Wednesday, December 30

Breakfast views

This is the view we've been waking up to every morning. What more can I say?

Sadly, no dolphins were sighted today. Instead we've been entertained by a light aircraft doing endless loop-the-loop manoeuvres along the beach.

Seen it, ate it

We took a 2.5 hour safari drive through the Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve today. Covering 2200 hectares, it bills itself as the biggest reserve in the Southern Cape region. We were told that more than a hundred wildlife species roam freely on the reserve's grassland including lions, rhinos, giraffes, wilderbeast and zebras. We managed to see many of them today, along with a host of young animals, some less than a month old.

At the end of the tour Garry and I began comparing notes on which native animals we'd eaten since arriving in South Africa. The list is already rather impressive. We've sampled Kudu (a large antelope) and Zebra in Capetown, Ostrich in our burgers and smoked Springbok capaccio was last night's delicious starter. We noted that, on previous occasions, we've also sampled crocodile, wilderbeast and buffalo.

Our guide was surprised to hear we'd sampled Zebra, as he'd never had it despite living in South Africa his entire life. I must admit I was equally surprised to see it on the menu last week and thus couldn't resist an opportunity to try it. The meat was very lean, tender and incredibly tasty. I'm definitely a zebra connoisseur.

Oh yes - and before I forget - this morning we saw another pod of dolphins gliding along the edge of the surf zone as we ate breakfast. It was a marvelous sight to watch four majestic marine mammals make their way down the coast. One even stopped to body surf a couple of waves much our our collective delight. Readers can rest assured we won't be eating them.

Tuesday, December 29

Heaven is a white-sand beach

Plettenberg Bay is a coastal paradise. We arrived here yesterday evening after driving north from George Airport. Once again the rental car gods smiled upon us. We were given a almost new car by Budget. With less than 1500kms on the clock it still sports that distinctive brand new car smell. Our first taste of the Garden Route was equally satisfying. As we descended the coastal plateau from George down to the small beach town of Wilderness we were greeted by the sight of a curving, white-sand beach, washed by a string of classic white-capped breaking waves. Nothing restores the soul more than a scene like this!

The stunning vistas continued as we made our way up the coast, culminating in a breath-taking drive along the shoreline of picturesque Knysna Estuary (don’t worry I have no idea how to pronounce the name either). Our passage coincided with high tide, and thus we caught the estuary at its most scenic. As we drove, speedboats and yachts headed for their evening mooring across a waterway shimmering in the light of a golden sunset.

We arrived in Plettenberg Bay as dusk was settling. It was clear we’d entered another world as this is the Summer playground of South Africa's rich and famous. In fact, the town boasts more international standard polo fields than any other location nationwide (and quite possibly, all of Africa). Its streets are plied by Audi TTs, BMW Z3s and other luxury imports, while a string of expensive holiday homes hot the coastline, each offering infinity pools and other glitzy accoutrements.

Our beachside (and I mean ‘beachside’) accommodation has proved equally impressive. We’re staying at Periwinkle Lodge, a modern B&B beach house located directly opposite Robberg Beach, a sweeping expanse of white sand beach that literally stretches for miles. Our room is on the highest floor, offering truly breath-taking ocean views from a niffy balcony.

Our host, Pascalette, even set up breakfast for us on the outdoor terrace. We dined this morning bathed in brilliant sunshine while overlooking an unbroken 180 degree view of the beach and its sparkling, white surf. Garry later saw a pod of dolphins lazily swim along the shore. I think we’ll do just fine basing ourselves here for the next four days.

Sunday, December 27

Ready for the Garden Route

We're off to the airport in about 45 minutes for a flight to George, gateway to South Africa's famed Garden Route coast. We couldn't have asked for better weather as we head for the beach. Today dawned picture perfect with clear blue sky as far as the eye could see. Just the sort of day you want if you're taking a cable car to the summit of Table Mountain. This monolith rock plateau soars 1037 metres above the city. So high in fact that it generates its own micro-climate. I'll share more details in a later post. For now, here are a few highlights from our latest tourist expedition.

Images of Cape Town

I've gathered some random images over the last few days that warrant their own post. The first are images from the grounds of Goot Constantia, South Africa's oldest wine estate. It was established by Simon van der Stel, a popular commander and later governor of the Cape, who was granted land for a farm in 1685. This post's opening image is that of the Manor House, Simon van der Stel's original homestead. The current building was rebuilt during the 1790's and takes on a distinctive Dutch form. Below are other equally picturesque buildings located on the estate's immaculate tree-shaded grounds.

The next image is Slangkop lighthouse at Kommetjie. It's a 33-metre circular cast iron tower, painted white. It's unusual construction gives its the dubious distinction of being the nation's strongest such structure. The lighthouse is the result of a commission appointed in 1906 by the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. When it entered service in 1916 it was manned by three people, before becoming a fully automatic facility in 1979. You can still climb the tower for a small fee but unfortunately it was closed on Christmas Day when we visited.

The final images are those of Cape Town's new football stadium, built for the approaching 2010 FIFA World Cup. The stadium, seating 68,000, sits on parkland overlooking the city's sweeping harbour. After the World Cup at least 55,000 seats will remain in place. It's an impressive building that, despite its bulk, forms a surprisingly integral part of Cape Town's modern skyline.

Boulders Bay Penguin Colony

Simon's Town is home to South Africa's main naval base. For almost two hundred years the British maintained an overseas base here before handing its facilities to the South African government in 1957. Incredibly, on the edge of this bustling naval town lies a thriving colony of African penguins (formerly known as Jackass Penguins, in honour of the loud donkey braying sound they make). The colony began with just two breeding pairs in 1982. Today more than 3000 birds can be found nesting in steep hills that surround Boulders Bay, a narrow inlet of elegant granite boulders and sheltered sandy beaches.

Garry and I visited the colony today, along with hundreds of others camera-ready tourists. Access to the penguins is restricted to a series of boardwalks that snakes along the coast and down to the beach. Any initial disappointment that we'd be kept well back from the birds were soon dispelled when we discovered pairs by the dozen nesting literally in the shadow of the boardwalk. The sight of penguins preening each other, waddling in simple courtship displays and splashing in the surf was simply magic.

These birds are a monogamous species, whose lifelong partners take turns to incubate their eggs and feed their young. We saw pair after pair nesting in shallow burrows and bowls. Their mutual devotion could be clearly seen. We later learnt that December is the best time to see these birds as its their moulting season. While moulting they don't feed and thus spent a disproportionate time on land. We saw several moulting pengiuns hovering around a popular rock pool where the rocky surface is idle for rubbing away the last of their thick dull winter coat.

The growth of the colony is in part a consequence of the demise of the local fishing industry. Fewer boats has resulted in an increased supply of pilchards and anchovy that form an important part of the birds' diet. This revived fish supply couldn't have come at more opportune moment. Of the 1.5 million African Penguin population estimated in 1910, barely 10% remained by 2000. The Boulder Bay colony is therefore a rare success story for a species still seriously at risk of extinction.

Saturday, December 26

Merry Christmas!

These photos pretty much say it all. We've had a wonderful Christmas Day in Cape Town. We woke this morning to bright blue skies and sunshine, pretty much the same weather that greeted us on arrival yesterday. Weather hasn't been the only blessing. Yesterday Hertz upgraded our rental car at the airport, followed by the hotel which upgraded us to a Club Room. The upgrade gives us access to the Executive Lounge on the hotel's top floor where guests are greeted with a stunning 180 degree view of Cape Town, the coast and the city's iconic Table Mountain.

We've had a rather traditional Christmas Day - with a hot roast meal and a trip to the beach - albeit with a rather exotic African twist. Our day started early thanks to a double dose of jetlag. We grabbed an early breakfast in the lounge, then drove down coast to the Cape of Good Hope. Much to our delight the native animals were out in full force today including the ever so cute Rock Hyrax (also called Dassie), a solitary Eland Antelope, Baboons by the dozen and a family of Ostriches whom we encountered casually strolling along the beach.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed a buffet lunch with all the trimmings including Turkey, Lamb and Ham on the bone. Santa even dropped by to hand out a few chocolates. As is tradition we retired to our room to spent the afternoon desperately trying to digest our bloated lunch. After watching a silly Christmas movie we rose to soak up the last of the day's sun drinking complimentary wine and canapes in the Executive Lounge. Christmas Day doesn't get much better than this! Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 23

A South African Summer

It took four flights and entire day of flying to get from Tauranga in New Zealand to Heathrow. Along the way I had a chance to fly the newest aircraft in the Qantas fleet, including Katherine Mansfield, a new Boeing 737-800 on the trans-Tasman route and an Airbus A380 between Sydney and London. It’s amazing the difference that a new plane makes. Both aircraft were fitted with the airline’s latest inflight entertainment system which made the hours literally fly by (if you'll excuse the pun). I’m still impressed by how quiet the A380 is despite its size. It’s also far more stable in flight, particularly toward the rear of the aircraft. In other aircraft the rear tends to flex a lot resulting in a perpetually shuddering ride.

That was last Saturday. Tonight Garry and I embark on the first of another four flights - this time to the bottom of the planet and back. We’ll begin our South African adventure in Cape Town for four days over Christmas, and then fly to George, a gateway town to nation’s scenic Garden Route. We’ll spend five days driving up the Indian Ocean coast to Port Elizabeth, although most of our time will be spent at the beach in Plettenburg Bay. Garry wanted at least a few days on this trip doing nothing more than watching waves crash upon the shore.

On New Year’s Day we'll fly to Johannesburg for a whirlwind 1.5 day tour of South Africa’s largest city and the nearby capital of Pretoria. Marcus, the managing consultant of my company’s South African office, has kindly offered his services as our tour guide while we’re in town. He and his fiancĂ© will also show us the sights of Soweto and direct us to the best local dining venues. Nothing bets local knowledge! We then fly home on the evening of January 2, ready to face our fifth year in London.

This will be my fifth, or possibly sixth, time in South Africa and Garry’s first. I’m looking forward to showing him some of my favourite sights including beach-combing Ostriches at the Cape of Good Hope and the simple delights of Wandie’s Place in Soweto. The highlight for me is a chance to finally see the world renown Garden Route. I’m also looking forward to seeing final preparations underway for next year’s FIFA World Cup. No doubt the most obvious sign of this impending event will be shiny new stadiums in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

Counting down to warm weather

Garry and I have checked in online for our flight to Cape Town. In less than 24 hours we'll be jetting our way down the planet to South Africa's iconic city. The weatherman is promising clear skies and a toasty high of 24 °C. We're in for a treat tomorrow. I've cashed in a fistful of Virgin Atlantic frequent flyer points to secure Upper Class sleeper seats for both of us. We'll then return to London ten days later flying First Class with British Airways, again using frequent flyer points.

The last time we flew long-haul on points was April 2005 when we flew business class to Hawaii courtesy of Air New Zealand. My first day back at work after this trip was the day I was asked to consider relocating to London. How times have changed!

A white Christmas

Britain has been inundated by snow this week, creating travel chaos across the nation. On Monday evening more than 2,000 motorists either abandoned their vehicles or slept in their cars after getting stuck in gridlocked traffic. The Eurostar high-speed rail service ground to a halt for three days after six trains broke down in Channel tunnel, trapping thousands of passengers for almost 16 hours.

The snow has created magical white Christmas scenes everywhere you go. On Monday we had at least 3cm fall at Swiss Cottage. I walked home after work past children sliding down white hills, while adults gingerly shuffled by wrapped in scarves and heavy coats. For a brief moment I felt as if every Christmas card from my childhood had come to life.

The contrast with the scene in Sydney last Saturday couldn't have been more stark. While enroute from a family reunion in New Zealand I stopped for seven hours to join friends for a leisurely lunch on the harbour. We dined at Catalina, a purpose built restaurant offering panoramic views of Rose Bay and seaplanes on the harbour. On arrival we were greeted by the sight of a cloudless blue sky, reflected in an equally iridescent harbour. The temperature later hit a high of 29°C.

The weather was equally warm and sunny in New Zealand. I flew out of Tauranga to the sight of The Mount literally glowing in the early morning sun. The day before we'd enjoyed a refreshing high of 24°C. Such idylic Summer scenes make it progressively harder to return to London. While the white Christmas scenes have been magical this week my heart remains true to the blue skies and sunshine Down Under.

Tuesday, December 15

A family Christmas

For the first time in six years the family has come together for Christmas. Half of us had flown from Europe, while our parents had driven for a couple of hours. Like so many Christmas mornings from days of old, ourday began with a frenzied whirlwind of shredded paper as four young children made light work of wrapped gifts under the tree. There's something remarkably uplifting about the excitment of kids at Christmas.

New dresses, toy trucks, books and sock puppets were soon scattered across the floor. We'd clearly done our bit to revive New Zealand's retail spending statistics. Three years ago the average Kiwi spent more than $900 on Christmas, resulting in a national spend of close to $2.76 billion. However, the recession took its toll last year when Christmas retail sales fell 3.7%. This year sales are already up 1.3% over the same period. Meanwhile, in the USA, consumers are forecast to spend a staggering $437.6 billion in the November and December period, which is still a 1% drop from $442 billion last year.

A traditional roast lamb lunch followed, along with mandatory paper crackers and silly hats. Growing up it was equally traditional to follow lunch with a game of cricket on the back lawn. How else do you spend a Summer's afternoon? However, it seems that times have changed. Today we took the kids ten-pin bowling. Tradition returned later in the day when the adults sat down to a few cold beers in the sun, while the kids tumbled and played nearby. Merry Christmas everyone!