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.