Tag: travel

Phase 5. Snowflakes shaped like stars and a dream that became reality.

Latvia, you may think, was probably a bit of an off-the-cuff idea.
“Oh, those two just want to add another country to their list,” you scoff. “Who even goes to Latvia?”

It’s true. Not many people visit this tiny Balkan country, occupied throughout history alternately by the Russians and Germans. It’s a culture that’s known for its herring salad and… well…. not much else really… so I guess it was a bit of a random sounding choice.

But you’re wrong about our motivations.

You see, my husband Tyson can be quite the strategist, and there was a bit of back and forth when it came time to decide how we would spend our last four days in Europe. It seemed too far to drive to visit more relatives. Should we finally check out East Germany instead? How about Finland’s beautiful winter paradise, Lapland (I’d always had a dream to go on a dog sled through the forest)? Too expensive and probably booked out by now. Georgia? Nah – that was too far off the beaten track for aunty Christel, who was going to be accompanying us.

Tyson’s main objective was to go somewhere with a high probability of snow. Thanks to global warming (?), it always seems to snow in Germany in January these days, not in December like it used to. Thus, it’s incredibly rare and unlikely that we should have a white Christmas. Tyson, having grown up in tropical Queensland, still turns into a little boy every time he sees snow, and I get excited when I walk outside wrapped up in 10 layers and the cold air lovingly slaps me in the face. So, it had to be somewhere cold, and somewhere with snow.

Looking up a list of the top five European winter destinations likely to have snow in early January and swiftly eliminating Tallin (too many party-goers), Helsinki (for reasons stated above, plus the fact that we’d been there before), St Petersburg and Moscow (because you need a visa to get to Russia), Riga was left the last city standing – and hey, why not try a bit of that good old herring salad?

And so it was – we flew from Zurich to Frankfurt and then onto Riga, arriving in the wee hours of the morning (2am) due to ice-fuelled delays. To add to our sleepy joy (!), our luggage was last to be loaded off the plane, and so we were also the last ones left standing in the taxi queue outside Riga’s tiny international airport.

As if God was trying to cheer us up, snowflakes shaped like beautiful, intricate stars began to fall as we stood outside waiting. Little did we know that they would be just a little taste of what was to come…

When we finally did get in a taxi, our proud Latvian driver decided that 2:30am was an appropriate time as any to give us a guided tour of his capital, proudly declaring that “our shops are open until 11pm, not like you Germans, who close everything early!” Clearly shopping was a big thing here. He also pointed out restaurants and no doubt interesting landmarks, most of which I couldn’t see through my foggy, dark window.

We arrived safe and sound in our Air BnB apartment, where our host Elina (who had to work at 10am the next day) was waiting patiently. After quick chats and explanations, she left us to discover her beautiful home, which had on one windowsill a pile of beanies and socks hand-knitted by her boyfriend’s grandma. “Handmade by Latvian grandmother,” a note said. “In case you don’t have souvenir yet.”

Boy was I happy to buy one of those beanies!

The temperatures throughout our stay in Riga dropped dramatically, to a low of -21 on the day we left. To our delight, the snow levels did the opposite – on one day it even continued snowing for a whole day and at times was so heavy that you couldn’t look straight ahead when you walked.

Despite the statistical analysis of snow probability and our resulting decision to visit Riga, we hadn’t done much research (again!) beyond where we would stay, and so were happy to have Christel’s previous visit’s experience (she’d been there in summer a few years ago) and our Air BnB host’s recommendations.

As it turns out, Riga is a magical place! Europe’s capital of art deco architechture, about 60% of the city is said to be built in this decorative style. The old town, with its majestic churches and cathedrals, is made up of small, cobbled streets of shops, galleries and cafes, many of which served soup for lunch as this was clearly a hearty and delicious way to warm up in the winter. Elegant, proud-looking women in fur coats meandered through the little Christmas market stalls that were scattered throughout the town squares, drinking hot apple cider, talking to each other in Russian and admiring all the other Latvian grandmothers’ handmade mittens and socks. In the huge indoor central market, dried herrings were stuffed into buckets like pens in a cup and ladies with grumpy faces sold rye bread so brown you wondered if they’d get a heart attack if they saw the white bread we ate in Australia.

The food and coffee of this unexpectedly varied little city surprised and impressed us, and the people we met – from the taxi driver to our Air BnB host to the elderly lady who gave us a private, guided tour of the city’s pharmacy museum were warm, genuine and not at all the staunch, hard-faced type you sometimes imagine when you think of (former Russian) eastern Europe.

And as if lovely people, good food, beautiful surroundings and great coffee weren’t enough, Latvia was to totally blow my mind when I discovered that we could go dog sledding just half an hour outside the city.


This was a dream I had had for many years, but never taken that seriously because I thought I had to go to Canada, Alaska or somewhere in the north of Finland to make it happen. When I made an enquiry with the tour company online, I tried not to get my hopes up as we were booking with only a few days’ notice.

Yet it must have been meant to be because my dream came true the very next day as I found myself sitting on a bus driving out to a forest on the outskirts of Riga. When we arrived, the dogs were already waiting for us eagerly, barking and wagging their tails. I’d been worried about the ethics of dog sledding for tourism (a lot of animals used in tourism are mistreated) but had done my research and upon seeing the dogs was even more satisfied that these were animals that loved the snow, loved to run and were healthy and happy. We were allowed to play with them for a while and, well, what can I say – it was love at first sight.

Somehow I ended up being the one to be the ‘musher’ at the back of the sled, in charge of steering and putting the breaks on the dogs if I needed to (in case you’re wondering, this “simple” manoever is done by jumping from the two narrow wooden planks at the back of the sled that you balance on onto the steel bar in the middle which clamps into the ground … This all sounded very technical to a dog sledding novice!) with Christel sitting in the front as my passenger. We had eight dogs in front of us and Tyson, with a sled to himself, only had four. Before we knew it, we were off, and the dogs, excited to be allowed to run, took off at full speed. As we came around the first corner, my feet detached from the wooden planks, but not in order to put the breaks on – somehow I had slipped and was suddenly hanging on for dear life as my legs raced behind the sled and my hands held on.

“This is it,” I thought. “My dog sledding adventure ends here.”

Knowing that Christel was not going to achieve a James Bond-style backflip onto the back of the sled if I let go and was more likely to disappear into the distance with no control of the eight adrenaline-driven huskies – and knowing that this may be the only time I would ever live this lifetime dream of mine, I managed to somehow do a few enormous running steps and land back on the wooden planks on the back of the sled.

Pfew! That was lucky.

The rest of the ride went by relatively smoothly, though Christel at times had to endure less than relaxing angles as the dogs scraped around the corners and one side of us went up onto the thicker snow. As we got into the forest and I was finally able to relax a little and take in the beauty around me, I cried a few tears of silent gratitude and excitement.

How lucky am I, I thought, to experience something as magical as this?

At the end of the 5km ride, our toes and hands were frozen numb and sore, but our hearts were glad and our faces were plastered with elated grins. Tyson had caught the whole thing (minus my almost-stack) on camera and managed to capture some amazing moments with the dogs after we got back to the car.

That night, though we spent a bit longer in the hot shower to defrost, the cold having seemingly crept into the innermost parts of our bodies after a day spent almost entirely outside in the -14 degree temperatures, we could not shake the immense joy we felt. 

What an amazing, amazing, amazing day.

My Father in Heaven, how good you are to me.

Phase 4. The house with no wifi and an Italian border crossing

“This is like the Las Vegas of Switzerland!” said Maren from the back seat. It was easy to see where she was coming from. This Italian part of the country (there’s an Italian part, German part and French part, and many Swiss speak all three languages) had a totally different feel to it: Tuscan-style mansions with big columns out the front and palm trees in the garden, flashing signs, a bit more rubbish lying around.

We were driving toward Lavertezzo, a tiny village in the district of Locarno famous for its granite rocks and the ice blue Verzasca River which flows through the valley. In summer, the region is bright green and stunningly Instagram-worthy, and in winter, it’s usually covered in snow. We’d been looking for a hut in the mountains to spend New Year’s Eve, wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend a bit of time in nature.

We had sunny, mild weather when we arrived, and when we drove through Lavertezzo and started ascending along the single-car width road with hairpin turns every 100 meters, we were glad that there was no snow and ice on the road. Any slip there and we would have been rolling down the mountain. Thankfully, our two drivers (dad and Tyson) did an exceptional job and we all arrived safe and sound halfway up the mountain, in a little speckling of century-old houses, some of them which looked like holiday homes and others that looked abandoned.

Being so close to the Italian border, the first day meant a day trip over to the land of spaghetti and Chianti, if for no other reason than to eat pizza and pasta. We drove around beautiful Lago Maggiore, quiet and peaceful during the off-season, and all the way to tourist favourite, Como, which apparently has all sorts of beautiful sites to see and things to do during the daylight, but by the time we arrived it was already dark. There were light shows and Christmas markets happening, and we found a lovely little restaurant down a back street, away from the tourists, to enjoy one more Italian meal. On the way back, our lovely GPS Janet decided she’d let us experience some of Italy’s best new (paid) motorways, and it seemed as if we were driving through a toll point every 30 minutes.

For the next few days, we did little but play games, enjoy the fireplace, cook, eat and sit outside in the sun for the few hours that it reached us. We set off fireworks on New Year’s eve, being wary to run quickly in the other direction if a faulty one among them whooshed our way. We went for a walk down the mountain to the blue river, taking some photos among the white contrasted stones, and on another day went for a hike further into the stunning valley, discovering even smaller villages between the mountains with no visible inhabitants except sheep and a family who’d moved back to the countryside for a change of scenery.

There was no wifi in the house and the change in everyone’s attention levels and priorities was refreshing – perhaps this is something we should try to implement regularly…

Phase 1: Cloudy mountain peaks and deer sausage.

When the weather is bad in Switzerland, people head to the mountains.

I mean, they do that anyway, but as it turns out, the bad weather makes such a trek even more worth it, because the higher you go, the better your chance of getting above the weather.

This was definitely the case during our visit to Lucerne – stop no. 1 on this year’s European Christmas adventure. Knowing that ahead of us were two weeks of intense family time, Tyson and I had booked an Air BnB for a couple of nights in this Swiss city, just over an hour away from Zurich airport. I’d come here 5 years earlier to attend the World Tourism Forum, and having celebrated a major academic success here, I was keen to show Tyson all the places I’d been.

After picking up our hire car (a Mercedes! What else would you drive on an autobahn?!) and having a rather overpriced plate of service-station Spaetzle (oh, Switzerland), we were welcomed by our Air BnB host Brigitte with a bottle of wine and by her husband, Bruno about 15 minutes later with two half-litre cans of beer (“I’m sorry, my wife forgot the most important thing – you need these after such a long trip.”)

Having not thought ahead a great deal (we were flat out for weeks before we left home), we hadn’t made any plans for our first day in Europe, nor had we remembered that European cities do not follow Sunday trading. As fate would have it, we thus ended up at the top of a 1,798m high mountain with a view over the incredible Swiss Alps, Lake Lucerne, Lake Zug and Lake Lauerz – Mount Rigi had been recommended to us by our host Brigitte not only because it was a great Sunday activity, but because we woke up that first Sunday morning to miserable, cloudy, grey winter weather.

“You will have blue sky up there,” she’d said, pointing up at the grey, hazy sky as if we could look through it to some magical sunny place above. Though I wasn’t sure I believed her, heading up the mountain and getting some fresh air seemed like a good idea after 24+ hours of travel.

And so, there we were, taking pictures of snow patches and the top side of the clouds, eating deer sausage (a local specialty, apparently) and drinking terrible coffee. Luckily, the negativity of the coffee and lack of alternative lunch options was far outweighed by the truthfulness of Brigitte’s weather predictions, and we were able to sit outside in the sun, breathe in the crisp winter air and enjoy the fact that we were on holidays – at last.

Twenty-four hours, a small Christmas market, a quick whisk around Lucerne and some Swiss cheese later, we were on our way to Munich to meet my sister Maren and our friend Sheridan for a few days in Germany’s pretty, proud, Bavarian capital.

Autobahn driving… wheeee!


Airport Musings

I love airports.

Not the standing-in-line-waiting-to-get-my-passport-stamped, endlessly-slow-baggage-carousel-waiting parts.

No, I love the human part.

Mostly, it’s the arrivals and departures halls I find fascinating. There’s nothing quite like seeing the pure and uninhibited joy of friends, families or couples reuniting after a long absence, sometimes with flowers; sometimes with balloons; sometimes with a hand-written sign and a big shriek of excitement; sometimes just with a long embrace or a kiss.

I love how the little children forget all parental instruction and run toward their arriving relatives as they walk through the glass sliding doors leading from customs, and I love how everyone walks away holding hands, helping each other with luggage, laughing and talking about how the flight and the trip was. Though I’ve always found it sad to arrive somewhere alone, I also enjoy the opportunity this gives me to observe those around me and be joyful in their joy.

I also love airport fashion. This is particularly evident at the gates where flights have just landed and passengers are disembarking, and it is often easy to see where people have come from. Bintang singlets and a tan? You’ve just been to Bali. Outrageously hippie-looking elephant print pants? I promise you, despite what you think now, 20-something university male, you won’t wear those again, even if they were fashionable for the backpacker crowd in Koh Samui. Pointy, straw hat? Been to Vietnam, I take it? And then you see the traditional clothing – burquas, stark white Indian dress for men, checkered headscarves in the middle east, puffy-sleeved, colourful print dresses to match extraordinarily white teeth and dark skin in Africa.

I also like guessing how long people have been away – the colour (i.e. fadedness) of their clothing, amount of leather bracelets and state of their luggage is usually a pretty decent indicator.

Most of all though, I love the diversity. All cultures, colours, races and walks of life gather together at airports, not being given much of a choice when everyone bar a lucky few have to line up in the ‘foreign passports’ queue. You overhear conversations – some you can understand, most you can’t.

Whilst you do get the occasional few travellers that get grumbly about something (like the nasally American lady at Honolulu airport who was aghast at her husband when Starbucks didn’t have salt (“Can you believe it, the lady at the counter said they don’t carry salt!”), airports are mostly peaceful places.

Why can’t we be like this in normal life?

Here we are, 200 people from probably 100 countries packed as closely together as if we were standing in a rush hour London tube carriage, and we are all OK with each other. No hatred, no disapproving glances, no vilification, no separation.

Everyone – though on their own – is together in their plight of being stuck in a line that the law requires them to be in.

At times, people even talk. A quick question (“where have you just come from?” or “your baby is so cute, how old is she?”) is all it takes for a smile; a cultural interaction.

Humanity is designed to live together in community, in harmony. To take joy in each other, laugh together, cry together, go through the good and bad together. We are all one and the same, even if we appear so different from the outside.

How much we can learn from airports.

Photo credit: Tyson Cronin 


It’s all a little bit peculiar

It’s a peculiar place, Vietnam.

Not in an obvious way though. The strangeness doesn’t jump out at you and slap you in the face. It only becomes clear when you look out of the taxi window at the life going on outside, focus a little longer on the little old lady standing by the street or the items sold by the shops on the main road.

You need to give yourself time to let the weirdness sink in.

Firstly, people walk around in their pyjamas here. Not just at home. I’m talking about people on the street, in the middle of Hanoi, or the middle of Ho Chi Minh city. They walk around the lake, which is surrounded by restaurants, as if pyjamas are the new jogging gear, and then stand for a while holding on to the railing, swinging their arms back and forth in some kind of tai chi exercise. Here in Ho Chi Minh, I’ve seen grandmas wearing pyjamas pushing their grandchildren along the road in prams, and even shop keepers dressed in pyjamas taking coffee orders.

You might think I’m joking – I’m not. I’m talking about silky pyjamas, striped Mr Bean pyjamas and soft winter pyjamas with small cute animals and hearts on them. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the city.

It’s peculiar.

Equally peculiar I find the size of furniture here. I love the street food culture – there’s a certain grubbiness too it, an Asia feel. Restaurants facing out onto the street, chairs and tables strewn across the footpath, with a direct view of the hectic traffic of scooters, bicycles, tuc tucs and cars in front. Women washing dishes by the drain beside bowls of green herbs, and men welding pieces of old cars back together. Children running around, laughing; tourists peering curiously into shops as they step over the activity of day to day business on the streets of Vietnam. But everywhere, it seems, there’s a children’s tea party going on. The furniture looks like it came out of a toy shop, and I’m amazed that I haven’t seen more people snapping the legs off chairs.


A third peculiarity lies in the ability of the Vietnamese to plant vegetable gardens everywhere. Naturally exceptional gardeners (even at Australian markets the Vietnamese sell the best fruit and vegetables), the Vietnamese have seemingly not only mastered the soil, sun and water requirements of producing top-quality green leafy vegetables and herbs, they’ve also managed to overcome all logistical obstacles a horticulturalist might usually face and started planting things on traffic islands, among the concrete retaining walls of man-made lakes and inside water-filled rice paddies. There they squat, among their coriander and lettuce leaves, wearing pointy cane hats and pruning away at dinner. It’s pretty amazing really.

And a little peculiar.

Another sign of the Vietnamese ability to think outside the box and deal with difficult situations is their method of crossing the road. To put it into context, I should mention that Vietnam’s roads are distinctively chaotic. While there may be designated lanes, no one sticks to them. Nor do drivers obey zebra crossings, red traffic lights, or any other type of human/vehicle intersection. Scooters and motorbikes are particular offenders, but buses and cars add their bit to the mayhem. So what do the innovative Vietnamese do? Shuffle. Yep, no joke. They shuffle. One foot in front of the other, they step out onto the busy six-lane motorway with no hint of fear, not waiting for the traffic to stop but letting it go around them. We’ve been practicing this technique, and I’m happy to report that there have been no accidents thus far. The trick, we’ve realised, is to make no sudden movement. You need to be 100% aware at all times of what’s going on around you, so woe to anyone who thinks they can cross the street without concentrating! It’s an art, no doubt, but a peculiar one.

There are many more peculiarities worth mentioning – the fact that people sleep on their motorbikes for example; head on the seat, legs draped over the handlebars. Somehow, they balance. Some of them even look quite comfortable. Very peculiar.

And the street side hair salons! No matter where you are, you will always find a barber ready to give you a quick chop by the roadside, with a mirror leant up against the outside wall of a building and nothing but a chair in front of it. Not a bad business model really… no overheads, no staffing costs, no rent… But getting your hair cut beside a motorbike parking area, underneath a grubby overpass – it’s a little unusual.

Then there’s the fact that throughout Vietnam you will find hidden remnants of European influence – the coffee culture, the French patisseries, the cathedrals with church bells ringing every hour. And, rather than going into a shopping mall to find what you need, you just need to know which city street to venture into, and you will find tiny stores packed to the roof with everything from soft toys to toiletries to biscuits to selfie sticks. Yes, that’s right – selfie stick stores. Don’t tell me that’s not a little peculiar.

I wanted to take note of these peculiarities this time, because if I ever come back to Vietnam, I’ll no longer notice them. These are the little snippets of a culture that only strike you as unusual the first time you see them – after even a few weeks in the country these peculiarities have become almost normal.

It’s this progression that I find fascinating about travel. The initial amusement and bewilderment at a different culture’s habits, the gradual getting used to the way things are done in the new place, and the eventual fondness of all that makes a culture unique and peculiar. The world is a fascinating place, and I am thankful to have yet again been given the opportunity to visit somewhere brand new.

In all of this, I am so thankful to God, our loving father, for blessing me (undeservedly) with such opportunities. My prayer is that they continue to mould me into a more appreciative, tolerant and loving person, and one who can share these experiences – through words – with those who may never get the chance to visit these places themselves.


A social media campaign and the hospitality of strangers

It’s been two weeks today since we first landed in Hanoi. When we arrived and drove through the Old Quarter, Tyson said that this may just turn out to be his favourite new city in Asia. The atmosphere was fantastic – cars, scooters and bicycles everywhere, people on the street wearing Vietnamese straw hats and selling fruit, flowers, donuts or socks out of cane baskets tied to the end of a broomstick carried across their shoulders. Old, tall, skinny buildings lined the streets, authentically run-down and housing a mixture of apartments and small businesses. Wide avenues, lakes and parks were reminiscent of the French influence of days gone by.

We’ve lived in four places in Hanoi now. At first, we spent a night at Luan’s Homestay, which we found on Air BnB. Family-run and located smack-bang in the middle of the Old Quarter, it was the perfect spot from which to explore the city during our first day.

After our trip to Halong Bay, we were moved just two houses down the street to an old hotel in need of love and attention, whose main characteristics were its thin walls and mattresses whose springs dug into your back. On our first night, a bunch of what sounded like 20 young Vietnamese people kept us awake until past midnight with drunken shouts up and down the stairwell and banging as they carried their passed-out friend to the room opposite ours.

Our third accommodation was where we spent the majority of our time, and it was also the furthest from the city centre – about a 45-minute bus ride away. It was here, in an apartment attached to a mall and adjacent to a main road, that we spent a week with YESD (Youth Employment and Society Development), a social enterprise founded by three young Vietnamese women whose aim is to help fight unemployment among university graduates in Hanoi, preserve the Vietnamese culture and provide authentic Vietnamese travel experiences for tourists. With a focus on organising responsible tours in Vietnam and creating positive change in a country still in the early stages of its tourism development (in comparison to some of its South-East Asian neighbours), we were there to volunteer, along with two Americans, a French girl, a Brazilian/British couple and a Mexican.

While Tyson had the opportunity to teach two English classes, our main focus was to help YESD with their tourism marketing. Wanting to start and finish a project in the short time we had, we decided early to design and launch a social media campaign to promote responsible tourism in Vietnam. And so, in just over a week, we designed a questionnaire, interviewed about 50 random tourists about their views on responsible tourism, collaborated with the Brazilian/British couple on a promotional video and launched a campaign to encourage travellers to be more conscious of how their actions when travelling can help create positive change. Needless to say, we were pretty proud of our efforts. Check out the final results here.

During our time with YESD, we were also blessed to be able to join a spontaneous two-day tour to Ninh Binh province, home of UNESCO World Heritage Listed Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam’s ‘inland Halong Bay’. What a spectacular spot! Limestone mountains covered in jungle alternate with partially submerged valleys and steep, sheer cliffs to form a natural area like something out of a Jurassic Park film. Below, a river meanders through caves and past rice paddies, and women who, before tourists arrived, were dependent on fishing for a meagre income, row visitors around using a combination of both their hands and their feet. I have never seen anywhere quite like it. This was definitely the highlight of our Vietnam trip so far, with Tyson and I agreeing that it was even more beautiful than Halong Bay. It was great to be out of the city, away from the terrible pollution, loud noise and busyness of Hanoi, and the experiences we had in Ninh Binh – cycling, hiking up mountains, riding motorbikes along the motorway, riding in an overnight lay-flat bus and staying with a local family – made the trip a unique and very authentically Vietnamese experience.

And here we are, back at No Bai International Airport, having just left our fourth accommodation near the West Lake of Hanoi. We spent two days here working on the YESD video with Roni and Hester, the Brazilian/English YESD volunteers. Our host was Robert, a gracious Canadian expat and the creator of his own English teaching programs for various groups of disadvantaged children in Hanoi. Robert is also a Workaway host (Workaway is the organisation through which we have been volunteering), and his apartment was the perfect spot from which to enjoy our last two nights in Hanoi. We were even fed Western food and wine – a pleasant alternative to the Vietnamese food we have been eating every other day and which has unfortunately caused Tyson and I to be sick a total of three times on this holiday!

Now we’re off to revisit our first Air BnB host Thong in Ho Chi Minh City, for a couple of days of exploring the south before making our way back through Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane.




An unexpected twist

Well this wasn’t meant to happen.

This day was meant to be filled with more cycling, beach time, relaxing and more delicious Vietnamese food. Instead, I was up at 1am with stomach cramps and aches, and by 6am I was sick and vomiting – something I haven’t done in years.

What happened?

Perhaps it was the local gin I picked at the bar we went to after our cooking class. Maybe there was something on the glass. Or maybe I just touched something and picked up some sort of terrible stomach bug. Whatever it was, it made me very ill, and though resting throughout the morning before our flight to Hanoi helped, by the time we got to the airport in the afternoon I was so sick I couldn’t stand up in the line up to get onto the plane. I was sick again – in public! – as we walked down the aerobridge to board the plane – and a doctor had to come to check my pulse and feed me electrolytes. Luckily, we were still allowed to board the flight, and were given a seat in the back row so that I could lie down and rest. My dear Tyson was an absolute knight in shining armour, taking control of everything and looking after me in every way he could. I don’t know what I would have done had he not been there.

Luckily, I was feeling significantly better by the time the plane touched down in Hanoi, and was happy when we arrived at our next homestay, run by tour guide Luang and his family, to a hot shower and warm bed. Luang was a gracious host, accompanying us to the local pharmacy to buy some medicine and inviting us to a free dinner with his family at home. We had an early night, and the resting seemed to do me a world of good.

The next morning, we were up early: Ha Long Bay was on the agenda. I was glad to be feeling better as I had really been looking forward to this part of the trip. We were picked up in a minibus and driven four hours to Ha Long City’s harbour, then transported (‘like refugees’) on smaller boats to our traditional junk boats and cruise ships which sat in the harbour ready to set sail. We had purposely picked a smaller boat, and had the pleasure of sharing our 8-cabin junk with two Norwegians, a couple from Belgium, a German/Japanese couple, a French family of four and an Indian family of five.

Ha Long Bay, often touted as Vietnam’s top tourist destination, has been UNESCO World Heritage listed since 1994. Its limestone islets – over 2000 of them – rise up from the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and feature caves, endemic vegetation and a variety of bird and other animal species. Nowadays, overnight cruise ships, like the traditional Vietnamese wooden junk boat we were on, meander around the islets while their passengers admire the beauty of this natural wonder which has only been managed as a tourism destination for the last 15 years.

The cruise was beautiful – we had the opportunity to go kayaking on the water, visit a local fishing village, go into a cave on one of the islets (sadly visibly affected by poor tourism management and planning) and enjoy a Tai Chi class on the sundeck of our boat. For New Year’s Eve, we celebrated together with other guests on one of the larger ships at a gala dinner with a buffet, live entertainment, dancing and games.

Unfortunately, after this, it was Tyson’s turn to get sick – most probably due to the consumption of an undercooked piece of pork at the gala dinner. Upon our return to Hanoi we were back at the same pharmacy, this time in search of Imodium. Though thankfully, both of us started feeling quite a bit better with the help of modern over-the-counter medicine, it would take a couple of days in Hanoi’s Old Quarter before we were back to feeling 100% and ready to embrace a new challenge: our first ever Workaway project.

Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” – Ernest Hemingway. 

It got me. Finally. Just like so many others, my husband and parents included. It happened a bit faster for them, and I’m sure that for each person the ultimate contributing factors and speed of effect are quite unique. Whatever it is, it seems to happen to people. And as I sit on my Qantas 747 looking out of the window at the yellow lights of Johannesburg shrinking slowly below, I am hit with the realisation. Africa. You’ve captured me.

I sit here now trying desperately to hold onto every single moment and memory of the last three weeks, dreading that with every kilometre we get further away the memories will grow dimmer. Already it feels like our days in Johannesburg and the national parks are a long time ago. We’ve seen and done so much in between…

Well. It seems I’m getting a little mellow and nostalgic.

Ain’t nobody got time for that! I haven’t filled you in yet on our last week – the gourmet end – of our South Africa anniversary adventure: our time in the Stellenbosch wine region and Cape Town, and our experiences at three of South Africa’s top restaurants.

Our first stop was the Frog Lodge, a small, simple cottage on a wine farm at the base of the Franschhoek mountains. Driving into Franschhoek, South Africa’s renowned food and wine capital, Tyson and I agreed that we had never seen a town set in such a magnificent location. We came through the mountains, having just driven through the smaller Robertson Wine Valley, and even there we were stopping constantly to take photos of the beautiful scenery. When we turned the corner and got our first glimpse of Franschhoek, a small town of white houses and vineyards surrounded by high, rocky mountains on each side, all we could say was wow. Clouds touched the top of the mountains as though placed there carefully, not daring the journey across the sky to cast shadows upon the beauty of the valley below.

At night, the wind howled through the trees outside our cottage, and in the mornings a completely blue sky was slowly touched with dabs of white as clouds crept in through the gaps in the surrounding moutains.

Franschhoek, the smallest and most spectacularly set town in the Stellenbosch wine region, is one of South Africa’s oldest settlements. It’s a charming town, though locals call it a village, and its main street is lined with cafes, gift shops and galleries. Family-run wine estates surround the town, some of which date back to the late 17th Century when French Huguenot refugees were given the land to settle in by the Dutch government.

Today, the whole region is well set up for tourists, and on our second day (we spent our first exploring the nearby city of Stellenbosch), we took part in a full day wine tasting tour featuring a small wine tram, six wineries (many still built in and around the original farm houses) and about 20 glasses of wine (each). We met some nice people, tried pairing different Biltongs and olive oils with wine, and attempted to locate bits of our palette which were able to deduce the difference between ‘intelligent vanilla flavours’, ‘red berry and tobacco notes’ and ‘subtle oak tannins.’ I am sad to say that despite this full day intensive workshop I do not consider myself any higher on the wine IQ ladder .  I admit this could also be due to the amount of wine consumed and that by the end we were happy to still be distinguishing between red and white.

Consumption of wine in excess of our usual amounts had also been a feature of our previous evening in Franshhoek, as we were lucky enough to get a table at The Tasting Room, an exciting and innovative multi award-winning restaurant spearheaded by Africa’s first Grand Chef, Margot Janse.

Because of the relativity of price and value compared to the same thing at home (a factor which has delighted us this whole trip), we decided to splash out and get the 10 course African-inspired surprise menu with matching wines. Dishes featured crazy creations like pure white ‘black pepper snow’ that disappeared on your tongue leaving a hint of pepper, tomato ice-cream, oyster mousse and a cocktail made with popcorn; and for each course the waiters explained the history and method of the dish and why the matching wine was paired perfectly. It was an incredible culinary adventure.

Although we would have loved to stay in Franschhoek for longer, it was soon time to head to Cape Town – the last stop on our amazing journey.

In Cape Town we were accommodated in Frances’ Air B&B apartment – a cool designer loft in the middle of a trendy but rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood. Woodstock, a fairly mixed race part of town, has lots of hip antique and design shops lined up beside great cafes and lots of colourful street art. The area is going through an urban transformation stage, though you could tell that there were still a few issues when the police showed up two nights in a row at the house opposite us in the middle of the night.

Just a short distance from Frances’ apartment lies the Old Biscuit Mill, home of a vibrant Saturday food and craft market and the famous South African restaurants The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club.

The Test Kitchen was listed 28th in the 2015 Top 50 restaurants in the world and Best Restaurant in Africa in 2015

. The Pot Luck Club, its newer sister restaurant, is just meters away, and while the food was tasty, it seemed that in every other way it was the ugly step sister to The Test Kitchen, as the service and other features simply did not compare. Tyson and I joked that it was the reject restaurant for everyone who wanted to get into The Test Kitchen but couldn’t – after all, when we tried to book a dinner in May for August, the place was booked through to November. We were lucky to get in for lunch. At The Test Kitchen, the food was beautiful and considered but less experimental than The Tasting Room. Tyson preferred this but I was more excited by  the abstract nature and creativity at The Tasting Room.

By the end of all of this (affordable!) fanciness (AUD 55 each for a 7-course degustation at Africa’s best restaurant) we were ready for some normal food again, and finished our last day in Cape Town with some seafood at the V&A Waterfront with Gareth, the friend who had taken us for dinner in Johannesburg on our very first night in the country.

Last but not least, we retraced our footsteps of 2006 (the first time both Tyson and I came to Cape Town) and visited Rick’s Cafe, the same place we randomly discovered on our first ever night  in the city.

And there it was. A full circle. A circle of food, roads, laughter, locals, animals, towns, beautiful scenery and memories so many they get lost in the vacuum.

It has been, without a doubt, and only in competition with my 7-month solo Europe trip at age 18, the best holiday of my life and my heart is full of thankfulness for every moment and every day that I got to experience this adventure with my best friend.

Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. – 1 Chronicles 29:13

The Garden of Plenty

“It’s like we’re actually driving through someone’s garden,” said Tyson from the driver’s seat on our first day on the Garden Route. The scenery outside was a combination of natural, sometimes flowering shrubbery surrounded by lovely mowed grass – as if someone with great love and respect of the natural beauty of the land had decided to make it just that little bit more inviting by making it ‘neat.’

The Garden Route, arguably South Africa’s premier attraction after Kruger National Park, is a roughly 300km stretch of road from Storms River in the Eastern Cape to Mossel Bay in the west. Incredibly diverse in its topography, scenery and vegetation, you could easily spend weeks just driving from one small ocean hamlet to the next and from one national park to another.

For us, it turned out to be a garden full of surprises – a playground perhaps, full of things to discover and experience.

In Jeffreys Bay, the seaside town famous for being one of the world’s best surfing spots (and more recently famous for being the place where, as locals say, “that Aussie surfer of yours tried to bash up our shark”), we sat and watched wetsuit-clad wave addicts attempt to conquer the super tubes. Our B&B, run by an elderly couple with retirement dreams of Malaysia, had a view of the ocean. The town itself was sleepy and almost a bit dodgy, not helped by the fact that we were there on a dreary, grey public holiday and that many houses were up for sale.

That being said, we did have our first amazing seafood encounter in Jeffreys Bay – an $80 seafood platter for two including lobster, prawns, mussels, fish, calamari, rice, chips, salad and a bottle of wine. It was so much food that after eating all we could, we were happy to pass on our leftovers to the township boy who had been minding our car for us – Bokonya, a fifteen year old boy in grade six with dreams of becoming a pilot. I made a note to pray for him and his future. It’s not easy for these kids to break out of the economic status they’re born into, as even though they mostly all get a basic education, there are no public universities. The only way for someone from a township to get a tertiary education is to be awarded a lucrative scholarship, and these are usually only offered to those wanting to study science and become doctors.

Our next stop on the Garden Route was Tulani – an amazing eco house set amongst the Crags (a small area of indigenous forest 12km from popular beachside hub, Plettenberg Bay). An absolute stellar Air B&B find, this house had a fireplace, high wooden ceilings and a curved roof made out of grass. From the upstairs bedroom you could see the mountains, and in the mornings the sun streamed in through the floor to ceiling windows.

In Plettenberg Bay (nicknamed “Plett”) we took a guided township tour, visited a local market, hiked 9km to the spectacular Robberg Peninsula and ate dinner at Emily Moon – a creative restaurant decked out in rustic wooden candle holders, African animal furs and hunting-inspired decor. Needless to say, our time in Plett was a highlight of this week!

The morning we left Tulani was sad and exciting at the same time – sad because we didn’t want to leave, and exciting because we were about to undertake a full day South African cooking class! Run by Albin and Jenny Kilzer, an Austrian / Croatian-Scottish-South African couple famous in the area (Knysna) for their longtable and ‘cook and look’ dinners, this class was an absolute joy. Starting the morning with coffee and soon progressing to wine, five of us (Albin & Jenny, both qualified chefs and one a qualified butcher, a German lady named Erika and the two of us) prepared no less than 5 dishes in 6 hours and tried a few more. At the end of the day, we sat together around the dining table to enjoy our creations, until Jenny realised she’d forgotten her daughter at school (again) (quote: “I always lose track of time in the kitchen!”) and it was time to leave with full stomachs, a few more eye wrinkles from laughing, and a whole folder of recipes to re-try at home.

After the cooking class, Tyson and I discovered our next home – a tent among the treetops with a kitchen, balcony perfect for bird watching (amazing, the new hobbies you discover…!) and an outdoor hot tub big enough for two. What a perfect spot! Our tent, and a small handful more of them, were scattered throughout the treetops of a farm in the hinterland of Knysna, and soon became another key spot on our list of favourite accommodations.

Unfortunately, our last stop along the Garden Route, Botlierskop Private Game Reserve (our most expensive lodging) left us a little less enthused after we discovered that our luxury tented suite had no running water. Nevertheless, the attentive staff, good food, lovely spa treatments and a wonderful afternoon organised by Tyson meant that I enjoyed a great birthday here before we hit the road again to embark on the last week – the gourmet end! – of our trip. To the wine region we go…

More soon!

The Road and the Rhino

We’ve driven over 1800km in the last 6 days. Some of those kilometres were through timber plantations, many through mountains and a few along the beautiful Panorama Route in Mpumalanga Province, which boasts some of South Africa’s most breathtaking views of the Blyde River Canyon, one of the biggest canyons in the world.

The kilometres have taken us through villages – some small and poor, others busy and vibrant; past shops with funny names (“Flamboyant Supermarket” and “God is Able Hair Salon”); past ladies selling oranges, pineapples and wooden bowls in ramshackle stalls along the roadside and past mums carrying babies on their back and everything from firewood to souvenirs on their heads.

We’ve learnt the art and etiquette of passing other motorists on single lane roads and discovered that the South African version of abiding by road rules is to not follow them at all (when in Africa…).

We’ve seen hundreds of people hitchhiking to work and slowed down for cows, goats, donkeys and people on the road.

Two nights each we spent at Ngama Tented Safari Lodge near Kruger National Park and Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, which were both exceptional in their own right.

Ngama is a honeymooners’ parardise – six luxury tents (think early 1900s colonial style decor with maps, canvas and beige/sage coloured fabrics) nestled around a small waterhole in the middle of a private reserve, joined by wooden walkways and secluded for absolute privacy. Dinner at Ngama is served in a boma, a traditional circular enclosure without a roof, made from thin sticks of wood and with a fire in the middle for cooking and warmth. Candles and lanterns lead the way to the boma along a sand path and hang on the walls of the boma to provide light for the tables.

Dinner at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi’s Hilltop Camp is a different story. The park’s most developed lodge, Hilltop, is situated – as the name may have given away – on top of  a mountain overlooking the rolling savannah hills below. This setting, spectacular as it is, is enjoyed by a vastly greater amount of tourists, many with children, meaning that dinner is a much less romantic occasion. Adding to this is the fact that the menu consists of a self-serve buffet and wine by the glass that tastes like it’s been watered down with bitter sparkling water. (Ironically, this is where we celebrated our first wedding anniversary dinner!)

That being said, Hilltop’s accommodation – our own rondavel cabin with a bedroom, bathroom, lounge room, kitchen and balcony visited occasionally by baboons – was clean and had everything we needed.

Though Kruger, South Africa’s biggest (it stretches 414km from top to bottom) and most famous national park was great, Tyson and I both agreed that the less visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (pronounced Shooshlooweh-Imfolozi) was our new favourite – not least because we had the great privilege of seeing 51 (!) white rhinos – Tyson’s favourite animal and one which was once teetering on the verge of extinction due to illegal poaching.

Poaching for rhino horn remains a major problem in Africa, driven mainly by demand from Asian countries which believe that the horn contains healing properties for anything from headaches to cancer. The value of rhino horn is said to be higher than the value of gold, and despite stringent security checks of everyone entering the park, it is estimated that one rhino a day is killed for its horn in South Africa alone. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, known for its large rhino population, is famous for being the park that brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

On all of our (self-drive) safari game drives, we were lucky to see herds of elephant, zebra, buffalo, giraffe and antelope, as well as rhino, monkey, lion and warthog families, a leopard and amazing varieties of birds.

It has been a truly African experience, and we have absolutely loved being on the wide open road and surrounded by nature.

Now off we go to the Garden Route…!