it to Shalati and our very cool (in every way) safari tent/cabins which were essentially a tent on a wooden platform with an outside bathroom attached at the back. 

Our safari tent at Shalati 

We had a great evening meal of buffet style cooked meats and salads and potatoes around a fire pit under the stars. It started to get rather chilly as the night descended and we donned jackets and moved our chairs closer to the fire. “Shorty”, on the bar, did a fabulous job of keeping track of a number of mobile devices and cameras that she was charging behind the bar for people, and of keeping us all in wine and beer.

Due to the fact we were going on our first game drive at 6am the next morning, people turned in fairly early. I went to bed in pyjamas, a hoodie and socks and slept under a massive duvet and a fleecy blanket – fully expecting to wake up boiling hot within the hour. I did not. I was, in fact, wearing just the right amount of clothing for a night in South Africa in winter. It is unbelievable how cold it gets when it has been so very warm during the day. Getting out of bed at 5.30am was a bit of an ordeal and I could see my breath as I got changed into lots of layers. I think Niki won the award for most layers, donning 9 for the morning safari drive!

And so….we split into two groups (led by Peter and Rex) and headed out for our first ever safari game drive in Manyaleti. This is a private game reserve which directly borders Kruger – however, there are no fences so whatever wildlife is in Kruger can wander in and out of the Manyaleti area as it pleases. At the moment the whole Kruger area is so very dry and in serious drought which means that there is no layer of grass on the ground – whilst being dreadful for the animals, this makes it very easy to spot wildlife and also means the remaining watering holes are a safe bet for sightings.

Within the first five minutes we encountered this guy, just sprawled having a nap at the side of the road….

I can’t tell you the emotions that went through me as we watched him eye us up, stretch and slowly decide we were nothing of interest. I had my burst of lion king music ready but did not, as it turned out, have the balls to play it when we saw this incredible beast – it did raise some laughs at breakfast a few hours later though….

The first 20 seconds of this is what I had primed for our first cat sighting...

The 3 hours passed in what felt like 10 minutes as we followed buffalo, spotted zebra, rhino and boks aplenty, got totally bored of impala and then had a magical encounter with this large bull elephant. My mind was well and truly blown.

We were back at our lodge for a late breakfast and it is fair to say conversation was pretty much entirely about the experience we had just had, everybody was completely psyched and looking forward to round two in the afternoon. The nice thing was returning from the morning game drive around 9am meant there was a solid few hours in which to sleep, eat, shower and rest before the 4pm drive started. That is pretty much what we did before reconvening and heading back out.

Our evening game drive took us up on to an abandoned hilltop farm to watch the sunset and enjoy a drink. It was slightly surreal being able to get out of the vehicle and see 360 degree views of the reserve, spotting giraffe, zebra and elephant through the trees and knowing quite how much wildlife was all around us. Again, on this game drive, we saw rhinos and then on the way back to the lodge we saw a massive maternal herd of elephants, it was pretty special.

The second night was a bit of a TIA kerfuffle back at the lodge.

Basically, everyone needed to settle their bills (game drives and drinks) before going to bed as we would be leaving very early the next morning. There was also scheduled to be African singing/dancing going on round the campfire during dinner – but the dancers had had some logistical issues and arrived late, just as most of our group headed off to the office to pay bills. The dancers duly hung around waiting for people to come back but it seemed the paying was taking an inordinate amount of time…those of us sitting round the fire were starting to feel very sorry for them.

One by one, members of the group started arriving back and recounting the hilarity of paying bills, Africa style, which involved separate queues for separate elements of the bill (?) and a card machine which only worked once every 3 transactions. I decided, therefore, to wait until everyone was back before I braved it to go and pay ours. Sadly, I misjudged this and when I headed over they had locked up the office and switched everything off. You can imagine how overjoyed they were to have to switch it all back on again for me to pay my bill. Seemingly they had not noticed one invoice was outstanding and I do wonder if we might have got away without paying if I had not been so honest.

When I got back to the campfire, Sherry and Al were donning some traditional costumes to join in with the dancing, this was highly amusing and the perfect end to a fabulous experience at Shalati. 

Sherry and Al pulling some shapes....

After roundly applauding the entertainment we headed off to bed, conscious that the next day we would be entering the Kruger proper and spending the day within it's boundaries as we travelled up towards Letaba Rest Lodge, beyond Oliphant’s River, and towards a truly magical encounter with some leopards. 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Africa - Part 2 - Cape Town and Johannesburg

On arrival in Cape Town, the weather was not doing us any favours and was almost identical to the rough winter we had left behind in Adelaide. This is not entirely surprising given that Cape Town and Adelaide are on almost the exact same latitude. We managed to console ourselves about the torrential rain, leaden skies and gale force winds by repatriating to a Belgian beer place called Den Anker on the V&A Wharf and proceeding to watch the carnage of people battling not to lose their umbrellas while we sat in a warm and dry place with good tapas.

The V&A Wharf, Cape Town, with Table Mountain behind

The V&A Wharf is a pretty swanky and clearly touristy area of Cape Town which was about a 30 minute walk away from our hostel. Aside from doing Table Mountain and Robben Island, it is one of the main areas you will visit on a trip to Cape Town. I found Cape Town a very manageable city, it is not too big and sprawling and it felt pretty safe to us. We were staying at Once in Cape Town which is an interesting choice for G Adventures to start a Classic tour from due to its predominantly #YOLO demographic of guests…we had arrived at around 9am in the morning but of course our room was not ready until 2pm which was why we had ventured out into the city despite the atrocious weather.

On checking in much later, I asked for the wifi password and had a highly frustrating exchange with the front desk man whilst I tried to figure out what was being said, I think this was just a combination of jetlag and unfamiliar accents because I kid you not it went like this:

Him: The password is paraglide
Me: Boramide?
Him: No, paraglide
Me: Parrot hide?
Me: Barramundi? Patagonia? Paragon?

And so on. Until at some point he gave up and wrote it on a piece of paper and I shuffled away feeling highly stupid and hoping I did not come across as in any way racist. It was a slightly clumsy start.

The next day (after 13 straight hours of sleep I might add - #winning) Stu and I had booked a day long tour to Cape Point and this truly was an eye opener into the beauty of South Africa in a very vivid way. Much to my surprise we saw our first wildlife down on the Cape – zebras, ostrich, baboon and various boks were spotted and many variety of birds. The road down through Simon’s Town is absolutely stunning and put me in mind of the Great Ocean Road in Australia or the Pacific Coast Highway in California which are similarly stunning and coastal. We also went to Kirstenbosch gardens which are impressive and offered great vistas back over the city, here are some photos from our first full day in SA….

The tour officially started on that second evening after we returned from our tour of the Cape, and we duly sat in the bar downstairs for an hour or two awaiting start time and any sign of our guide or other group members. Around half an hour before kick off a group of folks entered YOLO Central (the bar – actually called ‘Yours Truly’) and I called it immediately that they were part of our group. They were indeed – this was Sam, Merri, Harriet and Tegan. It is strange looking back on our first impressions of four strangers who within two weeks would come to feel like family (they were good first impressions!)

At 6pm we gravitated to the fire pit area out the back and the tables started filling – this would be our ‘Africa Family’ for the next few weeks.

What can I tell you about this motley group of folk? That humanity never ceases to amaze me, would be the primary take away. Also, that Stu and I found huge inspiration from the older contingent in particular and hope we have figured out the older us that we want to be. A common element when looking at both of our G Adventures groups seems to be that the people who take these kind of tours are broadly similar in a few critical ways – generally educated, well-travelled and sociable people. This seems to enable quick bonding, a sense of team and an ability to see humour in all situations – and these are major assets on an organised tour such as this. Basically, the ability to not be a dick is hugely beneficial when you are in close quarters with the same set of folk, day in, day out in a foreign environment.

Throughout our tour I was proud of the sense of altruism shown by all – sharing resources, carrying bags, making sure we all took turns in the most shonky seats in the minibus, general camaraderie which added a warmth to every scenario. I would gladly welcome any of them into my house any day of the week. Our tour guide Hardy was also an absolute gem – incredibly knowledgeable and easy going, funny and able to deal with the frequent TIA moments with aplomb, the tour would not have been the same without him.

After our welcome meeting we headed over the road to Arnold’s restaurant for our first group meal – I had a very tasty Ostrich steak – and to acquaint ourselves. Stu and I were sat with Kass from Germany, Niki from the UK/USA and Al and Heather, a couple the same age as us from the UK. First impressions were great and the conversation (and the wine) flowed.

Next day was a free day in Cape Town and Stu and I climbed the awesome Table Mountain – by chance, we ran into Kass and Niki at the top - surely a good omen! The views from up there are incredible, and we were very lucky to do it on a very clear day. Despite not being a great fan of heights I actually enjoyed the cable car ride up there and the cafĂ© at the top does remarkably good coffee (#winning again!).

Me on top of Table Mountain

That evening we headed out on our first group activity which was to head to a local township for dinner with a family. I was absolutely floored by the effort that our amazing hosts (Sheila and Stephen) had put into the meal which was (Mandela’s favourite) of Sweet Chicken, pap (maize porridge), various vegetables and homemade ginger beer. It was delicious and so awesome to be invited into their home, the dining table they had set up for our group of 18 literally took up the whole length of their living room. After dinner Stephen played the trombone for us – he is a critically acclaimed South African musician and this was a real treat.

Sweet chicken, pap and veg

After dinner entertainment!

The next day we were getting up super early to fly to Johannesburg for the next leg of our tour, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was ready on time – this is no mean feat in a group of 18 but it set the scene for the rest of the tour, on some occasions Hardy was pretty surprised to find the whole group assembled and ready to go some 20 minutes or so before the designated time. 

Man, we were an impressively punctual group. So, we headed to the airport where on check in I discovered that although they had spelt Stu’s name correctly, my surname was spelt Olilivie. This proved a continuous theme with every place we checked in and every flight we took having an incorrect variation on “Ogilvie” but only for me. I almost wondered if my travel agent husband had set this up deliberately….

Despite the fact my boarding pass did not match my passport, I was able to board the flight to Joburg along with the rest of the group. Little did I know the TIA mindfuck that was awaiting me in the hellhole that is O R Tambo International Airport.

The thing is, you see, I had not bought any physical US dollars with me for the Zimbabwe leg of our tour which was some 5 days away at this point. I had figured I would get some rand exchanged at some point before entering Zimbabwe as I really did not want to be carrying wads of cash in a country renowned for petty crime and muggings. Hardy told us as we got to Joburg that in fact this would probably be our last chance to get hold of US$ before the border so a handful of us duly went to the American Express bureau de change to get our cash sorted.

The very helpful and highly positive (not) clerk at the cash desk told me to go away because I did not have an “onward ticket” to show I was leaving South Africa. Baffled, I explained that I was not leaving SA until 4/5 days later. “Oh”, she said, “then you can’t have any dollars.” I trotted off to get Hardy and came back with him and watched him TEAR A STRIP OFF the lady behind the desk. It turned out this was a brand new rule and reflected the SA government concern over the value of the Rand. Basically, as of now, you cannot buy other currencies without showing you are about to leave SA.

Thanks to Hardy being very ‘assertive’ they finally agreed to sell me the dollars but only after they had photocopied all my travel documents, Hardy’s entire itinerary folder for the tour (!) and after I had done an interpretative dance to Hakuna Matata (I jest – but it felt like that might plausibly be on their batshit list of requirements) I had my cash in hand. This had taken around 90 minutes while the rest of the tour group waited patiently in arrivals. TIA in action.

Once everyone who needed them had their dollars secured, we met our driver for the next week or so, Jan, and were introduced to the minivan we would be spending a LOT of time in. Jan drove us to Soweto for a tour of the Township - some of the group did this on bikes, though I bailed because, well, have you SEEN me on a bike?! 

Me, on a bike, in Adelaide (not Soweto)

I knew I had made the right decision on this when around an hour later the cycling group met us at Mandela's House with tales of no brakes, crazy gears and pedals/seats falling off. I have enough trouble on a bike with none of these issues....anyway. A very cool experience for those that chose to do it, but not for me.

Mandela's House was very interesting and full of pieces of historical significance, if you are ever in Joburg, do make the effort to visit. 

For dinner, we were taken to Emperors Palace Casino which had clearly been based on Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas. This was a great idea as it felt relatively safe and had a huge selection of restaurants to choose from. Weeks later I would learn that actually, it had been stormed by armed robbers on a number of occasions but by Joburg standards was indeed considered "safe". 

We had a very good Indian buffet meal at the Casino and broke bread with Heather and Al, learning that we had quite a bit in common with regards to travel and lifestyle. Coming from Australia, where good Indian food can be hard to find, we were very pleased to have had a very good one on this trip. 

That night we stayed at Airport Game Lodge which was lovely - free wifi, good showers and comfy beds so no complaints from us. A good night's kip was definitely in order as the next morning we would be setting off on our journey up towards Kruger and safari shenanigans aplenty....