Sunday, 28 June 2009

Where are we now?

It's probably time to post something up to date on the blog rather than constantly playing catchup on road trips etc!

Well I'm back in the UK now and have been since last Monday. I flew via Istanbul again with Turkish Airlines into Birmingham. All very smooth and stress free really! I spent Monday and Tuesday relaxing and mostly sleeping. Since then I've been sorting out some of the admin (getting car back on the road etc) and working my way through a huge mountain of post! As of next Wednesday (1st July) I'm back on the payroll at National Express Group plc so have got to prepare myself mentally for re-entering the workplace!!!

Elaine is still in SA until the 7th July working extremely hard on wedding preparations. I just wish that I could be there to help her. I really appreciate all of her hard work and am sure that everything will be fantastic, she has very good taste you know!

Elaine lands in the UK on 8th July at London Heathrow but I won't be there to meet her as I'll be all the way up in Glasgow graduating from university! I have finally finished the 3.5 year slog of doing a degree by distance learning through work and am now a BSc in Railway Operations! It's going to be great to catch up with some former colleagues and celebrate finishing successfully! Elaine and I eventually meet up on th 9th as I taking the sleeper from Glasgow to London overnight after graduation, I am really missing her already so it will be fantastic to see her.

What then with the blog you may ask! Well I think that we may have to rename it slightly (we're not in Africa anymore afterall!) but we're going to carry on blogging and sharing our experiences with those of you over here and over there!

Thanks for reading for the last few months, hopefully we'll still be able to keep you entertained from now until our wedding next January!

Friday, 26 June 2009

Engagement / Goodbye Jon Party!

Friday 19th June

We decided that as I was going home on Sunday 21st June and that we had now been engaged for a month that we should have a party to celebrate both events!

We 'slaved' away in the kitchen for 'hours' making nibbles and tasty treats to fill the dining table in the big house (thanks for letting us take over your home again Ninja and Stoffel!) and hopefully keep our guests full when they arrived.

And arrive they did! It was great to see so many people, the street outside was packed with cars. It looked like there was a rugby match going on!

I escaped having to braai any meat as we had so much food already but Stoffel and Johan Lombard assessed me on my ability to braai the 'broodjies' and cook the butternut halves and the mushroom and spinach mix. The verdict was a pass! Now I've just got to wait until January to graduate on the meat!!

We had a great (late) night and would like to thank everyone so much for coming, it meant a lot to us. Thanks also for all the presents, you really shouldn't have. We didn't get to take many pictures but here's a few that we got in the 5 minutes that the camera was out!

Thursday, 25 June 2009

One last wine tasting!

Wednesday 18th June

As I had just 4 days left in South Africa we decided to go for a final days wine tasting with André (Elaine's brother), his girlfriend Maria and Elaine's friend Katie.

In the evening we had arranged to go for a braai at Anton's home which just happens to be at the Rainbow's End wine estate. In fact Anton is the winemaker in the family enterprise and he is André's best friend.

Katie was our designated driver and did not disappoint. She arrived at our house before us at 1300hrs in a great big BMW! What a change from a Nissan 1400 bakkie! We arrived a few minutes later, jumped in and headed off to pick up André and Maria.

With the 'boet' safely in the car we set off for our first port of call, Waterford Wine Estate, who's winemaker Francois went to school with Elaine and André. If you grow up in Stellenbosch it seems inevitable that you will have plenty of good connections in the wine industry!

Waterford is known for matching it's wine tasting with the stunning chocolates of Von Geusau (Elaine's favourite - especially the rose geranium variety). Before we could taste the wine and chocolate together we sampled a number of very good whites and reds from both the estate and second label ranges.

Now it was time for chocolate and wine together! Our waiter brought out trays with chocolate and three fresh wine glasses. We were to sample the Kevin Arnold Shiraz with masala chai dark chocolate, a Cabernet Sauvignon paired with a dark rock-salt chocolate (sounds strange but it was REALLY good) and finally the Heatherleigh desert wine with Elaine's favourite rose geranium choccie.

Satisfied with our lot we got back into the car and decided to drive to Hidden Valley, one of the estates that we had considered for our wedding venue.

The location is absolutely stunning, nestled into the slopes of the Heldeberg Mountain with stunning views all the way out to Table Mountain (though not on the day we visited unfortunately).

The thing that we really love abut coming here, other than the view, is the opportunity to taste some excellent wine and to buy a case of one of our favourites (the Land's End Sauvignon Blanc which is on special offer for next to nothing!). An added bonus is that you are given a very generous amount of wine to taste!

Time had got away from us, as it tends to when you are sitting in the sun drinking wine, and it was time to head to the shops to get supplies for the braai. We also had to pick up the bakkie to take with us Rainbow's End as the road there is a bit of a rollercoaster!

Another hour or so later we were all set and headed off just as the sun was setting. After a ten minute drive on tarmac and 20 minutes on a real dirt bone shaker we had reached the main gates to the estate. Anton opened up for us and we started on the very steep and rutted final couple of kms. Finally, after Anton joined us halfway up, we reached the end of the line and the magnificent family home. Words cannot describe just what a stunning location this is, backed right up onto the slopes of the Jonkershoek Mountain overlooking the Banghoek valley. It was dark when we were there so have no photos of the view but the Rainbow's End website can fill in the gaps!

We had a couple of drinks and then headed off to the cellars which Anton had kindly offered to take us round and let us taste different wines in different stages of maturity straight from the barrels.

The cellars were nice and warm compared to the outside temperature not by luck but by design. Anton gave us a basic introduction to his craft and then used a wine thief to extract a sample of wine from a barrel.

Tasting glasses were filled and we began our journey into the unknown!

We repeated the process many times and got a great insight into the life-cycle of wine in the barrel. It was interesting to taste how the flavours and acidity change dramatically over time and also to recognise that what may not be palatable now had the potential to be a fantastic wine in 12 months time, hopefully good enough to win Anton even more gold medals for his collection. I think that we all started to feel that we would like to study the process and join Anton as winemakers ourselves!

Sampling all of that red wine (they do not make any whites here) had started to have an effect, our tonues were red and the journey back to the house would be slightly more tricky!

Anton went to fetch some finished and bottled wines for us to drink while the rest of us got ready to braai. The Cabernt Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that we drank with our steak and boerewors were fantastic and we all had a great night sitting out on the 'stoop', eating, drinking and laughing. The only downside of the whole evening was that we had to leave and negotiate the road again!

For those of you in the UK we are sorry but you won't find Rainbow's End in the shops but you can order through the website, just don't ask us how much shipping costs! For those of you in SA, get drinking! You will find Anton's wines at some of the top restaurants in the land and specialist quality wine merchants.

Some favourite views of Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch has quickly become a home from home for Jon so we decided to share just a few of our favourite views. Perhaps not a conventional collection of pictures to show someone what a town looks like but these are a few things that catch the eye every day.

Stellenbosch is a well structured town with a grid system of roads in the central area and plenty (some say more than plenty) of cafes and bars. Typical of this area is the oak lined Andringa Street.

The sculptor Dylan Lewis has turned Stellenbosch into one large sculpture park with a display of 23 pieces portraying big cats, buffalo and rhino. The buffalo pair outside Die Moederkerk (Mother Church) are simply stunning and will be sorely missed when the exhibition ends in October 2009.

This is our favourite tree in town, a naboom. It has only taken us 5 months to finally get round to actually taking a photograph of it!

This is part of the lei-water canal system which was developed by the early Dutch settlers to direct water from the Eerste Rivier to the 5 different mills around the town. Householders also drew the water to irrigate their gardens, something which some properties still have the right to do today.

Die Laan or The Avenue is a well known thoroughfare in the town and is part of local folklore. Apparently you cannot consider yourself a local until an acorn has fallen on your head (Stellenbosch is also known as Eikestad or City of Oaks), you have fallen on your own head in De Akker (The Acorn pub - SA's second oldest) and kissed on Die Laan. Do you have any idea how long it takes hanging around under oak trees waiting for an acorn to fall on your head?!!!!!

The 'Maties' is the nickname for Stellenbosch RFC of 'Stellenbosch Laws' fame. This is reputed to be the largest rugby club in the world with 1200 playing members and 56 teams! Springbok legend Danie Craven was closely associated with the club for nearly 50 years and coached the first team from 1947 to 1991! Unsurprisingly the Maties play their home games at the 17000 capacity Danie Craven Stadium, which hosted Australia vs Romania in the 1995 world cup and provides possibly the most beautiful location in the world to play rugby.

The view of the circle (roundabout) on Merriman from Cluver sums up the natural beauty that surrounds this town. It is also the view that tells us we are 200m from home!

Just a flavour but hopefully we can add more as time permits.


On Wednesday 17th June we were fully recovered from our trip and arranged to take Elaine's parents for lunch at Morgenhof, our wedding venue, to celebrate Oom Leon's birthday and to sample the food that we hope our guests will enjoy!

Firstly though was a quick dash into Cape Town to collect Elaine's passport which had been returned to the UK visa office from the consulate in Pretoria. Of course they don't tell you if they have granted a visa and you cannot open the package until you have left the office. Elaine jumped back into the car and opened it. Success! One shiny new 6 month multiple entry visitor's visa. Excellent, one big worry out of the way!

We shot off back towards Stellenbosch and our lunch appointment at Morgenhof.

We feel like part of the family now with the staff all stopping to say hello and ask if there was anything that they could help with. We are certain that we have made the right choice of venue even if we have to keep the number of guests to 65 to ensure that we will all get a seat!

We took a few reference photos around the estate before sitting down to lunch.

The food that we were served was fabulous! Pork Loin, Norwegian Salmon, Quiche and Beef Fillet were followed with Crème Brûlée and a fantastic Dark Chocolate Marquíse.

We all thouroughly enjoyed our meals and feel very happy with the choice of venue.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Road Trip 2.11

Monday 15th June

The last day! Time to head back to Stellenbosch for Jon's last week in SA (for now)!

The house was a frenzy of packing and cleaning for at least an hour before we were all safely in our own vehicles and heading our seperate ways. We had a tour around Sutherland and took a few photos of the typical buildings and the surrounding area.

Meanwhile Mot and Marieke were exploring and the rest of the gang were waiting for the tyre to be fixed on the Kombi.

We headed out of town back towards Matjiesfontein and the N1. We didn't get too far before Elaine spotted some more art materials for us to harvest! This time it was to collect the white long and sharp thorns from the acacia tree! Ouch!

Meanwhile Mot and Marieke overtook us and therefore moved into the lead in the chase home! Over the next 45 minutes we overtook each other a couple of times as they stopped for photograhs at one location and we stopped at another.

As we approached the N1 junction we had already decided to go straight over and pay Matjiesfontein another visit. Obviously Mot and Marieke had the same idea and in the distance we could see their car leading the way!

We met up with our comrades outside the hotel and arranged to meet up in the coffee shop after we had done some more exploring. We went to the transport museum which had a good selection of old cars (British and American), a Penny Farthing and a steam engine and railway carriages amongst the exhibits.

We made our way back towards the coffee shop and met up with the others who were in the process of ordering tea and scones - make that two! The sun was shining as our refreshments arrived and delicious they were too. We could easily have been in the UK, probably in Devon if I had to guess!!

The snack had made us hungry so we decided that we would go back to the scene of Friday nights entertainment, have a drink and wait for the inevitable - the Kombi with the rest of the gang pulling up! Sure enough just as the drinks were ordered the pub door opened and in walked the rest of the gang, we really are predictable people!

We sat outside and enjoyed sausage and mash with good cold beer before taking the decision that we should really try to get home today! We all set off back on the N1 and soon became dispersed as one stopped for fuel and another stopped for pictures etc.

Eventually we reached the beautiful Hex River Valley and noticed that the weather was starting to change, which is pretty typical the closer to the Du Toitskloof Mountains you get. The autumnal colours of the vines were stunning and the sun streamed through gaps in the clouds.

A short while later came Worcester followed by the Huguenot Tunnel, Paarl and finally home, Drommedaris Street in Stellenbosch!

Guess what? The Kombi had beaten us back and Ninja and Stoffel were busy unloading their bags. We were exhausted and after saying goodbye to Carl, Ursula and Heinrich we went to our respective parts of the property and collapsed!

What a great trip, exactly what we like doing. We just wish we could travel around permanently and not have to go to work!

Road Trip 2.10

Sunday 14th June

We slept very well again in our electric blanket clad bed and despite being slightly hungover we all manged to climb back into the Kombi for our planned daytrip to Fraserburg to see some dinosaur footprints. Sod's Law dictated that the sky was blue and the sun was shining in sharp contrast to the previous day!

We had nearly 100km of Karoo dirt road to negotiate between Sutherland and Fraserburg but seemingly we didn't think to check the petrol before we left! We drove for an hour or so without seeing another car until we overtook another Kombi towing a trailer with a motorcycle on it. Unbeknownst to the rest of us in the back Carl and Stoffel were now breathing a little easier. Still blissfully unaware of the shortage petrol of we admired the semi-desert landscape and kept our eyes open for interesting wildlife. Soon enough we were all aware that there was a problem, the Kombi ground to a halt! We were only 10km from Fraserburg but the fact that we had overtaken the other Kombi meant that someone was behind us and would shortly catch us up.

Elaine stood with her arms out in the middle of the road and the other Kombi pulled up behind us. Now it was time for Carl to taste some unleaded! Our saviour provided a length of tubing and we provided an empty sherry bottle with which to siphon some fuel from the motorcycle. Well done to Carl who actually looked as if he enjoyed the taste!

So with another 750ml in the tank we set off again keeping everything crossed that we would make it! First the church steeple appeared, then some buildings and finally the town itself. Just as we got to the top of a rise we ran out again so Stoffel, Heinrich and Jon decided to jump out and push! We made it and actually accelerated down the slope! Deciding that straight on was the best option at the road junction we soon saw a petrol station totem! One last push to get us onto the forecourt and we were home and dry, much to the local police patrols amusement! We must have been the talk of the town and were probably the most intersting thing to happen here for some time!

After filling up and catching our breath we drove to the museum where our guide Vincent was waiting to take us out to the geological site at Gansfontein. A short drive later and we were there. The site was well worth a vist, discovered after a burst dam washed away the top layer of earth in the 1950s this ancient river bed provides an insight into the life of the dinosaurs 250 million years ago. Vincent was an interesting guide and showed us dinosaur footprints, worm trails marks left by fish and water run off.

We returned to the museum and had a look at some of the other intersting artifacts, including a set of Avery Scales from Jon's hometown of Birmingham, before heading back towards Sutherland.

We decided to stop for the packed lunch prepared by Jon and Elaine about halfway back. No sooner had we stopped next to the 'klein-rietrivier' than we discovered that we had a puncture in one of the rear tyres! So lunch was followed by tyre changing and once again we were on our way!

A short while afterwards Carl spotted a huge Martial Eagle perched on a telegraph pole ahead. This is Africa's largest eagle and a top predator. We parked up and watched for a long while. Moving closer when we could, following when it moved(because we were getting too close)and even climbed fences to try and get the elusive photograph. It never allowed us to get close enough for a full frame shot but we did manage to get some fairly good shots of this magnificent creature. What a privilege.

Eventually we left our new friend in peace and continued our journey, spotting some very inquisitive Dassies on the way, until we got to the main entrance of the observatory. We stopped for the photo opportunity that we didn't get the previous day!

A short while later we arrived home with some newly purchased provisions and built a nice warming fire. Heinrich fed us with an excellent vegetable soup and bruschetta and we talked and lughed until it was time for bed again! Quite an action packed day for a trip to see some dinosaur footprints!

Road Trip 2.9

Saturday 13th June

Sutherland is known as being the second coldest place in South Africa and when we woke up we didn't doubt that this for one second! At 4780 feet above sea level Sutherland is 371 feet higher than the summit of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, so we shouldn't have been too surprised!

Now you may remember that we had been having some wonderful sunny clear weather for the last week and that the sole purpose of going to Sutherland was to look at the largest (joint) telescope in the world, yes? Well guess what? The weather was absolutely terrible! We may actually have been on the top of Ben Nevis for all we knew! Visibility was zero, it was foggy and cold and to top it all off it started raining!

The general mood in the camp was one of disappointment but we decided that we would still go to our booked tour at 1130hrs and visit the site before deciding whether to return for our booked evening of stargazing.

We had breakfast and some coffees and all piled into Carl and Ursula's VW Kombi for the 15 minute journey to the South African Astronomical Observatory, home of SALT and many other large telescopes. It was going to be even colder here at an altitude of 5741 feet so we wrapped up warm.

We arrived at the visitor's centre and spent some time looking at the interesting exhibits. Our guide arrived and explained a little about the site and what we would be visiting before we all got back into the Kombi and headed up to the top of the site and the large telescopes.

We entered the 1.0m Elizabeth Telescope built by Grubb Parsons in England in 1962. Our guide explained that telescopes on this scale are not what we would immediately think of as being a telescope, basically you cannot look through it! The light collected is refracted by the 1m mirror and sent back into the some highly complex optical equipment which is displyed as data on a computer screen! These large telescopes basically measure temperature and any images that are produced are actually photographs! All very interesting.

Next up was the short drive over to SALT for a tour of the world's joint largest single optical telescope, how exciting, even if we could hardly see it from the outside!

Once inside the difference in scale was apparent. We were standing next to a high tech control centre in the base of the building and the base of the telescope was stil two stories above us! It was just a shame that we were not allowed to feed the astronomers!

We climbed the stairs admiring the images which had been captured using this and other telescopes from around the world until we reached the viewing area. Wow, what a contraption, it looked like a giant meccanno set with a collection of huge mirrors at its centre. Apparently this is a very good telescope, but we wouldn't know anything about that would we!

It was a very interesting way to spend a couple of hours and we all headed back to our accommodation with a chaned perception of what astronomy actually is.

Carl and Ursula provided us with a mexican feast for lunch and the tequilla helped to warm us up and start the party mood!

The most amusing part of lunch was watching Ninja desperately trying to stop the burning caused by the chilli she had bitten into. Thanks to our collective suggestions she had tears running down her face as she held a piece of cheese to her lips and wiped sour cream around her mouth! Priceless!

UPDATE - NINJA CLARIFIES . If you are interested click HERE to see the chilli that Ninja is talking about! Sneaky indeed!

After lunch everyone relaxed and eventually some of the party fell asleep! Carl Ursula, Elaine and myself decided that we would take a trip to the local pub and sample at little of Sutherland life. We walked out of a the deserted streets into a packed pub! This is obviously what people do on a Saturday here! We had a few drinks and noted that there seemed to be a whole clip of rifle ammunition lying on the bar next to someone's wallet, we were definitely in a rural community!

Back at base everyone was stirring and ready for more food and drink. The decision was taken that there would be little point returning to the observatory as even the best telescopes in the world can't see through thick cloud cover!

Ninja and Stoffel made a delicious table of greek snacks and chicken and beef kebabs before we all settled down for an hilarious game of Cranium. The more we laughed the more we drank, the more we drank the worse we got at the game and the more we laughed. We definitely recommend this game for parties, it's hilarious! We played until our jaws ached and we could not keep our eyes open any longer!

Road Trip 2.8

Friday 12th June

The temperature had obviously dropped overnight as we woke up to bright sunshine and a thick layer of fog on the valley floor, it was quite eerie to be above it and unable to see the road from the cottage.

We had time to pack the bakkie and head off for another swim in the hot pool before checking out and setting off on our last day travelling solo!

This evening we would be meeting up with Ninja & Stoffel, Mot & Marieke, Carl & Ursula and Heinrich in Sutherland ready for our booked visit to SALT (Southern Africa Large Telescope) the following day.

Looking at the map we decided to make the journey interesting and see if the dirt road through the Cederberg Wilderness Area was suitable for the bakkie. If not it wouldn't be a problem as we could go through via Citrusdal anyway and would have seen some of the sights on offer.

A short trip along the N7 brought us to the Algeria turning and the beginnings of the dirt road through the mountains. Initial road quality was good level and wide and not too dusty, that is until a large construction lorry thundered past leaving us in a cloud of road dust! After stopping and waiting for a while we followed at a good distance, constantly climbing. The views were absolutely stunning but it was sad to see the damage that had been done here by the wild fire earlier in the year.

As we neared Algeria it became apparent where the lorry had been heading. The road was being paved! Unbelievable, we were treated to some very high quality road surface near the top of a mountain! We drove on for a few kms until we reached the section that was being worked on. We waited for a few minutes before being flagged through alongside the worksite, greeting the workmen as we went. They smiled and waved and obviously took side bets with each other on how long it would be before we were heading back in the opposite direction!

After the end of the worksite things got very steep and rugged. The road became rutted and washed away but the bakkie was still very comfortable. Eventually we reached the summit and expected things to level out a bit!

Unfortunately they didn't and the road became more and more uneven and rutted due to erosion caused by running water. After another few kms we decided for the second time in a week to turn round and head back the way we had come. Another good effort for a Nissan 1400 bakkie but we didn't want to get stuck! The trip had served its purpose and we were happy to have spent a couple of hours travelling 40kms into some stunning wilderness. This is definitely a place we will visit in the future to stay and do some hiking.

We passed the workmen again and I'm sure I could see notes being exchanged in the rear view mirror! After rescuing a tortoise who was crossing the road very slowly we made it back to the tar of the N7 and headed back to Citrusdal stopping en route to buy some naartjies and dried pears at one of the many farmstalls.

The road from Citrusdal was a higher quality road with stretches of tarmac inbetween the dirt road. Progress was good and soon we were back on permanent tarmac heading through Prince Alfred's Hamlet and Ceres.

We were about to complete a circle that we had started over a week ago. We rejoined the N1 near to Touwsrivier and headed towards the junction for Sutherlandand Matjiesfontein. When we got there we decided to spend and hour visiting the famous Matjiesfontein before heading off to meet everyone else. Sometimes it helps to drive a distinctive car because as soon as we turned off the N1 Elaine's phone rang, it was Ninja telling us that they had all just left the bar in Matjiesfontein but were now turning round to come and join us! The weekend had started!

Matjiesfontein was fascinating and you can read some of the history for yourselves at the linked pages. We were greeted with Union Jacks and a London Routemaster bus (According to the LT museum this is RTL841 and was exported to Cape Town in 1966 - now don't say that I don't tell you anything)!

We spent a good few hours in the bar singing along to Carl's piano playing and being taken on a tour of the hotel by the local guide/entertainer. This place really does represent a byegone age with traditional buildings, staff in victorian uniforms and good clean fun! Even better Ninja's Grandfather used to be the local policeman here - bet that was a really cushy number!

The Trans Karoo stops here every day as do the luxury Blue Train and Rovos Rail services. When a train arrives half of the people go outside to watch, then return to their drinks afterwards!

It was just after 2100hrs when we eventually left the bar in a very 'happy' mood! Suffice it to say that it was necessary for Elaine to drive the last leg of the journey, the 100km to Sutherland! Just over a hour later we arrived at our lodgings, built a fire and slept!