100 hours in the Kingdom of Swaziland

2016 in photos

Swaziland

The Kingdom of Swaziland is Africa’s smallest country at no more than 200 kilometres from north to south and 130 kilometres from east to west. Its bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. Despite its small size I discovered that it’s a land of adventure and cultural experiences.

This post is divided into two sections, things to do and things to see, so you have free reign to create your own itinerary (whether you want to stay longer or shorter than four days) based on your interests and the time of year you visit. Below are also suggestions of souvenirs to buy and where to stay.

What to do in Swaziland

1. Not too far from the Oshoek border post with South Africa is Hawane Resort, the ideal place to stay if you’ve crossed the border rather late in the day and want to relax before continuing your journey the following day. Here you can unwind near the pool, have a treatment at the spa or go horse riding in the nearby veld and to a surrounding dam. As you can see, we did an early morning out ride before breakfast, that is, after all, the best time to do it when the light is just right.

Swaziland

2. An unmissable experience is the country’s only treetop forest canopy tour at Malalotja Nature Reserve. You’ll whizz above Sihlotswane Gorge and tackle a 50-metre-long suspension bridge that sways over the tumbling Majolomba River. The longest of the 10 zip lines is more than 300 metres in length, enough for you to scream in glee, as you fly through the air.

3. If you’re an avid hiker, like me, find a local guide through the Swaziland Tourism Board and explore The Gap and the potholes that have been carved into the granite rocks through the swirling and rushing of water. The legend goes that this was the only place where people could cross the river before bridges were built because of the ‘gap’ where the river disappears beneath the rocks and then reappears. Make sure you pack enough water in your backpack, as the hike back to the top can be quite demanding. As you can see form the photograph below, the potholes lie in the embrace of a valley.

Swaziland

4. A 4 000-year-old piece of Swazi history is found in the overhangs at Nsangwini Rock Shelter. This example of San rock art is the largest in the country and is narrated by community members of the Nsangwini community, who manage it. Four millennia ago, the San people used this Highveld area for spiritual rituals and to record iconic moments in their lives through etchings on the ancient rocks.

Swaziland

5. If you’re already in the area of the rock art, then end the day with a sundowner cruise. As we circumnavigate around the edges of Maguga Dam aboard the Shosholoza, I make out the layered volcanic and sedimentary rocks of the 3 500-million-year-old Makhonjwa Mountains. It is here that the Komati River empties into the dam. We clink our bottles of Sibebe beer as we make another circle around the dam.

6. Rise with the sun and embark on a walking, horse riding, self-drive or cycling tour of one of the country’s three biggest national parks, with the hope of spotting some of its 51 animal species and 200 bird species. It’s quite the adrenaline rush, as you stop a couple of metres away from a wide-mouth crocodile and pedal past herds of zebras and termite mounds twice your height on two wheels.

Swaziland

Swaziland

What to see in Swaziland

When: May

Ezulwini Valley reverberates with music from around the world during the annual three-day Bushfire Festival, when some of Africa’s most renowned musicians and performers take to the three stages. This family-friendly music festival is ideal for a long weekend away and was also named best responsible event by the 2017 African Responsible Tourism Awards.

Vaudou Game

When: late August or early September

The small landlocked country is one of the few remaining executive monarchies in Africa, with 49-year-old King Mswati III as the head of the Swazi royal family. And so Swaziland is perhaps best known for its annual Umhlanga Festival and Reed Dance, when Swazis travel to the capital, Mbabane, for the eight-day festival that happens in late August or early September. At this time around 40 000 traditionally dressed women cut reeds to present to the Queen Mother (Indlovukazi) for the repair of her royal residence. They dance and sing for the king, who takes this opportunity to choose a new wife. King Mswati III’s father, Sobhuza II, was crowned king when he was four months old and remained the absolute ruler for 82 years, leaving behind 70 wives when he died.

When: year-round

Swaziland

If you miss the Reed Dance then Mantenga Nature Reserve in the Ezulwini Valley (meaning Valley of Heaven) offers cultural dancing and tours of traditional Swazi households at Mantenga Cultural Village. Though perhaps it’s not as intriguing for South Africans and those living in neighbouring countries (as they’ve surely visited similar cultural villages in their own countries), foreigners will find it a fascinating introduction to the nation’s culture and history, even if it is somewhat contrived, as an educational show put on for tourists. We also walked to Mantenga Waterfall nearby where our guide, Lucky, posed in his traditional clothes.

2016 in photos
Lucky, our tour guide in Swaziland

What to buy in Swaziland

If you drive through the Oshoek border post, coming from South Africa,  Ngwenya Glass Factory is a popular shopping attraction, where on weekdays you can watch glassblowing from 100% recycled glass. Handmade souvenirs, such as colourful hand-woven baskets, jewellery and other artefacts are sold at the neighbouring craft market stalls. Their restaurant doesn’t disappoint. I had the vegetarian crepes and also tried the salad on another occasion.

For more local souvenirs, visit the Swazi Candle Factory in the Malkerns Valley, where craftsmen bring coloured wax to life in the shape of animals, marine creatures and birds. Other crafts such as batik, hand-woven mohair items, wooden sculptures and curios are on sale at the outdoor market.

Where to stay in Swaziland

During one of my most recent trips, I stayed at the traditional en-suite beehives in Mlilwane National Park. It was an unsurpassable experience and I highly recommend it. While the huts’ grass structure is constructed in the traditional manner, I was surprised to see the interior and how well equipped it was. Since the reserve’s establishment five decades ago it’s prevented the local extinction of a number of animal species: reservations@biggameparks.org.

Swaziland

Hawane Resort also offers smaller bee hive accommodation options not too far from the Oshoek border. The staff are exceptionally friendly, though their paid-for internet is quite pricey. It also offers a number of activities to keep you busy, such as quad biking and horse riding, and has an on-site restaurant and spa: hawane1@realnet.co.sz.

Set on the southern banks of the dam, Maguga Lodge looks out onto the dam wall. The lodge’s thatched wooden deck provides panoramic views through the tree tops. No matter what you order for dinner from the hearty menu, take my word for it and don’t pass up on the apple crumble, it’s the best I’ve come across in years: info@magugalodge.com

If you’re looking for something wholly different then you should spend the night or weekend on the waters of Maguga Dam aboard the fully-equipped, self-catering  Maguga House Boat that sleeps four: hawane1@realnet.co.sz.

Swaziland

How to get there and other practical things

Currency: South African rands are accepted, but some tourist attractions only accept paper notes, not coins. Most hotels, restaurants and shops also accept authorised credit cards, except for petrol stations.

Border post times: you can find them here: www.thekingdomofswaziland.com.

Visa: although South Africans don’t require a visa, a valid passport is necessary to cross the border.

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This post is a written based on a self-funded trip to Swaziland as well as a hosted press trip with Swaziland Tourism Board. As always all opinions are my own, but you already know that! ;)

Going to Swaziland’s Bushfire Festival? Read this!

Bushfire Festival
 Bushfire Festival
Kenyan band Sauti Sol

Each May Swaziland’s Ezulwini Valley reverberates with song and the thundering sound of thousands of stomping feet and clapping hands, as Bushfire Festival goers dance to Africa’s soulful tunes and most prolific voices. Don’t make the same mistake I did, don’t let it take you 10 years to get to Bushfire. If last year is anything to go by, the 11th MTN Bushfire festival (26-28th May) is going to be lit!

Scroll down to the bottom of the article for more practical information about attending the festival.

I danced, with a craft beer in hand, among 16 000-odd festival goers from 58 countries during the three-day, weekend music festival. No matter if you claim not to dance in public, as you’ll be tapping your feet and swaying – or gyrating – your hips (whichever comes most naturally) to funky beats from across Africa and the world.

Togolese band Vaudou Game

It’s not unheard of for die-hard music fans to plan their southern African holiday around the annual event. It seems that news has gotten around that The BBC called Bushfire “Africa’s top festival” and that CNN claims it’s “one of the seven African music festivals you have to see”. And hear.

Ezulwini means place of heaven. Here, in the luscious farmlands that surround the eclectic House on Fire venue, it’s hard to believe it’s only 25km from the capital city of Mbabane. With its faux Gaudi-esque architecture and garden sculptures, House on Fire is a fantastical playground for the imagination, where you’ll find dancers, performers, puppet masters and flame throwers, singers walking around with guitars strapped over their shoulders, drumming circles, hippies, and the brave on the open mic stage.

The three stages are laid out across the vast festival grounds, so one never feels crowded despite the thousands of attendees, who lay out picnic blankets and camping chairs on the grass. The bar area, global food village, craft market – the best place to buy local, handmade souvenirs and festival memorabilia – and the kids zone are wisely spread out.

 Bushfire Festival
Fanaza from Swaziland

I spent most of my time in front of the main stage, singing and dancing. It’s quite something seeing thousands of strangers unified through music, as they link arms, sing to the skies, and throw their hands up in the air. We stood side-by-side as lovers of good music, all differences forgotten. And indeed Bushfire is a cultural affair. One where I made friends from around the world. I spontaneously danced salsa with an Angolan, shared drinks with German and French expats, ate lunch next to a Zimbabwean, and had Dutch neighbours (older than my parents) at the Bandwagon Galmping campsite, a short walk from the festival grounds.

Giant puppets

Only once the sun goes down behind the Luphohlo and Lugogo mountains, do I realise I’ve been having too much fun to eat. Bushfire serves the best selection of festival food I’ve tried. Besides the regular food you’d expect at any music event, from boerewors rolls to chips and curries, the global food village also has an impressive selection of vegetarian and vegan options. I never even make it to Malandela’s Farmhouse Restaurant (for golden circle ticket holders). Its exclusive seating area has good views of the main stage, LED screens, a waiter service, and heaters to warm the crisp autumn evenings.

I find myself flooded with lights as Mafikizolo arrives centre stage. They steal the show on Saturday night with their outfits, pyrotechnics and high-energy performance. The crowd’s applause resonates across the bowl of the Ezulwini Valley. Indeed its name “place of heaven” is apt, it’s a place of heaven for music lovers.

with access to an exclusive seating area with good views of the main stage, LED screens, a waiter service, and heaters to warm the crisp autumn evenings – I never even set foot it in.
South African band Mafikizolo

Over the last decade, MTN Bushfire has become somewhat of an institution among African music festivals. It’s the cleanest and most well-run festival I’ve attended. Plus all vendors and suppliers have to be environmentally-friendly and use recyclable materials. I even spied recycling efforts going on behind the scenes.

Not only did the festival win a gold star for best responsible event at the African Responsible Tourism Awards in April 2016, but it’s also working towards becoming carbon neutral and starting conversations about sustainability. Play your part by planting an indigenous tree at the nearby Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary; listening to Alex Paullin, from Conservation Music, record a song about climate change; or watching solar-powered environmental documentaries screened at Sunshine Cinema.

with access to an exclusive seating area with good views of the main stage, LED screens, a waiter service, and heaters to warm the crisp autumn evenings – I never even set foot it in.
South African DJ Zinhle

The festival will also leave you with a feel-good feeling as a percentage of proceeds are donated to two worthwhile local charities. And you’ll leave with a long list of newly discovered artists to add to your iPod playlist. Ghana’s Blitz the Ambassador, South Africa’s Bombshelter Beast,  Togolese Vodun Funk band Vaudou Game and French DJ Julien Lebrun made my list of new favourites. 2017 will see just as many nationalities on stage as in the audience.

Back in the crowd, the flame burns into Sunday evening as Oliver Mtukudzi’s husky voice lullabies the stars above Swaziland to sleep.

 Bushfire Festival
Zimbabwean artist Oliver Mtukudzi

How to get there 

If you’re driving in, all of Swaziland’s borders are open seven days a week. It’s best to avoid long waiting times at Oshoek border post by arriving before or after Friday afternoon/evening, or consider using a lower volume border post. South Africans only require a valid passport. Here’s more info about driving and flying into Swaziland.

What to pack

Besides your camping gear (camping chairs and blankets), don’t forget sun cream, a water bottle, head light, warm clothes for the autumn evenings and light clothes for the warm day. You can use South African rands as well as Swazi Lilangeni. There are a number of mobile South African ATM machines too.

Bushfire Festival
Traditional Swati dancers

Where to stay

Once you have your tickets, book your accommodation as soon as possible, as the closets and best accommodation options fill up first. Find more options on the Bushfire website.

Luxury: Royal Swazi Spa: www.suninternational.com/royalswazi

Bed and breakfast: Silverstone Falls: www.silverstonefalls.com

Self-catering: Buhleni Farm Chalets: www.buhlenifarm.co.sz

Pre set-up campsite: Bandwagon Glamping: www.teambuildalliance.co.za. This is where I stayed, only a short walk from the festival grounds, but not too close to disturb your sleep. The cost includes a set up tent, stretcher, mattress with bedding, hot showers, toilet facilities, an on-the-go breakfast, as well as tea and coffee.

Camping: Hlane Royal National Park: www.biggameparks.org

Backpacking: Sondzela Backpackers: www.biggameparks.org

Bushfire Festival
South African artist AKA

2017 Bushfire lineup

Read more about the lineup here. I’ve emboldened my favourites.

80 Script, Baloji, Batuk, Ben Dey and the Concrete Lions, Bholoja, Black Rhino, Bombino, Chico Antonio, DJ Bob, DJ Chynaman, DJ Fred Spider, DJ Mixmash, Dusty and Stones, Easy Freak, Faada Freddy, Femi Koya, Flameboy Universe, Floewe, Goodluck, Gren Seme, Hanwah, Hugh Masekela, Itallo Dlamini, Jagermeister Brass Cartle featuring Reason, Jah Prayzah, Jeremy Loops, Jojo Abot, Karla Kenya, Kids n Cats, Kwesta, Lee Thomson Quintet, Lodanda, Matthew Mole, Michael Canfield, Msaki, Petite Noir, Root Afrika, Rootwords, Sands, Seba Kaapstad, Shepard Brothers, Siyinqaba, Sutherland, Swazi Reggae Legends, The Exchange, The Kiffness, The Mute Band, Theatre for Africa, TkZee, Trenton and the free radical, Vukazithathe, Zahara.

Which other African festivals have you enjoyed and do you recommend I visit? Please tell me in the comments below.

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I received a press pass to Bushfire Festival and my accommodation was provided by Bandwagon Glamping. Photographs courtesy of Bushfire Festival. All opinions are my own and I retain editorial control of all content on this website, but you already know that! ;)

Dashing through Durham in 48 hours

Durham

Durham

Three hours from London by train and 15 minutes from Newcastle Gateshead lies the North East county of Durham. It’s a portmanteau of the Celtic word “dun”, which means hill fort and the old Norse “holme”, meaning island. This is a land of castles and UNESCO sites, meadows and cobbled streets, students and saints, and then some more castles, which lies within easy reach of the eastern coast. It’s the perfect place for history boffs, architecture aficionados and nature lovers. No wonder Condé Nast crowned it the “best city in the UK”. 

Durham Cathedral

This quintessential university town is perhaps best known for its cathedral – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – which has been used in the filming of a number of films and British series, such as Elizabeth the Golden Age, Snow White and the Huntsman, and the BBC crime drama series George Gently. While Dark Angel, Beowulf, and Downtown Abbey were filmed around Durham county. I pretended to be a student at Hogwarts as I walked through the corridors that have become so familiar to me through countless rewatchings of Harry Potter.

Durham

This 11th century cathedral, built in 1093, is widely considered to be one of the finest Norman Romanesque buildings in the country and possibly in Europe. It’s also a popular pilgrimage destination as it’s the burial site of St. Cuthbert and the resting place of St. Bede. The guide showed me the 12th century Galilee Chapel with its medieval wall paintings, the Rose Window in the Chapel of the Nine Altars and the intricate wooden carvings that surround the altar.

Then I descended underground for the Open Treasure exhibition that makes it’s way through the 14th century monks’ dormitory and monastic great kitchen. Here I oogled at the collection of treasures on display from bishops’ robes to cutlery and silver sacred vessels once used during mass.

Durham

Durham Castle and University

Opposite the cathedral is the university, which is housed Durham Castle, another UNESCO Site. The castle which sits atop the hill guarding the medieval city below, was once a fortress. Today, it’s reputed to be one of Great Britain’s best academic institutions and also has an adjoining museum. It can only be visited as part of a guided tour that takes visitors through the chapel and into dining halls, still used today, where cloth hangs from the ceiling and swords are pinned to the walls. As our tour was ending the staff were laying the tables for a communal weekly dinner. It looked rather fancy, just like in the movies, and sounded even more exciting when we learned that the students are allowed to bring a bottle of wine to the table.

Durham

Undercroft Restaurant

Afterwards I ate a lunch of soup and quiche in an equally interesting setting – the Undercroft Restaurant, where I admired a Lego replica of the cathedral. You will probably recognise the medieval cloister (now the cathedral shop and restaurant) from the first two Harry Potter films.

Wear River and North Sea

I walked along the Wear River (pronounce ‘we’re’) to get views of the cathedral from the riverside. In the warmer months you can see students rowing or may happen on the regatta that’s held each June. It dates back to 1834 and is the second oldest regatta in the country. The Wear River wends its way through the county for close to 100km until it reaches the sea at Sunderland. If you love the coast it’s really worth visiting the Durham Heritage Coast, 20-odd kilometres away (around one and a half hours by bus). Here you can appreciate its beaches and rugged limestone cliffs in a spectacular setting. It is one of the United Kingdom’s most protected habitats, known for its rare flora and fauna (450 species of plants and wild flowers). Alternatively explore the meadows of the Durham Dales.

Durham

Durham

Durham

Beamish Museum

When I asked the locals what I should do during my visit to Durham, EVERYONE mentioned the Beamish Museum. If you really want to step back into history then visit this 300-acre, open-air living, working museum, not far from Durham city. It offers a look into the region’s industrial heritage where you can explore North East England as it was in the 1820s, 1910s and 1940s. Founder Frank Atkinson collected items of everyday history and accepted donations from everyday folk to make it a reality. He collected everything from steam engines to sewing machines ahead of its opening in 1970. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth visited the museum in 1975 and by 1978 it had welcomed its millionth visitor.

Durham

Crook Hall Gardens

Crook Hall is enchanting no matter what time of year you visit. The 13th century medieval hall with its Jacobean drawing room is set within a four-acre English-styled garden with an orchard, courtyard, maze, and moat pools and ponds. You can enjoy a light lunch or high tea in the courtyard when the weather’s just right. It’s a very romantic place to take your significant other.

Later I joined students for a pint, there are a number of pubs that line the cobbled main street, and asked them what it’s really like studying at an 11th century castle rated among the best in the world. They also suggested that you visit the following attractions during your stay in Durham: Kynren, Auckland Castle, The Bowes Museum, Hall Hill Farm, and Diggerland.

If you have the time, spend more than 48 hours in Durham county, which in the words of Bill Bryson is “a perfect little city”. Plan your trip to Durham with This is Durham.

Durham

Where to stay

The Kingslodge Inn is a cosy place to stay within walking distance (less than 2km) of the historic centre of Durham and the main train station. What I loved most about it was the very relaxed and personal atmosphere, which was magnified by the friendly staff (who were very helpful in assisting me retrieve my luggage that was mistakenly taken off the train).  The 23 en-suite rooms are family-friendly and pets are welcome too. It served the most delicious food I tried during my stay in England (the mussels are unmissable), think home-cooked pub food and craft beer on tap. They went out of their way to cook me a vegetarian version of their complimentary ‘Taste of Durham’ breakfast. In the evenings locals and visitors come for a drink from the well-stocked wine cellar. The free Wi-Fi was very reliable and even reaches into the beautiful garden and courtyard.

Have you ever visited or do you live in Durham county? What did you think about it? Please let me know in the comments below.

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I travelled to England independently in November 2016, however Visit Britain and Durham County, in conjunction with their sponsors, kindly hosted me on a two-day stay. A few photographs have been sourced from This is Durham. As always all opinions are my own, but you already know that. ;)

13 random things you didn’t know about NewcastleGateshead

Newcastle
Newcastle
Source: NewcastleGateshead Initiative

Late last year, I spent two days exploring Newcastle Upon Tyne and Gateshead (on northern and southern banks of the Tyne River respectively). If you’re a keen street photographer, both towns are quite picturesque, especially alongside the Quayside, where seven bridges arch over the Tyne River. I was also fascinated in the way that old and modern architecture rub shoulders.

For a little bit of history, Newcastle was founded as a Roman fort along Hadrian’s Wall, which was built as a defensive fortification around 122AD from the east coast, near the North Sea, to the Solway Firth on the west coast. At this time it was known as Pons Aelius. Later it was named Monkchester, presumably because of the establishment of a monastery or because it had a rather high density of monks. Then the Normans, under the rule of William the Conqueror’s son, built a castle on the site where the old Roman fort once lay hence its current name. The Castle Keep and its gate house still stand today and can be visited. Since then it’s been called: the twin city, the hipster capital of the northeast, dynamic, and even elegant.

So here are 13 random things that I (and probably you too) didn’t know about NewcastleGateshead. In the least they’ll make for interesting dinner conversation.

1. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge is the world’s only titling bridge, which opens and closes like an eye to let boats through.

Newcastle

2. Speaking of bridges, the High Level Bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson and completed in 1849, was the world’s first dual-decked rail and road bridge. It’s 156 meres in length.

Newcastle

3. If you cross the Gateshead Millennium Bridge from the Newcastle side of the River Tyne, you’ll come to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, which is housed in an industrial building that used to be a flour mill. With 2 600m2 of art space it’s the largest dedicated contemporary art institution in the United Kingdom and has hosted over 190 exhibitions featuring 350 artists from over 50 countries, and welcomed over 6 million visitors. TIP: Not only is entrance free, but there are spectacular views of the river and Newcastle from the viewing deck on the topmost floor.

Newcastle

4. A little further along the river, not too far from the BALTIC you’ll find Sage Gateshead – rated one of the top venues in England for live music performances. The Rough Guide named it one of the 10 best English buildings of the last century. Even if you don’t have the time to stay for a concert, see what the “giant silver armadillo” looks like from the inside. After sunset, when the curvaceous building is illuminated from the inside, the glass panels give the illusion that three ships are sailing along the river by night.

Newcastle Newcastle Newcastle

5. Britons unanimously voted that Newcastle’s Grey Street is the finest street in all the land, according to a BBC Radio 4 survey. I’m not surprised as it’s flanked with Victorian-era buildings and has a statue of Earl Grey at the end of it. And in the Google Street View awards of 2010, Grey Street came third in the British picturesque category. Forty per cent of Grainger Town’s buildings are listed heritage sites, which is the highest concentration of listed buildings outside of London and Bath.

Newcastle

6. As I walked the streets on a free walking tour with Newcastle City Guides Walking Tours (which I highly recommend) my tour guide explained to me a legend about how Earl Grey (the bergamot-flavoured tea) came about in England and how it got its name. Apparently the story goes that a Chinese man, whose son was rescued from drowning by one of Lord Grey’s men, presented the British Prime Minister with the tea blend in gratitude. Below is a statue of Earl Grey on Grey Street.

Newcastle

Newcastle
Source: NewcastleGateshead Initiative

7. When it comes to food and deciding where to eat, Newcastle has the highest ratio of restaurants per person of any city in Northern England, so you needn’t worry about going hungry. I loved Grainger Market. At this Victorian-era covered market, along the street by the same name in central Newcastle, you can buy anything from pizza to locally-sourced oysters from the take-away stores. It was built in 1835 and at the time was the largest in the country. Along Alley 3, you’ll find the first and second smallest Marks & Spencer’s (now called Penny Bazaar), which is over a century old. While in Alley 2, you’ll come upon the original weigh house, where to this day you can get weighed for 30 pence. It’s worth seeing, but if you’ve just eaten lunch at the market then I’d rather keep the money and buy an ice-cream for dessert instead.

Newcastle

8. Who would have thought that NewcastleGateshead recently ranked third in Europe for the best nightlife scene, after London and Berlin, according to the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. It’s gained a worldwide reputation as a party city, probably due to the student population of its two universities. So if you’re a night crawler (like me) bring along your dancing shoes and aspirin.

9. Less than 6.5 kilometres from the Quayside, you’ll find the Angel of the North (in Gateshead) greeting you with outstretched arms. It’s said to be the world’s largest angel sculpture with a wing span of 54 metres (bigger than a Boeing 767). In 2006 the government named it an English icon. It’s no wonder it’s one of the world’s most viewed pieces of art with around 33 million annual visitors.

Newcastle
Source: NewcastleGateshead Initiative

Newcastle
10. There’s a Newcastle in Australia and in South Africa. Probably due to the fact that both were previously part of the British Empire. The famous Tyne Bridge is said to have inspired the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but this isn’t the case because while construction on the Sydney Bridge began before that of the Tyne Bridge, it was only completed in 1932, three years after the Tyne Bridge, due to its larger size.

 

 

Newcastle

11. Newcastle is the most populous city in north-eastern England with around 298 200 inhabitants in 2016. And has the highest Bolivian population of any English city – estimated to be between 500 and 2 000.

12. Visitors probably don’t know that the local dialect and territorial name of the surrounding area is Geordie. I guess Newcastlian doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. In 2008 The Scotsman Newspaper conducted a survey of 2 000 people, which found that the Geordie accent to be the most attractive in England.

13. The 1930’s Tyneside Cinema is the last Newsreel theatre still operating as a full-time cinema in the UK. On a free guided tour every Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 11:00am, you can admire the beautiful art-deco interior and watch archive newsreel footage.

Newcastle

Here you can find special offers, discounts and freebies, which you can redeem during your stay.

Where to stay

I stayed at Hotel Indigo – Newcastle’s newest four-star, boutique hotel – for two nights. It’s very centrally located in Fenkle Street in the Grainger Town area, only two minutes from Newcastle’s Central Station and a five-minute walk from Earl Grey’s Monument.

Though the modern office block may look nondescript from the outside, its lively interior has repetitive geometric patterns in primary colours and large black-and-white architectural photographs of the city. There are also numerous works by local artists hung around the hotel, which gives it a very modern and urban-chic atmosphere. The hotel hosts weekly free movie nights, has a small business centre and a 24-hour gym.

Even though Hotel Indigo is predominantly a business hotel, it also has interconnecting rooms for families as well as seven disabled rooms with ramp access and lifts, while the mini bars are stocked with locally-produced beers, soft drinks and chocolates. And the hot and cold breakfast spread was extensive, who doesn’t want to start their day with pancakes and berry coulis or salmon with cream cheese? I had both! Once I was ready to explore, the friendly and knowledgeable reception staff gave me insightful recommendations about what to do based on my interests.

Newcastle
Source: NewcastleGateshead Initiative

Do you live in Geordieland and feel that I should add something to this list? Please let me know in the comments below.

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I travelled to England independently in November 2016, however Visit Britain and NewcastleGateshead, in conjunction with their sponsors, kindly hosted me on a two-day stay in Newcastle during this trip. A few photographs have been sourced from NewcastleGateshead Initiative. As always all opinions are my own, but you already know that. ;)

10 FREE things to do in the UK

Free things to do in the UK

Free things to do in the UK

Travelling to the United Kingdom on the South African rand (and a number of other currencies) can be expensive, but it doesn’t mean you’ll have to eat nothing but two-minute noodles after your return. Many of the best museums and art galleries in the UK are free, then there are walking tours, cultural activities and events galore, not to mention UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the astounding natural landscapes waiting to be explored. So save your pounds and read this list of free things to do in the UK during your visit.

1. Museums and galleries

 

The British Museum, the National Gallery and Tate Modern are some of the big guys you can visit for free while in London.

The Natural History Museum and adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford are among my favourite in the world – not only for their exhibitions, but also for the architecture of the buildings that enclose them. You can stand beneath the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and see the dodo, which was the inspiration for the character in Alice in Wonderland, before moving on to the interactive exhibits, where you can touch various artefacts while examining them closer, beyond their glass casings.

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, also in Oxford, you can gawk at shrunken heads (tsantsa) from Eucador and stare up at a wooden Totem Pole from Canada. The exhibitions are classified according to theme – clothing, weaponry, crockery, jewellery and so on. Download a free audio guide on your smartphone and explore it at your own pace.

At Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum nearby you can discover half a million years of art and archaeology, from Egyptian mummies to modern art. It was founded in 1683 and is the world’s oldest public museum. The museum is home to a number of permanent and visiting exhibitions, such as the one below which I saw during my visit in November.

Meanwhile The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (BALTIC) on the banks of the Tyne River in Newcastle consists of 2 600 square metres of art space, making it the UK’s largest dedicated contemporary art institution. It has welcomed over six million visitors since it opened in 2002. Go to the fifth floor for a viewing deck overlooking the Tyne and Gateshead Millennium Bridge – the world’s only tilting bridge that opens and closes like a human eye. Plus there are hundreds of other free museums wherever you go in the British Isles.

2. Self-guided Banksy graffiti walking tour

 

While some of Banksy’s works sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, others by the anonymous, world-famous graffiti artist are free for all to see. Like the ones around his hometown of Bristol, which he painted when he was still an unknown youngster with a spray can in hand.

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Follow a self-guided Banksy Walking Tour around Bristol to see some of his most famous pieces, like the Grim Reaper, which was originally painted on a harbour-side houseboat, but today is displayed in Bristol’s M Shed. The Girl With The Pierced Eardrum is near to Bristol Marina. Some of his other artworks in Bristol include Mild Mild West, Well Hung Lover, Paint-Pot Angel, Cat and Dog, and Gorilla. The walking tour will take you past cafes, bars and restaurants, so you can easily make a whole day of it with refreshment stops along the way.

3. Come all ye faithful

 

Free things to do in the UK

Free things to do in the UK

You can also step inside many of Britain’s churches and cathedrals for free. Durham Cathedral in northeastern England is among the most popular. Not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it was also used as the filming set for two Harry Potter films and a number of British documentaries and series. This 12th century cathedral is widely considered to be one of the finest Norman Romanesque buildings in the country and arguably in Europe. The Cathedral is also a pilgrimage destination as it’s the burial site of Saint Cuthbert, who after his death in 687AD became one of Northern England’s patron saints.

Free things to do in the UK

Free things to do in the UK

If you’re visiting in December, visit King’s College Chapel in Cambridge (only an hour by train from London), which is famed for its Christmas Eve carol service.

4. Festivals

 

For three weeks each August the world-famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe showcases hundreds of free shows, from drama and comedy to cabaret and spoken-word performances. This open-access festival accommodates anyone with a desire to perform, who has a venue willing to host them. This year it celebrates its 70th anniversary.

The popular Notting Hill Carnival also takes place in August, and there’s the Cardiff Summer Festival, which is known for its street theatre, music and funfair rides. And there’s a large selection of festivals that happen around the UK year-round.

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5. Explore on two wheels 

 

A number of Britain’s scenic cycle routes are only an hour from London. The Crab and Winkle Way is a leafy, 11-kilometre route through East Kent that follows a former 19th century railway line (one of the first in the country) and links the cathedral city of Canterbury with the oyster-fishing village of Whitstable. The area is a World Heritage Site and for good reason too. The cycle route will take you through the conifer woodlands of Clowes Wood to the seaside village famed for its seafood. And there’s no need to worry if you don’t have your own set of wheels, as there are a number of bicycle hire options for riders of all ages.

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6. Scotland’s heritage sites

 

Scotland’s Doors Open Days on September weekends allow visitors free access to rare historic and heritage sites, such as private homes, museums, mansions, castles and gardens. Among the list of open attractions are: a crypt (once the highest monastery in the British Isles), the largest hospital in medieval Scotland, a family burial vault (built when the Scottish church banned monuments inside churches), an owl tower, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, a private telephone museum, and the decommissioned Cromarty Lighthouse. Who would have thought that there are so many free things to do in the UK. Have a look at the Instagram hashtag #DODSCOT to get inspired by some of the participating buildings.

7. Free guided tours

 

Tie your shoelaces and take in the iconic Royal Crescent in the Georgian city of Bath in southwestern England. When you go further north, choose between culture and architecture by getting the free Manchester Walking Tours app.

I did a free walking tour of Newcastle with Newcastle City Guides, which I highly recommend. I loved that they have a number of tours, each focusing on a different aspect of the city’s history and heritage. The very knowledgeable guides also try to tailor the tour according to the nationality of those on their tour with interesting insights on their country’s ties to the city.

In London, you can also join a number of free walking tours, which work on the basis of donations. I did the street art walking tour (one of eight tours) offered by Strawberry Tours, through the capital’s East End along Brick Lane, Shoreditch, Fashion Street, Bateman’s Row and Spitafields. These are some of the murals and graffiti pieces we spied.

8. Natural Wonders

 

In Scotland, near Fort William, hike up Ben Nevis, which is the United Kingdom’s highest mountain at 1 345 metres. Or try your luck at spotting the mythical Nessie in nearby Loch Ness.

In Wales, only a short drive from Cardiff, you’ll find Rhossili Bay, which regularly tops the world’s best beaches lists, was voted Wales’ Best Beach 2017 and one of the UK’s Top 10 Beaches for five years running in the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. This southwestern tip of the Gower Peninsula in Swansea is designated as the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the United Kingdom. All you need to do is look for the hashtag on Instagram to see why it’s so loved by locals, tourists and travel magazines.

Pink Skies over Loch Ness ????

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9. UNESCO World Heritage Sites

 

There are 26 UNESCO World Heritage Sites on mainland Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A number of the natural ones are are free to visit. As is The Angel of the North statue by artist Anthony Gormley, which stands in the open air overlooking Gateshead. It’s as though the metal statue, completed in 1998, is trying to enfold the cities with its 54-metre-long metal wings. And indeed, Gormley angled the wings 3.5 degrees forward to create the illusion of an embrace. Though it was surrounded by controversy at first, today it’s listed as an Icon of England.

Free things to do in the UK

Free things to do in the UK

Free things to do in the UK

10. Crosby Beach

 

A hundred life-size, cast-iron figures stand at intervals for three kilometres along the foreshore at Crosby Beach, near Liverpool, and a kilometre into the sea. This art installation, also by sculptor Anthony Gormley, is called Another Place. Each of the figures weighs around 650kgs and is made from a cast of the artist’s body. They silently stare out to sea and seek to illustrate humans’ relationship with nature. “The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet,” says Gormley. Because it’s a non-bathing beach, visitors are not encouraged to walk out to the furthest figures, but rather to photograph them from the shore.

For more information about free things to do in the UK, and not only, have a look at the Visit Britain website.

***

This post is written based on my independent travels through England in November 2016, however Visit Britain, in conjunction with their sponsors, kindly hosted me on a two-day stay in Durham and a two-day stay in Newcastle during this trip. As always all opinions are my own, but you already know that. ;)

How to celebrate Polish Easter (plus my favourite Easter cake recipe)

Polish Easter

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How do Poles celebrate Easter? With a number of beautiful religious traditions that also involve heaps of mouth-watering food being shoveled on your plate by well-meaning family members, who really only want to show their love by slaving away in the kitchen for days and then feeding you, sometimes against your will, while pinching your cheek and asking when you’ll be married. Well, the latter part usually applies when you’re a woman (especially, one over the age of 30). Then, they’ll moan a little about the leftovers and how food shouldn’t be wasted (and rightfully so, we’ve had a hard history, but that aside just don’t do it) and so I am compelled to grab another plateful. And all this before dessert is served.

But in all seriousness. I was in Poland just two weeks ago, and it was wonderful to see all the preparations for Polish Easter coming together. Especially since Poland is largely a deeply religious country, with about 87% of the population being Roman Catholic. We try to celebrate Holy Week and Polish Easter (Wielkanoc) in South Africa, much like the Poles in Poland do.

 Easter eggs (Pisanki)

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I’m sure I’m biased, but Poles take Easter egg decorating to a whole new level. As a child, during Holy Week, my mother would hard boil chicken eggs in red onion skins or beetroots, so as to dye them a maroon colour. Then we’d reach for the paintbrush. The motifs vary from geometric shapes and patterns (which are the most common) to paintings of animals or flowers. These days the eggs are also covered in candle wax to create a batik-like effect, others are etched using a sewing needle or decorated with sheets of stickers. Some artists paint wooden eggs, which are then reused over the years.

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Easter Palms 

Palm Sunday, which signals the start of Holy Week, is known for taking palm fronds to church to be blessed and then placed in the home to bring prosperity to all its inhabitants and visitors. Though as you know, the central European nation doesn’t count Raffia Palms among its indigenous plants and so the branches of willow trees and grasses were used instead. Over centuries they have became more ornate and these days they’re colourful, bouquet-like batons of dried out flowers, grasses and plants that have been dyed and tied with ribbon. The hand-held ones are around half a metre in length, while those that stand independently in town squares and church courtyards can be a few metres in height. Decorating styles vary from region to region.

You can easily buy an Easter palm from the local market, florist or even supermarket. I spied these at a local green grocer in my home town of Bielsko-Biała for 1zł (R3 or around $0.20). 

Święconki (Easter baskets)

This is by far my favourite part of Polish Easter traditions, well, this and the part where we get to douse each other with water (more about that in the next point).

Święconki baskets are covered in white lace and filled with food symbolic of our various beliefs: rye bread symbolises the body of Christ; the pisanki represent resurrection and new life; salt (used as a natural food preservative), well you can image what that stands for; horse radish represents the bitterness of Jesus’ death; as well as the Easter Lamb, which is a symbol of Jesus. If you bring along a small empty container, you may also have it filled with holy water.

Swięconki (plural of święconka) are usually wrapped in flowers, especially as Spring always coincides with Easter in Poland and the northern hemisphere. They are blessed with holy water at Easter Saturday mass and eaten at breakfast on Easter Sunday. Below is ours.

Polish Easter

Symbolic L-aaa-mbs 

Placed in the centre of a Polish Easter table setting, you’ll probably find a lamb of some sort, whether it’s made from babka (a kind of yeast cake), bread, butter or flowers, anything really. The lamb symbolises Jesus and his sacrifice, and is usually accompanied by a red banner with a white cross. Below is the lamb from our święconka.

Easter meal

On the morning of Easter Sunday, after mass, the feasting begins after 40 days of fasting during Lent. The table is laden in cold meats, sausages, salads, rye bred, hard-boiled eggs (the pisanki) drenched in mayonnaise and spring onion, and surrounded by family members and friends. And there are usually no fewer than three cakes for dessert.

Here’s a recipe for Mazurek Wielkanocny cake, by Ania from In Ania’s Kitchen, which is traditionally eaten at Easter time around Poland.

Śmigus-Dyngus

On Easter Monday we pour water on each other. While not environmentally-responsible (as some will point out), Śmigus-Dyngus, or lany poniedziałek, which means “Wet Monday” in Polish, involves pouring water over each other, using a spray water gun, a cup or bucket. Back in the day, it involved boys spraying the girls and tickling their ankles and legs with blossoming branches. The girls had to pay the boys to stop and would get their revenge the following day. Some old wives tales mention that the more a girl is sprayed the higher her chances of getting married. Many believe that this tradition is symbolic of Christian rebirth and baptism, some claim it has pagan roots, either way it’s a good way to burn calories after all that over indulgence.

Mauritius: beyond the resorts

Sugar cane fields, vanilla plantations and a dash of rum sweeten any stay on Mauritius. I had my first real taste of holidaying at a resort, when I visited the west and east coast of this Indian Ocean island. I was very excited, as it’s something an avid traveller should tick off the bucket list before turning 30. I’ll write more about the resorts in another post, though I was happy to realise that there’s so much more of this tropical island to explore, beyond the resorts.

This post is the first in a three-part series, similar to my series on the Seychelles.

“It’ll take you a day to drive around Mauritius along the coastal roads,” says our driver Vishal Beekun on our hour-long drive from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport in the south east of the island to Sun Resorts’ Sugar Beach Golf and Spa Resort in the west.

Mauritius

Since the sun has already submerged itself into the Indian Ocean, the mountains outline the jagged landscape that’s so characteristic of this volcanic island. Soon after arriving, I realise that Mauritians are infused with a laid back sense of humour that island life is known for; they have nicknamed some of the most prominent mountains according to their size or shape: God greets us, Lion enthralls us, we leave Sleeping Lady to be, and King Kong’s profile is unmistakeably similar to the film poster.

Mauritius

It’s over Green Island rum-based cocktails on the wooden beach deck that Viren Govinda Chetty – a former lecturer of economics at the University of Mauritius and now resort manager at Sugar Beach – narrates the story of the island’s most famous mountain, Le Morne Brabant, which we can see at the end of the beach. This UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, which you can hike, is written into the country’s timeline.

The oral history goes something like this: Escaped slaves (mostly from India, Madagascar, Africa and southeast Asia) used the rugged mountain as a shelter in the 18th and 19th centuries. They settled in caves and on the summit, which were protected by wooded cliffs and hard to access. Today, it remains a symbol of their plight for freedom.

Mauritius

Over a buffet breakfast the following morning, overlooking the pool and with views of the waves beyond, Sugar Beach GM Nicolas de Chalain, whose family has for generations owned the land where Le Morne dives into the Indian Ocean, brushes it off as a larger-than-life legend. And those of some of the intricacies of travelling – it’s important to hear both sides of every story and realise that there’s probably a bit of truth in each. And no matter which version you choose to believe, the Mauritian landscape, its vegetation, culture and history will captivate you.

While it took me three decades to finally stay at a resort, I learn quickly that there’s no reason to leave once you’re there. There’s no chance of getting bored, unless you chose to, and everything you need is at your fingertips, from a range of epicurean restaurants, bars, dance floors and entertainment, to spas, saunas, gyms and sports clubs with tennis courts, beach volleyball and the French pastime of boulles. And there are a number of sports and activities on offer, from golf to kayaking, paragliding, deep sea fishing, snorkelling and scuba diving.

I qualified for my open water diver’s license two days before arriving in Mauritius and it was the best gift I gave myself last year. (Read more about scuba diving in the Seychelles). Mauritius is also one of the best places to qualify with its warm, calm waters. I submerge myself into the great blue depths of the ocean with Sun Divers at La Pirogue, the oldest diving school on the island. In the 30-odd years since opening they have discovered over 20 interesting dive sites – Cathedral, Snake Reef and Tug 2 are the most popular.

I see three white-tipped sharks at Suisse dive site (my first shark sighting), but Mauritius surpasses expectations like that and you’re almost guaranteed to see them as they sleep in a cave during the day. I also tick off lionfish, sweetlips, porcupinefish, pufferfish and porcelain crab from my list, as well as the usual inhabitants of tropical waters – Moorish Idol, butterfish, angelfish and clownfish. Snorkelling is just as exciting as giant starfish are scattered across the ocean floor.

Mauritius

I dry off on a beach lounger as I watch a yoga class. Then I drag it into the shade of the palm trees. Later, I try really hard to work up an appetite in the swimming in the pool, because I have learned that resort-life is all about indulgence. There barely seems to be enough time between the buffet breakfasts, lunches, sundowners and dinners. Mauritian food is scrumptious, it’s a mix of Creole and international flavours, as well as an array of the many nationalities that influence Mauritian culture. And the seafood is as fresh as it gets.

Beyond the resorts

We spend an entire day at Sun Resorts’ Ile aux Cerfs Island, only a short drive and boat ride from Long Beach Golf and Spa Resort on the east coast of the island. It is one of Mauritius’ most visited attractions and for good reason. This leisure island with its cerulean waters and white beaches attracts day visitors with its many activities. We tee off at the 18-hole, 72-par golf course designed by Bernhard Langer for a golf initiation. With its beachside greens and ocean views, it’s no surprise why this is one of the world’s most beautiful. Though I realise I will never make my fortune from golfing and instead turn to something I am much better at doing: indulging in a hearty seafood lunch on the beach. This is followed by a swim among tropical fish . I dry off in the sun on the loungers as surfing kites and parachutes flirt with the clouds, while speed boats bounce between waves.

Mauritius

Water sports are a highlight on any island and Mauritius is no exception. For a different kind of thrill, we try seakarting from Tamarina Bay the following day. Though the sky threatened to burst, the rubber dingie with an engine and steering wheel, which reaches speeds of up to 75km/hour, left the rain clouds behind. If you go in the early morning you’ll mostly likely spot the resident school of dolphins. You’ll see them glide through the water between the surfers.

Back on land, we’re enthralled by the colours of Chamarel La Terre Des Couleurs, called the seven-coloured earth. The colourful sand is a result of the uneven cooling of molten rock. Though it was much smaller than I expected, comparing to the photographs I’d seen, it was exciting to photograph. We also met the giant tortoises for which the island is famed, and climb a nearby lookout point for a view of the 95-metre-high Chamarel Waterfall that pours into the valley below.

Mauritius

Mauritius

Then it’s off to Chamarel Rum Distillery, which is encircled by sugarcane fields, because what would an island visit be without a taste of their traditional tipple. There are many rum distilleries to visit across the island. Like school children we listen intently during the tour. Our attention to the history and tradition of rum distilling in Mauritius is rewarded with a taste of each of their 12 rums and liqueurs. My favourites were the firey spices rum and the vanilla liqueur.

Nothing’s as it seems at the Curious Corner: a magical house of optical illusions and brain teasers, where I must think outside the box to make my way through the museum. I suspend my disbelief to solve conundrums along the 40 exhibits spread across 5 000 square metres. I stand on the ceiling in the Upside Down room and the infinite reflections of the mirror maze makes it seem I’ll be trapped in this fantastical world forever.

Mauritius

Mauritius surpasses its reputation as merely a honeymoon and beach resort destination with its landscape, cultural diversity, giant tortoises, water sports and rum! “I’m coming back,” I tell Beekun as he drops us off at the airport, “to do that road trip”.

Have you ever been to Mauritius? How did it compare to other Indian Ocean Islands? Please tell me in the comments below.

***

I was hosted by World Leisure Holidays, which offers holiday packages at 24 hotels and resorts on Mauritius (ranging from three- to five-star) for couples or families. I retain full editorial control of everything published on this website, but you already know that! ;) Some photographs are used with permission from Sun Resorts.

48 hours in Dullstroom: what weekends are made of

Dullstroom

Dullstroom

Each weekend Mpumalanga’s highlands welcome visitors, with fresh trout, macademia nuts and whiskey, plus some boozy cake on the side. Dullstroom is what weekends are made of. Like a curled up cat rising from a nap, the morning mist gently lifts from the dams, dances with the topmost branches of pine tree forests and unfurls across meadows leaving behind only dew. Almost every day begins this way here, in the South African highlands at a height of around 2 000 metres, where Dullstroom claims the title of the country’s highest town.

In true weekend style, start off slow with an easy breakfast at one of the 30-odd restaurants in town, along the main road (Naledi Drive) that slices the town in half. Try the waffles at Waffle & Co. or a sweet or savoury pancake at Harrie’s Pancakes, both spell w-e-e-k-e-n-d.

During your stay you’ll see many t-shirts proclaiming Dullstroom to be a drinking town with a fishing problem. So replenish your fly box once the many speciality fishing stores open their doors or hire rods and nets for the day. Zip up your waterproof waders and head to one of the many well-stocked dams or rivers with hopes of hooking a rainbow or brown trout. This is one of the best places for the freshwater fish and Dullstroom is South Africa’s fly fishing capital due to its cool clime. Some dams operate strictly on a catch-and-release basis, while others will allow you to later braai your catch for dinner with garlic lemon butter and roasted potatoes with a spoonful of sour cream.

There’s nothing dull about Dullstroom, especially not at the adventure course at Dunkeld Country and Equestrian Estate. I draw in a deep breath through my pursed lips, tighten the strap of my hard hat and check – once again – that my harness is correctly secured. I’m buying time. Trying to delay the inevitable. Then right foot in front of the other, I start to balance my way across the wooden beam that’s suspended 10 metres above the ground. My legs quiver as they search for equilibrium. Left, right, left. As I feel gravity pull me towards her with her grasp, I gain momentum and skip across its length to reach the vertical beam on the other side. My legs shake from the adrenaline bursting through my bloodstream. I leap into the air – it’s the way my belayed guide recommended I get back down to the ground. That was the easy part.

Then I climb up a vertical beam to the trapeze jump. It’s height seems multiplied from the top. I dry my sweaty palms on my t-shirt. Straighten my hard hat. Close my eyes. The cheers of encouragement from below become incoherent. I bend my knees and trampoline myself – arms outstretched before me – in the direction of the slightly swaying handle bar. My right hand knocks it away. I miss. I fall. I erupt in laughter as I bounce about in the sky. Next up is the zip-line.

From the estate’s stables we ride through the dappled sunshine of the pine trees, trot amidst amber swathes of grass, between dams that mirror clouds, up a hill and around the cottages.

After all those activities, the country air stirs my appetite. My hunger finally meets its match in the homemade trout pie I order for lunch from 1883 Fine Dining Food Establishment, which overlooks meadows and whitewashed post and rail fence. I’m pleased that Dullstroom’s restaurants and pubs serve up different varieties of the town’s staple from breakfast to dinner: trout benedict or trout scrambled eggs, smoked and poached, goujons and trout salad or wraps. I recommend Mayfly’s Rainbow Trout, which is stuffed with mushrooms, onions and peppers and oven baked.

Back in town, find the time to visit The Clock Shop – the southern hemisphere’s largest clock collection with more than 5 000 designs and around 7 000 clocks from Disney-inspired timekeepers to wall, mantle and cuckoo clocks, as well as antiques and grandfather clocks. If you can’t find what you’re after, there’s another 80 000 stored in the warehouse. The 64-year-old owner explains to me that his father and grandfather were both watchmakers and he got into it at the age of 14. He says you won’t find any clocks from China in his shop, as he shows us around the workshop where they custom make many of their clocks either from oak, walnut, cherry or linden. He proudly points out the largest cuckoo clock in the southern hemisphere – it’s one metre in length and hard carved. There’s a clock made from a Tigermoth propeller and yet another made from porcelain that dates to the 1860s.

When the clocks strike sunset, ease into the evening with ice cubes chiming in your glass at Wild About Whisky in Auldstone House. Choose from a selection of around 1 200 worldwide whiskies to taste from around the world or look through their display of 300 for sale. Put aside at least an hour to try one (or more) of their 30 taster panels that consist of four to six half tots from six tasting categories. If, like me, you lean towards gin, they also offer two gin tastings with 15 varieties.

Otherwise, if you prefer a different kind of tipple altogether, the Anvil Ale House micro-brewery (on the Lydenberg side of town) serves sevens kinds of beers: a Blonde Ale, Indian Pale Ale, White Anvil, Dark Anvil, Biere d’Saison, Baltic Porter and the Mjolnir. Drop by for a free beer tasting, there’s even a coffee roastery next door. Bar hopping could become a hobby here, easily, as there are so many happy hour specials on each night.

But if there’s one thing you do, let it be the Dullstroom Bird of Prey and Rehabilitation Centre. This non-profit organisation rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds as well as those bred in captivity for hunting or traditional medicine. Each year they release around 200 birds. Those that cannot be reintroduced to the wild become permanent beneficiaries of the Wildlife SOS Trust. The daily flight displays (10:30 and 14:30) are the birds’ daily dose of exercise and part of the rehabilitation training process.

Dullstroom
Aidan Botha brings out Charlie the Peregrine Falcon, Daffie the spotted eagle owl, and Wayne Rooney the secretary bird, one at a time. I stare into Daffie’s marble-like eyes and tickle the back of her neck as she sits on my falconry glove before her wings brush my cheek as she takes off. Charlie rests in his enclosure after reaching speeds of up to 390km/hour in a performance of his flying skills, as he hunted Aidan ‘s lure. Rooney kicks a rubber snake (that’s how secretary birds kill their prey) before running away. So you see, there’s more to do in Dullstroom than you can shake a fly fishing rod at or cover in a weekend.

Dullstroom

Have you been to Dullstroom recently? Do you have any recommendations on what I should add to this article? 

Bolivia: Why it should be on your bucketlist

Bolivia

Bolivia

Friends and people I meet on my travels often ask me about my top travel destinations. I still have many more places I’d love to visit, but based on the 34 countries I’ve travelled to so far, some are rather surprised when I mention Bolivia. I assume it’s because this South American country is often overshadowed by some of its more well-known neighbours. Fewer still are aware of its spectacular landscapes, colourful culture, charming people and relative affordability in comparison to other Latin American travel destinations. It was Peru that initially drew me to South America for a six-week-long, post-Masters holiday. And yet the three weeks I spent exploring Bolivia were enough to place it on my list of top three countries, alongside Sri Lanka and Cambodia.

I wrote two magazine articles about Boliva on my return to South Africa, but never got around to blogging about it. So when South America Odyssey asked me to create destination inspiration about this spectacular country to inspire others to travel there too, I simply couldn’t resist.

Bolivia

La Paz

La Paz is everything you’d expect from a South American capital city. It’s busy, cluttered, colourful and welcomes us with a toothy smile in the late afternoon, as we arrive by bus from Peru.

Bolivia’s capital, was once found at the bottom of a valley enfolded by the Andes Mountains. Over the last few decades its houses climbed higher and higher. Today the city will leave you breathless, not only because of its height – it’s the world’s highest capital at 3 650 metres – but also because of its immensity. Though at first I felt slightly overwhelmed by its size, after a good night’s sleep and exploring its streets it soon grew on me. To get a sense of place and an understanding of the city’s magnitude, photograph it from the cableway that floats above the patchwork of orange houses. It also offers thrilling views of Illimani Mountain on the horizon.

Bolivia

Drink coca tea (mate de coca) to acclimatise to the altitude when you arrive, though you’ll see many locals squirreling the leaves in their cheeks. In their natural form, coca leaves are a mild stimulant (akin to coffee) that act as an appetite suppressant, help altitude sickness, provide energy and improve digestion.

Small plastic bags of dried coca leaves and tea are sold at convenience stores, by street side vendors and at any marketplace. We first spot them during our Red Cap City Walking tour ($3). It takes us up narrow alley ways, through busy market places, to Plaza Murillo (Independence Square) and San Pedro prison. This prison is rather unique as it functions very much like a capitalist state, where inmates have jobs or run businesses, pay for their accommodation, services and food, and live with their families within the compound. (Read Marching Powder by Australian journalist Rusty Young for more on that.)

Bolivia

Bring your camera, haggling skills and an open mind when you visit the Witches’ Market in La Paz (also called Mercado de las Brujas). The name derives from the many stalls mostly run by elderly women, who sell homemade remedies made from herbs and plants, soapstone figurines, charms, amulets and ‘magical medicinal potions’. But it’s the dried llama fetuses that garner the most attention. As part of an ancient Aymara ritual they are burned along with incense, candles, fake paper money, and los misterios sweets in the shape of hearts, families and even Catholic saints whose powers are invoked. Each month, especially during August, or at the start of an important undertaking an offering is made to the benevolent deity Pachamama (mother nature) to ask for good luck, health, happiness and prosperity. She is an important aspect in the lives of locals. Even those whose ancestors converted to Christianity after the Spanish colonised the region in the 16th century, still believe in her power over the mortal world and often practice both Christianity alongside Aymara traditions.

The Witches’ Market has become quite a touristy area in recent year due to the many curious tourists fascinated by these age-old traditions. The market (which is actually found along Calle Jiminez and Linares) is interspersed with souvenir shops and it’s a popular place to buy vibrant Bolivian textiles, hand-crafted jewellery and clothing, leather handbags, jerseys made from alpaca and llama wool, figurines and other souvenirs. The graffiti covered walls complement the rainbow-coloured houses and set the tone for the rest of our trip.

Copacabana and Isla del Sol

This lakeside town of Copacabana gave its name to the famous beach in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and the Barry Manilow song. The song echoes throughout the cobbled streets of this quaint fishing village east of La Paz, which mostly relies on tourism. It lies on the waters of Lake Titicaca, which at 3 812 metres is the world’s highest navigable lake.

When we arrive in the early morning it’s quiet, only a few tourists are milling about. They’re waiting to take a ferry to Sun or Moon island for a day trip or short stay. Some are off to visit the floating reed villages. We board the ferry bound for the southern part of Isla del Sol (Sun Island).

Bolivia

Sun Island is a world of its own that seems to have pressed the pause button. The secluded northern beaches are accessible along the moderately easy Las Ruinas trail that runs alongside Incan ruins. We pass thatched huts, men tilling the soil, women husking corn, and children who peek at us from behind their mother’s flowing skirts. After exploring the ruins we descend to a secluded beach where we find resident pigs and sheep paddling about in the shallows. If you’re going to join them in the water, wear lots of sun cream as the high altitude magnifies the sun’s intensity.

Bolivia

The island’s old-world charm isn’t feigned and I get the sense that this is exactly how it’s been for centuries. Besides a handful of restaurants, that mostly serve freshwater fish, there aren’t many shops, so it’s best to bring whatever you need from the mainland. The islands are a great place to do a homestay with a local family, though when we were here a number of small single- and double-storey rooms were being built.

On some parts of the island the lake seems to flow over the horizon, giving the impression that you’re siting on a beach looking out over the ocean. In other places the snow-capped Andes emerge from the water. My friend, Victor, walked from one side of the island to the other, while the girls and I took a small boat. No matter which part of the island you find yourself sitting on at sunset, crack open a chilled Cerveza and enjoy the view.

Salt of the earth: Salar de Uyuni

Put aside at least three days to visit the world’s largest salt flats, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres across southwestern Bolivia. This was by far the highlight of my trip to Bolivia and I highly recommend. Visit during the rainy season, from December to March, when it’s covered in shallow water and reflects the sky like a mirror to give you the illusion that you’re walking on clouds. During the dry season the flatness of the area gives it interesting depth of field, which makes for creative photographs.

During a three-day, 4x4ing adventure across this magnificent landscape we visited a train cemetery (where old trains go to retire), salt harvesters and a salt factory, and slept in a salt hotel and nature reserve. The landscape constantly changes, from dormant volcano cones and spouting geysers to colourful high-altitude mineral lagoons. The most famous lagoon, Laguna Colorada, found within Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve is a feeding and breeding ground for James’, Andean and Chilean flamingos.

Bolivia

At times we drove for hours on the salt flats with only the outline of the Andes to break the horizon. We lunch at the famous Fish Island, which was nothing like I expected. It’s a petrified coral island that’s covered in cacti and shaped like a fish – thousands of years ago the salt flats were a giant lake. If you’re lucky you may spot a culpeo fox behind the cacti or birds circling overhead, as you drive off into the flatness.

Bolivia

On our final day we wake before the sun to watch geysers bubble and erupt at dawn. Then we watch the sun rise from behind the flat horizon while sitting in a steaming geothermal water spring. Before heading back to civilisation we climb rock statues that have been carved by the wind in Siloli Desert. Later we watch multi-coloured mountains pass by in a blur, as our driver seemingly races a train back to Uyuni town.

Bolivia

Sucre

I had been warned of “Sucre Syndrome” long before I arrived at this UNESCO World Heritage Centre. And I, too, fell victim to its allure. Most visitors stay here twice as long as they had initially planned. Sucre retains its Spanish colonial charm with its whitewashed buildings and burnt orange roof tiles that can be seen from the Recoleta Monastery, the city’s most romantic mirador on the hilltop.

It’s a city that’s known for its language exchanges and salsa dancing – just don’t expect to sleep before midnight. Culturati are enthralled by the museums and art galleries in the ‘White City’. While Parque Simon Bolivar has a replica of the Eiffel Tower, designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Bolivia is also a popular destination among avid hikers. Sucre is the springboard for hikes across the Cordillera de Los Frailes mountain range. We did a three-day hiking expedition across Maragua Crater, rivers and wooden bridges, through wheat fields, while admiring waterfalls and the surrounding valley. For an outdoor history lesson take a guided day trip to see 2 000-year-old cave paintings and dinosaur footprints in petrified rocks. We did a home stay with a local family. The wife cooked for us, while the husband played his guitar and sang until the fire extinguished.

Have you travelled to Bolivia? What did you think? I’d love to return one day, where else should I travel while there?

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This post is written in partnership with South America Odyssey, which creates personalised travel itineraries to a number of South American destinations including Bolivia. This blog post is based on my personal and independent travel experience to Bolivia to inspire others to travel there too. I maintain editorial control over all content published on this website, but you already know that! ;)

How to survive the Clarens Beer Festival 2017

Clarens

Clarens

Today I am off to the Clarens Craft Beer Festival in the Free State. This small South African town is famed for its two-day annual beer festival, which happens around the last weekend of February. And as it’s the only beer fest in the province, they don’t muck about.

Clarens Brewery is arguably the Free State’s best known brew-pub. Owner Stephan Meyer boasts that it’s the town’s busiest time of year by far. Should you visit on any other day, the brewery serves seven beers on tap, a few seasonal brews, fruit ciders and liquers, as well as whiskey and apple brandy. Their taster panel allows you to sample the beers for free before choosing your favourite to sip beneath the shade of the chestnut trees that face the town square. And if you need to line your stomach they serve German-style pub food.

Clarens

I’ve been to two Clarens Beer Fests (and survived), so I feel qualified to write about how you can do the same.

1. Get a drinking buddy

Drinking alone is no fun. Plus it makes you seem like an alcoholic. ALWAYS drink in the company of others, even if you have to introduce yourself to a group of strangers. With a bit of alcohol in the mix (and your common love of fermented hops and barley) you’ll soon be the bestest of friends. Here we are at last year’s beer fest.

Clarens

2. Have a batting order

The beer fest is open from 12pm until 8pm on Friday and from 10am until 7pm on Saturday. Familiarise yourself with the 2017 Brew Menu, so you know exactly which brews you want to try first. There’ll be no milling about for you as the amateurs head straight for the first booth in sight. Avoid the regular beers you can easily get back home and focus on those gems that have travelled for days to be there. The most popular beers finish first on the Saturday and some breweries only have limited stock, so don’t leave the best until last.

3. Cashless tokens

Leave your credit card (and other valuables) at home. Use cash to buy as many tokens as you think you can drink your way through in two days – you can always buy more on Saturday morning. This cashless/cardless system means you won’t have to worry about losing your card and possibly running out of petrol on the way home as a result.

It’s probably also a good idea to leave your phone at your accommodation, as the chances of drunk-calling your ex decrease exponentially that way. Also you don’t need photographic proof of the doff* things you did, you’ve embarrassed yourself enough as it is.

4. Don’t play bag pipes on the festival grounds

My friend, Jonathan Visser, is one of South Africa’s top bagpipers. He’s so good in fact that he even managed to sneak his bagpipes into the festival grounds. We were only slightly merry when we approached the festival organiser to ask if he could play on stage, while there was no other musical act on. We were inspired and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so he started to play on the grass to an exceptionally receptive audience. We were politely asked to stop. He only pulled them out again later that evening outside the Grouse and Claret pub. Onlookers encircled us. People started dancing and signing along. We all stood with our right fist to our chest and sang to our heart’s content as he played Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Two random guys we had never met were so inspired by his playing that they took off their caps and started collecting money. They collected enough for Jonathan to buy the 10 of us tequila shots, which brings me to my next point.

Clarens

5. Don’t mix

With 121 craft beers from 23 local breweries there’s really no need to mix anything but beer in your belly. It’ll just make you feel kak*.

6. Food is your friend

There are a number of restaurants and pubs that line the town square where the festival is held, though you don’t want to leave the beer behind, so it’s best to explore the food within the white picket fence of the festival. Expect burgers, fries, pizzas, wraps, donuts and gourmet food trucks. Maybe this year there’ll be pretzel necklaces?

7. Take in the view

Clarens is surrounded by the spectacular sandstone Rooiberge mountains. Take a moment to take it all in, it’ll make your beer all the more tastier. Once you’re sober you can also do one of the many short hikes to the top for spectacular views of the town and valley below.

Clarens

8. Be friendly to staff

They’re the people pouring you and thousands of others beer for two days straight. They also decide how much beer to pour you, if you’re friendly they may pour you a little more than you’re paying for.

Clarens

9. Wear your beer shirt

Show off your alpha ale-ness by wearing your favourite beer-related t-shirt or get one made for the gang. People dress in onesies, tutus, and neon colours. Use your imagination and get involved!

10. Stay in a castle

My friend Leandra Webb is a legend! As soon as one beer fest finishes she books accommodation for the next one. The best and closest accommodation sells out really quickly. This year they’ve also organised tented camps.

But why camp in a tent when you can stay in a castle and run through its passages like a scene from Game of Thrones – just on a much smaller scale. The Castle in Clarens is a self-catering guesthouse located on a farm 8km out of town. It has a lookout tower, with views across the vast, grassy plains that lead up to the Maluti Mountains, as well as a fireplace.

11. Don’t drive – stumble or shuttle

By booking early we’re always within close walking distance of the festival. Don’t be a hero, rather take a shuttle if you’re staying out of town. It’ll take you to Bethlehem, Golden Gate and Fouriesburg.

12. Stay longer and explore

There are many things to do in Clarens other than drink beer (or while you wait for your hangover to pass before driving home).

Clarens

Buy a woollen Basotho blanket at The Blanket Shop

The Blanket Shop was opened in 1946 by Minnie diMezza and Gertie Dejager’s father. The sisters started working there in the 1950s and bought the shop in 1970, with the help of Minnie’s husband, just before their father passed away. “We’ve always been here – in Clarens, and in the shop. I still live in the house next door, where we were born,” tells me Minnie.

I’ve always assumed the blankets were made in the Kingdom of Lesotho, as they – along with the mokorotlo straw hat – are part of Lesotho’s national dress. Yet in the shop’s backroom, where layers of these colourful blankets lie folded one atop another, 82-year-old Minnie puts the story straight, with some input from her 80-year-old sister.

Clarens

And so the story goes: during her jubilee year, in 1897, Queen Victoria visited the then Basutoland, which was an English colony. She gifted King Lerotholi Letsie a blanket. He draped it over his shoulders, as if it were a poncho, and so the blanket-wearing tradition began. Not only is the blanket a practical form of outwear for the cooler climes of the Lesotho highlands, but it has also become a sought after status symbol and an integral part of everyday life, from childbirth to initiation ceremonies, weddings and the king’s coronation.

Minnie spreads out blankets across the wooden countertop and points out the various colour combinations, symbols and designs – each of which have to be approved by the Lesotho royal family. There’s a horse, knopkierie, shield, makwena (crocodile) and the corn cob, which is Lesotho’s staple food and symbolises fertility and wealth.

The Art Route

Clarens is the kind of place where you leave your car keys at your lodging and wander about. For a leisurely walk through town swing by the information centre at Mountain Odyssey (corner of Main and Van Reenen streets) for a free copy of the Clarens Art Route map. Say hi to Tina de Beer at her gallery by the same name – she’s in charge of the Clarens Art Guild and can direct you according to your taste in art. Most of the 16 art galleries along the route will see you walk around the town square and along Main Street. The Johan Smith Art Gallery proudly displays artworks by Old Masters, such as Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef. Then there’s The Gallery with its African artworks, as well as Smudge, where you’ll find contemporary artworks hanging on its walls.

The galleries are interspersed with boutiques that display bric-a-brac and vintage clothing in their windows as well as speciality stores. They stand alongside pavement cafés and restaurants, where friends meet. A number of talented, young local artists with no shop space display their wares on the pavement. I brought a beautiful metal heart filled with chipped white sandstone.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Clarens

The pay off for a morning hike in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park (only 20km from Clarens) is watching sunrise from atop Brandwag buttress rock. Cathedral Cave and Mushroom Rock are two other popular hikes that weave a path beneath the towering sandstone mountains. Keep an eye out for the rare bald ibis, which breeds on the ledges of the cliffs. If you prefer to sleep in and bask in the afternoon sunshine, go horseback riding along one of the many scenic routes.

Golden Gate can also be enjoyed from the car. As you drive the length of the 11 600-hectar park and wind your way along its ribbon roads, you may see black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and zebra. Stop at the vulture rehabilitation centre for a chance to see Bearded vultures.

*doff means stupid in Afrikaans.

*kak is a vulgar Afrikaans word which rhymes with bit.