South Africa

Roadtrip: Capetown (South Africa) to Walvis Bay (Namibia)

Around the end of July, we did a roadtrip from Capetown in South Africa to Walvis bay in Namibia.

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Girls ready for the roadtrip

La Baleine, Paternoster, July 28th-29th

After a brief stopover in Capetown we drove for around 2 and a half hours to Paternoster, an old fishing village on the east coast of South Africa. Fishing used to be the main industry, but since then it has become a tourist attraction, particularly the white-washed buildings.  Paternoster also has a number of excellent restaurants there. We took advantage of this.

There weren’t many tourists, since Paternoster typically experiences heavy rain throughout the winter (your summer). However, the recent drought in the region meant we were treated to blue skies and unseasonally warm weather.

We had booked two self-catering houses for two nights.  The houses were situated on the beach with views across the peninsula. The highlights were probably eating fish and chips on the beach and a trip to the Wolfgat restaurant, which served excellent food in an unassuming eatery. It was very intimate. There were just 4 of us there.

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View across Paternoster

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The Wolfgat

 

Yellow Aloe, Clanwilliam, July 30th

After reluctantly leaving Paternoster, we drove for 3 hours inland, north east to Clanwilliam. To stay at the longhouse, an old self-catering house with a thatched roof. Except we hadn’t. The website had booked us into the underwhelming B+B next door, owned by the same company.

Clanwilliam is a thoroughly unremarkable town. Our hope had been to see the early spring flowers, but the ongoing drought put paid to that. So, we decided to stretch our legs and ended up witnessing one of the strangest sights i have seen — an army of young people with mattresses on their backs. There must have been a few hundred of them.

While I was struggling to get my head out of the gutter, the in-laws were pondering the death of humanity. Where was their morality? Was nothing off limits? Cath had to explain to us they were going bouldering– people climb boulders and use their mattress to break their fall if they slip. To be honest, I didn’t get it. Why would people from Europe want to spend a small fortune to take an overnight flight and drive for 4 hours just to climb boulders in this tiny place?

 

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Springbok, July 31st – August 1st

It took 3 and a half hours drive to head north from Clanwilliam to Springbok, the last major frontier town before hitting the Nambia border. By this point, the landscape had become semi arid. We managed to secure a house for 2 nights.

The following day, after securing tyre sealant and various paraphernalia for the car — in anticipation of Nambia — we took a walk in the Goegap nature reserve, which turned out to be stunning if a little bleak.

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Ais Ais spa (Namibia), August 2nd

The trip to Ais Ais spa took around 5 hours, with around an hour and a half stuck at the land border between South Africa and Namibia. There was a good section of tarmac road after border control (B1) until we had to turn off and take the last 70 km to Ais Ais on a gravel road (C10).

Gravel roads in Namibia have a reputation. Roads are not frequently maintained and can get into a terrible state. To counter this you are supposed to keep car speed to around 60 km/h, but when the going is good you can drive much faster. People can get lulled into a false sense of security, increase speed and end up spinning off when they hit a bad section of road. Most drive Toyota Hilluxes to cope. Unfortunately, we had the absolute minimum 4X4 requirements. Which meant limited clearance, power and far from adequate tyres. The only thing we could do was to reduce the pressure in our tyres to increase traction.

Unfortunately, gravel roads in Namibia are the norm, given the distances involved, the incredibly sparse population (only 2.5 million) and the cost to upkeep roads. As it turned out, the C10 was a horrible road. Towards the end, the road became heavily corrugated and churned up. If we weren’t getting thrown around by the corrugated stretches it was navigating around sharp bends on a sea of gravel.  But we made Ais Ais without incident.

The resort itself is a hot springs in the middle of a desert. An oasis surrounded by palm trees, set against a backdrop of mountains. It is prime real estate. Normally, this would have been snapped up by a luxury hotel chain. Instead, it’s run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR). Basically, the Government.

Upon arrival at reception we were told that recent renovations were still largely incomplete and our paid booking could not be honoured. We would need to be relocated to a villa, which hadn’t been cleaned. After a pleasant soak in the hot springs pool we discovered the resort had a water leak and there was no water. Dinner proved to be the final straw– several lumps of incinerated meat. Nevertheless, i took immense satisfaction at the group’s incredibly naive efforts to secure some wine, pointless. I ordered a beer.

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The C10 to Ais Ais.

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Ais Ais at daybreak.

Canyon lodge, Fish river Canyon, August 3rd -5th

The drive from Ais Ais to Canyon lodge took an hour and half. Back along the C10 and then up the D324 for around 60 kms. I had been looking forward to staying at Canyon lodge. The lodge is part of the Gondwana collection. It used to be a huge farm, spanning hundreds of kilometres.

Accommodation consisted of individual thatched huts, looking out across the plains. Most were actually built into the boulders. We stayed there for 3 nights. Enjoying the sheer beauty of the place, particularly at sunset. Going for walks in the mountains. There were also plenty of wildlife with Kudu, Springbok, Zebra, and Eelands, which ventured on the grounds at night. Unfortunately, my father-in-law did not enjoy much of it. Julie was flying into Upington airport (South Africa) to join us, so Michael was required to drive to pick her up.

Since we were there we took a quick trip from the lodge to look at the Fish River Canyon, although the road was so bad that our car barely made it. It’s supposed to be the largest canyon after the Grand Canyon and is definitely worth a look. The 5-day walk through the canyon is considered one of the greatest walks in South Africa, but it’s incredibly demanding. Henry’s kind of walk.

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Fish River Canyon

Namib Naukluft lodge (Namib Naukluft national park), August 6th

Booking Namib Naukluft lodge was sheer luck. By January, all accomodation in Sossusvlei had been booked up. Even the campsites. Until a couple of months ago we had only had a night booked for Sossusvlei and the dunes. Fortunately, there was a cancellation at Namib Naukluft lodge and we managed to secure 3 rooms.

On the other hand, this meant we had to take a horrific 11-hour drive from Canyon lodge to reach Namib Naukluft lodge before dark. To complicate matters, daylight hours were at a premium, with it being winter in Namibia. Driving on gravel roads in the dark is not an option.

Although tight, Cath and I had worked out the route and spent a while discussing it with everyone the day before. Take off at first light (around 0630) with the aim to get there before dusk (1730). Somehow, this message got lost on the day. Come breakfast the other car were still faffing around trying to accommodate lots of useless items including a huge cool box. We finally managed to set off after Cath threatened to leave without them.

The other car was actually much better equipped for the trip. My father-in-law had stacked his previous rental car into a post at the airport picking up Julie. Avis didn’t have an X-trail, so had replaced it with a landcruiser.

The first stage of the route involved taking the C12 up to Seeheim and then getting on the B4 highway to Keetmanshoop, followed by the B1 highway to Mariental. There we paused. Our original plan had been to head north up the B1 before finally heading west to Namib Naukluft lodge, to limit driving on gravel roads. However, it was a longer route and the poor quality (single lane) road and numerous trucks meant we were not making enough time. So from Mariental we headed west to Maltahohe, through the Zaris mountain pass and up the C19 to Sossusvlei.

By the time we hit the area around Sossusvlei, the road had been churned up so much by coaches that it resembled a sea of gravel. While the landcruiser was handling it no problem, our car was struggling to stay on the road. But with the sun setting we made it to the lodge. Just in time for a cold drink and an opportunity to admire the sunset. The views across Namib Naukluft national park are spectacular and there are no tourists. Dinner in the evening turned out to be an excellent Boma (outdoor barbecue), with a ridiculous selection of meat including springbok steak.

 

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Namib Naukluft lodge

 

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Girls dancing in the Namib Naukluft park.

Sossusvlei desert lodge, August 7th 

The following day we left early to get to Sossusvlei. The roads were much better because of the road smoothing machines. Once in the park, there was a tarmac road to take us to the dunes.

Whenever you look at a travel guide to Namibia the iconic red dunes of Sossusvlei are on the cover. Understandably, everyone were keen to see the dunes. However, I had little desire to go up some dunes with a ton of tourists with selfie sticks. Unfortunately, some of us were up for doing everything– Deadvlei (the petrified forest), Big Daddy (the largest dune of all), Big Mommy and Dune 45. Which would have meant spending the whole day there.

Upon arrival at the dunes, we realised tourist numbers had exploded past my gloomy predictions. Even remote dunes had hundreds of tourists scaling them. We settled on going to Deadvlei, which had less interest. After scaling several ridges in 30C heat, everyone lost any enthusiasm for doing anything else after that– it’s hard work walking up sand dunes.

By noon, we were already driving back with the aim of getting to Sossusvlei desert lodge for lunch. The lodge is located in a private reserve with views out across the Namib Rand. While we were there we witnessed a lunar eclipse, which had Alex in raptures of delight.

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Drive towards Sossusvlei

 

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Catherine and Alex, Deadvlei

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View from Sossusvlei desert lodge across Namib Rand reserve

Pelican point lighthouse (Walvis Bay), August 8th – 9th.

The following day we headed off early, north past Sossusvlei and through Namib Naukluft national park to Solitaire where we would refuel. We had been forewarned about Solitaire. Every guidebook on Namibia, talks about the world famous apple pies and abandoned vintage cars in Solitaire. Suffice to say when we got there it was mayhem. There must have been 5 coachloads of tourists. We didn’t linger.

After Solitaire we headed west on the C14, through the national park for 3 hours to Walvis Bay. Despite Walvis Bay being a major port the road is in a shocking condition and was packed with tourist coaches. Every twenty minutes, coaches were whizzing past us to ferry tourists to the next picture stop, spraying our cars with dust.

From Walvis Bay we drove through the town, past the salt farms, and onto the sandbank. We immediately got stuck. None of us had reduced the pressure in the tyres enough to be able to drive on sand. It all got a bit too much for the in-laws who lost it, especially since we had neglected to inform them what we were doing. I think the prevailing view was the kids (read us) had made the reckless decision to drive on a treacherous sandbank with the intention of having a picnic on quicksand.

Soon after, help arrived to tow us out. Reducing the tyre pressure enabled us to drive out of the sand, although the lack of clearance on our car remained a concern. Once we reached the converted lighthouse it was all worth it. Built in 1915 to keep boats off the treacherous coast, the building had recently been converted into a beautiful lodge. We spent 2 nights there. At times it felt like you were at the end of the world. In the morning, the lighthouse was blanketed in fog before dissipating at noon. By afternoon the light was so bright it gave the lighthouse an almost ethereal quality. While we were there we visited one of the better preserved shipwrecks and observed the seal colonies, which  are the largest in the world. But mostly we gazed out to sea observing the huge ships in the distance.

 

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Pelican point lighthouse, shrouded in fog.

 

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Seals fishing in the sea.

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Shipwreck

 

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Our car being towed out of the sand.

 

Swakopmund Beach lodge, Swakopmund, August 10th – 11th

Exiting the lighthouse was always going to be a challenge. Our car’s limited clearance meant we had to drive at pace or become swamped by the sand. We managed to keep out of trouble, until the end when we got undone by a sharp left turn, which you couldn’t take at speed.

Anyhow, after a few mishaps we got to Swakopmund Beach Lodge. Frankly, the place was a bit of a disaster. Set in the middle of a suburb. Our bedroom was the only one without views of the beach. More importantly, we were positioned directly below the kitchen to the flagship restaurant. There’s a reason why this is not the norm. The bedroom was only free of noises from the restaurant between midnight and 6 am in the morning.

On the penultimate day, we went on an airplane ride, tracing the route we had taken through Namibia. It was awesome. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling very well. To be honest, the significant turbulence in the 8-seater plane was not agreeing with me. My father-in-law who had bankrolled the flight was slightly aggrieved to see me slumped over with my head in my hands when I should have been enjoying the view.  But I still managed to get some good shots (below).

On the 12th of August, we packed the cars and drove to the airport. Unfortunately, our car unexpectedly broke down and we had to get picked up by Avis. Was a great trip.

 

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Flamingos around Walvis Bay

 

 

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Sossusvlei

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Saltpans, Walvis bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Afriski, Lesotho (July 4th 2017)

Last weekend we travelled to Afriski in Lesotho. It’s one of only 2 ski resorts in sub-saharan Africa. The other one — Tiffindell — was too far away.

Usually, it’s impossible to secure accommodation, but there was a last minute cancellation to a chalet.  Friends (Anna and Rex) booked it and we were off. Since it takes 8 hours driving and around an hour to get a visa at the land border we decided to stop off for a night in Clarens on the way.

Contrary to expectations, the journey to Clarens turned out to be the worst part of the journey.  Most of it our own fault. The previous weekend Anna and Rex had invited us over for dinner to discuss the trip. And more importantly to offer some advice. Unfortunately, we forgot the crucial part: to avoid the direct route to Clarens at all costs and divert through Harrismith and Golden Gate national park.

On the day, everything had been going according to plan, until we turned off the motorway and hit the back road to Clarens midway through. Of course, I had to be driving. It quickly became apparent that this pot-holed nightmare of a road was only used by people with little regard for anyone else. Several hundred metres in we encountered a pickup carrying a bed. Normally, I would have overtaken it, but the huge potholes made this an impossibility. We stayed behind. Suddenly, Cath let out a huge shriek. I looked up to see the bed sailing into the air towards us. I swerved violently and lost control of the car, which careered all over the road. Thankfully, there were no other cars around, and we avoided the bed. Disaster averted we continued along the road, carefully. Frankly, I was the only driver on the road bothering. Huge 4x4s were charging past at crazy speeds on the wrong side of the road. In the midst of this mayhem a nutter driving a combine harvester cruised into view. The blades covered three-quarters of the road, but the driver somehow thought he would be able to avoid hitting oncoming cars if he drove slightly off the road. I was forced to move off the road and drive straight over the churned-up edge. Somehow, I managed to avoid damaging the car.

After a further hour of the road from hell, we were in Clarens. Honestly, the place is beautiful, but I wasn’t in the mood to enjoy it. It used to be a hamlet, mainly populated by artists attracted to it’s amazing scenery. Now, it is a big tourist attraction. There were galleries everywhere.

After staying the night in a self-catering place just down from the town centre, we set off to the border and Lesotho. Beautiful scenery. Somehow it didn’t feel quite right though. Driving a 4×4 at speed through poor communities.

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The lowlands of Lesotho, beautiful. The tukul huts just blend into the landscape.

Soon we had left the lowlands of Lesotho and we were driving up through the Maluti mountains. The temperature dropped significantly and vegetation became sparse the higher we climbed. We had been warned about the climb– numerous potholes and sheer drops — but it turned out to go relatively smoothly. The reality is the route would be a deathtrap to drive up with snow/ ice, but the weather had been mild for the past week, so the route was completely free.

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Route up through the Maluti mountains.

 

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Mapholaneng pass at 3200 metres.

 

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Afriski in the distance.

 

At about just after midday we arrived at the resort. While it was a lot colder than the lowlands, it was still rather warm for a ski resort. All the snow they had had a few days ago had melted away. Apart from the artificial snow. The temperatures persisted for the rest of the week. To such an extent that it wasn’t cold enough to run the snow machines.

The other aspect was the debilitating effect of the altitude. At least on me. Our chalet situated at over 3000 metres was more than a kilometre higher than most high altitude ski resorts. If we had been still staying in Ethiopia it wouldn’t have mattered, but we weren’t. Putting on skis, doing any kind of physical activity proved to be exhausting. And the air was so dry, that everyone developed hacking coughs. Alex became unwell literally on arrival, so I was forced to avoid skiing and watch the cricket instead. Was a tough life. Everyone else did take to the slopes, however.

We all had a great time, but the resort needs to work on it’s ski instructors. On the first day, Lena got dumped in the baby class. Probably because she was 4 years old. No-one actually asked whether she had skiied before. After Cath complained, the following day she was put on a beginner slope with a group instructor. By the end, we were treated to the sight of Lena skiing down a baby slope (no instructor in sight) apparently having forgotten how to turn. We pulled her before her skiing regressed any further.

 

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Cath and Anna at the top of the ski slope.

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All the kids on the last day.

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Anna and Rex at the bar.

The garden route

We recently took advantage of the May bank holiday to do a trip around the garden route.

Pringle Bay

The kids and I flew to Capetown and drove down to Pringle Bay — a friend of the family owned a house there.  Cath joined us a few days later from DC. The house was in an incredible location, overlooking the beach, and there were very few tourists.  Alex’s and Lena’s friends joined, so they had a great time.

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View from Pringle Bay.

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View from the balcony

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Dehoop nature reserve

After 4 days at Pringle Bay we drove to Dehoop hotel located in a nature reserve. About 6 hours drive west from Capetown.  The hotel was originally a farm. Established by the East India Company– apparently they just sailed up the river.  Just outside our little cottage were animals indigenous to the area: Bonteboch, Zebra.

One of the highlights was the marine walk with a guide. He explained about marine life and the kids were able to hold all manner of creatures– starfish, anemone, hermit crabs.

 

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Coastline at Dehoof. Kids fascinated by jellyfish washed on the shore.

 

Storm River Rest Camp, Kynsia

The last couple of days were spent in Storm river rest camp in a self-catering house overlooking the sea. I had my reservations, given it’s the national park authority, but it was so well run. We went on some amazing walks, including the world-famous otter trail. The otter trail is a 5-day trek along the coast line through stunning scenery. You have to carry all your own stuff. I am surprised Henry hasn’t done it already. By contrast, we only managed a small section of the walk to a waterfall before it got too difficult and we had to turn back.

It’s a sensational part of the world only marred by epic coach-loads of bratty Europeans who are not interested in the scenery, but in smashing rocks on the ground.

 

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View from the lookout point over the national park.

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On the otter trail

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Storm river– good for kayaking, allegedly.

 

Victoria falls

Last weekend the kids and I flew to Victoria falls, to meet Cath who was there with work. I was quite apprehensive about taking the kids out of South Africa on my own. Entering and leaving South Africa with kids is considerable hassle. Immigration require children’s original birth certificates along with passports. And if only one of the parents leaves the country with their kids they are required to provide additional significant documentation along with a signed affadavit stamped and dated by your local police station.

Fortunately, the trip went smoothly. By late afternoon we had arrived at the Avari hotel on the Zambia side. The hotel is in the middle of a national park, so zebra and impala often graze on the hotel grounds.

The first morning was spent taking in the falls, which were 5 minutes walk from the hotel. They are a truly magnificent sight. The sheer scale is incredible– more than twice the width and height of Niagara falls. It was a good time to visit. The rainy season had just finished so there was a lot of water. Mind, getting to the best viewpoint worryingly named ‘danger point’, meant navigating through the tremendous spray, which drenched everyone. Alex was not happy about getting soaked.

The vegetation around the falls is tropical because of the continual rainfall.

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Victoria falls in all its glory. 

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Double rainbow at the base of the falls, ‘boiling point’.

In the afternoon we took a trip on the Queen of Africa, a majestic, colonial river boat travelled on by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert over a century ago when they visited the country. Unfortunately, we lowered the tone somewhat, turning up late with screaming kids. Alex and Lena settled down once the boat had set off, leaving Cath and I to enjoy a few drinks as the boat lazily cruised up the river. It would have been perfect for a game of cards.

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Enjoying the sunset on the Queen of Africa.

On the penultimate day we went on a safari. We had had a number of magical safari experiences in South Africa, so I wasn’t that bothered. However, Cath was adamant this would be worth the experience. I think expectations collapsed after we realised we were the only people on the safari lumped with a lacklustre guide who had zero interest in wildlife. Then, shortly into the trip, the guide casually let slip the national park only had the big 3. In other words no lions or leopards.

Nevermind, I consoled myself with the prospect of watching a herd of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plains. Or maybe a couple of elephants. Was it too much to expect? Afterall, it was a relatively small national park and creatures tend to be habitual. Unfortunately, the guide was struggling to drive the temperamental jeep let alone navigate around the park. After spectacularly failing to spot any animals of note, and increasingly desperate for a tip, the guide started stopping to point out anything of note–  moorhen, deer, ducks. Cath was becoming increasingly irritated at these pointless stops and finally ordered the guide to drive us back to the hotel. Despite being the worst safari I have ever been on, our early return did enable us to catch sundowners at the bar overlooking the river at the adjoining Royal Livingstone hotel.

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Having a few drinks at the Royal Livingstone’s river bar.

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Spray from Victoria falls visible at dusk.

Christmas 2016

We spent Christmas this year in Europe mainly skiing. We decided to return to Ubergurgl in Austria. It is relatively quiet compared to other ski resorts, such as Solden. There is a superb ski school and lots of beginner slopes (but fewer advanced slopes). Perfect for our kids and novices like me.

Enroute to Austria we briefly stopped by London. We managed to get a bit of sightseeing done, visiting our old house and Alex’s nursery. We even passed by Big Ben, which Alex had been keen to visit, since she had been born in St Thomas’s Hospital opposite it. Then, late afternoon we popped over to the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. The girls enjoyed the rides.

By the end of the day, Alex and Lena were exhausted. Cath and I took the opportunity to go to Chris’s 40th at Hakkasan. It was a highlight of the trip. Although I appeared to be the only person attempting to sample those dangerous cocktails in the bar at the end?

The following day, we flew to Austria. Despite the fog, we managed to get to Ubergurgl in time for dinner. This year we stayed at a different hotel– the Hochfirst. The location of the hotel was perfect: by the slopes next to the kids’ skischool. Anyone who has had to lug kids’ skis will know why that was such a boon.

It soon became apparent that the location was not the main reason why my father-in-law had been so keen to book the hotel. Dinners are his thing you see. And the hotel seemed to specialise in drawn-out, elaborate affairs with several courses. Coupled with an extensive wine list. But while the food was impressive, evenings were often lost on the kids who could barely stay awake beyond 7 pm. At first, we let them sleep at the table, so we could eat, but that idea was shot to pieces after Alex slid off her chair in front of startled guests.

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Julie, Michael and Cath at the hotel.

Nevertheless, Christmas eve at the hotel, was incredible. Once the low season had finished, most of the Brits disappeared and were replaced by a large contingent of Germans. For the Christmas eve dinner, guests (particularly the Germans) made a serious effort to dress up. Everyone looked sensational– black ties, evening dresses.The hotel was totally decked-up. The owners were there to shake everyone by the hand. No expense had been spared on the food and drink– particularly the albino caviar, which I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to try again. The dinner was a joyous celebration, reminiscent of a time when events weren’t always about maximising margins.

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Father Christmas giving presents to the girls.

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Christmas eve dinner. Enjoying the glorious photobomb from Tomas our waiter.

Skiing was a triumph for the girls. Alex progressed so quickly over the course of the 10 days that she was taken up the mountain. Lena struggled a little at the start but after some one-on-one with a teacher (Anna), she was soon turning effortlessly.

By contrast, the adults were all in bad shape. I had injured my neck, my father-in-law had damaged his knee and Julie – not wanting to be left out – managed to drop a printer on her leg. Unfortunately, after a rest day, everyone was out.

Given my inadequacies on the slope, I decided to take further lessons. My concern was I would be allocated the same instructor as I had had last year– his most redeeming feature had been his in-depth knowledge of the failings of the British Army in World War II. But rather than specifically ask not to have him, I requested a young instructor. What I had meant was someone under the age of 50, but the young woman doing the bookings presumed I,  like the myriad of Russians she had to deal with, was angling for a tall, fit, buxom, blonde female instructor. Unfortunately, I failed to heed the warning signals — questions about my personal preferences rather than my skiing needs. After enduring a confusing conversation, punctuated by sniggers from people waiting, I managed to get a (non-female) instructor. Things worked out better this time. Although I am way off going up a mountain.

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Taking a break from skiing to have lunch outside by the slopes.

Austria was great. Even there, the benefits of the EU for Brits was evident. There were a large number of young Brits working out there as ski instructors. Ten years back there wouldn’t have been any.

Following Austria we travelled direct to Upton village (Cambridge) to see my mum and sister’s side of the family including my nephew, Tobias who is 2. Tobias and Alex and Lena got on really well and it was good to catch up. My sister had also planned everything out for our arrival. Even down to borrowing car seats for the girls. The food was also excellent home cooking, which both Cath and I had been craving.

Everyone had a great time. Cath particularly loved the trip to Upton. Especially walking around Cambridge. Although the weather was a bit chilly for my liking.

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All of us on the bridge in Cambridge.

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The girls having a great time playing in Cambridge.

Happy New Year everyone.

A long weekend at Umngazi

A couple of weekends ago we went to Umngazi bungalows. It’s a beach resort south of Pretoria (3 hours from Durban). Faced with a ten hour drive from Pretoria, we flew to Mthatha airport and took a taxi to Umngazi.

It was fascinating to drive through a non-touristy part of the country– from what I could ascertain the only sign that Nelson Mandela had lived there was a solitary hospital named after him.  However, if you do go, allow plenty of time. The scenery was magnificent, but large parts of the road were being expanded, which meant navigating past huge trucks on decrepit, single lane roads. Cath’s nerves weren’t helped by the driver’s persistent use of his mobile.

Towards the end of the journey we turned off the main road, and followed the river down to the sea. Umngazi bungalows is located on the river mouth, separated from the beach by the river. The resort is a collection of traditional wooden bungalows (with thatched roofs).

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View of the resort from across the river.

 

Usually it is impossible to book  Umngazi less than 6 months in advance. The resort is one of those well-kept secrets– great location, food (particularly seafood) and a place to unwind.

I hadn’t bothered to read up on the resort, so was in for a bit of a culture shock. It’s an exclusive resort for well-to-do, young South African parents. Nearly everyone seemed to know each other. Apart from us. And most of the parents were in their late 20s. It was quite bemusing to see all these model-esque people parading around the pool in the morning.

The place was perfect for those with young kids. There were regular activities throughout the day for them. An army of nannies on standby. Available at any hour. Separate dining for the children. To be honest, it would have been quite easy to avoid seeing your kids atall. Understandably, lots of young parents were going for it. While they could. Despite struggling to manage a few beers before feeling shattered, I somehow managed to delude myself I was above all this unnecessary partying. Being a nightlife veteran and all that!?

The kids had a great time. From capture the flag to the daily movie nights. Although they both had a sick bug at one point.  The weather was also perfect for us– it felt like Wales in the summer. Without all that unnecessary rain.

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Relaxing by the water’s edge.

The highlight for me was the wild, sub-tropical coast. Getting there, required wading across the river mouth at low tide or taking a boat ride across. We spent most of the days talking walks in the surrounding hills or trudging along the coast looking for seashells. Not a soul to be seen.

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The wild coast.

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Looking for seashells. 

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Summer 2016

We spent our summer holiday in France. Somehow we managed to get an upgrade with Air France. Perhaps because our flight was delayed twice. Unfortunately, Cath and the kids caught a nasty virus, so I didn’t get much chance to enjoy it.

The first few days in Paris were a bit of a blur, with everyone unwell. However, we did manage to have lunch in Bellota, which is worth visiting for their incredible pata negra. Lena was exhausted though and slept through the whole meal.

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Lena fast asleep at Bellota.

 

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Lounging on the beach near Argeles.

Barcelona

Shortly after getting to Perpignan we headed to Barcelona for a few days with Julie and Chris (who flew over). It was the first trip away from the kids for 2 years. Predictably, at that point I caught the mystery illness, although Cath was convinced it was a ploy to avoid going shopping.

The food in Barcelona was amazing, and of course we caught up with Chris. The highlight of the trip for all of us was probably eating at Cinquecenta. A Catalan restaurant promising fine dining. From the outside, the restaurant looked pretty unremarkable, but it turned out to be the best food I have heard all year. The night was finished off, by a trip to the cocktail bar on Ramblas. They do fantastic vodka martinis.

 

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At a rooftop bar.

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Eating out at another restaurant.

 

 

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Cath and Julie at Cinquecenta–

 

Perpignan

Later in Perpignan, Nick, Emilie, Valsa and Ben joined us on holiday with their kids. The weather was crazily hot, so we spent most of it in the pool. Good times, although not sure about “jaded aid” Valsa.

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At zazas having a laugh.

Disneyland Paris

Towards the end of the holiday, we had a few days left in Paris, so decided to take the kids to Disneyland Paris. The weather was unseasonably hot the whole week.  I was worried about the crowds and incessant queues. You can’t turn up before 1000– from 0800 to 1000 is exclusive to guests of the hotels on the site.

Cath however came prepared. Maps had been printed out. A plan had been formed. She had an app showing queue times for each ride. Despite queue times of around 45 minutes a ride we managed to do most of the key rides for the girls– Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Snow White, etc. Alex loved it, but Lena was a little overwhelmed and scared. It was a good day out for the kids, but I was a little surprised to see so many young adults (without kids) coming to go on the baby rides.

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Disneyland Paris

 

 

 

 

 

Sun City resort/ Pilanesberg National park

Around end-July we went to Sun City resort in South Africa, with Julie — a friend of Cath’s family.

Sun City is a luxury resort located just north west of Pretoria. Built during the apartheid era as a get away for the wealthy.  It is a huge, self-enclosed park, located in breath-taking scenery.  For most South Africans, it remains the place to go to. An institution.

Perhaps the best way to describe it is Africa’s version of Disneyland. Amazing scenery and lots of action activities without the Disney rides and characters. Most of the year, the place is absolutely packed. Reservations have to be made a couple of months in advance. But we stayed in the low season (winter), which meant it was relatively quiet.

The resort can divide opinion. It’s the most opulent of its kind. Most marvel at its sheer scale and detail throughout. Even the countryside has been massively sculpted to provide visitors with the perfect fairytale environment.One family remarked it felt like they were walking through a lost civilisation. However, some find the level of opulence a bit unsettling, given the the resort is in one of the more deprived areas of the country. The Palace of the Lost City hotel was probably the most over the top. Huge minarets atop a enormous castle, expensive marble flooring, massive chandeliers. You get the point.

Of course these important issues were lost on me. You see the resort had a casino. One of the biggest in the country. I spent most of the time there scheming to sneak away and play cards. However, Lena — ever the difficult traveller– was kicking off most of the weekend. So I never got to play poker. It’s been so long….

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The view from outside our rooms.

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Gateway to the palace of the lost kings.

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The exclusive Lost City golf course.

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On the final day we travelled to Pilanesberg National Park, which borders the resort, to look at wildlife. Was pretty incredible to see elephants, rhinos and zebras so close to the car. Unfortunately, this was all lost on Lena who dropped off for most of the drive round.

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The girls having lunch inside the park.

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The aftermath of BREXIT.

Gove and Johnson looking shell-shocked, post-BREXIT.

It’s been a long week. Johnson and Cameron concluded their contest. It wasn’t meant to be serious. Cameron was supposed to win and silence his backbenchers, while Johnson built up his credentials in preparation for an expected leadership contest. I doubt that Gove or Johnson would have fronted this campaign had Cameron not stupidly let slip in a documentary he was not going to run for a third term.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out like that. After the vote to exit, the UK has had a bit of a meltdown. No-one has a plan post-BREXIT. Both main parties are having leadership crises. The country seems divided and angry. Without intervention, Scotland and Northern Ireland may break away.

It’s not clear where we go from here? How things may proceed/ possible options? Here are some thoughts. More for me than anything else. The BREXIT options appear reasonably straightforward. The Norway option (leaving EU, but access to the single market), the Swiss option (leaving completely) or staying in the EU (i.e. ignoring the referendum). None of these would tackle immigration or allow the UK to escape EU regulations.

Until the Conservative party’s leadership contest in autumn, nothing much is going to happen. Uncertainty will continue, investment will be delayed, markets will suffer. The time could be spent by the Government to swing public opinion away from BREXIT. Heseltine has suggested sending Johnson, Farage and Gove off to Brussels to negotiate and on the basis of discussions report back on the proposed BREXIT option and its ramifications. While a fruitless exercise (Merkel and others have said the EU won’t negotiate until the Government is installed and Article 50 invoked) it would help illuminate the falsehoods of the BREXIT campaign and expose Johnson. But sadly, it’s not going to happen. Cameron appears to have given up.

Once the leadership election is held in September, it’s reasonable to expect a referendum or general election shortly after. The Government implementing BREXIT would have to unravel our legislation from EU law. Given the volume, it would have to side-step parliament, which would be passing laws to define its new relationship with the EU. While not essential, it probably requires the Government to seek a mandate from the public. Either in the form of a referendum or a general election.

Whether the new Government would prefer to settle this issue with a general election or referendum is not clear. Tory leadership candidates such as Jeremy Hunt are already proposing a second referendum. However, it is unlikely a second referendum would be used to annul/ confirm the first, but to decide what form BREXIT should take, since Cameron has already ruled out a second referendum while he is in power. Personally, I can’t see a second referendum being implemented, given the experience from the first. At the minimum it’s essential that Britain avoids the Swiss option. A second referendum may not prevent that. Imagine asking the people who just voted the UK out to choose between the these two options.

Rather, I think we are going to have a general election straight after the Conservative leadership election. Probably around December. This is not a terrible development for those of us who want to stay in the EU and ignore the referendum. However, I think options for that to happen are remote. The Conservative party are expected to campaign for the Norway option no matter who the leader is.

Meanwhile, the Labour party is in disarray. Corbyn is unelectable, but will probably survive the leadership contest due to his grassroots support. He’s been a disappointment on Europe and can’t be trusted. Continuing to bang on about austerity while a crisis is unfolding shows a limited appreciation of the situation we find ourselves in. Some things transcend political affiliation. And to suggest invoking article 50 on the day of results, with no-one to steer the ship, shows appalling judgement. I can’t see him fighting to remain in the EU in an election. Not after his unenthusiastic efforts in the referendum. Instead, he will prefer to hide behind the referendum result– he has already stated he accepts the decision of the people. If somehow he or one of the other uninspiring alternatives (Eagle, Watson) did manage to defy odds and win the general election, they would plump for the Norway option. The best chance for the party to win the election and fight for remaining in the EU would be with someone like David Miliband at the helm. But while it’s possible he could take Jo Cox’s seat and contest the leadership election, I think he will stay away. Better to wait for Corbyn to fall at the election.

The Liberal Democrats are the only light of hope. They have always been pro-Europe and see it as their chance for redemption. Since the referendum, they have made it clear they would campaign to remain in the EU. If the party could garner enough seats, they might be in a position to prevent an exit. It’s frankly improbable though. They are getting very little traction in the media. The only way we would avoid an EU exit is if pro- EU voters undertook a mass campaign to mobilise support for the Lib Dems. Only then would they secure a significant amount of seats at the next election to influence the final decision.

In short, it’s probable that the UK Government, which were to come into power after a general election would be negotiating the Norway model. My guess is the UK would ideally prefer to invoke article 50 in late-2017 once French and German elections have passed. But it may have to be earlier if the EU presses hard.

Securing the Norway model won’t be easy. Every EU member would have to agree the deal. Which would probably mean offering lots of concessions to EU members to receive their support. With the threat of the Swiss option hanging over their heads, the UK would agree to pretty much everything. There would certainly not be talk of restrictions on movement of labour. By the end of it, voters would have realised they have been royally screwed by members of the Conservative party and Nigel Farage. Particularly in Wales and other deprived areas, which rely on EU investments, since these would come to an end under the Norway model.

I hope I am wrong on all of this, MPs get some courage, unite and end the threat of leaving the EU. The EU is littered with countries ignoring or re-running referendums. The problem is that so many lies have been told by the BREXIT campaign that they are unable to backtrack.

 

 

Views on the EU referendum

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The UK is getting ready to vote on whether to remain in Europe. The arguments for staying in are clear enough, but its future in the EU looks ominous. Polls are moving in the wrong direction; odds of a BREXIT are continuing to narrow.

Proposing a referendum on the EU was a huge mistake. At the time, Cameron somehow felt he was taking the right course of action. Under pressure by UKIP and his own MPs it seemed an easy way out: settle the argument and restore rule. At the back of his mind may have been the effect of Major’s refusal to accommodate eurosceptics and the subsequent paralysis of the party. Sadly, it’s only served to exacerbate divisions within the party and weaken Cameron’s premiership. Of late, it has felt like open warfare: the cabinet is split down the middle and key allies have broken rank to challenge/ discredit the leadership.

A lot rides on the UK voting to remain. However, the vote remains on a knife edge. Which is no surprise. For decades, the public have been fed anti-EU propaganda. Either used as a scapegoat by our politicians, or by the media to advance their agenda– Rupert Murdoch.

If we are being honest, the benefits of EU membership are too complicated for most. Expecting people to understand how the EU benefits them on intangibles such as trade is futile. Especially when there is a simpler, misleading narrative. That the UK is transferring huge sums to an undemocratic foreign institution, which makes our laws while allowing millions of immigrants to settle in the UK. Still, these issues would normally be a low priority in a general election. But the EU seems so far removed that voters feel they are able to register a protest vote at the status quo and get rid of immigrants for good.

Matters have been complicated further by the campaigns. This campaign was expected to be a slam dunk for Cameron, but no-one bothered to learn from Scotland. The credibility of BREMAIN’s campaign has been affected by ridiculous scaremongering. Of course, there will be costs if we leave, but not close to the figures quoted by BREMAIN. Meanwhile, BREXIT’s campaign on the costs of the EU and immigration have resonated with voters, despite their implausibility. BREXIT’s rhetoric on immigration is particularly ridiculous. Afterall, the only way the UK would be able to stop immigration is if it followed North Korea’s example and closed itself off from the rest of the world. Switzerland and Turkey have both had to take immigrants for free trade with the EU. Even though they are not EU members. Turkey has had even less latitude. Recently agreeing to take a large number of Syrian refugees for the EU.

At present, the vote to remain crucially depends on Labour voters —  Conservative voters leaning towards remaining in the EU are in the minority. Unfortunately, many Labour supporters appear disillusioned with the party. Labour’s message is too centric and doesn’t address peoples’ local concerns. The leadership has also been notably absent. While a joint platform may have been deemed too toxic for Corbyn after Scotland, his lack of presence means most Labour voters are clueless about their party’s stance on this issue.

There are some positives to hold on to. Despite BREXIT being ahead in some polls, Cameron has made some wise choices. The scheduling of the vote during Euro 2016 remains a stroke of genius. Assuming England qualify out of their group (which is looking very likely) there should be an upsurge of positivity towards the EU at the time of voting. People also are more likely to keep with the status quo at the ballet box compared to current polling figures.

If the UK did decide to leave some difficult choices would need to be made. At that point, financial markets would be in turmoil and Cameron would be forced to step down. The first thing the new PM (Johnson) would have to do is convince the markets of a clear strategy for the UK leaving. Otherwise, there would be a crisis.

Johnson in theory would have two options at his disposal: leave the EU and single market (Switzerland, Turkey); or, leave the EU and retain access to the single market, but be subject to most regulations and pay for the privilege (Norway).

Most BREXITERs would probably want the UK to leave the EU and single market. Get rid of those pesky EU regulations and stop paying contributions to the EU. Unfortunately, the UK would only have 2 years to renegotiate trade deals and legislation affected (any extension would be impossible since any EU member would be able to veto this). That’s ridiculously tight. Parliament would be overwhelmed by legislation. And with the majority of UK MPs (around 450) being pro-EU there would be outright rebellion. In such an environment, I doubt much UK legislation would be passed. The risks for any PM choosing this option would be too great. A vote of no confidence would be a considerable threat, with a paralysed parliament and uncertainty weighing on financial markets.

It’s therefore highly probably that the PM would seek to avoid a full UK exit. With the majority of MPs in favour, it would be relatively straightforward for the UK to pass a bill to leave the EU, but remain in the single market and be subject to EU regulations (including immigration).

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the EU could scupper this deal and force the UK to go for the former option, but the threat of financial turmoil and precedence suggests it would have to adopt a lenient approach with the UK. The reality would be that the UK would emulate Norway, albeit being severely punished by the EU. In return for access to the single market the UK would be required to pay significantly increased EU contributions and have to accept some tough renegotiations—for instance Norway had to allow Ireland access to its waters for fishing. In the UK’s case it would be more severe to discourage other countries following suit in future. My guess is it would probably mean additional regulations/ taxes on the UK’s financial sector to move some of the business to EU countries. And allowing EU vessels to continue to fish in UK waters.

So if we did vote to leave the reality is we would all be worse off. Still subject to most EU regulations, paying increased contributions to the EU, a smaller financial sector, and with no voice in the EU to influence legislation. Nevertheless, it would be easy to fudge the issue with the UK public. Increased contributions would be dressed up as member contributions for national security, foreign policy. And while the UK would get a worse deal Johnson would be a given opt outs on some EU areas (like Norway) to trumpet to the UK public.

But I don’t think it will come to that. The UK will narrowly vote to remain, Cameron will probably have to step down and Johnson will get his grubby hands on power. Nothing more would be said on the EU, thereafter.