Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Roadtripping reprised.

A while back I spoke about the joys of Road Tripping. This last weekend we went on a little adventure of the mini-roadtrip variety.

We picked a road out of Dunedin, and drove along it, our eyes peeled for interesting and unusual things. The first place we ended up was Moeraki, where there are these incredible round boulders. Honestly, they look like dinosaur eggs, and are big enough that I struggled to climb up on to one. The myth behind them is as follows: Maori legend tells of a great migration, in large sea going waka or canoes, which brought them to Aotearoa from their ancestral home of Hawaiki. That same legend tells of an ill-fated greenstone gathering trip of the waka of the Araiteuru people which was wrecked nearby.
While the remains of the vessel became a reef and kumara (sweet potato) became rocks, the round food baskets or te kahinaki were washed ashore and formed the almost perfectly spherical boulders scattered along a 50 metre stretch of the beach.
Click on the link for the legend, and a more scientific explanation.

These boulders are really awesome. But what was also wonderful was that the beach was just that: a beach. No punters, or stalls. No ice-cream sellers, or arcades. Just a beach, some awesome rock formations, and sprinklings of very pretty shells (some of which, along with some pretty driftwood, are now decorating our bathroom). A truly wild place. Marvellous.

We decide to head back towards Dunedin after that, but took a roundabout route. We followed a sign that said "Trotter's Gorge" on a whim. It led us to a truly beautiful gorge - like something out of Jurassic Park. Lots of big green ferns, and little caves in the rock face. We did a small walk, roughly an hour long. It was a bit of a work out up the hills (I am *so* out of shape!), but well worth it for the quiet, and the birds, and the general beauty. We ran into a few people while on the walk, and they were all friendly and nice. It was lovely.

We got back to the car, and, after a quick snack of fruit, drove out again. We followed a roundabout route back to Dunedin, which took us a lot longer than expected, but which was really quite exquisite. Seems in winter, it snows up there, since there were signs about the roads being open. There are bits of rock which look like they are left over from ages-ago glaciers sticking up out of green grassy plains, full of sheep. Hills rolling away to the horizon in every direction, with hardly a sign of human habitation. It was spectacular. Dusty, but spectacular.

It ended up being a pretty long drive home, but we discovered some amazing natural beauty close enough to get to in a day. It made me desperately want to move out to the country. Lots of the farms we drove past had bee hives, and we fantasised about having a little piece of land with hives, and chickens, and vegetable patches. We drove through a couple of character-filled little villages, with old colonial houses and a timeless sense of stability.

It was an awesome roadtrip, full of exactly the sort of surprises that roadtrips tend to include. We shall have to go out on a different road next time.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Ghost Mountain Inn

When we got married in South Africa, a group of our friends and family clubbed together to buy us a honeymoon at the truly exceptional Ghost Mountain Inn in Northern Kwazulu-Natal. This was, without a doubt, one of the absolute best places at which we have ever stayed.

Ghost Mountain Inn rests at the foot of (unsurprisingly) Ghost Mountain, which is a peak of legend and mystery. Ghost Mountain was the traditional burial place of the Ndwandwe tribe. Our guide told us the story as we drove back from a truly marvellous river trip (of more later): how the Ndwandwe were driven out of the area by the Zulus, and how they wrapped the bodies of their dead and smuggled them to their traditional resting place, having to avoid the Zulus now in the area. Apparently on some nights lights can be seen flickering on the mountain. It was also the site of great battles, and those spirits allegedly hang around there still. The full legend can be found on the Inn's website here.

We had a bedroom suite with bathroom, with its very own patio area, looking out over the most exquisite scenery imaginable: mountains in the distance, beautiful greenery despite the fact that we were there in winter - usually the dry season!

We were taken on what was the best game-viewing trip of my life. And I grew up in SA. I have been on a few! We took a boat on Lake Jozini. A and I were the only people on said trip, except for our wonderful guide, who's name, shockingly, I have since forgotten. She was awesome. We chatted about the wildlife, the birds, the obnoxious tourists she frequently has to deal with. We rode slowly along, savouring the quiet. And then, as we were wandering along the bank, an entire herd of elephants came down to drink at the water. I make it sound like it was sudden. It wasn't. We watched them for over an hour as they meandered down, checking us out, playing with the water and each other. Our guide knew them and their stories, and told us all about each animal in a way that made it sound like they were old friends. It was beautiful.

Now, I have been closer to elephants. I have been on game drives where they came right up to the vehicle. Let me tell you, if that doesn't scare you a little, you're an idiot. They are big, powerful, gorgeous creatures, and if they get mad, they can squish you. I love game drives, but the anxiety often colours the enjoyment. In the boat, we were safe. (Well, there were hippos, which are a whole seperate anxiety, but they were pretty much leaving us alone.) And so, we were able to watch them, and listen to their deep throated rumbling communications without fear of squishing. I have never so badly wanted to stay in Africa as that moment. Their beauty and grace, the realness of the place and the experience was awe-inspiring.

Back at the Inn, we had enjoyed the most glorious meals. Their lunchtime menu, which you can eat sitting out in the garden, accompanied by truly excellent obscure local wines, is a real pleasure. I have a picture on my desktop of a bottle of wine with glasses, and the view of the garden. Not a building or a vehicle or a telephone pole in sight. It is an amazingly soothing and rejuvenating thing to eat like that. Their dinner menu was not quite so fab. Don't get me wrong, it was very tasty, but it did feel a bit like the chef was trying too hard, to me. I far preferred the simplicity of the lunch menu, which was really very very good.

If you ever find yourself in South Africa, and you are looking for that game/safari experience which is just a little more authentic, and somewhat less touristy than the infamous Kruger Park, I recommend Ghost Mountain. It is close enough for day trips to Mkuze game reserve, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve (which has everything Kruger has, but with less tourists!), the St. Lucia Estuary, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site (and well worth a visit!), and a variety of other smaller places. It is quieter, more remote, and really very beautiful.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Dubious Delights of Dubai.

I think Dubai is overrated. There, I said it. People may get upset, because it is such a hotspot these days, but really, if you are not into shopping (I'm not), crowds (I'm not), spending lots and lots of money (I don't have that much to spend) and more shopping (I covered this didn't I?), it's not going to keep you interested for more than a day or two. It's a gigantic building site, it changes on a monthly basis, the roads go in different directions than they did only a few months ago, it's busy and expensive and polluted, and honestly I don't know what the fuss is about.

However, if you should find yourself in Dubai with some time to kill, there are some things worth doing and seeing, once you've spent all your money at one of the city's fifty million malls (well, if there aren't there will be soon!). For those of you who just tuned in, I lived in the Emirates for four years. I did not live in Dubai, thank all the deities that have or will or could exist. I lived in a much smaller, quieter place called Al Ain. But you cannot live in the UAE and avoid Dubai entirely, alas. So I am rather familiar with it, though there are obviously people who are more so.

One of the city's major advantages is that it is the stopover point for those long haul Emirates flights. If you're going from anywhere in Europe to Australia, for example, you may end up in Dubai for a couple of days. Likewise to places in South East Asia. If you find yourself in that position, it really probably is worthwhile to spend a couple of days if you can. And here follows the guide for people (like me) who are not that into big cities, but find themselves in this particular one.

My first hint is take water. Wherever you go. It is HOT. Even in winter it is hot. Believe me, no matter where you are from, this is HEAT. And it's coastal, so it is also humid. Upwards of 45C with a lot of evaporated sea in the air is not a fun and pleasant experience. You will dehydrate. Carry water with you.

My second hint is take a jersey. Now you think I am crazy - I just told you how viciously hot it is. Indeed. However, every building and vehicle you go in will be air conditioned. And some of them are a tad... zealous. Hotels, especially, can be chilly, and since, in Dubai, hotels are some of the few places you can get a cold beer, you may want to visit them. And then you'll be cold. Nuts, I know, but there it is.

OK. Things you really should do. Go to the Emirates mall if only to see the ski ramp. Artificial snow in the middle of a desert. This is an amazing example that money can, indeed, buy most things. See the snow, take a picture, then get out of there.

The malls, in fact, are probably worth wandering through, even if you don't shop. The architecture in Dubai is.... idiosyncratic. There is the Mercato Mall which is done in an Italian style. No wait. It's done in ALL the Italian styles. There's the Wafi Centre with its amazingly kitsch Egyptian theme, complete with a three story stained glass window and a giant glass pyramid roof. They are entertaining, to say the least.

But then there are some genuinely fun things. Take a dow on the creek. And I don't mean one of the happy tourist ones that take only you and your family on an over-priced guided creek-tour. No. Take it as it was intended - as a taxi from one side to the other. Clamber in with the everyday people and cross it like it's supposed to be done. Then go visit the souks on the other side. Again, you don't actually have to buy anything, but you'll get pashminas for 10 dirhams (that's less than $5 US). I saw the exact same types of pashminas in Covent Gardens in London for 30 pounds. But even if you don't want to buy stuff, it's worth having a look around. Go early - it gets very crowded in the afternoons.

For the more adventurous there are any number of dune-driving possibilities. People who will take you in 4X4s up and down dunes at incredibly steep angles. Not my cup of tea, but if it's your thing, you can do it here.

Visit the Blue Souk in Sharjah. In fact, really, if you do nothing else, you should try to do this. It's great. You can buy carpets in a good old fashioned bargaining way, although make sure you have dirhams with you and try to find someone who lives there to go with. The prices used to literally halve for us when we said we lived in Al Ain. There's plenty of gold jewellry too, for those who like that sort of thing.

And, actually, it really is quite pleasant at certain times of the year (i.e. NOT summer) to sit out on a balcony of a hotel or a restaurant and drink a cool beer or cocktail or fruit juice, depending on your preference, and watch the lights of this very new city come on. Just as long as you can ignore the construction cranes.

But I have warbled quite enough about this now, and there is much I have left out. Another day perhaps.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Road Tripping

The wonderful thing about road tripping is you find things by accident. I have indulged in two major road trips in my life, and countless small ones. The big ones were in South Africa in 2005, and Europe the year after. The SA one involved riding from Grahamstown to Cape Town and then back to KZN where my folks live. I had been to a lot of places along that route in my years in SA, but there were still things we found along the way that were totally unexpected.

One of many possible examples: My dad smsing me when we were in Swellendam, and informing me that there was a fairy sanctuary there. And sure enough, when we went looking we found said sanctuary - a quite delightful little garden filled with various figures and statues ranging from the tinkerbell-esque to garden gnomes, from fragile glass bubbles that looked like they'd burst, to gigantic squatting toads beside ponds. I was delighted! The boys (my husband and his sons) rolled their eyes and indulged me.

Or accidentally taking dirt roads on our way to Cape Town, because we were off the beaten track. And eventually finding our way back to the main roads via many little farm gates. You are so not supposed to do that in SA. It's generally considered fairly dangerous, but as it turned out, we were ok.

Or driving merrily through the Klein Karoo, and accidentally coming across
Ronnie's Sex Shop, a delightfully idiosyncratic bar in the middle of nowhere, run by one of those marvellous characters you only ever meet in the middle of nowhere on road trips. One of these days Ronnie will get his whole own post, so I won't say too much now. :)

Europe resulted in these little adventures too. Taking the road less travelled meant that we drove through many a teeny tiny towns in France. In one of these little towns we ended up having lunch at a restaurant the size of a small study, with a huge number of roadworkers. We were shoved in a corner, shared our table with French people we could barely talk to, handed a carafe of wine and fed a very high-carb meal. And you know what? It was probably one of my favourite meals of the whole trip. It was so accidentally authentic. They rolled their eyes at us foreigners, stood on no ceremony whatsoever, and allowed for a fabulous people watching experience.

Short road trips can result in this sort of thing too. A and I have already stopped randomly at a restaurant in the middle of a teeny tiny peninsula village close to Dunedin. It had a lovely little courtyard, and when they said, "go on out, we'll bring the menu to you" we certainly didn't expect them to bring out the whole big whiteboard they'd written the menus on.

I am all in favour of taking the road less travelled. It's slower, but the view is always prettier than a motorway, and the food is better too.

Monday, 25 February 2008


On the outskirts of Stellenbosch is a small vineyard named Skilpadvlei. In the (northern hemisphere) summer of 2005, we road-tripped South Africa, staying in bed and breakfasts and self-catering accommodation all over South Africa.

When we arrived in Stellenbosch (which was as close as we were willing to pay for accommodation to Cape Town, but still close enough that we could get there for day-trips), we struggled to find somewhere to stay. Fortunately for us, we eventually found this delightful vineyard. We stayed in a three bedroom self-catering cottage, with a view of a lake, and a herd (flock?) of ducks that came to breakfast each morning. The cottage was well within walking distance of the 'Vlei's lovely restaurant, as well as their wine tasting facilities. Needless to say, we tasted each of their wines, and bought some of each (there were only four at the time, but they may well have extended their range since then). It is really very tasty wine. Plus, it has a cool name: SkilpadDop[1]. And the label has a lovely picture of a tortoise looking mighty tipsy with a wine glass over his head. Of course, this also may have changed since '05, but I kinda hope not. *grin*

Skilpadvlei was an incredibly affordable place to stay (although we were aided there, and in most other places, by the fact that we were travelling out of season - the SA winter), and was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable spots we stopped. The cottage was really beautifully decorated, and it felt considerably homey. Add that to the surrounding landscape, and the general beauty of the Western Cape, and you have a perfect mix. Even in winter, it was warm enough to braai (barbecue, for those of you who don't speak Safrican), and we had a thoroughly wonderful stay.

Stellenbosch has a lot to offer as a town, although we really didn't get to spend very much time there, as we spent a couple of days in Cape Town, being tourists and meeting up with people I hadn't seen in ages! It is, however, a lovely historical place, and if you're into wine, I imagine there are few places in the world that can beat it for good wine, coupled with beautiful landscapes and affordability. It's close enough to Cape Town to day-trip, like I said, but not so close that, as a tourist, you end up having to fork over the Grand Tourist Destination prices. Plus, I personally think Cape Town is somewhat over-rated. *ducks to avoid the wrath of the Capetonians I know read this* In my own, and Cape Town's, defense though, I am not a big city girl, so if big cities are your thing, your mileage may vary on this. ;)

However, if, like me, you prefer the road less travelled, but still feel you ought to 'do' Cape Town (since it is one of *those* destinations), Stellenbosch is a good accommodation alternative, and if you choose Stellies as your base of operations, I thoroughly recommend Skilpadvlei as a place to stay. The people were friendly, the place is beautiful, the food at the restaurant is good SA fare, and the wine is really quite scrummy.


[1] For those of you who have no Afrikaans, a Skilpad is a tortoise, and 'Dop' is colloquial Afrikaans, but is used widely amongst English South Africans too, for a drink - specifically an alcoholic drink.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Boating on the Cam and Ouse

I have been dithering over what to write about for my first real post. So I asked my other half, and he suggested this, so this is what you get.

Part of our great Eurotrip was spending several weeks in England and seeing all of his family while there. We were sponsored five days boating on the Cam and Ouse by his dad and stepmom as a wedding gift.

As it turned out, we were there in a summer of record high temperatures. Unfortunately, they left while we boated. It was chilly. And one of the days was downright unpleasant, but in general it was a remarkably relaxing and enjoyable experience.

The boat we hired came from the Bridge Boatyard. I honestly don't remember the exact model, but it had two cabins, a bathroom, a teeny tiny kitchen, and a living area that could be enclosed or opened out, depending on weather. It really had to be pretty awful to close it though, since the driver could barely see out if it was closed.

The first day was really pleasant. We mooched along the river merrily, sharing the driving (although I ended up doing a lot of it as the boys lost interest in the novelty), and generally having a good time. We learnt how to negotiate the locks, though the first few took some practice. We stopped for the night at a little river-side pub where we met one of A's relatives for a drink, before heading back to the boat for our first proper boat-cooked meal. I honestly don't remember now what we ate, but it was fun. It felt ever so cosy, all hanging out in the teeny tiny boat's living cabin, closed in from the chilly night air.

We managed to ground the boat on what I think was the second day. A bloke had to come and help us get ourselves free. However, it seemed that there was some issue with the steering, so it wasn't entirely our fault. Starting it up was always a bit of an adventurous gamble after that. :)

There was one very miserable day, where I crashed viciously into the side of a lock while trying to fight the tide and the wind and not being able to see through rain. Fun. By the end of that day I was shattered. Exhausted and more than ready for bed.

But, really, apart from those two incidents, it was gorgeous. Being gently rocked to sleep was incredibly soothing. As was sitting at the front (I am sure there is a suitable nautical term for that, but alas, I am woefully inadequate when it comes to sea-faring lingo), reading my book and enjoying the scenery as it slipped quietly past. In fact, in general, the quiet was wonderful. It was remarkably peaceful, considering what a vastly over-populated place England is. We would occasionally pass another boat like ours, or a long boat, but generally people smiled and waved and were all very chilled.

One evening we met a couple of my online friends who I hadn't met in real life before, and had a pleasant evening feeding them fish curry and talking nonsense. Really it was an awesome way to spend a few days.

On the last full day, we found we had a long way to go to get back to the boatyard by the time we needed to the next day. So we rode fast and far, right up until the sun went down and we could hardly see to moor ourselves up any more. It was a gorgeous evening. The weather had been temperamental at best, but that evening the sun set slow and pink. The river was calm. We hardly saw anyone else, apart from several passing swans. It was an incredibly calm, beautiful, long evening, and by the time we battened down for the night, we were all feeling very chilled and happy. The next morning we woke early and got going, stopping only for our last breakfast of bacon, sausages and eggs, before getting back to the boatyard, and saying farewell to the vessel that had been our home for several days.

If you are in England in the summer months, and looking for something a little different to do, I would absolutely recommend this. It was a really different, exciting, and simultaneously soothing way to spend the better part of a week. It was fun, and really quite an unusual experience. Also, the first time I'd ever driven a boat, so, believe me, it's not that hard to do. :)

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Introduction - the travelling dragon.

Many people are constantly amazed by how much I have travelled in my mere 28 years. I have been to 5 of the 6 major continents, and my country list is close on 14 countries. What's more, I've often done it on a more or less shoe string budget. In the (northern hemisphere) summer of '06, my man and I roadtripped Europe with his two teenage sons. We travelled through eight countries, camping and eating lots of bread, cheese and salad. It was awesome.

So I thought to myself, what I should do is create a blog that helps people out when it comes to finding cheap or exciting or generally off-the-beaten track places to go, based on places I have been. Maybe some bigwig in BBC will find it, decide I rock and pay me to travel. Who knows? ;)

So, for anyone who finds this by accident, or who gets sent here by someone who knows me, let me introduce myself.

I am South African by birth and breeding, and heart. I lived in SA until the ripe old age of 21, when, having finished a degree in Philosophy and Drama, I came out of University, blinking in the glare of Real Life with no idea what to do next, so I ran away to America. OK, so it wasn't quite so dramatic - I went and spent the first of what was to be three summers in upstate New York working on a wonderful summer camp called Welmet. After the first summer, I was bitten by this travel thing, and proceeded to start looking for work that would allow me to go to far off and exotic places. I got a job teaching kids in the United Arab Emirates. Ended up spending four years there (having met the man I later married in my first week there!). During our summer holidays, we had some truly amazing trips. The first summer was my last in New York. Our second summer I took my man and his kids to South Africa, where we roadtripped around for two months or so, staying in various b 'n' b's, going to game parks, and visiting my all time favourite arts festival in Grahamstown. Our third year, we did the great Eurotrip. By the end of our fourth year we had decided we'd had enough of the UAE and were very ready to go somewhere new.

Thus began the strange transitory stage of which we are only now just getting ourselves out. We spent six months in York in the UK while waiting for visas and employment opportunities, which came in the form of a job for him at the Otago University in Dunedin. Which brings us to the present day. Here I am, sitting in sunny Dunedin, unemployed (though working on that) and finding myself with a lot of time on my hands. Thus this blog. (I may even do a couple of others...)

My next post, and the ones to follow, will talk about specific destinations and even, possibly, specific places we've stayed at. That way, should any of you be planning a roadtrip around SA or Europe, I'll be able to give you some ideas. Needless to say, if there is anything in particular you would like to know about, let me know, and I will do my best to oblige.

That's me. Hi.