Tag Archives: Travel

Experiencing Ramadan in Tangier

Before I left South Africa my brother, who has lived in an Islamic country for nearly two years, told me that I should befriend someone who practices Iftar or the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Never would I have imagined that Moroccan tea would lead to just that.

Awkward or Amazing?

Both, but mostly amazing.

It started with some tea in Tangier

In Morocco, green tea served with mint leaves and a bag of sugar is called Moroccan Whisky. It forms part of any respectable meal and discussion. In Tangier, I stayed at a small hotel in the Old Medina and I became quite friendly with one of the receptionists. One night, I went out for a meal in one of the few restaurants that were open during Ramadan (my trip to Morocco was impulsive – I completely forgot about Ramadan). When I returned, my host was in the reception area and asked whether I would like to join him for tea. We talked of shoes and ships and sealing wax and many other things (thank you C.S. Lewis).

Do a stranger a kindness

The next day, he asked me whether I was going to the bus station to buy my ticket to Chefchaouen for the next day. I said that I was and that I would take a taxi to the bus station. No no, he said, he was going in the same direction for business, I can walk with him if I wanted to. Well, I like a good walk, so sure why not. We walked and walked from the Old Medina to the New Town and past the shop where he had to do go to and to the bus station. At the station he helped me to buy a bus ticket. Afterwards, he asked me whether I wanted to go to the Caves of Hercules. I had thought about it but, as usual, wasn’t particularly keen on doing anything that felt like an effort. He said that he had to go in that direction anyway and that we could share a taxi to the caves and then I could come back on my own. Sure, why not.

The Caves of Hercules

Once we reached the caves, I expected him to return to town, but instead he lead the way to the caves. The view of the Atlantic ocean was amazing, especially through the Africa-shaped hole in the grotto. Charming experience. Afterwards, he showed me a view of the beach and asked me whether I would like to visit the beach. Sure, why not.

Cave of Hercules

We grabbed a seat on the beach in the shade a boulder. I sat hugging my knees to my chest, enjoying the smell of the ocean. Nothing like the beach to cultivate a friendship. I know what you’re thinking…not that kind of friendship!

Beach

 

The ride back to town was crowded and nothing short of awkward and extremely uncomfortable for the introvert in me. He talked about how we can have tea again after dinner, but by that time I was completely spooked by all the attention.  As soon as I could see the road back to the Medina I excused myself and hightailed it back to the Medina. I hid in a cafe for a while and sneaked back to my room when I thought it was safe.

Later, I decided that I couldn’t hide out forever and when I arrived downstairs in the lobby, my new friend invited me to break the fast with them. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was invited to share in a very special and personal occasion. When the time came at 19:40, we attacked a spread of traditional fare as if we had never seen food in our lives. Dates and pancakes and soup and sweets and watermelon, carrot and orange juice and, of course, Morrocan tea. Our other guest was the boy from next door who entertained us with his antics and impersonations. His cat, who followed the smell of fish cooked in chili joined in for some morsels from the table.

Later that evening we shared Moroccan tea on the terrace and it really was a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Life list entry: Shared Iftar in Ramadan in Morocco

 

 

 

 

Horse Riding in Patagonia: How I Nearly Froze to Death

Patagonia is a mesmerizing place. It’s a wilderness where the wind blows without mercy, where men are still men, where the landscape pierces your soul and make it its own.

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing!

I’ve always wanted to visit Patagonia

My favorite book as a child was Ms. Feenstra’s Great Dragon Adventure. It was the story of an explorer who went to Patagonia, captured a dragon and brought it back to England, just to set it free. I’ve read it over and over and adored the pictures of Ms. Feenstra exploring the wilderness of Patagonia.

Setting up for Horse riding in Patagonia

When I finally made my way to Patagonia, I visited El Calafate to see the Perito Moreno glacier and to partake in whichever other activities the area had to offer. I love horse riding and the idea of horse riding in Patagonia was idyllic. I took a bus from El Calafate to an Estancia close to lake Viedma. Two incredibly attractive gauchos greeted us and treated us to coffee before we went to saddle up.

A life-threatening mistake

Usually, I get hot when I’m horse riding, so I left my polar fleece top inside the bus. The wind was howling as it can only do in the wilderness of Patagonia. En route to the stables, I was nearly blown off my feet by the wind. Walking at a 45-degree angle – not fun. I was given a beautiful white steed, but once I sat in the saddle, my heart pounded in fear of falling off the saddle – not because of the horse, but because of the wind blowing me sideways.

Patagonia
The Patagonian Wilderness

We moved at a slow pace, following the gauchos and their two playful hounds to the hut where we were supposed to have lunch. The ride seemed to last forever. Despite my gloves, my hands were freezing. My body temperature dropped to zero and I was reminded of the South African legend of Rageltjie de Beer who froze to death trying to save her brother’s life. I dearly wished that I could hug my horse’s neck just for some extra heat, but I could tell that he wasn’t too happy about the weather conditions either.

A warm welcome

Finally, we reached our destination. A small cabin in the middle of nowhere. Blue and shivering, I got off my horse and handed the reins to one of the gauchos. Inside, a warm fire was being brought to life and a bottle of wine was emptied into the typical Argentinian penguin-shaped pitcher. Quickly, meat was being grilled on the fire and we were handed rolls filled with delicious pieces of steak.

patagonia
Wine to revive the spirits

Just when I was finally warm, it was time to head out again. With a belly full of steak and wine, I made some time for philosophy in my near frozen state. And that’s where Patagonia stole my heart. This wilderness where nature dictates and men are still men.

Later, in Ushuaia, I bought a pen sketch of a penguin battling to walk in the wind as a souvenir. A drawing to remind me of the day when the freezing Patagonian wind had nearly blown me off my horse.

Patagonia
Penguin drawing

 

 

Camping in Antarctica

Camping in Antarctica…Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing!

The thought of camping always makes me feel like crumpled, slightly damp clothing in a suitcase after a long-haul flight. My friends know not to invite me to camping trips. I don’t camp. Period. Unless it is on the white continent, buried in snow, without a tent.

Last year, I did the Base Camp tour to Antarctica

We boarded the mv Ortelius in Ushuaia and crossed the notorious Drake passage, facing 10 meter waves. Luckily, we reached the Antarctica in one piece. Our first landing spot was Paradise Bay which looks like this.

Paradise Bay
Paradise Bay

The Best Spot for Camping in Antarctica is Leith Cove

Leith Cove is about 2 miles away from where our ship was anchored in Paradise Bay. Before dinner we packed our multiple layered bivy bags. I’m not familiar with the technical terms (seeing as I don’t camp. period.), but it basically consisted of the following:

  • A silver mattress to protect against hypothermia
  • A normal camping mattress
  • An inner sleeping bag
  • A slightly thicker outer sleeping bag
  • A very sturdy every-thing proof outer sleeping bag
  • A sleeping bag stuff sack

Try getting all of that into a bag is like trying to stuff a circus tent into a bag.

After dinner we headed out to Leith Cove

Hearts full of anticipation, we took a zodiac ride to the cove. On our way we saw a stray Adelie penguin trying to hitch a ride.

Adelie Penguin
Adelie Penguin

When we reached Leith Cove we had to dig a shallow grave to nest in for the night. Our team decided to build a fortress instead which involved building a snow wall to protect us against the prevailing wind. After wandering around the island for a bit we prepared our bivy bags. We took of our outer layers and hid it in the outer shell and our mid-layers were tucked in our sleeping bags to remain warm during the night. It was actually quite cozy in the sleeping bag.

Building our fortress
Building our fortress

For me it was an amazing experience. I’ve never seen so much snow and as we lay in our bags snow started falling onto our faces. I relished the experience, but after a while I zipped up the bag to protect my face, leaving just enough space for fresh air to enter my mummy cocoon.

 

 

So much snow!!
So much snow!!
Having a philosophical moment
Having a philosophical moment

Early the next morning we had to leave our warm nests

Getting back into your cold outer layers was not fun, but we knew we had another day of penguin watching, birding and seal spotting ahead of us in Paradise Bay. Which also looks like this:

 

Paradise Bay Antarctica
Paradise Bay Antarctica

Later that afternoon, I got to kayak in this gorgeous bit of the world… a perfect ending to an amazing Base Camp tour to Antarctica.

Life List Entry: Camped in Antarctica

By the way, if you do like camping, I have friends with a wonderful blog that’s full of camping, trekking and budget travel information

Awkward Crime and Amazing Accomplices in Kyrgyzstan

Just a short funny travel story that’s…

Obviously Awkward and Amazing

Last year in Kyrgyzstan, I stayed with a wonderful host family in Kochkor. Even though there is nothing to do in Kochkor itself, I decided to stay on an extra day, for the sole reason of enjoying the relaxed and peaceful atmosphere that this family provided in their home.

One day, I went food shopping at the local bazaar. Before I left, Lola told me that I had to be careful as they were laying cement in the hallway, so I must just watch where I step while it dries. When I got back, the power was out and the hallway was very dark. And, you’ve guessed it, I stepped in the cement.

Luckily the only witnesses were the two little daughters of the family. At first they stood wide eyed and then one said: “Oh-oh.” A very universal term! While I was standing on one leg with a cement covered foot in the air, the more industrious girl went to fetch some wet wipes. We managed to clean my foot and to press the cement back down into my footprint, carefully covering up my crime scene.

I left for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the next day. I’m not sure if our crime was ever discovered and if it was, I hope that my two brilliant accomplices didn’t get into trouble and that they could successfully blame it on the tourist.

Life List Entry: Covered up a crime

3 Amazing Ways to Experience a Waterfall

Water is an essential part of life

Our bodies contain about 60% water and we need to drink water everyday to replenish our cells. Our planet’s surface is covered by 75% water and our search for hospitable planets are governed by the search for water. Waterfalls are the perfect metaphor for how powerful and beautiful water can be.

In this post I’d like to share three amazing ways in which I have experienced the power of waterfalls on my travels. Of course, I have to start off with the question:

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing!

1: Sitting underneath a waterfall

In Brunei, my brother and I hiked through the jungle to the Teraja waterfall. En route I had to remove several leeches from my breeches. The waterfall plunged into a small lagoon, which we had all to our selves. After a brief picnic, we swam to the waterfall. I decided to get as close as I can and sat down right underneath the waterfall. The water came down thundering and the droplets pounded my shoulders and back like rubber bullets. The experience was exhilarating and cleansing. I wanted to scream at the top of my voice to compete with the thundering sound of the water coming down on my head with a surprising amount of force for such a small waterfall.

Such a small waterfall, such tremendous power
Such a small waterfall, such tremendous power

2. Sliding down a waterfall

In the jungles of Ecuador we visited a lagoon for a bit of swimming. The lagoon was the last pool of water in of a cascade of waterfalls leading up to one of the Amazon tributary rivers. We wandered a bit deeper into the jungle to explore some more lagoons. At one point we reached another  waterfall and the guide showed us that it was possible (if you are brave) to slide down the waterfall and to follow the current back to the lagoon. Our G-Adventures tour guide seemed a bit skeptical, but I decided to take the risk. So I had to sit on a very specific rock and then let the water take me. The slide itself was only about a meter before it dumps you into an abyss of water. The pressure of the water was immense and it took me some time to get up (I also had to adjust my bikini). My exit was graceful with all my hair slapped over my face, but it was one of the most adrenaline-fueled experiences I’ve ever had.

Water slide, anyone?
Water slide, anyone?

3. Canyoning/Canyoneering

Canyoning involves repelling down waterfalls whilst strapped in a harness. In Baños, Ecuador we went canyoning with José and 2 dogs. We scaled four waterfalls of 8 m, 12 m, 18 m and 25 m respectively. The first two waterfalls was small enough that we could scale it down directly in the stream of water. It’s an amazing experience to lean back and skulk down the waterfall while the water splashes in your face. For the larger waterfalls, we came down the sides, but trust me, you get an amazing amount of respect for the force of the water crashing down next to you. For the fifth and final waterfall, we slid down like a water slide – a very bumpy one!

Look mom, no hands!
Look mom, no hands!

Life List Entry: Slid down a waterfall

If you can think of any other ways to enjoy a waterfall, drop a comment. Otherwise head to the About awkward and amazing page or the Hire Me page to learn more about the blog and my freelancing career

 

Seven Inspiring Sites on Train Journeys

This weekend I’m going to visit my friend in Johannesburg. My plan was to take the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg on Thursday and to fly back on Sunday. Unfortunately, all the train tickets for this weekend was sold out! So, instead of writing a post about South African railroads I’ll give you a list of sites that will inspire you to pack a bag and hop on a train.

Best Train Journey Resource of All Times: The Man in Seat 61

Mark Smith has compiled the most comprehensive train website in existence. His website name – seat61.com – refers to his habit or requesting seat 61 on the Eurostar. The aim of his site is to inspire travelers to throw away their plane tickets and hop on trains instead. He explains in meticulous detail how to do all the big journeys across the world, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway. If you want to travel by train, seat61 should be your first destination.

Trains and Travels with Jim Loomis

Jim Loomis’ Trains and Travels site is an excellent blog on train travel around the world. He mostly specializes in North American train travel, so if you want an unbiased opinion on Amtrak rail travel from a real rail enthusiast – this is the place to go. When Jim’s convinced you that train travel is for you- head down to  Amtrak – the national train network in the United States. With interactive route maps and a killer mobile app it’s super easy to plan your route. On Amtrak trains you can book a base fair which gives you a lounge car seat – which is very comfortable and the equivalent of a business class seat on an airplane. If you’re planning a cross county journey, such as riding the California Zypher from end-to-end, you can add as sleeper compartment for an additional fee.

The Savvy Backpacker’s Guide To Train Travel In Europe

The Savvy Backpackers, James and Susan, believes that traveling in Europe should not break the bank. They have posted a comprehensive list of pro’s and con’s  to train travel in Europe as well as a very detailed section on getting and using train tickets.

Train Travel in Sri-Lanka by Nerd Nomads

Espen and Maria shared their off-the-beaten rail journey from Ella to Kandy in Sri Lanka on their website – nerdnomads.com. The article features photos of the beautiful scenery, interesting historical facts and important practical information.

Thailand by Train

A Train-Lover’s Guide to Thailand is a short, but entertaining piece on train travel in Thailand brought to you by Budget Travel and Tucan Travel. It describes the train riding experience, details around ticketing, popular routes and interesting routes like the Death Railway (Thailand-Burma) build by Asian and Allied prisoners of war during WWII.

Six of the Best by G-Adventures

A summary of the six most iconic train journeys in the world with links to G-Adventures tour packages, of course.They basically listed my bucket list along with dangling carrots:

  • Toy Train (Siliguri to Darjeeling, India)
  • Trans-Siberian (Moscow to Vladivostok)
  • Trans-Asia Express (Budapest to Tehran)
  • Trans-Karoo (Cape Town to Jo’burg, South Africa)
  • Orient Express (Paris to Istanbul, Europe)
  • Glacier Express (Zermatt to St. Moritz, Switzerland)

Even though I prefer independent travel, I’ve traveled with G-Adventures twice now and wouldn’t hesitate to travel with them again.

And finally:

The Rovos Rail

The most iconic train in Africa – a perfect symbol of colonial style and ultimate luxury. Recently, I went to Matjiesfontein and the train was stationed there. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the train – it is beyond beautiful. There are several routes, but the iconic route is Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam.

Life List Entry: Traveled by train (Trans-Mongolian; California Zypher; Paris to Prague)

Georgia by motorcycle

Exploring Georgia by motorcycle – Awkward or Amazing?

Awkward – then totally AMAZING – then somewhat awkward again….

A guest post by Mihan Louw – rookie solo adventure traveler and seasoned bike enthusiast – on his trip to Georgia by motorcycle.

A much deserved break from Dubai

With the approaching Eid holiday break in Dubai, I decided that instead of sitting in the searing 40 degree heat feeling sorry for myself for 5 days, I will take a short solo-break. My amazing wife and I have been privileged to see many wonderful places over the last 10 years, but rarely if ever, have I traveled alone (apart for business trips, of course).

So, due to some passport-fullness constraints I had to find a place where us SAffers do not need a visa. So I asked the internet and decided it will be Georgia. I read a bit and heard it has some good wine and great scenery and after a little bit of a search found a Dutchman (yes really) who rents motorbikes there. So thus the plan was made for a 3 day trip, which was to include 2 days of biking. I decided to take a mixed dorm room in a hostel, as Leanie made it sound quite appealing, and knowing it will ensure that I would at least interact a bit with other two-legged creatures.

First awkward….

Excited from booking my trip I told some of my colleagues about my plans and they all responded in some version of the following: “Wow, yeah…Georgia is great for wine and strip clubs….” Eh…? “So is your wife joining you?”…”Er, no…” Awkward…

First impressions of Georgia

Anyway, so I arrived at Envoy Hostel after being ripped off by the taxi (trip should be 20Lira, not 50 FYI). Next morning my ride, a Honda 1100 Shadow, arrived. My plan was to do about 160km out and back from Tblisi to Kazbegi – which is situated towards the northern border in the Caucasus mountains. Traffic was a bit daunting at first, but once you get out of the city the number of cars reduce rapidly and although the road surface is a bit bumpy, it’s fine for cruising at 80-90kph.

I have been struggling to find the right superlative to describe how breathtakingly beautiful Georgia is. Not just the scenery, or the mix of modern and old in Tblisi, but also the simplicity with which Georgians embrace life and their circumstances. The people are also more friendly and hospitable that anywhere else I have visited in Europe.

Instead of ringing off a list of adjectives I will rather explain it in a different way. Christianity was first preached in the first century BC and officially adopted as a national religion in 337 BC. Since then, in spite of multiple invasions, Georgia never ceded Christianity as their main religion. I just think that God decided that this most beautiful piece of His earth He would like to keep to Himself.

The road to Kazbegi Monastry and a lesson in motorcycle rental

The road to Kazbegi is essentially one long mountain pass. En-route, rolling hills, snow-topped mountains, waterfalls and Caribbean blue rivers form the backdrop to a mixture of unfinished concrete structures, small villages and friendly people. I made three planned and one unplanned stop. The first stop was a bit of a leg-stretch at a local restaurant half-way up one of the mountain passes where a stream allows travel-weary visitors a chance to re-fill their empty water-bottles. Here was the first chance to embrace the natural beauty that surrounded me. Second stop was at Kazbegi to see the famous mountain monastery set against the backdrop of the snow-covered mountains.

kazbegi-monasty

It was here that I learned two valuable lessons about renting a motorcycle:

Always ask how far you can ride with one tank of fuel

Not all motorcycles have GS-like long range fuel tanks…and Shadows definitely do not! End result was me literally coming to a stand-still without fuel within the forecourt. Close call. More about lesson 2 later.

Next stop was at the Russian Georgian Friendship Monument, a semicircular mural perched on a cliff overlooking a few-hundred meter drop. This was probably one of the highlights of the trip – not necessarily because the mural is so amazing, but the setting is just enormous.

georgia-scenery

By now I had gotten quite comfortable with the Shadow and the traffic and was starting to relax and I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.

Which brings me to lesson 2:

Never leave home without your toolkit.

I was still about 100 kms from Tblisi when my clutch cable broke. Now luckily – for those of you who are not bikers – one can change gears on your bike without a clutch, as long as you do not have to stop. I was tracking back on the same route I came, so I knew I could pretty much get to within 20kms of Tblisi without having to stop. I decided to keep going as far as I can and stop when I could not go any further and would then call the rental guys.

About 25kms outside Tblisi I saw 2 mechanics’ garages and decided to stop and see if one of them can help me. The gentleman who assisted me was extremely helpful, despite the obvious language barrier, and after having a quick look at the damage calmly told me: ”No Problem – I fix”. 25 minutes later the job was done and I was on my way after some hefty hand-shakes and smiles all round.

fixing-clutch-cables-in-georgia

More of Georgia by motorcycle: Wine and ancient hill-top towns

The plan for day 2 was to do a triangular route to the Alaverdi wine-making monastery outside Telavi via the Tblisi National Park. From there I planned to travel the wine route and finally to lunch at the ancient hill-top town of Sighnaghi before returning to Tblisi. Both sites are well worth the drive and visit. Once out of the city traffic is virtually non-existent and the twisty roads make for great biking.

ancient-vineyards-in-alaverdi
Ancient vineyards in Alaverdi

Signaghi was quite a surprise. Perched on top of a hill, surrounded with the ancient stone city wall it reminds very much of the small towns in the French countryside (without the tour buses). Its cobble-stone streets are surrounded by parks and restaurants and wonderful views.

Signaghi Town Square
Signaghi Town Square
Signaghi
Signaghi

On the Honda Shadow

Now I can hear the bikers reading this blog shouting: “So when are you going to tell us about the bike!!” So – to the non-bikers, please bear with me…

As already mentioned my weapon of (not so much my) choice was a 2007-ish Honda Shadow 1100 – a two cylinder sport-tourer.

As this is not a bike review I am not going to spend a lot of time to evaluate the pro’s (comfy seat, low-end torque) and con’s (small fuel tank). I will rather tell you how this bike feels to drive.

Upon reflection I think the name ‘Shadow’ is perfect. Think a bit about the word ‘shadow’ – In most of our minds a shadow is the dark place where something sinister and scary lurks. It is the dark alleyway or underpass you have to walk through on the way home from work – and even though you have done it a 100 times – the mere thought of it raises the hair at the back of your neck as the adrenaline starts to flow through your veins.

It is the place where our worst nightmares lie and wait. A shadow is something you can see and feel but cannot touch. It made me think – what would that shadow sound like…what if that feeling can be expressed as sound. The sound of all our collective nightmares roaring into life. As I pressed the starter button and the beast roared to life sending flocks of doves into the sky I realized – this is exactly what a shadow sounds like.

At low revs it’s the deep throated purr of a 500lbs lion walking past your tent in the middle of the African night. Twisting the throttle turns it into a WW2 Spitfire rattling off its 20mm gun into its fearful enemies. As you devour mile after mile of mountain road your distant growl and echo bouncing of town walls is a rolling thunderstorm threatening on the horizon – waiting at any moment to light up the night sky with a crack of lightning.

It is the roar of the unknown approaching disaster that makes horses bolt and dogs pull their tails between their legs as you pass by. Rolling into town you see on the faces of those next to the road the relieved excitement – you were heard and felt long before you were seen. I believe it is one of the reasons why in most of our hearts we are still just a little afraid of the traditional image of a big-bearded, tattoo-covered leather-clad biker.

The Shadow is all of that. It is a feeling of falling towards our most primal fears – entering the deep dark cave where generation after generation have told of the murderous beast lurking there. It is the excitement of hearing the bellows in the depths of the mountain and reaching that moment when you realize that your worst fear is about to come true – but somehow you just cannot get yourself to stop.

It is that beast of the deep that I was riding and it is was breathtaking and glorious.

Back to Tblisi

The city is mixture of old and super-modern which makes for an interesting contrast. Roof-top bars are plentiful and small outdoor restaurants line the inner-city streets. Weekend evenings are bustling and it is well worth staying 2-3 days. The Georgian wine is good and the cuisine mostly international. The most famous local dish is a strange cheese-pie topped with an egg. My advice is to order a small one, share it between 4 friend and have your ENO’s ready.

Tblisi
Tblisi

The final awkward

So after 3 days wonderful days in Georgia I was in a (20 Lari) taxi back to the airport. The driver strangely looked a lot like my late grandfather, and he was intent on finding out exactly how much I enjoyed my visit to Georgia – even though he spoke no English. After about 5 minutes (in which time he smoked 3 Marlboro’s) I got to tell him that I really enjoyed the Georgian wines – which made him very happy.

Next he made a strange gesture that looked like a lot like what I can imagine it would look like if you dragged a hippo very fast over some speed bumps. At first I did not quite get it, but my mind was taken back to awkward moment number one. The question he was asking was, yes you guessed it, “How was the sex!”. I laughed and shook my head – showing him the wedding ring on my finger. At that point he let out the type of laugh that can only be generated in a substantial belly, shouted “No problem!” and grabbed my leg and squeezed it like I was his son!

At the airport I was given a big bear hug and was reminded again of my grandfather who passed away more than 15 years ago.

A lasting impression of Georgia

It is not often that you travel with little to no expectations. Georgia was supposed to be an anonymous breakaway, spending time with myself and my own thoughts. And there I found God’s most beautiful canvas with good-hearted people in a country where ones riches are not necessarily measured in dollars. And best of all, I found a new two-wheeled friend who reminded me that beyond the project plans, Powerpoints and business meetings there is inside me still an African soul that remains ultimately Wild at Heart.

Mihan’s Life List Entry: Explored Georgia by motorcycle

My Life List Entry: Posted a Guest Blog on Awkward and Amazing AND convinced my brother to stay in a hostel.

Zip-lining in Banos: The Only Way Out is Up

Zip-lining across the San Martin Canyon – Awkward or Amazing?

Quite, quite awkward. But loads of fun.

Someone brought it to my attention that the brain function I default to in most aspects of my life is my reptile brain.

This is the part of your brain, the brain stem, which is responsible for basic functioning such as breathing as well as for your flight/flight/freeze response to, I’m guessing in my case pretty much everything. I kind of like the idea of going through life altering between states of minding my own business like a gecko in a sunny spot and responding to life with the passion of a fire-breathing dragon.

It also explains my approach to dealing with potentially fear-inspiring situations.

Let me explain with a case study:

Zip-lining at Parque Aventura San Martin in Baños, Ecuador.

The service provider, going by the name of José and 2 Dogs (although I have it on good authority that there are actually 5 dogs), showed us a video of the zip-lining adventure that they offered.

Basically, it was an AC-DC pumped-up action extravaganza showing how we would be zipping at breakneck speed over a massive canyon and through a gorge after which we will oh so casually cross a shifty-looking suspension bridge above a raging river, climb up a perpendicular cliff and then zip all the way back to civilization.

Reptile Brain: EPIC!!!! Let’s do this!!!!

Rational brain: Don’t mean to interrupt, but you’re terrified of climbing remember

Reptile Brain: I don’t see a threat. I only see epic glory.

Rational Brain: But…what about when you’re actually doing it?

Reptile Brain: I’m hungry. Overriding conversation.

Next day we were lining up to zip across the canyon.

Appearing pumped up and ready for action due to over-active reptilian brain chemicals, I was (unfortunately) the chosen one to go first. As I was being strapped into the harness, it occurred to me that I’ve never zip-lined before. I had no idea what to expect. I was being held by strangers, facing a gigantic canyon, seconds from being rocketed straight through two cliffs. Naturally, I went from gecko to dragon in a millisecond dropping a fiery hell of swear-words until I was unleashed.

And it was actually quite okay. Not even scary at all. I even got a few whoops in as I flew over the canyon.

Through the canyon
Made it through the gorge!

Next up: bridge of suspended suspense.

After taking a few corny group shots once everyone finished zipping, it was time to cross the bridge. Seeing as we were getting photos taken, I had to go first again.

Nothing to worry about, just crossing a wonky bridge over a raging river with a metal cable as a security blanket. No biggie. Rather not think about the sizeable gaps between the platforms making the bridge a bridge. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Reached the end, phew.

Bridge of suspense
Bridge of suspense

Now there was a little ledge serving as a waiting station

We were a group of seven plus two guides and a camera man. The ledge could maybe fit four people. So there was not  much time for the guide to give a step by step instruction on how to step by step climb up the via ferrata (iron steps hammered into the mountain side). He explained how to work the safety chains and left me with a “up you go”.

Reptile brain: Oh, f*ck. I can’t climb.

Rational brain: Told you so.

Reptile brain: Freeze

Rational brain: Only way out is up.

Reptile brain: I said FREEZE!

At this point, a line had formed behind me

Oh oh...
Oh oh…

The guide: “What’s up?”

Me: “I can’t go up.”

The guide: “Why not?”

Me: “I’m scared. I can’t remember how my limbs work.”

After some arguing and persuasion, the guide agreed to climb up with me so that he could handle my safety chains so that I could focus on figuring out how to put one foot up above the other.

Reptile brain: Oh man, left leg, right leg, don’t look down, breathe, left leg, right leg, never-a-flipping-gain…..smile at the camera (you kidding me?)…

Fake smile for the camera
Fake smile for the camera!

Reptile brain: Breathe…nearly there, just breathe. We made it!

Rational brain: Told you so.

Reptile brain: And I told you epic glory.  I’m the Dragon Master of San Martin! Oh look, another zip-line. Wheeeeeeee!!!

Whohooo!!!!

Let’s be honest.

If my reptile brain wasn’t in charge, I wouldn’t even have attempted the adventure. I would have rationalized my way past AC-DC to my fear of climbing.  And yes, it was scary as hell, but I made it.

The San Martin canyon is not the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

Not by a long shot.

I can’t say for sure which part of my brain I used to find courage to face the worst task of my life. Or which part I used to endure the almost equally horrific aftermath. But I’d like to think that it is because I live close to my inner dragon that I was able to find courage where others could not.

Life List Entry: Zip-lined at San Martin Canyon, Baños, Ecuador

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Bikers and Backpackers are the Same

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing

This post is dedicated to adventure biker Tibor, whom I met while backpacking in Kyrgyzstan.

My family loves two things: travel and bikes

My mother loves nothing more than the cobblestone streets of Paris and Rome. My father and brothers’ hearts soar on solo trips on obscure South African gravel roads on his 1100 GS. While I scratch out countries on my scratch map of the world, my father highlights dirt roads on his map of South Africa.

For a brief period, I tried being a biker. I bought my brother’s old 650 GS and my dad tried to teach me to ride on our farm. I did okay on the gravel road and even managed to ride standing up, but once I hit the tarmac my brain short-circuited. When I eventually got better at picking up a bike than riding it, I gave up and sold the bike. It wasn’t a total fail. Picking up a bike turned out to be a useful and transferable skill.

This weekend two bikers visited our farm

My parents turned our old manor house into an agri-turismo styled, biker-friendly guest house. It’s not a full time endeavor and sometimes we forget that the house is advertised as such. Yesterday, a biker couple called my mother and I was promptly put out of my room – the official guest room. I didn’t mind so much. After all, I haven’t stayed in one room for more than a week since May last year.

It can be awkward to open your house to strangers

We initially decided to make ourselves scarce so that the visitors can enjoy the peace and quiet of the farm. When the visitors arrived, my parents welcomed them and made some small talk. About bikes of course. Very soon small talk turned into long conversations. When my dad discovered that we might not have enough beer in the house, he came up with the ingenious idea that we should all go to the Darling Brewery for a beer tasting. The five of us squeezed into the car and set off to the Tannie Evita’s little town, chatting all the way. As we tasted great beers with quirky names (my favourite being the Rogue Pony ale) we shared stories about everything from our New Year’s Eves to devastating illnesses.

Now, I know the difference between being polite and really getting on like a house on fire

At a lakeside yurt camp in Bokonbaeva, Kyrgyzstan, I had a really hurtful experience when I realized that my fellow guests were only speaking to me because I was forcing them to. So I know that this instant friendship with our biker guests was real.

This made me think that bikers and backpackers are not so different

All of those people who excluded me from their conversations in Kyrgyzstan were there for short trips. The people that I’ve met that I did get on with were all backpackers on extended trips in Central Asia or round-the-world travelers like myself. Somehow these individuals were easier to connect with than the holiday makers. Okay, maybe the holiday makers were just trying to unwind and didn’t feel like talking to strangers (even delightful ones such as myself). Maybe backpackers are just starved for company and therefore willing to take the risk to engage.

More likely, backpackers are all kindred spirits who rejoice when they find each other. And I think it is the same with bikers. Just as you cannot understand what it’s like to float around from hostel to hostel with nothing to root you to the ground if you haven’t done it yourself, it’s impossible to understand what it’s like to be a biker if you’ve never been on one. If you’ve never smelled foliage from an open visor or rode standing up on a sandy road.

Backpackers don’t ask other backpackers why they want to travel to remote regions of the world. Bikers don’t ask other bikers why they take the long way to some hole in the wall. They know.

The camaraderie between bikers and backpackers are different than what you’d find between cyclists or vegans or martial artists or other groups of people who share a particular passion. Backpackers and bikers are driven by the pursuit of  freedom that can only be found on the open road. When you find a kindred spirit who understand your particular brand of adventure, it’s impossible to remain strangers.

I’m not surprised that our guests this weekend turned into friends. Just like I’m not surprised that one of my dearest friends that I’ve made in Kyrgyzstan happened to be riding a 650 GS through Central Asia. It’s in our blood, after all.

Life List Entry: Bought, rode and sold a bike

The Road to Paddling in Paradise Bay

Awkward or Amazing

Amazing!

About a year ago I signed up for a kayaking trip in Antarctica

At the time, I have spent exactly zero time in a kayak. According to the brochure, you didn’t have to be a pro, but you had to have at least some experience. No problem, 11 months is a long time to learn how to kayak.

As luck would have it, my mom’s best friend’s daughter raced with the Maties Rowing Club and their kayak base was on my way to work. One beautiful autumn afternoon she took me out paddling to show me which side was up. I immediately fell in love with the sport. There is something amazingly therapeutic about paddling and I have to admit that having the Stellenbosch mountains as a backdrop definitely added charm to the exercise. As an added bonus, it turned out to be one of the few sports that I actually had a knack for. I walked away from the session with a host of paddling tips and a key to the club house which (to my shame) I haven’t used yet.

My next paddling session was in Aruba

My guesthouse in Savaneta, Aruba overlooked a bay that was simply a slice of Caribbean heaven.

Savaneta - a slice of Caribbean paradise

On my first day there I spotted some kayakers and immediately enquired. In the afternoon the weather picked up quite a bit and the sight of the waves had me more than a little nervous about my upcoming paddling session. But, alas, the kayak has been delivered before I could cop out. Luckily I met a wonderful Canadian lady who was an equal mixture of kayak-keen and nerves. Together we decided to just do it. It was her first time kayaking ever which made me the resident paddling pro. Lack of expertise aside, it was quite enjoyable. The scenery was simply amazing! My favourite part of the morning was listening to her life story – how she ran off to Mexico with just her dog and the clothes on her back in an attempt to deal the death of her son. She was now taking a much deserved break from writing her memoirs and had literally asked an airline agent to book her a flight to the furthest destination from Canada. Which, lucky for me, turned out to be Aruba.

Kayak in the Caribbean

Next up was beautiful Bariloche in Patagonia

If you think kayaking in the Caribbean can’t be beat you’re making a big mistake. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The day was a bit on the windy side, but still good weather for Patagonia. I was the only paddler for that session and I told my guide, Paulo, (who happened to be an absolutely gorgeous pro-kayaker/rugby player) that I was scheduled to kayak in Antarctica in 2 weeks. As a result, what would have been an awesome kayaking trip turned out to be an outrageously amazing one-on-one kayaking class. I got a single kayak which initially scared the hell out of me, but once I hit the water I was in heaven. Half-way we made a pit-stop for medialunas (croissants) and hot drinks (coffee for me, mate for Paulo). We talked about anything and everything and I allowed myself to be smitten for the afternoon.

Paddling in Patagonia - Lake Guterriez near Bariloche

Afterwards, when he took me back to my hostel, Paulo confessed that it was his dream to kayak in Antarctica. I felt oddly moved by the idea that I was living someone else’s dream, especially considering that kayaking was his life and I simply chose to live his dream on a whim. With less than two weeks to go, kayaking in Antarctica was now about more than just me. It was for Paulo and all the other unnamed paddlers out there who longed to paddle around the frozen continent.

Finally it was time to board the MV Ortelius

All that stood between me and kayaking in Antarctica was the Drake Passage. And ice and wind and a 120 other passengers who also wanted to paddle. A monstrous storm on the Drake Passage delayed our arrival by a day and effectively robbed us of 2 paddling time slots. I made sure that the expedition staff knew that kayaking was a high priority for me and that I would be willing to sacrifice some of the other activities for a guaranteed spot. After an agonizing wait the activities list were put up on the board and we all crowded around like high school students trying to find out whether or not we made the team. And yes! My name was listed under Group A – the very first kayaking spot. Less than 12 hours before paddle time! In a rush of excitement I collected my kit: wet suit, booties, water/wind-proof jacket, life jacket and spray skirt.

The next day I woke up beyond excited. Unfortunately, the weather gods did not look kindly upon us and shortly after breakfast the announcement was made that Group A needed to return their kit to the hangar – there would be no kayaking that morning.

I was devastated

My dream – and Paulo’s – had just collided with an iceberg of Titanic proportions. To add insult to injury – I didn’t make the list for any of the other adventure activities. There were still shore landings and zodiac cruises to be had and I tried to remind myself that those are freaking amazing in and of itself. Even so, the tears were welling up and I was fighting a frightening battle to keep from bursting into sobs.

Later that day, the kayak leader appealed those passengers who got onto all the activity lists to donate their kayaking spots to those of us who had “lost everything”. My roommate immediately offered me her spot and I will always be immensely  grateful for her generosity.

Over dinner I shared the good news with the group of great guys I have befriended on the Drake Passage. I later found out that, after seeing devastation written all over my face, two of them had been wheeling and dealing with their activity time slots all day to find a way to get me paddling. I was truly overwhelmed by the kindness of all these strangers.

On the final slot on the final day we were good to go

We got into the zodiac and cruised off to a suitable paddling spot in Paradise Bay – kayaks trailing behind. The conditions were perfect. The sea was flat as a mirror and the sky slightly overcast creating an otherworldly atmosphere as we paddled past icebergs. We were surrounded by spectacular shades of white and grey and black and blue. It was simply glorious.

I really hope that Paulo will be able to paddle in Paradise Bay one day. And I hope that when he does, that he will remember me.

As for me? I’ll be paddling in all the most beautiful spots in South Africa remembering all the great people who helped me on my journey to paddle in Paradise Bay.

 

Life List Entry: Kayaked in an Antarctic paradise