Category Archives: Travel & Exploring

London, Paris, Taormina

Wandering through the streets of Paris, London and Taormina yesterday, I was reminded of our tininess in this world. Well, my tininess, really. I can’t speak for the rest of you. Looking at aerial shots of inner city London, with its mix of ancient and shiny new buildings, I was reminded of an ant midden. So busy, so full.

I headed up The Shard – that name, to me, seems somehow rude – and looked down over London, imagining the little cobbled alleys that hadn’t been gobbled up by tar and pavement and hundreds of thousands of rushing people, exhaust fumes intermingling with the whispers and stories of thousands of years of humans.

In Paris, I did the same, heading up the Eiffel Tower and looking at Paris spread out below, as far as the eye can see, in every direction. There, the humans spoke a softer language, the whispers and stories more passionate and on breath that smelt like croissants and champagne.

Paris Railways and Buses

In both, I wandered from airports to stations to friends’ houses and hotels, weaving through streets in cabs and ducking into the underground tunnels that shunt people around deep in the underbellies of both cities. Familiar station names and unfamiliar ones, all of them enticed me back up into the daylight to see the places, peer down the alleyways and sit at pavement cafes watching, listening, absorbing.

Millenium Bridge (Google Earth Street View)

Back in London, I spent an hour in the Tate Modern, and then walked across the Millenium Bridge, over the Thames toward the golden dome of St Pauls, stopping in the middle to admire that ancient flowing river that coped with the city, welcoming both the living and those tired of living. How many canoodling couples on bridges, children happily chasing pigeons, broken-hearted jumpers and adventurous sailors has that old lady river seen in her time?

Taormina (Google Earth)

In Sicily, I marvelled at ancient ruins and checked out Mount Etna’s plume, before learning the history of Modica’s relationship with chocolate. I spent ages sipping coffee at a seaside café, intrigued by the changing blues of the Mediterranean. Then I plotted the route from our Air BnB to the concert venue – through the beautiful streets of Taormina that’ll be filled with equally-excited (it’s hard to imagine the electricity that’ll create) Eddie Vedder fans. I had to pull myself away. I had things to do.

But I got distracted again, and, I ambled about in Paris some more, finding interesting corners and back streets that had more stories to tell than their parallel, tourist-filled brothers and sisters. I was supposed to be booking shuttles and planning routes without stairs or too many steep, cobbled roads and finding suitable places to stay, because today, in a month, if all goes according to plan, I really will be in London. And then Sicily. And then Paris. And then London again.

I guess I’ll just have to go back today and continue my research. How I love the internet and Google Maps with its Street View. Because that’s half the fun of travelling, isn’t it?

All the couch travelling you get to do before.

 

Thali Thali Game Lodge

Heading up the west coast on the R27, the brilliant blue Atlantic glitters to the left, the vast fynbos-filled brush synonymous with this region flies by to the right, and fluffy white clouds play in the clear autumn sky. It’s the perfect day to escape city claustrophobia. We take a quick detour to Tori Oso in Mamre for coffee, a quick explore, and heavenly chocolate cake.

Then back onto the R27, too full to stop at all the enticing padstals, we pass the West Coast National Park and turn right into Thali Thali, just before the Langebaan road and a gentle hour’s drive from Cape Town. Here, on their 1,460 hectare game reserve, they keep a family of gangley giraffe, herds of zebra, wildebeest and a wide array of buck. This is not the Kruger Park, but rather ‘Safari Lite’: perfect for people wanting a little taste of South Africa’s wild, close to Cape Town.

Giraffe mama saying hello

The accommodation is arranged around the central lodge, with a pool that’s home to three friendly ducks, a restaurant and deck overlooking a little waterhole, a lapa and a children’s playground. The staff are wonderfully friendly and incredibly obliging.

The accommodation close to the main area are three converted self-catering cottages and, a little further away, five luxury en-suite tents. There’s a big old 4-bedroomed farmhouse with massive fireplace in the kitchen and a wrap-around porch situated more privately a little way down the road.

We stayed in one of the 2-sleeper self-catering cottages. They’re well-equipped, with everything you’d need for a weekend away and a big, comfy bed with crisp linen. The stoep overlooks the kid’s playground and has a great fire pit to the side, in which we braaied (and next to which we huddled – winter is in the air!) The kitchen/lounge has a fabulous big fireplace which, I’m sure, is welcome on wintery nights. We ate in the warmth of inside but, luckily, left the door open so we saw two of the tame-but-shy deer come to visit us just outside. What a treat.

A one-and-a-half hour game drive in the morning took us out into the oh-so-dry bush (The Weatherman, sir, please send some rain) along with other guests and a sweet young guide. Emus and springbok and wildebeest watched us drive by under a darkening sky that threatened rain, but didn’t bring any. Round a bend in the road we came across the giraffe family, out for a morning stroll – mom, dad, and the two girls (8-months old and 22-months old and already very tall!) Fun fact of the day: giraffe can pick their own nose with their tongue. Useful when you don’t have fingers, I guess.

Some tiny mongooses (mongeese?) chasing frankolins down the sandy path ahead of us, views across to Saldanha, some gorgeous eland and a bunch of zebra in their stripy onesies, and we returned to the main lodge for a warming cup of coffee on the stoep. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning, for sure. Or a weekend out of the city, for that matter.

A night away felt like a little holiday – some quiet, lots of fresh air, lovely people and gorgeous animals.

(Accessibility info, for those interested, is below this gallery)

Accessibility

Andriette and Amalia, from Thali Thali, were lovely when I phoned to organise and was completely upfront with what they could offer accessibility-wise, and offered help with anything we needed.

The cottage and me

The 2-sleeper cottage we stayed in was all on one level (including the stoep, which was bricked, so a little rough), with a concrete floor and moveable mats. There is a tiny lip into the front door. The cottage is divided into two rooms and an en-suite bathroom.

The front door opens into a lounge/kitchen/dining room with a lovely big, open fireplace. There’s enough space to move around. This room opens into a large bedroom with double bed (without a foot board, luckily – I’m 6-foot!)  which has plenty of space on both sides to get in with a wheelchair. Fan, heater, big cupboard, safe and hanging horse all there.

The bathroom is more than big enough, with plenty of space next to the toilet, but no bars. The shower has a lip into it and no bars, but is big enough to put a plastic chair in, for those who can manage that. The basin has a cupboard underneath it.

From our cottage (right next door) to the main lodge was across a little patch of grass and on a bricked (slightly bumpy and slightly sloped) to a bit of a steep ramp (I’d say about 1-in-6, at a guess) up to the entrance to the bar/restaurant. Once inside it’s all flat leading out to a lovely deck with a view. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the resident Jack Russell chasing the emus from here. There are both high tables and chairs and normal ones.

The game drive vehicle is not specifically adapted to make it accessible, but Thys – who is tall and strong – with the help of GM and the game ranger hauled me into the front seat and I tied my scarf around my shoulders and head rest to stabilise me. All good. They have plans to build a ramp and are keen for suggestions and very helpful!

One of the tents is also accessible but was unfortunately booked, so I couldn’t see in and give a report back but I think the privacy of the location of the tent and being inside one would give a lovely feeling of being in the wild.

Thali Thali is a perfect place for a break from the city or a beginner’s safari experience.

 

Mamre Werf and Tori Oso Coffee

The road into Mamre is announced by a welcoming white sign beset with sweet graffiti detailing who loves who in this tiny village with a big history. It’s one of those places whose turn-off you pass on your way to somewhere else. Darling, in this case. You shouldn’t pass it, though, because there are treasures there. Follow the road all the way in until you reach the circle, then turn toward the big old trees of Mamre Werf.

Welcome to Mamre

Tyrone is 5-years old. He goes to school at the school behind the old church. At weekends, he hangs out with Noah, 1, at the coffee shop. They’re a delightful welcoming committee and Tyrone’s drawings in salt and pepper are fabulous. Tyrone and Noah are here with the lovely Stephanie and Marlene, proprietors of the Tori Oso Coffee Shop.

Tori Oso Coffee Shop, Mamre Werf

Situated in a beautiful old thatched Cape Dutch building – the old shop, built in 1880 – at the incredibly well-kept old Moravian Mission in Mamre, It is one of those welcoming family restaurants with high ceilings, thick walls and warm wooden floors. Outside, two newish-looking hitching rails stand waiting for horses. Apparently this coffee shop is a movie star too – a Western was shot there last year.

The menu is down-to-earth food: moer coffee, a range of toasted sandwiches, some light lunch options and, if they’ve baked, chocolate cake of the gods (at less than R20 a slice!).

Cemetery Hill, Mamre Werf

There was a funeral on at the church, so we settled at the coffee shop and ate toasted sandwiches as the mourners left the church. Once it was empty we took an amble around the beautiful old mission, set up a gentle hill overlooked by the graves on Cemetery Hill. The air in the church still shivered with sadness.

Everything at Mamre Werf is beautifully maintained – the church (1818), parsonage (1679), Longhouse (1697), Bakhuisie (1700), Old School (1876) and the mill (1830). A local guy does a walking tour and gives the, by all accounts, fascinating history. We were sorry not to have phoned and booked him as we walked around a place that was swirling with stories.

Then we had cake and chatted to Stephanie and Marlene, who are just fabulous. The cake is moist and dark and utterly delicious.

What a surprising little treat on an autumnal Saturday morning.

Wheelchair Accessibility

Mamre Werf is not specifically geared to wheelchairs, but is completely do-able with a bit of strength on your side. A tar road leads up a gentle slope on one side, a slightly bumpy (due to roots of the gorgeous old trees)  dust road on the other. There is a ramp up to the church and a couple of little steps along the way to the entrance (more lips than steps, and not a series of them: just one at a time).

Tori Oso Coffee Shop is easy to get into and has a wide toilet (no handles or bars) which is currently used as a store room, but they’re incredibly sweet and helpful and with a little forewarning would get it sorted in a jiffy.

Sicily On My Mind

Sicily has never been on my list of ‘Places I Want To Go’. Not that it’s been on my list of ‘Places I Don’t Want To Go’, either (I don’t really have one of those), it’s just not been on my radar at all, really. I come from a travel-lovin’ family. My childhood was filled with back roads, exploring old graveyards and farmhouses, stopping to swim in rivers, look at rocks (my Dad’s a geologist) and follow paths to see where they went.

As a 16-year old, my parents took me on a Whistle Stop Tour of Europe, to open my eyes to the world outside of my Small Town, South Africa. Open my eyes it did, to the splendour of the world and the tinyness of each of us in the greater scheme of things, and the tinyness of the block of time in which we live, and the joy of seeing new places and meeting new people, trying food whose name you don’t understand and whose taste you’ve never experienced, seeing cultures that are so removed from your own, yet, in some ways, comfortingly familiar.

I loved Italy on that Whistle Stop Tour and swore that when I finished school I’d become a plumber and go and live in Venice, because Venice, surely, needs plumbers. I didn’t though, and got swept up by life and all that goes with it and went to university and, and … I didn’t stop travelling and exploring throughout, but  didn’t go to live in Venice. Italy has remained up there on my list, but not Sicily. Sicily never crossed my mind. But now, it’s very much on my mind.

Here I sit, reading my umpteenth article on Sicily, tickets on my desk from Cape Town to London, London into Comiso and two weeks later out of Catania to Paris, then to London, then back home to Cape Town. I now know all about the Mafia, towns with names like Modica, Noto and Ortigia, ancient buildings, beautiful ruins, shining beaches lapped by the Med, and I haven’t, yet, been there. But I’m going. Next month. Next. Month. To Sicily. The place that I’d never really thought about going to.

And here I get to my point: the most marvellous way that the world manages to throw ideas at you, randomly and beautifully. You see, I’d never have thought of going to Sicily, but Eddie Vedder’s going, and I’ve loved his music since my teens. And he chose to play in an ancient Greek amphitheatre that overlooks the even-more ancient Mount Etna, with her rumbling tummy, and the Med. Who could resist? Certainly not me.

So, though the culture and the history and the food and the scenery are only some of the reasons to visit Sicily (I know now, having armchair-travelled a lot in the past six weeks because, really, the planning is half the fun, isn’t it?), seeing your favourite musician play, is the cherry on the top of those reasons.  The fact that I’ll be seeing Eddie Vedder, live, TWICE, in the midst of such scenery makes me grin like a loon and squeal like a teen. Music really does broaden your horizons.

The fact that Sicily sounds particularly, let’s say … challenging, in a wheelchair doesn’t put me off one iota – I’m travelling with two of my favourite allies (credit to RHCP, and now we all have an Ear Worm), and I can’t wait.

I do love an adventure.

 

 

Saving Li’l Turtles

I went to a Travel Massive event at the Two Oceans Aquarium on Tuesday. It’s a pretty spectacular place at night. In fact, it’s a pretty spectacular place always, but somehow being there after hours and having it all to ourselves added a certain thrill.

I’m always enthralled by how leggy all those marine creatures are. Enormous, eight-legged crabs, luminescent jelly fish trailing multiple tentacles and frills, shrimps with legs and feelers and stalky eyes. They’re like animals from a Dr Seuss story. The silvery schools, the hugging starfishes, the Sea Horses! Too lovely.

But this blog isn’t about all the leggy creatures, this is about something I learnt last night that every person living on, or visiting, the Cape coast should know. Jenni Leibbrandt, of the aquarium, watched over by the gorgeous turtle in the enormous tank behind her (it was almost as if she was checking that it was all factual) explained about tiny turtles washed up on the shores around the Cape.

You see I had, mistakenly I now realise, thought that if I was ever lucky enough to find a baby turtle (who, I think, should be called turtlets) washed up on the shore, I should leave the li’l thing alone, or help it back into the sea.

Wrong.

Those little critters are cold. Cape Town’s waters don’t suit their sunny temperaments and they’ve only landed up there because they got swept all the way from KwaZulu Natal by the wrong current. So, no, this is one occasion where ‘leave nature alone’ doesn’t apply.

Here, Jenni explained, one needs to help the little guy by putting him in a dry box and taking him straight to the aquarium (or calling them) and they’ll take it from there, as part of their turtle rehab programme.

Tell your friends, tell your children, and tell them to tell their friends. Those little turtles don’t deserve to have chattering lips (beaks?) and cold flippers.

Look at June go:

The 10:59 to Muizenberg

I am, intrinsically, Pollyanna-esque. To the point that I’m sure drives many to madness. I can’t help it, it’s inherited. I come from a line of glad people, there’s no fighting genes.

Sometimes, though, I find the world harsh and cruel. My faith in humankind gets crushed like an unlucky butterfly on a car’s windshield. There’s just so much ugliness amongst humans: hatred and violence and disregard. It makes me sad.

And then something happens that reminds me of the goodness. Today was one of those days – coincidentally Human Rights Day in this wonderfully diverse, spectacularly chaotic country that we call home.

Winter is coming. It’s the equinox. Cape Town didn’t get that memo, or chose to ignore it, speaking sweetly into my beloved The Weatherman’s ear and persuading him to give us a wind-still, 35-degree day. Cape Town is a foxy minx, The Weatherman couldn’t resist her smile.

And so it was that the day dawned perfect and the beach beckoned, but not the traffic. No, the traffic didn’t beckon, but the train did. I love the train. It brings back memories of childhood holidays, it makes me feel part of the thrumming humanity that call this city home.

The train was late as we chatted with the family next to us, buckets and spades ready, the tiniest of their party already in her skirted polka dot swimming costume.

Finally it arrived, packed with families and youngsters off to the beach, backpackers, people going to work, people going home, the stifling heat packed with smells of sun cream, Nik Naks and sweat.

I took a chance, having not checked about the wheelchair accessibility of Muizenberg Station. Sometimes, I just don’t wanna. Sometimes, I just wanna do. Unplanned, spur of the moment. We climbed off, onto the sweltering platform, a welcoming salty breeze coming off the sea.

And there it was. A flight of stairs. The ramp at the end closed tight – City of Cape Town/Metrorail, why? GM calmly left me in the breeze and crossed through the underpass to the station on the other side.

There, she found Nobonke Koni, security guard-angel of Sechaba Protection Services, who gathered her colleagues, Mr Nopakela and Mr Sonqi. They, along with the car guard from the parking lot and another guy, whose names I sadly didn’t get, hefted my (not unhefty) weight in my wheelchair down the steps to the opening to the beach.

There we found, with dismay, three cars parked so closely to each other that we couldn’t fit through. Not an eye blink and those four superheroes lifted me over the bonnet of the Merc glinting in the heat. If it hadn’t been so scary, I’d have shouted ‘I’m flying!’. My fear was totally misplaced, those guys had me

And that’s how I got to bask in the sun at the beach, make a new sweet surfer-boy friend, hear the glee of kids at the seaside, and how I was reminded of how much good there is in the world, how I love my country. Five people were kind and caring and went way beyond the call of duty for a woman they’ve never met before. We met up with them on the train home, our new friends who were so kind.

Faith in humankind restored.

In Search of Eddie Vedder

I have loved Eddie Vedder since I was a teenager. And by loved, I am perfectly happy to admit that it’s a love of the complete teen-adoration-for-ridiculously-good-looking-rockstar-who-stage-dives kind. It’s not only that, though, and it’s lasted into my 40’s. I love his voice, his lyrics, his … I’ll stop there. Swoon.

Pearl Jam and, later, Eddie Vedder’s solo songs, have been integral tracks on the Soundtrack of My Life. You know how when big things are happening – you’re falling in love, you’ve had your heart broken, somebody ate the last piece of pizza – every song lyric is written for you? In those moments, those song lyrics for me, very often, were those of Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder.

For years I’ve been watching them announce concert dates, the world over, and thinking ‘should I’, ‘shouldn’t I?’  Then they announced a Florence Festival date *Quick whirl back in time: I went to Italy in 1990, as a long-limbed 16-year old, and fell in love with it* and I thought, ‘I should.’ A few days later, they announced more European dates, one in Sicily.

And that is why I have spent the last weeks plotting and planning and calling in Italian Knights in Shining Armour (IKiSA) to help me translate booking sites and correspond with organisers, to work out if I could wangle it to see Eddie Vedder play in the most beautiful ancient Greek ruins overlooking Mount Etna in Taormina, Sicily. There have been mails to-ing and fro-ing and nails being bitten and so many lovely, kind people both here and in Italy giving me the low-down on accessibility.

Yesterday, I received the final one, from the organiser of the Taormina concert. Yes, I would be able to access the Teatro antico di Taormina, all I needed to do was get online and book, when bookings opened this morning at 10 AM (CET), all in Italian. My IKiSA gave me careful instructions on what to do. Yesterday, using Google Translate, I registered on the ticket site, practiced buying a ticket for something else, Google Translated every little line.

I checked three different websites to make sure that 10 AM (CET) was the same as 11 AM here.

This morning, with my ADSL behaving like a 2-year old that doesn’t want to go to school, I pretended to do some work while I watched the clock like a civil servant waiting for tea-time. At 10:45 AM I moved myself and my tetchy computer into the kitchen, with its nose against the modem and logged on on my phone too, in case. Google Translate was open. Everything else was closed, so that my computer could concentrate solely on the matter at hand: Getting. Those. Tickets.

10:58.

10:59.

11:00! And there they were! A little green button next to ‘Biglietti’! I clicked on it, put in the number of tickets and clicked on ‘Metti nel carrello’. The little Circle Thingy of Hell turned and turned, the page not changing. I started doing the same thing on my phone, a panic rising from the pit of my stomach.

Wait! A Capchta code. Eek. Those things freak me out. Is it a ‘C’ or a ‘c’, a ‘W’ or a ‘w’? I felt like I was doing my final Chemistry prac again.

Success! New screen.

Pick ‘Ritiro sul luogo dell’evento’, as told by IKiSA. Then more Circle Thingy of Hell, as the time-allowed-clock ticked down from 10:00 to 08:40. My shattered nerves. New page loading!

What? Who? You need me to fill in which? Eek. Frantic Google Translating … Enter credit card details.

We’re down to 04:21.  The timer is sticking it’s tongue out at me. 02:34.

Enter SMS’ed code to agree to payment coming off my card: 9939.

Circle Thingy of Hell.
Circle Thingy of Hell .
01:24.
Circle Thingy of Hell …

VOILA! (I think. Everything’s in Italian, but it looks like tickets to Eddie Vedder, and the money’s gone off my account, and I’ve got the e-mail. I feel like I’ve just received a Golden Ticket to go to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.)

I am going to see Eddie Vedder in Taormina, Sicily on 26 June 2017.  I have that excitement that makes the tummy gurgle and the mouth stretch into a smile and the heart flutter arrythmically. The excitement.

This is where I’ll be seeing him. It’s almost unbelievable. Here. That’s the Mediterranean in the distance. Oh. My. God(father). Sicily. Eddie. Swoon.