Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Friday, March 27, 2015

6 Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Africa

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

On the day of our arrival in Victoria Falls, Paolo had scheduled a sunset tour. We are in Victoria Falls for 3 nights but no, this travel agent had to pack it in, all at once. We arrived at our hotel at 2 PM and had to be ready for our pick up jitney at 4 PM for a river cruise; one more item to rub Paolo’s nose into. A good travel agent can be a blessing or like Paolo, a stumbling block to ones enjoyment. I don’t like to be rushed from one event to the next.

Our pick up at the Kingdom Hotel was on time at 4 PM, but like always on these tours, we had to visit 2 other hotels for additional pickups. The weather looked threatening with rain clouds on the far horizon, yet the small craft for our river cruise left from its docking place regardless. It was tied not at a pier, but just a spot somewhere along the Zambezi River. The boat was tied up with long ropes to a few palm trees on top of the bank. A group of dancers and singers, again in imitation regalia, were set up to give us a send off while we struggled down the river bank using old car tires laid down as provisional steps on this perilous staircase. It felt improvised and temporary. Yet, the crew was all smiles and very friendly. Instructions were given to us in “English “on how to use the swim vests in case of a mishap. They forgot to show us however where those life vests were, just pointed to a spot on the lower deck, we were on the upper level. Included with this river tour were a free drinks (alcoholic or not) and some light snacks like peanuts and a kind of tapas.

The Zambezi River is Africa's 4th longest river (after the Nile, Niger, Congo) and runs for about 2574 km from west to east. We are at about the half way point and the river seems massive; maybe even more so because it has retained its wildness. The shores are not developed. Our boat moves along at a slow speed always heading up river. Jungle creeps up to the banks of the Zambezi and wild animals can be spotted from the decks of the boats, or so we are told. Hence our sunset cruise. Large islands, 5 km by 1 km, litter the area with water channels between them that might even be deep enough to allow boats to pass. One must know the way in this maze; it is easy to get lost. Everything looks alike; I found it difficult to find a visual reference. We were in search of any kind of wild life while nibbling on our snacks and sipping our drinks. Progress on the water is slow. Even though we hugged the river banks, no animals were to be seen.

Lightning now flashes in pairs and triples in the distance, the temperature drops, the sky grows more ominously dark. Other boats, similar to ours from all along the river, now converge in the hunt for any kind of life along its bank. It feels like going fishing, sitting and waiting for the big strike. A few raindrops start to fall but luckily the upper deck has a roof, we are OK. The sky however tells me more rain will pour on us soon. After some time of fruitless “hunting” for animal sights, we turn around and head to our old docking spot. On the way back however, the captain tries one of the side channels and sure enough a small heard of hippos appears. The animals are submerging and rising. Like whales, they appear, take a breath and disappear almost immediately. Carol has more patience than I have and took some pictures; it was difficult to even get those. One smaller hippo yawns, showing his huge mouth; this is a scare tactic to frighten predators away.

Now it rains with the wind pelting us sideways, the crew rushed to lower the canvas to give us some needed shelter. The captain turns the boat and heads back to his base, the dock near the Palm trees. The same group of Dancers/Singers in their traditional regalia; are now singing loudly for our welcome back. A rather stocky, large girl is showing off with high kicks, a shaman dressed man stands near, looking bored. The rain stops, maybe the Singers song worked. We did not see many animals, not even Impala, the normally most abundant species in any park. We did not get any sunset pictures. The sun, being obscured by the heavy rain clouds, did not shine on us. We did see Hippos, not well, but then one cannot predict nature’s ways.

Back at the Hotel, after reading our choices of activities in Vic(toria Falls) we decided to take a day off for some R&R and booked 2 outings for the following, the 3rd day. Our start for the day was a guided tour of the famous Victoria Falls. Since we are in a tropical region, we decided on the earliest walking tour possible. So our pick up was at 8.30 AM. We could have walked to the National Park entrance but since Carol is not a good walker and my colitis is acting up again, it is better we take the bus. The admission to the falls is a stiff US $30. The temperature is already warm for our taste. A large group of Japanese Tourists seem to shadow us; or we shadow them?

Our tour guide was a nice guy but did little.  One does not need a guide at this park but he came with the booked tour.  The way along the falls is well marked and straight forward. There are 16 viewing points along the 1.6 km wide falls. The waters of the river fall into a gorge and are twice as high as the Niagara Falls and the volume of water is immense. We understood that the best time to see the full volume of water pouring over the cliff is near the end of March, but what we saw was still impressive.

The best view of the falls is from the Zimbabwean side (where we were) but Zambia (across the gorge) has access to the Devil’s bathing pool. We did not go to Zambia, we just watched from the Zimbabwean side. We watched the Devil’s pool spot immediately at the very edge of the perilous drop of a huge amount of water where some daring people took a dip. Locals helped those daring tourists to get in and out of the devil’s pool using a rope. In the past some folks slipped and were never found, gone in the turmoil at the bottom of the gorge. What a fate.

This gorge, zig zagging at the bottom of the falls is narrow and deep and carries all the water of a 1.6 km wide river compressed to maybe 300 meters width. The result is a tumultuous amount of water. If you are daring you can go on a rubber raft ride down in the gorge. Even the advertising for this ride showed people flipping out of the zodiac kind of craft, being thrown into the water. Sorry, not at my age, I’ll pass on these ‘adventures’. I am not such a good swimmer anyhow, not even with a life vest on. Our walk along the falls ended at viewpoint #16, where we saw the only bridge spanning the Zambezi River for miles and miles around. This is the only bridge to drive a car across. You can imagine that this road, this spot leading to the bridge was busy. The old bridge, built in the colonial era, narrow and not built for modern traffic, but still doing a good job, is a god sent. We are at the end of our visit to the World famous Victoria Falls, now we must walk back, through the jungle, to the starting point for our pick up, not along the falls again. This is a ‘shortcut’ and is only 1.2 Km long.  Baboons are our companions. It is near 11 AM by the time we reach our bus and the temperature is near 30 C and if feels humid and steamy. We have walked near 3 km on this tour. Not good for old bones like ours in heat and not feeling too well. Colitis is not a fun illness.

Sure we could use a rest after walking that much but we booked our next trip for 11 AM. We opted for a birds eye view since the area is rather flat. We booked a 12 minute helicopter ride, the cheapest ride possible but still an astounding $ 140 US/each.
But then I ask myself how many times will I come here, this is a once in a lifetime experience. I have been on choppers before and they serve a purpose, like a car. The pilot took us for a large figure eight ride over the falls and then returned to base for his next 4 passengers. It was like a bus ride, like a shuttle run. Yes it was a view from the top but the walk along the falls was a better experience. The good thing to see from above was how the gorge snakes its way away from the falls and turns into a river again.

We were done for the day, too hot; back to our AC room at the “The Kingdom” hotel for a siesta. My colitis is acting up again, wonder what I ate that caused this. Travel is difficult if you can not eat what is normally offered.

Tomorrow we are off to Chobe, Botswana.

5 Travel To Zimbabwe, Africa

Zimbabwe, Africa

To get from KNP, ZA (South Africa) to VictoriaFalls, Zimbabwe, we had to sacrifice one day at Hamilton’s Tented Camp and leave right after Breakfast on day 2. Too bad, I really liked the camp at Hamilton's. So our little rent-a-car got a work out. Two hours of slip sliding through sand, mud and gravel finally got us to a paved road. Now we still needed to get through the Kruger Gate to sign out with the park police service. A mere routine, but needed in case one got lost in this huge expanse of wilderness. Then, once back into “Civilization”, another 2 hours to find a hotel for the night next to the airport. The manager of the Hamilton's Camp made some reservations for us at a Guesthouse in Hazyview, about 2 hours away from the airport and we even went to take a look of the place, but decided to not stay there. Too remote from any store or restaurant and the whole general appeal was not to my liking. We drove on and ended up in White River for the night. It is still about 45 minutes from Nelspruit’s Airport, but better than being 2 hours away.

Our flight was at 7.40 AM and, according to most domestic flights we thought we had to be at the airport 2 hours before take-off. So we arrived at the locked gate to the entire airport at 5.40 AM. Yes, the total airport was locked down for the night and the sign said the gate will open at 7.00 AM.  What to do?  We called out and a sleepy guard approached us and after taking to him and telling him we had an early flight he let us slip through the gate, but closed it right after us again.

We found the car rental return but of course nobody was there. So I wrote down the full tank, the KM off the odometer, the location of the car and dropped them, along with the keys through a small slot of the Europcar rental office. The whole of the Airport was empty. All the stores and shops opened at 7.00 AM or later. We killed the time by reading but I did miss my morning cup of tea. Sure enough, at 7.00 AM the metal, roll down grates, started to screech and life began at Nelspruit's airport. Forget about the 2 hour rule, this is Africa.

The flight to Johannesburg was booked well, not full but not empty. The layover at Joburg was just good enough to find the next terminal and get ready for the flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The airport in Joburg is huge. We got a workout walking from terminal B to terminal A and then to the correct gate. We had to ask for directions; it is easy to get lost in this place.  The emphasis is on shops, not on logistics for travelers. I felt I was in a shopping mall with gates for flights just thrown in as an afterthought. Not a good layout for transfers like us.

Arriving at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe saw all that changed. This airport is rather small and as soon as you step off the plane you are greeted with hot, humid, sunny temperatures. There is no shade as you line up to go through a single door to apply or pick up your visa. Everybody stands in the boiling sun, guarded by self-important personnel to pass through this door. So like cattle ready for slaughter, one moves forward, one person at a time. Each person must show their passport and boarding card to be allowed inside the building.  Once inside the building the queue starts again for another official to determine if you already have a visa, if you need a multi entry or a single entry visa. Then you stand in another, but more appropriate line, to obtain your visa. They want Cash only, payable in US Dollars. Carol had to pay 75 Dollars for her visa while I paid only 30 Dollars. I guess it depends on your passport. The visa was glued into the passport, the scribbled writing on it illegible but we had a visa and they kept a bunch of people busy and took our money.

We now had to find our pick up for the ride to the hotel. Easy enough, the driver had a sign held up and as we approached he was all smiles. On his placards were our names and another party consisting of 3 more people. Would we mind waiting for the others to show up? Well, did we have a choice? We waited sitting on steel seats in the lobby of the small airport; watching the coming and goings of all the other passengers being picked up and driven to their respective hotels or places. After some 20 minutes the other party we were waiting for had not shown up yet. The driver with the placards still stood in line waiting. We waited. Another 20 minutes passed and I asked the driver what the holdup was, since I saw him on his cell  phone talking with someone. He explained that the other party had paid for a visa in their home country at the Zimbabwean embassy but this information had not arrived at the border crossing. So now they are “working” on it. After another 20 minutes they finally agreed to take Carol and me to our hotel regardless of the other party.

The waiting for me was horrible. I have a low tolerance for inadequate performance, for illogical approaches to a problem, for being herded like cattle or dumb live-stock. Yet I managed to be civil. The total affair and arrival in Zimbabwe showed obvious short comings in the administrative end of dealing with people. The dancing group, clad in regalia, which awaited us outside the lobby gate, did little to give a different impression. In fact, to my mind, it only emphasized the perception of how we, the tourists, should view the local population. I am not here to fix anything in the Zimbabwean way of life; I just observe and write what I see. What I see is inadequacy in handling common sense situations.

We are now at the Kingdom hotel. A Las Vegas kind of tourist hotel with all the same amenities
Down to the one armed bandits at the casino and the black jack tables. Only, nobody is playing them. The whole of the gaming pits are empty. I wonder why? Could it be bad planning? The locals sure cannot afford to put up the ante of $ 5 for each hand at the blackjack table. The tourists did not come here to gamble, who planned this? 

4 Hamilton's Tented Camp, Kruger Park, South Africa

Hamilton’s Tented Camp

Having watched our safari drivers in the past few days, I learned how to negotiate those dirt roads a bit better. Those guys weave along the road, avoiding small millipedes, slow way down for water crossings, shift down for uphill sections avoiding elephant droppings and basically use the whole road instead of just staying on the left. It also helped to see which roads they mostly drive on so we found the Camp fairly easily once we left Hoyo Hoyo.

The welcome is hearty. All the paper work is already prepared. A welcome letter, handwritten, lies on the desk in our room. There is never a feeling of time pressure. The folks here like to chat. Everybody introduces themselves by saying his name. So far it is a male oriented society.

The theme of this tent camp is 1880, at the height of the British Empire and maybe the decor was inspired by the movie “Out of Africa”. This place feels like a movie set. Situated on a bend near an almost dry riverbed, it is shaded by a huge, old Sausage Tree with Jackal-berry trees nearby. The service people wear uniforms. Each room is a separate large tent containing teak floors, a large bed with a mosquito net, air conditioning, an outside shower with hot and cold, running water, a safe for valuables and any kind of comfort one can imagine. No Wi-Fi, this is a safari camp, not a business hotel. The food is excellent, it surpasses Hoyo Hoyo. We had ostrich steaks for dinner. I never had this meat before and it reminded me of filet mignon, yet had its own flavor. If you’d like a spot to be pampered, a place to get away from it all, try the Hamilton’s Tented Camp. After your visit we can compare notes. For sure this is Africa; there are always different ways of looking at things. The outside shower could have been cleaner; the elevated wooden boardwalk to our tent could have used some maintenance, but never mind all that, Hamilton's Tented Camp is a great place.

Unfortunately, we could only stay one night of the booked 2 nights. Our travel agent messed up big time. Our departure flight is booked for 7.40 AM; normally an ok time with us. We were told by Paolo that the drive from the Camp to the airport would take 90 minutes. So, we would be leaving at 4.30 AM. Hmmm!  This is way too early, but we never thought about that when booking, but OK, we can do it. The problem is; nobody is allowed to drive on the dirt roads in the dark without a guide. In fact, if you want to go from the main lodge to your tent (room) after dark, you have to tell the hotel staff. They will provide a guide for you. Nobody is allowed anyplace after dark without a protective guide. This is wild country, right here at the camp are predators whose job it is to eat you. So driving is out of the question unless it is light outside. On top of that, the main gate to the park, Kruger Gate, does not open until 5.30 AM at the earliest. Our Camp is 2 hours along dirt roads from this gate. The total driving time is not like Paolo told us 90 minutes but rather 5 hours. So it is impossible to make a 7.40 AM flight and all the following connections without staying the night before our flight near the airport; Hence our change of plans. We will notify Paolo of our dilemma once we get internet back, we might even pay him a visit once back in Cape Town. He will not like what I intend to say to him but such is life.

Our truck safari ride from the Hamilton's Camp was a bit different than what we had experienced at Hoyo Hoyo, too. This driver, Dries, spoke English I could understand. Sweet Boy, the previous driver (yes that is his official name) had a strong, tribal accent and to my ears was not comprehensible. Carol managed better with Sweet Boy, yet had issues as well. Anyhow, Dries’s parents were British and Afrikaans, he spoke both languages fluently. He was so much easier for my deafness to deal with, even though I had to pay close attention to Dries’s speech.

Not only did Dries drive us and spotted many animals but once we discovered them, he explained in detail about each animal. He told us facts I did not know: the fact that a giraffe only sleeps 17 minutes a day; that a giraffe never lays his head down it’s entire life; how to tell a female from a male by just seeing their heads, etc.; how to tell what animal walked through the sand and when, by looking at their foot prints only. He knew the names of obscure creatures like various moths; the difference between the 4 kinds of Zebras in Africa; the issues that Kruger Park faces today, with poaching still being a major problem. He also explained the mistakes Kruger made in the past and is now trying to rectify, the supplying of water for example, to dry or marginal areas which shifted the Eco balance and in the long run was detrimental.

He told us of the over abundance of certain animals. There are 18,000 Elephants in the park when the ecology can only sustain about 10,000. What to do? Culling does not seem an option, the park service fears the public repercussions would harm the protective image of the park. Yet, to have almost double the amount of elephants is not good for the land. Elephants are very destructive to plant life. They damage trees in just a matter of minutes that need decades to regrow. An extra 8,000 elephants do a lot of harm.

Then there are the weird laws of protection. The cheetah is not on the protected list. There are only 115 cheetahs in the whole park, yet some ruthless hunters pursue them regardless of their rarity. The Chinese, no longer able to get “Aphrodisiacs” from Asian tigers, now pay poachers for parts of African lions. The trade is illegal but then, so is poaching in general and here in Africa, the enforcement of law is a little soft. Poaching is nothing new. Ever since the colonial days, people made a living by supplying what the market wanted.

The situation of decimating the animals for profit or fun was so intense and so profitable between the years of 1850 to 1900 that it shocked people. The gold rush of South Africa around this time further created havoc for the wild life. That is exactly why large areas where set aside to become protective parks, like Kruger National Park (KNP). It took the then South African government (Transvaal Republic) 10 years to bring the plan to fruition but by 1884 a law was passed to protect the area between the Sabie and Crocodile Rivers as a preserve and restricted hunting area. While this original “Sabie Game Reserve” was the start, it expanded over the years to what it is today. 20,000 Square KM of Kruger National Park equals the size of Wales in Great Britain. Sure it all started around 1880, yet not until after 1920 was the park truly established.

The driving forces behind the park were men like Hamilton and Kruger. Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic, had the vision of a protected area and the political clout. JamesStevenson-Hamilton, as the first Warden of the Sabie Game Reserve (today’s KNP) had the foresight to expand the game preserve and allowed motorized traffic (tourists) into the park as early as 1927. It was the start of a whole new way to shoot animals, just bring your camera and shoot away.

And shooting we did, with Dries’s help we were able to see 3 of the rare cheetahs; far away but unmistakable. My camera was not good enough to get great shots, yet Carol’s new camera worked like a charm.

On another outing Carol took a video of a male lion tracking a female lion in heat, calling for her to come to him. It was strange sound, primitive and yet so natural, a deep guttural roaring and grunting, loud enough to be heard for miles. A bit shocking yet all part of nature.

3 Hoyo Hoyo , Krueger Park, South Africa

Hoyo Hoyo   (Welcome, Welcome in Shangaan)

What is Africa without Safaris? We booked a bunch of them, all in National Parks through “The Flight Center” travel agency in Cape Town. We know about this travel agency because it has offices throughout the world and we have used them before. Paolo, our young service manager, did his best to come up with a tailor made plan. Kruger National Park was our start. Hoyo Hoyo Lodge was our first experience with the way modern Safaris are organized and run.

We started off by leaving Cape Town on a 10 AM flight to Nelspruit (Mbombela). After which we took a rented car to drive to Kruger. Have you ever driven on the left side of the road, in a stick shift, under-powered, four cylinder car in Africa, where goats and cows cross the street unattended, where jitney buses pick up passengers on a whim, stopping at odd places along the highway? Use directional signals? What are those? Top that with missing signs for major highways and soon you will get the picture. We got lost, even though we had a map but no GPS. Not badly lost, but to the point where we stopped at a police station to ask for directions. Carol listened to the police man telling her to go to the 3rd rowboat, and then make a left. A rowboat? Well it sure sounded like that to my ears, too. It took us a while to realize he meant for us to make a left at the 3rd “Robot”, their way of saying traffic light. So it took us a while to get to Kruger Park. Once we registered our car and ourselves with the park police, we drove another 6 KM to the Entrance gate and after each of us paid our 67 Rand in cash, we then had to find the Hoyo Hoyo Lodge. Yes, there were some signs, but we are now driving on dirt roads, in the wilderness. There are just a very few lodges inside Kruger park; an area as big as Wales. Wild animals are about in abundance, some literally the size of elephants. Yes we met 3 bull elephants on our 1 and a half hour search for our lodge. I think we did extremely well, considering the bumpy road, the sand traps or slick wet spots. Top speed was 40 Km/hour. There is nobody around to ask for directions. We bought a somewhat map of the park at the entrance and asked for verbal directions, too. But, like the rowboat directions, not a lot of what was given to us made sense. Amazingly we did not get lost yet the feeling of unease was constantly present while driving down those sandy, gravel dirt roads. One constantly second guesses oneself with questions like “do we make a left here or a right?  Did we go the 10 KM listed or is it still further? Even at the Entrance sign to the Lodge we had the option to go into 2 different directions, which is the right one?  It took us close to 5 hours to drive from the airport in Nelspruit to the Hoyo Hoyo lodge.

We were relieved once we arrived. The welcome at the lodge was friendly and all was prepared for our stay. We had an imitation African hut for a hotel room, furnished in African d├ęcor and colors with an outside shower. The hut had all the things modern hotel rooms should have. Most of the fixtures even worked OK, but signs of neglect or lack of care made it clear that this lodge, while rated 5 Stars, had short comings. I would give it a 3 Star rating. The food, however, was very good and plentiful.

Our first Safari tour began the next morning at 5.30 AM. Wake up call at 5 AM. Just a quick cup of tea or coffee and we are on our way. Naturally it rained, even poured last night, and some spots on the gravel roads and in ravines were flooded. In fact it still rained lightly when we climbed on the open seated, small Toyota truck. We were given rain ponchos, a good thing. Not only was it cooler than expected, it sure was nice to keep the spray off, too.

The driver of the truck knows the area well. Knows each animal, bird or tree we had questions about. He seemed like a walking encyclopedia when it came to the life within Kruger Park. Our excursion lasted 3 hours. Yes it rained off and on during this time. Click, click went the cameras, but the 10 people on board the truck were very quiet. Hardly anybody spoke. Sure, once stopped alongside the road to take pictures of a giraffe, for example, questions arose. But mostly everyone on the tour seemed awe struck. We saw many herds, many animals. Elephants, Buffalo, Gnu, Impala, Kudu, Springboks, Baboon, Turtles, etc., etc. The highlights for many were a few Lions. We had to track the Lions down by driving off road, literally into the bush, squishing young trees or flattening small old stumps to get to the Lions. Quite amazing what those Land-cruisers kind of trucks can do. It was a good outing, despite the rain.

Back at the lodge at about 8:30 AM, we had our breakfast. You could have any kind of eggs, plus any kind of breakfast meat, etc., fresh fruits, cereal, yogurt and more. No complaints about the food, it was delightful. Lunch came next at 2 PM and it was a combination of high tea and sandwiches.

At 4 PM the next Safari started and again it lasted for about 3 hours. Again we searched for any kind of animal along the edge of the roads. We did not drive into the bush but kept to the gravel roads. This time, as if the animals knew we were looking for them, we hardly saw any. Sure we met a Giraffe here and there and of course Impala, but no more large beasts like Lions, Elephants or Buffalo. Oh, we did see a Rhino, but it was so dark by then that good photos could not be taken. The Rhino was also too far away to determine if it was a black or white Rhino. The darkness set in rather fast.

At one point, on the way back to the lodge, our driver turned not only the lights on on his truck, but held a portable, strong searchlight. He shone this searchlight rapidly from left to right and back again alongside the sides of the gravel road. He did it so fast that I wondered what he was doing. Then, all of a sudden, he pulled the truck to the side of the road, next to a bush and pointed. “See”, he said. See what?  All of us on the truck looked, but could not see a thing. “A Chameleon”: he said. Now we all stared at the bush but still could not see anything. He was puzzled that we could not see the creature that was right at eye level and we were puzzled that he could spot something as small as a Chameleon while driving at 30 KM/hour down the road. This guy was amazing. He could see things we were totally blind to. Yes, the Chameleon was there, someone folded down some branches and there, right in front of all of our eyes, a mere yard away sat the small creature. How our driver could have seen it I will never know. He told me something about a reflection from his hand held light but never mind that, nobody on the truck could see anything even remotely close to a reflection. Just to prove that this was no fluke, he drove his truck, holding his handheld light and a few miles further down the road he found and then showed us another Chameleon. He was simply amazing.

After this late outing, about 7.30 PM was dinner. We had great food again. I had oxtail, Carol had quail.
The following morning, again up at 5.00 AM for another truck tour. It was downright cool that morning, our last day at Hoyo Hoyo. The rain surely cooled things off. I am not sure if this was the reason we hardly saw any animals or if we were just lucky on our first outing. We even drove an extra 30 minutes and stopped at a lake to see Hippos and Crocodiles, but all we saw was one lonely Hippo in the middle of the lake. Carol got a good photo, but there were no animals about. We even went up a hill to get a scenic view over an expanse of veld, yet again, no animals. Sure a herd of Impalas, even a small herd of Buffalo, but that was it. Carol managed to get a picture of a warthog in its burrow, still sleeping. We also saw ostriches and storks. I guess it was too cold for most of the animals, they decided to sleep in that day.

Still, the ride was not a waste. One sits constantly at the edge of the seat looking left, looking right in search of a sighting. Kind of like hunters but our only weapon is a camera, yet the feeling of a “hunt” is still there.

After breakfast on this day, after settling our bill, we moved on to our next stop; the “Hamilton Tented Camp”, some 30 KM away, hidden someplace along the dirt roads that criss cross Kruger Park. All we have to do is find it.

2 Nelson Mandela - South Africa

Nelson Mandela

Every child knows of Nelson Mandela. Here in South Africa, especially in Cape Town, the name Mandela is seen everywhere. Yes, there is a Mandela Square, Mandela Street, Plaza, Park, etc. etc. Mandela’s picture is seen on book covers, buildings, magazines, souvenirs and T-shirts. Mandela is everywhere, on everything. I understand the need for people to express themselves with the happy feelings his name invokes, yet I cannot help thinking that too much of a good thing is detrimental to the cause.
Mr. Mandela sure did not have a great life. He is the symbol and the idol of the down trodden. He is the man who fought the system and ultimately won; the man who would not give up in his belief that all men are created equal. Mr. Mandela was also the man, among and along with many of his peers, who was punished by the prevailing government at the time and jailed for decades for his point of view. He spent 27 years in jail because the old South Africa would not, could not, or did not want to see the new light Mr. Mandela and his friends tried to show them and show the world. The light that clearly shone with the brightest rays told the whole world that Africa is not a dark continent. The radiance of those rays showed that all the people of the world are one color, like light is not just white but has many spectrums. Mr. Mandela is (was) the embodiment of this idea. Now he is shown to all as the man who overcame all that was forced upon him.

Mr. Mandela ( prisoner # 466/64 at Robben Island ) spent 18 years of his life sentence at Robben Island, part of this time in hard labor splitting rocks with small hand tools in a quarry at 40 + degrees Celsius in summer and freezing cold temperatures in winter. The bright light reflecting off the almost white limestone created eye problems for many prisoners. Mandela had many eye surgeries in his life. In the end he had no way to shed tears. Mr. Mandela, when sad, could not cry. He slept not in a bed inside his isolated cell, but on thin, old, rag blankets on a straw mat on the concrete floor. Imagine how cold this would be in below freezing temperatures when there was no glass in the windows and no heating. He was deprived of food, not allowed to talk to inmates, censored for his writings and regarded as a man who committed treason and incitement to revolt. His life sentence was given to him because he spoke up publicly against the policies of the government. He condemned Apartheid and did in no way agree with the point of view of the then all white Government. He was a thorn in their eyes. He was a trouble maker. He was removed from the public and stuffed in a jail. Along with many other men who thought likewise. But even in jail he wrote letters and articles that were smuggled out somehow and published in newspapers and magazines. Mr. Mandela was known even while in jail. He was a prolific writer and held to his belief that treating people of different colors differently is wrong. He paid a dear price for his point of view. He suffered, he became ill, and he was deprived. Basic human needs were unmet. Things like respect, family and love were also denied over and over.

What struck me as ironic was a series of pictures shown at an exhibition where the Queen, Elisabeth II, met with Mr. Mandela for a photo opt after the end of Apartheid. Watching their faces in the pictures told me a quiet story of dealing with the hateful past and adjusting to the new reality. One outstanding character trait of Mr. Mandela was that he truly could and did forgive his jailers. His beliefs were that the past should be forgotten and he forgave all of them, even the people that physically tortured him so that the country could move forward into a new era.

South Africa today is free. South Africa is a mix of people from Earth, people of any color, dark or light or any shade in between. All are considered equal. Although the South Africans now have personal and religious freedom, they do not yet enjoy economic freedom. There is still a great disparity between the “haves” and the “have not’s”. Hopefully, with the help of the rest of the world, the new light can shine into the hearts of the rest of humankind. Free schooling should be offered to all, especially for the destitute would be a good start. The future of any country is inherited by the young. Let the young people be the ones that carry the torch for all to see throughout all of Africa and the whole of this planet.

Robben Island today is a museum. Mr. Mandela’s cell is a monument to freedom. His way of life in jail is a deterrent for governments of the world to consider. North Korea should take a close look at Robben Island. Many Asian countries need to start to believe that we are all one people, people of this Earth no matter the color, the culture, religion or heritage.

Thank you Mr. Nelson Mandela! Thank you to all the other, less mentioned friends of Mr. Mandela who are not so famous but suffered the same if not more.

1 Cape Town, South Africa

Maybe we did not book smart but the flight from Toronto to Cape Town, via London Heathrow, took a long time. We had too much time with the layover time at Heathrow. Not enough to explore London. We just vegetated at the airport. We left Toronto at 10 PM on a Friday and arrived in Cape Town at 7 AM on Sunday. Both flights were solidly booked, no room to spread out.

My first impression of Cape Town?  Great !

A limo service driver helped us find an inexpensive way to get to our pre booked hotel. He helped even though he did not get our fare. He was a nice guy smiled easy and did not ask for a tip.
We took the red Sportline Shuttle service for 270 Rand for both of us from the airport to “The Three Cities Inn” directly on the Green Market Square. The location of the hotel is ideal. I had the hotel pre booked and the online rate was $ US 64/night without breakfast. Checking in at the front desk would have been double the price. It really paid off to book on line. The hotel is an older hotel but refurbished in 2011 and has all the amenities one needs. For breakfast we went a few steps outside the hotel and prices were reasonable. Breakfast can be had for 50 Rand ($US 5.-). Dinners are between 150 to 200 Rand per portion, which is on the high side.

Carol and I were very happy with the location, the service and the room itself. I would recommend this hotel to anybody visiting Cape Town.

To get an overview of the whole of Cape Town we booked a trip on the Hop on/Hop off bus that circles the city. The main office and stop was just behind the hotel on famous Long Street. It was very easy and well organized by the bus company. We took the red tour the first day. And the yellow and blue line the next day. All are good routes. The red route gives you the whole of the city, the yellow tour the inner city and the blue tour the suburban surroundings. Carol was impressed with the yellow tour. I enjoyed the blue tour. Yet to stop at the most interesting places and to combine the Table Mountain cable car and the Waterfront the red line is the right tour.

So we got off the red line and took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. It was a great trip. Not just because of the cable car ride but also because of the Table Top. The views from the top are spectacular. Cape Town lies in the middle of an ancient volcano. Surrounding the caldera are the oldest mountains in the world. Steep granite cliffs surround the bowl of the city. The law forbids any buildings to exceed a certain height limit so the mountains are and look pristine. The total range, including Table Top, Devil’s Peak, Lions Head and Signal Mountain is a National Park. It's very steep and rugged terrain is preserved in its natural state. While the Table Top, viewed from within the bowl of the city looks totally flat, just like a Table, the actual physical top is strewn with boulders and overgrown with vegetation. The flora is colorful and abundant. I knew none of the flowers, all are native and a delight to the eyes. Maybe we were lucky to be here at the right time of year for the gala performance of the blossoms. I can only tell you it was a fantastic show stopper.

You can walk the huge area on top of the mountain range. The park service has installed walkways and they sure come in handy. The terrain is very rough and littered with ancient boulders. Some estimates describe these mountains as about 500 Million years old. Compare that to the Alps in Europe which are “only” 35 Million years old. South Africa, especially Cape Town, has been around for eons.

The San and/or the Khoi were the tribes the Dutch and the Portuguese met when they settled here around the years 1500 to 1600. One of the first to land in Cape Town was the Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias in 1486. Vasco da Gama named the “Cape of Good Hope” (because of the great optimism engendered by the opening of a sea route to India and the East) in the year 1497.

The first permanent settlement in Cape Town was on April 6, 1652 by the Dutchman Jan van Riebeck. He set up a fort for the Dutch East India Trading Company and soon every European ship going to India or Asia used this harbor as a supply stop over. The trade was active including slavery.

Not much is known about the indigenous people since no written records existed before the Europeans arrived. The San were the original hunters and gatherers and some are still living their old live style in the more rural areas in South Africa. San is still spoken today and is one of the many languages one can hear.

The San were mostly replaced by the Khoikhoi (Khoi). The Dutch named the Khoi people Hottentots, a derogatory term, stemming from the sound of the Khoi language to Dutch ears.  The Khoi, migrating in groups from Botswana centuries ago and replacing the San people, are herdsmen. The large pastured fields (Veld) were ideal for such endeavors. While the Europeans used this land for agriculture and husbandry, the Khoi were exclusively herdsmen. The Khoi followed a migratory route depending on the seasons to let their animals graze. With the Europeans dividing up and “owning and buying“ land; and defending those acquisitions, warfare ensued  and ultimately the Khoi were pushed into servitude.

African warfare, the Bantu attacking the Khoi for their animals and food only made things worse. The Bantu are multi heritage people from the Niger/Congo area and West Sub-Saharan areas of Africa. There are over 650 different Bantu languages. While they have some words in common, they are distinct languages.

Africa is complicated. Migration is and always has been part of Africa. The European immigration to Africa was just part of the picture. Before the Europeans arrived, Africa was changing and adapting all the time within the African continent. Europe just added their own flavor to the mixed soup we call Africa today.

Different ideas, different life style, different cultures and heritage still resonate throughout Africa today, CapeTown is a perfect example of the modern African way of life. Sure mistakes were made, sure mistakes will be made, yet South Africa seems to be on the right track to at least deal with the complicated viewpoints of all the cultures. It is not easy. An example is the tax system here in South Africa. While every person with an official job must pay taxes and the taxes are withheld from each paycheck, only about 7 million people pay regular taxes out of an estimated population of 55 million people living in South Africa. I say estimated population because with the constant influx of migratory people from all other countries in Africa the population swells and dwindles like the tides. There is a constant coming and going back.

People from other African nations slap together some corrugated boxes; some sticks and a sheet metal roof and live there. They live in poverty in hopes of a better life. A better life than what they have in their home county. Looking at these conditions can be heart wrenching and pluck the strings of pity. Yet what those people need is not pity, all they need is to be given a chance to find meaningful employment or a way to earn a living. Empower them to earn some money and they will outgrow their poverty in a flash. Those people are not stupid. Most speak a few languages. All are hard workers, putting in long working hours each day. All they need is to be given a chance.

South Africa is aware of all of this and is dealing with the situation the best way they know how. After apartheid ended in 1994 (it was a gradual process but officially ended with the National election in 1994 when all races were allowed to vote), life began to improve for each citizen of this country. While the U.S. deals in a largely Latin American influx of immigrants (legal and illegal) South Africa has many more immigrants from anyplace in all of Africa.

While the problems seem insurmountable; South Africa deals with them one at a time. Instead of buying efficient street cleaning machines the town hires people with a broom to clean the gutters. For touristy areas security forces are employed that keep the citizens and tourists safe.
Instead of having people beg, stalls can be set up in certain areas with certain rules so people can hack their wares. The city tries to let the people have their dignity. Yes, there is poverty but what would you do if literally millions needed help at once. Cape Town is doing a great job in helping Africa. All of us could help if, instead of buying Made in China, we would buy Made in Africa.

One can see all these issues on a visit to Cape Town with open eyes.While I played the tourist, riding the red line on the double Decker hop on/off bus, I see things.

I also saw the good life; the exquisite suburban neighborhoods. The houses are so large, so fancy that any American would drool at the sight. The backdrop of the mountain ridges, pristine and protected by law, a fantastic climate with moderate temperatures, gives these areas a look of superb wealth. No wonder most of those premises are gated, alarmed and protected from intruders. The stunning display of wealth, helped by the amazing display of vegetation with colors, textures and shapes in abundance creates a Paradise vision. And that is me saying it, me who has a lot, has seen a lot and is not at all envious. I can just image how this must look like to someone who comes from other parts of Africa and now lives in a shack.

Cape Town is a modern city. It is full of cars, traffic, public transport and multi cultural people of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. There are tons of restaurants, bars and parks. Any kind of entertainment is available. Come see for yourself. Cape Town was voted to be the city to see for 2014. Carol and I listened to them and we are glad we did.  GREAT town!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Good bye, Australia

For millenia, Australia was untouched by most of the world, only the native flora, fauna and people existed in perfect harmony. Literally, in thousands of years little had changed on this continent. And everything in Australia is a little different. All the native animals are uniquely Australian. There are no bears as in the rest of the world; no lions, no tigers or cougars. There are plants that can only be found in Australia and vice versa too. There are no kangaroos anyplace else on this earth; no koalas, no wombats and none of the myriad of other creatures. Australia developed separately from all other continents. Australia is unique!

The native people, the aborigines, have occupied and taken care of the land for close to 70,000 years. Only in the last 200 years, has the rest of the world started to move into the land down under. Yes, similar events happened in the Americas, but let's stick with Australia. How or what were my impressions of this sovereign and independent nation? What did I see or how did I feel while spending 3 weeks traipsing from one town to the other? I gave myself some time for reflection to think about that and I am going to write some of my ideas down in this blog even if I prove myself totally wrong in years to come. On the other hand I might only state the obvious.

Australia today is a first class nation; run very efficiently and proud of their differences from other countries. Australia was Influenced in a major way during the British Empire period into "thinking" British. Like driving on the left side of the road, like ruling their land using the British Parlimentory setup, like basing their laws on the British commonwealth rules, like speaking English, etc. Yet, Australia is not British. For sure they have their own say and do their own thing when governing themselves. Australians are regarded highly by their neighbors, mostly the small or large Pacific Island nations. In fact the whole earth thinks of Australia in a benevolent way. Not because Australians are friendly, they are that, but because Australians rule themselves and do so well that people from equally developed continents or countries, like Canada or Europe still immigrate there today. Australia is still a magnet to many people. People can earn a good living in Australia, especially if one has a skill that others do not have or few people have. The minimum wage is $18.50/hour, more than double what you can earn in the U.S. ($7.25) and that is a huge draw for lots of people from all over the world. Australia today is a bit picky about whom they want as a citizen or even whom they let in as a worker. I can not blame them, they have worked hard to have a good life. Before they share this life with others they want to be able to sort out who it will be that benefits from what they now have. That is only natural.

On the other hand, the aboriginal people occupying the land did not have the same choices. The British moved in by force and just took what they considered free land. They established penal colonies to relieve the overcrowded British prisons. The prisoners, having served their sentences, generally remained in Australia and worked as laborers, miners or farmers. Their rough and ready ways still permeate Australian behavior today. Their European thinking, in a very short time, flooded the whole of Australia. So did their diseases. Nobody is proud of this part of Australian history. Land grabbing by foreigners happened on other continents on this globe. That it happened before or that this is just the way it is, eases some people's minds, but does not make the whole of it right. The natives, in their own way, lived a good life, too. Nobody can go back to a previous time and undo things, so let's stick with looking at Australia the way it is today.

I missed the internet in Australia. Oh, sure they have it. But I was not going to pay $7 for one hour of access that one motel wanted to charge. Even in a McDonald's, they charged for access to the web. Yes they have the internet. Free WiFi is rare, and when I did find it it was slooooow and often did not connect. Some hotels used satellite dished for their connections which were useless on clouded days. I feel that wifi could be hugely improved upon in Oz.

Gasoline is available everywhere but it is essential not to run one's tank too low in the outback. The stations are very spread out and there are hardly any stations between towns. Towns are about 80 miles apart.

All the roads were in ok shape, yet the roads are much narrower than the roads I am used to in North America. Most roads are just 2 lane roads. Each side or lane is as wide as a semi trailer truck. I felt really badly for the truckers, there is no wiggle room. Your truck fits onto the asphalt, yes, but just barely with no room on either side of your wheels. Driving like that at 110km/hour (68mph) is not fun. I also found that cresting a hill was an adventure, the climb was so steep I could, many times, not see past the crests.

I liked the speed limit controls. 60km/hour means just that, it does not mean 61 is ok. Get caught and it will cost you dearly. Speed cameras are everywhere. Just do not speed in Australia and do not run a red light. Most traffic lights have cameras build in. The light is yellow and you think you can make it? Flash, you got a ticket. Expensive! All GPS's have the speed limit built in. If you want to know the speed limit look at your GPS, it will show you. It will even give you a soft ding tone if you set it up that way, should you travel over the limit. The electronics across all of Australia to control traffic flow are all in place and they work. If your GPS tells you you will arrive in 27 minutes, you can trust it, barring an accident someplace. The roads are so controlled, that you can trust yor GPS to give you the right ETA. It simply works!

Since the wages are so high the cost of living is high, too. Be aware that Australia for outsiders is an expensive place to visit. A simple dinner of fish and chips with one beer will cost you between $20 to 25 depending on where you are. I liked the no tipping policy. All help in the restaurants make at least minimum wage, so no tipping. Same for taxis and other services. No tipping! Yea!

Australia is clean, well cleaner than lots of other places I have visited. Brisbane was spotless. They can compare themselves to Singapore, I am sure. Melbourne had the most grafitti but it was an art form there. Sydney near the airport (we walked from the car return back to the hotel) needs a cleaning crew badly. The smaller towns like Aberdeen were ok, they work great as a supply station for gas. There is not much else to write about them. We did see a pub in every town, though. I don't think there is a town anyplace in Australia that has no pub. Beer is their favorite drink and they drink a lot.

I said it before, Australians are friendly, even jovial. Cuing up is in their nature, no shoving or pushing. When I was pushed, it was invariably an Asian person, not even an Asian Ozzie. Other visitors from China or Korea or other Asian countries are stand outs when it comes to being loud and noisy and pushy. Japan excepted.

Modern Australia is a mix of people, all trying to fit into this self made, different from the rest of the world, country.

The people who really do stand out to me are the original inhabitants. Their demeanor is foreign to me. I can not read their facial features; they live (still?) in a different world. But then, I did not see too many of them. They seem to hide in the shadows. They still talk about their dream times, they still live a different life it seems. I don't know anything about Australia I guess, since I could not talk to them at all. The many men and women of the original tribes are so different. It is like seeing a deer stand next to a kangaroo, both eat grass, while developmentally they are native to their own areas yet they are so different in many other aspects. Millenia of development can not be eliminated in just 200 years. Cooperation between the cultures, as is starting with land management in the Uluru area, might lead to an even better place to Iive than Australia is today.

Viva la difference!




I call Katoomba the great canyon of Australia. Maybe not as big a place as the American Grand Canyon, it is still a huge canyon. Situated a few hours West of Sydney it is a park that is worth seeing. While the Grand Canyon is mostly rocks, Katoomba is a huge canyon covered with undisturbed jungle. The subtropical highland climate is unique and covers all of the area inside the canyon. Summer temperatures range from 20 to 30 C. Snow can be found in winter but that is rare. Yet the plant life is subtropical. I have heard of some plants that grow within this region but never seen them. A turpentine tree for example. They have huge specimens growing within the park that have trunks, very straight, up to 55 meters (180 feet ) high. An amazing sight. I love trees, especially old trees that took hundreds of years to grow this tall. The biggest turpentine tree (Syncadia glomulifera) still stands in a reserve near Barrington Tops National Park, NSW and has a height of 58 Meters with a trunk circumference of 7.90 Meters (26 feet). The wood of those trees is almost totally resistent to termites and marine invertebrates. It was used as pilings for docks in years back, before the use of steel re-enforced concrete. Some places still use turpentine wood today for heavy flooring or telephone poles. A shame really, it takes them years to grow this tall. Cutting them down with a chain saw takes an hour. Modern life is ruthless!

Carol spotted a lyrebird and took some pictures. Not an easy feat to take a picture of this kind of bird in the wild. Normally those birds are very shy and easily spooked. Lyrebirds can and will imitate any sound they hear. They can bark like a dog, meow like a cat, say a word like a human; or sound like a frog. Anything they can hear they can imitate. The males, during courtship, are show-offs, wiggling their delicately colored tail feathers to attract the ladies. Those birds are not that rare but it is rare to see one since the birds really are shy and unapproachable. Good for Carol to spot one.
Katoomba is a good place for serious hikers. Some trails are for experts only. We met many young, strong, fit people in walking gear spending some quality time on the Jamison Valley jungle tracks. We old folks stuck to the planked tourist board walk, which was tough enough for us. The famous Giant Staircase, 900 hundred steep steps that takes about 2 hours to climb, we left for younger bodies.
Katoomba is a great get away from the urban life of Sydney. The two days and nights we stayed there were rewarding. I very much liked it. Sure it is touristy, we even took the cable car and also the steepest funicular railway in the world (52 degree incline). I even tried to drive along the rim of the cliff but abandoned that part since Carol is a bit freaky of heights. The very narrow road with no shoulder, literally hugs the edge of the cliff. Too close for comfort for Carol.
The town Katoomba is not that large. Total inhabitants about 8000 people. I could see that it must have been a great town in its heyday, some buildings were mansions, now converted into businesses like restaurants or guesthouses. We bunked at the local youth hostel, a clean, large place. A former hotel now converted for the use of the frugal. However the flair of the Grand Hotel still permeates from the layout and the decor. Still, even the youth hostel cost $80 per night with the member discount. That is sleep only, no frills, we made our own bed.
Well, this was the last town we visited in Australia. The rest was driving back to Sydney and repacking for the flight back to Toronto. We stored a large portion of our luggage at a hotel near the airport before we took off to tour Australia. Most of the articles we used on the cruise were in storage at the hotel. We travelled light while in the land of Oz. A good size backpack is all I used for the 3 weeks plus. Carol had a similar arrangment, she used a small roll around pack and a small knapsack. Traveling in Australia is easy but the distances are large. It would have been a chore if we had driven a car for the whole 3 weeks. I am glad we flew from place to place and used public transportation. But I am also glad we did rent this car for the last 9 days of our trip. Both gave me a broader picture of what Oz is about.
Oh, by the way, the male lyrebirds showing off for the females? It works! They do get the females, in fact if they did not show off, no female would look at them... Think about that !!!!!


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hunter Valley

This wonderful area is one of the famous wine regions of Australia. We drove to the hamlet of Aberdeen NSW. But visited the wineries in and around Pokolbin NSW. As early as about 1850, some immigrants to Australia started growing grapes for wines in the Hunter Valley in a serious way. Not that I am a wine connoisseur, I am partial to sweet wines and any sweet wine might do for me. But we were told about this region by several Australians and since it is close to Sydney, our end stop, it was on our itinerary.
We also wanted to surprise Azure and Roel, motorcycle world travelers we know and hosted, who are working in a vineyard here. Both of them are winemakers and both know tons of stuff about wines. I call them wine experts. For years those two have made wine for the high end drinkers, for the people that know and appreciate the quality in their wines. But being adventure motorcycle riders for the last five years is, at the moment, more important to them then settling down someplace to make wines. Roel, a young Dutchman, has been on the road on his Honda African Twin (750cc) visiting places few have travelled such as Iran and East Timor. Roel met the American Azure, who rides her own Honda, a few years back. Ever since they met they have been inseparable. Our visit was a surprise, we did not tell them of our arrival. Carol planned it well, we received direction to their hideout from the winery itself, who did not spill the beans about our arrival. The surprise was perfect. We saw them Sunday afternoon, right after they took some time off for lunch. The great hello was a treat for them and us.
The winemaking facility Azure and Roel attend is a million dollar setup. The creation of wine by these two is an art that takes years of learning, attention to many small details and a good head for numbers and chemistry. As travelers, Roel and Azure find their wine making knowledge a true asset. In years to come they want to add to their skills in countries such as Argentina, Chile, South Africa and others. I am sure you can see that all this learning will benefit them in the long run. People will always drink wine. And good wines, the art of making good wines, will always be in demand. You might drink some of their creations sometime.
After we spent some time catching up on each other's news, after a great but not too expensive dinner out, they decided to give us a winery tour of other places the next day. Carol took this opportunity to send a few selected bottles of wine to her nephew, whom we visited while in Melbourne. Since I drove and had to pay attention to the roads I don't have too many pictures. But this area is perfect for growing wine. Warm, sunny, great soil and just the right combination of rain makes for a yearly, fantastic yield of grapes. While we visited Tyrrell, the oldest winery in the area, there are another 148 places that grow wines, too. Like always, if one place does a good business, others want to cash in on the bonanza and businesses will shoot up like mushrooms. Tyrrell started the wine making in the Hunter Valley region and after decades still produce outstanding quality wines, mainly for the domestic Australian market. A bottle at the winery will cost you between $20 to $75 dollars.
Yes they do make commercial wines for export to places like Europe, especially England, and lately to China but that is more in response to competition with the other wineries in the area, who almost exclusively sell to the mass market. Tyrrell, for Australia alone, is a quality oriented business creating exquisite wines for the palates of the true connoisseurs.
The day flew by in this good company. Roel took us on a private and extensive tour of Tyrrell's. Carol and Azure had some great wine tasting experiences. Azure spent time explaining where the grapes of each wine were grown, the flavors in each wine and how long each one should be aged for maximum quality. Carol enjoyed having this expertise and help in selecting some wines but she passed on the $86 Hunter Shiraz.
I limited myself, I was the driver. We reminisced over a coffee about riding our motorcycles in Mexico, the next part of the world Roel and Azure want to visit starting in May of this year. We shared some insights with them and gave them good tips for their visit to this fantastic country. In time, in years to come, someplace on this globe, we will run into them again. You can follow their blog here. Azure and Roel might take our advice and go to Alaska first then back down to Mexico. May in Mexico can be very hot on a bike, don't you think? How about taking your time, visit Alaska until August, then mosey down and start to visit MX in late September? Check out their blog, see what they will do!

Lightning Ridge, Black Opal Capital of the World

Are you smiling to read about opals again? Yes, we visited Lightning Ridge. The spot for black opals, one of the rarest gem stones in the world. (The town name comes from a shepherd who was seeking shelter from a heavy rainstorm on a ridge. He, hid dog and all his sheep were killed by lightning.)
While there are a lot of opals, black opals are only found here and we just had to take a look at this place. And what a treat it turned out to be. Imagine an old fashioned gold rush town of the 1890s. Claims need to be staked, shacks are put up to live in, the motors of old cars serve as mechanical pulleys or hoists for mining, all helter-skelter or so it seems. It is not a free for all, there are rules. The rules within the city limits of Lightning Ridge are your typical city rules, down to the trash collection and building codes. The opal mines are not within city limits, they are right next to the city and these areas have their own rules, the outback rules of Australia. Survive if you can.
The population is very European, Eastern European especially. The diggers are here to find the big one, the one stone that will ease all their money problems. But there are also a myriad of true characters. Their lore abounds, particularly among the miners themselves. Story telling is an art here. Tales of the big finds, of the lucky few are spread all around. We visited a copy of a castle build by a miner in his off time over a 40 year time frame and using no machinery. We saw the shack of a wrongly accused murderer who became an artist and astronomer, then blew himself to pieces by accident while lighting his propane stove. Oh the stories are great. Baloney? Malarkey? The gift of the gab? Blarney? All of those!
Yet there is a serious side to it all. This rather small town in the beginning of the Australian outback supplies the world with rare gems. This small town keeps jewelers busy, customers happy and most women wanting. There is a true science to it all. There are no shortcuts, one has to dig for those very small treasures. And the digging is not easy and luck still plays a huge part in all of it.
Any immigrant to Australia can buy an official claim. A claim is 50x50 meters. A yearly rent of $ 350 must be paid to the government. Plus one has to deposit a $ 750 bond to make sure the mine will be refilled with rocks if you want to abandon the claim. You forfeit the bond money if you do not refill before you leave. Also, if you do not pay the annual rental fee, you forfeit your bond money and your claim will be given to somebody else. Ok, suppose you receive a piece of land that measures 50 by 50 meters (160 x 160 feet). Where exactly will you dig for your opals? How deep must you dig before you hit the opal layer? Are you sure there are opals under your claim? How will you know, if you find the opals under your claim, if "your" opals are the valuable ones? How will you recognize them? The list goes on and on. Off course there were and there are the lucky people, the lucky finds. Most miners, however, are working hard and are making a living. If you like this kind of work, then this is a great life. You are your own boss, you drive yourself. Some even drove themselves to insanity. It takes a special person to be a treasure hunter like this.
The town of Lightning Ridge is a small Australian town on the edge of the Eastern outback. A bit modern due to the tourists that keep this town breathing. The town council tries hard to find 'other' venues to make this town needed or essential, such as putting in an Olympic sized pool with the latest design in diving platforms, and some athletes even practice there along with good coaches.
Yet what do you do in a town so far away from civilization? Opal mining is the main reason this town exists. The area around the town proper looks like human moles dug holes in the ground. The rocks not needed are piled right next to the mine entrances and they look like mole hills. The living conditions within the 'mole hills' seem primitive. Some of the shacks look dilapidated and haphazard. There is no running water or electricity. The whole area looks like hoarders found each other and like it there. The people are not dangerous or deranged, just so focused on the big find, they do not let the frills interfere with their pursuit of happiness. Cars are just for transportation, so car body repairs are not color matched. They are not plated. Brakes? A car drives without brakes on this totally flat landscape. Even window glass seems a luxury. Well, I think you get the idea. Mufflers ? Insurance ? as long as the car drives it is good enough. But, don't take this contraption into the town proper, I saw the police stop a man and talk to him. The town is a regular town, but around the town is the outback, there are different rules in the outback.
Some miners have moved to other areas a bit away from Lighting Ridge and even found opals there. Sure there are more opals if one follows the lay of the land and the underground crevices and layers that contain opals. But, and again but, those opals found away from Lighting Ridge are not the black opals. The black opal has a naturally adhering black back which enhances the color. The other opals found have a different composition, a different look.
Black opals are only found in this very small spot, the town we visited called Lighting Ridge, Australia.
Carol and I left after two nights in town. I could not do the physical labor those miners do. Even with the use of some modern equipment. The digging today is still done by hand. Opals are too precious to be dug up with the use of heavy machinery. The actual yielding layer of nodes can be as shallow as 4 feet below ground to 40 feet or beyond. There are no rules, there are no signs. Ground penetrating radar will not work. The opals are not magnetic. There is no other way gto find them but to dig. Opals are pure silica.
What a weird town !

Saturday, March 15, 2014


We woke up and immediately, after our morning tea, took to the motorway. Not a highway in the American sense. More like a two lane, paved road that will do as a motorway. Deep inside Australia not all roads are paved. I almost believe that only motorways are paved. The signage is pretty good, we aimed for Goondiwindi, then Moree and then the town of Walgett. Walgett is in fat print on the map, so we thought of a large town. Turns out it is a town with a Main street about 3 blocks long and that is it. Only two restaurants were open. The motels were ? We took the one that looked best for us. The whole town had an unwritten sign, an aura, about itself that read " do not go out at night". I listen to those feelings. Especially after we had dinner at the local RSL club. The clients there were especially far out. Let me explain this a little.
I am a dreamer, I do believe that most people are nice. I can talk and adjust to about anybody I meet. Yet sometimes I get this feeling that, no matter how I adjust, the other party will not, will never, will always be "not with the program". I don't know if it is their education level, their upbringing, their outlook on life, their personal space or behavior, we just don't click. Well, Walgett was full of people like that. Not unique to Australia, I have had this feeling in every continent I have been on. What I normally do is lay low and get out of town as quickly as I can. Walgett was one of those towns.
We stopped in Walgett for the night, just 100 km short of Lighning Ridge, because it was near dusk. Driving near or in the dark is a no-no for me. Not only do I not know the roads, the lay of the land, the peculiarities of each country, I also saw evidence of road kill, I mean a lot of road kill, on the side odd the road. The smell, too, of the bloated, decomposing carcasses permeated my nose most of the day. Most victims of the collisions with vehicles were kangaroos. Literally, Carol and I saw hundreds strewn on the road and at the side of the road. It does break my heart to see all the mangled bodies of the Roos while driving. Most of these collisions are at dusk or at night. So any town that has a motel is welcome, even a town like Walgett.
The speed limit is strictly enforced in Australia, even with speed cameras in rural areas. 100 km/hour (60mph) is the norm, yes they allow 110 sometimes, but only in wide open spaces with no traffic. I saw the police pull cars over in spots where you would never expect police to be. There just is no speeding in Australia. The speed limit is strictly adhered to. The fines are huge and expensive. The police have the power in certain instances to take your car away and for very young drivers that do not want to listen, their car can be confiscated and crushed. Yes, crushed. If you have a car loan, too bad. Your car was just crushed.
How can one avoid the collisions between Roos and vehicles? Deer whistles do not help here. Nobody knows, nobody has a good answer. Prohibiting night driving is not practical in today's age. The big trucks, most are long, double trailer semis, have protective bars installed to prevent damage to the grill and hood of their cabs from the Roos. It is a conundrum.
Oh, RSL stands for Returned from Service League. It is the Australian version of a club for soldiers or personal returning from the military. These clubs in Australia sometimes have bars, restaurants and/or casinos attached to them. They are reasonably priced and the food is similar to home cooked meals. Not a bargain, but good food, cheap beer and I just like the idea of supporting the members by spending my money there.
We left Walgett early, everybody was still asleep when we drove out of town. When I told people in Lightning Ridge that we spent the night in Walgett they looked at me in a strange way. One young fellow said: "you would never get me to go to Walgett, those people are strange". My sentiments indeed.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

When we docked in Brisbane on our cruise we took the aboriginal tour. People we talked to afterwards told us that we really missed something by not visiting the Koala Sanctuary. Well, on our round trip of Australia we decided to go back to this Sanctuary on our own. Having a car now allows us a lot of freedom and we can make choices.
We found a hotel for the first night of having a car and with a little hassle and backtracking, did find an ok place on the service road next to the highway leading out of Brisbane. Rated 3 stars it was not a posh place. Clean but simple. The receptionist was also the cook, bartender and waiter. No restaurant near by, but the motel cooks for you. They advertise this as having a restaurant. They also have a bar. This seems to be standard in Australia.
Each room has an electric hot water maker, tea bags, some cookies and the spoons, milk, sugar, knife, fork etc. for two. Within the room is a small counter that is set up like a kitchen. Very small, but just enough to eat a meal in the room. We stayed in other motels later on that have a restaurant on the premises, but as near Brisbane, the receptionist is also the cook and waiter most of the time. One pays to sleep. Food and anything else are extra charges. The regular going rate for a room is around $ 130 per night. We did find others later that were less, but we never found less than let's say $90/night. Eating out in Australia is expensive, a portion of food is always, it seems, around $20. Drinks, like lemonade or soda are $4. A salad $ 8 to 10. It adds up. Different from the U.S., no tipping in Australia.
After breakfast the next morning we were off to find the Koala Sanctuary. First stop was an electronic store were we bought a simple GPS. With the help of modern tech and with Carol's excellent map reading skills, we nailed the location on the first try. I really love a GPS. A job well done, Carol.
The roads seem different, narrower, and lots of traffic circles ( roundabouts). The signage to the Sanctuary was well placed however. Traffic in the morning hours is like anyplace in the world, heavy to frantic.
I don't like zoos. Yet this is a different place. Yes, set up like a zoo in a way, it takes in hurt animals, or youngsters that were abandoned or their parents were killed. It is a rescue place and specializes in koalas. Yet it also has some native species that are unique to Australia only. Wallabies, wombats, kangaroos, platypus (what's the plural of platypus?), emus, a cassowary, laughing kookaburras, dingoes, a Tasmanian devil, etc. Animals and birds I have heard about, yet how do you get to see them all while in Australia? This Sanctuary seemed the best place to do it all at once. Not only that but when possible we could get close enough to feed them. The 'Roos we met were so tame, feeding them was no problem. Being this close to a cassowary and looking it in the eyes, I don't know, this bird seems stupid to me. Oh, we had a good time at this place. I even fed a raptor, an owl. We saw a demonstration of work on an Australian sheep farm. I am just sorry I did not understand this guy, the 'Shepherd' too well. I am still struggling with the accent.
After having strolled around the Koala Sanctuary for about 4 hours it was time to move on. We decided to go deeper inland, climb up to the tabletop, see some of the outback while we have the car. Remember Lightning Ridge, the opal town? Well we found it on the map and it kind of fits what we were looking for, so off to NSW (New South Wales) we went. We drove until about dusk, then stopped at the town of Toowoomba for a well deserved rest. Again, a clean motel that would cook dinner for you. We had the choice of about a dozen motels, all right next to each other on the highway, not the American chain hotels, but mom and pop places. Still with so many choices the prices were as I quoted above. One of the nearby motels had a restaurant and we took advantage of that and ate there. It was strange that they had to ask the owner if it would be ok if 'non guests' ate in the motel restaurant. Normally the meal would just be added to the room price but since we were not guests, this bookkeeping would not work. We still charged the meal to a Visa card, but not to a room. We had to give them a name for their computer so they could make sense of it all. I guess visiting a restaurant from the motel next door is not done? I don't really know and don't really care, we had dinner. It was a good day, we slept like babies after our experiences. An observation, even though this area had about a dozen motels, there were no independent restaurants near by. Strange!

Driving a car in Australia

After Cairns we flew back to Brisbane to then drive a car for the next nine days to Sydney. We rented a small, white Hyundai, a nice enough car, almost brand new with just 27,000 km on the dash. A piece of cake to drive, albeit is has stick shift, not automatic. And, let us not forget, the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. So in order to shift, you need to do it left handed. Yes, you will use the other side of your brain to do this. I have driven on the left side of the road before. Once in England, but it was a left steering wheel European mainland car, so the steering wheel was not on the 'wrong' side. I was 24 at the time and really did not have much trouble then. It was the same car, a VW bug, that I always drove. I just drove on the left side of the road. The other time I experienced driving on the left was in a rented van with the whole family in the car when we vacationed in Ireland for a fortnight. I still do not remember finding it that difficult then, I was in my mid-40s when I last drove on the left.
Now, at age 66, having constantly driven on the right side of the road, I feel like I am again learning how to drive. The stick shift gives me no problems, even though I do it left handed, it feels ok. As a child, before school started I was left handed so some remnants may still be in my brain. I do not have trouble thinking left, but the spacial distribution of the car, the way the car is placed inside the lane creates problems. I have to, very consciously, remind myself all the time to 'hug' the center line. Carol, as a passenger, is very helpful when I am too far left. I don't know why I drive way too far on the left but in Brisbane, in real city traffic, I clipped somebody's rear view mirror with my outside mirror. Nothing happened to my mirror, it folded inward and had some scuff marks. Carol used some elbow grease to scrub those marks off. The other car however had a dangling drivers mirror. The driver of that car was good about it. He made some phone calls to see how much it would be to fix his mirror and after handing him $500 dollars we shook hands and each went our way. There is no better way to learn to not drive too far left than when one has to pay this kind of tuition. Nobody was hurt, so all is well.
Driving on the left is an experience. The directional signal needs to be activated with your right hand. Stop a minute and think about this. When you make a left, use your right hand to set the blinkers. Early in the morning, when you start driving out of the parking lot, think LEFT side. You become instantly wide awake if you veer to the right. In a way it is fun to relearn the rules of the road. Traffic from the right has the right of way. When entering a road look to the right. Even the rear view mirror is now on your left. Oh, it is fun to drive on the left. It sure gives me a whole new perspective. 6 more days to learn how to drive on the left, then we fly back to Toronto and I will be driving on the right side of the road. A crazy world !


In Australian English it sounds like "cans", no "r" heard. I am getting better in understanding their accent but only with my hearing aids in. Not only is it that they leave off syllables, they use totally different words. A kangaroo is just a 'roo. A crocodile is just a 'croc. I ordered two draft beers yesterday and the girl looked at me and had no clue what I meant. Only after acting out the pulling of the tab did her light bulb come on and she drew the beer from the tap. What did I say wrong? The 'not understanding' goes both ways.
Cairns is a tropical, jungle town and we are here in the rainy season. We had plans for our time in town, we even booked a snorkeling tour via a travel agent, but that was a costly mistake. Not only did we have rain, we also had a cyclone warning and the small ships going out to the outer reef did not want to take a chance. Our snorkeling tour and the colorful reef, our main purpose for visiting Cairns did not take place. So, what do you do instead?
Carol had the great idea to visit the much closer to shore reef instead. We found a small catamaran that took us out. The ocean was in turmoil, choppy waves greeted us when we came out of the, more or less, quiet harbor. In the boat's bar was a basket with ginger pills for sea sickness pills so both of us, Carol and I, took two pills each. It was a ride for sailors not for landlubbers. Up and down the waves we rode until after about one hour we reached the reef close to Green Island. It was a small atoll island. Getting off the small boat was a challenge as we had to jump off but we both managed. The wind was strong. My Tilley hat would not stay on my head, so I packed it away in my knap sack. Our first outing on this island reef was a glass bottom boat. We went, but there were hardly any fish to see. The reef bottom was gray and had large dead coral pockets among the mostly algae eating species that were left over. The only coral that did flourish the spaghetti coral and the fish we saw were some zebra fish and a larger species (bat fish) that were not good eating because they ate all the trash in the water (turtle droppings) and were very bony. Our little put-put glass bottom boat had a tough time holding its position over the fish. The ocean pushed us back constantly. The reef was very small and while our guide said it was a healthy reef, it was not colorful, but rather drab looking. This reef was just too close to shore and the run offs from the land brought too much pollution to have the very exotic corals and fish living on it that we were looking for. The glass bottom view was disappointing.
Next we thought we would take, and we paid for it, a semi submarine trip. Windows all around to sit smack in the middle of this living, natural aquarium. Well, the sea was so rough by then, that the tour company cancelled our booked trip. We got our money back for this part of the outing. So what to do? To be on this small reef island without a tour was not fun, there was no place to hide. The wind whipped us, there were no shelters. Not ours, but another boat was due to go back soon. We opted to abandon our tour and made haste to go back on this boat to the harbor. While this boat was a bit bigger than our first boat, it still was small enough to be tossed about, too. We should not have made this trip, while we did not get sea sick, it was a waste of money. The results were not what we hoped to see and what was advertised.
The following day, even though the tour we had previously booked to the outer reef was not cancelled and we could have gone an this tour, we did not go. We came to Cairs to visit the Great Barrier Reef, yet only saw the dull, small reef off the coast. Yes, the weather, the cyclone, was a factor, but after the disappointing first trip that turned out to be a dud, we gave up on the whole reef tour.
Instead we took a train ride on that day. We took the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway trip. It took a total of 17 years to build this railroad line of only 56 km. It is not a long track really, it takes just 45 minutes to ride up the mountain. But in the late 19th century, when this railroad was built, it was an engineering feat. All labor at that time was done by hand. The tunnels were dug out by hand with picks and shovels. Workers had to supply their own tools. Landslides and treacherous cliffs made building the tracks almost impossible. This was before fancy survivor equipment, jack hammers, heck, even before bulldozers.
The tracks, from Cairs to Kuranda, were put in to harvest the original lumber out of the local jungles, then haul it to the ships anchored in Cairns. Pictures show the size of the trees that were harvested. Huge! All of the old growth lumber was cut down. It was worth the effort to install the railroad since the money made on the sale of lumber, even though it was harvested without regard to ecological side effects, was tremendous. The jungle has grown back since the railroad was built, yet the trees look skinny and the area still suffers from the raping of Mother Nature. Today, the town of Kuranda, is a tourist town, nice to look at, quaint even, especially the old train station. Yet the town opens and closes with the arrival of the tourists on the train. Once the last train leaves, the town rolls up the sidewalks and goes to sleep. Kuranda, the lumber town, the end of the train town, lives off her old glory days. The scenery of the ride up the mountain, the sheer beauty of the landscape, the waterfalls, the greater region around the train tracks, the jungle and all the living things within have now been turned into a national park. One of many parks Australia set up to preserve the environment. Yes, it is touristy, a good place to visit, should you ever come here.
For the way down the mountains, the way back to Cairns, we did not take the train but a skyrail. A very long cable car that glides over the jungle below with a few stops to get off and look around. I was amazed by how many visitors this whole setup attracted. Each cable car held up to six people and were spaced about one minute apart on the stations. Seldom was a gondola empty even though the operators did not load the cars to maximum, but tried to keep groups and families together. I enjoyed this sky rail, too. The stops were informative. A park ranger gave tours, explaining some of the native wild life, but also pointed out some not so nice plants that grow right on the side of the path. Like I had learned previously in the jungle, if you do not know the plant, do not touch or even lean against it. Some give you some very nasty reminders, should you ever forget. Poison ivy is mild in comparison to what you can find in the jungle.
We came to Cairns with the intension of visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Maybe the next time we are in Australia we will take a reef tour to the outer reef. I liked Cairns yet we came in the wrong season.