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.