All Aboard! MSC announces its INCREDIBLE plans for the new cruise season and the next 8 years

In Cape Town, MSC is one of the most widely recognised company acronyms. The name is emblazoned across the gargantuan hulls of the cargo ships that frequent our harbour and, of course, the name has become lovingly associated with luxury, all-expenses-covered sojourns into the Indian Ocean and beyond. Cruises and cargo: that’s MSC. But, since 2017, the marine brand has been hard at work plotting its upward trajectory, the ambitions of which would have Superman quaking in his crimson boots.

Ross Volk
Ross Volk, Managing Director of MSC Cruises South Africa

But “It’s better to set your sights high and fall short, than to set them low and always succeed.” This is the unofficial mantra at MSC, said Ross Volk, Managing Director of MSC Cruises South Africa during a media brief that took place Monday 19th August at the Old Harbour Conference Centre, Westin Cape Town. Seated around a conference table the size of a rugby field, 30 pairs of eyes grew larger and larger as he and Angelo Capurro, Global Executive Director at MSC Cruises, laid out the company’s plans for expansion, renaissance, and revolution in the coming decade – plans that have been on the drawing board since they kicked off their “second phase” in 2017.

But before I spill the goods, let’s take a brief look back at the history of this vastly accomplished cargo and cruise company.

Then and now

Unlike most other cruise lines, MSC is a family owned company with a family spirit. Its 50-year history began in 1970 with its conception as a cargo shipping enterprise in Brussels, Belgium, under the stewardship of businessman Gianluigi Aponte. Then, in 2003, MSC added commercial passenger ships to its offering and over the course of the next 10 years, enjoyed a monstrous growth of 800%. Today, MSC Cruises is the number one cruise line in South Africa, Europe, South America, and the Gulf, with 70,000 employees transporting millions of passengers to 211 global destinations on five continents annually.

“Phase Two” AKA Operation Reach for the Sky

Or should I say horizon?

The new phase of MSC’s expansion, which is as much about getting bigger as it is about getting better, is multi-faceted and has been laid out over a 10-year timeline, from 2017 to 2027.

“South Africa is an important market for MSC Cruises and reflects our broader growing investment in cruising globally,” says Capurro. “We have committed to launching 13 next-generation ships between 2017 and 2027, which will bring our fleet total to 25 and see our passenger capacity more than triple. Our total investment in these ships amounts to approximately R200 billion.”

This year alone, the company has added two new ships to the family: the MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa. But this is small news compared to the grand scheme of their designs; designs that bode exceptionally well for South Africa in terms of our choice of holiday destinations, our tourism, our economy, and our future.

MSC Grandiosa
MSC Grandiosa

I. Four ship classes

The company has identified four ship classes that are based largely on delivering the best possible experience to passengers based upon their desires and, to a lesser extent, budget. For example, ships in the Meraviglia Class are primarily for cruises in off-peak seasons, when the weather might not be so conducive to outdoor lounging. And so the ship is designed with more indoor space and a focus on indoor entertainment and activities. The Seaside Class, on the other hand, is tailored to travel itineraries in sunny, peak season travel with maximum outdoor space and sophisticated outdoor amenities, entertainment, and activities, giving passengers that ultimate “seaside” experience. Next in the portfolio is the World-class fleet, which delivers longer trips to far-flung cruise destinations. And finally, the Ultra Luxury Class: for people with more green than the Amazon rainforest.

II. Expansion and Improvement

Hand-in-hand with the development of these ship classes comes the addition of new cruise vessels to MSC’s already handsome portfolio of ships. As previously stated, the company introduced the MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa this year and have committed to adding one to two ships per year to swell their ranks to upwards of 27 ships by 2027 (that’s triple their current guest capacity). As for their original fleet, which has been in service since 2003, they have received a loving “make-over” and major upgrade through MSC’s Renaissance Program, so that they can offer passengers a modern, luxury travel experience.

Ever in pursuit of improvement and refinement, MSC is also evolving its fleet to offer greater comfort and a more seamless experience that begins on the shore already. Refreshingly, they are doing this by tapping in to their most valuable resource: customer feedback (don’t we wish more big brands would do that?) And so, the design of new ship prototypes has been largely dictated by customer feedback on the existing ships and the experience they deliver.

III. Partnering with the best-in-class

If you want to build a beautiful, sophisticated space and curate an unforgettable experience for your passengers, you need to work with a grand variety of partners who are considered the best in their class. And since a cruise ship is essentially a self-sustaining microcosm, MSC has established partnerships with people and brands that are considered to be at the pinnacle of their field, from top chefs, wine estates, and tech companies to entertainers, musicians, and even toys for kids. If you want to offer the best, you’ve got to work with the best!

IV. New infrastructure

More than mere ships, cruises, and cargo, MSC is set to revolutionise the cruising industry in South Africa by investing in infrastructure to enhance and extend the cruise experience and offering. This investment has been particularly noteworthy in the development of the Durban port terminal over the past few years: a R200+ million construction of a new world-class Durban Cruise Terminal as part of the KwaZulu Cruise Terminal Consortium (KTC).

“This multi-user terminal will make Durban an even more desirable destination for cruise ships from all over the world,” explains Volk. “It will substantially boost tourism numbers, create thousands of jobs, and lead to supplier development. All the partners in the initiative will shortly sign off the final design of the terminal and ground-breaking is scheduled to begin in November this year. We want the Durban Cruise Terminal to be an iconic destination. We hope the new port will be operational by January 2021.”

V. FREE training program for South Africans

“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy, 1961

MSC has made a commitment to the betterment of South Africa by introducing their Shosholoza Ocean Academy, which offers a FREE three-month training program (either in hospitality or some kind of trade) to 5,000 students. Upon successful graduation, these students can seek employment with MSC and work as many seasons as they wish.

In other words: it is a wide open doorway to a career at sea, whether it’s as a server in a fine dining restaurant aboard an MSC cruise, or as an electrician on an MSC cargo ship. Did I mention the Shosholoza Ocean Academy is free? It is, and with no obligation to even work for MSC upon graduation. This is just one facet of the company’s commitment to investing in the future of South Africa.

VI. More travel itineraries for South Africans

Finally, MSC has announced the addition of several new cruises and itineraries to South Africa:

  • MSC Opera will sail from homeport Cape Town from December 2020 to March 2021;
  • MSC Musica will sail from homeport Durban from November 2020 to April 2021;
  • Next season will offer over 60 cruises from one of two home ports (Cape Town and Durban);
  • And guests will have eight different itineraries to choose from: the most in Company history!

“Our decision to increase the number of ships for the South African cruise season in 2020/2021 is due to the significant growth in demand we have seen in our guest numbers over the past few years,” explains MD Ross Volk. “Our most recent season saw a 25% increase in guests compared to the same period in 2017/2018. MSC Cruises has been bringing bigger and better ships to this country and enriching our itineraries as more South Africans are realising that a cruise is an affordable, convenient, and exciting holiday option.”

MSC Opera, which can accommodate 2,500 guests and was completely refurbished in 2014, will offer 22 cruises next season alongside MSC Musica. MSC Musica can cater for approximately 3,200 guests and will offer 40 cruises. The ships will alternate routes, providing South African cruisers with a wider choice of options to suit their holiday needs. This means that both Cape Town and Durban ports of embarkation will get to experience the leading cruise line’s elegant and diverse product offering and enjoy more cruise destinations and packages than ever before.

One highlight of the 2020/2021 cruise itinerary is MSC Cruises’ 14-day New Year cruise around Southern Africa, incorporating destinations such as Portuguese Island; Nosy Be, Madagascar; followed by Port Victoria, Seychelles; and then Port Louis in Mauritius. MSC Orchestra will also make her maiden voyage to South Africa in November, offering three, four, and five-night sailings around the South African coastline until April 2020, visiting Pomene Bay in Mozambique – a marine safari experience complete with its own beach club – Portuguese Island, and Maputo.volk

Investing in the country’s future

“If there is one thing that can save South Africa’s economy, it’s tourism,” said Volk during his presentation of MSC’s incredible new plans, and with the company providing more cruise ships, more destinations, and more infrastructure for travel here in South Africa, not to mention a free training program that could give 5,000 students a career, they are guiding the country quite powerfully towards a better future.

What adventure awaits?

www.msccruises.co.za

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/23/all-aboard-msc-announces-its-incredible-plans-for-the-new-cruise-season-and-the-next-8-years/

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Where to See the Snow in the Western Cape This Winter

Snow in South Africa might sound as ill fitting as a giraffe in Antarctica, but every now and then, when a Western Cape winter storm system becomes particularly intense, it can cause temperatures to plummet to below freezing. In high-lying places along and beyond the escarpment, this cold snap can leave towns, farmlands, and mountains frosted in snow. Rather than seeking refuge from the cold, Capetonians and South Africans from further afield jump in their cars to spend a day or weekend cavorting in the wintry wonderlands; doing all of those things we see Americans doing in the movies, like making snow-men, lobbing snowballs at each other, casting snow angels, and… wasn’t there something about yellow snow cones?

Well, with winter fast approaching – bringing with it the possibility of snow – here are some of the Western Cape’s best destinations for seeing, playing, and, uh, peeing in the snow.

* All prices indicated are per person, per night.

Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve

Matroosberg nature reserve in winter
Snow capped peaks in the Matroosberg Nature Reserve. Credit: http://www.Matroosberg.com

Situated an easy two-hour drive from Cape Town, the southern slopes of the Matroosberg (of the Matroosberg Nature Reserve) frequently receive snowfall in the winter, and oftentimes heavy rainfall. After a good snow, the landscape remains painted white for several days after, giving visitors sufficient warning to plan a quick getaway. The nature reserve has even rigged up a private ski-slope, so if you’ve fallen in love with the sport on holiday in Sweden or Canada, you can satiate your craving right here in Cape Town’s own backyard. For overnight or longer stays, the Matroosberg Nature Reserve offers several accommodation options at Erfdeel Farm, from camping and ski huts to romantic candlelit cabins (seriously, they have no electricity).

Where: Erfdeel Farm, Matroosberg, Breede River, Western Cape
Contact: +27 (0) 23 312 2282, info@matroosberg.com
Web: www.matroosberg.com

Cederberg Wilderness Area

Cederberg mountain pass
View from the top of a Cederberg mountain pass

The Cederberg Wilderness Area in winter is strikingly beautiful with its vast plains and boulder-strewn slopes soaring skywards into craggy cliff-faces and rocky pinnacles. It is a landscape of grand scale in both the horizontal and vertical axes, and in winter, after a particularly cold spell, the high mountain passes, peaks (particularly Sneeuberg), and slopes can become utterly transformed by snowfall. Located three-hours’ drive (or 2.5 if you gun it) from Cape Town, the Cederberg Wilderness Area does offer self-catering cottages (from R640 per person, per night) and camping sites (from R120), just make sure you go prepared for the cold. Alternatively, you can book one of the many accommodation options (guesthouses, hotels, self-catering, and more) offered by found the two neighbouring towns of Citrusdal and Clanwilliam.

Where: Citrusdal, Western Cape
Contact Cape Nature: +27 (0) 21 483 0190, reservation.alert@capenature.co.za
Web: www.capenature.co.za

Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve

Credit: Cape Nature

Unless Table Mountain has received an unusual dusting of snow, the closest place for Capetonians to travel is the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve, which covers a wide swath from Elgin all the way to Stellenbosch. The Hottentots Holland is that craggy range of mountains we can see to the East of the city, by the way and, at only 90 km distance, it makes for a quick and fun day trip. The nature reserve is beloved for its spectacular, yet rugged terrain with its three highest peaks, Rifberg, Pike Mountain, and The Triplets, receiving the heaviest doses of snow. Rustic overnight huts with bunk beds, matrasses, wood, and running water are available (no electricity) at Landroskop and Boesmanskloof. Each feature four rooms and sleeps 30 people (from R240).

Where: Grabouw, Western Cape
Contact Cape Nature: +27 (0) 21 483 0190, reservation.alert@capenature.co.za
Web: www.capenature.co.za

The Boland Mountains, Kogelberg Nature Reserve

Located in the Kogelberg Nature Reserve near Stellenbosch and Paarl, the Boland Mountains are no stranger to snow during particularly cold spells in the Cape. The reserve itself, a World Heritage Site, is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Cape Nature’s protected areas and its exceptional diversity and quality of fynbos means it is also considered the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom. In terms of accommodation, the five glass-fronted Oudebosch eco-cabins afford guests breathtaking views of the reserve and sleep four people. Each cabin features two bedrooms, one bathroom, one en-suite, and a spacious kitchen, lounge and dining area, and goes for R1170 (1-2 people, off-peak), plus R390 per additional person, per night (max four). The Boland Mountains also span over the Jonkershoek, Assegaaibosch, Hottentots, and Limietberg reserves so if you’ve already been to Kogelberg, you have options!

Where: Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Contact Cape Nature: +27 (0) 28 271 5138, reservation.alert@capenature.co.za
Web: www.capenature.co.za

Hex River Mountains

Hex River Mountains in winter
The Mostertshoek Twins, Hex River Mountains. Credit: http://www.Fynbospress.co.za

The Hex River Mountains are the second highest mountain range in the Western Cape, so it’s little surprise that their sandstone 2,000-metre-high peaks are frequently kissed by snow during winter. Located an approximate 120 km to the northeast of Cape Town, between the towns of Worcester and De Doorns, the Hex River Mountains’ highest mountain is the Matroosberg, which even offers visitors two kilometres of ski slopes. For information on accommodation in the Hex River Valley, visit the tourism website.

Contact: +27 (0) 23 356 2041, hvtourism@telkomsa.net
Web: www.hexrivervalley.co.za

Langeberg Range, Robertson and Worcester

Langeberg Mountain Range in winter
Credit: Oudtshoorn Tourism (Facebook)

The wine growing regions of Robertson and Worcester are known for their snow-capped mountain views in the winter months, and there is also plenty to do here, from trout fishing in the lakes to historical winter walks through the town and, of course, wine tasting! The Langeberg is the mountain range that most frequently receives a frosting of snow in winter, particularly its highest peak, Keeromsberg, which lies 15 km to the northeast of Worcester. There is plenty of accommodation located throughout the Robertson and Worcester wine valleys – where you stay all comes down to your budget and preferences so check out the accommodation pages on the websites for Robertson and Worcester to explore your options.

Robertson Wine Valley
Contact: +27 (0) 23 626 3167, admin@robertsonwinevalley.com
Web: www.robertsonwinevalley.com

Worcester Tourism
Contact: +27 (0) 23 342 6244 or +27 (0) 76 200 8742, info@worcestertourism.com

Swartberg Nature Reserve (Gamkaskloof – Die Hel)

Swartberg Nature Reserve
Credit: Safari Now

Declared a World Heritage Site in 2004, Swartberg Nature Reserve stretches 121,000 hectares between the Klein and Groot Karoo, bordering the Gamkapoort Nature Reserve to the north and the Towerkop Nature Reserve to the west. The town of Oudtshoorn is 40km away. Visitors staying overnight sleep in restored cottages in the Gamkaskloof (otherwise known as Die Hel) and delight in the reserve’s rich heritage from the San rock art and artefacts found in caves throughout the reserve to its rich diversity of indigenous vegetation, including Renosterveld, mountain fynbos, and spekboom veld. There are self-catering cottages from R380 per night and camping sites from R150; alternatively, the nearest town of Oudtshoorn, known for its ostrich farms, has a greater variety and some sophisticated options for accommodation.

Where: Swartberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Contact Cape Nature: +27 (0) 28 271 5138, reservation.alert@capenature.co.za
Web: www.capenature.co.za

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/05/14/where-to-see-the-snow-in-the-western-cape-this-winter/

The Light House Boutique Suites: a Pearl Within the Paarl Winelands

A short 45-minute drive outside of the Mother City, lies a pearl within a pearl; a luxury guesthouse tucked into a verdant oasis of clipped hedges, flowering bushes, and winding garden paths, in the charming town of Paarl. The Light House Boutique Suites is a tranquil haven to retreat and recover from the rigors of the working week, or from travel, as is the case with 90% of the guests here. It was here that we found ourselves on what would turn out to be the hottest weekend the Cape had seen all spring. It’s just as well, because with air-conditioned interiors and a gorgeous pool at our disposal, not even Paarl’s sweltering heat could compromise our comfort.

The forgotten sibling

Paarl has been given somewhat of a raw deal as far as reputation is concerned. Forced to contend with the likes of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, the historic town has unfortunately lost out on a little bit of the attention it deserves. Sure, while Franschhoek may be a “fancy box of chocolates” compared with its more rustic cousin, Paarl is the real deal. Here, frills, fuss, and French charm are roughly exchanged for the kind of honest, rustic goodness that we all, at heart, find so endearing.

Luxury Accommodation Paarl, Cape Town

Named for the bulbous granite extrusion that stands sentry over the town (and whose constituent quartz and mica crystals make it glitter in the sunlight), Paarl – meaning “pearl” – features a fabulous array of diversions. Notably, a wine route dotted with exceptional wineries such as Avondale, which is an absolute must visit for great wine, an enchanting cellar tour, and a delicious lunch or dinner at its restaurant, FABER. The town is also home to a plethora of historic attractions and other top-notch restaurants like Noop, Terra Mare, and The Red Table at Nederburg wine estate.

Paarl Rock itself offers a decent hiking challenge and breath-taking views from the top. The Light House Boutique Suites, therefore, is the perfect base from which to explore the treasures this somewhat ignored town has to offer. Your biggest challenge will be extricating yourself from the sweet embrace of the poolside chaise longues or your bed’s Egyptian cotton sheets to go exploring!

Luxury Accommodation Paarl, Cape Town

Décor and aesthetic

The gentlemen that run The Light House Boutique Suites on behalf of the owners are Darrol and Hendrik, whose career has been unpacked in various disciplines of design and, according to their own testament, have “absolutely no hotelier experience”. Of course, you would never guess from the stratospheric standard of hospitality achieved here. Their design background, however, is evident in every quarter from the gorgeous artworks that thoughtfully adorn the walls to the unique design theme and colour palette of every suite. Even the dining room changes colour every day with the different themed tablecloths that are laid out each morning for breakfast.

Luxury Accommodation Paarl, Cape Town

At our request, Darrol was kind enough to take us on a brief tour of the guesthouse’s five suites, each of which has a unique personality inspired by luxury designer Ralph Lauren, with a dash of warm Africanism thrown in. Our particular suite, the Manhattan room, had black and white photographs of its namesake city with gorgeous lemon yellow highlights adding colour and vivaciousness to a design base of clean whites, warm greys, and crystal embellishments.

Luxury Accommodation Paarl, Cape Town

Luxury Accommodation Paarl, Cape Town

Every element of the design here – colour, texture, and otherwise – has been thoughtfully curated to achieve a theme and feel that is at once luxurious and comfortable. For this reason, The Light House delivers a level of comfort above that of any hotel; you don’t need to scatter your possessions and clothing all over the place for it to start feeling like “yours”. It feels familiar from the outset.

Weekend plans out the window

Outside, The Light House’s garden lazily sprawls down a series of terraces, culminating at the lowest level in an enormous crystal-clear swimming pool. Although temperatures soared in the thirties, the water was surprisingly icy and so we repaired to the poolside chaise longues on which we happily lounged with a glass of Avondale MCC 2010 in hand. With that, all of our carefully crafted weekend plans to give Paarl a thorough exploration went completely and utterly out of the window. I made peace with it, though. This place is so darned beautiful that I’d be willing to sacrifice the hours spent hiking Paarl Rock, visiting the Taal Monument, and enduring the unforgiving sun to remain within the cool, luxurious embrace of this tranquil location.

Luxury Accommodation Paarl, Cape Town

Outstanding service

The promise of excellent wine and food did eventually lure us from the pool and so we dined at Noop on Friday night and indulged in wine and lunch at Avondale on Saturday, both located a short drive from The Light House. We barely had to lift a finger; the staff made the bookings for us and even dropped us off and collected us in The Light House’s resident steed: a very sexy and sleek Limited Edition Chrysler.

From beginning to end, we were thoroughly spoiled and wanted for nothing. Anything your heart or stomach could desire, just ask and The Light House staff will pull the necessary strings (and pop the necessary corks) to make it happen for you. The staff almost constantly stands to attention at the bottom of the staircase and wherever you go – to your suite or down to the pool – you’re never far from the assistance you might need in getting a snack, a glass of bubbly, or arranging weekend plans.

High Tea, Luxury Accommodation Paarl, Cape Town

Take me back!

I stand stubbornly by my original sentiment – The Light House Boutique Suites is a pearl within a pearl, a verdant oasis, and a luxury guesthouse of the highest order; indeed, higher than any I’ve experienced previously. The fact that it has a smorgasbord of wineries, fine restaurants, historic attractions, and outdoor adventures at its doorstep is a plus but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle to get there.

Why seek pleasure outside when The Light House is already such an exquisite escape? 

For more information on the Lighthouse Boutique Suites, peruse the website at www.thelighthouse.co.za or call +27 21 863 4600 | +27 72 687 4516.

Address: 2 Lille Street | Courtrai | Paarl 7646 | Cape Winelands

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2018/10/11/the-light-house-boutique-suites-a-pearl-within-the-paarl-winelands/

The Cape is Alive with Wildlife!

From dolphins to dassies, caracals to klipspringer, and hartebeest to hippos: discover the incredible variety of animals we share the Mother City with!
Cape Wildlife dassie

 

One of South Africa’s biggest selling points is our abundant wildlife and yet, the general opinion seems to be that in order to see it, you need to journey outside of Cape Town. But, unbeknownst to many, the Mother City is alive with wildlife and, no, we’re not talking about the sozzled students stumbling about Long Street. We’re talking about wild beasts, the likes of which starry-eyed tourists travel tens of thousands of kilometres to witness and take brave “selfies” with.

True, we may not have lions roaming our streets, contrary to mislead foreign perceptions, but we do have baboons cavorting on the side of Sir Lowry’s mountain pass, dassies (rock hyrax) sun-bathing on exposed boulders, caracals prowling our peninsula, zebras mowing the lawns on the slopes of Table Mountain, ostriches in fields on the West Coast, and noisy African Penguins sharing the sand with beach-goers at Boulder’s Beach.

Cape Wildlife penguins

Boulder’s Beach
Address: Kleintuin Road, Simon’s Town
Contact: 021 786 2329

Between July and December, our coasts receive annual visits from Southern right and hump-backed whales, some of which come so close to the shore that you can hear them singing to each other and blasting water from their blowholes. To get even closer to these mammoth marine mammals, Dyer Island Cruises and Simon’s Town Boat Company offer frequent whale watching cruises from Kleinbaai and False Bay respectively. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for smaller critters, such as African penguins, Cape fur seals, dolphins, and, if you’re really lucky, Cape clawless otters.

Cape Wildlife whales

We also have sharks in our bays, the nocturnal spotted genet roaming our mountains, porcupines in our backyards, mongooses in the veldt, and the mightiest of antelopes, the Eland, in the Cape Point National Park. There are even hippos in Rondevlei wetlands, which, with over 230 different species of birds, is one of Cape Town’s most prolific bird-watching spots.

Rondevlei Nature Reserve
Address: Grassy Park / Zeekoevlei, Cape Town
Contact: 021 706 2404

Cape Wildlife cormorant

The Cape peninsula and surrounding flats, mountains, valleys, and even urbanized areas are riddled with pockets of nature that have persisted or been preserved in spite of our tireless efforts to dominate them. The Table Mountain National Park, for example, which is literally on the city’s doorstep, is home to rock hyrax or “dassies”, Eland, Red Hartebeest, Cape mountain zebra, the critically endangered Table Mountain ghost frog, tortoises, more than 20 snake species, and a glittering array of beautiful bird species, many of which aren’t found anywhere else in the country.

Cape Wildlife eland

Table Mountain National Park
Address: 5821 Tafelberg Road, Table Mountain (Nature Reserve)
Phone:  086 132 2223

Slightly further afield, but no more than an hour’s drive from the city, there’s the Cape Point National Park to the south and the West Coast National Park to the north. Both afford visitors the spectacular coastal views for which our world-famous city is known and are home to a staggering diversity of mammals, reptiles, and birds.

Cape Wildlife porcupine

Cape Town is bursting at the seams with wildlife and birdlife. So, look up from your travel apps, camera’s viewfinder, out the window, and beyond the sweeping views; examine the rocks, ravines, cracks, crannies, fields, farmlands, sky, rivers, lakes, and the glittering ocean surface; look for movement or a break in the uniformity and the Cape’s glorious and abundant wildlife will be revealed to you.

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2018/04/23/the-cape-is-alive-with-wildlife/

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

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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