Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, Part 6

The Middle East

There is something wholly beguiling about the Middle East. The region is an ancient centre of civilization steeped both in spirituality and spectacular wonders, the vast age of which have imparted to their facades a sense of timelessness that is extraordinarily humbling. The rock-cut palace of Petra in Jordan, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old Christian quarter of Jerusalem (where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried), the eerily lit Jeita Grotto in Lebanon, and the Masjid al Haram in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest mosque…the Middle East is home to innumerable archaeological and architectural marvels.

Then, of course, there are the vast desiccated landscapes rippling with sand dunes and being ripped apart by yawning canyons, where the silence is so absolute that it’s deafening. Dusty museums display artefacts dating back thousands of years, when the sweeping stories told by the ancient record were almost too grand, too opulent, and too savage to be believed.

The Middle East is a place to feel humbled by age, beauty, desolation, affluence, vastness, and the deep devotion of a people to their God and their religion. In other words, it is the Holy Grail of travel kicks and, one way or another, every traveller should make his or her pilgrimage here.

Maligned by War

Unfortunately, the very phrase ‘Middle East’ evokes strongly averse feelings from the rest of the world and particularly the West. Perhaps rightly so. Bloody, merciless wars have waged in this region for decades now, if not longer, and news of bombings, terrorism, and appalling atrocities continue to dominate the headlines streaming out of global news centres. It is a war fuelled by greed, creed, and the utter conviction from every quarter that the violence is a noble and righteous cause, when in fact it is little more than humankind at its dastardly worst.

Middle East war Howitzer gun

But, not all of the Middle East is a battlefield. In fact, much of this ancient region is peaceful and offers travellers an incredible off the beaten track experience. One such haven is to be found in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a collection of small islands and countries bordering on the Persian Gulf and tucked into the crook of Saudi Arabia’s landmass.

Dubai (International Airport)

It is in places like the UAE that intrepid explorers such as myself are provided with a somewhat sanitized, yet spicy taste of the Middle East without the terribly pervasive dangers one can experience further north in Iraq and Afghanistan, and south in Yemen. Dubai, the capital of the UAE and a hugely successful business centre, is perhaps the best-known city in the area. It is home to the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – as well as many other architectural oddities, such as a man-made island resort shaped like a palm tree, which is best appreciated from the air as you take off from Dubai International Airport.

Dubai_Palm_Islands_from_the_air

I can’t recount how many times I have traipsed through this airport en route to some other international destination. It surely has to be one of the most sophisticated in the world but, other than its souvenirs of smirking plastic camels, burka-clad figurines, and oases trapped in snow globes (how does that work?), it doesn’t offer one much of a cultural experience. Although, curled up on an airport lounger at some ungodly hour, eyes crusty from arid airplane air, I have felt compelled to smile by the haunting warble of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders calling people to prayer. It’s what tells you that – in spite of the yawning marble, glass, and chrome structure that envelops you – you’re in the Middle East, baby.

Aside from that, all I can say about Dubai is that it is hotter than Lucifer’s taint. One day, I shall have to spend more than just 12 hours in that country.

Two Weeks in Bahrain

Bahrain fort Bahrain Middle East
Qal’at al-Bahrain, also known as the Bahrain Fort or Portuguese Fort, is an archaeological site in Bahrain. Since 1954, archaeological excavations carried out here have unearthed antiquities dating to between 2300 BC and the 18th Century, belonging to the Kassites, Greeks, Portuguese, and Persians. The fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Tree of Life, Bahrain Middle East
The Tree of Life (Shajarat-al-Hayat) is a 9.75 meters (32 feet) high Prosopis cineraria tree that is over 400 years old. It is located on a hill in a barren area of the Arabian Desert and is the only remotely large tree growing in the area, which has made it a significant tourist attraction. In fact, the Tree of Life is visited by approximately 65,000 people every year.
Souk market places Bahrain Middle East
A really bad photo I took really quickly of a souk (marketplace) we visited. After the unwanted attention we had received from several Bahraini men, many of my photos I took on our trip turned out like this because I was too rushed and too anxious to take decent pictures.

Shortly after I submitted my Master Degree thesis (or, rather, threw it at my supervisor yelling “tag, you’re it!” before running away from campus and the country) I spent two weeks in Bahrain, en route to Thailand, where I would be spending the following two years of my life. I had always dreamed of travelling and now that my studies were finally done, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. I, or rather we, spent two weeks in the sovereign state of Bahrain because my then girlfriend’s father lived and worked there, and the opportunity to experience a country I would never have otherwise thought to visit presented itself.

Bahrain, officially the Kingdom of Bahrain, is another one of those havens where one can appreciate Middle Eastern culture without having to trade in one’s limbs for a debilitating case of PTSD: a lose-lose situation if I ever heard of one (pretty much sums up the U.S. war in Iraq, doesn’t it?) Coming from most places in the world, this island country in the Persian Gulf slaps you in the face as a totally alien place. Disembarking your plane, you don’t feel like you’ve stepped into another country; you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet. And to support this point, Bahrain was used as the film location for Tattoine in the Star Warsmovies, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker was raised as a child.

Desert scenery Bahrain Middle East
Photograph of Tattoine’s / Bahrain’s dusty-ass, rock-strewn desert surface.

The country comprises a small archipelago sandwiched between the Qatar peninsula and the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, which it is connected by the 25-kilometre long King Fahd Causeway. What immediately strikes you as you touch down here, even in the wee hours of the morning as we did, is the intense, suffocating heat and humidity. Then, when the sun rises, you’re confronted by an atmosphere and landscape so white and hazy with desert sand and dust that seeing colour comes as a physical relief to your retina.

Bedouine Camps, Bahrain Middle East
A really crappy, mostly unadulterated photograph of a Bedouine camp. Notice the eerily white atmosphere.

But while there are parts of Bahrain that are just vast expanses of white, crumbly rock and soil, there are, conversely, parts that have been nurtured into lush gardens, palm forests, and flowerbeds. It’s illogical and it’s beautiful.

Money, Money, Money

The Arab Sheiks, oil barons, business moguls, and royal family have the money to turn infertile desert into man-made oases of intense biological activity. These people are rich. They are richer than Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey but we never really hear about it here in the West. This stratospheric affluence was evident in the sheer number of ambitious building projects there were scattered across the island: building projects that had been abandoned, not because their investor ran out of capital but because they got bored, leaving behind dinosaur skeletons of would-be super malls and palaces.

Walking Bahrain Middle East
On our daytime walkabout: to our right is Princess Sabeeka Park, a recreational space that was inaugurated in February 2010 (literally the same time we were there) by Her Royal Highness Princess Sabeekabint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, wife of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Chairwoman of the Supreme Council for Women in Bahrain. That’s quite a title.

The homes of wealthy Bahrainis are almost senselessly palatial, the business district is dominated by spectacularly scaled and designed skyscrapers, everyone drives big expensive cars, and the kind of gifts that are exchanged between affluent members of society can be measured in acres (it’s the square footage that counts, right?) Even shopping malls are ostentatious brick-and-mortar odes to an incomprehensible level of affluence, with their polished solid marble flooring and gilded bathroom faucets. But of all the displays of wealth that leave one slack-jawed in Bahrain, by far the most outrageous were the beggars. Outside of a grocery store, right around the corner from where we were staying, a man pulled up next to us in an Audi – not the latest model but infinitely nicer than any car I have ever owned.

And he stopped to beg for money…money to put petrol in his car, fetch his kids from school, and feed them. Something that, we were told by our host, isn’t uncommon.

Manama, Bahrain, Middle East
Manama, the capital and largest city of Bahrain. Photo credit: Jayson De Leon.

In Bahrain, the evidence of ancient custom, deep religious fervour and history is juxtaposed by the country’s thriving economic activity. This, in turn, is juxtaposed by desperate poverty. Blue steel-and-glass monstrosities rear up out of the flat white landscape, almost defying physics with their size. These monolithic entities give way to Bedouin camps and clustered, terribly impoverished housing where Indians, Thais, Filipinos, and other hopeful foreigners live. Oil and gas pipes ubiquitous to the island run for miles and miles through its white wasteland. Some of these pipes end in vents that sporadically erupt in a monstrous burp of gas and flame, which has, according to our host, roasted many a poor and unsuspecting soul.

Bahrain by Foot. Bad Idea.

The Middle East 1

For two weeks, we explored this tiny island nation mostly by car because, in spite of its size, daytime temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees Celsius made walking a very real health hazard. More than any risk of heat exhaustion, however, were the younger Bahraini men and the constant unwanted attention they slathered in copious amounts over us.

Eager to experience Bahrain on my skin and in all its intoxicating fragrances and fascinating scenery, we struck out on foot on one of the first few days of our trip. Within the first ten minutes, a man pulled his car up next to us and, leering out of the open window, gabbled something in Arabic. We tried to explain that we didn’t understand. He proceeded to stare at us, no, drink us in with his liquid dark eyes and with a revolting lecherous smirk on his face. Minutes later, another complete stranger pulled his car over, once again, to stare at us. It’s like we were tall glasses of ice water on legs and these men in their expensive cars were fresh from dying of thirst in the desert. We were fully clothed (long shorts and T-shirts that covered our shoulders, as was recommended to us) but I couldn’t have felt more blue-arsed naked. I was shocked to my core by their complete lack of what the West regards as rudimentary etiquette.

This is the incredibly confronting reality that visitors to most places in the Middle East have to come to terms with. This is a man’s world and women are second-class citizens for the most part. Seriously battling the temptation to pick up a dog turd and throw it in the next leery asshole’s open car window, we ducked into an air-conditioned mall for an hour or two before catching a taxi home.

The men of Bahrain were redeemed a day or two later when, attempting to catch a taxi home from sightseeing, a kind man stopped his car and offered us a lift. Thinking he was a taxi, we climbed in and were astounded (and somewhat shaken) to discover when he refused to take our money that he had gone completely out of his way to deliver us safely to our doorstep. He was friendly and chatty and simply welcomed the opportunity to speak to a couple of foreigners. I’m sure he was also concerned for our safety.

It must be said that most of the older Bahraini men we met during our two-week stay were polite and generous. It was the younger generations who appeared to need a serious clout about the ears.

Bahrain Middle East
Our verdant abode during our stay in Bahrain; quite the juxtaposition to the desert landscapes outside!

What I Remember Most

Adventures in Bahrain, Middle East
A visit to the Arabian Sea! Naturally, I had to give the water a fondle.

In Bahrain, the morning dawns and the day closes with the haunting warbles of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders. Accompanying this gentle soundtrack are the spectacular sunsets and sunrises, which is what I think I remember most about Bahrain. With the atmosphere being so thick with white dust, the early morning light gets refracted into a billion shades of pink and blue pastels, and all of this gorgeous light caresses the Bahraini landscape’s white desolation and visionary architecture.

We spent two weeks exploring the ancient archaeological ruins of the Bahrain Fort, enduring the incredible heat, marvelling at the strange and exotic imported fruits in the grocery store, and trying new foods, the names of which I have long forgotten. We went to bars where we couldn’t afford to drink (thanks to the steep exchange rate), to the desert where I felt as though the emptiness and silence would swallow me whole, and to the beach, where the salty waters of the Arabian Sea lapped at our feet. We wandered the souks, the malls, and the streets of this very strange country, the first international adventure I’d had since travelling to Singapore as a child.

I enjoyed Bahrain intensely and the scene I carry – and will always carry – as my mental postcard for this magical place is of a gently pink dawn over the bridge to Manama.

Sunrise Bahrain Middle East

Journey to the Southernmost Tip of Africa

The Cape (of South Africa) is brimming with attractive hotspots for tourism. These have become regarded as the epicentres for our dining and art scenes, our heritage and history, and the thrill that is to be found here, whether it’s from dancing in a thrumming nightclub or abseiling down the stern countenances of the peninsula mountains.

Yet, between these hotspots, a little off the beaten track, perhaps along a secondary road that few people know of and even fewer tourist establishments thump their chests over, you’ll discover the Cape countryside and the Cape Country Routes’ constellation of hotels. These offer quintessential country-style accommodations and hospitality, and it was to experience this beguiling offering that we journeyed to the southernmost tip of Africa, to the Agulhas Country Lodge in the town of l’Agulhas.

Cape Agulhas Tip of Africa

The Agulhas Country Lodge

With one eye on the l’Agulhas coastal road before me and one eye on my GPS, a spectacular-looking building loomed into sight and I whispered to myself: “Oh please let this it!” If you somehow didn’t know where on Earth you were, approaching the Agulhas Country Lodge, you might very well believe that you’re in the Scotland. The hotel perches on the rocky limestone hills adjacent to the shoreline and its construction from natural limestone blocks gives it the presence and grace of a castle.

Inside, the hotel has been jigsaw puzzled together using materials salvaged from such enchanting origins as shipwrecks and old railway yards. Bare stone walls, dark timber ceilings, bespoke décor, and low, romantic light lend the Agulhas Country Lodge a tangible touch of history without being gloomy.

Agulhas Country Lodge, Cape Agulhas
My humble abode for our two-day stay in L’Agulhas
Agulhas Country Lodge, Cape Agulhas
Not too shabby, eh?
Agulhas Country Lodge jacuzzi bath
Definitely not!

The suites, while gorgeously ‘country’ in theme and feel, have been considerately put together for the modern traveller, and feature mini-bars, tea and coffee stations, free Wi-Fi, and, in my case since I somehow landed the honeymoon suite, an enormous Jacuzzi bath. I also had a private balcony with inspiring views of the hilly coastline and its thick coat of Fynbos vegetation, the winding l’Agulhas coastal road, and the glittering ocean beyond.

Cape Agulhas Tip of Africa

Dinner is served

After an afternoon spent with my feet up on possibly the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve ever had the luxury of sinking into, I met my fellow media people in the cosy bar/lounge area for a drink before supper. Here, we met the lovely owners of the Agulhas Country Lodge, Sue and Phil Fenwick, whose multi-decadal love story is an inspiration to us all, whether single, engaged, or married. We also learned that the bar’s air force and maritime theme was informed by Phil’s rather dashing history as a pilot in the South African Air Force.

Agulhas Country Lodge, L'Agulhas, Cape Agulhas

Agulhas Country Lodge, L'Agulhas, Cape Agulhas
The restaurant at the Agulhas Country Lodge – positively medieval!

With cheeks warmed by romantic tales and a glass of red wine, we headed downstairs to the Agulhas Country Lodge’s small and intimate restaurant where, with a roaring fire warming our backs, we sank our teeth into a delicious, three-course meal home-cooked by none other than Sue and her lovely daughter Chelsea. A heart-warming starter of tasty vegetable soup and crisp homemade bread was followed by a sumptuous seafood potjie (we all continued to rave about for days afterwards), which went beautifully with the First Sighting Shiraz 2016, a peppery yet silky smooth, black fruited red wine from Strandveld Winery. We concluded the meal with what was advertised on the chalkboard menu as “the best carrot cake in the world” and which, I’m very happy to report, was no hyperbole.

Agulhas Country Lodge, L'Agulhas, Cape Agulhas

Agulhas Country Lodge, L'Agulhas, Cape Agulhas

Falling asleep has never been so easy!

Cape Agulhas historic walking route

The following morning, after a breakfast of homemade muesli, fresh fruit, boiled eggs, and my daily-required dose of caffeine, we hit the road to explore Cape Agulhas, a region of immense historic and geographical significance. Our walk began at the Agulhas lighthouse, a sad reminder that modern technology is fast robbing our culture of the need for these stoic and romantic maritime structures.

Cape Agulhas Tip of Africa
Morning coastal walk along the southernmost tip of Africa.

We then walked along the coast through fynbos vegetation atwitter with canaries and bejewelled sunbirds to the southernmost tip of Africa, where the warm Indian Ocean clashes with the cold Atlantic. From here, we hiked to the boardwalk at Rasperpunt, which offered blessed respite from the hard-to-walk-on sandy and pebbled beaches and lead us along the coast past the Meishu Maru 38 shipwreck, a Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground in 1982 (allegedly on purpose…for insurance purposes).

Cape Agulhas Southern double-collared sunbird
Male Southern double-collared sunbird
Meishu Maru 38 shipwreck
The Meishu Maru 38 shipwreck

Our walk even took us past the lagoon at Pietjie se Punt, where cormorants gathered along the pool’s edges and plovers ploughed the sand for morsels. With the brisk sea air invigorating our lungs, our feet ate up kilometre after kilometre of beach terrain and, before it was even noon, my Fitbit counter registered 12,000 steps. Is there anything better than a well-earned lunch?

Seafood buffet and bubble bath

Our reward for our rather epic morning walk was a seafood buffet of fried calamari, hake, prawn cakes, and chips washed down with Springfield Estate Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc 2018 at the Sea Shack in Struisbaai, a casual seafood eatery located right on the beach. We then atoned for the fry-up with a short walk along the coast to the harbour of Struisbaai before returning to the Agulhas Country Lodge to enjoy our suites and a little solace.

seafood cape agulhas

Being located on porous limestone, l’Agulhas is in the fortunate position to have vast underground reservoirs of water at its finger (toe?) tips and so while the rest of the Cape languished in drought, the tiny coastal town remained flush with fresh water. And so, I treated myself to a guilt-free bubble bath in my suite’s enormous Jacuzzi tub, whose jets churned the water into froth and blissfully buried me in fragrant bubbles.

That night, we dined at The Michael Collins Irish Pub, which delivered a satisfying pub dinner.

The Cape Country Routes

The Agulhas Country Lodge is just one of the Cape Country Routes’ properties, a loose coalition of hotels sprinkled across the country but that exists in greater concentration throughout the southwestern Cape. Together, these establishments offer visitors a quintessential Cape country experience, which is all about tranquil settings, sweeping vistas of nature, hearty dishes crafted from fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, a heady blend of luxury and comfort, and good old country hospitality. The Agulhas Country Lodge does a fabulous job of upholding this philosophy, sending us away positively glowing with all of the above, in addition to the extraordinary beauty and history of the Cape Agulhas countryside.

Cape Agulhas Tip of Africa
A lone fisherman

The Agulhas Country Lodge is located at 9 Main Road, L’Agulhas, an approximate 220 km distance from Cape Town. For bookings and enquiries, please email info@agulhascountrylodge.com or call +27 (0) 28 435 7650. 

www.agulhascountrylodge.com, www.capecountryroutes.com

This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure publication in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/05/24/agulhas-country-lodge/ 

Tokara Wine and Olive Farm: All in a Day’s Easy Itinerary

Tokara Olive and Wine Farm, Stellenbosch, South Africa It’s all too easy to spend a full day in the Cape Winelands. With hundreds of wine estates, restaurants, and activities to explore within a fairly short distance of each other, spending a full day hopping and skipping from one wine estate to the next is a pleasure for any wine, food, and nature lover. On the other hand, Stellenbosch’s exquisite Tokara Wine and Olive Farm demands and deserves a full day’s exploration on its own.

Here’s why…

Olive Oil Tastings

Extra virgin olive oil, Tokara
Fresh off the press, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil. The most beautiful aromas of fresh, zingy cut grass here in Tokara Olive Shed

Tokara’s Olive Shed upholds the traditional union that is a vineyard and olive grove, and, every year, produces tens of thousands of litres of premium extra virgin olive oil. The fertile soils here support three different olive varieties – mission, leccino, and fantoio – and it’s from the fruits of these groves that Tokara produces five lusciously creamy and zesty olive oils. These are available for tasting at Tokara’s Delicatessen, which affords visitors absolutely beautiful views of the vineyards, olive groves, and Simonsberg Mountain.

Tokara Delicatessen

Tokara wine and olive farm, Stellenbosch

And while you’re sampling Tokara’s exquisite selection of olive oils, you might consider pairing the experience with a crisp glass of the estate’s Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2017 and perhaps a nibble from the Deli. Tokara’s Delicatessen serves up a handsome variety of breakfasts, lunches, light meals, and snacks in a gorgeous indoor and outdoor setting, making it a lovely destination for all seasons.

If, however, you’ve decided to save your appetite for Tokara’s restaurant, you can enjoy your olive oil tasting, a glass of wine, a small snack, and a quick perusal of the Deli Shop’s offerings of olive pastes, pesto’s, and oils, as well as whole olives, handmade Belgian chocolate truffles, South African cheeses, real Canadian maple syrup, freshly baked bread, and local and imported cold meats.

Tel: 021 808 5950
E-mail: deli@tokara.com

A Walk in the Olive Groves

With appetites whet and a little purchase under your arm, the next stop on your Tokara itinerary has got to be a leisurely walk through the farm’s shady olive groves. Follow the pathway as it winds through the groves, ultimately (and conveniently) leading you to Tokara’s main restaurant, which is housed in a separate building on the other side of the grove. Make sure you keep a look out for the handsome peacocks and peahens that like to hang out in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees.

Lunch at Tokara Restaurant

Saving the best for last, which is saying a lot considering the incredible calibre delivered by all aspects of Tokara Wine and Olive Farm, you simply have to pay Tokara’s restaurant a visit. Considered one of South Africa’s very best fine dining restaurants, Tokara delivers the farm’s outstanding repertoire of wines and a dynamic, seasonal menu crafted by super talented chef, Carolize Coetzee. The venue itself is beautiful, adeptly reflecting the Cape’s natural heritage, and offers spectacular views over False Bay and the Stellenbosch wine growing region.

Tokara wine & olive farm, restaurant

Tokara Restaurant Contact: 021 885 2550, reservations@tokara.com

A full day out at Tokara Wine and Olive Farm should make an appearance on your itinerary soon. It’s a full day of delight, and welcomes the entire family!

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: www.southernvines.co.za/2017/09/28/tokara-wine-olive-farm-days-easy-itinerary-one-capes-beautiful-gifted-wine-estates/

Tokara wine and olive farm, Stellenbosch

That One Time I Went on a 5-Star Safari in South Africa

Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on Earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?

– Brian Jackman, award-winning British author and journalist

The steep rutted dirt track levelled out and the thick vegetation that had hemmed in the road grew sparse and then fell away, revealing a breath-taking and quintessentially African vista. Before the safari vehicle yawned a vast open expanse of rolling green plains punctuated by enormous fig trees under which white rhino sought respite from the sun.

Like an imagined scene straight out of an early Wilbur Smith novel, the plains were alive with wildlife. A single glance revealed upwards of five different species of animals, from waterbuck, which look as though they’ve sat down on a freshly painted toilet seat, to warthogs with faces that only a mother could love. Rhino moved about on the plains like giant grey tanks, slowly grazing at the lush grass as the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the air, lending a bluish tinge to the mountains in the background. Overhead, gaudily coloured European Bee-eaters wheeled and swooped.

The Fig Plains, as they are aptly called, was our first real introduction to the incredible abundance of wildlife in the Welgevonden Game Reserve and it was such a spectacular and breath-taking greeting that I couldn’t wait to see what my stay at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa would show me. I was right to be excited: before the end of the day, we’d see the most elusive member of the Big Five.

Leopard in grass South Africa safari

The Welgevonden Game Reserve

The Welgevonden Game Reserve is a 35,000-hectare slice of heaven located an approximate three hours’ drive from Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. This rare malaria-free reserve is home to Big Five game – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo – as well as just about every other species of African animal you can think of, big and small.

Zebra drinking South Africa safari

Birdwatchers: prepare to annoy the living daylights out of your fellow explorers as you make the ranger stop the vehicle every few hundred yards for a new bird sighting. But, at the end of the dusty road and a drive filled with adrenalin-laced game viewing, is the heart of the operation: the luxurious five-star Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa. It was to this veritable oasis of luxury that I had been invited to write an article about their offering.

Birdlife South Africa safari

A Home for the Heart

Mhondoro-Game-Lodge-Safari-South-Africa 4
Photo credit: http://www.mhondoro.com

The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa consists of a beautifully appointed main lodge (which functions as a reception, guest lounge, and restaurant), a spa, a “boma” for dinner under the stars, a curio shop, and a luxurious collection of rooms, suites, and a villa (accommodates six people), every bedroom of which has views over the lawns and watering hole that lie directly in front of the lodge.

Mhondoro-Game-Lodge-Safari-South-Africa 5
Photo credit: http://www.mhondoro.com

Mhondoro has clearly been built with this in mind: offering guests an immersive wildlife experience that continues even after you’ve alighted from the safari vehicle, retired to your room, and gotten into your pyjamas. This is a true story: many of the photos I took of wildlife were taken from the vantage point of the villa’s master suite (and in my pyjamas). In fact, one of my favourite pastimes between game drives was sprawling out on my ridiculously large balcony with a glass of bubbly to watch the warthogs rolling in the mud and the baboons chase and pester each other.

Warthog rolling in mud South Africa safari

I don’t know which divine entity favoured my fortunes but I somehow got lucky and landed the villa’s master bedroom suite. I had, completely to myself, a bed large enough to sleep an elephant, a walk-in closet, an enormous luxurious bathroom complete with his and hers vanities and a separate toilet, my own lounge with a fireplace and writing desk, and a wrap-around balcony and patio with views of the watering hole. My suite also came with an outdoor shower and so – super eager to try it out – I washed off the day’s travel while watching zebras graze around the watering hole and take the occasional nip at each other’s rumps.

The space was enormous and yet it felt cosy, intimate, and like home away from home (with five-stars, attentive service, exceptional food, and ridiculous extremes of pampering thrown in).

Mhondoro Dining Experiences

Mhondoro-Game-Lodge-Safari-South-Africa
Photo credit: http://www.mhondoro.com

Dining at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa is a celebration of the reserve’s spectacular and abundant wildlife, not in the sense that this wildlife finds itself on the menu, but rather in that every meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – is taken outside, either on the deck of the lodge or on the deck of the villa, where the views of the watering hole and its animals and birds are uninterrupted.

On our first night, however, we found ourselves in the atmospheric “boma” – a small, open-air arena with tables and seating arranged in semi-circular arcs around a central fireplace, where we enjoyed a traditional South African braai and fare (think oxtail potjiekos and boerewors) and even a song and dance performance by the staff. The service was unrelenting in its attentiveness and we didn’t once want for anything. I fell asleep that night in the sweet embrace of silky soft white linen, red wine over-indulgence, and a mosquito net that cascaded, dream-like, down around my elephant-sized bed.

Mhondoro-Game-Lodge-Safari-South-Africa 5
Photo credit: http://www.mhondoro.com

The Watering Hole and Game Drives

Mhondoro luxury South Africa safari

One of my favourite features of Mhondoro, not surprisingly, was its underground watering hole hide that is connected to the main lodge through a 65-meter long concrete tunnel, which makes it the very first and the only luxury lodge in the country to offer guests (literally) eye-to-eye encounters with the wildlife that come here to drink and take a dip.

Funny baboon South Africa safari

Throughout our stay, we had a troop of 30+ baboons pay the watering hole a visit, as well as wildebeest, zebra, impala, elephant, a rhino mother and her very young baby, and a family of ever-present warthogs. According to the staff, lion, leopard, and cheetah have been seen from the excellent vantage point of the lodge, not only coming to drink, but in the case of the cheetah, to take down a gazelle and enjoy a leisurely lunch as well (they would have had to pry me from that hide with a crowbar).

And then there are the game drives. Mhondoro maintains a fleet of safari vehicles that are not only bigger and sturdier than most of the animals you’ll encounter on your excursions but are very comfortable to sit in even while the vehicle negotiates dongas the size of the Grand Canyon and bounces over roads more rutted and pockmarked than the surface of the moon.

The absolute STAR of the show are the game rangers who take you boldly into the bush, wear their passion for nature on their sleeves, know how to track the wildlife, and are tomes of knowledge on the park’s fauna and flora. Our lead ranger, Fritz, knew more about birds than I do, which was at once ruffled my feathers and impressed me.

Kudu male South Africa safari

The rangers maintain constant communication with each other, reporting sightings and sharing information over the radio, which gives guests much better odds of experiencing those once-in-a-lifetime sightings of special animals, like leopard. In fact, it was on our very first game drive (on the evening of the first night) that Fritz spotted a leopard slinking low in the yellow grass. Had it not been for that communication network, we would never have stopped at that bend in the road to search for the leopard and, undoubtedly, had it not been for Fritz’ keen eyes, the big cat would have slunk past us completely undetected.

Leopard in tree South Africa safari

Sunrise snacks and sun-downer drinks

After a few hours’ of fruitful game viewing, the rangers make a habit of stopping the vehicle, usually somewhere with a beautiful view, and break out the coffee, tea, rusks, and other breakfasty snacks (on morning drives) or the gin-and-tonic, wine, liqueurs, and nibbles (on late afternoon drives). And let me tell you… there are few moments are profound as finding yourself standing in the middle of the African bush with a gin and tonic in your hand, watching the setting sun paint a blaze of fierce colours on the horizon.

Sunset South African safari

In Closing

The hardest part of writing this article was trying to keep it short and sweet and even that I have failed to do. The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa and the Welgevonden Game Reserve into which it is nestled is, quite honestly, one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the luxury of visiting. So much so, I could have written a novel-length account of my stay there. From the lodge’s major services, amenities, and offerings right down to the minute attention to detail paid by the staff (that opening quote was placed next to my bed on a printed out piece of paper), Mhondoro is a home for the heart that, once departed, will forever beat with a deep love for Africa.

Lions South Africa safari

This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, a Cape Town-based lifestyle and leisure publication that focuses on food, wine, travel, and adventure in South Africa.

Brains on Toast at La Tête Restaurant

Yes, brains on toast.

It’s the very first thing that catches your eye as you peruse La Tête Restaurant’s menu and it’s absolutely no joke. Chef Giles Edwards doesn’t just stray off the proverbial beaten path at La Tête, he turns around and gives it the finger with his unorthodox menu.

Brains La Tete Restaurant, Cape Town
Lambs brains on toast

The nose-to-tail dining revolution

The concept is simple and, moreover, a desperately needed paradigm shift in the way society views food. It’s called “nose-to-tail” dining and it means that the entire animal, literally from nose to tail, makes it to our plate; not just the popular cuts of meat we’ve become comfortable and familiar with. To illustrate, La Tête’s menu features such intriguing dishes as brains on toast, crispy pig’s tails, baked trotter (pig’s feet), and grilled ox heart.

Chef Giles La Tete Restaurant
Chef Giles (left) in his natural habitat (picture from La Tete’s Instagram account)

Aside from the fact that these meats – organs – bear serious merit as food (and are exquisitely prepared at La Tête), the philosophy underlining nose-to-tail dining is that nothing goes to waste. It’s an environmentally conscious philosophy and one that Chef Giles aims to drive home with his unconventional menu.

Let’s face it: popular media and societal influences have convinced us that nobody eats brains, perhaps with the exception of zombies. And you’d have to be barbaric to eat an animal’s heart. Even liver is, to many people, “totally gross”. Yet we heartily tuck into beef steak, lamb chops, pork belly, and chicken breasts, legs, and wings.

La Tete Restaurant, Cape Town
Probably the most “normal” thing we ate that evening: roast quail and chips

It’s environmentally unconscious to waste meat that is more than just edible but actually delicious and healthy. I for one think that the heart is a beautiful meat and boasts a flavour that few other cuts of meat can rival. Among my favourite snacks of all time is lightly seasoned, barbecued chicken hearts, which we used to order on skewers from the food carts that stationed themselves outside of our regular watering holes in Thailand. How I miss Thailand.

Having said all of this, La Tête Restaurant’s menu isn’t only an ode to entrails; it also features a plethora of other, slightly less controversial dishes, such as fish soup, roast quail, crispy pig cheek, and gurnard, as well as dishes even the fussiest of eaters would happily order, including hake, roast lamb rack, and several delectable vegetarian options.

Holding hands with local farmers and the Harvest of Hope

Harvest of Hope sustainable farming Cape Town
Harvest of Hope (image from website)

La Tête’s menu changes every single day depending on what local ingredients are available and in season. Chef Giles maintains fantastic relationships with local farmers and fishermen who will personally call him up should they, for example, have a fresh batch of brains, a catch of gurnard, or a harvest of celeriac. Using whatever’s fresh and available, Chef Giles concocts delicious dishes to add to that evening’s menu.

La Tête also supports an agricultural initiative called the Harvest of Hope, a community garden located in the Cape Flats. This initiative aims to facilitate the direct and personal delivery of fresh, locally grown produce to Cape Town’s restaurants, which, in so many ways, is better than ordering expensive ingredients from overseas. Why buy from foreign farms when we have such a bounty of local agricultural projects and farms that could use our support?

Blazing new trails

I’ve never tried brains before and, truth be told, even I suffered from a serious spell of prejudice-driven doubt prior to tucking into La Tête’s signature dish of lamb’s brains on toast. However, I found it tender and tasty, along with all the other oddities we tried that night. La Tête, without a doubt, offers diners an incredible experience and a totally fresh, much-needed perspective on food. All praise goes to Chef Giles Edwards and his team for having the guts, balls, and brains to blaze this new trail in Cape Town’s culinary scene and for having made such a roaring success of it!

La Tête Phone: 021 418 1299
Address: 17 Bree Street, Cape Town
Website: www.latete.co.za

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2017/10/03/brains-toast-la-tete-restaurant

Whale Watching in Cape Town: Our Celebrated Cetaceans Have Returned!

Step aside Big Five, whales are so much bigger and you don’t need to schlep to the Kruger National Park to see them! Every year, around June and July, great pods of southern right whales make their way northwards from their feeding grounds in Antarctica’s frigid Southern Ocean. The purpose of this epic journey is to reach the substantially warmer waters around South Africa, where they will make sweet love, have babies, and show off their fins. And it’s the predictable arrival of the whales each year that attracts hoards of people, both tourists and South Africans, to the Cape.

Cape Town’s prime whale watching spots

At this time of year, southern right whales can be seen cavorting along the south-western Cape coastline from several land-based vantage points. The most notable (and successful) of these vantage points are found in False Bay, Cape Agulhas, and, of course, the famous whale-watching town of Hermanus, which the World Wildlife Fund has rated as one of the top 12 whale-watching locations in the world.

Southern right whales

Truth be told, however, you don’t have to drive far at all to see these marine mammals that are, in spite of being the size of a bus, remarkably graceful. In peak calving season, they take refuge in the shelter provided by the natural harbours of our scalloped coastline, and it’s here that you’re likely to see them whilst sipping on a cocktail at the Chapman’s Peak Hotel in Hout Bay, or on a sunset beach walk in Camps Bay. In fact, wherever you are along the Cape peninsula between June and November , you shouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a tell-tale spout of water, a skyward-thrust flipper, or a tempestuous fluke (tail) spanking the surface of the water.

The Cape’s Species of Visiting Whales

Southern right whales – so called because their tendency to move slowly made them the “right” targets for whaling vessels – aren’t the only species to grace the Cape. We are also routinely visited by humpback and Bryde’s whales, as well as several species of dolphins, which, if you ask any zoologist, are also technically whales. In November of 2016, a pod of an estimated 60 humpback whales made the waters off Cape Town their feeding ground and for several days, they just about broke the internet with people sharing photos and videos of their unusually vivacious antics.

Whale Watching Cape Town

We are also, on the rare occasion, visited by orcas or killer whales. In May 2017, the butchered bodies of three great white sharks were recovered at Gansbaai, a small seaside town about 160 km up the east coast from Cape Town and a stone’s throw from Hermanus. All three of the carcasses had been savaged and their livers completely torn out by what was clearly a much larger predator. So, unless Godzilla had once again risen from its deep-sea abyssal lair, the perpetrator/s could only have been visiting orcas, which not only have a liking for shark meat but are also known to be quite fond of liver! Yum.

The Cape’s spectacular and diverse marine life

South Africa’s coastal waters are teeming with marine life: great kelp forests gently swish and sway in the swell, Cape fur seals honk and bark at each other from their sunbathing spots on harbour walls, and beach rock pools are a kaleidoscopic array of purple sea urchins, orange star fish, and red sea anemones. A little further out to sea, we have some seriously big predators patrolling the waters, and, in the air above, a diverse bird life made up of gannets, cormorants, gulls, petrels, shearwaters, terns, and albatrosses.

Whale Watching South AfricaThe Cape is blessed with a biologically rich marine biome but its pièce de résistance has got to be the stately whales that, every year, make their homes and their babies in our bays. So, find yourself a great spot, take a picnic, crack open a bottle of vino, and enjoy the show!

Whale watching spots in and around Cape Town:

Arniston, Betty’s Bay, Elands Bay, False Bay, Gaansbaai, Hermanus, Hout Bay, Knysna, Lambert’s Bay, Langebaan, Llandudno (and Camps Bay), Melkbos, Mossel Bay, Nature’s Valley, Paternoster, Plettenberg Bay, Stanford, Stilbaai, Witsand, Yzerfontein.

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2017/08/04/whale-watching-cape-town-capes-celebrated-cetaceans-returned/

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 5

Hout Bay Cape Town South Africa
Located on the Cape peninsula, Hout Bay was named by the first settlers for the thick forests of valuable wood found there – “hout” means wood in Afrikaans. This breathtaking valley is where I grew up.

Although my family had a beautiful home in Hout Bay (my father is an architect), we weren’t what you’d consider a wealthy family. Our travel philosophies were a testament to this: we’d rarely fly anywhere, we’d almost always stay in our caravan, and lunch was taken on the road and more often than not consisted of soggy jam sandwiches, floury apples, and sweet coffee. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for these early thrifty travels, though, because they defined my perception of luxury.

To me, as a kid, luxury was a hunk of biltong to chew on for hours during our long, tiresome road trips around the country. It was getting to sit down and eat at a restaurant, even though my concept of haute cuisineat the time was a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. But the very pinnacle of luxury, the Mount Olympus of all treats, was getting to stay in a hotelroomwhere my parents’ snores could be shut out by a door, rather than bundled into our tiny cots in our tiny caravan.

Living large

old hotel room
Maybe a slightly embellished representation of the kind of old hotels we’d stay in…

On the odd occasion we did overnight in hotels, they were ancient budget establishments, usually named something like “The Standard Hotel” or “The [insert one horse town’s name] Inn.” These were places with creaky wooden floorboards, ancient paintings of forgotten people, furniture that would belch out decade-old, musty air when you sat in them, and cracked porcelain bathroom basins.

In other words, they were in desperate need of an accidental electrical fire so that they could be burned to the ground, completely redesigned, rebuilt, and refurnished.

To me, however, they were luxurious and the excitement of sleeping in a hotel superseded any kind of miserable reality that might entail. In other words, I was taught to be happy with what I needed rather than what I wanted.

My parents were and are not misers. My father is one of the most generous human beings I know and will never, ever turn down the opportunity to buy you a chocolate bar whether you want one or not (or a cheeky shot of tequila on a trip to Hollywood, Los Angeles).

Tequila! Hollywood, Los Angeles

But to my parents, traveling is about spending 14 hours a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through foreign cities. It’s about feelingthe climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine…but also its struggles.

There’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – to be sure, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?

Disaster

On a caravan trip up the Garden Route – so called because of the region’s lush, verdant forests – along the east coast of South Africa, disaster befell us. Cresting a particularly hilly hill a few tens of kilometres from the epitome of one-horse towns, Heidelberg, our caravan caught a tail wind and began to fishtail violently from side-to-side. It felt as though my mother, who happened to be driving, was yanking the wheel from left to right, which she was but out of sheer desperation to counteract the forces of the fishtailing caravan on our little red Toyota corolla.

Totally out of control, the car lurched sickeningly from one side of the highway to the other before the caravan swept right around in a massive arc, ending up at right angles to the car and forcing us into a deep ditch on the far side of the road. I remember my mother’s hysterical concern over her precious cargo on the back seat juxtaposed by my dad’s eerie calm, who immediately set to work rationalising what had just happened to us.

To my mother: “We must have caught a tail wind. You should have hit the accelerator instead of the brakes – that would have pulled the caravan back into a straight line behind the car.”

I don’t recall my mom’s precise words but they were probably something along the lines of “gaan kak”, the Afrikaans equivalent of “get fucked!”

Sitting there on the back seat, emotionally rattled but physically unharmed, the strangest thing happened. Our high drama on the highway began attracting an audience but not of people – we were in the middle of nowhere after all. From far and wide and seemingly out of the crackling white horizons, tall, comical-looking birds materialized and began loping over to the fence to ogle unashamedly at our appalling situation. Ostriches! Before long, we had drawn a crowd of the world’s largest birds.

Ostrich birds South Africa

Silver Linings

Our caravan, which was bent at a torturous angle to the car, was quite simply and totally fucked. There was no way we were going to make it to our holiday destination. To make matters even more uncomfortable than having just been in a potentially fatal car accident – not to mention blatantly stared at by a gaggle of stupid-looking birds – we found ourselves stranded under the blistering countenance of the African sun. Oh, and being sometime in the 1990’s, none of us had a cell phone to call for help.

I don’t recall precisely how we got out of that mess but I believe that another car arrived soon after our accident and kindly offered to drive my father to Heidelberg, where he could hire the services of a tow truck. Thereafter, we found ourselves in this tiny Karoo town with nothing other to do than languish, for three days and three nights, in a hotel room. My parents were in hell – the trauma, the expense, the boredom.

I was in heaven.

Rags to riches

I unpacked my entire suitcase into the closet as a way of claiming my new space, had a greasy cheeseburger and undercooked fries in the nearly deserted hotel restaurant for dinner, and drifted off to sleep trying in vain to read the Old Testament bible (the ones that were always nested in the bedside drawers of hotels).

To this day, staying in hotels excites me, although my perception of luxury has changed somewhat. I’ve had the privilege of landing a job that sends me to wonderful places in and around Cape Town to stay in luxurious hotels and guesthouses, all of which are four stars and higher. One such assignment sent me to a five-star luxury resort in the Welgevonden Nature Reserve in the Limpopo Province (northeast South Africa). Another to a five-star guesthouse in Paarl, one of South Africa’s oldest towns, where I drowned in expensive sheets and delicious local Méthode Cap Classique (our equivalent of Champagne).

Wander Woman Thea Beckman
Yours truly opening a bottle of MCC, a South African sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir grapes in precisely the fashion as Champagne.

In spite of this unbridled, exquisite assault upon my senses, I remember how excited I was as a kid to be able to stay in a hotel for three nights, even if it was a terrible car accident that landed us there in the first place. I have, however, given up on trying to read the Old Testament since then, or any bible for that matter.

Unless I’m in need of a sleeping aid, that is.

 

Find me on Facebook: Hey you! There is SO much more going on in the life and times of Wander Woman Thea so find me on Facebook, give my page a like, and see all the wine-fuelled shenanigans and adventures I get up to! If you like my page and drop me a message, I’ll return the favour!

Travel Tip Tuesday – Check the Weather

Tornado on holiday

It’s such a simple, logical thing to do and yet it’s a mistake made by novice and, oftentimes, experienced travellers: failing to research the weather of your destination city. Everywhere you go, ALWAYS check the weather (sing it, Crowded House!) This is something you should do before you book your flights because nothing puts a (literal) damper on a holiday quite like a monsoon, or days that are so swelteringly hot that you might actually die if you get locked out your air bnb.

Ask the oracle AKA Google: “what’s the best time of year to travel to [insert fabulous destination city]?” or “what’s the climate like?”

Make sure you specify the “city” or region because countries are large and the climate/weather can vary dramatically from north to south and east to west. The June weather in Michigan, for example, may require a sweater; the June weather in Kansas may require a tornado shelter.

Climate in America funny

Understanding the climate of your destination will help you make smart choices – like not visiting Puerto Rico in hurricane season or Dubai in mid-summer. And you’ll have a much more comfortable stay for it! It also means that you can pack far more appropriately, like not taking thermal underwear on a visit to Vancouver in July. As it turns out, not ALL of Canada is a frozen wasteland all year around.

Do your research and enjoy a safe, comfortable, and happy adventure!

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 4

Orange River Rafting

When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.

On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.

Daytime on the Orange River

Orange River rafting South Africa

As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.

The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.

Orange River rafting South Africa

With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.

This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be alone with themselves, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?

Don’t date those people.

Nighttime on the river

Orange River rafting South Africa

African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.

With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.

Earning your experience

Orange River South Africa

We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.

The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.

Oh, and I earned a distinction in astronomy.

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, Part 3

The Lion King

As a child, I was obsessed with The Lion King. For one, I had an all-out crush on Simba that transcended the species and spatial divide between us: I was a human, he was a lion; I was 3D, he was 2D…it was just never going to work out. Anyway, being a Lion King nut, I amassed a rather decent collection of Lion King toys. I had Simba, Scar, Pumba, and Timone figurines with articulating joints, and I had non-movable molds of Nala, Zazu, and a bevvy of other critters, which I would spend hours playing with. In our backyard, I’d make them little homes out of rocks and sticks and play out sweeping sagas of action, romance, drama, and occasionally pornography.

lion king toys

The only Lion King toy I didn’t have was Mufasa, the true Lion King, friendly Darth Vader, and Simba’s majestic AF father before the little shit went and got him killed. It was on our trip to Singapore, killing a few hours in an airport lounge, that I finally clapped eyes on the missing piece of my collection. There he was on a shelf in a toy store, ensconced in shiny packaging, muscles rippling beneath his tawny plastic hide and with a flowing coiffed mane that would have made Elvis envious. I practically drooled. I took the $25 toy off the shelf and approached my parents with the biggest, moistest, most beseeching eyeballs I could muster.

cat Shrek sad eyes

Sadly, the answer was no. My brother and I had already been treated at the Singaporean installation of Hamley’s that day – the oldest and largest toyshop in the world – so I could hardly expect my parents to fork out even more money. My parents understood that no good ever came from spoiling a child; we had our limits and they were enforced, unlike today’s  parents who seem to think they can buy their children’s affections.

Instead of crumpling to the floor in a cacophony of snot and tears, I got busy. I scraped together every last coin I had left over from the little allowance my parents had given us for our trip and counted about $12.00. Okay, halfway there. I then scampered off to source the rest.

How?

By stealing of course! On hands and knees, I managed to pick up a few dollars’ worth of carelessly dropped coins beneath the cash registers at various airport stores. I also begged my parents for whatever coins they had left over – we were about to depart the country anyway so they wouldn’t need those. But I struck the true mother lode when I stationed myself outside the currency exchange counter, where some businessman had dropped a BRITISH POUND on the floor. To this day I wonder if he did it on purpose, seeing me desperately scrounging about for coins. Barely higher than the counter myself, I handed my bounty over to the teller and, when added together, managed to come up with the necessary funds. This was in the good old days when currency exchange stations still accepted coins. I marched triumphantly to the toy store, dumped two fistfuls of clinking treasure on the counter along with my trophy Mufasa figurine and, at the tender age of 9, made my first ever solo purchase.

When I trotted up to my parents minutes later with Mufasa in hand, they thought I had stolen it off the shelf only to find out – much to their astonishment – that their little daughter was resourceful and as crafty as a fox. Clearly, my grandfather’s Jewish blood flows powerfully through my thrifty veins.

Budget traveling

budget travel

What in God’s name does this lengthy story have to do with travel? Well, first of all, it all took place at Singapore Airport, so technically it is a travel anecdote. A more compelling reason for telling it, however, (and the moral of the story) is to emphasise the importance of being thrifty if you have your designs set on seeing at least a fraction of the world before you exit this mortal coil.

I have no qualms about eating at local hole-in-the-wall restaurants or open air markets rather than expensive establishments; and you’ll never catch me in a taxi when there’s a perfectly efficient and inexpensive public transport system to use. Besides, the ubiquitous crazy folk and Jesus-hawking zealots you tend to meet on public transport provide the most thrilling entertainment on long rides back to the hotel. I also have no qualms about staying in a simple motel, inn, or sharing a dorm room and enduring the snores and nocturnal farts of others if it means cheaper accommodation. Because, my friends, in a country in which the currency isn’t worth its weight in nickel, cheaper food, transport, and accommodation directly equates to more travel.

I’d far rather spend money on travelling once or twice a year than only once every two to three years, as is typically the case with my fellow South Africans. And if I budget well, I can see and do far more than I would if I blew two thirds of my budget on eating, sleeping, and getting around. I’m talking about affording to see more attractions, engage in more activities, and explore more of my destination, sending me home with a heart full of stories and sublime wonder.

Budget travelling is one of the best and most powerful methodologies one can employ to truly see and experience a foreign city and, in a lifetime, dozens of cities on every continent…except maybe Antarctica, although nobody’s judging anyone’s bucket list here.

Penguin Antarctica

More important than being able to hit the road more frequently is the fact that budget travelling eliminates the pretences and inauthenticity of well-heeled travel so that the experience you have of a place is raw and honest. It’s about spending 10 hours+ a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through a concrete jungle. It’s about feeling the climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine but also its struggles.

The suggestion here is not to sleep on a park bench and drink nothing but tap water; rather, it’s to stay in hostels with other travellers, to couchsurf, “Air bnb” it, or do some kind of house swap. It’s to share a table with other locals and travellers at an open air market or eatery and to witness the city in motion from a bus, train, or even tuk-tuk. I never turn down the chance to meet and get to know other travellers because you never know what kind of opportunities a friendship will open up to you. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – I mean, given the offer to stay for free, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?

So…rather than travelling like the Queen of Sheba and only being able to afford a holiday once every two to three years, budget travel. Experience your destination in all its authentic, raw, and occasionally painful beauty!

Grand Canyon