Tuesday 24 June 2014

Thank you and hambe gahle

That means - thank you and "go well".

It was with some trepidation that I asked Francois to be my Guest Blogger during his travels.

Firstly, I thought, what a cheek - it is an imposition and too much to expect and, secondly I thought, what if things go horribly wrong and they have an awful time!!!

Anyway, I decided that it would be an interesting exercise, and, taking risks does add an element of excitement, so, I figured the pro's outweighed the con's.

On the first issue - I think Francois enjoyed his Blogging job - I don't think it did become onerous and, I guess, had he got fed up with it, he could have given up on it, with no hard feelings.

On the second issue - well...  Perhaps it is the nature of travel that things can and will go wrong.  It is how these hiccups are resolved that make the difference, and prove a measure of the worth of the tour operator or travel professional.  It is fantastic to work for a company that has such a solid reputation throughout our Region - our suppliers are diligent about providing a top class service, and, if for whatever reason they fall short in this delivery, they generally do all necessary to make good.

I think that the few hiccups that Francois encountered were speedily resolved.  The grumpy border officials, and in-efficient airline staff are probably the "luck-of-the-draw" in Africa and, actually, anywhere in the world!  I had a very interesting body-search by an American security officer once - I really thought he should have sent me flowers afterwards!  Often during my travels the border staff have been charming and lovely, but, once, travelling with friends and family, they were just revolting!

I think our guest blogging experiment was an unmitigated success and I enjoyed the experience a lot.

Thank you Francois for your wonderful African Tale!

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Monday 9 June 2014

Homeward Bound...

We've come a full circle - almost.  We are flying home as I write this.
Let me answer the easy questions first.
Yes we had a great time.
Yes we felt safe everywhere we went.  (Of course, we applied common sense and big city rules in our travel and were aware of that crime is an issue that South Africa is aggressively combating.)
Yes absolutely we would use Elizabeth Edwards as our southern Africa travel consultant again.
If one had enough time and money to visit one of the countries we visited which one would it be - South Africa is hands down the first choice.  Zimbabwe would be a close second.
Now for some final random thoughts and musings.
We've travelled extensively in the USA and internationally - pretty much as independent travellers. We wanted to do an African trip on our own without relying on a guided mass sales tour or using a package reseller who has never set in Africa.
The down side is that as independent travellers things can go wrong and as much as I plan and research (and pester Elizabeth with questions) the resolution of issues cannot simply be delegated to the tour leader.
We also recognize that we covered a lot of ground in various modes of transportation - after a few weeks of driving, flying, flight connections and such the rigors of travel would catch up with us.  This especially true when things happen at a much slower pace.  Or if minor expected conveniences such as a jetway to get to a plane, orderly boarding of an aircraft and an orderly retreival of luggage usually never materialized.
In many instances along our travels we were approached by people who wanted to sell us something or ask for spare change (even in Cape Town) and invariably one had to negotiate and bargain for many purchases.  That could be a grind.
We encountered first hand the issue of luggage theft and tampering in Jo'burg airport.  Very early in our trip one of our suitcases was tampered with - locks picked and contents ransacked but nothing of value or interest so nothing was stolen.  But we still felt violated on a certain level.    The solution was to wrap all our luggage for every subsequent leg of our trip.
And yes the domestic airline we used several time manged to lose one of our bags on one of the last legs of our trip.  Of course, that is an expected part of travel. The unexpected and unacceptable part is the lackedaisical and almost apethetic response to this fact of travel that we encountered.
Speaking of the domestic airline - carry on luggage (hand luggage) is a source of constant irritation for airline staff and passengers (all over the world).  Yet in South Africa we observed people who appeared to be locals ignore the airline rules with impunity.  In many cases the individuals would simply argue or walk past gate agents, ramp personnel and even the flight crew with a certain sense of entitlement.  Yet, over and over again the tourist types would be singled out for arbitrary and uneven application of baggage rules even when none were violated.  Full disclosure: I filed a formal complaint against the purser of one of our flights for her complete and utter unprofessionalism and extreme discourtesy.
As one reads this post one may get the impression that the trip was a dismal failure.  This is CATEGORICALLY not true.  We had a FANTASTIC time and have had memorable experiences which will continue to mould us as individuals interested in travel and more importantly as humans looking for a better future for all of us.
I mention and blog about our experiences not to dissuade anyone from making a simply magnificant trip to Africa.
I hope our experiences will prove helpful in others' planning and establishing a base line of expectations - both crucial aspects of a successful trip.  Keep in mind a trip to Africa is not similar to a trip in Europe or USA.
Elziabeth, thank you for all your help and giving me the opportunity to describe our experiences.
Borrowing a phrase, we indeed have dreamed the destination and lived the journey!

Hope many others do the same.
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Thursday 5 June 2014

Last Stop: Cape Town

Cape Town is a beautiful city.  We enjoyed our visit.  It is winter time now and many people we encountered asked why we visited in the winter.  Short answer is we planned the trip around our various safaris and as a bonus we would be in Cape Town during the Food and Wine Show.
Thus our expectation was for wind, rain and cool weather.  The weather turned out better than we had hoped.  We had wind (which prevented us from visiting Table Mountain) and made our return trip from Robben Island an hour long journey buffetted by waves and wind.  We had some rain showers that were brief and periods of brilliant sunshine that gave us great photos with colorfully lit clouds, mountains and landsacapes.  In a nutshell - the weather was variable and changed frequently but was not a factor except for the winds and the mountain.
The winelands and  peninsula tours were a nice way to see the natural beauty of the area and experience what the area offers.  Really enjoyable.
What we really wanted to do is visit Robben Island and The District Six Museum.  We did both and that gave us some more context and history - essential for understanding for where we are today.
As I mentioned the ride back from the island was long and rough.  It was on an old tug boad (the Dais) and most of us sat in the seating area below deck.  Most of us were glad to be on solid ground after the ride. 
A few people told me that the tug was used in the past as a cargo and prisoner transport ship to Robben Island.  Then, really how can I complain about a rough hour's ride when a similar ride for many was the beginning of years of confinement and deprivation.
The visit to the island gave us a better understanding of the island's history and past and current use.  The tour of the Island and the prison gave us a glimpse into history and the first hand experience of our guide made history alive.
Our visit to the District Six Museum was equally fascinating - in large measure due to our conversation with Noor - the gentleman who lived through the whole district six chapter and conveyed his experiences during the tour he gave us.
The museum and the island are powerful and constant reminders of history and the dichotomy that exists today in South Africa and in fact the entire world.
Amid the bounty of the land, great scenic beauty, and affluence of the Cape area lay the constant reminders such as the Cape Flats area and townships that we as humans have a long way to go - all over the world.
While in Cape Town we stayed in the V&A waterfront area.  A very convenient location that has tons of shopping and eating options.  I think, though, one our favorate parts of town is Bo Kaap and its colorful homes and excellent Cape Malay cuisine!
Oh - the food and wine show was a nice way to spend an afternoon to sample wine and food and interact with foodies.  (Some locals told us they avoid the event because it has become too crowded.)
That's all folks.
I'll have one last post with final thoughts and impressions on our trip.

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Dragon ladies and does lightening strike a tourist twice?

Let's answer the lightening question first.  During our Nambia trip we called on Elizabeth for help.  As we tried to check in to our lodge on the south side of Etosha we were informed that due to overbooking they could not accomodate us and we would be moved to the camp/lodge next door with a complementary dinner or game drive for our trouble.
It seemed like deja vu all over again.  We went next door and the place was definetely geared to the camper and backpacker.  In the meantine we had emailed Elizabeth with our predicament.
It is worth mentioning that a few days before our trip I had contacted the main office of the hotel to ask for reconfirmation, directions and GPS coordinates.  At that time they reconfirmed my reservation.
Anyhow within an hour Elizabeth and lodge staff informed us that there was an "opportune cancellation" and we would be moved back to our originally reserved lodge.  (I am very certain this would not have happened without Elizabeth's efforts.)
Moving on to dragon ladies and Namibian impressions.
During our stay in Namibia we came to appreciate that almost everything important is a two step process.  Let me explain.  Starting with our dragon lady encounters.
On arrival we queued up at passport control.  There were multiple officers handling passengers.  Most couples on line would approach an officer and would be processed accordingly.  When our turn came up we approached an officer together - because it is rather obvious that we are travelling as a couple.  Dragon lady cautioned us to approach her one at a time and if the other person was not called they would have to wait behined the line with their own travel documents.  The area was extremely crowded and noisy so I had to ask dragon lady to repeat her instructions.  She grew increasingly combative as my wife was called by the next available officer.  Meanwhile, dragon lady asserted her authority by asking me to repeat and confirm every detail on my passport and the entry form I completed.
In the meantime my wife was waiting with her officer because obviously we would have to be given the same duration to stay in the country and dragon lady was the more senior officer who would decree the length of our stay and the officers would have to coordinate!
When departing Namibia there were two officers. So logically (applying lessons learned from arrival) we approached the officers separately.  WRONG!!! Dragon lady II barely looked at my wife and continued to do what she was doing without any attempt to provide further instructions or start the exit formalities. After waiting several minutes and seeing that I was done my wife walked over to my line and off we go.
I wish that border control agents ( for whatever country) keep in mind that they help shape the first and last impressions of visitors.  I digress....
Securing park entry permits was an interesting process too.  At some parks like Etosha and Namib you drove past one gate where you filled out a form or provided some required details.  Payment of fees required a second stop.  Securing a permit to drive to the moon scape (mentioned in an earlier post) also required going to two offices in the same building.
Car rental process took forever both picking up and returning.  On pick up one agent literally counted and documented every ding and scratch (but failed to tell me that the GPS unit they rented me could not be recharged because the cigarette lighter was broken.  So I had a working GPS for a whole hour of the rental.)  The condition of the car and spare tire etc had to be checked at the exit gate again.
Returning the car required enduring a discussion about the exact location of a windscreen chip that was clearly prexisting and documented.  I requested a copy of the rental closeout paperwork - and had to get the copies in the terminal.
Why am I mentioning all this?  A long winded way to say nothing happens fast in Namibia.  If you are looking for western style speed and efficiency you will be surely frustrated and dissppointed.
If it is the destination that interests you and not the journey to the destination you will find the long drives on mostly dusty and unpaved roads boring and uninteresting.  If you seek rest stops, shops and places to stop along every road you drive you are in the wrong place.
In my research and reading I came across a blog that described driving on unpaved roads in Namibia as a "freeing experience."  I would not agree with that.  Driving in Namibia demands your full attention and wit.  Yet if you keep in mind that things are slower in Namibia, that driving will be slower than you may want, that your drive will invariably take longer - but all these are not negatives- you will have a good time and experience great natural beauty.
These are the realities if Namibian travel by road.  We heeded the realities and planned accordingly.  We were rewarded with spectacular landscape and nature. Along with a couple of moments when fatigue and the road wore us out.

Would recommend Namibia with the proper preparation and time - you'll enjoy it.
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Wednesday 4 June 2014

Off to the Dunes

It is day break so we are on the road again!   We are heading to the dunes.
Our drive is along C roads again and we make our way through two mountain passes - simply magnificient.  Another long tough drive but we are rewarded with splendid landscapes and a ton of photo opportunities.
We make the obligatory stop at Solitaire for apple pie and continue to our lodge about 30 kms to the south.  The lodge is set in the Namib desert with fossilized dunes within walking distance.
The lodge is approximately 60 kms (on a C road) from Sesreim - the gateway to Soussuvlei.  From Sesreim the big dune is about an hour away on a paved road.  Of course the trip took longer because we stopped along the route for photos and a dune 45 visit.
We did not climb "big daddy" but enjoyed walking around and exploring the area including Dead Vlei.
One suggestion - if you are interested in seeing the dunes in the early morning or late afternoon sun and lighting you may want to consider a lodge closer to Sesreim so that you will not have to drive too long in
the dark.
For us the lodge was a good base for exploring the area.
Besides the national park, a few other memorable moments: Taking a walk along hiking paths in the lodge area and enjoying the scenery with a setting sun, birds and the solitude of the desert.
Another enduring memory will be the night sky.  I am not an astronomer - but was fascinated by the number of stars we saw in the sky - so clear and so vivid.

From here we drove to Windhoek arriving in time for some shopping,  an almost mandatory meal at Joe's beerhouse ( very enjoyable meal with a mix of tourists and locals) and preparing to fly on to Cape Town to wrap up our trip.
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Tuesday 3 June 2014

Swakopmund! Does Zebra taste like Chicken?

Another early start - seems to be our Namibian routine.  Early breakfast and on the road within a half an hour of sunrise.
Today's mission - a long drive on C roads to the coastal city of Swakopmund.  Our drive was through some very scenic areas but very remote.  Along the way we saw a few Himba woman in their traditional dress selling their crafts.  Otherwise the ride was bumpy, dusty and long.
For the most part no other vehicles either.  We occasionally saw tourist types ( like us) but most were heading inland - in the opposite direction.  Most opt to do the circuit we are driving in a clockwise direction.  We are going counter clockwise for no particular reason.
No sighting of desert ellies along the way.  But a wonderfully strange experience and in an absolutely positive way - is the moment we approached the ocean.  The desert literally meets the ocean!  And a bonus..... a paved road.
We had decided to bypass the Cape Cross seal colony so we can take our time along the inland route and also to explore the coastal route.
As we drove south to Swakop we stopped in Henties Bay - a Namibian summer town with upscale homes.  The town was in full winter mode - mostly empty summer houses and only the locals minding the town.
Eventually we made our way into Swakop.  It was a national holiday - so as expected the town was pretty much closed down.  What a great opportunity to walk around for photos without much interference from cars and people moving around. The afternoon was also a good time to map out our shopping expedition around town - since the next day shops will be open for a few hours only - in actual celebration of the national holiday.
While in Swakop, we opted for desert exploration over cruise and ocean activities.  So after some shopping we headed out to a spectacular drive ( some of it on D roads - you've been warned!) to see landscape that is aptly called "moon landscape" and the wonderfully unique Welwitschia plant.  A truly great experience despite some tough driving conditions.
We enjoyed our stay in Swakop.  Our hotel was in all respects one you could easily find in Europe.  As a matter of fact, if one were blind folded and dropped off in Swakop one could easily conclude that they are in a Bavarian town.  (Many shop keepers would greet and address us in German as we stopped in their shops.)
We also enjoyed two excellent multi course meals in our centrally located hotel and at a moored tug boat.  Great service (totally unpretentious) along with the freshest of Namibian seafood including oysters and kingklip.  And I had a mountain zebra steak.  It was very good and did not taste like chicken!

From here we are going to the dunes....
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Monday 2 June 2014

Francois Ghanem - Now in Damaraland

Onward to Damaraland.
Our drive from Etosha area to Khorixas was an easy drive on paved roads.  Khorixas would be our  base for one night.  While planning the trip we made the difficult choice of reducing the number of nights from two so that we can workout flights and have an additional night in Cape Town.
We wanted to visit several landmarks in the area including Twyfelfontein (historic rock paintings), Organ-Pipes (rock formations), Burnt Mountain, and Petrified Forest.
Our run in paved roads ended a few KMs out of Khorixas. To get to the spots mentioned travel on C and D roads is necessary.  C roads are "primary" unpaved and have a posted speed limit of 100 KMs.  D roads are "secondary" unpaved and are much worse that C roads.  While one may get long stretches of C roads that handle almost like paved roads, there will be stretches that are rutted and uneven.  D roads tended to be like driving on a washboard.
Needless to say the drive to the sites was slow - as I had planned it to be - average speed was 60 KMs or even less on the D roads as we got closer to the sites.
Also keep in mind that it is not advisable to drive in the dark in Namibia.  So we simply ran out of time and did not see all the sites planned.  We actually decided to skip Organ Pipes and turned back due to the condition of the D road.
So after a day of mostly bone jarring and teeth rattling driving we saw some great rock formations and spectacular sites and landscapes - some of it reminicient of what one would see in the southwest of the USA.
Wish we had more time to explore but we must move on.  Two nights would be ideal to visit the areas of interest here and would strongly consider hiring a guide/driver for the day for a circuit tour of the sites.  I think this would be easier driving (you are not doing it) and will be more convenient and efficient in an allotted day or two.

Swakopmud is our next stop.
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Francois Ghanem - Self Driving in Namibia

We are in Namibia! We overnighted in Windhoek with high hopes of getting our rental car and be on the road by 9:30 AM at the latest - for our long drive to Etosha.
First thing this morning we had a very informative pre arranged meeting with Birgit - one of Elizabeth's Namibian colleagues.  The meeting reviewed our plan and was very helpful in answering some last minute questions I had.  Birgit's first hand knowledge of driving conditions throughout the country provided "real" confirmation to the stuff I've been reading and researching for months.
Anyhow, due to a car rental snafu (Disclosure: I made car rental arrangments independantly of trip arrangements made with Elizabeth) and really slow rental process (including actually counting the number of dings and scratches in the car) we got a start about 2 hours later than we wanted.  (more on that in a subsequent blog.)  So with little time to spare we made the long but easy trek (on paved roads - except within the park) in time to see a bunch of Zebras, elephents, wildebeasts and a wild dog - and another spectacular African sunset.
We spent two nights in a centrally located lodge in the middle of Etosha, and another night just a few kms south of the park.  So basically we had sufficient time to explore diferent parts of the park.
The lodge in the park was in a great location and allowed convenient access to a significant portion of Etosha.  Accomodations were practical and comfortable. We ordered lunch packs for our planned drives around the park.  The packs were very good and ample.  Dinners were a small buffet with the entrees cooked to order - typically a beef steak and a game steak grilled as one likes it.  I tried the Springbok steak here and I enjoyed it very much.  Staff was perfectly fine and helpful.
The lodge a few KMs outside the park  was good and in all aspects would be comprable to a mid level hotel in Europe or USA.
Now that is out of the way - let us talk about the park.  We did most the exploration on our own guided by a good map and seeking as many waterholes as possible.  We supplemented our drive with guided game drives offered by the lodge.  Both approaches yielded great game watching opportunities.
We saw more ellies, giraffes, zebras, wildebeasts and black rhinos - alas no big cats sighted.
The pan and varried landscape were a very interesting and beautiful backdrop as we looked for the animals.
A couple of highlights to mention.  On one of our independent drives we came across two ellies that appeared to be tussling in the middle of the road - with no intention of moving.  So we turned off the car and observed and waited....  As we waited we quickly recognized that the ellies were not fighting but were an amorous couple.  After they finished their " activities" the female ellie walked over in our direction and stopped about half a meter from the front of the car.  With my hand on the car keys we watched with interest and nervous caution.  Miss, or more aptly, Mrs. ellie looked at us raised her trunk and opened her mouth as in a yawn.  (she was so close we could see her teeth.)  At this point I slowly  took a few photos (could not let this go by) through the windscreen and started the car and slowly reveresed out of our spot.  Ellie seemed to lose interest and retreated into the bush.
Another fantastic memory was as the sun was setting on the park lodge's water hole.  Two adult and a baby black rhino came by to drink.  Simply magnificient!
We found the combination of the lodges, locations, and the three nights were ideal for our exploration of Etosha.  One could spend weeks exploring this massive expanse of a national park and without any doubt find every moment exciting.
A very rewarding experience indeed!!!
I think the "animal" portion of our trip is over.  Next, we are moving south and will focus on scenery in other Namibian national parks.  But who knows we may run across ( not literally - I hope) the desert ellie that makes Damaraland its home.

That will be our next spot and our next report.
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