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....

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Africa - Part 1 - The Journey

It is time again for me to recount, record and reflect on a wondrous adventure. Those of you who read the blog version of our India trip last year may be curious as to how I coped with another trip into a third world country on an organised tour – but please, be assured, this time was equally as overwhelming but without the sickness and for different reasons. Africa and India are both absolute gems which must be seen (in my opinion) but their approaches, their colours, their attitudes vary and it would be like comparing apples with pears if I was to try and rank them in any way.

The route we took on our G Adventures tour

So, I won’t try to figure out ‘which is better’ on any kind of level. But I can tell you that a similarity which is fairly significant is that after visiting I am sitting here completely emotionally and mentally exhausted and trying to process the experiences we had. I am SO bloody lucky, in this limited time that we get on the planet, to explore these places and I realise that and try to appreciate it every day.

I admit, I was actually highly anxious about this trip in the weeks leading up to our departure, for a number of reasons, including the political situation in Zimbabwe, the fear of being mugged in South Africa, massive fear of being sick for the entire trip (akin to the India experience), anxieties about the size of the group (18 compared to a very lucky and awesome 9 in India), worries about being away from my beloved pup for this length of time and ongoing general concerns about leaving my new job at a critical point for one of my key projects.

Amidst all that, I was also hugely excited. This trip represented the attainment of a lifelong dream to go on safari. I remember as a little girl being entirely blown away by my Nana and Grandad’s holiday photos from Kenya – they went in the mid-80s which was a fairly unusual trip to do at the time. My grandad, bless his heart, had a video camera, a very early version, which must have weighed around 4 kilos but which he shouldered valiantly to document hours (and hours, and hours) of footage of the African plains from various game drive vehicles. We watched every minute intently, waiting for glimpses of the incredible animals….

So, many (30!) years on, it was our turn. We worked this trip around a need to be in Mauritius for my brother’s wedding in early September. An African safari holiday was always on our list and we would have got to it at some point, but this gave us the reason and the approximate dates. We booked it around a year ago, once we had the framework in place and it has felt like a long time coming.

I handled the delivering of our beloved pooch to his awesome adopted family pretty well, considering, (which means I avoided it completely and wept into my coffee at work while Stu did the actual drop off) and in the few days leading up to the trip I managed to feel like work was under control so I could legitimately stop the anxieties relating to that side too. I was actually pretty relaxed and happy and everything was under control as we set off for the airport on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I even had an ‘Africa’ playlist set up so I could provide suitable soundtrack at any given moment (Lion King, Toto, Shakira etc).

I should, of course, have realised that things were going far too smoothly and that this surely meant a shitstorm of some sort was around the corner. Hmmm.

At Adelaide airport, we treated ourselves to a platter and a glass of wine or two each and as the minutes ticked by we relaxed and got into holiday mode. We had arranged (because we had around 9 hours to kill in Perth) to meet up with some of our buddies from our previous G Adventures holiday and were stoked to be seeing them again to catch up, have dinner, see their new house etc. We were so looking forward to it we bought some sparkling wine and Adelaide treats (Haighs) to take with us on this first leg – we could get away with it because it was a domestic flight so the wine was not a problem.

We sauntered to the gate in time and raised an eyebrow at how quiet it was. Stu noticed after a few minutes that our flight was no longer listed at the gate, despite being less than an hour away. He walked over to the desk and asked and then he turned to me and waved me over and I could see, by the look on his face, that something had clearly gone awry.

For reasons we were never actually told, with less than an hour to take off, our Virgin Australia flight from Adelaide to Perth had been cancelled. All of the staff at the gate claimed they had not been told why. Our luggage was checked straight through to Johannesburg and we were now being told we would be routed to Melbourne first (in an hour or two’s time) then back to Perth and then on to Jo’burg. This caused us a number of problems, not least of all (and most disappointingly) we had to cancel our plans in Perth and also go and get refunds on the gifts we had bought for our friends. 

It was incredibly frustrating to turn what should have been a relaxed and enjoyable 9 hour layover into a staggered series of sitting-in-airport-twiddling-thumbs events. But hey-ho, we did at least make our connection at Perth and headed to OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg - a name which would very quickly come to represent airport hell on a whole new level (and if you ever read my piece on Heathrow you will know this is a huge attainment in my world).

For some reason, our flight from Perth had taken off around half an hour late and we then faced headwinds which meant the time was not made back up. We landed at Tambo to be met by a very long immigration queue and the news that we had to go and collect our luggage and check it back in for the next flight to Cape Town. Unfortunately, that flight was leaving in around an hour and 20 minutes and so we basically had to sprint from immigration to baggage, then from baggage to check in, where a completely disinterested member of staff who clearly hates their job informed us that our next flight had closed. We wilted.

At this point I had been awake for around 24 hours and it was 6am and I had just run across an airport to make it this far. Stu said some things (I cannot remember what but it had an impact) and somehow the guy agreed to check our luggage but told us unless we sprinted to the gate (on a different level, in the other terminal) we would not make the flight. Cue further sprinting, now with a fellow passenger from the same flight in tow. I am not in a good mood at this point, it is fair to say, but somehow I found the energy to follow Stu and get to the gate and by the skin of our teeth, we made the flight.

And so, we made it to Cape Town and the start of our adventure…part 2 will look at our time in Cape Town and Johannesburg and the start of our G Adventures tour. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

Brexit Babble

So in the next few weeks the UK will decide whether or not it remains in the EU. Personally I tend to agree with David Mitchell on the referendum because it is SUCH an important decision that I believe it should be made by the people we voted in to LEAD our country. There is also the worrying undercurrent with this particular subject that many people will vote to leave on one small matter (to stem immigration) when there are SO MANY other issues that will be massively affected by a Brexit.

I worked for 7 years in a role which engaged with and managed projects which could only operate due to being part (or in some cases fully) funded by the EU. These funds were apportioned to those areas of the UK most in need, those with high levels of unemployment, poverty and depravation. We were made to record the postcodes of businesses and individuals we helped so that the EU could monitor that the funds were really getting to the areas they were intended for – yes, EU funding administration is bureaucratic but it has to be that way to ensure the money is spent how and where it should be. Having also worked with non-EU government funds, it will probably come as no surprise to find out that they are far less stringent with their evidence of eligibility in spend.

I have heard NOTHING from the government to suggest that these vital sources of funding will be bridged by them if the UK leaves the EU. In the current economy do you really believe that the current, swingeing, Tory government will step in to fund these schemes? No, me either.

During my time working with these projects I saw many (as in HUNDREDS) of businesses get a real, tangible boost from their engagement with them. I saw EU funds support and engage with struggling SMEs (who could not access assistance anywhere else). Part of my job was to collate evidence of created and safeguarded sales that the EU funds had created – it was standard to get an 8:1 return on investment from these projects, an impressive success by any measure. This is worth bearing in mind when you go on like a broken record about how much the EU costs us.

I also worked first hand on a project which used EU funds to get graduates into SME jobs. Without the subsidy provided by this funding the companies would never be able to afford a graduate in such a role, the graduate would also struggle to find work – this project solved two major economic issues with deft use of the available funds. This was no mean feat. The admin required to pull this off was huge but it was SO worth it when we could clearly see (and report on) the jobs created, the graduates who were being assisted into these roles, the long term impact this had both on the companies and on the graduates was nothing short of stellar.

The UK benefits greatly from these tranches of funding which are ploughed into supporting our SMEs and graduates and there is nothing to replace it if the plug is pulled by an exit from the EU. I have tried to understand the viewpoint around leaving but struggle massively to see anything within the literature I have scoured which, at its heart, is anything other than racism disguised as politics.

It is sadly the case that a lot of people will vote in this referendum without reading up on the facts, they will vote with their heart, not their head and they will be swayed by sensationalist headlines about people from Romania invading our shores and milking our benefits (even though the facts very easily refute this nonsense). It is also quite telling that the amount of misguided rants about immigration and how this negatively impacts upon the UK economy are, without exception, by people who want to leave Europe. Coincidence? I think not.

I have seen a number of interesting posts (again, designed to stir up sentiment and resentment against the EU without considering any objective elements or impact) about how so many UK industries and businesses have moved their operations outside of the UK “because of the EU”. This is stunningly blinkered and a great example of positioning irrelevant information to foster an emotional (and therefore angry) response.

Whether we were in the EU or not, it is highly likely that many of our manufacturing giants (Mini – which is owned by German BMW anyway – Ford Transit, Cadbury) would have shipped out of UK based production anyway because in the current GLOBAL market it makes more sense to run your production plants in an economy where the minimum wage is lower and the profit margins higher. Ironically, that is just as likely (if not more likely) to mean India, China, Malaysia or any of the South East Asia region. And they would have done it regardless of EU loans.

Like it or not, the UK is not a manufacturing dependent country anymore and it never will be again. Our strengths lie in technology, high-skilled workers and service industries (a great article on this can be found here). 

I also fear for UK farmers who may well be financially crippled again if the UK votes to leave. Do you fancy an increase in tax to replace the subsidies they currently rely on? Has the government outlined a plan to cover it?
I do not believe the EU is perfect, I understand that it has its faults, but I fully believe in 2016 the UK would be both short sighted and bloody minded to step away from the benefits, protection and opportunities that being a member affords us.

Yes, I choose to live in Australia at the moment and will likely become an Australian citizen in the next few years. However, I will retain my UK citizenship and hold both simultaneously so yes, I do believe I have a right to a say in all this and I have cast my postal vote to remain accordingly. I feel obliged to say this because I have been the recipient of a few barbed remarks about my views on the Brexit over recent weeks. I am certain that more will be aimed at me after this blog post is published. Oh well.

One of the delights of modern life is freedom of speech. I respect everyone’s right to their opinion and if the UK votes leave then I will sigh, roll my eyes and watch the fall out (just like I did when the UK inexplicably voted in a Tory government at the last election). On the Brexit debate, I find myself agreeing with Dishface for the first time ever. I guess the fact that it has come to that underlines the weight of the risks involved with a Leave vote for me (hence the blog).

Cast your vote and have your say. Just ensure you have truly read around both sides of the argument first and don't base your vote on scaremongering immigration rants alone. 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

10 years - Part 2 - 50 Shades of Cray Cray

In the immediate aftermath of Claims Direct announcing it was in Administrative Receivership, a few things became clear very quickly. Firstly, those that could escape quickly, ran. This was true from the very top with senior managers abandoning ship within hours of the announcement (including my boss). Everyone else seemed stunned into a spooky calm, waiting for instruction. I have to admit that Deloitte moved very quickly to try and calm the unease, though they could do little in reality for most of the staff who knew the axe would be falling sooner rather than later.

I remember finding out that not only was the recent conference invoice in a pile of “creditors” there were some pretty huge unpaid invoices from the previous few years which reflected the devil-may-care attitude of the company and the champagne lifestyle that they had enjoyed even when doubts must have been creeping in about how long the gravy train would be in motion. A particularly notable example was for a conference they held in Las Vegas. I mean, really? A conference in Las Vegas?! It was a thing of legend within the office, most of the managers had gone and a decent amount of everyday employees too. No expense was spared. This gives you a little indication of the sheer arrogance and attitude towards image that this company had in its prime.

But now the vultures were circling. The media had a field day and, in light of the ominous stories that had been run in previous weeks, felt vindicated and a little smug. The Sun had been running a particularly high profile campaign branding the firm “Shames Direct” and printing many case studies featuring ‘victims’ of the system who had won their claims but not won any money.

Let’s rewind to clarify what the nature of the disease within the midst of the Claims Direct model was. I actually wrote a paper on this exact issue as part of my MBA (it scored me an A grade for my Operations Management module as it happens). The rot had been caused by a backlash from the insurance industry which had taken a few years to form itself into a united and coherent group against the likes of the ‘ambulance chasing’ PI firms. Claims Direct was simply the biggest, most long standing and well known target and so became the natural focus of their ire.

Basically, Claims Direct forced their clients to take out an insurance premium to cover them in case their claim was unsuccessful (hence the ‘no win no fee’ tagline). The cost of this premium was around the £1,250 mark. The average demographic for people trying to make a claim meant that paying out for an insurance premium up front was beyond them, therefore the cost of this premium was covered by a loan that was built into the claim and if the case was successful it would be covered by the settlement. This model relied on Claims Direct only taking on cases it was certain would win.

The problem was that often a case took 2-3 years to settle and for that entire time the loan for the insurance premium would be accruing interest. By the time settlement came there was often £2,500-3k owing on the loan which would be deducted from any amount due to the client. With many cases being for minor whiplash injuries it was not unusual for settlement to barely cover the amount owing and in some cases the claimant would actually end up in debt with no settlement to show. These were the cases that The Sun sensationalised and which shone a very bright light on to the practices of the company and which, in turn, fed the negative publicity machine.

The insurance industry ended up in a test case against Claims Direct, stating that the cost of the insurance premium should not be recoverable in a personal injury claim. After an elongated battle which went right up to the High Court, the final decision was that only half of the cost of the premium (and none of the interest for any associated loan) was recoverable. This amount was capped at £613.50.

So, Claims Direct was vilified in the press, detested by our clients and staffed by 25 remaining people who now had the task of running the remaining claims in the system (around 100k) to conclusion. It was this volume of claims which explains the 3 years it took to wind the company down.

Deloitte’s main problem was how to keep the remaining staff engaged when they were being yelled at quite continuously by pissed off clients who, now the cat was out of the bag about the receivership, felt validated in aiming their anger at anyone associated with the company. On top of this, the news that we would all, at some point, be losing our jobs was a tad unsettling (though less so for me who had been on a short term contract to begin with).

In hindsight, I understand why some of the utterly crazy behaviour that ensued happened – it was a coping mechanism for the situation we were in. As the original group of remaining staff dwindled down to 12 of us, the office stopped resembling a place of work with professional values and started resembling a dysfunctional family trying to simply co-exist without imploding.

Of the final 12, only 3 of us were female. The dynamic in the remaining group since the day the original axe fell had been predominantly male (around 8/20 females), but for the final few years, as a much smaller team, the imbalance was far more noticeable and at times problematic.

I distinctly remember falling out big style with one of the guys (who incidentally became a very good friend) due to being hit in the head by a football while I was on the phone with a client. Playing sport in the office was entirely normal and in no way discouraged by our (wonderful) Deloitte rep on his weekly visits. Unfortunately, kicking a football round – not just passing but HOOFING the ball violently against walls and people – made for a bit of a toxic atmosphere for those not enjoying this physical release. I can understand how funny this was for the lads at the time but it was severely frustrating for me. I had to learn to care less about the job and just think about the pay cheques.

And, talking of pay cheques, they were the main way that they kept us on board for as long as they did - quarterly bonus cheques to be exact. It literally came as a cheque separate to salary and was a great little sweetener.

The culture of the team became very laddish. This was not always a bad thing, it certainly made for a gang mentality which, when things were going well, was pretty fun. The problem was that people were not always going to co-exist convivially in this kind of environment and even though we officially had a senior manager in charge (female) and an appointed Deloitte overseer, it generally felt like a free for all.

At times, things were actually borderline crazy and many a “can you believe it?” discussion was had between us three girls, who were generally not involved in but witness to the most shocking of events. A debrief following nights out as a team was not uncommon and because Deloitte were determined to keep us as engaged as possible, the (part funded) nights out were pretty regular. On occasion I think we all wished there was some kind of HR mechanism to address matters but all we had was a contact at Deloitte offering advice by proxy and disciplinary matters were generally left for us to sort out in house.

A number of incidents require a mammoth leap of imagination to believe.

There were physical altercations between members of staff. On one memorable occasion our IT guy ran over (literally) another member of staff. The other staff member was on the bonnet of his car and for the life of me I cannot remember what they even fell out about now, but let’s just say that large quantities of alcohol were involved.

Human excrement was a feature of a number of “practical jokes” and notably somebody did actually find a specimen on their desk at one point. I am not even joking.

Early in the receivership, there was a very large pile of files in one corner of the office space. By fairly large I mean you could have hidden a couple of small hatchbacks in it without knowing. It was nearly to the ceiling and probably a MAJOR fire hazard. I think, from memory, these were archived paper files which needed securely disposing of because they contained personal information including addresses and medical records of clients. The pile just grew and grew over a number of weeks while we waited for secure shredding bins to arrive, and on a number of occasions various employees would run the length of the office and dive into it, causing papers to slide everywhere and the mess to increase. It was marginally amusing to watch though. For the first 5 times at least.  

We watched the whole of the memorable Ashes 2005 series in the office, with a TV running all day to allow us to keep up with the action which was definitely a perk. Likewise we had the TV running when the 7/7 bombings happened, which was far more upsetting and weird.

It was not uncommon for pub lunches to drag on into the afternoon and one of our team used to regularly sleep, in his chair, at his desk, during his lunch break. I admired his ability to kick back and doze off. I also saw him startled awake on a number of occasions by his rambunctious colleagues which was often very amusing.

Office furniture started to be divided up and shared out towards the end as the Receivers had no use for such low value assets and we knew the offices would be stripped and everything thrown away after we closed the doors for the final time. It was a strange feeling of realisation as the amount of empty space in the office around us grew. This did, of course, make for easier games of cricket.’

To be continued…