Mon Nov 4: Toronto to London

Giving ourselves a long weekend to relax and get ready was a great idea. By the time we left for the airport we were prepped and excited. We dropped our bags and hoped we’d see them again in Johannesburg. We waited at the gate, sitting comfortably whilst most other passengers queued before they’d been called as good Britons do. Finally we boarded and took our seats.

This was our first time flying British Airways — in their World Traveler Plus (aka premium economy) class, specifically — and first time on a new Boeing 787. Both were impressive. Our main flight attendant — an uncanny ringer for Daffyd, the only gay in the village — was very courteous and very generous with the wine, so we ended up drinking a bottle and a half between us. Also: the food was very good. The noise-canceling headphones were much appreciated since the old woman behind us sang — loudly — for most of the flight. I can only assume someone shushed her when it came time to sleep, but before that I could actually hear her over my headphones playing The World’s End and Now You See Me.

As for the 787, it was pretty nice as well. The chairs were thinner which made for more leg room, the bigger windows (with intelligent shading) made a significant difference in the view, and little things like the clarity of the PA and the roominess of the washroom added up to an impressive experience. I feared the 747 (another first) down to Joburg might not measure up.

Tue Nov 5: London to Johannesburg

We landed at Heathrow and waited the requisite far-too-long in customs, then checked in to the Sofitel attached to Terminal 5. We booked a day room just in case we couldn’t sleep on the flight. We managed to get a little sleep overnight, but not nearly enough, so rather than take the Heathrow Express to Paddington we got two more hours’ sleep. We felt SO much better afterward. We grabbed some paninis and drinks downstairs at the Perrier-Jouet bar (rosé champagne for Nellie, Worthington’s White Shield for me) and chatted with the bartender Gregg (who it turns out was originally from Joburg!) before taking showers. We felt human again.

We flew out of terminal 5, BAs home base, and it’s really quite a lovely airport experience. We had some yummy flatbread and decent beers at The Crown Rivers pub, then stood with the other travelers in front of the board while the Heathrow staff decided which terminal to fly us out of. Terminal C, as it turns out. Thus armed, we got to our gate and boarded the 747 which would carry us the 11-odd hours to Johannesburg. It was, as  I feared, not quite the experience the 787 had been: it had tiny video screens, worn seats, clunky tray tables, small windows…anyway, whatever. It was a comfy seat for the half-day it took us to reach Joburg, and after watching a couple movies (Pacific Rim and Iron Man 3 for me) we  managed to get a decent night’s sleep.

Wed Nov 6: Johannesburg to Cape Town

We arrived  at OR Tambo airport, took a bus to the terminal (the first time we’d breathed fresh air in about 36 hours), and had a particularly pleasant customs experience (“I’m super, man. I’m superman!”) before collecting our bags, which had made it all the way from Toronto, thank the maker. We made the mistake of acknowledging two eager airport personnel who, before we knew it, were demanding tips for wheeling our luggage and showing us where the clearly marked gate was. Ridiculous. Lesson learned though: never trust the porters in orange shirts at OR Tambo airport. But what’s a few bucks anyway?

We had one more flight to get through, but stopped for a pint in the pub first. Castle is a big local brewery (owned by SABMiller) and their lager looked pretty generic. Was pretty generic. But after an 11-hour flight, when you’re drinking your first African beer on African soil, it tasted pretty goddamn good. Nellie had another; I drank their milk stout (which was significantly better), and we wandered down to our gate. The flight to Cape Town was, frankly, a bit wretched. Going from British Airways premium economy to South African Air’s economy was quite jarring. My legs literally did not fit; I had to stretch one leg into the aisle and another into my neighbour’s personal space.  Sorry man. So it was a pretty long 2:10 but we made it, collected our bags, and were met by our hotel’s private shuttle.

And our hotel…oh man. The POD Hotel in Camps Bay was one of the highest-rated hotels in all of Cape Town, and we knew we’d chosen well when our driver told us three times on the way in what a good hotel we’d chosen. When we walked into our room we were impressed; when we walked onto the balcony with the roiling Atlantic surf pounding in across the street and the Twelve Apostles mountains just to our left we knew we’d found home in Cape Town.

We dropped our stuff, rested for a bit, showered, and took a quick stroll down the beach. It was beautiful white sand, pounded to powder by the big swells that ran ashore as far up and down the coast as we could see. From the beach we could see the Lion’s Head to the north, and the clouds that settled atop the Apostles. We walked along it for a while, then went to dinner across the street.

Most of Camps Bay’s restaurants are on the east side of Victoria Road, literally across the street from the beach. When we took our seats at Paranga, a recommendation from the hotel staff, I could still see the waves pounding in. That might have been the last time I noticed the view though; after that my attention was 100% on the food. We started with a plate of cajun-dusted calamari; Nellie had a glass of local sparkling while I had a Fleur de Cap Chardonnay. Then, the mains: Nellie had a fillet (steak) with two grilled prawns, while I had the chef’s “big three”: springbok, blesbok, and ostrich, each with its own veg. I’d never had any of these meats before, at least that I can remember…it seems hard to believe I’d never tried ostrich. Anyway: the springbok was good, but slightly overdone. The ostrich was done nicely, and very good. But the blesbok — an animal I’d never even heard of before last night — was spectacular. It was smoked with rooibos wood, and seared rare. I almost passed out. We paired this extravaganza with a red Bordeaux blend from Warwick (all of their wines on offer were local) which was fucking tremendous, to put it mildly. We were full, but we had to get the malva pudding…kind of like bread pudding but made with apricot inside, and covered in custard, and goddammit. Also, we noticed that whisky was amazingly cheap, so Nellie had a 15-year-old Highland Park and I had a 14-year-old Oban for, like, $15 combined. We could barely walk home after all that, but we somehow did, and crashed. Holy shit, had we ever fallen for Cape Town.

Thu Nov 7: Cape Peninsula

We slept. We slept like frigging champions. When that alarm went off at 8am we felt like entirely new people. We had a good breakfast downstairs and got set for our first real touristy activity: a tour of the cape peninsula. Our driver Theo had been recommended by POD, and what a recommendation it turned out to be.

We drove out of Camps Bay down the coast, under the watch of the Twelve Apostles. Theo shared interesting facts along the way, too many for me to remember here, eventually reaching Hout Bay. We didn’t spend too much time in the town, but saw an old man sitting on the wharf feeding seals, obviously a self-made tourist attraction. Theo warned us that he could be rather ornery, but he took to Nellie immediately, offering to let her feed his seal. She sat down, leaned way over to the edge, and waited while the largest seal leapt from the water and snatched the fish from her hand. It was pretty cool, even if her hand did smell like fish for the rest of the day.

We drove on, climbing Chapman’s Peak and stopping to look back at Hout Bay. We saw more coastline and mountains, almost to where it became as commonplace as the Rockies had felt on the drive from Lake Louise to Jasper…when of course there was nothing common about it. There were more beaches too, some with bigger waves than we saw in Camps Bay, and those bigger waves brought surfers. Nellie watched them, hoping she’d get to see one eaten by a shark, but alas…nyet. Theo did tell a story of how a tourist lured his wife to Cape Town to kill her though, so that certainly put Nellie at ease.

We stopped at a shop displaying thousands of stone carvings (carved elsewhere but polished locally) from tiny figurines to huge animals. They offered to ship them anywhere in the world, and my wallet hurt just thinking about how much that would cost. We also stopped at a nearby Ostrich farm to get a look at a few, and naturally Nellie had to a buy an ostrich-leather purse. Or handbag. Or clutch. Or something. We also encountered some very rich, very entitled, and very annoying Russians. The daughter was young and beautiful and so accustomed to having people give her things that she seemed shocked and dismayed that they actually expected her to pay for her purchases.

After that we made the long drive down to Cape Point Park, where we were hoping for a few more animal sightings. At first we only saw a tortoise crossing the road, but on the drive down to the Cape of Good Hope we saw some wild ostriches and their babies. The Cape itself is really just a collection of rocks, and tourists jostling for position behind a sign which says “Cape Of Good Hope”. Theo said he’s seen fights break out there.

He then drove us a little further up to Cape Point, where we paid to take the funicular to the top. There were amazing views, of course, of the ocean and cliffs and rocks and birds and, after a few minutes, baboons. Nellie got shots of a few before a more aggressive one ran into a crowd of photographers and tried to steal a backpack. Thwarted, he sat on a wall and posed for us. Nellie got his picture, then turned away to take pictures of his friends…and no sooner had she turned away then the baboon made a run for her bag. She turned away just in time to avoid his swipe, but he still managed to give her a little scratch. So that tetanus shot back in Toronto paid for itself.

Our animal adventures weren’t quite done though. We’d asked for a stop at the Boulders penguin colony, and  saw quite a few of them hiding in the bushes along the walking trail, along with some dassies (aka rock hyraxes), which looked kind of like small marmots. Nellie then walked down to the beach and took pictures of the bigger penguin colony, whilst I inadvertently gave myself a wicked sunburn.

From there we drove along several more kilometeres of beautiful (and, apparently, shark-ridden) coastline of False Bay to lunch. Theo had booked us at Harbour House in Kalk Bay, right on the water. And when I say “right on the water” I mean that we saw seals catching and eating fish just outside the window by our table. We also saw a dude walk up to the kitchen with an armful of fish and walk out empty-handed, so yeah…fresh. Our meals were amazing: we shared the house specialty, a “tian” of four prawns leaning against a tower of layered avocado, tomato, and aubergine, covered with chili oil and pesto; for our mains I had the angelfish in basil cream with veg and scalloped potatoes while Nellie the yellowtail with garlic mashed, green beans, and a poached egg. Of course we had local white whine with it all. Oh, and a totally different group of annoying Russians sat next to us. We felt like annoying-Russian magnets.

We decided to cut it off there and just drove home, knowing the Table Mountain gondola was closed. We passed more shark-danger beaches, and discussed geopolitics and the American condition. What can I say? We were a few glasses in.  Theo dropped us off, and made another recommendation: order a bottle of Delaire Graff Chardonnay from the hotel’s bar. We thanked him, and requested him specifically for our Saturday drive out to wine country.

Since we got home with the sun still up we decided to go down to the beach. Nellie likes to dip her feet in oceans, and Camps Bay was about as safe a beach as we’d find. She sat in the sand while I stood at the tide’s edge and admired the waves. Unfortunately I didn’t notice the tide was coming in, and ended up getting drenched up to my knees by a sudden large wave. Nellie laughed and laughed and laughed, and then rolled up her pants and took off her shoes to prepare for her foot-dipping action and was promptly soaked by an equally large wave. So, karma.

We walked back to the room, dripping as we went, shook off the sand, and had a bit of a nap before running down the street to pick up pizzas (one spicy salami, one butter chicken) from Col’Cacchio. We ate them in the hotel’s lobby bar, with a bottle of Delaire Graff Chardonnay just as Theo had suggested, and examined the day’s pictures. The staff kept offering us blankets; I guess we were meant to find the evening temperatures cold.

Still on the staff, they gave us a pretty awesome surprise: when we’d gone out for the pizzas, they — remembering something I’d mentioned in passing when checking in about this being our anniversary — had gone up to our room and spelled out the number “10” in rose petals on the bed, and had left chocolates and a bottle of sparkling on ice. Amazing. No wonder this place was so highly recommended. We sat on the balcony until midnight, enjoying the cold-for-Africa, perfect-for-us evening, drinking sparkling wine, listening to the ocean, falling more and more in love with Cape Town with every minute.

Fri Nov 8: Robben Island

Finally, we’d get into Cape Town proper. We hopped on one of the open-topped tour buses (after waiting for a French woman to haggle over a 10% discount she thought she should get…which worked out to 7 Rand…which would be about half a Euro. Anyway.) and rode it around Bantry Bay and Sea Point and Three Anchor Bay and past the Cape Town stadium to the V&A waterfront. We jumped off here and caught the ferry to Robben Island.

First of all, a word on decorum: I feel that when traveling to a former prison for political prisoners, one should refrain from groping / kissing / fondling one’s girlfriend / wife / whatever. Maybe that’s just me. There were certainly people aboard our ferry who ignored this maxim, even whilst in the cells. But I digress.

Nellie had gotten pretty seasick on the ferry — it’s a catamaran traveling 8ish km in rough waters, so that was understandable. But after a few minutes on a bus and then a little fresh air she was better. We met our tour guide, Sipho, at the gates. He was a former political prisoner who did about five years at Robben Island. He told us about life there, about the guards, and about the hardship, but mostly about how the prisoners survived, and got smarter, and got organized, and ultimately got out. We saw Nelson Mandela’s cell and the garden courtyard he mentioned so often in this book, and many other cells and courtyards as well. We saw the limestone quarry where they were forced to work, and the cave where they found some refuge. We saw the rest of the island where former prisoners and wardens now live, side-by-side, with a crime rate of zero. It was more than a little humbling.

The ferry ride back was just as rough, but sitting above decks helped. It also gave us a spectacular view of Cape Town, Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, and Signal Hill as we returned. We jumped back on the tour bus and rode a few more stops, eventually jumping off in a shopping area. We popped into Bean There for a shot of espresso and to buy some beans for a friend (and ourselves!) and checked out the merchants at the Greenmarket Square, but somehow forgot to walk up to Bo-Kaap. We did, however, need some food and a cold drink, so we checked out a place recommended by — you guessed it — Theo. He said there was a new beer place on Long Street with 99 beers on the menu. I’d not heard about it when researching beer places months ago, but when I checked Thursday night there it was: Beerhouse on Long.

What a find too: we had seven beers total (for me: CBC Amber Weiss, Lakeside APA, Darling Black Mist, and Triggerfish Ocean Potion Pale Ale; for Nellie: CBC Pilsner, Van Hunks Pumpkin Ale, and Devil’s Peak King’s Blockhouse) plus a bowl of fries for 280 Rand (~$29). So obviously we had to move to this city. Anyway, in spite of all the fun we were having laughing at the guy who kept ordering Corona, it was time to go. We’d missed our bus but caught a cab outside.

Dinner was at Zenzero, mainly because we didn’t know what else to do and couldn’t bring ourselves to eat at a place called the Codfather. Our food was good (fried baby prawns; crayfish spaghetti for Nellie; asparagus & prawn risotto for me; Warwick wines all night except Nellie’s glass of Pongracz sparkling), there was some sort of impromptu tightrope show outside, and the kid at the next table over was incredibly cute and entertaining. We strolled back to the hotel, ordered another bottle of the Delaire-Graff chard like the night before, and packed up to leave Cape Town.

Sat Nov 9: Cape Town to winelands

We had one last breakfast at POD before packing up and saying goodbye to the staff, the view, and Cape Town in general. We were headed to the cape winelands. Theo, our driver from Thursday, picked us up in a nice Benz sedan and we were underway. Stellenbosch, the most popular wine region, is only about an hour away from Cape Town, so it felt like we were barely settled into the car when we pulled into our first winery.

First, the area itself is beautiful: rolling green hills topped by jagged mountains. Second, tastings are somewhat more involved than what we’d experienced in Ontario or Napa or the Margaret River: generally you’d sit down at a table and a server would pour you everything they had, so tastings would often take an hour. So we limited the number compared to past wine country incursions.

The first winery we tried was Warwick, solely because we’d enjoyed so many of their wines back in Cape Town. The experience was a little disappointing — big tours, slow service — but we knew which wines we wanted, and left with their Trilogy Bordeaux blend.

Winery #2 was Kanonkop, based on a few recommendations. We didn’t get the full tasting experience since their tasting room had burned down just a few days before, so we just bellied up to the tasting bar as we were used to doing. The wines were a mixed bag, but we — much to our surprise — really liked their Pinotage. Despite being the signature grape for the region Pinotage has not been a favourite of mine. This one was smooth and full without being abrasive, so it left the store with us.

The third winery was a recommendation from Theo: Delaire-Graff. He’d recommended their wines already, but he also recommended the tasting experience. And he wasn’t lying: it was one of the most spectacular wine estates we’ve seen, with amazing views of the mountains. They weren’t living just on their setting either…we enjoyed quite a few of the wines we tried, ultimately leaving with a white blend (70% sauv blanc, 30% semillon) and a red Bordeaux(ish) blend. We drank the former that night, and planned to bring the latter home to Toronto.

Theo also recommended a spot for lunch, in the town of Franschhoek where we were staying: Reuben’s. Once again, he came through: our lunch was outstanding. In a courtyard covered by a canopy of tree branches we split a starter of a single scallop and single fish cake, sprinkled with truffle dust. The duck I had for my main was superb. Nellie said her potato gnocchi with vegetables was one of the best meals of her life. We had it all with a bottle of Viognier/Chenin, an interesting mix from Grande Provence winery just down the road. The staff had some issues with credit cards (not just ours; everyone’s) so it took 20 minutes longer than we wanted, but it was  a memorable meal to be sure.

Theo drove us up Lambrechts Road to see the panaroma of Franschhoek valley from above. On the way back down we tried to visit Haute Cabrière for some sparkling but they’d just closed, so he drove us on to our home for the next two nights: Holden Manz, on the outskirts of town. We checked in, and said our goodbyes to Theo.

I could barely remember booking Holden Manz so we didn’t have the highest of hopes for it, especially compared to our experience at POD, but right away we were impressed. The rooms were huge and actually reminded us of the B&Bs we stayed at in France. There was a fireplace, a nice little patio outside next to some peach trees, and a bottle of their rosé in the room. The grounds included a small pool, a lovely central dining area, a courtyard fish pond, some adorable dogs (who belonged to the manager, we think), and even a few monkeys! We drank the bottle of rosé on the patio and went for a quick dip in the pool to cool off.

We’d booked in for dinner at Holden Manz’ restaurant Franschhoek Kitchen, just through the vineyards on the other side of the farm, and for the second time that day we had a standout meal. We started with hoisin duck salad (me) and Caesar salad (Nellie). We both had the filet mignon, and both agreed that it was one of the best steaks we’d ever eaten. We paired it with a bottle of the estate’s Big G Cabernet blend — 50% sauv, 50% franc. I had an espresso and we somehow found room for dessert, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was.

We walked back through the vineyards, which we learned the next day was a pretty big mistake, since it’s not at all uncommon for cobras and adders to frequent vineyards at night. Oops. Anyway, we got back to our room and found a fire burning in our fireplace. While it was warm during the day the evenings became rather chilly, so the fire was quite welcome.

Sun Nov 10: winelands

We ate breakfast outside in a pretty stunning vista. We had eggs and bacon and fruit and toast and juice and cappuccinos, and we played with the resident dogs, and we visited the monkeys nearby. It was certainly a civilized way to start the day.

We’d arranged a wine tour with La Rochelle wine tours, and were picked up by Aylmer. We’d had to do some last-minute jigging of our winery agenda since it turned out many of them were closed on Sundays. Somehow we struggled on.

Our first stop was the popular Boschendal winery. They have beautiful grounds and gardens (in which we saw a small owl hanging out on a path), and appeared to be hosting a party of hungover Eurotrash (One guy’s outfit: docs, skintight animal-print leggings, garish sunglasses, and a dinner jacket. No shirt.) at their restaurant. We took a table at their tasting room…or rather, under a huge tree in the courtyard outside the tasting room. We tried five each, and settled on their very good (and incredibly cheap) Sauv Blanc.

Our next stop was Rustenberg, one of the older wine farms around. Again, they had beautiful grounds and gardens, but their wines seemed more developed. We liked many of them, but especially a reserve Cab Sauv that’s going straight to the wine fridge. We also liked the cat who hung out in the tasting room, demanding scratches. There was also a bit of a Canadian connection: their Brampton line of wines is named after their champion bull Brampton Beacon Bloomer, who came from Brampton, ON. Anyway, we walked through their gardens to the far end where Aylmer picked us up.

From there we drove to Jordan, who had a massive lineup of wines for us to try. We tried nearly all of them, and settled on a rarity for the region: a Riesling. It was the first we’d seen; apparently only a few in the area do it. It was nice and dry and very unlike many of the ultrasweet Rieslings we get at home, so it’s coming back with us. We also did a fair amount of chatting with the staff and a British gentleman who was interested in knowing more about Canadian wine, given that he’d done a quick visit to the Okanagan not long ago. He thought I should be working in the wine industry. I told him I prefer to remain an enthusiastic consumer.

Our final stop of the day was Stark-Condé, tucked into the beautiful Jonkershoek valley. The wines were decent, but the setting was spectacular. Unfortunately our server’s English wasn’t great (not that it should be expected to be; our Afrikaans was non-existent) so it was hard to learn much about the wines. Instead we sat there and soaked up the view.

Aylmer drove us back to Franschhoek where we ate a small plate of snacks prepared by the staff, took another dip in the pool, then played with the dogs (the big one was named Jakob; the little Jack Russell was named Frankie) and monkeys again. The restaurant wasn’t open for dinner but they’d prepared a HUGE picnic for us, which we ate outside with one (okay, two) of our recent winery acquisitions. The manager then came by and poured us some of their winery’s port to go with dessert. We were the only guests left, and certainly the only ones brave (read: Canadian) enough to sit outside on a cool, blustery night, so we pretty much had the run of the place. Once again Lameck, the caretaker, made a fire in our room which we enjoyed as we packed. We watched He Got Game and fell asleep.

Mon Nov 11: winelands to Johannesburg

One last breakfast, one last dog-romp, one last monkey-visit, and we were off back to Cape Town. Aylmer had helpfully arranged a new ride for us once we realized that La Rochelle had lost our airport transfer booking. We enjoyed the scenery heading out of Franschhoek, and then snoozed the rest of the way to CPT.

We had a very long wait at out gate, which was overrun when our flight was delayed. Luckily the plane on this leg was significantly better than on the way out — I actually had leg room. We touched down, took a bus to the terminal, grabbed our bags, and made the long walk (and wait) for the shuttle to our hotel, the Protea. Frustratingly the hotel is only about 100 yards from where we disembarked the plane, but we had to do this grand circuit for nearly an hour through OR Tambo airport to get there.

Once we checked in we grabbed drinks (Castles all around!) and some food from the bar, where we had  a lovely view of the pool and the Air France a380 parked just across the road. Our view worsened over the next few hours though, as a massive thunderstorm rolled in: pounding rain, whipping wind, hail the size of walnuts, thunder, lightning…if we lived in tornado alley and saw this weather we’d have been running for a storm shelter. As it was we just went upstairs to recharge and re-pack.

Tue Nov 12: Johannesburg to Nxabega

We got up early and departed the Protea, took the shuttle to the airport with a rich couple headed to the Seychelles, and got checked in with no problems. Our luggage requirements were pretty strict so we didn’t have much to check in or carry on. OR Tambo’s international terminal is pretty nice — we had cappuccinos (Nellie’s was rooibos-flavoured) and watched planes before heading to the gate.

Not surprisingly, nearly everyone at said gate also looked as if they were also going on safari — khaki abounded. We boarded a bus, sat on the bus, drove to the plane, sat on the bus some more, and finally boarded the plane. I was afraid this flight would be a step down from our Joburg to Cape Town flight the previous week, but it was a clear step up. Before I knew it we were descending into Maun, Botswana.

Maun’s airport is…tiny, to say the least. Customs was two guys sitting behind clapboard desks in something smaller than my living room. Luggage was dropped immediately behind them. There’s one check-in desk and one security line. Anyway, the &Beyond guys met us there and took our bags. We tried to adjust to the heat (it was about 36 degrees that day, I think), went through security, and met our pilot.

Yes, I said we met our pilot. We, and two other &Beyond guests, were flying 25 minutes in a 6-seater Cessna. So, not only did I meet him, I spent the flight in the co-pilot seat next to him, trying not to turn knobs or push levers with my knees. I also tried not to be nervous, but it was hard when I felt every little gust of wind and saw just how much instrument-fiddling he was doing. Nellie was forced to sit in the back seat along with a giant suitcase (which obstructed half her view) because the other couple chose to ignore the baggage restrictions. The pilot flew low (430 feet, to be exact) so we could see animals, and did we ever: I saw elephants, a giraffe, zebras, and hippos. When we landed I resisted the urge to kiss the ground. We met a few of the staff including a gentleman named KD, who drove us in a jeep to Nxabega tented camp. The staff greeted us with a song, handshakes, and fresh lemonade. We got an orientation and safety briefing, then got to our tent and quickly changed so we could get out on our first game drive.

It turned out KD was our ranger/driver, and our tracker’s name was Fred. We set out for the afternoon on a Toyota Land Cruiser, accompanied by Bjarni and Sandeep, old college classmates who were on vacation together. I’d really managed to keep my expectations low for how many animals, and what kind, we’d see on this trip, but when I saw so much from the co-pilot seat I got excited. And our first game didn’t disappoint. We saw three different kinds of antelope (impalas, red lechwes, tsessebes), a herd of elephants being seemingly led by a warthog, buffalo, a honey badger (which was a really big deal, apparently; KD went nuts driving after it). After some sundowners (We called it a day with some gin & tonic) we did some night driving and had the most exciting find of all: a leopard. We saw her at night so pictures were limited, but she was eating so were able to observe her for a good 10 or 15 minutes, which is rare. We radioed it in for the other trucks but she wandered off when too many spotlights hit her. We counted ourselves very lucky; by all accounts it’s very rare to see a leopard, especially on one’s first day out.

We drove back to the camp for a relaxing dinner, then got walked back to our tent (you can’t go by yourself after dark) so we could clean up, and take advantage of the generator. Sleep was a little tricky given how warm it was but we eventually drifted off.

Wed Nov 13: Nxabega

The rumours are true: malaria medication can cause some crazy-ass dreams.

Our wake-up call was at 5am. We got dressed, walked to the main building for some coffee and bread, then set out for game drive #2. We saw lots of new animals: mongoose (mongeese?mongooses?), monkeys, zebras, african fish eagles, wattled cranes, wildebeest, kudu (another kind antelope), giraffes, a lioness and her two 3-week-old cubs, hippos, and a monitor lizard. We also saw baboons, warthogs, elephants, and buffalo again.

We drove back to camp for some brunch. They put on quite a spread, which the local monkeys seem to know very well since they launched a sophisticated attack against our table to get it. One distracted us while the main force of five or so attacked from behind. After that little bout we chilled for a bit, followed by a nap for Nellie and a dip in the pool and then a nap for moi.

We departed for our evening activity: a boat ride through some of the nearby delta channels. We left a little late, for which Bjarni apologized, and there was this whole 6:00 giraffe thing that would take too long to explain, but trust me it was hilarious. We saw lots of animals on the way, including yet another antelope: the steenbok.

We got to the boat, and the engine acted up right away. Regardless, we gave it a go. Not long into our ride we came face-to-face with a big bull elephant, walking through the channel on his way to some tasty reeds and lily tubers. We backed off and gave him some space; he shook his head at us and kept a wary eye in our direction as we proceeded down the channel. Not long after we saw another elephant crash through the plants on the bank before entering the water right next to us. We made another slick getaway.

Unfortunately the engine kept conking out, so we bailed on the boat ride and returned to the launch point. We decided to do a quick game drive instead, and saw some more elephants, zebras, etc. Funny how after seeing six herds of elephants in 24 hours they were beginning to seem commonplace. After a bit, and a quick attempt at tracking the leopard again, we stopped at a watering hole where hippos lounged, a crocodile crept, catfish jumped, and a kingfisher dove. We had gin & tonics as the sun set and Venus rose.

Dinner back at the camp was served out by the pool. My chicken was okay but Nellie’s lamb was incredible, so I stole quite a lot of it. Then, just after dessert, the staff (including two who were off duty and on vacation) suddenly emerged on the pool deck and began singing to Nellie and I, and handed us a cake wishing us a happy anniversary. Neither of us remembers when we mentioned to the staff the occasion for the trip, but apparently we did. There was far too much cake for us to eat so we shared half with the other guests and half with the staff.

Since it was even warmer (about 32°C as we tried to go to sleep, sans air conditioning) we tried a trick passed on by the sister-in-law: take a cool shower and just let yourself air day. That worked pretty well and we fell asleep. As the night went on the weather cooled and the wind picked up; around 3am I wanted to close one of the blinds to block some of the wind from entering our tent. Nellie had the flashlight so I asked her to turn it on; the second she did we heard a very loud noise just outside our door, kind of like an evil giant laughing. I think I said, “Uh, turn that off. Now.” We were still half-asleep and kind of freaked out. Something big was obviously outside our door but we didn’t know what, so we crawled back into bed and decided to just be okay with being cold. At 4am the generators came on and the light outside our room lit up, prompting the same evil laugh from just below our door. We didn’t sleep too much after that.

Thu Nov 14: Nxabega

The next morning we recounted our story to KD, and he said what we probably heard was a hippo. He checked the plants outside our door and confirmed that a hippo had, in fact, grazed there during the night. I was positively giddy. And it wouldn’t be the last time we heard that sound. In fact, the hippo had taken up daytime residence in the pond just in front of the camp.

After a short game drive (during which we saw baby mongoose, some African wild dogs, and a giant eagle owl) we tried a do-over of the boat ride that morning, and had a lovely time. Tons and tons of birds — egrets, darters, storks, even eagles —  taking flight as we drove past, another elephant encounter, coffee on a tiny delta island, and even a little fishing…it was a nice change of pace. On the way home a young male elephant came up to the truck and acted pretty aggressively, so our tracker Fred jumped in the front and we backed off. We also saw plenty of the usual: antelopes of all kinds, buffalo, baboons, monkeys, zebras, etc.

Our brunch was blessedly monkey-free, and after another swim we were both down for a nap. I never nap during the day at home, but I guess 5am wake-up calls and 39°C temperatures will do that.

That evening we opted for a mekoro ride with two sisters and a family of winemakers from Napa, spotted some reed frogs smaller than a thumbnail, and heard some hippos in a nearby pond doing the evil laugh. On the drive home we heard radio chatter that a hyena had been spotted, so we raced over and found it. It ran right behind the jeep but wasn’t very scared of us; hyenas don’t really have predators. We also saw a reedbuck (another tiny antelope) and an African wild cat, which looked…pretty much like a cat. Given that we’d seen the African wild dog and African wild cat that day, Sandeep commented that he expected to see the African wild mouse the next day.

On the drive home we could see a large set of lights just outside the main camp; KD tried to pass it off as local fishermen but we soon figured out that they were surprising us with a huge ground dinner for the whole camp around a fire, under an enormous old tree. It was a beautiful scene…there’s just so much sky above you there. We had a few drinks back at the bar with our safari companions from the last 3 days and then arrived back at our tent to a huge note on our bed, written in green leaves, wishing us a happy anniversary. Such amazing touches from this camp.

Fri Nov 15: Nxabega to Xaranna

Since this was our foursome’s last day at Nxabega we decided to do a shorter activity: a quick walk near the camp. We started early to avoid the heat (which almost worked) and KD took us around a few KM of ground, showing us plants and tracks and dirt and, yes, droppings more closely than we could see from the jeep. We saw two tsessebes chasing one another, and a warthog ran a tight circle around us, but nothing more…not even the scorpion sighting Nellie was hoping for, though we did see lots of their burrows. We also learned what an ant lion trap looks like; once you learn that you see them everywhere.

We finished packing up, said our goodbyes to the staff (who sang us out of the car park), and drove to the airstrip with KD and Fred one last time. We all piled into another tiny Cessna; Nellie and I got dropped off five minutes away at Pom Pom airstrip (after a crazy turn-landing…bush pilots are nuts) while Bjarni and Sandeep continued on to Maun. Half an hour later we were at Xaranna, and immediately saw two differences: first, the average age here was quite a bit higher than Nxabega. We were the youngest people there by at least twenty years. Second, it was much more luxurious than Nxabega. The rooms were huge and better-equipped and had private plunge pools, so…yeah. We already missed the people at Nxabega but we thought we’d do just fine at our new home.

We had a few hours to relax before heading out on our first game drive, with one other couple (from the south of France). We saw some of the usual animals (antelope, buffalo, elephants, etc.) but our guide Mot and tracker Elicious (for reals) were intent on finding a pride of lions they knew were in the area, made up of 3 females and 10 cubs. After some expert tracking by Elicious I spotted some of the cubs playing on a stump at the edge of a field. We made our way over and watched them play, lounge, and climb without much of a care that we were there. The mothers moved them shortly after we arrived, walking them past the truck close enough that Nellie could have reached out and touched them. We followed them for a bit to take more pictures and get a bead on where they might be headed the next day. The drive home was spent marvelling at what we’d just seen, and we even saw a baby crocodile swim next to the truck as we crossed a river. The new camp was off to a good start.

Sat Nov 16: Xaranna

Once again we were up bright and early for another game drive, this time joined by both the French couple and a couple from Winnipeg (!). Since the latter hadn’t seen the lions yet we decided to track them down again. Along the way we saw lots of the usual — all of which elicited a really excited response from Jurgen from Winnipeg — and a few new ones: baby giraffes, baby warthogs (which might be the cutest things ever), and a family of jackals. We stopped for coffee at a pool frequented by hippos, some of whom were less than enthused to see us.

Eventually we found the lions again, and watched them in a somewhat lazier state than the previous evening. Just as mind-blowing the second time, I can promise you.

After the drive and some brunch we had a few dips in our plunge pool and, despite my best efforts to get caught up on blog-writing, a nap. We barely woke up for the evening event: another mekoro ride. This one was much longer than the one back at Nxabega, partly because it was a much shorter ride to reach the boats. Elicious poled for Nellie and I, keeping us entertained, spotting tiny reed frogs, singing, and making fun of Mot. We entered a pond with catfish (or bubblefish, as they call them) jumping all around but left quickly when we realized an angry hippo was near, then stopped to watch the sunset over glasses of champagne (and G&T, natch) and hear some stories from Mot about the local village culture.

Dinner was served in another ring of torches under huge trees, and ended with a performance from the camp’s choir, who were outstanding. They sang a few songs and danced back toward the kitchen. Returning to our room after dinner we found a bubble bath drawn for Nellie and another happy-anniversary message spelled out in leaves, this time with a small bottle of champagne on ice. It was pretty much the perfect end to our time in Botswana.

Or so we thought. After one last dip to cool off we decided to leave the front curtains open to get the cool breeze, and also so that we could look out at the delta as we fell asleep. Sometime in the night, when it was still dark, I woke up to the sound of…well, it sounded like a hundred people chewing at once. I looked out the screen door at the foot of the bed and saw an unmistakable shape slowly coming toward us: it was a hippo. He was ambling along, eating grass, getting closer and closer to our bedroom. And this time we weren’t on raised stilts like we were back at Nxabega. I woke Nellie and told her to stay quiet. The hippo slowly ate his way up to about ten feet from our doorstep, then turned left and began eating in that direction. And poof, he was gone like a Buddha-shaped ghost in the night. What a send-off.

Sun Nov 17: Xaranna to Johannesburg

We opted out of another boat ride, choosing instead to pack and sleep off some of the champagne. After a quick breakfast we were on our way, sent off once again with song, to Pom Pom airstrip. We climbed aboard another tiny Cessna and flew back to Maun. This was my third outing on such a small plane, and it barely rattled me now when wind blew us 20 feet this way or that. At the Maun airport Kay (an &Beyond employee we’d met at Nxabega) helped us check in and go through security. The tiny lounge filled up fast and smelly, and we had to bear the ignominy of watching a long CNN special about Toronto’s Crack Mayor on the sole TV in the lounge but before long we were boarding our flight back to Joburg. We had a little trouble finding our hotel shuttle, and a few hiccups at the hotel check-in desk, but the day ended with us in a cozy room, fully powered and wifi-enabled, full of hotel bar food.

It was hard to leave Botswana, but we can’t imagine not returning someday.

Mon Nov 18: Johannesburg to London

It felt odd for me to sleep in until almost 8:00, but I don’t think Nellie had any issues sleeping until 9:30. The day was all about killing time, and sleeping in seemed a good way to do it. We eventually grabbed some breakfast, had nice long showers, packed for the last time, and checked out. But first: one last meal (and Castle) at the bar downstairs. We took the shuttle to the airport, and had to wait a bit before checking in as all the BA agents disappeared at once, but were soon through security. Nellie did a little more shopping and got some VAT refund cash and then we settled in at the Shongololo lounge, accessed via our Priority Pass card, which has saved our bacon more than once.

Tue Nov 19: London to Toronto

Our flight to Heathrow was fine, but after watching Man Of Steel I had some trouble sleeping which would come back to haunt me later. We couldn’t access the BA lounge in terminal 5, but it wasn’t a problem: by the time we ate some breakfast (my first time eating Cumberland sausage since…not as good as I remember), found some quiet seats, read our books, did a little shopping, and had an espresso, it was time to head to our gate. Our return flight to Toronto wasn’t on a 787 Dreamliner, but the 777 refurbished with the same seats & big screens did just fine. I watched eight episodes of House Of Cards, ate some very decent plane food, et voila: we were home. We brought back more wine than is technically allowed, but Canadian customs agents are cool so they let it slide. We jumped into a limo, admired Toronto’s skyline on the drive in, dropped our bags, snuggled our cat, drank some coffee, and reflected on what was surely our best vacation ever.

More pictures here.

Il Pleut àMourir

A sudden, rather cool-looking thunderstorm rolled through Toronto tonight. I took some pictures and snagged some video, here and here. Check out the lightning and thunder, in the second video, around the 0:10 mark. There was even a nice double-rainbow afterward.

Given today’s news, it’s a relief to live in a place where the weather is at best a photo opportunity, and at worst a pain in the ass, and not somewhere where you have to worry about mile-wide tornadoes.

Après le deluge, le rose

Since CityNews, BlogTO, Torontoist and everybody else are posting dozens of amazing pictures of the storm that slammed Toronto earlier today (and spawned tornadoes around the GTA), I decided to post one from the minutes following the storm.

Make no mistake, the storm was amazing. I got video of it rolling in (and this storm did roll…you could see it twisting in over the core) and envelop my building. At one point I was looking south and saw a huge bolt of lightning hit two blocks south of me. The flash and sound knocked me backward, and I saw whatever it hit — I’m guessing a streetlight — glow white and then red for nearly a minute afterward.

Anyway, as soon as the blanket-thick rain and clouds moved off the sunset made an appearance, lighting up the sky. When the Moss Park lights came on I couldn’t resist.