Journey to the Southernmost Tip of Africa

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

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

Cape Agulhas Tip of Africa

The Agulhas Country Lodge

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

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

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

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

Cape Agulhas Tip of Africa

Dinner is served

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

Agulhas Country Lodge, L'Agulhas, Cape Agulhas

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

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

Agulhas Country Lodge, L'Agulhas, Cape Agulhas

Agulhas Country Lodge, L'Agulhas, Cape Agulhas

Falling asleep has never been so easy!

Cape Agulhas historic walking route

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

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

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

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

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

Seafood buffet and bubble bath

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

seafood cape agulhas

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

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

The Cape Country Routes

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

Cape Agulhas Tip of Africa
A lone fisherman

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

www.agulhascountrylodge.com, www.capecountryroutes.com

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

Advertisements

One-of-a-kind Wine Tasting Experience at Esona Boutique Winery

Esona wine Robertson South Africa

When one speaks of the internationally-renown Cape Winelands, the leafy, winemaking towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek tend to dominate the limelight. Yet, two-hours outside of the city lies a pristine valley, where winemaking tradition, history, culture, and talent is as strong as it is in its celebrity counterparts: the Robertson Wine Valley. Here, a constellation of wineries contributes tirelessly to the wine culture of our country and a shining star among them all is Esona Boutique Winery.

“The very one”: single vineyard, limited release wines

Esona, which means “the very one” in Xhosa, lies sandwiched between the towns of Robertson and Bonnievale in the heart of the Robertson Wine Valley, with the Langeberg to the north and the Riviersonderend Mountains to the south. From the second floor of its pretty winery, one gets a sense of orientation and views of vineyards that extend all the way down to the Breede River, the valley’s central artery that supplies all the farms with life-giving water.

Robertson Wine Valley South Africa

Floating like a stalwart ship in an ocean of green vineyards, Esona’s winery and underground cellar is a compact building that caters to every expectation: stylish interior with charming historic elements, delicious food platters, a lovely selection of wines, friendly staff, absolutely gorgeous views, and a unique underground cellar tasting experience. In order to get there, one is required to walk through a short section of vineyards, which is testament to the boutique status of the estate because if they had hoards of visitors, the plants would likely suffer.

Girl power at Esona Boutique Winery

The assistant winemaker at Esona Boutique Winery is Charmaine, who, in addition to obliterating the male winemaker gender stereotype, worked her way up from farm labourer to her current position. If anyone has an intimate understanding of the grapes and the vineyards, it’ll be the person who once tended to them with their very own hands.

In this way, the family behind Esona are dedicated to empowering their staff and the people in their community, not only by hiring them, but by training, mentoring, and allowing them to realise their full potential irrespective of where they started out in life. Wine tasting assistants are able to become managers, and farm labourers are able to become wine makers. These individuals have the talent and the team at Esona gave them the necessary education, skills, and techniques.

Esona Wine, Robertson South Africa
Photograph credit: http://www.esona.co.za

A candlelit, Riedel glass wine-tasting in the “Kuip”

Upon arriving at Esona Boutique Winery and after a welcome glass of their fresh “Frankly My Dear” Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir, our party of four descended into the quiet, dimly-lit, and intimate space of the “kuip”, the underground cellar. Decades ago, in the era prior to the adoption of sophisticated climate control technology, winemakers would build great cement cisterns underground where temperatures were cool and protected from the daily fluctuations. Within these great subterranean cisterns, the juice from the grapes would be allowed to ferment in peace, producing quality, delicious wine. The old cellar at Esona has since been reconstructed to accommodate guests such as us and for one of the Cape’s most unique wine tasting experiences.

Esona underground cellar wine tasting
Photograph credit: http://www.esona.co.za

And so we sat down to an absolute must-do of an activity for any visitor to the Robertson Wine Valley: a “vertical” wine tasting (and food and music pairing) from Riedel glassware. On the table were two vintages of three different wines from Esona’s collection – a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. The idea is to taste the difference between the two vintages of the same wines and how an extra year or two plays out beautifully in the character and depth of the wine. The tastings were also done using famous glassware known as Riedel glasses, which have been specifically crafted to draw out the subtlest of flavours and most nuanced of aromas in specific cultivars.

Esona wine Robertson

The Chardonnay glass, for example, was elegant, long-stemmed, and had a round, almost fish bowl-shaped (not sized, unfortunately) vestibule. This shape is said to complement the voluptuous character of Esona’s Chardonnay and to allow its rich buttery, caramel notes to sing. The effects of the shape of the glassware on the flavours and aromas of the wine were highlighted by sniffing and sipping the same wine out of low-end restaurant wine glasses. For someone with an education rooted in the sciences, I was at first sceptical, but the difference was not just perceptible but significantly so!

Riedel glassware is the creative collaboration of talented and experienced glassblowers and winemakers, the product of which is the perfect vestibule from which to enjoy your Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc.

Riedle Glassware wine tasting
Photo credit: http://www.riedel.com

Wine, food, and music pairing

In addition to the vertical tasting and the use of Riedel glasses, there was a third and a fourth element: a pairing with Lindt chocolate and fruit preserves and music to match the wine. Our round of Sauvignon Blanc was enjoyed with light, classical music, while the Shiraz had country music as its soundtrack.

Every element of our visit to Esona Boutique Winery – the tasting, glassware, sweet accompaniments, music, views, food, walk through the vineyards, and of course Esona’s limited release single vineyard wines – was lovely and came together to create a (highly recommendable) symphonic experience.

Esona Robertson Wine Valley South Africa

Contact Esona Boutique Winery:
Phone: 076 343 5833
Website: www.esona.co.za

This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2018/01/15/one-kind-wine-tasting-experience-esona-boutique-winery/

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

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

– Brian Jackman, award-winning British author and journalist

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

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

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

Leopard in grass South Africa safari

The Welgevonden Game Reserve

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

Zebra drinking South Africa safari

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

Birdlife South Africa safari

A Home for the Heart

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

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

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

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

Warthog rolling in mud South Africa safari

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

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

Mhondoro Dining Experiences

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

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

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

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

The Watering Hole and Game Drives

Mhondoro luxury South Africa safari

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

Funny baboon South Africa safari

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

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

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

Kudu male South Africa safari

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

Leopard in tree South Africa safari

Sunrise snacks and sun-downer drinks

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

Sunset South African safari

In Closing

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

Lions South Africa safari

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

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

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

Cape Town’s prime whale watching spots

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

Southern right whales

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

The Cape’s Species of Visiting Whales

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

Whale Watching Cape Town

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

The Cape’s spectacular and diverse marine life

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

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

Whale watching spots in and around Cape Town:

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

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

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 5

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

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

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

Living large

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

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

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

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

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

Tequila! Hollywood, Los Angeles

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

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

Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

Ostrich birds South Africa

Silver Linings

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

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

I was in heaven.

Rags to riches

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 4

Orange River Rafting

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

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

Daytime on the Orange River

Orange River rafting South Africa

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

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

Orange River rafting South Africa

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

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

Don’t date those people.

Nighttime on the river

Orange River rafting South Africa

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

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

Earning your experience

Orange River South Africa

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

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

Oh, and I earned a distinction in astronomy.

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, Part 3

The Lion King

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

lion king toys

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

cat Shrek sad eyes

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

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

How?

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

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

Budget traveling

budget travel

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

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

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

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

Penguin Antarctica

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

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

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

Grand Canyon