Airport Musings

I love airports.

Not the standing-in-line-waiting-to-get-my-passport-stamped, endlessly-slow-baggage-carousel-waiting parts.

No, I love the human part.

Mostly, it’s the arrivals and departures halls I find fascinating. There’s nothing quite like seeing the pure and uninhibited joy of friends, families or couples reuniting after a long absence, sometimes with flowers; sometimes with balloons; sometimes with a hand-written sign and a big shriek of excitement; sometimes just with a long embrace or a kiss.

I love how the little children forget all parental instruction and run toward their arriving relatives as they walk through the glass sliding doors leading from customs, and I love how everyone walks away holding hands, helping each other with luggage, laughing and talking about how the flight and the trip was. Though I’ve always found it sad to arrive somewhere alone, I also enjoy the opportunity this gives me to observe those around me and be joyful in their joy.

I also love airport fashion. This is particularly evident at the gates where flights have just landed and passengers are disembarking, and it is often easy to see where people have come from. Bintang singlets and a tan? You’ve just been to Bali. Outrageously hippie-looking elephant print pants? I promise you, despite what you think now, 20-something university male, you won’t wear those again, even if they were fashionable for the backpacker crowd in Koh Samui. Pointy, straw hat? Been to Vietnam, I take it? And then you see the traditional clothing – burquas, stark white Indian dress for men, checkered headscarves in the middle east, puffy-sleeved, colourful print dresses to match extraordinarily white teeth and dark skin in Africa.

I also like guessing how long people have been away – the colour (i.e. fadedness) of their clothing, amount of leather bracelets and state of their luggage is usually a pretty decent indicator.

Most of all though, I love the diversity. All cultures, colours, races and walks of life gather together at airports, not being given much of a choice when everyone bar a lucky few have to line up in the ‘foreign passports’ queue. You overhear conversations – some you can understand, most you can’t.

Whilst you do get the occasional few travellers that get grumbly about something (like the nasally American lady at Honolulu airport who was aghast at her husband when Starbucks didn’t have salt (“Can you believe it, the lady at the counter said they don’t carry salt!”), airports are mostly peaceful places.

Why can’t we be like this in normal life?

Here we are, 200 people from probably 100 countries packed as closely together as if we were standing in a rush hour London tube carriage, and we are all OK with each other. No hatred, no disapproving glances, no vilification, no separation.

Everyone – though on their own – is together in their plight of being stuck in a line that the law requires them to be in.

At times, people even talk. A quick question (“where have you just come from?” or “your baby is so cute, how old is she?”) is all it takes for a smile; a cultural interaction.

Humanity is designed to live together in community, in harmony. To take joy in each other, laugh together, cry together, go through the good and bad together. We are all one and the same, even if we appear so different from the outside.

How much we can learn from airports.

Photo credit: Tyson Cronin 

 

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It’s all a little bit peculiar

It’s a peculiar place, Vietnam.

Not in an obvious way though. The strangeness doesn’t jump out at you and slap you in the face. It only becomes clear when you look out of the taxi window at the life going on outside, focus a little longer on the little old lady standing by the street or the items sold by the shops on the main road.

You need to give yourself time to let the weirdness sink in.

Firstly, people walk around in their pyjamas here. Not just at home. I’m talking about people on the street, in the middle of Hanoi, or the middle of Ho Chi Minh city. They walk around the lake, which is surrounded by restaurants, as if pyjamas are the new jogging gear, and then stand for a while holding on to the railing, swinging their arms back and forth in some kind of tai chi exercise. Here in Ho Chi Minh, I’ve seen grandmas wearing pyjamas pushing their grandchildren along the road in prams, and even shop keepers dressed in pyjamas taking coffee orders.

You might think I’m joking – I’m not. I’m talking about silky pyjamas, striped Mr Bean pyjamas and soft winter pyjamas with small cute animals and hearts on them. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the city.

It’s peculiar.

Equally peculiar I find the size of furniture here. I love the street food culture – there’s a certain grubbiness too it, an Asia feel. Restaurants facing out onto the street, chairs and tables strewn across the footpath, with a direct view of the hectic traffic of scooters, bicycles, tuc tucs and cars in front. Women washing dishes by the drain beside bowls of green herbs, and men welding pieces of old cars back together. Children running around, laughing; tourists peering curiously into shops as they step over the activity of day to day business on the streets of Vietnam. But everywhere, it seems, there’s a children’s tea party going on. The furniture looks like it came out of a toy shop, and I’m amazed that I haven’t seen more people snapping the legs off chairs.

Peculiar.

A third peculiarity lies in the ability of the Vietnamese to plant vegetable gardens everywhere. Naturally exceptional gardeners (even at Australian markets the Vietnamese sell the best fruit and vegetables), the Vietnamese have seemingly not only mastered the soil, sun and water requirements of producing top-quality green leafy vegetables and herbs, they’ve also managed to overcome all logistical obstacles a horticulturalist might usually face and started planting things on traffic islands, among the concrete retaining walls of man-made lakes and inside water-filled rice paddies. There they squat, among their coriander and lettuce leaves, wearing pointy cane hats and pruning away at dinner. It’s pretty amazing really.

And a little peculiar.

Another sign of the Vietnamese ability to think outside the box and deal with difficult situations is their method of crossing the road. To put it into context, I should mention that Vietnam’s roads are distinctively chaotic. While there may be designated lanes, no one sticks to them. Nor do drivers obey zebra crossings, red traffic lights, or any other type of human/vehicle intersection. Scooters and motorbikes are particular offenders, but buses and cars add their bit to the mayhem. So what do the innovative Vietnamese do? Shuffle. Yep, no joke. They shuffle. One foot in front of the other, they step out onto the busy six-lane motorway with no hint of fear, not waiting for the traffic to stop but letting it go around them. We’ve been practicing this technique, and I’m happy to report that there have been no accidents thus far. The trick, we’ve realised, is to make no sudden movement. You need to be 100% aware at all times of what’s going on around you, so woe to anyone who thinks they can cross the street without concentrating! It’s an art, no doubt, but a peculiar one.

There are many more peculiarities worth mentioning – the fact that people sleep on their motorbikes for example; head on the seat, legs draped over the handlebars. Somehow, they balance. Some of them even look quite comfortable. Very peculiar.

And the street side hair salons! No matter where you are, you will always find a barber ready to give you a quick chop by the roadside, with a mirror leant up against the outside wall of a building and nothing but a chair in front of it. Not a bad business model really… no overheads, no staffing costs, no rent… But getting your hair cut beside a motorbike parking area, underneath a grubby overpass – it’s a little unusual.

Then there’s the fact that throughout Vietnam you will find hidden remnants of European influence – the coffee culture, the French patisseries, the cathedrals with church bells ringing every hour. And, rather than going into a shopping mall to find what you need, you just need to know which city street to venture into, and you will find tiny stores packed to the roof with everything from soft toys to toiletries to biscuits to selfie sticks. Yes, that’s right – selfie stick stores. Don’t tell me that’s not a little peculiar.

I wanted to take note of these peculiarities this time, because if I ever come back to Vietnam, I’ll no longer notice them. These are the little snippets of a culture that only strike you as unusual the first time you see them – after even a few weeks in the country these peculiarities have become almost normal.

It’s this progression that I find fascinating about travel. The initial amusement and bewilderment at a different culture’s habits, the gradual getting used to the way things are done in the new place, and the eventual fondness of all that makes a culture unique and peculiar. The world is a fascinating place, and I am thankful to have yet again been given the opportunity to visit somewhere brand new.

In all of this, I am so thankful to God, our loving father, for blessing me (undeservedly) with such opportunities. My prayer is that they continue to mould me into a more appreciative, tolerant and loving person, and one who can share these experiences – through words – with those who may never get the chance to visit these places themselves.

 

A social media campaign and the hospitality of strangers

It’s been two weeks today since we first landed in Hanoi. When we arrived and drove through the Old Quarter, Tyson said that this may just turn out to be his favourite new city in Asia. The atmosphere was fantastic – cars, scooters and bicycles everywhere, people on the street wearing Vietnamese straw hats and selling fruit, flowers, donuts or socks out of cane baskets tied to the end of a broomstick carried across their shoulders. Old, tall, skinny buildings lined the streets, authentically run-down and housing a mixture of apartments and small businesses. Wide avenues, lakes and parks were reminiscent of the French influence of days gone by.

We’ve lived in four places in Hanoi now. At first, we spent a night at Luan’s Homestay, which we found on Air BnB. Family-run and located smack-bang in the middle of the Old Quarter, it was the perfect spot from which to explore the city during our first day.

After our trip to Halong Bay, we were moved just two houses down the street to an old hotel in need of love and attention, whose main characteristics were its thin walls and mattresses whose springs dug into your back. On our first night, a bunch of what sounded like 20 young Vietnamese people kept us awake until past midnight with drunken shouts up and down the stairwell and banging as they carried their passed-out friend to the room opposite ours.

Our third accommodation was where we spent the majority of our time, and it was also the furthest from the city centre – about a 45-minute bus ride away. It was here, in an apartment attached to a mall and adjacent to a main road, that we spent a week with YESD (Youth Employment and Society Development), a social enterprise founded by three young Vietnamese women whose aim is to help fight unemployment among university graduates in Hanoi, preserve the Vietnamese culture and provide authentic Vietnamese travel experiences for tourists. With a focus on organising responsible tours in Vietnam and creating positive change in a country still in the early stages of its tourism development (in comparison to some of its South-East Asian neighbours), we were there to volunteer, along with two Americans, a French girl, a Brazilian/British couple and a Mexican.

While Tyson had the opportunity to teach two English classes, our main focus was to help YESD with their tourism marketing. Wanting to start and finish a project in the short time we had, we decided early to design and launch a social media campaign to promote responsible tourism in Vietnam. And so, in just over a week, we designed a questionnaire, interviewed about 50 random tourists about their views on responsible tourism, collaborated with the Brazilian/British couple on a promotional video and launched a campaign to encourage travellers to be more conscious of how their actions when travelling can help create positive change. Needless to say, we were pretty proud of our efforts. Check out the final results here.

During our time with YESD, we were also blessed to be able to join a spontaneous two-day tour to Ninh Binh province, home of UNESCO World Heritage Listed Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam’s ‘inland Halong Bay’. What a spectacular spot! Limestone mountains covered in jungle alternate with partially submerged valleys and steep, sheer cliffs to form a natural area like something out of a Jurassic Park film. Below, a river meanders through caves and past rice paddies, and women who, before tourists arrived, were dependent on fishing for a meagre income, row visitors around using a combination of both their hands and their feet. I have never seen anywhere quite like it. This was definitely the highlight of our Vietnam trip so far, with Tyson and I agreeing that it was even more beautiful than Halong Bay. It was great to be out of the city, away from the terrible pollution, loud noise and busyness of Hanoi, and the experiences we had in Ninh Binh – cycling, hiking up mountains, riding motorbikes along the motorway, riding in an overnight lay-flat bus and staying with a local family – made the trip a unique and very authentically Vietnamese experience.

And here we are, back at No Bai International Airport, having just left our fourth accommodation near the West Lake of Hanoi. We spent two days here working on the YESD video with Roni and Hester, the Brazilian/English YESD volunteers. Our host was Robert, a gracious Canadian expat and the creator of his own English teaching programs for various groups of disadvantaged children in Hanoi. Robert is also a Workaway host (Workaway is the organisation through which we have been volunteering), and his apartment was the perfect spot from which to enjoy our last two nights in Hanoi. We were even fed Western food and wine – a pleasant alternative to the Vietnamese food we have been eating every other day and which has unfortunately caused Tyson and I to be sick a total of three times on this holiday!

Now we’re off to revisit our first Air BnB host Thong in Ho Chi Minh City, for a couple of days of exploring the south before making our way back through Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane.

 

 

 

An unexpected twist

Well this wasn’t meant to happen.

This day was meant to be filled with more cycling, beach time, relaxing and more delicious Vietnamese food. Instead, I was up at 1am with stomach cramps and aches, and by 6am I was sick and vomiting – something I haven’t done in years.

What happened?

Perhaps it was the local gin I picked at the bar we went to after our cooking class. Maybe there was something on the glass. Or maybe I just touched something and picked up some sort of terrible stomach bug. Whatever it was, it made me very ill, and though resting throughout the morning before our flight to Hanoi helped, by the time we got to the airport in the afternoon I was so sick I couldn’t stand up in the line up to get onto the plane. I was sick again – in public! – as we walked down the aerobridge to board the plane – and a doctor had to come to check my pulse and feed me electrolytes. Luckily, we were still allowed to board the flight, and were given a seat in the back row so that I could lie down and rest. My dear Tyson was an absolute knight in shining armour, taking control of everything and looking after me in every way he could. I don’t know what I would have done had he not been there.

Luckily, I was feeling significantly better by the time the plane touched down in Hanoi, and was happy when we arrived at our next homestay, run by tour guide Luang and his family, to a hot shower and warm bed. Luang was a gracious host, accompanying us to the local pharmacy to buy some medicine and inviting us to a free dinner with his family at home. We had an early night, and the resting seemed to do me a world of good.

The next morning, we were up early: Ha Long Bay was on the agenda. I was glad to be feeling better as I had really been looking forward to this part of the trip. We were picked up in a minibus and driven four hours to Ha Long City’s harbour, then transported (‘like refugees’) on smaller boats to our traditional junk boats and cruise ships which sat in the harbour ready to set sail. We had purposely picked a smaller boat, and had the pleasure of sharing our 8-cabin junk with two Norwegians, a couple from Belgium, a German/Japanese couple, a French family of four and an Indian family of five.

Ha Long Bay, often touted as Vietnam’s top tourist destination, has been UNESCO World Heritage listed since 1994. Its limestone islets – over 2000 of them – rise up from the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and feature caves, endemic vegetation and a variety of bird and other animal species. Nowadays, overnight cruise ships, like the traditional Vietnamese wooden junk boat we were on, meander around the islets while their passengers admire the beauty of this natural wonder which has only been managed as a tourism destination for the last 15 years.

The cruise was beautiful – we had the opportunity to go kayaking on the water, visit a local fishing village, go into a cave on one of the islets (sadly visibly affected by poor tourism management and planning) and enjoy a Tai Chi class on the sundeck of our boat. For New Year’s Eve, we celebrated together with other guests on one of the larger ships at a gala dinner with a buffet, live entertainment, dancing and games.

Unfortunately, after this, it was Tyson’s turn to get sick – most probably due to the consumption of an undercooked piece of pork at the gala dinner. Upon our return to Hanoi we were back at the same pharmacy, this time in search of Imodium. Though thankfully, both of us started feeling quite a bit better with the help of modern over-the-counter medicine, it would take a couple of days in Hanoi’s Old Quarter before we were back to feeling 100% and ready to embrace a new challenge: our first ever Workaway project.

Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” – Ernest Hemingway. 

It got me. Finally. Just like so many others, my husband and parents included. It happened a bit faster for them, and I’m sure that for each person the ultimate contributing factors and speed of effect are quite unique. Whatever it is, it seems to happen to people. And as I sit on my Qantas 747 looking out of the window at the yellow lights of Johannesburg shrinking slowly below, I am hit with the realisation. Africa. You’ve captured me.

I sit here now trying desperately to hold onto every single moment and memory of the last three weeks, dreading that with every kilometre we get further away the memories will grow dimmer. Already it feels like our days in Johannesburg and the national parks are a long time ago. We’ve seen and done so much in between…

Well. It seems I’m getting a little mellow and nostalgic.

Ain’t nobody got time for that! I haven’t filled you in yet on our last week – the gourmet end – of our South Africa anniversary adventure: our time in the Stellenbosch wine region and Cape Town, and our experiences at three of South Africa’s top restaurants.

Our first stop was the Frog Lodge, a small, simple cottage on a wine farm at the base of the Franschhoek mountains. Driving into Franschhoek, South Africa’s renowned food and wine capital, Tyson and I agreed that we had never seen a town set in such a magnificent location. We came through the mountains, having just driven through the smaller Robertson Wine Valley, and even there we were stopping constantly to take photos of the beautiful scenery. When we turned the corner and got our first glimpse of Franschhoek, a small town of white houses and vineyards surrounded by high, rocky mountains on each side, all we could say was wow. Clouds touched the top of the mountains as though placed there carefully, not daring the journey across the sky to cast shadows upon the beauty of the valley below.

At night, the wind howled through the trees outside our cottage, and in the mornings a completely blue sky was slowly touched with dabs of white as clouds crept in through the gaps in the surrounding moutains.

Franschhoek, the smallest and most spectacularly set town in the Stellenbosch wine region, is one of South Africa’s oldest settlements. It’s a charming town, though locals call it a village, and its main street is lined with cafes, gift shops and galleries. Family-run wine estates surround the town, some of which date back to the late 17th Century when French Huguenot refugees were given the land to settle in by the Dutch government.

Today, the whole region is well set up for tourists, and on our second day (we spent our first exploring the nearby city of Stellenbosch), we took part in a full day wine tasting tour featuring a small wine tram, six wineries (many still built in and around the original farm houses) and about 20 glasses of wine (each). We met some nice people, tried pairing different Biltongs and olive oils with wine, and attempted to locate bits of our palette which were able to deduce the difference between ‘intelligent vanilla flavours’, ‘red berry and tobacco notes’ and ‘subtle oak tannins.’ I am sad to say that despite this full day intensive workshop I do not consider myself any higher on the wine IQ ladder .  I admit this could also be due to the amount of wine consumed and that by the end we were happy to still be distinguishing between red and white.

Consumption of wine in excess of our usual amounts had also been a feature of our previous evening in Franshhoek, as we were lucky enough to get a table at The Tasting Room, an exciting and innovative multi award-winning restaurant spearheaded by Africa’s first Grand Chef, Margot Janse.

Because of the relativity of price and value compared to the same thing at home (a factor which has delighted us this whole trip), we decided to splash out and get the 10 course African-inspired surprise menu with matching wines. Dishes featured crazy creations like pure white ‘black pepper snow’ that disappeared on your tongue leaving a hint of pepper, tomato ice-cream, oyster mousse and a cocktail made with popcorn; and for each course the waiters explained the history and method of the dish and why the matching wine was paired perfectly. It was an incredible culinary adventure.

Although we would have loved to stay in Franschhoek for longer, it was soon time to head to Cape Town – the last stop on our amazing journey.

In Cape Town we were accommodated in Frances’ Air B&B apartment – a cool designer loft in the middle of a trendy but rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood. Woodstock, a fairly mixed race part of town, has lots of hip antique and design shops lined up beside great cafes and lots of colourful street art. The area is going through an urban transformation stage, though you could tell that there were still a few issues when the police showed up two nights in a row at the house opposite us in the middle of the night.

Just a short distance from Frances’ apartment lies the Old Biscuit Mill, home of a vibrant Saturday food and craft market and the famous South African restaurants The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club.

The Test Kitchen was listed 28th in the 2015 Top 50 restaurants in the world and Best Restaurant in Africa in 2015

. The Pot Luck Club, its newer sister restaurant, is just meters away, and while the food was tasty, it seemed that in every other way it was the ugly step sister to The Test Kitchen, as the service and other features simply did not compare. Tyson and I joked that it was the reject restaurant for everyone who wanted to get into The Test Kitchen but couldn’t – after all, when we tried to book a dinner in May for August, the place was booked through to November. We were lucky to get in for lunch. At The Test Kitchen, the food was beautiful and considered but less experimental than The Tasting Room. Tyson preferred this but I was more excited by  the abstract nature and creativity at The Tasting Room.

By the end of all of this (affordable!) fanciness (AUD 55 each for a 7-course degustation at Africa’s best restaurant) we were ready for some normal food again, and finished our last day in Cape Town with some seafood at the V&A Waterfront with Gareth, the friend who had taken us for dinner in Johannesburg on our very first night in the country.

Last but not least, we retraced our footsteps of 2006 (the first time both Tyson and I came to Cape Town) and visited Rick’s Cafe, the same place we randomly discovered on our first ever night  in the city.

And there it was. A full circle. A circle of food, roads, laughter, locals, animals, towns, beautiful scenery and memories so many they get lost in the vacuum.

It has been, without a doubt, and only in competition with my 7-month solo Europe trip at age 18, the best holiday of my life and my heart is full of thankfulness for every moment and every day that I got to experience this adventure with my best friend.

Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. – 1 Chronicles 29:13

The Garden of Plenty

“It’s like we’re actually driving through someone’s garden,” said Tyson from the driver’s seat on our first day on the Garden Route. The scenery outside was a combination of natural, sometimes flowering shrubbery surrounded by lovely mowed grass – as if someone with great love and respect of the natural beauty of the land had decided to make it just that little bit more inviting by making it ‘neat.’

The Garden Route, arguably South Africa’s premier attraction after Kruger National Park, is a roughly 300km stretch of road from Storms River in the Eastern Cape to Mossel Bay in the west. Incredibly diverse in its topography, scenery and vegetation, you could easily spend weeks just driving from one small ocean hamlet to the next and from one national park to another.

For us, it turned out to be a garden full of surprises – a playground perhaps, full of things to discover and experience.

In Jeffreys Bay, the seaside town famous for being one of the world’s best surfing spots (and more recently famous for being the place where, as locals say, “that Aussie surfer of yours tried to bash up our shark”), we sat and watched wetsuit-clad wave addicts attempt to conquer the super tubes. Our B&B, run by an elderly couple with retirement dreams of Malaysia, had a view of the ocean. The town itself was sleepy and almost a bit dodgy, not helped by the fact that we were there on a dreary, grey public holiday and that many houses were up for sale.

That being said, we did have our first amazing seafood encounter in Jeffreys Bay – an $80 seafood platter for two including lobster, prawns, mussels, fish, calamari, rice, chips, salad and a bottle of wine. It was so much food that after eating all we could, we were happy to pass on our leftovers to the township boy who had been minding our car for us – Bokonya, a fifteen year old boy in grade six with dreams of becoming a pilot. I made a note to pray for him and his future. It’s not easy for these kids to break out of the economic status they’re born into, as even though they mostly all get a basic education, there are no public universities. The only way for someone from a township to get a tertiary education is to be awarded a lucrative scholarship, and these are usually only offered to those wanting to study science and become doctors.

Our next stop on the Garden Route was Tulani – an amazing eco house set amongst the Crags (a small area of indigenous forest 12km from popular beachside hub, Plettenberg Bay). An absolute stellar Air B&B find, this house had a fireplace, high wooden ceilings and a curved roof made out of grass. From the upstairs bedroom you could see the mountains, and in the mornings the sun streamed in through the floor to ceiling windows.

In Plettenberg Bay (nicknamed “Plett”) we took a guided township tour, visited a local market, hiked 9km to the spectacular Robberg Peninsula and ate dinner at Emily Moon – a creative restaurant decked out in rustic wooden candle holders, African animal furs and hunting-inspired decor. Needless to say, our time in Plett was a highlight of this week!

The morning we left Tulani was sad and exciting at the same time – sad because we didn’t want to leave, and exciting because we were about to undertake a full day South African cooking class! Run by Albin and Jenny Kilzer, an Austrian / Croatian-Scottish-South African couple famous in the area (Knysna) for their longtable and ‘cook and look’ dinners, this class was an absolute joy. Starting the morning with coffee and soon progressing to wine, five of us (Albin & Jenny, both qualified chefs and one a qualified butcher, a German lady named Erika and the two of us) prepared no less than 5 dishes in 6 hours and tried a few more. At the end of the day, we sat together around the dining table to enjoy our creations, until Jenny realised she’d forgotten her daughter at school (again) (quote: “I always lose track of time in the kitchen!”) and it was time to leave with full stomachs, a few more eye wrinkles from laughing, and a whole folder of recipes to re-try at home.

After the cooking class, Tyson and I discovered our next home – a tent among the treetops with a kitchen, balcony perfect for bird watching (amazing, the new hobbies you discover…!) and an outdoor hot tub big enough for two. What a perfect spot! Our tent, and a small handful more of them, were scattered throughout the treetops of a farm in the hinterland of Knysna, and soon became another key spot on our list of favourite accommodations.

Unfortunately, our last stop along the Garden Route, Botlierskop Private Game Reserve (our most expensive lodging) left us a little less enthused after we discovered that our luxury tented suite had no running water. Nevertheless, the attentive staff, good food, lovely spa treatments and a wonderful afternoon organised by Tyson meant that I enjoyed a great birthday here before we hit the road again to embark on the last week – the gourmet end! – of our trip. To the wine region we go…

More soon!

The Road and the Rhino

We’ve driven over 1800km in the last 6 days. Some of those kilometres were through timber plantations, many through mountains and a few along the beautiful Panorama Route in Mpumalanga Province, which boasts some of South Africa’s most breathtaking views of the Blyde River Canyon, one of the biggest canyons in the world.

The kilometres have taken us through villages – some small and poor, others busy and vibrant; past shops with funny names (“Flamboyant Supermarket” and “God is Able Hair Salon”); past ladies selling oranges, pineapples and wooden bowls in ramshackle stalls along the roadside and past mums carrying babies on their back and everything from firewood to souvenirs on their heads.

We’ve learnt the art and etiquette of passing other motorists on single lane roads and discovered that the South African version of abiding by road rules is to not follow them at all (when in Africa…).

We’ve seen hundreds of people hitchhiking to work and slowed down for cows, goats, donkeys and people on the road.

Two nights each we spent at Ngama Tented Safari Lodge near Kruger National Park and Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, which were both exceptional in their own right.

Ngama is a honeymooners’ parardise – six luxury tents (think early 1900s colonial style decor with maps, canvas and beige/sage coloured fabrics) nestled around a small waterhole in the middle of a private reserve, joined by wooden walkways and secluded for absolute privacy. Dinner at Ngama is served in a boma, a traditional circular enclosure without a roof, made from thin sticks of wood and with a fire in the middle for cooking and warmth. Candles and lanterns lead the way to the boma along a sand path and hang on the walls of the boma to provide light for the tables.

Dinner at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi’s Hilltop Camp is a different story. The park’s most developed lodge, Hilltop, is situated – as the name may have given away – on top of  a mountain overlooking the rolling savannah hills below. This setting, spectacular as it is, is enjoyed by a vastly greater amount of tourists, many with children, meaning that dinner is a much less romantic occasion. Adding to this is the fact that the menu consists of a self-serve buffet and wine by the glass that tastes like it’s been watered down with bitter sparkling water. (Ironically, this is where we celebrated our first wedding anniversary dinner!)

That being said, Hilltop’s accommodation – our own rondavel cabin with a bedroom, bathroom, lounge room, kitchen and balcony visited occasionally by baboons – was clean and had everything we needed.

Though Kruger, South Africa’s biggest (it stretches 414km from top to bottom) and most famous national park was great, Tyson and I both agreed that the less visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (pronounced Shooshlooweh-Imfolozi) was our new favourite – not least because we had the great privilege of seeing 51 (!) white rhinos – Tyson’s favourite animal and one which was once teetering on the verge of extinction due to illegal poaching.

Poaching for rhino horn remains a major problem in Africa, driven mainly by demand from Asian countries which believe that the horn contains healing properties for anything from headaches to cancer. The value of rhino horn is said to be higher than the value of gold, and despite stringent security checks of everyone entering the park, it is estimated that one rhino a day is killed for its horn in South Africa alone. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, known for its large rhino population, is famous for being the park that brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

On all of our (self-drive) safari game drives, we were lucky to see herds of elephant, zebra, buffalo, giraffe and antelope, as well as rhino, monkey, lion and warthog families, a leopard and amazing varieties of birds.

It has been a truly African experience, and we have absolutely loved being on the wide open road and surrounded by nature.

Now off we go to the Garden Route…!

Expect the Unexpected

Well, Johannesburg, I was not at all prepared for this. High electric fences around houses, yes. Carjackings, yes. Not being able to just walk around wherever you like because of petty crime, rape, shootings – sure.

But no one told me about this.

I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. They have seemingly started popping up everywhere you least expect them to. Even in Johannesburg.

Yes, lo and behold, there they were, unmissable in their felt hats and second-hand clothing, sipping lattes and ordering superfoods in the middle of downtown Johannesburg’s new ‘safe zone,’ Maboneng. Hipsters!

Set up in 2009, Maboneng started out as an initiative by property developer Jonathan Liebmann to bring professionals and creatives back into the city. After the end of apartheid in 1994 and the country’s first democratic elections (won by Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress party), the city of Johannesburg had been plunged into uncertainty and transition, bringing with it a crime wave that swept through the city. Businesses relocated to the northern suburbs and left the downtown area to become a place of squatters, crime and violence – a no-go zone with a fearsome reputation.

Now permanently guarded by a host of private security guards, Maboneng is a thriving and fascinating oasis in which tourists and locals alike can shop, dine and drink coffee only streets away from the rough and crime-ridden streets of the downtown.

Effectively built around a large indoor international food market and a beer garden beneath trees, Maboneng is full of entrepreneurial pop ups (including ‘I was shot in Joburg‘, a photographic initiative giving former street kids professional photography training to get them out of poverty), quirky shops and alternative cafes.

Supportive locals hope that the zone will be broadened to make more of the city safe for the general population, and new apartments planned for the area are already for sale.

For us Maboneng, as well as the suburbs of Braamfontein and Melville, opened our eyes to a safe, creative and vibrant side of this city not commonly known and rarely mentioned.

From day one of our three-week wedding anniversary trip around South Africa, I have been forced to reevaluate my preconceptions. In a land so characterised by contrast, so moulded by history and so enriched by diversity, I can’t wait to see what other lessons I am yet to learn here.