Thursday, February 20, 2014

Farewell South Africa

Today we are leaving South Africa, so here's a quick recap of the last 37 days:

Day 1: Arrive Jo'burg, drive to Centurion
Day 2: Centurion (Josh works, Michelle relaxes)
Day 3: Fly to Hoedspruit, drive to Kruger
Days 4-8: Kruger National Park (self-drive safari)
Day 9: Drive to Kapama Game Reserve
Day 10: Kapama (fancy safari)
Day 11: Fly to Jo'berg, drive to Centurion
Days 12-13: Centurion (Josh works, Michelle does chores and relaxes)
Day 14: Fly to George, drive to Wilderness
Days 15-20: Wilderness (paragliding, sight-seeing, relaxing)
Day 21: Drive to Porterville
Days 22-26: Porterville (paragliding)
Day 27: Drive to and tour Cape Town (penguins, swimming, sunset drive, shopping)
Day 28: Fly to Jo'berg, drive to Centurion
Days 29-30: Centurion (Josh works, Michelle does laundry and gets a massage)
Day 31: Drive to Hartebeespoort (vulture restaurant, relaxing)
Day 32: Drive Bulwer
Days 33-34: Bulwer (relaxing, paragliding, hiking)
Day 35: Drive to Pretoria
Day 36: Pretoria (Josh works, Michelle relaxes)
Day 37: Fly to Thailand via Mumbai

The Southern Drakensberg

We just got back to civilization after three nights camping in the Southern Drakensberg. We saw sun, rain, clouds, lightning and tons of wildflowers. I even made a bouquet!

I found quite the assortment of wildflowers on a short hike around the lodge.

We went in search of paragliding opportunities and although the weather wasn't very cooperative, we did get some lovely flying in our last day in Bulwer.

Happy Joshua.

We also met a bunch of friendly Austrians. And we cooked our own meals every day, which is quite delightful. All in all, it was a mellow retreat, just what I needed as I was feeling crummy and pretty grumpy.

Picnic table with a view, where I drew pictures and Josh did some work.


Oh! And did I mention it was amazingly beautiful there? Here's some more proof.

The Cottages at Wildsky Paragliding.
Our little tent set up on the flattest spot we could find.
Bonus: waterfall and pretty sunset on the drive back to Jo'burg!
Howick Falls, 95 meters tall.
Sunset above the Drakensberg.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Pushing My Boundaries

Well, it seems this adventure is all about pushing boundaries -- literally, as we cross from place to place, and figuratively, as we try new things and dissolve old boundaries.

Today, I was on my own again as Josh went to work. My feet have been aching something terrible, no doubt from all the walking with my heavy glider pack and from wearing flip flops every minute I'm not flying.

So I decided to take my aching feet to the Chinese Healing Center and get a good old reflexology foot massage. At first, I planned to have the hotel shuttle me there and back. But when they said it would be 200 ZAR roundtrip, I decided to save the $20 USD by driving myself.

Did I mention the majority of rental cars in South Africa are sticks? And that I've never really driven one, unless you count a 30 minute lesson a week ago in a deserted suburb with no traffic lights? Gulp.

Since I knew that getting going uphill is tough for me and turning right in South Africa (this being a left side drive country) is terrifying, I used MapMyRun to find the flattest route with the fewest right turns. Luckily, my route there required no left turns and looked pretty flat online. Alas, I failed to notice how many light signals there would be or anticipate that with mid-day traffic I would get a yellow at nearly every one.

My 3/4-mile drive to the spa was not exactly relaxing, let's say. I only stalled the car twice -- both when trying to pull into the parking spot. But I also ran two yellowish-red lights to avoid stopping on a hill I would no doubt not be able to getting going from again.

Still, I MADE IT TO THE SPA without hitting anything, getting honked at or crapping my pants.

And the reward was worth it. An hour of concentrated foot massage for my tired feet. So nice. And only $30, including tip!

On the way back I managed to avoid running any lights. Yay me! I did, however, stall the car several times, get honked at, use my emergency blinkers to warn the car behind me on a hill not to get too close, accidentally shift into 4th instead of 2nd, get lost, get found, and finally arrive safe and sound back at the hotel.

Phew! Another boundary left in the dust. I am now officially able to drive a manual.


A Whirlwind Adventure in Cape Town

You've got less than 24 hours in Cape Town... Go!

  • Lunch on Kloof Street at Hudson's The Burger Joint, complete with wheat-free buns. Josh got the Vegas Burger, with Swiss and Pastrami. I got the Bacon Jam Burger (of course) with avocado.
  • Feed my artistic soul on Bree Street at the South African Market, among other artsy shops.
  • Drive down the Cape, glimpsing the multi-color houses on the beach in Muizenberg and the man-made swimming pools separated from the ocean by concrete walls with the waves breaking overtop.
  • Eat homemade gelato (lemon sorbet for me, chocolate affogato for Josh) on a bench under a sun umbrella.
  • Watch the penguins on Boulders Beach, spy the baby chicks, laugh as the adults flounder on land and stare in awe as they swim swiftly in the surf. (Forget our WILD card and so pay the entrance fee as an added donation to South Africa National Parks.)
  • Swim in the Indian Ocean just past the breeding colony of penguins. Luxuriate in the turquoise blue waters, bask in the sun and find our little own "kissing cave."
  • Head west across the mountains to Chapman Peak's Drive and take in the ocean and cliffs as the sun sets. Stop often, wishing we had a brought a picnic dinner to eat at one of the many tables along the way. Be amazed at the courageous and fit bicyclists passing us on the curving, mountainous route.
  • Pass through Camps Bay, home to folks who could star in "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" (according to our lodge owner). Do not stop.
  • Find ourselves starving as we approach the Victoria & Albert Waterfront around 8pm. Stop at the tourist trap, get dinner and drinks, and devour the best lamb curry I've eaten in my life.
  • Make our way back to the lodge, tuck in and fall asleep.
  • Wake up, clean up, pack up and stroll to the beach, complete with super soft white sand and big breakers. Walk barefoot along the beach eating carob-coated rice cakes (surprisingly delicious, deceptively healthy: "is that a donut?" our paragliding guide had asked) and drinking fake lichee juice (mostly grape juice) from the box.
  • Check out of the lodge (no we are not paying extra because you flubbed up the price on your Airbnb listing), and rush to the airport. Return our car, speed walk to the bag drop counter, take some heavy things out of our checked luggage so it meets the weight requirement, pass quickly through security, and arrive at our gate on time.
  • Learn that our flight is 15 minutes delayed. Dash upstairs to the bookshop. Find unlined moleskin notebooks after a month of unsuccessful hunting. Score!
  • Rush back downstairs to find hubby nearing the front of the boarding line. Slip in with him and return to Jo'burg.

Phew! What a whirlwind. Splendid though. Looking forward to our next visit to Cape Town -- hopefully a tad longer...



Photos? I had planned on uploading some to add to this post, but it's been days and that hasn't happened. So here's the post without photos. You can google the places above to see what they look like and just imagine us there. :)



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Paragliding Porterville

You guessed it. This post is about paragliding. So if you aren't into flying, my apologies. Still you find some things in this post that you can relate to... Like finding yourself doing something new because you're in a new place. At least that's part of my story. Well, this post. Anyway, here goes.

We are in the small town of Porterville, host to the Paragliding World Cup in 2013 and home to some 9,000 people and countless cows and sheep. Just east of the town there is a lovely mountain range which is great for paragliding in west, southwest and maybe even northwest (we didn't get any days like that) winds.

We arrived here last Wednesday after an all-day drive from Wilderness, a little town on the southern coast of South Africa where we'd been enjoying easy coastal flying for several days. Thursday morning we got to see just what Porterville had to offer! We got a brilliant site intro from local Bradley and then met our driver for the day, Kobus, who drove us in our little car up the mountain to launch.

On launch at Pampoenfontein, the southern launch for Porterville. The blue carpet is anchovy fishing net!

After quite a bit of parawaiting, several Swedes launched, then Joshua and finally it was my turn. I was nervous to be the only lady pilot, and the only uni-lingual person, left on launch. My first attempt resulted in a frontal collapse, following by some brief dragging along the netted launch site. But I was fine, nothing more than a bruised ego and a little nerves. After a few others launched, I tried again and had a lovely launch.

As most everyone else was miles ahead of me or headed back up the mountain to relaunch, I essentially flew solo along the ridge, making the best of every thermal, for 10km until I hit "teenage," a pointy little mountain marking the beginning of the safe-to-go-over-the-back zone for crossing into the Citrusdal Valley to the east.

Heading north down the ridge.

I got as high as I could (about 1500m), told Josh I was making a go for it and then turned my glider to the east heading for the valley beyond. I didn't make it very far, but I was super excited to have crossed the mountains and made the valley, landing 22km from where I started.

View out over Citrusdal Valley. Beautiful flatlands!

Josh, of course, flew over me and beyond -- all the way to Clan William, the top destination for XC pilots launching from Porterville. Some 80km: past the town of Citrusdal, the crux move of Constriction where there is no safe place to land for 4km, and then the long stretch up to Clan William. I was both so proud and so jealous of him, especially after the grueling hour-long car ride along a dirt road to retrieve him.

Friday turned out to be a no fly day for us. The winds weren't quite right and I was afflicted by a bad case of travelers crap, so it all worked out for the best.

Saturday was another lovely day of paragliding, with me outflying all the boys on our first flight and then making it to Citrusdal on my second flight, again finding the thermals on my own with only the help of a few eagles here and there. This 37km flight helped me see the skills that I've been developing and realize that even when I fly alone, I hear the voices of my mentors in my mind reminding to me to look for wind-blown trees that might indicate lift, hug the mountain slopes facing directly into the wind, fly with the birds, spot the clouds as they are forming, be careful not to get blown back, use my speed bar to glide faster in sink, feel the thermals and visualize their shape and where they are tracking, and to shake out my shoulders and legs when I'm getting I'm too tense.

The boys who were excited to see me land and helped me fold and pack up my glider in Citrusdal.

With all this new-found appreciation for how far I've come, I took the leap on Sunday and was the first to launch. As the only girl, and the pilot on the lowest-performance glider, it felt a little silly to launch first. But I was ready, eager and the winds were fine. The boys were just being slow and everyone was trying to avoid being first. So I put on my big girl pants, as my sister would say, and went for it. And I had a beautiful launch, followed by a 2 1/2 hour flight north along the ridge, ultimately landing side by side with my hubby who launched after me. :)

Today again I launched first. And while I didn't have the most epic flight of the day -- I'll reserve that for hubby who flew south along the ridge and landed at the lodge -- I did get to see even more of my new skills in action. After getting tired of being bumped around in the trashy ridge thermals, I headed out to the flatlands, thinking I would land... Only to find a buoyant thermal in the valley with soft edges and good lift. I took that thermal back up to mountain height and continued my trek downwind for another couple kilometers, before eventually landing a ranch field, strategically devoid of any cattle.

Feeling good, flying alone.

Although I miss my girls -- those from college who shared our annual girls weekend without me, those who fly with me in Pacific Northwestern skies, and those who have just been there for me forever -- I am delighted to know that I can find a respected place amongst the boys when flying XC in South Africa.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Why We Love Staying at Airbnbs

There are so many reasons to love staying at an Airbnb. Here are some of the top ones for us:

1. Getting to meet locals. This is especially true when you just rent a room in someone's house. Every time we've done this, whether in the San Juan Islands, Mexico, France or now South Africa, we have met great people who are genuinely interested in getting to know us at least a little and are eager to share their best tips on where to go, what to see and how to have fun in their home town.

2. Cooking your own meals. (Aka "self-catering" in South Africa). Assuming you are a decent cook, you can enjoy the flavors of home while abroad. And when you invite your host to join you for dinner, they often reciprocate, giving you a home cooked meal in return and sharing a little more of their lives with you. In France, we traded quasi-Mexican taco salads one night for a tasty Thai curry the next. And in South Africa we made a salad one night, then chicken with mushrooms another and in exchange we got to enjoy our host's delicious fried rice and local wine selection.

3. More than a bedroom. Normally, we get access to the entire house, including the living room, TV room, deck or porch, and of course kitchen. This means we can both be home and have a little solo time, something that is really important when you are traveling with the same person for an extended period.

4. Laundry. Sometimes, although not always, you can use the host's washer to clean your filthy clothing. This is quite delightful and makes spending time together more pleasant.

5. Fair prices. Airbnb hosts seem entirely reasonable in their asking price for a room and we regularly stay in places way nicer than any similarly priced hotel, with all the perks mentioned here. Since there are often many Airbnbs in each town, we get to pick the ones that best suite our taste and budget.

6. Free (and good!) wifi Internet. Perhaps it's because they use it too, the Internet always seems faster when we stay at Airbnbs and you can see right when you're booking the room whether they have it or not. I have yet to see a place that charges separately for Internet if they have it. So fabulous when you're itinerary is up in the air or when you are doing weather-dependent sports like paragliding and need to see the latest.

7. Last-minute bookings. When you don't plan ahead, like us on this trip, being able to find an Airbnb the day before or same day you'll be arriving is so nice. For most, you can see their availability online and its such a relief to know that a real person will be welcoming you into their home that night.

8. Review from Real People. Since you must have an Airbnb account to book a stay, each reviewer has a profile and the reviews tend to be very real. Like for instance, one reviewer noted that our host made cappuccinos each morning. Although I'm not a fan of cappuccinos, I was delighted to know that there would be an espresso machine and a host who was friendly enough to make coffee for his guests each day.

9. Pets. Sometimes to get to stay in a place with pets. They always mention this in their ad, which is great if you are allergic to pets or say, afraid of dogs. It's also great if you are missing your animals back home and want to enjoy a little time with someone else's pet. Our French Airbnb host had wonderful dogs that we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with.

10. Meet other interesting travelers. Many Airbnb hosts rent more than one room and so you get to meet like-minded travelers as well. At our current spot, another paragliding couple is renting the room next door. So in addition to meeting a wonderful local, we're also getting to know people from an entirely different place (where we may someday find ourselves) who have at least one thing in common with us --a love or Airbnbs.

I could go on and on about why staying at Airbnbs is so grand, but I'll stop at ten reasons. Perhaps you can add your top reasons in the comments below.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Today I flew cross country. Okay, a mini-XC. About 2.2 miles to be precise. Along a coastal ridge line. No more than 300' above the shore. Nothing for the record book but it was fantastic!

Around 11:30 this morning, hubby and I rolled up to the Wilderness Beach Hotel where it was blowing like crazy. And despite my usual reticence to launch in high winds, I decided to have a go. Good thing Josh was there to help as within a few second of bringing up my glider, I was face forward, flying backwards a few feet off the ground with no hope of getting off the hillside on my own. I little too strong of wind for me to launch. But, alas, I cleared the cliff with Josh pushing me from behind. Smiling and happy to be off the hill, I rose gently into the sky and preceded to have a lovely flight!

A few minutes later Josh safely launched himself and we were off, exploring the coastline, peering into the tide pools from a few hundred feet up and being careful not to get blown back into the humongous mansions staring out at the Indian Ocean from atop the bluff. It was pure joy seeing that turquoise blue water, sandy shore and rocky pools below as we soared along the verdant cliffs with blue sky above.

Since it was so easy to stay aloft, we made a lap down to the next flying site, Kleinkranz, and then back to the hotel. On the second tag of Kleinkranz, I sank out and landed in the dunes below. Serious bummer. I had forgotten how hard it is to walk up a dune carrying a glider balled up. I even tried to kite my wing up the dune, hoping for a lazyman's tow up the slippy sand hill, but only succeeded in packing my glider full of sand so that my load was all the more hefty when I returned to slogging up the slope.

Eventually I made it to the launch at Kleinkranz and although the other pilots we bagging it in the name of strong winds, I deemed the conditions to be lot mellower than my earlier launch so I decided to have another go. A perfect launch and some serious scratching later, I was once again aloft, heading towards Josh on the ridge and feeling mighty proud of myself. We reconnected above the beautiful ocean and soared back to the hotel and a tad beyond before my hunger finally overtook me. It was time to land. Again. This time by choice.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Things you should know before you go...

Before you go abroad for a year of on-the-go traveling, there are many things you should know. Here is one that I belatedly learned today.

You should know how to drive a manual transmission car before. You see, manuals are always cheaper to rent. And if you are traveling with someone who knows how to drive a manual, you will undoubtedly choose to rent one to save a few bucks. No biggie, you think. That other person will always drive. Easy-peesy. Problem solved, money saved.

Well, what happens when your manual-driving partner launches their paraglider first and you can't get off the mountain because of high winds? And then your sweet partner can't top-land, also because its too windy and so lands at the beach down below? Well, I'll tell you. You, the one who cannot drive a stick, finds yourself with the car on the top of a mountain wondering, how hard can it be?

And that's when you remind your partner of them dilemma, gently suggesting perhaps this is the time you figure out how to drive a stick. Now, if your partner is like mine, he will kindly respond that now might not be the best time, but that he'll teach you later that day.

So you (or me in this real example), propositions a random South African gentleman to give her a life down to the beach in her own car which she, hilariously, cannot drive. Luckily the guy is nice and not creepy and shares insider tips on the best places to go in South Africa as he safely drives your car down to the beach where hubby awaits. Seriously. This happened to me today.

And then, the second miracle of the day, hubby makes good on his promise and teaches me to drive a stick, -- without either one of us cussing or getting pissed at the other. I know, today was our lucky day!

Still, learning how to drive a stick, in a country where they drive on the other side of the road and where you are sitting in what is normally the passenger seat, trying to dodge overgrown bushes without stalling the car on a road without lines, is really quite the feat. I did get the hang of it, and rather quickly I must add. But still, apparently not well enough for hubby to let me drive home on the freeway. Perhaps tomorrow.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Self-Drive vs. Guided Tour

After 6 nights in Kruger, we left the wide landscapes of the 2million hectare park and hopped over to a private game reserve. Fancy-smansy by our standards, Kapama was one of the less expensive almost-all-inclusive (no drinks included, not even water) game reserves near Kruger.

Our plush bungalow with a real queen-size bed, desk, patio and vaulted ceilings.

I took two baths in this tub--one each day we were there. Who knows when I'll see another bathtub again?

We stayed there two nights and were driven about the reserve in the morning and late afternoons by a pair of guides: one driving, the other tracking animals from the hood of the open-air land rover.

As we had seen the Big 5 already, many of the smaller animals and loads of birds, we weren't on the "hunt" for anything specific. We did, however, see plenty of wildlife. Still the whole thing had a markedly different feel than our simple, self-drive adventure.

Firstly, they wake you up at 4:30am with a knock on your door or a phone call. As our phone was broken, we got the personal visit each dawn. From 5-5:30 they offer you tea, coffee, fruit and assorted gluten-ful pastries which we longed to eat. Once caffeinated, we loaded up into an open-air land rover with the guide and tracker who rode with our entire stay at the reserve. And then we hit the dirt road, along with 7 other land rovers piled full with other traveler-tourists.

From 5:30 to about 8am, we would drive around in our designated quadrant of the reserve looking for animals. More often than not, our driver would stop the vehicle and he and the tracker would get out and wander about looking at the animal tracks, trying to devise who was heading where and how close they might be. All I can say is that this part was completely boring for me. I rather prefer the spontaneity of our self-drive adventures where a lion, elephant or clan of baboons could be just around the corner and we wouldn't know until--surprise!--we came upon them. But not in the reserve. There a certified tracker reads the paw prints and tells you where the animal is hiding. And, oh by the way, the leopard is deep in that thicket and we can't see it. Thanks a lot. I'd rather just not know that a big cat is nearby and instead be delighted when I see yet another small herd of impala or lone giraffe.

Wait?! You get OUT of the truck to look for the lions?

Then around 8 or 8:30, we'd pull off someplace with decent visibility, maybe a watering hole or meadow, and the driver and tracker would set up a little folding table with coffee, tea and more gluten-ful biscuits. Did I mention we can't eat gluten? At least the coffee was good. And then we'd be back on our way in hopes of spotting a few more beasts before we returned to the lodge for breakfast at 9am with all the other guests.

After breakfast are the "optional activities" like the pool, massages at the spa (yes please for Josh), elephant rides (not okay says me), the cheetah project (yippee!) and napping (check, check). Lunch is served at 1pm, afternoon tea and cookies at 4pm and then it's off on another guided tour to a new quadrant of the reserve. The afternoon tour is much like the morning one, complete with a sunset stop for drinks (this time with a full mini bar), returning to the lodge for dinner around 9. Then bed, then 4:30a wake up call. Repeat.

My favorite part of the reserve experience was the Cheetah Project. What can I say, they are just so cuddly looking! But alas cuddling the cats is not allowed so I had to get by with a few photos.


One other perk of the game reserve is that the animals who live there (entirely fenced in on all sides) are so accustomed to seeing the trucks that you can get really close. And they don't even try to kill you! It's pretty awesome.


All in all though, I would pick self-drive over guided tour because (a) it's so much less expensive, (b) you get to drive as far and as slow as you want and watch the animals for as long as they will let you, (c) you won't get sunburnt in a car with AC, (d) you can pack your own gluten-free snacks to munch anytime you're hungry, (e) there are much larger herds of animals in Kruger, and (f) you will be delightfully surprised every time you spot an animal.

However, if you're just there for the food, luxurious accommodations or to check off the Big 5 from your list, then perhaps a game reserve is for you.


P.S. I also recommend bringing an awesome hubby who knows how to drive a stick and is willing to be responsible for driving on the left side of the road while trying to spot wildlife. :)