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

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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.

 

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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 2

This is the story: a chronicle of my life’s adventures and those of my parents, who imbued in me a curiosity for the world. Over the course of the next however long it takes, I shall be delivering this story to you piece by piece, in succulent little bite-sized hors d’oevres of adventure and awesomeness. This is the second instalment. Let’s go….

Caravanning

South Africa road trip
Gravel path somewhere in the middle of South Africa’s “Little Karoo”

In between major travel adventures, my family would hitch our tiny, cramped caravan to our bright red Toyota Corolla, pack up a weekend’s worth of clothing, invariably wake up way later than intended on the morning of our departure (the Beckman men are always late) and go camping.

Over weekends and school holidays, we’d hit the N1 or N2 national highways out of Cape Town and drive for what would seem like an interminable amount of time before drawing up at some campsite, caked in dust, and just about ready to murder each other. At the age of about 11, I discovered the blissful joy of reading and so I would typically occupy myself with a book. My brother had, concurrently, discovered the blissful joy of pestering me and so we’d usually end up in a backseat brawl to which my father would shriek: “If you two don’t knock it off, I’m going to turn this car around…”

In this manner, we crawled our way around South Africa, rigging up our caravan and its attached canopy tent and spending days at a time living like hippies. Our family caravan had two narrow cots for us kids to sleep in and a dining section that converted into little more than a three-quarter sized bed for my parents. Each day invariably began with a loud fart from my father, followed by the smell of gas (propane) as he turned on the stove to make morning tea. A cup of sweet rooibos tea and a buttermilk rusk later, my brother and I would barrel out the caravan to a crisp, dew-kissed morning with unlimited possibilities for play.

South Africa landscape
Desolation Valley, South Africa

We explored the length and breadth of South Africa in our tiny caravan, from its East coast, rendered lush and green by the warm Agulhas current that courses adjacent to its coastline to the dry, desolate, yet dramatically beautiful West coast. Patchwork quilts of farmlands become landscapes dominated by rugged mountains and outlandish rock formations, which then give way to vast tracts of interior that are virtually featureless, save for a scattering of dry shrubs and the odd koppie. The towns here are decidedly one-horse; the kind of places where ostriches serve as guard dogs. It was pure magic.

South Africa road trip
A backyard in the tiny town of Sutherland, South Africa. This town also happens to be home to the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – the South African Large Telescope (SALT) – because here in the Karoo (a semi-arid region), there is so little light and other pollution the telescope has maximum visibility.

Again, I can’t tag any place names to the snapshot memories I have of those early adventures but they imparted in me a sense of scale and a corresponding sense of humility. South Africa is a staggeringly vast country with a diverse collection of landscapes to explore and the lessons this early travel taught me were indispensible.

It’s not all about you

toddler tantrum funny

Kids tend to think that the world revolves around their tender little bodies and needs. It’s why they sulk or cry when they don’t get what they want – the injustice is too much to bear! Yet, as a kid, travel taught me that there is an enormous world out there where comfort is, for the most part, a rare commodity. It exposes you to the cruel desolation of the deserts, the stifling heat of the tropics, the desperate poverty of cities, and the disquieting strangeness of foreign cultures, cuisines, and customs. Rather than shelter me from these humbling experiences, my parents had me participate in the discovery of it all.

Then, of course, there’s the discomfort of traversing the planet’s truly vast countenance. Hours spent in hot cars pestered by annoying brothers or cramped buses, airport departure lounges, and long-haul flights with nothing to do other than stare at the other passengers with the big, googly eyeballs I was yet to grow into. And, again, rather than shelter me from this discomfort, my parents taught me to be patient and to endure the punishment because the reward was the thrill of exploring new places. My early travel experiences became the framework for a worldview that is rare amongst children. And it was all okay because I could trust my parents to keep us safe, feed us when we were hungry, and let us fall asleep in their laps when we were tired. What more could a kid need?

Certainly not an iPad.

View from plane

Learning your insignificance

We all like to think that we are important in our environment. As children, we like to feel like the beating heart and soul of the family and as hormonal teenagers, we strive to be socially, physically, or academically revered at school. Finally, as adults, we work hard to be respected within the workplace and community. It’s therefore understandable that many people are intimidated by travel. Aside from the fact that we aren’t typically comfortable with strangeness, the vastness of the world takes the importance you’ve spent your entire life cultivating and makes an utter mockery of it.

You think you’re important? Go to a foreign country where nobody knows you and nothing revolves around you and see the world in motion completely outside of yourself. It’s humbling. This probably explains why most of my life’s epiphanies have taken place at 37,000 feet, whilst flying for hours over staggering tracts of glittering ocean, ice shelves, and deserts. There is a whole world out there and down there and it carries on irrespective of me. The only conceivable reason why this might sound depressing to some is ego. Let go of your ego and the world becomes a rich source of experience, education, and thrilling, unforgettable adventure.

It is all too easy for humans to become mired in their own comfort zones, which are awfully small if you have never set foot outside your own city. At an early age, travel made me aware of and comfortable with the vastness of the world and its treasure chest of new places, people, languages, foods, cultures, and views. That vastness has beckoned to me for as long as I can remember. And it’s thanks in no small part to my parents’ narrative of their own travels and the innumerable trips, both local and international, they took us on.

Thailand beach

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust Struck, Part 1

This is not just a collection of stories – it is the story: a chronicle of my life’s adventures and those of my parents, who imbued in me a curiosity for the world. Over the course of the next however long it takes, I shall be delivering this story to you piece by piece, in succulent little bite-sized hors d’oevres of adventure and awesomeness. There will also be tales of occasional idiocy and human flaw, for travel holds a mirror up to our inner selves and reveals both the beauty and the ugly.

Let’s go….

Tumbleweed parents

My travel family
My father, mother, brother, and yours truly (bottom right)

I grew up in a family who liked to travel. My parents had met in South Africa and weren’t married for more than a few hours before they boarded a Union Castle Line vessel – a working mail boat – bound for the United Kingdom that would take them far away from the meddlesome influences of my truly insufferable paternal grandmother. They subsequently spent the next two decades bouncing from one continent to the other, budget travelling harder than Syrian refugees. When necessary, they would drop anchor, get a job, and earn a little money, only to get itchy a year or two later and set sail for the next adventure.

My mother has a beautiful silver bracelet, which she has adorned with charms purchased in almost every new city or country she has visited. The damn thing just about weighs a pound, which just goes to show how well traveled my folks are. Its tinkling would also announce her impending arrival long before she entered a room, which saved my ass from trouble many times during childhood. Australia, Belize, Cambodia, Denmark, El Salvador, Fuji, Germany, Honduras, Italy…for every letter of the alphabet,they can name a country and at least a handful of cities they’ve seen. And so, my brother and I were raised on an intellectual diet of travel anecdotes, geography, and world history.

My parents are walking tomes of travel knowledge, which I have had the extraordinary privilege of tapping into my whole life, not only for the purpose of cracking High School geography but also for my own adventures. My father is particularly fond of recounting old travel anecdotes that end either in a comedic punch line or with someone getting diarrhea, and often both. My mother, on the other hand, loves to thoroughly research a country before visiting and so could just about bore you to death with a sweeping account of its history and culture.

To this very day, my parents speak fondly of five decades of travels as though they have just come back home from the airport. I can’t even get my dad to remember how to work WhatsApp properly and yet, he can tell you in exquisite detail all about their adventures in South America, camping out in the Amazon jungle, escaping political coups in Columbia, and visiting the lost city of the Incas in Peru, all the while dodging cases of “Montezuma’s revenge” and refusing offers of cocaine around communal camping fires. Moreover, he speaks as fondly of these harrowing experiences as one might of a long-loved, yet long-dead family cat.

With two brave, intrepid explorers for parents, I grew up with a particular vulnerability to travel bug infection, which was made fatal when they took my brother and I on our first international holiday.

Airplane taking off

Singapore and Malaysia

Having kids did little to interfere with my parents’ love of travel and in 1994, when I was nine, we were whisked off to Singapore and Malaysia on an epic three-week adventure of which I have a collection of faded snapshot memories. Starting in Singapore, I remember the cloying heat and humidity, it’s vegetal tropical smell, impeccably clean streets, the delicious coolness of its sleek, air-conditioned public transport system, and skyline of chrome-and-glass skyscrapers.

Singapore city

I remember waffles for breakfast at McDonalds, a spectacular waterfront area guarded by the mythical half lion, half mermaid (Merlion) statue, and spending a day at a waterpark. It was here that I fell completely in love with Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” orchestral suite, which was played as a soundtrack for one of the fun rides. It’s funny the silly things we remember as kids.

Singapore Merlion

Then, moving on to Malaysia, I remember sinister-looking komodo dragons sprawled out on a beach we visited, the awful smell of stinky dugong fruits in the open-air markets, and the enchantment I felt at watching amphibious fish called “mudhoppers” skip across the fetid mudflats.

Mudhopper fish

I remember being chased by cantankerous temple-dwelling monkeys, ordering apple juice off a restaurant menu and receiving a glass of chunky, pulverized apple, and, on a rickety bus ride somewhere, watching an old Malaysian gentleman eat some kind of cream bun and thinking, man that looks delicious. I remember relieving myself in the hole in the floor that was the bathroom of the island-hopping boat we had hired for the day and feeling terribly distressed that I had ruined the beautiful turquoise waters with a monstrous turd, the kind of which only back-to-back days of hard travel and strange food can concoct. I agonized over whether or not to tell my family to vacate the water but embarrassment won the day.

P.S. I was a kid – I stopped pooping the minute I became a lady.

Malaysia island boat

My early travels with my family are a collection of these sorts of snapshots: multi-faceted compositions of colour, sound, smell, visuals, and remembered emotion.

Travels in Southern Africa

About a year later, in 1995, our family and my parents’ friends embarked upon a safari style trip to Zimbabwe, catching a two-night train from Cape Town all the way to Bulawayo, a major city in southwest Zimbabwe. From here, we toured the country’s largest game reserve, Hwange National Park, and drifted for a few days in a houseboat on Lake Kariba. We hiked the Matobo Hills and took in the breathtaking Victoria Falls, even walking across the bridge to visit Zambia for a fleeting moment.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

I have a lasting impression of each place – again, all sensory compositions that are difficult to craft actual narratives around. I remember being young and feverishly excited by nature. I kept a list of all the birds and animals and would shriek in excitement every time we saw something new. I imagine my parents’ friends wanted to garrotte me on those lengthy game drives but my parents were nothing but patient; grateful to have a child who was enthusiastic about nature and travel. It’s rarer than you would think.

In 2000, I simultaneously embarked upon a journey through puberty and Botwana’s Okavango Delta, an oasis of waterways, lush vegetation, and sprawling savannah in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. We travelled with a guide and his elderly chain-smoking lady friend who drove us around in a weathered safari vehicle, cooked dinner over a fire each night, and told us the most spectacular stories about past adventures in the bush. We journeyed through a spectrum of landscapes and witnessed a staggering diversity of wild animals and birdlife, from African fish eagles and great eagle owls to little bee-eaters, crimson shrikes, and lilac-breasted rollers.

lilac-breasted-roller

We explored the delta’s intricate network of waterways by mokoro, a Botswana dugout canoe, and were treated to a flight over the region in a 6-seater propeller plane. How I wish I had discovered the joys of photography early on, for then my souvenirs of these magical places would be more than just a collection of memories, obscured by my inexorably advancing age and perhaps just a little tequila-induced memory loss.

Flying over Okavango Delta

I remember the acute sense of freedom I felt at being out in the bush with absolutely no fences to keep the wildlife out of our camp. At the time, I was also in a particularly cloying relationship with a boy who was excessively protective and quick to get angry if I didn’t pander to his insecurities.

To illustrate, he once showed up at my door on a night he was supposed to go out. When I asked why he wasn’t out partying with his friends – privately grumbling that my night of toenail clipping, series bingeing, and popcorn hoovering had been ruined – he told me that he couldn’t trust himself to behave so he decided to do the gentlemanly thing. I think he expected me to be grateful or proud of him for not cheating on me. Instead, I shat all over his head and sent him home. He stormed out the house, furious, which lasted about a minute before he came back knocking on the door to engage in further heated debate. I was 15 at the time and even though he was my first real-ish boyfriend, I knew bullshit when I smelled it.

The point is, going away to the Okavango Delta got me away from the noise and discomfort of a suffocating relationship and into the bush, where the distractions on offer invigorated and awakened my soul. Travel gave me such a healthy perspective on life, my problems, and the way forward, and it still does. Even though the spiders in Botswana are the size of cats, our campsite was routinely marauded by baboons, and a hornbill voided its bowels into my eye – not even exaggerating on that one – I absolutely loved it and will definitely make my pilgrimage back there before I kick the bucket.

Botswana Okavango Delta