All posts by Harvie

Tigers and Birds, Oh my …

Two rivers. Two countries. Two guides. Chris Harvie finds two trips equally wonder-filled.

Ngepi Camp in Namibia and Tamarind Camp in Zambia are camps with personalities: Christoph Tuuyendere and Lawrence Chidakwa respectively. Two gentlemen with some very useful skills.

Ngepi Camp, spectacularly sandwiched between the Bwabwata and Muhango National Parks on the River, lies at the western end of the Caprivi Strip. The game may not be thought prolific, but we saw sable, giraffe and baboons as we drove in; lions are audible at night and elephants easily visible from the camp by day, along with numerous buck. It is, however, for its birding that Ngepi is rightly famed.

The more earnest side of this camp manifests itself in its occasionally-overstated concern for the environment but this is countered by some of the best-situated and most humorous loos-with-views in the world. The signage throughout the camp alone is worth a tour and all this foolery can be combined with a game of Ngepi Frisbee golf amongst the trees. You need to go there to understand the rules!

In the oddest bathroom, next to a throne fit for a king, there’s an old tin bath on a deck overlooking the river, where the mokoro dugouts sweep unseeingly underneath. Alternatively, downstream, for safe bathing in the river and not above it, there’s the Hippo and Croc Dive Cage – a hollowed-out pontoon with a mesh base and sides to keep the ‘nasties’ out. Swimming against the flow …

The main man at Ngepi is Christoph Tuuyendere, who explains that he is one of only 70 000 people still speaking his language, most of them living here along the Okavango River at the very top of the panhandle. His people have, he says, strong ties binding them together in a respect-driven culture which is inextricably linked with their river. They are tight-knit bunch, the Hambukushu.

Intelligent and worldly Christoph might be, as he talks his guests through their bird-sightings in his mellifluous tones, but he is equally fascinating in his belief, for example, that the best time to swim in the river is during the winter when the grass is white with frost, because when you get out, the air seems relatively to be that much warmer. And he is not shifting on that one.

In the morning, we head downstream with the dawn and Christoph in a mokoro, a glint of smiling teeth beneath his unlikely dreadlocks. Strings of birds later – spotted crake, sharp-tailed starling, chirping cisticola, purple heron – he stops on an island and we take a walk.

Treading gingerly and shoeless on the sand, we stumble across a little jacana, a couple of Senegal coucal and, oh yes, a black mamba. When birding, you must look at the ground as well as the sky, says our guide, then he lets out a shrill shriek so authentic that a couple of fish eagles give an identical return call and lift themselves gracefully into the air from their treetop perches. Christoph can reliably call in Namibia’s national bird and dozens of other species of fowl. He is the Dr Dolittle of birding…

After a lunch of environmentally-friendly kudu-burgers, binoculars in hand and seated on the restaurant deck, we are unable to resist another boat trip, this time upstream on a motor launch. My companion casts a line in the river for tigers, unsuccessfully as it turns out, but Christoph is no fisherman and neither am I, so we clock up a few more bird species instead. Slaty egret, long-toed lapwing and finally, a bird for which I have scoured the continent, a racket-tailed roller.

As the sun goes down behind a mess of multi-coloured fluffy clouds, a Tafel beer in hand and chewing some biltong, I agree with Christoph that there are fewer better ends to the day than sitting on a river. Behind us, but not very far behind, a pod of hippos rises yawning from the slow-moving water in a salute of air-shattering grunts.

To Zambia. A week or so later. Another man, another river …

Lawrence Chidakwa, unlike Christoph, is not measured in his tones. He is an ardent and eloquent local politician. He too, though, is a fine host.

Tamarind Camp looks out from Zambia over the Zambezi to the Charara Safari Area in Zimbabwe. Towering tamarind trees offer great swathes of shade, under which lie the tents and chalets, stretched along the high riverbank, with views up and downstream. The thatched bar peers over the river through the canopy and, in the evenings, the team lights a huge fire around which to sprawl and eat fresh fish. It is a tranquil spot that lends itself to quiet contemplation.

In keeping with his environment, Lawrence is a deep-thinking man of passion, a great birder and even more than that, an accomplished fisherman. Something, therefore, for everyone, as our trip up the gorge in a banana boat yields first a flurry of blue-cheeked bee-eaters looping in and out of the orange-striated cliffs in the warming morning sun, then Zambia’s national bird – yes, the fish eagle again, just like Namibia’s – calling high above us.

Lawrence can’t mimic birds the way Christoph can but he doesn’t need to. He knows his fishing spot, a couple of kilometres upstream towards Kariba, where the river below the rapids erupts with tigerfish. The fish eagles are waiting for him there; half a dozen of them, sweeping up from the trees then swooping down low over the water, bombarding the live bait every time it is cast with the line.

This doesn’t put off the tigers, who are gutsily taking the bait themselves. Inevitably some big ones get away and one almost pulls Lawrence into the Zambezi but my fishing buddy, to his immeasurable delight, lands a 4kg specimen for supper, along with numerous others to feed the team who will kindly remove the bones.

We head back to camp a few hours later as the day warms up and Lawrence warms once again to his theme of the moment – the inadequacies of the Zambian education system.

A midday walk along the riverbank yields 20 bird species in as many minutes and an evening trip downstream is another maelstrom of hippos and tigerfish with fish eagles overhead. While the birding may not match Ngepi’s, the scenery and the fishing more than make up for it and Lawrence is just as passionate as Christoph about his people, his country and his craft.

This time, at Tamarind, the sun is a big golden orb that turns the water a silvery blue, the beer is Mosi and the river fast-running with banks full of fishermen catching their evening meals.

But the theme is the same, no matter which camp we find ourselves in – a river, a fundi, a beer at sunset, birds and tigers. In Africa.

Contact

Ngepi Camp, near Divundu, Namibia.

Camping and a variety of tree-houses, tents and decked huts along the banks of the Okavango River. Camping R95 per person. Bush huts from R420 per person BB. Good simple food and a lively bar. Piping hot showers and funky baths. Quirky but fun.

Tel. +264 (0)66 259903 Fax +264 (0)66 259906 E-mail: bookings@ngepicamp.com Website:www.ngepicamp.com

Tamarind Camp, Zambezi Gorge, Zambia

Three permanent tents (with ablution block) and two en-suite chalets. Tents US$50/day and chalets US$70 per day. Bring all food and drink. Chefs will prepare your meals for you. Provided: gas stove, braai stand, crockery, cutlery, pots and pans, glasses, linen, chairs, tables. No electricity. Lighting by paraffin lamp or client-supplied candles. Hot water. A copper bar 7 seater boat (banana boat) can be hired with a coxwain (Lawrence) for sight-seeing and fishing trips at $70 per half day. Tiger-fishing at its best.

Bookings Tel: +260 211 266400/266431 Email: anderson@zamnet.zm . No website.

On the Cutting Edge of Tourism

A hidden sharp object and fear of discovery make for a paranoid ride

“Why do you have a chainsaw in the car?” A Kruger gate-guard. It is a long story, we say, but we have no alcohol and the generator is irrelevant too. Do we look like rhino-poachers? He seems to buy that.

Back on the road, pre-prepared choccachinos in hand, the possibilities are endless. We hadn’t planned for the chainsaw to be discovered, of course, buried under a pile of tents and other necessities for a visit to a truly third world country.

Innocent smiles restored, we head into the bundu. A few minutes, a couple of zebras and a smallklomp of wildebeest later, a white Suzuki hoves into view and signals to us conspiratorially that we should pull over. We wonder. How could he know about our in-vehicle bush management armoury?

“On the right, 50 metres in, look carefully, two lions mating’” he whispers. Erm. Thanks.

On the right, only five metres in, just discernible between the giveaway Toyota hordes, two lions obviously mating, just as the man said. A roar louder than anything our power tool could hope to emit, and it is all over for twenty minutes. No time to wait.

Onwards, Croc Bridge- and Moz-bound, a large amorphous dead mass lies in the road ahead, a crane and a number of khaki-clad rangers of the long-sock variety looming over it. A car-struck hippo, thank goodness; no fear of suspicion that we might have de-horned a rare pachyderm with our kettingsaag.

Gathered after a coffee in Maputu and the chainsaw now so deep into the camping gear that it risks re-emerging through the exhaust, we push north.

A scream of sirens skirts the capital and we seep a little deeper into our seats. A blurred, motorbike-perched ball of authority swerves by, launching a sharp knee-length, leather-booted kick at an oblivious taxi-flank in front of us, before a pod of slick dark Mercedes arrogantly cruises past. A seemingly-rushed Presidential escort; no doubt it would have displayed a little more caution in its queue-barging had it known of the deadly assassinatory weapon cached between the hot chocolate and tent pegs in the back of our bakkie.

 

A hundred kilometres on, a rolled bus tumbling across the Limpopo causeway towards us looks as if its top has been hacked off with a saw. Time to flee again lest we come under suspicion. Oddly, we drive into a Xai-Xai carnival with an anti-speeding theme.

Through a hazy road-peak, a brown figure. “O Kak,” mumbles Tom the Pom, slipping into unaccustomed Afrikaans. No, a traffic cop.

We both know we’ve been going a smidgeon too fast, a fact reflected in the broad smug smile greeting us below the raised open hand.

He scans the car. Too fast, 2000 Mets. Maybe 1000, for cash. Unaccustomed Tom the Pom stares at his toes, fearful of being forced to expose his cutting gear stash to alien authoritarian eyes. A speeding fine in a foreign land is shame enough without being found to be in possession of lethal tools.

“Receipt please. We do not pay bribes,” say I, primly, from the passenger’s seat.

Not to be defeated in the quest for free cash, the self-proclaimed oke-in-charge then waddles up to Tom’s window. Reading each other’s thoughts and abandoning the available violent approach of chain-silencing the man, we refuse him too. And get our receipt.

A few days later, homeward-bound and lost in search of an escape route from an overgrown Transfrontier park, our path is blocked by elephant-damaged trees and the bonnet-clogging nets of myriad golden orb spiders’ webs. It is a situation screaming out for suitable tree-decimation paraphernalia, but we have sadly left the chainsaw with our coastal host, at his behest, leaving us to explain to Customs at the border, why, precisely when we had needed one and having declared one on entry into Mozambique, we no longer have a chainsaw in the car.

My Fair Holiday

Chris Harvie moves into a mansion away from Plett’s seaside hordes

Opening the oversized front door, we step into a panelled, yellowwood-floored hall which seems to extend for ever through a sumptuous but unpretentious drawing room and then onwards again through Georgian-style sash windows and into the fynbos beyond.

So my one of travelling companions does the only thing one can really do when faced with such magnificence. He sits down at the grand piano and plays Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Not perfectly, but well enough to pay tribute to a glorious setting …

Staying at Fairview is like having your own country house, away from the seaside hordes but close enough to be on the beach at Nature’s Valley in 15 minutes or shopping in Plettenberg Bay in ten. The house is fully serviced and it is managed from day to day by the unobtrusive but ever-enthusiastic Willemijn Murray.

The drawing room is well-furnished but uncluttered, the walls decked with understated artworks and shelves lined with a remarkable collection of books. Bedrooms ripple with crisp white cotton and modern bathrooms are fully supplied with soaps and smells.

The house is set in 30 hectares of fynbos and looks westwards over the Keurbooms indigenous forest to the mountains beyond where, on the night of our arrival, the sun sinks languorously between two distant peaks as we wander around the lovely semi-formal garden, a large gin and tonic in hand. Near the house stands a small pond with trickling fountain and deeper in the fynbos and almost hidden from view we find a swimming pool. This would also be a wonderful place to bring children, safe as houses in the walled-off garden.

While Fairview would undoubtedly be a great place to do nothing but soak up the, let’s face it, very fair view, it is I think probably best suited to doing the exact opposite and to assembling a gang of mates with walking boots, fishing rods and mountain bikes and making the most of all that this unspoilt corner of the garden route offers without mingling with the masses.

As dawn streaks the sky orange the next day, we head down the winding pass to Nature’s Valley for a potter around the lagoon followed by an hour-long walk along one of the region’s most unspoilt beaches and then breakfast in the village shop.

By midday, we have made our way through Plett to the car park at the outset of one of our country’s most magnificent day walks, and headed right to the end of the Robberg Peninsula, with its dense flowers, long views and bobbing seals. It is not an easy walk but, on a sunny day, it’s an absolute must.

In the evening, shoes and socks off, we knock up a toothsome kudu salami salad in the kitchen-cum-dining-room-cum-parlour where a roaring fire in the grate means that everyone can snuggle down after supper, nibble on a delicious Emmentaler from Nature’s Way Farm Stall and sip on a Boplaas Port from the excellent Thyme and Again deli.

Plettenberg Bay has so much to offer the weekender apart from the obvious shopping. There’s a snake park, there’s Monkeyland and there’s Birds of Eden which, under a two-hectare dome, is the world’s largest free flight bird sanctuary. If you prefer your birds completely unfettered, Fairview is also right on the edge of the Tsitsikamma National Park and there’s any number of walks and Big Trees with great birding.

If you are really bonkers and up for even more superlatives, the world’s highest bridge-based bungy-jump is just up the road on the Bloukrans Bridge.

Plettenberg Bay is a prime tourism town and as such there’s a wide range of restaurants from which to choose. We lunch at the delightful Emily Moon and then enjoy a really good dinner at Simon Ash’s restaurant, The Fat Fish, where under pressure from the maître d’ we even try some of the local wines. Plettenberg Bay is a relatively new Wine Region and the LuKa Sauvignon Blanc is excellent with the Hake en Papillotte, steamed in a paper bag. Strongly recommended.

After a night out on the town, the ten minute drive back to Fairview fades into nothing. We pour ourselves another port, just to round off the evening as the moon rises over the silent fynbos. It is hard to imagine that the N2 is less than a kilometre away and that we are deep in tourism country. We soon fall for the allure of the rippling cotton-sheeted beds and our contented snores become our own Nachtmusik in our own baronial mansion.

BASICS 

Where it is: Just inside the Western Cape at The Crags, between the Tsitsikamma Forest and Plettenberg Bay.

Why go there: To fool yourself that you have your own mansion within minutes of the beach and to make the most of all that Plettenberg Bay has to offer without actually having to stay there.
What it has: In the main house, a master bedroom with en-suite bathroom and a family suite upstairs with two bedrooms and a shared bathroom. In the cottage there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

What it’s like: Classic, classy, cool, comfortable.

Rates: R800 per person per night in the main bedroom and R700 in the family room. R670 in the cottage. Off-season from R560. Exclusive use and self-catering options also available.

Getting there: Fairview is 10km from the Keurbooms River Bridge, heading from Plettenberg Bay towards Port Elizabeth. The entrance is before The Crags village and just past the entrance to Royston farm.

Contact: Fairview belongs to the Rattray family. For reservations, contactreservations@fugitivesdrift.com or call 034 642 1843. Website www.fairview.fugitivesdrift.com.

Emily’s at Emily Moon – open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and daily for dinner Tel 044 533 2982

The Fat Fish – open daily from 11.30am to 10.00pm Tel 044 533 4740

Nature’s Way Farm Stall – excellent cheeses and a small coffee shop menu available. 044 534 8849

Thyme and Again – on the N2 just east of Plettenberg Bay. 044 535 9432

A Bull and a China Shop

Some creatures make a big impression, some leave no trace of themselves at all

“You gave us the wrong fingerprints,” the baffling woman repeated. “You must do them again.” I had come to pick up my driver’s licence from the Sabie Traffic Department. She had said it would take six weeks. Pointlessly, I had given her a precautionary three months.

She was unbending in the face of my explanation that – maybe rather foolishly – I had brought the same fingers with me this time as the last. I must reapply using whatever fingerprints I had to hand.

Bowing to her superior understanding of bureaucracy, I was resigned to the fact that I must take my next road trip through a bunch of countries renowned for traffic police more awkward than ours, carrying a temporary licence and somebody else’s fingerprints which I had always taken to be my own.

We counted the road blocks – seven in Mozambique, six in Malawi, 14 in Zambia and 21 in a four hundred kilometre stretch of Zimbabwe. Not one of them was fazed. In fact, with its parchment shape, its dazzling crimson stripe and its ridiculously handsome photograph, I think the temporary version may have looked more official than the permanent.

There were hold-ups of a different kind to beef about en route, though.

We wove a wary path between the potholes to Beira. They say that if you see a pair of ears sticking out of an indent in a Mozambiquan highway, it signals not a rabbit but a giraffe. My bakkie swerved in and out, throwing itself at Africa with its customary fearless abandon.

Unable to find a campsite in grimy Tete, we settled instead on a roadside motel for the night. One uncomfortable bed was evidently stuffed with concrete and the other with popcorn; squadrons of bat-sized mosquitoes circled ominously under the dysfunctional fan. There was no door on the bathroom and the TV channels ranged from Islamic prayer to fishing on the Yangtze with no option of news or movies. We beat it to the bar for a 2M beer and some supper, bombarded by a video of Velvet Revolver playing a tuneless composition entitled Train Sucking Blues.

A more musical metal-rending crash then broke the dusty darkness followed by a deep and lengthy groan and cursing in Portuguese. Perhaps someone had sucked up a train outside the hotel? No.

Although the dying groans of a truck-bashed bull seemed perversely to improve the music, the staff disappeared to witness its pain first-hand and the service came to a standstill for 15 minutes.

We survived the night and my companion’s disagreement with his curry, which rendered the lack of a bathroom door all the more unfortunate, and awoke with the dawn. The dead animal was still lying on the roadside, minus a couple of rump steaks, as we escaped in the direction of Zuma’s empty Malawian thoroughfares.

Zambia’s road blocks were for the most part elephantine and Zimbabwe’s merely a demonstration of paranoia so it wasn’t until we got back to Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, that we saw a lurching Ni-Da piling into another bull, believe it or not, just outside the China Shop. The imprint on this unfortunate beast was deeper and with more immediate effect.

Far, far deeper than the imprint of my finger which was never found. I eventually got my new licence and, in place of my isithupha, appear the words “No Print”. I look forward to that discussion with a traffic cop if ever I strike an itinerant steer. “Why don’t you have any fingerprints?”

“I just can’t seem to make a good impression,” I shall say. No bull, my china.

Party Train to Pasture

Larry the Landy’s last dance was a festive affair with trompoppies and hooch

Larry and I had co-travelled many tens of thousands of kilometres but we now had to finalise our impending divorce before Death itself should us part. It was heart-rending. My Land Rover was slowly giving up the ghost. I could no longer afford the medical bills.

Travel had become much tamer in recent times. We couldn’t risk breaking down in Deepest Darkest; there was no bundu-bashing at Mana Pools, no hurricane-dodging in Niassa. Instead, our most recent foray had seen us topping up his water in the car park outside Shoprite in Graaff-Reinet, again outside Spar in Jeffrey’s Bay, followed by Woolworths in Plett and finally Checkers in Bredasdorp.

It had been a glorious winter trip of sunshine and whales, white surf crashing onto white sandy beaches, cliff-top walks and empty roads, until we reached Cape Town, where the doof-doof from the Waterfront was muted. The city was in lockdown pending the arrival, not of me and Larry, but of the most powerful man on earth. Obama was heading for Robben Island.

We went instead to a mechanic near the Castle who insisted that he wouldn’t be able to look at my car for two weeks. It was the straw that broke the Landy’s back. I went straight to the railway station to book the last berth to Johannesburg for me and the last spot in the vehicle carriage for the Land Rover. I wasn’t going to risk a breakdown and two weeks in Leeu-Gamka.

In his outlandish turquoise and purple outfit, Spoornet Man could not have been more helpful. He even promised me that the food on the train had improved. Spoornet’s infamous coffee was back, he said, and I must try the Pap en Tik.

This, I had decided, would be Larry’s last ride.

We arrived the required three hours prior to departure, allowing time to fill both fuel tanks and thus to weigh down and manoeuvre Larry successfully under the roll-up door and onto the train.

The riotous din of the boarding hordes was a magnificent manifestation of rainbow polyglot joy, wherein a preponderance of gap-toothed women yelled “waars my f@#*%n sakkie?” and “wie het my f@#*%n kind gesteel?” as they kept noisy tabs on their belongings and their offspring.

A mother from Rondebosch gently placed her hands over her daughter’s ears.

A couple of hundred passengers have loaded onto a train here every other day for I don’t know long but still it was as chaotic as the first day of a massive department store sale. Then into the pandemonium strode a snake of paired-off touring trompoppies from Bellville, in yellow track-suits and green beanies. The noise cranked up another couple of hundred decibels as they boarded the train with a gaggle of mothers in pursuit in DRUMMIE MOMMIE jackets.

It was not a peaceful journey but it was a happy one, the shouting, the stomp of running drummies and the strong smell of hooch only subsiding at about 2am somewhere near Kimberley. The by-now more subdued crowd finally disembarked in Johannesburg at dusk the next day, a respectable seven hours late.

I waited for Larry to appear. “Nice vehicle!” said one onlooker.

“If it had been a nice vehicle, I’d have driven it here, and not paid R4000 for it to come by train!” I muttered and then realised she wasn’t looking at Larry.

A shiny black Jeep appeared from the vehicle wagon, a mid-20s Naomi Campbell lookalike at the wheel. The number-plate read PRENUPT WP. As I was finalising the end of my time with my Land Rover, this Jeep symbolised the beginning of a marriage. An intriguing lobola.

Gold Reef City – The Gold Rush

The attendant looked me straight in the eye and said “She might not look very fast but if she goes any faster you will vomit.”

I didn’t know how to reply. I wasn’t about to push my luck by suggesting she try me. It had already been a long day of spinning, screaming, sobbing, shouting and general pandemonium and I admit that I was already feeling slightly rocky but was putting it down to the junk food.

Knowing that it was the showpiece and therefore that we really had to do it, we had kicked off our visit to Gold Reef City with the Anaconda. Thirty-eight seconds of absolutely unadulterated terror.

Understatedly describing itself as an inverted rollercoaster with corkscrew, this dreaded snake turned us totally upside-down five times, hitting a top speed of 90km/h which it reached in 3 seconds and with a maximum G-force of 3.5G. It was inhuman, to say the least, but things couldn’t get worse than that.

We had thought it best to get it out of the way and followed it with a relatively gentle drift down the Raging River Rapids. Gentle, that is, until the icy flow slopped over the side and onto the seat or until an unseen cliff-top bucket tipped a stream of chilly water down our unsuspecting necks as we slipped underneath. Oh, and then there was the very, very dark tunnel. That bit was scary.

It was time for a quiet drink in Town Square… but there is nothing really quiet about anything at Gold Reef City. If there isn’t a troupe of drummers or a gang of gyrating gumboot dancers on the stage then there’s almost certainly a monocyclist, a man-sized Dalmatian or chimney-sweep lookalike in period clothing flitting past, followed piper-like by dozens of sugar-hyped skipping children.

With our own stomachs settled, at least for the time being, we headed for the rollercoaster, passing a penned pair of placid, if somewhat incongruous, cattle and some ground-pecking chickens. DO NOT FEE THE NIMALS said the worn-out sign so we didn’t, in case ‘feeing’ them turned these calm creatures into some kind of appalling Cow and Chicken Theme Ride. To our relief, they remained mere livestock.

The 20 minute queue for the Jozi Express rollercoaster was worthwhile and for the first time, I felt high but safe enough to look around the old Crown Mine site and marvel at how far it has all come. We were celebrating a 9th birthday but I know – because I am one of them – that the 49 year-olds had just as good a time as the kids did. Gold Reef City is a fun, safe day out for everyone and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, provided you don’t poke any limbs over the edge of the rollercoaster.

We agreed to two more rides after the Jozi Express and the kids chose the Wave Swing, a kind of roundabout with swinging chairs suspended on chains from a giant mushroom-shaped canopy. As it sped up and the seats swung from the vertical to the horizontal, I suffered a sudden and ghastly flashback to a childhood visit to a steam fair where, on a similar apparatus, the child in front of me – a friend of mine until that moment – had been violently ill. And yes, I had flown straight into the stream of stinking chunky debris. At speed.

It was all I could do to keep my lunch down this time and, as the Wave Swing slowed down and we dismounted, it did indeed turn out to be too much for one poor child. At least he was on the ground by then and a strategic bucket of disinfectant was able to sloosh away the evidence.

So it was with a heavy heart and a fluttering stomach that I heard the words of the attendant on The Mermaid, which was to be our last ride, barred into one of a dozen colourful spinning clams adorned with sea-nymphs. Mermaids are kindly creatures, I kept telling myself. And, fortunately I was right.

So was the attendant right. She really didn’t need to spin any faster.

BASICS
Where it is: Only eight kilometres from the centre of Johannesburg on the site of the old Crown Mines Shaft 14, which produced 1.4 million kilograms of gold between 1897 and its closure in the 1970s.

Why go there: To check the stability of your stomach under pressure.
What it has: A range of thrilling rides plus mine tours, helicopter rides and a museum of gold mining. Accommodation is available at Southern Sun’s Gold Reef City Hotel.

What it’s like: It’s a kids’ day out for the whole family and a fantastic venue for a birthday.
And the food: There’s plenty to eat although not much of it good for you. Who cares though? You’re on holiday.

Rates: R165 for a full day on the rides if you are over 1.3 metres tall. Discounts for smaller people (and limitations on which rides they can use). You can pick up a photo of yourself screaming on some of the rides for R45. Heritage and Mine Tours extra. Special rates in off-season and for pensioners, students and families.
Getting there: Take the M1 south from Johannesburg and stay in the Bloemfontein lane until the Booysens exit, then follow the signs to Gold Reef City.

Contact: Contact Tsogo Sun’s Gold Reef City Theme Park on 011 248 6800. Website www.goldreefcity.co.za. Opening times: Seasonal (Gauteng School Holidays) Monday to Sunday 09h30 to 17h00. Out of Season Wednesday to Sunday 09h30 to 17h00.

A Hotelier’s Lament

Chris Harvie puts his neck on the line and looks at how TripAdvisor has taken much of the joy out of hospitality to the detriment of both hosts and guests.

HAVE you noticed that we hoteliers have undergone a sinister character-change? Do you see fear in our eyes? A persecuted look? Well, if you aren’t aware of it, you should be. Because you are ruining our lives. Not all of you, admittedly. Only a miniscule percentage of you, but enough people to make a significant change to the way we operate.

More than almost any other industry we give up our entire lives to serve the public. We give up our homes, our marriages, our holidays, our Christmases, in our endeavour to achieve 100% guest satisfaction at all times.

Hospitality is a lifestyle. A calling. It is not a career. We don’t do it for the money, and being ‘nice’ to people is not an easy job.

So what do we get in thanks for our efforts? TripAdvisor.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? There’s no worldwide website called SickAdvisor where ‘millions of members’ crit doctors in over 100 million reviews, is there? Or a RipAdvisor site to attack clothing manufacturers? Or TrickAdvisor to expose second-hand car dealers?

So why pick on us, when we are the ones who are at work when nobody else is? For whom a public holiday is not a day off but an even longer and harder day than usual?

I have been in hotels for more than 30 years, from frequent guest to junior employee, manager and owner, and I am always filled with admiration for my colleagues for what they put up with from some of the more unsavoury members of the public.

I use the word ‘professional’ deliberately because I think we are probably the most professional profession in the world. You trust us with your down-time, your recreation, your secrets, your trysts and your dirty linen. You trust us to feed you, to make your bed, to keep you safe, to wash your clothes and to clean your car whilst you switch off and relax.

And in return, talking of dirty linen, we get internet-wide vilification.

Until the advent of TripAdvisor , we hoteliers took a pride in what we did. You loved us, we loved you. We’d go to bed exhausted but satisfied that we had done our absolute best and believing, realistically, that we had satisfied more than 99% of you. And that the 1% simply wouldn’t come back. After all, if you go to a supermarket that doesn’t sell what you want, you don’t go the media. You go to a different supermarket the next time.

Nowadays, things have changed. We go to bed in fear, we sleep fitfully and we wake up in trepidation. And, believe it or not, our first move over our morning pick-me-up is to log onto TripAdvisor to reassure ourselves that, during the night, some disgruntled whinger (or even worse a bitter rival, rancorous blackmailer or a scorned lover) hasn’t wreaked a worldwide web of retribution, public vilification and personal attacks that will sit and fester in the search engines way beyond any relevance they might ever have had.

We are under attack. And to make it worse, our persecutors are allowed to remain anonymous so we don’t know their names, when they stayed, what room they were in or where they sat in the restaurant. They can attack us, name us, humiliate us but we are not even allowed to know who they are.

Our pride in our art is wilting. The fulsome joy and spontaneous hospitality are on the wane as we find ourselves more and more on the defensive.

If you don’t like my hotel, tell me privately, but don’t emblazon it across the ether. It may not be what you wanted but it might well suit somebody else. Although, like most hotels, we aim to please the maximum number of people, we can’t, realistically, be everybody’s cup of tea or favourite soup, so if we are not what you wanted, don’t blame us alone. You may be equally at fault for choosing the wrong place for your needs and I am not going to waste my heart attack on reading your unreasonable rantings posted on a busybody website.

So what’s the solution to this seemingly intractable issue? Well, firstly, if we must have a TripAdvisor, it should be optional and attractive for hotels to have an entry. The website is well-followed enough, now, surely, for everyone in hospitality to want to be on it and for an absence from the site to raise enough questions on its own? I am all for reasonable and constructive guest feedback, but it should be the hotel’s choice as to how it receives that.

Secondly, reviewers should be obliged to use their real names and not hide behind keyboardwarrior anonymity. Reviewers’ contact details should also be available to hoteliers and restaurateurs on request. In this way, we can find out more details of any complaints and rectify any problems.

Thirdly, as with a number of similar sites, TripAdvisor should approach hotels for comment before publication in the case of an aggressive or negative review, instead of allowing the industry a limited (and heavily censored) opportunity to reply after the event, by which time the damage is done. We hoteliers are not allowed a website where we can complain or warn our colleagues about difficult or immoral guests — it has been tried but was ironically declared defamatory — so it is only right that we should have a veto or at least a right of reply to any attacks on us before they go public. (TripAdvisor is not alone here. Booking.com causes similar problems by asking for both positives and negatives when soliciting reviews from users, which has the disadvantage of asking people to scratch their heads and find a negative, even when they might not previously have been bothered by one.)

Hoteliers hate TripAdvisor. Full stop. It’s not a watchdog. It is potentially the hotelier’s enemy in the way that no other industry has one.

Certainly it provides a great opportunity for good feedback and positive promotion through genuine rave reviews, but it is also a potential vehicle for systematic persecution, and is easily used by the unscrupulous to threaten and blackmail hoteliers into providing more than has been paid for and to seek out special favours.

For now, the hotelier’s best option still seems to be to ignore TripAdvisor and not to court reviews.

We hospitality folk want you to be happy, because if you’re happy, we are happy. Then we can put the joy back into hospitality. It will be to everybody’s benefit.

Relieve me

Never tell a Zimbabwean you are going to Zim or you may find yourself smuggling strange goods

We’d driven the pile of nappies over hill and dale, lake and mountain, gravel and pothole and through four countries. Now we had finally reached Zimbabwe and could dump them. So to speak.

I’d originally agreed to carry a small parcel to Bulawayo. Six boxes had turned up. Six vast boxes, unsubtly labelled Dis-Chem and containing a hundred and fifty adult nappies. Half a bakkie-load. And there was a blanket too. But not just any blanket. One of those giant blankets that comes with its own zip-up carrying bag. A blanket large enough, in fact, to make a sizeable bivouac.

Never tell a Zimbabwean you are going to Zim.

We cunningly buried the boxes under our camping equipment and agreed to tell any inquisitive officials that they were for my personal use. In my fiftieth year I was obviously about to lose control of my faculties and liable to urinate or, heaven forbid, defecate uncontrollably at any moment. The disposable contents of the boxes would allow these actions to be carried out discreetly. I suggested, when crossing borders, that I should perhaps wear a pair of absorbent briefs over my shorts, superman-style, to reinforce the situation, as it were, but it was agreed that this strategy would come into play in emergencies only.

Our padded contraband passed unnoticed out of South Africa and through Mozambique, unsullied even after a dodgy prawn in Inhambane. We had established, in case explanation was required, established that the local word for nappy is fralda and that incontinent, not surprisingly, isincontinente in Portuguese. So far so good.

On reaching the Zòbué border between Mozambique and Malawi, however, things got a bit, erm, stickier.

We declared ourselves to be carrying ‘camping equipment’ but officialdom wasn’t having it. A sturdy woman in a tight-fitting uniform into which you couldn’t have squeezed a small tissue, let alone an absorbent pad, insisted that we provide a detailed list or unpack the vehicle. And no amount if jolly humour on our part was going to talk her out of it.

Item by item, we slowly removed bicycles, tents, sleeping bags and mats, food boxes, a braai grille, kit bags, charcoal, a tool kit, a 40-litre water tank, two pairs of muddy hiking boots and then our secret weapon – an open bag full of dirty laundry. At this point she quailed. No smuggled discovery was worth the discomfort of dealing with soiled clothing. Little did she know what else was lurking deeper under the canopy …

The nappies passed unchallenged through Malawi and unnoticed into Zambia where they spent four happy nappy days in South Luangwa before pushing south-west and unsprayed over the bridge at Victoria Falls. And now here they were in Bulawayo.

We called the number we’d been given to arrange delivery. In Hope Foundation Road – how apt, we thought. Look for a nurse in a pink T-shirt.

We drove up and down the road. No nurse. No pink T-shirt. We called again.

Next to the Greenhouses? Green houses? Or greenhouses? Just past the Sunlight bus stop.

We asked a blue-overalled passer-by, pushing a bicycle. “I don’t know, boss, I am new here, sorry, from Masvingo, but, please boss, I need job.”

Still no pink T-shirt. Stymied at the last. We’d driven these oversized pampers 8000 kilometres around Africa. Now we couldn’t deliver them where they were so sorely needed. Giving up reluctantly, we left them at a spaza shop with a gentle dollar-bribed guard.

I heard later that afternoon that the nurse had taken delivery. Mission accomplished. Just in time, according to Nurse. I was so relieved I almost wet myself.

Mind your Ps in Queues

Some traffic snarl-ups can turn the most mild-mannered of us, however good the sandwich

I checked the clock on the car. It was two in the morning when the Frisbee whistled past my door for the umpteenth time, letting out a loud automated wail as it flew. I lost my composure completely.

The channel tunnel had been closed due to snow – how can it snow in a tunnel? – and we were stranded with several hundred other vehicles, in a car park the size of Belgium, trying to leave France for England.

“Just anuzzer sree hours before you can board,” came the latest assessment. Add three hours to the four we had already waited and tempers were frayed, international relations strained. To compound the severity of the situation, the only accessible coffee machine had packed up because some joker had wedged a pound into the Euro slot.

I was in the driver’s seat because I was the smallest and most likely to be able to sleep there. In the passenger seat a bulky friend squirmed noisily, his leather jacket rubbing on the leather seat and emitting an irritating squawk of the chalk-on-board variety, and snored loudly, intermittently and tunelessly with random explosive snorts that have been known to scare off camp-loping hyena in the Okavango Delta.

Here in France, without the blurring night-sounds of the bush, the noise was intolerable. From behind me, exacerbating it, came the nauseating metallic tinkle of a personal stereo playing directly into mindless teenage ears.

The day had begun with a still-dark 4am start, zigzagging down a black-ice glazed mountain pass consisting of 22 hairpins. Ascending, at each bend, came a string of lurching, corner-cutting coaches, hell-bent on sending us over the cliff and tumbling to an agonising death in the pine trees below.

The only unlikely success of the day had been the hot dogs we had bought in an autorouteservice station. These places are heavenly. Shiny marble runway-like corridors lead off in all directions, spattered with boulangeries, patisseries and coffee shops. There’s not a pie to be seen. Instead, delicious quiches, fresh pizza slices and sandwichs. Not to be confused with sandwiches, a French sandwich is a crusty length of fresh baguette, smeared generously with unsalted butter and then crammed with delicious unprocessed Emmentaler, real smoked ham, tomatoes and crunchy lettuce.

The French hot dog is equally unrelated to its South African “Oddog” namesake. It is a tasty roll, gently enclosing an offal-free sausage, coated in a gorgeous sauce with the mustardy cheese and nutmeg flavour of a genuine Croque Monsieur. Gourmet stuff.

We had then become embroiled in traffic jams in Lyons, Dijon and Paris, the latter involving almost two hours of crawling through black fumes in a tunnel. A sign had explained that the Authorities were experimenting with a lane closure. Well, Authorities, it is a failed experiment.

Now, though, motionless in this vast car park, I desperately wanted to get into another Tunnel. Then the Frisbee shot past my window. I threw the door open and in one leap, snatched it from the shocked child who’d just caught it.

“I am going to smash this bloody thing to pieces!” I heard myself bellowing irrationally. “If you must run around in the snow, can’t you make it silent? Turn off the bloody shrieking noise!” I told the adult who was playing with the child.

Mon fils est aveugle!” His son, he explained, was blind.

“Well, he’s awfully good with a Frisbee, isn’t he?” I smiled contritely and got back into the car, where I patiently waited my turn to cross the Channel, dreaming of hot dogs.

The Tour de Tuli

Chris Harvie takes his padded pants on a Botswanan cycling safari

It was midday when we arrived, tired, scratched, bleeding, battered and bruised. A smiling face offered chilled damp facecloths and directed us to a tableful of juice, cold drinks and water and then to a line of sturdy canvas chairs into which we slumped gratefully.

Who in their right mind would put themselves through this agony willingly, I wondered, and knowing that this was only day two of four, how was I going to survive another two?

Where were we? Climbing Everest? Shark cage-diving? The Funfair at the Rand Easter Show?

No. Cycling. The world’s fastest-growing sport. And we were at Mashatu in Botswana’s Tuli Block.

I had always thought of chafing as a culinary term until now but today no amount of gel on my saddle or padding stuffed down my spandex could prevent a new interpretation dawning on me and my nether regions.

We’d been on our bikes since just after dawn and had covered about 40 kilometres, which would have been a doddle on-road but in these conditions was far from it. My doddle was, in fact, completely doddled from hours of bashing through the bush, tearing down elephant paths through the mopane, struggling through soft-sand riverbeds, splashing through streams, dodging boulders and bouncing across rocky drifts.

“The lekgotla is ready for you.” The smiling face was speaking again. It belonged to Annelien who, with her husband Stuart, was our host for the rest of the day. “Lunch will be ready in 30 minutes.” Good. We were ravenous.

The “lekgotla” consisted of a circular enclosure of leadwood shafts embedded in the ground under the shade of a giant mashatu tree. Once the gathering place for the tribal elder deliberations in this corner of Botswana, it had been transformed into a dormitory. Around an unlit fire stood a ring of beds. Yes, real beds; decked with cotton sheets, proper blankets and pillows. It was outlandish and fabulous, reminiscent of the album cover of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which seemed strangely apt, as we all picked one and collapsed onto it, groaning with pleasure now that the weight was off our calves, thighs and aching backsides.

Then it got better. A corridor of trees led from the lekgotla to four hot showers and a couple of flushing lavatories.

I ride a mountain bike regularly and I knew Mashatu was famous for its annual Tour de Tuli but this was my first ever cycling safari.  My first foray into the world of camelbaks, gel packs, jelly babies and energy bars.

We were on a tailor-made route which would have us sleeping in three different venues. The mornings were spent cycling an often circuitous route between those camps and on each afternoon a different activity was lined up for us. There were bush walks, bird-spotting and game drives, architectural sites, Anglo-Boer war battle-sites, elephants at a hide and drinks on the banks of the Shashe river.

We walked in the shade of Botswana’s own Mapungubwe, climbed kopjes, strode floodplains, unearthed shards of ancient pottery, strutted with a secretary bird, ate sumptuous brunches, marvelled at magnificent landscapes, perched on hilltops at sunset with a glass of wine in hand, witnessed Rhodes’s initials carved in a baobab, drove alongside a stalking leopard in an open vehicle, dined on the finest fine fare around fires under the stars and more than anything, enjoyed the incomparable company of efficient, charming and amusing Batswana people.

We followed our intrepid and inexhaustible Motswana guide Joe through vast herds of impala, scattering wildebeest and passing up-close huge gangs of root-grubbing baboons. One morning, a pair of hyena wandered nonchalantly past us in a riverbed as we rested on the bank.

Back-of-mind was the ever-present knowledge that Mashatu is also home to lion and large numbers of leopard. There were elephants everywhere. The heavily-treed section through the riverine bush is not called Ambush Alley for nothing!

The cycling is off-road but varies greatly from relatively gentle level single-track on game paths to tricky technical cycling across boulder-strewn hillsides. Joe would tell us at the beginning of each ride what to expect and what our nett climb or descent for the day would be. He was cunning, too, in his encouragement and harmless disinformation when it came to our probable arrival time at our camp for the night.

Our second overnight stop was Mashatu Tented Camp, only metres from Zimbabwe on the Tuli Circle, an anachronistic border established by the pioneers to protect the grazing in a ten-mile radius of Fort Tuli in what was then Rhodesia. The camp’s canvas-roofed rooms look out from large verandahs onto the riverbed and a cacophony of birds while, out back, a spacious courtyard leads to an outside shower.

The crowning accommodation experience was our last night at Mashatu Main Camp. By now, we had covered well over a hundred kilometres, the last couple of hours at speed. More welcome than ever was the row of smiling faces, facecloths in hand and ready to whisk away our bicycles for the last time and lead us on winding gravel paths to vast rooms and wallowing baths. An afternoon game drive would give our rear ends a final pounding before we took drinks in the bar overlooking a large waterhole and another fine dinner, this time in a boma.

The trip was hard work, make no mistake! We were mostly of average fitness and none of us – even those who cycled regularly – found it easy going but the rewards were phenomenal.

You will fall off your bicycle and you will hurt yourself, your legs will ache and your back will twinge but the pain is more than made up for by the privilege of bonding with a group of like-minded folk and experiencing the thrills and hardship of a bicycle work-out in some of the most spectacular game-viewing land in Africa.

Just get fit. And don’t forget the sunblock, a helmet, the sticking plasters, and as much padding as you can get your hands on to keep the chafing to a minimum. Everything else you can leave to Joe and the Mashatu team.

BASICS

Where it is: Tuli Block in the south-eastern corner of Botswana.

Why go there: Cycling is more energetic than a game-drive and covers more ground than a bush-walk. Mashatu and its associated companies also offer horseback and vehicle safaris in long-view scenery with generous game populations. And the wildlife is really wild.
 

What it has: A range of cycling safaris of different levels of comfort and discomfort. Take your own bicycle if it’s up to it or hire one from Mashatu.

What it’s like: Periods of mild pain, interspersed with frequent moments of unforgettable glory.

Rates: Accommodation at Mashatu Main Camp: R2464. Mashatu Tented Camp: R1792. Rates are per person and include meals, game drives and transfers to the border. SA residents only. Cycle Mashatu offers a 3-night 4-day cycle tour from R4350 per person staying in rustic wilderness camps. Guests at all camps may take morning or afternoon bicycle safaris for $55 per person. Bikes and equipment are available for hire. Horseback safaris are available from $80 and walking safaris from $50.

Geting there: Cross the Botswana border at Pont Drift, north of Alldays in Limpopo Province, leaving your car on the SA side of the river. You will be collected from here. It is a 6-hour drive from Johannesburg. A passport is required and you will need your vehicle papers in order to be allowed to leave your vehicle at the borderpost.

Contact: For all arrangements contact Mashatu on mashatu@malamala.com or seewww.mashatu.com