22 December 2007

up, up, and away!

Urgh... got up before 4 am for a 4:15 pickup for our balloon safari. When the driver didn't show up at 4:15 (he arrived early yesterday) we were afraid that they forgot about us, our re-booking... but yay, finally, he showed up around 4:25. No big deal; South Africans have a tendency to drive a bit fast ;-)

When we arrived at the balloon grounds, there were quite a few people already there, waiting. There was a booth set up where coffee and rusks (hard biscuits/cookies) were served, so we got some coffee and rusks while watching the crew set up the balloon.

getting more inflated

heating up the air

About hot air balloons in general

The balloon finally inflated and we were ready to board! The basket was huge and fit lots of people. There were several compartments where four people fit in one compartment. It was somewhat crowded but that was OK. Our pilot was Tracey; she has 30+ years of experience as a pilot (and also the most photographed armpits in South Africa). She gave us some instructions, particularly regarding landing, and then we were airborne. Wheeeeee!

Being airborne was... amazing... so quiet and peaceful (well, except for that noise when that hot air blaster went off)...

balloon silhouette II

The scenery... wow...


People looked so small...

people on the road, from above

And trucks looked like toys...

a truck seen from above

The weather suddenly got kind of dodgy though, at least according to Tracey, who was communicating with people on the ground who had that kind of information, so we had to land a bit sooner than planned. Safety and all. Bah. We almost landed on a tree or perhaps a house, but eventually we hit the ground properly and everything was ok...

brushing against the trees

After landing, we all celebrated with a glass of Cap classique (or orange juice for those who didn't want alcohol); some people chose mimosas. We enjoyed this as we watched the crew pack up the balloon...

packing the balloon away

Then we returned to “headquarters” for a big buffet breakfast. There were lots of goodies – eggs, bacon, beans, cheese, yoghurt, fruit salad, freshly squeezed orange juice, several different kinds of bread... and nicely chilled Cap classique of course ;-)

champagne breakfast after the balloon ride

After pigging out on this wonderful breakfast, I took several bird photos while waiting for our ride back to Melville...

purple heron (Ardea purpurea) in flight II

All of the balloon safari photos (except the bird photos) start here and end here. The birds are here...

Some stats (WGS84):
S 25°48.887'
E 027°44.288'

S 25°53.474'
E 027°36.660'

Our highest altitude was 5610 ft. above sea level; our starting point (the balloon field) was 4115 ft. above sea level. You do the math ;-)

in the Cradle - lions and rhinos and caves, oh my!

Urgh... got up before 4 am for a 4:15 pickup for our balloon ride. Well, we got picked up and after about 15-20 minutes of driving, and seeing flashes of lightning in the sky, I got a call from the guy who runs the balloon place – they weren't going to fly due to bad weather conditions. Bah. So we turned around and were delivered back to our guesthouse. (Later on we arranged for a flight the next day.)

Urgh urgh. We went back to bed and got up around 7-ish. Our hostess gave us a curious look, as we asked if it was possible to get breakfast (included with our room, but we had said we wouldn't be having any because we were going on the balloon ride hmmf). It was no problem getting breakfast, so we sat down, ate, and figured out what we were going to do... ah yes! Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site...

I didn't write too many notes about this part of the trip. We started at Sterkfontein Caves, limestone caves that are the location of many hominid remains. Some of the more famous remains are Mrs. Ples and Little Foot. Inside the caves, the rock formations are interesting but not as spectacular as the Cango Caves or Wonder Cave. There are some interesting underground lakes though...

The next stop was the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, also the location of the Wonder Cave.

rhinos eating

We had just missed a tour of the cave, so we drove around the park, looking at the animals, while keeping our eye on the clock to make it for the next tour. We finally got to see some white rhinos; they were not so very white as they were covered in red dirt. They're also wild, but the people running the reserve created some artificial conditions. For example, someone had left a pile of green grass for the rhinos to eat. As it was the end of winter/start of spring and the grass everywhere was dry and brown as a result, so green grass? It had to come from somewhere “manmade.” Also, they had predators in various enclosures, not mixed in with the prey as it would be in nature. What a way to tease the lions and cheetahs, being fenced in, without access to the tasty springbok grazing happily... ;-)

a lion, licking his paw

It was finally time to go to Wonder Cave. The formations inside are really fascinating, especially the one that looks like a jellyfish and the one that looks like the Virgin Mary (take that, creationists!). This was similar to though very different from Cango Caves. For one, no harrowing chimneys or narrow tunnels of love. They also use natural colored lights inside Wonder Cave, as opposed to the colored lights in Cango.

After the cave, we looked around the park some more, and stopped at the animal creche, where I got to rub a baby tiger on the belly (oooh so soft!) and meet some white lion cubs up close. The cubs were more interested in their chunks of meat than any of us...

I have mixed feelings about the interaction with cubs, but I'll leave that for The Plump Penguin some day...

We ate dinner at another Portuguese restaurant that was across the street from Nino's. Don't remember the name, and I remember eating grilled bacalhau, as nothing else was written down... :-/

09 December 2007


Aaaah, finally in Johannesburg, in a district called Melville. We arrived at our guesthouse, got our room and dumped our stuff, and then went out to find some lunch. The lady in charge of the guesthouse pointed out where we could find some restaurants, so we walked over there. The most interesting restaurant was a place called Nuno's Portuguese Restaurant. As we sat down and looked at the menu, we noticed some people at a table near us; one of the people sitting there had a huge professional SLR camera just sitting on the table, with the strap loose. All worries about this area being unsafe went up in smoke ;-) It was quite relaxed here. As opposed to downtown Johannesburg, after getting our car and driving out here... eish ;-)

Anyway, food. We were quite hungry, so we decided on both a starter and a main meal. Our starter was the snack platter. It included chorizo, liver, giblets, haloumi, trinchado, prawn cakes, and calamari. Damn, it was HUGE! That was more than enough lunch for two people... and we still had a main course to eat! ;-) It was also very, very tasty...

a very tasty and filling Portuguese goodies starter!

We had the Mozambique-style seafood curry as our main course. It was very rich and flavorful, and very nicely spiced. Yum yum yum...

Nuno's Mozambique-style seafood curry

Our wine: Windmeul Kelder Sauvignon blanc 2007
  • color: very pale gold

  • nose: guava

  • palate: dry, refreshing, fresh, pomelo, grapefruit and guava flavors. Aftertaste of lemons and lemon zest

  • grade: :-D

Heh, on the menu there was a disclaimer: We do not take responsibility for meat ordered well-done, Later on, we saw that other restaurants had this on their menus. Excellent ;-)

There were quite a few guys out trying to sell stuff made of steel thread and beads...

Oh, I also had to go to a pharmacy that was across the street from the restaurant, as I managed to pick up some kind of nasty cough on the train (because of the air conditioning system). The pharmacist on duty was lovely, and picked out some medication for me and explained the dosages... we also chatted a little as she was curious about where I was from and whether I was enjoying South Africa. This was my second visit to a pharmacy during this trip, and I'm still very impressed with the competency and professional-ness (is that a word?) I was met with... always a good thing when on the road...

We spent the rest of the day just chilling out at the guest house. We bought a bottle of wine after lunch, and we had leftovers that we had planned to eat for dinner, but we were so stuffed that we didn't need to eat at all...

But the wine... we drank that ;-)
Mischa Estate (Wellington) 2003 Shiraz
  • color: deep, opaque violet

  • nose: spices, prunes, bell peppers

  • palate: full-bodied, fruity, peppery, slightly acidic but well-rounded. Long aftertaste of sour cherries. Pleasant tannins. Would go nicely with steak, ostrich, lamb, game, hearty dishes. Very easy to drink for a South African shiraz...

  • grade: :-D-

All aboard the posh purple train of Ring of Fat doom!

02/10 – 03/10/2007
We got up quite early to get a taxi to the train station, arriving at the Premier Classe lounge a bit too early, so we had to wait outside, but that didn't really matter... while it seemed kind of dodgy in the area, we never really felt unsafe. And we didn't have to wait that long...

When the lounge opened, we checked in and sat in one of the sofas. We were served coffee and muffins while waiting for the train to arrive for boarding. While waiting, we walked around the tracks area, and watched as they were loading cars onto the train, including a bunch of Ferraris.. really weird...

Things were running a bit late; apparently a lot of the cars that were going on the train arrived late, which delayed everything. After a while, we finally boarded the train, and found our berth. It was supplied with, among other things, a bathrobe each. And slippers. Nice :)

Quite shortly after boarding, we were herded into the dining area, where we were given a glass of sparkling wine (nasty sweet – bah) and fed snacks (potato chips, nuts, and biltong) and scones and sandwiches and coffee or tea... let the feeding commence!

After the snacks and before lunch, we sat in the lounge area, enjoying the scenery from the train. We walked back and forth a lot, between our berth and the lounge area, hanging out and observing stuff. The scenery was amazing... everything from farms, vineyards, etc...

scenery from the train I

It was soon lunch time. Our lunch was:

  • Avocado ritz – shrimps in a seafood sauce, served in an avocado half. Absolutely delicious! The avocado was perfectly ripe, and the shrimps and the sauce were tasty. An excellent combination! The bread they served with it was on the dry side though...

  • Grilled hunter's steak (ordered medium rare), served with a bacon-, onion-, and mushroom sauce, tomatoes, potatoes, and vegetables. The steak was good, but a bit overcooked for medium rare...

  • strawberry custard slice, with berries and cream. Was OK... not too crazy about desserts ;-)

And the wine: Graham Beck "Railroad Red" Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
  • color: ruby red
  • nose: fruity, red berries, spices, pepper. Very aromatic
  • palate: Fruity, rounded and pleasant tanins, full-bodied. Primarily a wine to be paired with food, preferably red meat and maybe spicy dishes.
  • grade: :-)+ for food, :-) otherwise

Mini Wolfgang enjoys a Railroad Red Shiraz-Cabernet sauvignon!

After lunch, we continued to enjoy the scenery; you get a good dose of wonderful scenery from the train! It's not easy taking photos while the train is moving, but it's not impossible...

scenery from the train IX

At 3 pm it was time for high tea. We were starting to feel like geese that were being overfed to fatten up the livers, but hey... tea and cake ;-) I chose rooibos tea and carrot cake. The tea was nice, the cake was OK but a bit dry. What's with the dry baked goods here?

high tea on the Premier Classe

At some point between high tea and dinner, we were passing through the Karoo, a semi-desert region. It was raining. Quite heavily. With thunder and lightning too. At some points, while the sun was shining. And it even started to hail! In a desert! How cool is that?

hailstorm in the Karoo

Dinner was the following:
  • Marego soup – a cream of wild spinach and potato soup, flambéed with South African brandy. Very tasty!

  • Kingklip Hout Bay – pan-fried kingklip with smoked snoek cream sauce. This was also very delicious, though the fish was slightly overcooked. The sauce was very different and interesting, but quite tasty...

  • Lamb chops “Saratoga” - Karoo lamb chops with potatoes and vegetables. Mmmm... lovely lamb! Nice and tender. It was served with potatoes, green beans, pumpkin, cauliflower in a cheese sauce, and half a peach. It's especially the peach-lamb combination that was excellent...

  • Chocolate mousse. Didn't eat much of this as chocolate bugs my stomach... :-/

  • Cheese board. Mmm... cheese!

The wines:
White wine: Vrede en Lust 2006 Karien (chenin blanc + semillon) – from Paarl
  • color: pale gold

  • nose: citrus, melon, peaches

  • palate: dry and acidic, flavor of minerals, blood orange. Standard white table wine
  • grade: :-)

Red wine: Stormhoek Pinotage 2006
  • color: (too dark to see properly)

  • nose: prunes, spices, blackberries

  • palate: pepper, plums, cocoa-bitterness towards the finish. Pleasant tannins. Very well-balanced.

  • grade: :-)+

After dinner, we were kind of tired, and we wanted to get up early to try to get some sunrise shots, and everyone else had gone to bed, so...

We made the lame attempt to get up early but, well, forget it! ;-) (Well, we did manage to take showers before everyone else wanted a shower, and then get back into bed)

We did get a wake-up “call” at 7 am; we were served coffee in our berth. We sipped our coffee, and then went to the dining car to have some breakfast. And as usual, breakfast was a big affair. We had juice and yoghurt, followed by an omelette with bacon and a sausage on the side. Good stuff :-)

Now the rest of the train ride was a bit of a “disaster” - we were delayed due to some accident earlier. People were getting restless, the staff was restless and nervous and frustrated, there was no more food left. We were supposed to arrive in Johannesburg at 11 am, and we didn't get there until 1 pm... bah...

But what can one do? When we finally arrived, we grabbed our luggage, went to get our rental car (a big Volvo!), and drove to Melville, where we would be staying for the rest of our trip...

Photos for the train ride start here - keep clicking forward until you get to here...

04 December 2007

*title replaced by incomprehensible baby babble*


We got up early so that we could get to Betty's Bay relatively early. Our backpackers' didn't serve breakfast, so we took off hoping we would find a place to get something to eat. But alas, no. Fortunately I had a package of peanuts with me, so we munched on that and drank some water... not ideal, but better than nothing...

Life at Betty's Bay...

The actual penguin reserve is at a place called Stony Point Nature Reserve. It's a bit more “off the beaten track” than Boulder's Beach, the better-known locale for penguins in South Africa. I think Betty's Bay is nicer than Boulder's Beach (except that you don't get the nice sandy beach photos), as the area seems bigger and there are more bushes and “caves” and holes in the ground for the penguins to hide if the humans (and other creatures) get to be too much for them.

So we saw penguins. Lots and lots of penguins. Adult penguins. Fuzzy baby penguins. ”Teenage” penguins. And among the penguins, lots of cormorants. The cormorants were busy gathering nesting material, but a few took the time to walk among the penguins, invoking curiosity in the babies (“huh, what's this?”) and aggression in the adults, who were pecking at the rather indifferent cormorants.

all dressed up and no place to go...

And if the photos here and the links posted weren't enough, there are even more penguin photos on my flickr site... just click around and enjoy ;-)

We spent about an hour at the penguin colony. Afterwards, we headed towards Cape Town, making lots of scenery stops to take photos...

Our next major stop was Somerset West, to go to a shopping center there. Boyfriend of feitpingvin was hoping to find some clothes there. We got some lunch first though... at Dros, a chain restaurant. We ate at their Stellenbosch locale last year and enjoyed the food. This year – ugh. Bad mistake. First of all, it took forever for our food to get to us. Secondly, I threw up around a half hour after eating it :-/ Boyfriend of feitpingvin didn't get sick, so it must have been something Ms. Stomach didn't care for... grrmf...

He didn't find what he was looking for in the mall either. So we just headed towards Cape Town. First, the car was in desperate need of a good wash. We used the same car wash place as we did last year when we were going to return the car; their price had gone up to what... 60 rand for a complete wash (including vacuuming the interior) or something. We then went to our backpackers' (Inn Long Street) to dump our luggage, but this was a bit of a hassle. The girl at the desk, although rather sweet, wanted us to just sit down and relax. She didn't seem to get that 1) we were parked out on Long Street and parking costs money (a few rand hah!) and we really didn't want to stay parked out there anyway, 2) we had to get the car returned to the rental agency and we wanted to get that done right away so that we could relax properly afterwards. Sheesh :-) But we finally made it clear that this had to be done right away and everything was cool...

Heh. And when we returned the car, boyfriend of feitpingvin noted that he had driven over 2700 km :-) The guy who we handed the car over to also failed to see where we had that little accident pre-Harrismith, so boyfriend of feitpingvin pointed it out to him. It's best to be honest about it. Sure, we were insured and had to pay some administration costs, but that's better than getting caught later on. Oh, and he was also quite pleased that we got the car washed properly...

So we finally got back to Long Street, and hung out for a good part of the afternoon at Bob's Bar & Bistro. It's a really cool place; they have brews from Boston Breweries in Cape Town (a microbrewery). Yum yum, whale tail ale!

We decided to go walk around a little and then go back to the backpackers' to rest before dinner; we were planning on meeting some people I met through the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree African Board (South Africa). We eventually met at Khaya-Nyama - a restaurant specializing in meat dishes. I think the vegetarian platter that one of the women ordered was the “deadliest” of all though. It was huge! Not to say that anyone else got small portions. The food was plentiful and very tasty. At least my eland steak was tasty. And boyfriend of feitpingvin's grilled meat was presented in an “interesting” manner :-) Though we wanted the warthog ribs... but they were out. Boo hoo ;-)

Our wine: Fleur du Cap Pinotage 2005 (Stellenbosch)
color: (too dark to see properly)
nose: mint, tobacco, spices
palate: full-bodied and powerful, slightly acidic, flavor of very ripe dark berries, with a hint of cocoa
grade: :-)+

They had some cool live music going on as we were eating and chatting. The overall atmosphere was great. I highly recommend this place. And it was a very nice evening... the people who were able to show up – carolineb + husband, CTLocal, and tc_sebba were all very lovely and I wouldn't hesitate meeting them again :-)