Africa 2017: Days 21 – 24

There’s definitely an assumption amongst African safari guides that what tourists want to see above everything else are the big cats. So we seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to track them down. If we do get lucky, the lions are generally fast asleep and the leopards are sitting quietly and looking in every direction except towards the camera.

They’re lovely and everything, sense of power at rest, dignity in repose, magnificent mane etc. But they don’t actually do much beyond yawning. In comparison, your elephant is a non-stop flurry of movement. He always has things to do, places to go, other elephants to meet. He eats, drinks, trumpets, knocks things over, gets that prehensile trunk working all over the place, makes a low growling sound you can feel as well as hear, and sloshes about in mud baths with a look that says ‘yeah? What?’ Plus he’s absolutely enormous, of course.

We’re all agreed that watching active elephants is far better than watching sleeping lions and their adorable but also sleeping cubs. 

Maybe we’ll get to see a big herd of them later. For now, we’ve swapped Shaka and his Landcruiser for Hector and his Mokoro canoe. The Mokoro is a traditional dugout used in the Okavango Delta, and our guide Hector is punting us at a languid breast-stroke speed along the reed-fringed river. It’s very still and peaceful, a point made by Hector, although he has to break off from a tuneless whistle to tell us this.

The seven of us are in four canoes. We take it in turns to stop and marvel at a tiny little Angolan Reed Frog. Despite his minuscule size he produces a loud chirping sound each dusk that I thought must have emanated from something much larger. That’s why we marveled rather than just looked. Without the knowledge that he makes this kind of noise, he’s really just a small frog.

We slowly move on. It’s all very charming and placid, and if it wasn’t for Hector’s whistling and my monumentally uncomfortable squatting position I could easily drop off to sleep.

But then we approach a bend in the river and see an elephant emerging from the bush.
And a big fella too. Wait, here’s another one!
Wow. This is getting good. Then a third shows up.
Then another. And another. They keep appearing from the treeline and head for the water. I lose count at sixty.
Looking around I see interesting groupings and activities.

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I swap Nikon for iPhone and shoot some video. It’s then that I notice we’re virtually surrounded by a hundred or more elephants.


It might not look much now – I’m not the BBC Natural History Unit – but for us it is one of the undoubted highlights of the whole trip. Ironic that it happens during our brief little canoe trip, rather than during the total of around 36 hours we spend on safari with Shaka. Michael senses this, and when we get back to shore and Shaka asks if we saw anything, he says excitedly ‘Yes! We saw this AMAZING frog!’

Our final five-hour game drive is to the airstrip. No wonder they jokingly refer to long road trips in the bush as an African massage. The first few hours are OK, but after that the constant swinging and bouncing starts to get to me. I’m inclined to shout out ‘Lion!’ ‘Cheetah!’ ‘Mountain gorilla!’ ‘Killer whale!’ – anything to get the vehicle to stop for a while.

We do see a few things along the way, then reach the airstrip and watch a number of little planes arrive and take off until Evan and his Cessna arrive. We say goodbye to Shaka (‘you must come round to our place next time!’), fly to Maun Airport where we switch to a bigger Avro RJ85, and head for Johannesburg.

While we’re waiting for our connecting flight at Maun Airport, a TV news report says that Donald Trump has fired another of his White House staff, one Sebastian Gorka. None of us knew his name so assumed he’d only been appointed while we’d been away. With Trump, anything’s possible. 

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Day 23
Carol certainly knows how to pick a hotel. Johannesburg’s Monarch Hotel – nothing to do with the RIP airline – is perfect in every way. A building with history (it used to be the telephone exchange), a suite of large rooms with myriad lighting options to play with until I remember I’m on holiday, an amazing power shower that’s evidently modelled on a car wash, with hot water blasting from everywhere, and a bed big enough to exert its own gravitational pull. That explains why I couldn’t get out of it the next morning.

The hotel’s also handy for the local shopping mall. We go there to pick up tourist tat tasteful souvenirs and half a dozen bottles of great value South African wine. Then we realise we need to buy a new suitcase to carry it all home in, thereby offsetting most of the savings we’ve made on the wine. Oh well.

During our final dinner on the African continent we have one of those ‘what was the best part of the holiday FOR YOU?’ conversations. You know, the one where the answer ‘all of it, really’ isn’t allowed. Well, a standout impression for me is the friendliness of everyone we’ve met. Of course, most of the people we met are those whose very livelihoods are dependent on them not being hostile to tourists. But even so, they go way beyond the level of service you could reasonably expect in most European countries. And it’s also nice to visit countries in which Britain has had a colonial involvement and not get a sense of lingering resentment. On the whole, South Africa, Zambia and especially Botswana seem happy to embrace and even celebrate Britain’s part in their histories. Otherwise we’d have visited Mosi-oa-Tunya rather than Victoria Falls.

Our hotel was haunted by the ghosts of telephonists with their eerie nightly cry of ‘putting you throOOooOOOugh’

We bought loads of these cheerful masks to line the walls of the guest bedroom

These tiny handmade models included a charming childbirth mise en scéne

Day 24
We fly back to Blighty on a British Airways Airbus A380. My word, this is a seriously impressive aircraft. Did you know it’s twice as long as the distance of the Wright Brothers first flight? Yet it needs a shorter runway than a 747? I could bore you for hours about the A380. Maybe another time… (If you haven’t experienced it, here’s a good place to start.)

We take off bang on schedule and greet the dawn at LHR a tad earlier than advertised. We’d been forewarned by the Daily Mail about the ‘shambles’ at Terminal 5, with passengers having to queue for hours to get through immigration, but we fly through border control in under a minute. Baggage reclaim is another story, though, taking a full two minutes to pick up our bags – precious wine bottles mercifully intact – and whizz through customs. 

So that’s that. What a waste of bloody time. Kidding! It was utterly fantastic. All of it. Once again, massive thanks to my wife Carol – the definitive holiday-maker.

Cheers!

Cumulative distance travelled: 25,200 km (15,600 miles)
Number of flights: Nine (I’ll plant the trees later)
Number of 36-exposure rolls of film used (equivalent): 132
Keep/delete photograph ratio: 1:12
Positive views of Trump or Brexit encountered: 0
Mosquito bites: 0

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Africa 2017: Days 17 to 20

“What’s that noise?”
“Was I snoring? Sorry.”
“No. I think it was a lion.”
“A lion is snoring?”

It’s our first night camping in the Moremi Game Reserve, an area of about 5,000 sq kms in the Okavango Delta, northern Botswana. We arrived with our five fellow travellers and Shaka the driver to find the campsite already erected and the staff waiting with wide smiles and cold drinks. They are Alec, the amazing cook; KK, waiter, wine bringer and wearer of funky leather jacket; and Mor, mechanic, quartermaster and campsite muscle.

L-R: Shaka, Alec, me, KK, Mor

Our tent is a triumph of bijou bivouac minimalism. A robust zipped canvas flap leads into the deceptively spacious living and sleeping area, comprising of two beds and affording occupants the choice of standing, sitting or fully reclining after a busy day chasing game. The property also benefits from thoughtful touches such as collapsible bedside tables designed to support luggage, and often succeeding. During the day, the room is flooded with natural light through the two zipped apertures, whilst at dusk an LED lamp provides enough light for you to find your own torch. A rear flap gives way to a delightfully rustic bucket shower along with expertly-dug en-suite restroom facilities with attendant low-level bucket of ash for flushing.

We shower, eat a delicious dinner of beef fillet and ask each other how on earth Alec can concoct something so extraordinary using basically a fire pit. In fact we wonder this every night. We drink gorgeous South African wine then pick our way back to our tent. THAT’S NOT OUR TENT, CAROL! (They all look the same in the dark.)

It gets cold at night. Baggy t-shirt weather. We wake up numerous times wondering what the noises are. Mostly it’s just hippos – their grunts carry over long distances – but we also hear hyenas and lions and the sound of an elephant plodding past a matter of feet away.

The next six days are filled with morning and evening game drives, delectable meals and cakes, cold drinks while watching the sun set over the savannah, and plenty of laughs and chats around the campfire* beneath a clichéd but accurate ‘blanket’ of stars. We also have a change of campsite on the third day that involves an 11-hour road trip along bumpy tracks, giving us all the famed ‘African massage’. 

*Brexit. Everyone agreed that it’s a bad idea. Thinking back to conversations with people we’ve met since June 2016 in Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, France and Spain, I have never once heard anyone voice support for it. 

Oh, and we see wildlife. Lots of it.

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We are a happy bunch.

Made happier by the knowledge that we didn’t end up in a group like this.

We get sunsets like this. Every night.

See?

Along with mopane woodland and forests of dead acacia trees.


Never mind dead trees, I hear you thinking, where are all the shots of lions tearing apart a cape buffalo, or a pair of hippos engaged in a fight to the death? They’re too gruesome to show you, unfortunately. So instead, here are some super happy pachyderms enjoying a mud bath.

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Michael, the 6′ 2″ gay black Chicagoan gemologist, is great to have around. It sounds like I’m defining him solely by his height/sexual orientation/colour/nationality/occupation. But these things, combined with a sense of humour expressed in a confident but slightly camp way that wouldn’t be out of place in a classy America sitcom, make him unique. 

The most memorable wildlife experience of our stay in Botswana comes, not when we’re on one of Shaka’s 3-hour game drives, but when we’re in Mokoro canoes being slowly punted along a tributary of the Okavango Delta. It needs a page of its own.

Next time: An elephantastic finale.

Cumulative distance travelled: 15,100 km (these are guesses, by the way)
Shape of moon in southern hemisphere: a bright shiny smile
Number of times Michael’s wisecracks make me fumble a shot: Countless

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Africa 2017: Days 16 to 17

“Yes, there’ll be someone waiting for you on the other side.”

We’re at a place called Kazungula and about to cross the mighty Zambezi from Zambia into Botswana. If the boat takes a swerve to the right, we’d end up in Namibia. If we drift to the left, we’ll make landfall in Zimbabwe.  We’re at an aquatic crossroads in the middle of southern Africa.
But of course we land safely on Botswana soil, or rather sand, and wait for the guy who’s meant to take us to our next destination. He’s not here yet, so we watch the two little ferries ply back and forth across the river.

They can each carry just one truck at a time, and looking down the long straight road into Botswana, I see nothing but truck after truck. Ever seen those aerial pictures of lorries parked nosed to tail on the road into Dover during Operation Stack? It’s a bit like that, except that the trucks here can expect to wait up to a month before being able to cross the river. This has sparked a thriving local economy, with everything from sex to cigarettes being readily available for the bored truckers.

Fancy a stroll on deck, dear?

Meanwhile, our driver hasn’t shown up and the Zambian pilot of the little motorboat that brought us here is itching to get back to work.

“I must leave. Your driver will come soon.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. He will come.”
“You’re confident.”
“Thank you.”

No, I mean… In the end, we persuade him to stick around. This bustling frontier is like something out of a Graham Greene novel and we don’t feel entirely at ease. Two white travellers. Young. Attractive. Anything could happen. So he makes some phone calls and after about an hour, a car arrives and the driver takes us to the airport at Kasane and a part of the holiday I’ve really been looking forward to.

We’ve been in busier airports

OK, so it’s not true bucket-list stuff like swimming with dolphins, but the idea of flying in a small, single-engined plane has always appealed to me. A seaplane would be best. Maybe more than one engine. A Twin Otter or something, with a well-stocked bar and on-board masseur, flying around the Maldives. Hardly too much to ask. But until then I have to make do with a Cessna 208. We meet our pilot Evan who takes us through the safety procedures (“there’s a door here and another one there”) and off we take.

What a great name, but you’d be under pressure to make sure your landings were good

Flying at around 1,000 metres we can clearly see elephants and hippos drinking at watering holes, and at one point pass a fish eagle flying at the same altitude. We make a couple of stops at dusty landing strips – literally just strips of concrete and a windsock – before landing at Maun, the airport serving the game reserves of the Okavango Delta .

Here’s us flying over the countryside.

We have a night to kill before we start the next phase of our holiday – camping in the Moremi Game Reserve – and we spend it at a lodge called Royal Tree. Inevitably we find ourselves comparing it with the previous place we stayed in, and equally inevitably it falls short. Like when the evening meal arrives. I have the shepherd’s pie and veg. When Carol’s arrives it’s the same dish, despite her asking for the vegetarian option. So they take her plate away and return it shortly afterwards with the shepherd’s pie scraped off. 

At the long, refectory-style table, an Australian lady asks us “Where are you guys from?”
“UK,” I say.
“Ah, OK.”
“No, YOU-K!
The nearby Polish couple laugh and luckily, considering there’s about a dozen of them, so do the Aussies.

Day 17. A Sunday
After an epic 11-hour sleep we take the bumpy drive back to Maun airport and, small world isn’t it, meet up with Evan and his Cessna to do a short 25-minute hop to the brilliant-to-say-out-loud Xakayaxa airstrip.

No hippos on the runway? Good. Let’s bring this baby down

We climb aboard the Toyota Landcruiser (natch) of Letaka Safaris and set off on a four-hour drive to our first campsite. Our fellow adventurers are:

  • John and Bláthnaid (pronounced Lorna, somehow), a couple from Dublin. He’s with the Irish equivalent of the UK’s Health & Safety Executive. He says that thanks to the absence of red-top papers in Ireland, they don’t suffer the same levels of stupid ‘elf-n- safety-gone-mad’ ignorance there.
  • Diamaid (pron. Dermot), their twenty-something son. Works in financial risk analysis. God, those campfire stories.
  • Jane from New Hampshire out of West Virginia. Well-travelled. Once contracted Lyme disease. Described the effects. Hope to avoid that one.
  • Michael, 6′ 2″ gay black gemologist from Chicago. Very funny guy.
  • Shaka. Our guide and driver. What he doesn’t know about the bush is unlikely to be worth knowing.

Over the next six days we get to know each other quite well.

Cumulative distance travelled: 14,600km
Modes of transport: Motorboat, Cessna 208b Grand Caravan, Landcruiser (x3)
Limb I’m most happy to swap for a decent cup of coffee: Arm, right.

Next time: Not glamping. Repeat, NOT glamping

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Africa: Days 12 – 16 (continued)

We’re still in Zambia, enjoying every second of our stay in and around the beautiful Thorn Tree Lodge. Some stand-out moments: 

  • I drink the national beer – ‘Mosi’ – and wonder why nobody has made one called ‘Zambeer’
  • We buy some useless bowls from a persistent shop owner which will no doubt join the many other such bowls in our bowl cupboard at home
  • We see terrific art-deco style buildings in Livingstone and a statue of some explorer guy: Dr Livingstone, I presume

  • A sign on the cabin of a huge truck reads ‘IIO PASSENGERS’. I realise after a moment’s bafflement that the diagonal stroke had dropped off the N and that the sign is meant to read NO PASSENGERS 
  • We get to know a larger-than-life American (“Hi, I’m Jay Parks!”) who would later fly home to a Houston devastated by Hurricane Irma 
  • We chat with a Thorn Tree waitress and are massively impressed when she relates how she won a scholarship to study at a Moscow university, learned Russian then took and passed her degree subject in Russian. She tells us this in perfect English, of course
  • We’re escorted by armed guards to a place in the game reserve where we can stand *this* close to a rhinoceros and her calf. Afterwards a tip is suggested and I have no hesitation in handing over a few dollars to the large men holding their .457 rifles
  • We savour the most amazing, varied meals and enjoy post-prandial brandies by the warmth of a stunning, custom-made firepit
  • We go canoeing on the hippo-and-croc-infested Zambezi, especially risky given our historic inability to paddle in a straight line. “Keep close to the shore, away from the hippos!” warns our guide. But that’s where the crocodiles are! The man’s obviously an idiot
  • Some new guests arrive by helicopter, the noise of which scares the bejesus out of a family of elephants who stampede off into the bush, breaking branches and kicking up a dust storm. It’s the most dramatic piece of action we’ve seen since we landed in Africa and the ONE MOMENT I don’t have a camera on me
  • Carol takes a dip in the Devil’s Pool (pictures in previous post) but the prospect fills this acrophobic with testicle-tightening terror
  • We go on sunset cruises in a small powerboat, careering over rapids and getting soaked, then stopping to drink sundowners and watch the blood-red sun sink slowly behind the trees, the light changing every second
  • The second time we do this we encounter other vessels: multi-decked ships filled with tourists and presumably laid on by the bigger lodges and hotels. We realise how very, very lucky we are to be on our own with just Ezekiel, our captain and maker of superb G&Ts

Here’s Dennis to say hello. 

Our last 24 hours at Thorn Tree are a bit bizarre but in a good way. As I mentioned, the lodge has only just opened its doors to paying guests (or part-paying, in our case), so isn’t always at full capacity. But for our last day Carol and I are the only people staying here. After our evening river trip we come back to a lodge that has a full complement of staff, but only us to look after. Could be awkward. Isn’t.

Dennis serves us a special dinner of Zambian food which we eat on the lantern-lit jetty, the sounds of grunting hippos and a crackling fire punctuating the still night air. I’m pleased that Dennis then sits with us to talk of his family and life here in Zambia.

We don’t want the evening to end, tempting though the thought of our Olympic-sized bed is, so we sit by the warmth of the remarkable brazier and consume more brandy than we should. The manager joins us, as does the sweet Russian-speaking bartender and I don’t know what we talk about but I do remember being escorted back to our riverside suite by men with torches and not being eaten by anything along the way.

The next morning we have to head out. I left home and moved to London when I’d just turned 17 years of age, but I don’t remember being as sad then as I was saying goodbye to Zambia and the people at Thorn Tree Lodge. 

The manager, Carol, me and Dennis

Cumulative distance travelled: 14,200km
Modes of transport: Landcruiser, twin-engined powerboat, kayak
Weeks of the year we’d happily stay here: 52

Next time: Dodgy border crossing into Botswana

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Africa 2017: days 12 – 16

Dawn over Cape Town. The road to the airport takes us through low-rise suburbs displaying varying degrees of security.

Back at the city centre the walls are two metres high, topped with barbed wire or electric fencing with ‘ARMED RESPONSE’ signs plastered all over the place. Further out, things seem to calm down a bit. Most properties still have walls, fences and hedges, but nothing that would look out of place in Ruislip.

The townships are a different matter. They have rudimentary security at best, with good if depressing reasons for that. You can arrange to have guided tours in a township but we felt that would be a tad voyeuristic so took a swerve.

We do see them from the air, though. Vast areas of tightly-packed, tin-roofed shacks (along with some more substantial buildings) in which close to a million people scrape a living. South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, have massive levels of inequality. Apartheid might have ended officially but it still exists in economic terms – I don’t recall seeing a single poor white person.

Rapidly moving on…
So why are we in the air? We’re off to Zambia, via a quick change at Jo’Burg. We’re first to disembark from the 737 at Livingstone which is just as well, as it takes AGES to pay the bribe, I mean pay for the entry visa. We’re met by a nervous rep from Waterberry Lodge (the place we’d booked way back in May 2016). He’s at pains to reassure us that the lodge they’ve found for us as a replacement is even better. We’ll see.

Guess what?
An hour or so later we have to concede that he’s right. In spades. Thorn Tree Lodge is without doubt the most luxurious place we’ve ever stayed in. The lodge has only just opened so everyone’s trying their hardest to impress the few guests who’ve learned of its existence. But they could be sullen and unresponsive and we’d still be happy.

Why? The location for a start. Thorn Tree hugs the bank of the Zambesi, so most of the time there’s plenty to see and hear while you’re sipping your G&T. It’s within a game reserve, so occasionally baboons will wander through or above, swinging effortlessly from branch to branch. Once a young elephant stopped for a snack right outside our suite.

Which is immense, by the way. Opening the heavy curtains in the morning involves long walks along the length of the two huge picture windows, which themselves can be slid open to provide a seamless transition between bedroom and bush. The bed itself is about the size of a squash court. Carol normally pokes me in the back if I snore; here it’s easier to send a text.  There’s something miraculous about the pillows, too. You lay your head on them and somehow they’re already in the perfect position. THEY NEVER NEED REARRANGING. We have a fancy bath, showers indoors and out, a plunge pool (bloody freezing), a well-stocked bar (all booze is included), an outdoor sitting area that SEEMS to be croc and hippo proof, and beautiful burnished copper everywhere. 

And then there’s Dennis. When he introduces himself as our butler, I realise that we haven’t just been bumped from the equivalent of Economy to Business. Oh no. We’ve been catapulted over everything to descend featherlike into the rarified luxury of Ultra First 7-Star Plus Class. Remember the millionaire arms dealer played by Tom Hiddlestone in the Night Manager? This is the sort of place he’d stay in. (The only obviously rich guy here is the perpetually stern-faced CEO of a French car manufacturer. Can’t please everyone.)

The Thorn Tree’s bar

The view from our room

Our perishingly cold plunge pool

The jetty, from where we’d take river cruises

…or enjoy dinner à deux

Jumbo pays a visit. He’s not that big, actually. I could’ve taken him

A local hippo perfects his Andy Murray match-point look

A good snap. DYSWIDT?

I could easily stay in and around the lodge for the next four days but we have things to do. First up, Victoria Falls. The record this waterfall proudly boasts is World’s Largest Curtain Of Falling Water, but the claim should really be asterisked with *depending on season. In March and April it’s a 1.5 km-long wall of raging, cascading foam, but at this time of year it’s less impressive. Still jaw-droppingly impressive, but your jaw falls to about knee-height rather than hitting the ground.

So, I know what you’re wondering: people going over in barrels. Wrong waterfall. They’d die here. Everyone who goes over, dies. The remains of the people who go over the edge tend to fetch up in the same place, to be fished out by the authorities a few days later. 

 After the rainy season, that right hand canyon would be totally obscured by water.

The bridge that links Zambia to Zimbabwe. It’s perfectly safe, we were told, although only one truck is allowed to be on the bridge at any one time. People bungee jump from the centre. We didn’t.

Carol does something very silly and swims to the very edge of the Falls. An official is seen here trying to persuade her to return to safety.

But it’s no use. I point out her last known whereabouts.

That evening, even the sunset isn’t its usual self.

Cumulative distance travelled: 14,100km
Modes of transport: Boeing 737 (x2), Landcruiser
Refreshing dips in plunge pool: 0

Next time: More tales from Thorn Tree

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Africa 2017: Days 8 – 11

Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny

Time to pack up and leave Notten’s Bush Camp. We squeeze ourselves into a now very dusty Toyota, wave goodbye to the assembled staff and set off. It’s only 12 kms to our next stop, but we somehow contrive to take a wrong turn and drive for ages without recognising anything. Eventually we realise our mistake and head back by way of a fumbled three-point turn in the narrow, tree-bordered track.

Half an hour later we arrive at Skukuza Aerodrome and, removing all our stuff from the hire car, notice a scratch down the entire length of the body. Bugger. Must have been during that three-point turn. I use the sleeve of my sweatshirt to see if the mark is superficial, but of course it isn’t. All I’ve done is established that I’m aware of the mark and have attempted to remove it. So we fear the worst when the car rental guy goes to check the car over. After a few nail-biting minutes he returns. “Yup, all fine.”

“Are you sure?” I almost blurt out, “not even a nose-to-tail scratch down the nearside? Check again!”

Skukuza Aerodrome is the most beautiful, serene airport we’ve ever passed through. It caters mainly to the private-plane set, but we’re here to catch a scheduled SAA flight on an Embraer 145 to Cape Town. (I have to know what sort of plane I’m flying fly in. Embraers? Brazilian.)

All airports should be like this. Unless they handle more than 20 people an hour, obviously.

We check in to the Victoria & Alfred Hotel in Cape Town’s touristy Waterfront area and in the evening visit the Crypt, a local jazz club. A bunch of predominantly white, well-fed, middle-aged musicians parp and noodle their way through a collection of trad jazz favourites, much to the delight of Alton, the lone diner at the next table. He claps wildly after every solo, and as you know jazz is basically one solo after another, then looks around to check that other diners are clapping with the same degree of enthusiasm. “You won’t believe this, but these guys have never played together before!” he confides. My feigned amazement is exactly the same as if he’d said “this is their one-thousandth performance together!” To be honest, I prefer a more modern kind of jazz to the be-bop blow-fest churned out by these guys.

In fact, the highlight of the evening is during the interval when one of the waiters gets up on stage to ‘have a go.’ Accompanied by the pianist, he launches into a selection of operatic pieces in a rich and powerful tenor. The applause for this guy is loud and sustained. I sense Alton isn’t too happy about it.

Here’s someone else’s recording of his performance. 

Total distance covered: 11,445 km
Modes of transport: An Uber or two
Hours exposure to jazz: 3

Day 9

I normally turn my nose up at those hop-on, hop-off open-top tourist buses found in every big city, but the one we take around Cape Town features a commentary that’s grown-up, informative and balanced.

It’s drizzling, though. That’s a problem. So we hop off on numerous occasions, first at the Simon’s Town marina – busy, fishy, no sign of Simon – then at the foot of the famous Table Mountain.

Do we take the cable car up to the summit? I’m not asking you. I’m recounting the question we ask ourselves. We hesitate because the top third of the mountain is obscured by a blanket of cloud. The tablecloth, they call it. It’s a regular feature. In the spirit of now-or-neverness, we buy a couple of tickets and go for it.

The interior of the cable car revolves as it ascends, affording us a 360-degree view of the thick cloud we soon find ourselves enveloped in. The summit is 1,085 metres ASL and it’s surprisingly chilly up here. We wander about, grab a few photos when there are breaks in the cloud, check out the frankly disappointing restaurant, wander about a bit more, then take the cable car back to sunshine and warmth.

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That night we head for Kloof Street House, an enormous Victorian mansion whose many rooms and alcoves are packed with enough books, curios and bric-a-brac to persuade the owners that a minimalist look might be the way forward when the time comes to redecorate.

We are greeted at the door by a tall woman with dramatic hair who straight away introduces us to another woman who shows us to our table. “Someone will be along soon,” she says, disappearing into the crowd. We wait for a moment and Taylor bounces into view, a young man with impossibly white teeth. He announces that he’ll be looking after us tonight. We say hello, he hands over the menus and is gone. We start to study the menu but within a minute another guy rocks up. He wears a fetching Specials-style hat and plonks down a bottle of water and two glasses. We never see him again so I assume he’s the bottled-water waiter. Sensing a moment to ourselves, I risk opening the menu only for a fifth person to appear tableside and ask if everything is OK, like they do when you’re halfway through your meal. Well, yes, although so far we’ve only had a chance to adjust to the lighting and do a bit of meet and greet. It’s still too early to deliver a verdict on the bottled water. When’s dawn around here?

So Kloof Street House is a bit like that. Bulging with staff. Wines well into three figures. Lots of American accents and smart clothes. Shouty people with important jobs. I actually overhear a man on a nearby table say to a fellow diner “I understand you’ve bought a mine.” But the food. Oh boy. Although not many non-meat options.

Day 10

So here’s something you must do if you visit Cape Town – go on the Franschhoek Wine Tram hop-on hop-off tour.

Imagine one of those city centre hop-on, hop-off open-top bus tours that I’ve just mentioned. It’s a bit like that, except that you’re not in a city or on an open-top bus; the commentary is only ever about wine and vineyards, you get progressively drunker during the day, and the hop-on, hop-off element eventually becomes clamber on and fall off. So maybe it’s more like a pub crawl, but with beautiful wine, and dinky little trams, an excellent meal, brilliant views and no pubs.

OK, there’s nothing like it. It’s uniquely fantastic and we had an amazing time. Their website has better photos than mine but I’m going to share them anyway.

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Day 11. (We’re at mid-August by this point)

Bit of a bolloxed-up breakfast at the hotel this morning. I sit there watching my eggs get cold as I wait for the toast to arrive, then glance at the wall to see a huge, black and white photo of a poor African child. I check my privileges and tuck into the eggs.

Today we’ve booked a driver to take us on a road trip around the Cape. I suppose theoretically we could have done it all by public transport but chances are we’d still be there. Besides, Greg, our driver, provides loads of useful information along the way. He talks about his life in South Africa, and isn’t the first black or coloured person we meet who reckons that life was better under the apartheid regime. How so? There was much less crime then, apparently.

Our 110km round trip took in the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, the penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town (again) and other places of natural beauty or historical interest.

I learn that while a group of penguins on the sea is called a raft, if you see them waddling around on land they’re called a ‘waddle’. This makes me unaccountably happy, as does watching them walk downhill on soft sand. They’re endangered, though. The four million African penguins estimated to be around in 1900 was down to 200,000 by 2000. At this rate of decline they’ve got about 15 years left. 

We eat at a place where there aren’t enough non-meat options, then back at the hotel we get some bad news. The lodge in Zambia we’re heading to tomorrow? The room’s double-booked. The other people take precedence. Nothing can be done. The promise of ‘a better alternative’ doesn’t cut much mustard. We’d chosen and booked the Waterberry Lodge 15 months ago, but now we’re being shunted off somewhere else. It had better be good. 

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Cumulative distance covered: 11,785 km
Modes of transport: Embraer 145, taxis, tram, tram-bus, cable car.
Meat to non-meat ratio on menus: 6:1

Next time: We learn the meaning of ‘upgrade’

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Africa 2017: Days 1 – 7

We’re at LHR Terminal 5, about to enter the maze of endless left-right-left-right queue barriers that will eventually lead to the check-in. Pushing the trolley, I execute what I feel is a perfect 180-degree turn. An airport official smiles and says ‘nice turn!’, and I know that this is going to be a good holiday.

carol A380

And we’re off

It starts as we board the Club World section (thanks, Avios!) of the lower deck of a British Airways A380. We play with all the buttons and drink all the drinks, watch movies in instalments between dinner courses, then eventually sleep and wake up 11 hours later in a cool but sunny Johannesburg.

They drive on the left in South Africa, which at least makes that part of our exit from the airport less problematic. After picking up our Toyota we go round in a few circles and at one point find ourselves heading back into the long-stay car park. But soon enough we’re on a motorway heading north-east in the general direction of Kruger National Park.

Every other vehicle seems to be an enormous, hopper-style coal transporter. Mining is big in South Africa, as is hitchhiking, going by the number of outstretched arms we pass. We heed the advice of every single guide book and drive on.

Four hours later we stop for coffee at a service station. It’s not until we visit the restrooms that we notice the place backs on to an enormous fenced-in paddock in which graze zebra, eland, buffalo and even a rhinoceros. You don’t get that at Scratchwood, where all the wild animals are generally found inside etc etc.

During the early afternoon we arrive at our first African lodgings in a place called Hazyview, a town whose name has surely been lifted from a children’s TV programme. The welcome book of the Rissington Inn is written in a, shall we say, idiosyncratic style. Referring to the pets who live on the premises, it says ‘If you are Korean, please do not eat the dogs.’ Hmm. Elsewhere it points out that hippos are occasionally seen in the grounds of the hotel. ‘Do not approach,’ it warns unnecessarily. We’re super tired and go to bed at about 8.30pm, sleeping right through to 8.00am the next morning.

Total distance covered: 9,475 km
Modes of transport: Airbus A380, Toyota Corolla
Dangerous encounters with wild predators: 0

rissington, hazyview

Our Rissington room. Not too shabby

Day 3

We chose the Rissington Inn for its proximity to the Panorama Route, a scenic, attraction-packed drive around one side of Kruger National Park.

It takes in natural splendours such as God’s Window. They say that on a clear day you can see a lot further than you can when it’s hazy, like it is today. Hence Hazyview, I guess. But it’s still pretty amazing. Then there’s the Pinnacle (immense pillar of rock jutting upwards from the gorge), Bourke’s Luck Potholes (giant, swirling-water-formed holes in beautifully coloured rock, named after a Tom Bourke who mistook the colouring for gold), the Three Rondawels (three pointy mountains) and the Blyde River Canyon (second largest in Africa and a view that’s almost too much to take in).

Almost as impressive is the road itself. Big, sweeping curves, forests of conifers stretching for miles on either side of the road and blue hills shimmering in the far distance. Aside from alarming but well-signposted trenches in the road surface, it’s the perfect – all right then, the only – way to explore the countryside. People drive considerately, too, pulling over whenever another vehicle approaches from behind. Which isn’t very often – other cars were a bit of a rarity on our 180km round trip. And for the benefit of those who’ve heard horror stories about driving in South Africa, I can confirm that we weren’t robbed at gunpoint once.

Total distance covered: 9,655km

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Days 4 – 7

We bid au revoir to Rissington Inn and say ‘adieu’ to Hazyview, actually doing neither of those things, and drive towards our next stop, a lodge within Kruger National Park.

Did I mention we’re in a Toyota Corolla? It’s the world’s most popular car with more than 40 million sold worldwide. It’s compact, comfortable and completely unsuitable to the journey we’re undertaking. Why the hell didn’t we hire a proper off-roader? Instead, we crawl along in first or second gear, tyres occasionally spinning or the whole car sliding about on the soft sand. When we pass a sturdy 4 x 4 going in the opposite direction, its occupants look down on us with a mixture of pity and amusement. There’s about twenty kilometres of this until we reach Nottens Bush Camp where we’re greeted by a smiling lady with a clipboard.

“Mills, you say?” We nod and say yes.

She looks down. “I have no record of a Mills here.”

“But we booked MONTHS ago!”

 “Of course!” she says, and bursts into laughter. “I was only joking with you! Ha ha!”

We have to join in. It’s impossible not to. Can you imagine the girl on reception pulling a trick like that at a Hhhilton Hhhonors? No. It’s our first taste of the sense of fun that we’ll encounter everywhere over the next three weeks.

Notten’s Bush Camp is totally gorgeous. The bar and restaurant are on a huge veranda overlooking a watering hole, and in the few minutes it takes us to exchange greetings and down a welcoming drink, we see impala, warthogs, kudu and more. We’re shown to our room, a vast suite with a choice of indoor or outdoor showers. (It’s outdoors for us from now on.) You can recharge phones and cameras but there’s no electric lighting. Any minor inconvenience of having to use head-torches is easily, er, outshone by the effect the candles and oil lamps have on the lodge at night time, easily sending its gorgeous quotient into the stratosphere.

Our bush camp from the watering hole

Desperate to buy some of these Deitz lanterns for our garden

So magical at night. Let’s not mention the carbon footprint

Our room for the next four nights

Hunt, eat, read, eat, hunt, drink, eat, sleep and repeat.
The next few days fall into a pattern. A quick coffee is followed by the early-morning game drive with our driver Thulani and his tracker, Kenneth. Back to the lodge for breakfast, reading or mooching around until lunch, perhaps a snooze in the afternoon before yet more food in the form of high tea (which turns out to be more like a hot supper than the tea and cake I was hoping for) followed by the afternoon game drive at about 3.30, stopping for sundowners at dusk before returning to the lodge at around 6.45pm. Then – guess what? – a hearty, meat-heavy dinner enjoyed under the glow of paraffin lanterns and log fires, comparing safari notes with other adventurers from around the world.

Here’s a few highlights and observations from our stay at Nottens.

The beast of the bush
The vehicle of choice for most safari operators these days is the Toyota Landcruiser. British manufacturer Land Rover has virtually given up on the market and to be honest it’s difficult to see how the classic Defender could compete with this beast of a car, even it was still in production and was brought up to date. The Landcruiser is built like a tank and sometimes acts like one, as Thulani goes off road in pursuit of lion, leopard or wild dog. The three-tonne monster effortlessly pushes trees under its chassis (most spring up again as we pass over) and maintains a firm grip in the softest sand. It’s exciting even if we don’t always catch up with our prey.

They don’t have windshields or roofs but do boast a well-stocked fridge. Sometimes a rifle rack, too. I’d love to drive one down St Martin’s Lane.

We see a Black Something Lapwing
On our first drive, Thulani stops and points out a small bird. “White helmeted shrike,” he says. I write the name down in my book. I have no idea why I do this. The moment I get home I’ll have zero interest in the names of the many birds we see. I’m just not a birdy person. But once I start, I feel obliged to carry on. If I were to stop our driver will think I no longer appreciate the information he’s giving us. So I continue getting the book out and jotting down the names of the birds, even though Thulani’s accent and my hearing sometimes make my record partial at best. ‘Shelley something’, I write. ‘Black something lapwing’, reads another entry. At one point I write ‘writing something’. Yes, I feel bad about this. My biggest dread is someone else in our group leaning over and asking “what did he say it was?”

We see no egrets. No tears goodbye. I don’t want you back. We’d only cry again.

Spotting the unspottable
We are on the early evening game drive. The light is fading fast. Kenneth, our tracker, waves a hand-held spotlight from side to side. We follow the beam, seeing nearby trees, further away trees and occasionally the eyes of startled impalas*. But one time he sees something different and signals the driver to stop.

“Ah,” says Thulani, “a chameleon!”

We peer at the part of the tree illuminated by the spotlight. All we see is tree.

“There,” he points. “See?” We don’t. Is this the set-up for some sort of chameleon joke? He gets out of the vehicle and pulls a branch away. “See it now?”

No, dammit! He sighs, grabs another branch, snaps it off and holds it towards us. “Now. See it?”

At last we do. The one green thing on the branch that isn’t a green leaf is indeed a chameleon. It’s placed on my hand and I feel its tiny claws dig in. I have a sense of wonder. Not that I’m holding a chameleon, but that Kenneth managed to spot a small, motionless lizard, at night, in a vehicle bouncing along at 15km/h, with just one sweep of a battery-powered tungsten spotlight; moreover, a creature well known for its ability to match the colour of its surroundings. These guys are amazing.

We know a song about this, don’t we?

*They’re probably not that startled. I just liked the phrase. I suspect an impala has an extremely limited repertoire of facial expressions. His ‘startled’ look is probably indistinguishable from his ‘terrified’ look, which is just the same as his ‘boy-this-grass-is-tasty’ look. I don’t suppose even seasoned bushmen can glean anything about an impala’s state of mind just by staring at its face. 

Camera-shy leopard
Notten’s Bush Camp isn’t fully booked right now, so on a number of game drives, Carol and I are the only passengers on the Landcruiser. This makes the experience all the more special and personal, and gives Thulani the opportunity to have a bit of fun.

Like when our tracker spots the paw prints of a leopard. We slowly follow them until we find their owner, a young adult who adopts a variety of positions but rarely one in which he’s facing us. I take a few instantly-deletable shots of the back of its head. 

“Know why he has his back to you?” asks Thulani.

“Is it because he’s more comfortable that way?”

“No,” says our Canon-wielding driver, “it’s because you use a Nikon.”

The leopard almost turns to look at us

A leopard deprived of its kill
We were a bit late to the party. A leopard had killed an impala, but the leopard was too young and weak to drag its kill up a tree as they normally do. So he tucked in there and then. With no time to lose, the leopard went for the tastiest part first, which is evidently the impala’s stomach. This released a foul stench – who’d have thought? – that was picked up by a nearby hyena.

Uh-ho, as the Disney voiceover would say, here comes trouble! The hyena is bigger and fiercer than the leopard, and quickly deprives it of its kill. This is when we rock up, to find one not-so-big cat sitting forlornly in some undergrowth while, a few metres away, a striped hyena is tucking into its ill-gotten gains. But wait! Here comes another hyena! Will this bring about a change of fortune for our luckless leopard? No. The second hyena is bigger still, and chases off both the leopard and the first hyena. I tell you, it’s a jungle out there.

Some random leopard shots that don’t support the above narrative one iota:

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I alone save all our lives. Me.
If you’ve ever been on an African safari you’ll know how competitive it can get. The desperate need to be the first to spot something can make that blackened tree stump convince you that it’s actually a lion crouching in the shade. “Lion!” you shout. The car brakes. “Hang on. It’s a tree. But for a moment…” Then you think you see a baby elephant. “Elephants! Oh…no, it’s just a termite mound.”

But this one time I called it right. And there was no doubt about it. We’d been watching a large rhinoceros as it first took a mighty dump and then started kicking its poo around. The hell? Thulani explained that the dominant male rhino would do this to leave his scent everywhere. We observed this bizarre spectacle for a while and when the rhino had finished and walked off, we drove a little way in the opposite direction to watch some baboons. Ah, baboons. Look at the little young ones playing! Cop a load of those big red arses! That amazing prehensile tail!

I don’t know why, but I glance back for a moment. And see the rhinoceros running at full pelt towards us. I yell “rhino!”, Thulani fires up the engine and off we bounce. The animal sees us taking flight and eases off. The Landcruiser weighs three tonnes, like I said, but with its horn positioned in the right place an adult rhino could easily topple it over.

So I potentially saved us all from certain death. Yes.

Phew. He’s stopped chasing us. I’ve stopped shaking.

Total distance covered: 9,816 km
Modes of transport: Toyota Landcruiser
Dangerous encounters with wild animals: 1

A few more shots from the Kruger:

Next week: Cape Town and the coast.

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Photofucket

When I started this blog in 2011 I had no idea that one day all the photographs on it would suddenly disappear.

But that’s exactly what happened after the site that hosts my shots, Photobucket, arbitrarily decided that it would no longer allow 3rd party photo hosting free of charge. That’s fair enough, you might think. Nothing’s free these days; there’s always some sort of trade off. And with Photobucket, there was. Users had to sit through adverts while their photos uploaded. (Using an adblocker slowed the whole process down, and in any case I can hardly object to adverts in my line of work).

But Photobucket clearly wasn’t satisfied with the revenue they accrued from ads. They wanted more. A lot more. And they could have got it, too, if they had emailed their users and explained that they were introducing an annual fee of, say, $25 or even $50. I’d have paid that; so would many others. But if the people at Photobucket did any business modelling to predict the likely income resulting from various subscription levels, they clearly didn’t follow it. Instead they just thought of a huge number – $400 – and decided they were going to charge everyone that.

Even worse, there was no prior announcement. Owners of sites and blogs simply woke up one morning in July to find that all their photos had disappeared and been replaced by this:Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.01.22

A visit to the link revealed that, unless I paid $400, I’d never see my photos again. Well, I could, but no one visiting this blog (or the ones here or here) would be able to. That’s a basically a ransom demand. Is it illegal? Probably not. Does it make good business sense? God, no. But it does mean I’m going to have to download all the 500+ photos I’ve uploaded to Photobucket over the years. I’m learning that this takes ages.

Then the real work begins

If I want to repopulate 10 years’ worth of blog posts, I’ll then have to:

  • Find a new 3rd party photo hosting website that’s either free or which doesn’t charge silly money. That’s NOT silly money
  • Reload all my photos to this new site, one blog post at a time
  • Match each shot to the position in the post in which it appeared
  • Copy and paste the link
  • Remove the ‘ransom demand’ notice
  • Wish I’d made a note of the original caption before removing the ransom demand notice
  • Repeat 500 times

Any suggestions as to how I can shorten this process will be received with bags of gratitude.

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Indochina 2016 – Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City

Days 21 – 24

This is the end, beautiful friend.

Oh yes. But first, two things to clear up. Why is it called ‘Indochina’? It’s not India and it’s not China. Why not call it South-East Asia? We can safely blame the French. When they colonised Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, they noticed the cultural influences India and China had on the region and dubbed it Indochine. The name has outlasted their presence.

Second, should we call the city we’ve just landed in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon? We ask our taxi driver on the way from the airport. ‘We say Saigon,’ he says. But this has nothing to do with a fondness for the days before unification. ‘Saigon is quicker,’ he says. When he finds out that we’ve been to Hanoi, he says how crazy the traffic is there. ‘All drivers on horn, all the time! Beep beep! Crazy!’ He shakes his head at the craziness of it. We listen to the beeping, honking traffic outside and think, well, maybe he can discern a difference but they each seem equally cacophonous to our untrained ears.

We check in to the Cinnamon Hotel, a cozy, boutiquey sort of place in the middle of Ho Chi Saigon. A TripAdvisor reviewer says he would ‘defiantly stay here again’, suggesting that almost everything went wrong but he’s quite prepared to come again and stoically brazen it out. In reality, of course, it’s a very sweet and friendly place.

We have a little balcony from which we can marvel at the city’s seemingly chaotic cabling.

Get out of the way! I’m trying to get a close up of those wires

In addition to air conditioning, our room has a ceiling fan that reminds me of a certain film whose opening scene is set in Saigon:

We’re only here for a couple of days so we don’t hang about. We consult our map and head straight for Saigon’s Presidential Palace. The building and its bombed-out predecessor saw a great many presidents and ministers come and go, their departure sometimes enforced by means of assassination. The final occupant, General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, swore in his latest set of deputies on 30 April 1975 just a matter of days before a North Vietnamese T-54 tank crashed through the gates of the palace and effectively brought an immediate end to their careers in government, and to the Vietnam War itself.

Pic courtesy Life magazine

And here’s the tank today! Except that it isn’t. A plaque nearby lamely states that it’s similar to the one that crashed through the gates. I’ll just have to pretend.

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The interior is like a time capsule, with most of the publicly-accessible rooms preserved as they were found back in 1975. Presidential desks have dial-operated phones but no computers, all the televisions are big, polished-wood cubes and huge wall maps in the war room (‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’) show the South Vietnamese army’s lamentable situation.

We leave the palace and head towards a couple of other Saigon landmarks, the Roman Catholic cathedral (closed when we visit) and the Gustave Eiffel-designed central post office.

Everything used to build the cathedral was imported from France

The post office

He loved steel, that M Eiffel. We associate him solely with the famous tower in Paris but he was responsible for much more than that. We came across another of his intricate constructions during a visit to Jerez in Spain:

P1010090

In the evening we go on a pre-arranged foodie tour of Saigon that turns out to be one of the highlights of the entire holiday. We zoom from eatery to eatery on Vespas driven by cheerful English-speaking local girls. We get totally immersed in the seething traffic and see parts of the capital that are ignored by most guide books. Every stop involves trying something new, ranging from scallops with peanuts and onion, to frogs cooked on a table-top barbecue (they somehow taste more like chicken than actual chicken), and even to baby duck embryo (no, I didn’t – there are limits), all accompanied by Saigon beer.

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As night falls and the beers take hold, the drives through Saigon become more fun and exhilarating. There are actually more scooters in Saigon than there are people to ride them and it feels as if they’re all out tonight. Our drivers expertly thread their way through the dense traffic while we soak up the sights, sounds and smells – and not a little pollution – of this frantic, friendly city. I don’t think I have felt as alive for a very long time. 

Our last day
The next morning brings us back down to earth with a sobering trip around the War Remnants Museum. This tells the story of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese’ perspective, from those far-off days in the 1950s when they were slugging it out with the French, to the ongoing effects of dealing with the horrific legacy of Agent Orange

It’s not for the squeamish or for those who find its version of events at odds with their own beliefs about the war, its conduct and aims. (I overheard a middle-aged American mansplaining to his wife that the Americans left in 1975 because ‘they’d achieved their objectives’.) 

The museum is laid out on three floors and most of the rooms lack air conditioning. On a day when the temperature must have hit 38 or 39 we found ourselves drawn to those exhibits that happened to be located near electric fans, spending as long as possible reading about things like rice production in 1968.

A Chinook. Also on display in the grounds are a Huey, an F5 fighter and various tanks and howitzers

I can tell a Russian T-54 when I see one but I have no idea what this American tank is. An M1? An Abrahms?

Yes, it’s fairly one-sided, but we came away wondering why the US has never been prosecuted for war crimes. What they did to the Vietnamese was shocking and inhuman and ultimately futile.

In the evening we visit Vietnam’s tallest building and enjoy cocktails as the sun goes down over the city, move on to a bar atop the less elevated but infinitely more stylish Majestic hotel, then eat something nice, somewhere or other. It’s all a bit of a blur on our last night.

Negotiating our way back to the hotel. When there’s no room on the road they simply drive on what passes for the pavement. Carol does her best to avoid being mown down

And that’s that. We fly back the next day, first to Bangkok with its fascinating glass ceiling, then on to London Heathrow.

On our holiday we travelled some 14,500 miles on seven planes, four boats, one rickshaw, two kayaks, numerous cars, taxis and tuk-tuks and, most memorably, on the back of a pair of scooters. We stayed in some fabulous but ridiculously cheap hotels and were welcomed, served and shown around by some of the most helpful and friendliest people on the planet, both in Vietnam and in Cambodia. It truly was this year’s holiday of a lifetime, and I have one person to thank for making it all happen: the one-woman branch of Trailfinders that is Carol Mills. Where next, Carol?

 

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Indochina 2016 – Going Green In Hội An

Days 15-20

We’re two weeks into our Indochina adventure. Two weeks of traipsing from hotel to hotel. Two solid weeks of being flown, taxied, tuk-tukked, guided, assisted, welcomed, massaged, treated and entertained. It’s unrelenting. Some sort of change is needed, and it comes in the form of the Palm Garden Resort at Hội An.

We still get the welcome, the catering, the friendly service and all that. But because we’re staying here for six whole nights, we’ve temporarily put a stop to the traipsing-from-hotel-to-hotel bit. We have a base! We can unpack! Hang things up! *sniffs* Get laundry done!

It’s a large resort – not that I have anything to compare it with – with a choice of bars and restaurants. The main dining room is a cavernous, brightly lit hangar that’s so big it’s possible to stand at one end and detect the curvature of the Earth. We give that one a miss. In fact we’re not exactly regulars at the others, either, once we discover how much cheaper it is to eat off-complex, so to speak, in one of the restaurants that have sprung up across the street. Enterprising lot, the Vietnamese.

We’d let slip that it was our wedding anniversary and found our bed adorned thusly. No towels folded to look like swans, though. Amateurs

The next five days become more like a regular beach holiday but with less sunshine (we’re here at the start of the rainy season). We spend the time eating, reading, exploring, running up the bar bill, swimming in the pool, swimming in the sea while keeping an eye out for jellyfish – if we see people standing in the shallows and pointing downwards, we don’t venture in – and visiting Hội An itself, a five minute cab ride away.

I try my hand at jet-skiing and appear to lose one leg of my swim shorts in the process

Awaiting lunch. Or possibly dinner. Certainly not breakfast

A local struggling with his selfie stick

My beautiful wife on our beautiful beach

40 years on and they still haven’t lost their enthusiasm for tunnelling

Hội An is worth seeing, especially the Old Town. (Has anyone ever recommended visiting a city’s New Town? ‘You’re going to Lima? You simply must visit the Modern Quarter!’)

It’s Full Moon Eve on our first visit, not an official holiday but a good enough excuse for the town to go into partial party mode. This is on the riverfront when the night is still but a puppy:


Full Moon itself really does bring out the crowds. The town goes lantern and candle crazy, with locals pestering you to buy a candle in a little box, then lower it into the river while making a wish. We join in, because we’re tourists, but we wonder just how environmentally friendly the practice is. Wait, that should have been my wish! ‘I wish I knew how much damage this is doing.’

How can we resist? ‘We’ll have two, please’

Wait! Won’t anyone think of the fishes?! #waxdiet

Got any plain white ones, mate?

I’m guessing the one on the left reads ‘All kinds of laundering’

Most evenings we have a nightcap in the resort’s nightspot, the Contino Club. Service is very fast on account of the fact that we are generally the only people in the bar. There’s a resident house band who play a medley of what would normally be described as crowd-pleasing songs if only there was a crowd here to appreciate them. The stage is set up for three musicians but only the singer and the guitarist ever turn up, not the percussionist. So, perhaps after one nightcap too many, I ask to make the duo a trio. They say yes and suddenly it’s all ‘Killing Me Softly’ with a luscious bongo accompaniment being played out to an audience that’s now 50% smaller.

Flam strokes, paradiddles, accented triplets…these are just a few of the percussion terms I’ve heard of

Carol shot some video footage but there’s no way I’m sharing that.

Almost there
I mentioned that our visit took place during the start of Vietnam’s rainy season. There isn’t a lot of rain but the sky is frequently overcast, which perhaps helps to keep the temperature up in the high thirties. So we have regular dips in the pool. It never quite gets this empty but it’s generally free of people screaming, throwing each other about or suddenly landing by the side of the pool from the direction of a 10th floor balcony.

One evening I notice for the first time the trendy green highlights in Carol’s hair. When did she have this done? How come she hasn’t mentioned it? Should I have said something? Turns out this bold new venture is news to Carol, too. She’s aghast. In fact she’s as aghast as ever I’ve seen her.

Carol’s green locks. Out of frame: her look of overall aghastness

A panicky search on the internet tells her that the hotel’s swimming pool is to blame. Specifically, the amount of copper that’s added during the cleaning process. The copper in the water is oxidised by chlorine, which then binds to the proteins in the hair strands and produce a green tint. Ordinary shampoo won’t get it out. A little more rummaging reveals the unlikely remedy: tomato ketchup. Lots of it, lathered into every follicle. So that’s what we do.

I’ve no pictures of that. Sorry.

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