Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ellie the Elephant

And so to the final stage, and the part of SA that a nature geek like myself loves the most: animals.

After Kynsna, we headed out along the garden route. Our attempt to enter Nature’s Valley (I can’t say it without a Welsh accent, damn those cereal bar ads), touted as a second Eden, was thwarted, as these things so often are, by a bunch of cyclists having some kind of race. However, we did manage a quick stop at Storm’s River Mouth, where I did see a dassie, even if no one else managed to see it or believed me, and where otters are unusually well provided for in terms of facilities:

Finally, we arrived at Addo Elephant National Park, where we would spend the last three nights of our trip. The clue is in the title – it is all about the Ellies. (Isn’t it always?) Having failed to catch a glimpse of the highly elusive Kynsna forest elephants (or elephant, I should say; a tragic note in our guide informed us that there is only one solitary female left), we were hoping to do much better at Addo, where they have over 500. I think we saw most of them. (This might have been due to the forbidden oranges we had accidentally brought into the park: the elephants used to be fed on citrus fruits provided by local co-operatives, and although the practice was stopped in 1979 as the Ellies were getting a bit too feisty at feeding time, apparently some of the older ones haven’t forgotten – they are elephants, after all.)

Addo was set up in 1931 to protect the few elephants remaining in the area. Over the years, the emphasis has shifted from the clearly thriving Ellies to biodiversity, with the park expanding significantly to include a wide variety of ecosystems. The marine area, soon to be incorporated, will enable the park to advertise itself as a ‘Big Seven’ destination in SA, with whales and Great Whites joining the land-based big game (not literally). However, it’s not only the bigguns that get looked after here; it is also the only home of a flightless species of dung beetle, and you must scan the road constantly to avoid running one over. (It took Dad a while to get out of the habit: we can confirm that the M3 is dung beetle-free.)

We stayed in the main camp, imaginatively called Main Camp. Our guest house, Domkrag, was named after a pugnacious leopard tortoise which used to try and lift up cars (‘Domkrag’ means ‘carjack’). Although this legend is sadly no longer with us, we did see several of his kin out and about; fortunately we were greeted a little more amicably. Who knew tortoises could smile?

While Addo lacks the variety and abundance that characterizes the Kruger (an unfair comparison, given that Kruger is quite possibly my favourite place on the planet) it certainly enabled me to get my wildlife fix. Apart from the omnipresent Ellies, other game highlights included a baby jackal (whose little yelps and squeaks were utterly heart-melting; think of the guilt-tripping polar bear cubs who mew their way through nature documentaries with the sole purpose of turning us all into anti-global warming crusaders), a pair of spotted hyenas fighting over the scraps of an eland carcass, and, on our last day, three lions, just to balance things out for the cats.

Waving goodbye to our final Ellie, we left the park and headed to Port Elizabeth to catch an internal flight to Jo’burg, and then home. As a shorter alternative to our usual SA itinerary (by the way, I am fully aware how spoilt having a ‘usual’ itinerary makes me) the combination of Cape Town, the beautiful coastline of the Western Cape, and the elephants of Addo definitely hit the mark. We are already plotting ways to convince my parents that their upcoming Ruby Wedding merits another trip…

Friday, March 11, 2011

From Shore to Shore

The only thing better than swimming in the ocean in February is swimming in TWO oceans. In the same day. Before leaving the Cape peninsula, we took a diversion to visit Boulders Bay. The last time I was here, perhaps fifteen years ago (allow me a little ‘No! Can it be that long? Am I really that old?’ moment: okay, panic over) this was pretty much a wild beach, with a small group of jackass penguins who were happy to let you wade into their water with them. Now, the whole thing is much busier, more organized, expensive, a large part of the beach is fenced off, and the penguins themselves prefer to be called ‘African penguins’ (some beef with Johnny Knoxville – they didn’t want to go into it). However, nostalgia aside, this is a rare success story for an endangered species, as the colony now numbers over 2,500 birds. And it is still the only place in the world where you can swim with jackass, sorry, African penguins.

So much for the Atlantic. Continuing east, we reached Arniston, where we stayed in a huge thatched cottage five minutes from the beach and the Indian Ocean. Which was warmer, though slightly less penguiny and slightly more jellyfishy. (Yes, I got stung. No, I didn’t do that.) The next day, to prove the ‘two oceans’ point, we backed up to Las Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa. I will admit that in my head, I thought you might actually be able to see where the grey Atlantic meets the turquoise Indian Ocean. I will also admit that I made the mistake of sharing my disappointment with my brothers, who cruelly mocked me. But then I got to stand across an imaginary line separating two hypothetical things, which always cheers me up.

Our final stop before three days of game viewing was Knysna, a popular SA holiday town set along a huge lagoon. We stayed at the tip of the lagoon, in a log cabin resort called Under Milk Wood, which it was. Much of the two days was spend working on Knysna puns: “nowhere’s nicer than Knysna” (that’s actually one of the better ones), as well as occasionally kayaking on the lagoon, attempting to swim at low tide and creating a new pastime: ‘lagoon loping’ – for best results the water should be no higher than your knees – and feasting on Knysna’s decadent speciality: oysters. I was going to bore you with the cultivation methods used to produce Knysna oysters, but I will spare you and just share this description from the Knysna Oyster Company’s website of oyster fertilization as “a somewhat random affair”. Doubtless many of Jeremy Kyle’s guests could say the same.

Ah, Sunshine!

The best, and most cryptic, postcard I have received was from my Dad a couple of years ago. It simply read: “Nearly got hit on head by avocado. That would have been a way to go!”

Arriving at Allendale, a peaceful resort in the Tokai forest outside Cape Town, after an eleven hour flight with most of the members of my immediate family, I jumped straight into the pool (there is no better way to slough off the jet-weariness), which was partially shaded by a huge avocado tree. Ah-ha. I didn’t know that’s how avocados grew. And no, I don’t know what I imagined. It’s not something I have given a lot of thought to. Like pineapples – which apparently don’t grow like coconuts. Who knew?

Unfortunately, a stern sign warned us not to pick the avocado pears, and to be quiet so as not to disturb “other guests, who are important to us”. I disliked the implication.

After a scenic drive round Chapman’s Peak, an argument about the correct pronunciation of ‘scenic’, and a fantastic dinner at Peddlars on the Bend (a laid-back pub with elegant food that could teach British ‘gastro pubs’ a thing or two), the tired little Hoggers called it a night.

The next day, with Ellie determined not to spend another holiday distracted by such trivial matters as fruits and signs, we headed into Cape Town itself. Alas, we passed this gem: “HAIR CUTS PRIVATE PARTS: R5”. I resigned myself to the inevitable.

In an effort either to educate us or to get rid of us for a few hours so that they could have a fancy lunch with some old friends, the parents had booked my brothers and I on a tour of Robben Island (which I now know means ‘Seal Island’. See, I learn!) I have to admit, having been threatened with a three hour tour on what was, for my pale Londonized flesh, a pretty hot day, I was a bit concerned. In fact, after a thirty-minute catamaran trip to get there, the tour is divided into two entirely manageable 45-minute chunks: the first part takes you around the island by bus, past the ‘house’ where Robert Sobukwe was placed in solitary confinement for 6 years, and the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow prisoners were forced to work, causing permanent damage to their eyes. Unfortunately, you are no longer allowed to get out at the quarry because, as our cheerful guide MP explained, people had been sneaking stones from the cairn laid by Mandela and other former prisoners as souvenirs. He also pointed out the cave, officially used by the black prisoners as a bathroom, thus making it off-limits to the white guards, where the prisoners would educate each other, and where important parts of the constitution were drawn up.

The second part of the tour involves going on foot around the former maximum security prison. Our guide was a former political prisoner, who had been imprisoned on Robben Island from 1986 to 1991, and was among the last to be released. The cells, including Mandela’s, are shockingly small – half the size of the enclosures the dogs were kept in (which themselves would have appalled the RSPCA). Once again, though, the emphasis was less on the severity of the conditions than on the ingenuity of the prisoners, who communicated by placing notes or newspaper cuttings inside tennis balls and ‘accidentally’ lobbing them over the wall to the other section’s yard, thereby keeping each other abreast of political developments. The aim for Robben Island as a tourist destination is for it to be a symbol of hope rather than a reminder of oppression, and they do a pretty good job of it. They also have penguins. But more of penguins later.

Returning to the V and A Waterfront (Alfred, not Albert; the construction of the harbour was overseen by Victoria’s son) and the dulcet tones of U2 warming up for their concert that evening, it was time for us to indulge in the real reason Charlie had come on this trip: the Spur Steak Ranch cheddarmelt steak. And lo, it was good.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

London, honey, it's not you, it's me

Okay, it's you a little bit. I love you dearly, but you are rather big and expensive and sprawling and frankly, pretty high-maintenance. Don't get me wrong, I had an awesome 15 months with you, and I would definitely like to come back someday, maybe even someday soon. But I need a little break. You knew about my commitment issues before we got into this - two years is about my limit in any one place. But hey, we had fun. And I'll definitely be exercising the ex's right to pay you a visit from time to time.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sparkly Glam Indie Pop

One of my resolutions upon moving to London was to try and see (or rather, listen to) more live music. As someone with a fairly catholic taste in music, I hate the question “What kind of music do you like?” – people who are ‘into’ music immediately reel off lists of new, up-and-coming bands or start naming obscure musical genres that mean very little to me (illbient, dubstep, hauntology, anyone?) whereas I have to mumble the lame “a little bit of everything.” But I really mean it. In keeping with my mongrel cultural background, when it comes to music, I prefer to tapear. As a result, I’ve managed to have some pretty varied musical experiences here in London.

As those of you who have tried to arrange meeting me for a drink on a Wednesday night probably know, I have a shameful weakness for American Idol, so when I found out that last year’s runner-up was playing at G.A.Y., it was time to don the eyeliner and sequins (taking Sue Sylvester’s advice to ‘swish it up a bit’) and, with my partner-in-Glam, head off to marvel at the wonder that is Adam Lambert. The evening required military-style planning in order to get into the club early enough to have a prime view of His Sparkliness. Fortunately, Leon has a slightly worrying obsession with the SAS, and with him in charge, I knew things would run smoothly. The only hiccup occurred when I almost wasn’t allowed in, due to a strict ‘regulars only’ policy – luckily I uttered the magic words “I’m with the guy in the pink T-shirt’, and was waved through to Phase 2: Getting Close to the Stage. Glambert didn’t come on until 1:30am, way past my bedtime (I’m not Spanish anymore) but I soon forgave him when he started belting out tunes in true diva style. And Leon got mistaken for Jay-Z on the way home. All in all, a top night.

A couple of nights earlier, I had gone to see an Australian band at Shepherds Bush Empire, as my friend Annie had a spare ticket (those paying close attention to this blog may have noticed that not a great deal of planning goes into my social activities – London may have forced me to buy a diary for the first time in my life, but I have yet to succumb totally to the typical: ‘Let’s meet for a drink soon’ – ‘Sure, how about two months’ time from next Tuesday?’). Once again, I found myself in the minority, surrounded by herds of Aussies (in Shepherds Bush? No!) as Angus and Julia Stone skipped through their repertoire of twinkly indie songs, surrounded by flowers and fairy lights. Julia Stone has a very distinctive, deliberately childish voice, which did begin to grate slightly, whereas her brother’s voice was muffled by ridiculous amounts of hair. Which is a shame, because he’s damn cute.

'ELLIE: The Musical'

My friend Lindsey and I have often talked about how great life would be if it was a musical. The dream almost came alive when we were walking down the street in Sevilla on our way to Día, and we heard the sound of a brass band approaching. Could this be it? Were we about to burst into a rousing version of “Let’s Go to the Supermarket”, whose grand finale would include us standing in trolleys twirled by gorgeous male checkout assistants?

Sadly, it was just another one of Sevilla’s random processions for no apparent reason. Which was a real shame, because I do think life would be improved enormously by intermittent musical numbers. Preferably accompanied by the fabulously outrageous costumes worn by the cast of ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’, which I went to see shortly after moving to London, and which, thankfully, retained most of my favourite lines from the film, including the best put-down ever uttered, “Why don’t you just light your tampon and blow your box apart, ’coz it’s the only ‘bang’ you’re ever gonna get, sweetheart.”

I haven’t been able to ‘take in’ as many shows as I’d have liked here (cue: ‘The Ballad of the Underpaid EFL Teacher’), so when I was kindly invited by my friend Leon to take advantage of his free tickets to ‘Hair’, I jumped at the chance. The show has just transferred here from Broadway, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the cast noticed a big difference between their American audience and us Brits - there’s a lot of running into the audience, gyrating in the aisles, and, inevitably, hair-stroking - but the sour-faced woman sitting in front of me jerked her head angrily out of the reach of a half-dressed hippy, which I didn’t think was really getting into the spirit of things. (Whereas Leon spent a good five minutes chatting to a cast member before the lights went down at the start of the show - admittedly only because he thought she was an audience member and that he was supposed to recognise her from somewhere).

The show looked great, but the sixties-hippy-’Nam theme is so tired now that I feel as if I DO know because I WAS there, and while it was all good fun, the tiny blips of plot in between the increasingly trippy musical numbers weren’t quite enough to hold my interest. There were some highlights (pun intended) - most notably the song ‘I’ve Got Life’, even if it does make me think of Muller yoghurt. As for the famous nudity, well, I blinked. And I missed it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Check for (Un)Planned Disruptions

One of the great things about spending an extended period of time in London is that I’m getting the chance to explore new areas, to visit neighbourhoods I never got to on my weekend visits. Highlights so far have included the Sunday Up market by Spitalfields, an Eritrean restaurant in Brixton, watching live music at The Roundhouse and Barfly in Camden, brunch and browsing in Angel, carolling at Columbia Road flower market…I’ve been getting around (hush now).

However, Ellie the Explorer is a role fraught with peril, as anyone misfortunate enough to witness me trying to negotiate my way through the casco antiguo of Sevilla can testify. I couldn’t even find my house. I am not blessed with a keen sense of direction (no? you gasp in surprise) and this, coupled with the fact that I am too vain to wear my glasses outside the classroom, means that it’s a struggle for me to find my way, well, anywhere outside the classroom (and sometimes inside – today I managed to wander into the wrong building – “Hey, this isn’t my classroom!”).

In a small city like Sevilla, this wasn’t too much of a problem, plus la hora española generously allowed for plenty of ‘Ellie detours’ (remember when I got lost on the way to the pub I had been going to every week for about a year?). However, to misquote the lovely Miss Floyd, “London is bigger than Seville, you know.” The possibilities for getting lost are endless, and my quest is made all the more difficult by the absurd illogicality (it’s a word) of TFL, who delight in sending me on wild goose chases involving two tubes, three buses, a hovercraft, and quite possibly a ride on a wild goose. Weekend engineering works mean that it would often be quicker to go back to Sevilla for a Saturday evening drink than say, Brixton. (Say Brixton. Just don’t try to get there from Shepherd’s Bush on the weekend.)

With this in mind, anyone who has been to Elephant and Castle (presumably just the once, as I’m not sure why anyone would choose to repeat the experience) can imagine the chaos that ensued when little Ellie went to see a friend who lives down that way. The flat was gorgeous, and I was very tempted to move into the area as well. But only because I couldn’t find my bloody way out of it.

Having already got lost on the way there (twenty minutes going round and round the circular subways like a hamster on a wheel, followed by the realisation that the charming chap who had pointed me in the ‘right’ direction had probably been trapped in the underpass for years) I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again, so when, on my way back, I accosted another victim, who pointed out the tube station in the distance (no glasses, people, pointing doesn’t work), I promptly requested that he lead me there, which he did, with me following two steps behind like an ever-so-polite stalker.

So there is a certain irony in this image: as I prepared to help a blind lady across the street in Hammersmith the other day, another blind man joined us, hooked arms with the lady and the three of us set off: the blind leading the blind leading the blind.