Day 5 of trip to Land of Free & lots of choice

Today was the first day of the ICRS (International Christian Retailers Show). The exhibition hall opened at 8:30am and Janet and I met at 7:30am to take the bus to the conference centre so that we could register. It was incredibly well organised (but I shouldn’t be surprised). When I thought bus to the conference centre I thought mini-bus but it turned out to be a full-size large 52 seater, air-conditioned bus (of course it would be!). The conference centre is probably as big as the CTICC and this in a small mid-West city. American’s do everything big.

And oh, I am now reminded about another insight I have had about America. They are almost obsessed as much with weather as the Brits. Helen just loves the weather channel and so it is perpetually on in the hotel room so we have heard everything there is to hear about the oil spill in the Gulf and the current tropical storm Alex (the first of the season) that has developed in the Gulf. What makes matters worse is that my brother-in-law (Jeff) told Helen last night that you can now watch it online … now I have no doubt we will end up watching it at home too!

Janet and I spent the majority of the day at ICRS and we eventually finished there at about 3:30pm after having about 8 meetings throughout the day. It felt more like 20 meetings and because you end up saying the same thing time and time again it does get very tiring. It was quite an incredible exhibition with around 350 exhibitors. The ‘buyers’ tend to go around with a wheeled suitcase collecting free books, CDs and other items. It is amazing what you could collect over a day and it was incredible to see what some people did manage to collect! Janet and I limited ourselves to things we felt really worthwhile and we either declined or ditched the rest in the nearest bin.

The family spent the day doing some sightseeing in St Louis and they watched the World Cup matches on TV. They also spent some time on the roof of the hotel in the hotel pool. The hotel is 29 stories high and the pool is on top. Helen says the view is amazing from up there.

After Janet and I got back, the girls all went off shopping to a local outlet mall and they had dinner at the food court in the mall. The boys all went off the watch a baseball game – the St Louis Cardinals vs Arizona Diamondbacks. We had great seats in the 2nd tier half way between home plate and 1st base. It was in what they call a club – we would call a box. The stadium is really awesome (had to slip that in) and it is the first stadium I have been in with an escalator. Behind our seats were dedicated catering places just for ‘the club’ and so we had cheeseburgers & fries (along with the compulsory Bud for the men and cokes for the boys). Don’t misunderstand me, the catering wasn’ t included in ticket price – you still had to pay for your eats & drinks. The game started well for the Cardinals (2 runs in the first inning) but then they lost there way and at the bottom of the 9th were down 5 to 3. However, the Diamondbacks made 2 errors in the field which let the Cardinals back in and they won the game 6 to 5 in the final inning. Very exciting and quite enjoyable. While the baseball doesn’t occupy all the time, there is always something happening on the big screen. The kissing camera (they frame people who are then meant to kiss for everyone to see – fortunately they never did it with Jeff & me), the Bud camera (showing people drinking Budweiser – they could have done that with Jeff and me but alas they didn’t), the talent show (some kids who do something crazy things), some good looking girls shooting caps into the stands (local equivalent of the Bulls Babes) etc. It was also incredible to see everyone wearing red (the Cardinal’s color – yes that spelling error was intentional) – there was a hardly a person not wearing red. I was also quite surprised how many women were watching – a much higher proportion than you would find at a cricket or rugby match (or at least it felt like that for me). For Monday night there were a lot of people watching (just over 41000). Great atmosphere and also entertaining to watch my brother-in-law behave like a big kid for the evening (probably what I look like at a cricket match .. on second thoughts … no, not possible).

It has been a tiring day and it is now 11pm and I need to get to bed.

Yours from the Land that does everything BIG!

P, H, S, M & C

Day 4 of Trip to Land of Free & Wealthy

Today we woke up to very hot & muggy conditions in Chicago. We all seem to be over any jet-lag now and into the right time zone as we all had a goodnight’s sleep. As we were leaving for St Louis, we didn’t have any time to do anything today in Chicago except have breakfast and then we managed to watch the first half of the England v Germany game. We had a taxi booked for 10am to take us to Chicago O’Hare airport for our flight to St Louis. We were sorry to be leaving Chicago because we had enjoyed our 3 days there – it is a beautiful city especially in the summer (I have been in the winter and it is a dreary brown/grey place covered in snow).

We were flying on American Airlines from Chicago to St Louis. I had booked the flight on my airmiles and paid only R15 for airport taxes per ticket (not kidding!). That has to be the cheapest flight I have ever taken in my life and I was concerned that there would actually be engines attached to the plane. As I travel a lot on BA, I get to use the First Class check-in etc on American Airlines as well which (in my view helps smooth an airport experience). Paul will call me ‘Ryan Bingham’ at this point (watch the movie Up in the Air with George Clooney and you will know what I am talking about) but I don’t care – it does make things much quicker. We did the self-check in thing and included Janet’s suitcase as one of ours as they wanted to charge her for checking in her one suitcase but I got 2 cases free per person because of my frequent flyer tier. I just hoped she didn’t have any contra-band in her suitcase! Unfortunately we discovered our flight was delayed by an hour due to the thunderstorms around Chicago. We cleared through security (no belt or shoes on) and headed to find our gate which was at the very end of the concourse.

We still had free vouchers for popcorn from Garrett’s popcorn (one of the vouchers from our Trolley tour) and so Helen and Janet set off to find the store and arrived back with 5 bags of popcorn. That became Helen and Janet’s lunch (with much ooing and aahhing about how good it was – I really think it was that good – popcorn is popcorn in my view). Every time I travel through a US airport I am staggered by the quantity of people going places. Chicago airport was just teeming with people with hardly a seat to sit on the terminal. It is quite incredible. If there is one thing Americans know how to do is to travel though. Their airports are generally well laid out (with the exception of Washington) and very efficient. Our plane came in at 12:25 and by 12:45 we were boarding and by 13:10 we had closed the door and were ready to leave. I was also pleasantly surprised by the plane, seat, legroom & service of American Airlines (or at least on this flight). We flew in an MD80 (if you don’t understand the letters don’t worry about – it is a plane with 2 engines and lots of seats) and it had WiFi installed so that you could work on your laptop if you wanted. As the flying time was only 44 minutes I didn’t bother but I hope some of the other planes we fly on for the longer flights (to LA for instance) also have it as that would be quite worthwhile for me.

We landed just after 2pm and my brother-in-law (Jeff) kindly offered to pick us up from the airport which saved us a taxi fare. We had agreed about a year ago to meet them in St Louis when they heard we were planning to come. They live in Tennessee and drove up and arrived at around 12pm today so the timing worked out really well. When arrived and collected our bags we went outside to find Jeff and were hit by the intense heat & humid – Chicago was like mid-winter compared to this. This sort of heat makes aircon a must. As an added treat, my other sister and brother-in-law (Meryl & Piers) had stopped in on the way home from their family vacation in New Mexico. They were also dropping of Daniel (my nephew) who is spending the 3 days with us here (he and Stephen are good mates). We got to catch up with them in the hotel for an hour before they headed on their way and it was really nice to just chat and see them all again (we haven’t seen them for the last 2 ½ years).

Lynne (my sister) had pre-purchased tickets to go up the ‘Arch’ at St Louis and so we headed off to do that together. The Arch is the tallest monument in American and was built to commemurate that St Louis was the gateway to the West. It is a giant arch (over 600 ft high) and it has a capsule system inside it that takes 5 people at a time to the top of the Arch where you can look over St Louis and the Missippee River (St Louis is on the river). When we came down we went to look at the River which is actually in flood at the moment. The walkway on the side of the river is entirely covered and you can’t even get to the jetty where the river boats are parked – not sure how you get out to them at the moment.

We then headed for dinner at TGI Fridays which is a family style chain restuarant. The selection on the menu is ridiculously big – I don’t think I have seen a longer menu. It is actually too big because people (like Janet) who can’t make up their minds just take forever to order. The kids had long since ordered before Janet had her mind made up. It was a lovely dinner with good banter with the family (and Janet). I had Jack Daniel Ribs (those are ribs with a special sauce made from Jack Daniels). They were quite simply the best ribs I have ever had. Ribs can be fatty, or too spicy, or too much sauce – these were just right. Include a few local Budweiser beers (Anhauser Busch – the maker of Bud – is based in St Louis so it was a must to drink Bud while in the home of Bud!) and it was a great evening. It was a short walk back to the hotel where we are staying (Crowne Plaza) and even though it was raining it hasn’t dampened our spirits of a really enjoyable afternoon & evening.

Tomorrow starts the ICRS (International Christian Retailer Show) which is the reason we came to St Louis. Janet and I get to attend while the rest of the family will no doubt spend my hard earned money on some activity or shopping or something. It (the show) is obviously a big deal for St Louis as there were even signs at the airport welcoming delegates and the streetlamp’s have those long flags on them also advertising the show. I suspect it is going to be a major and mind blowing show but I will tell you about it tomorrow.

Yours from Land of massive choice

P, H, S, M & C

Day 3 of Trip to Land of the Wealthy

After seeing Saturday consumerism in action in Chicago I have changed the header to more correctly reflect American culture. We are staying one block off Michigan Avenue which is known as the Magnificent Mile. While the buildings in Chicago are quite impressive and often beautiful, the Trolley tour guide today said it is known now as the Magnificent Mile because of all the stores especially the expensive branded ones like Gucci, Armani, etc. It is just one Mile of shops.

We managed to sleep the night through at least last night. Both Helen and I woke up at around 6:30am this morning and the kids emailed at 7am to say they were also awake. We decided to have breakfast at a very nearby cafe (at the bottom of our hotel actually). After breakfast we finished watching the 1st half of the S.Korea v Uruguay game. We agreed to meet Janet at 10am in front of our hotel and we all went to the Levi store (which had a lot of items at 50% off). However, it was so hot and humid this morning that buying jeans just didn’t see the right thing to do be doing so while we (Janet, Helen and I) all tried on some jeans none of us ended up buying any. Helen and Janet then went off shopping together and I went off with the kids. Not entirely sure what Helen and Janet did because when Helen got back at 12:30 she hadn’t actually bought anything but she had managed to go the Cheesecake Factory though!

On the other hand, we went to the Bose store followed by the Apple Store. We had passed the Apple Store on Thursday but there was a line (they don’t know what queue’s are) to actually enter the store. That is because the Iphone 4.0 has just been released. However we were early enough today and managed to get it. We played with the Iphone 4 which I have to say is much better than the Iphone 3 – it is smaller, lighter and much better looking (sorry Marcus your phone has been supplanted). We also played with the Ipad which really is an Ipod Touch on steroids. Not sure that I would ever seen the reason for buying one of them. They are actually quite bulky as well. The kids and I enjoyed playing around though. It is incredible how successful Apple is in the US. You have to book an appointment to see an in store consultant and by the time we arrived there were no appointments left with one type of consultants and for the other batch (never figured out the difference) the earliest appointment was 3:20pm (and it was probably around 11am when we were there).

After Helen returned we headed out to catch the Trolley again to complete the city tour as we never finished it yesterday. It was an enjoyable hour and due to a Food Fair in the park they took us on a slightly different route which resulted in us having a great view of the city across Lake Michigan. I think Stephen and I both got some good photos. The only hiccup was when the Trolley driver misjudged one of the turns and he went over the curb. I was sitting about half way down and immediately he started turning I could tell he was going to do it. He hit it really hard and there was a large hiss as the air came out of the tyre. That didn’t deter him and he merrily continued on the tour with the half flat tyre. When we got out about 5 minutes later we could clearly see a gash in the tyre. He must have noticed the effect on the handling but he just continued onwards.

After a quick visit to the Herschey chocolate store (we got a free chocolate from the Trolley tour) and then a visit across the road to Ghiradelli’s for an Italian ice-cream, Helen and Chloe headed off shopping (as mothers and daughters do) and the boys went back to the hotel to watch the end of the USA v Ghana game (as fathers and sons do). Helen and Chloe got back just after the match ended and we just spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the hotel. At 6:30pm we decided to go and walk down the Navy Pier to meet Janet for dinner. Navy Pier is the place that I spent 2-3 days hanging around after Sept-11. For those of you who haven’t heard the story, I was stuck in Chicago from Sept 11 to Sept 14 after the terrorism events. I was with a colleague (James Louw) and James and I spent at least one day down at the Pier trying to kill time (it was deserted then). Today it was teeming with people which made it almost impossible to walk down the Pier. We found a place for dinner and sat outside enjoying the warm weather and the atmosphere.

The plan had been to stay for the 10:15 fireworks at the Pier but we just couldn’t see ourselves up still at the time (even though it is now 10:25pm as I type). We headed back to the hotel and decided to call it a night. We leave tomorrow for St Louis and have to leave the hotel at around 10am to catch our flight down to St Louis.

Some additional observations about America:

  • Dressing in the same clothes is a must do family thing. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, matching shirts for boys & girls is obviously the thing to do. Even teenagers and mothers wearing the same clothes. Helen reckons it is because they don’t wear a uniform to school and so haven’t gotten the dressing like everyone else out of their systems. I am a bit concerned that when we meet our family tomorrow they will be dressed the same!
  • If Janet reads your blog, she will take it one step further and get photographic evidence of my observations. She has 2 pictures illustrating my point about women needing to wear longer pants – though both of the ones she has don’t demonstrate the tree stump theory (though she might take up that challenge now).
  • It is easy to waste your money in America (actually really easy). Helen and Chloe went into a store called ‘American Girl’ which is a store for doll (like Bratz etc) but in this store you can take your doll to have it’s hair done (for $25) or it’s ears pierced. No I am not kidding – it is a 3 floor store with everything you could want (and a whole lot of things you couldn’t imagine wanting) for your doll. The staggering thing was that there was a line for the hair salon.
  • Yours from the Temples (and one Greener) in Chicago.


    Day 2 of Trip to Land of the Free

    Last night I went to bed at 9pm and fell asleep at 9:00:15 seconds. When I woke up I wondered why the sun came up so late and leaned over to check my watch and saw it was 4am. I thought I must have in my stupor last night set my watch incorrectly and so got up and checked my cellphone clock as well but it unfortunately reflected the same time. I thought I better get back to sleep again and tried to do that until 5am when I gave up and got up and cleared my emails. Out of respect for my beloved I left the light off and worked by the light of the laptop screen but at 6am I gave up on that and turned the light on. She didn’t stir so I won’t make that mistake again.

    At about 7am she woke up and at 7:45am I went to check on the kids and found Chloe awake and reading her book with the aid of light she had brought along and the boys were still sleeping. Both of them had woken at 4am and 4:30am but they both went back to sleep again. Michael was buried in his bed. Stephen woke up again and we agreed to leave for breakfast at 8:30am. As breakfast at our hotel was +- $20 per person, we set out to find somewhere else to eat and after walking 20 minutes and crossing the Chicago River we found a bakery where we could have breakfast at ¼ of the price we would have paid in the hotel. Helen had muesli and the rest of us had scrambled egg with Applesandle wood smoked bacon (very nice!). All served on a plastic plate with plastic knife and fork. We walked back to the hotel and realised on the way back that everything (including all the shops) only opened at 10am. I was very stunned by this as in SA most shops are open at 8:30am and none later than 9am and so in the consumer country of the USA I was very surprised to find everything only opening at 10am.

    We came back to the hotel and collected our camera’s et al and then headed out to the John Hancock Building – 2nd highest building in Chicago after the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower). They say the John Hancock Tower might be lower but it has a better view of Chicago. The viewing deck is on the 94th floor. Unfortunately the lift up (which takes 40 seconds but is the fastest lift in America) caused an onset of dizziness for Michael and so he just sat down at the top and waited for the rest of us to enjoy the view over the city. You get an audio guide which is narrated by David Schwimmer (of Friends fame) and was quite interesting. Once down and outside we had a quick drink from a fresh juice bar and Michael improved sufficiently for us to take a Trolley tour around Chicago. We were the only 5 people on the Trolley (bus with wooden bench seats) and so the bus driver (tour guide) customised his commentary for us and even explained what baseball was when he heard we were from South Africa. He asked why we had left now over the World Cup and asked if we had a Vuvu even. I was quite surprised as most Americans don’t follow soccer (football is something different for them!). This was the 2nd time I had been surprised since arriving – yesterday the customs official asked me whether we had any biltong in the luggage!

    The Trolley was one of those hop-on-hop-off types and about ½ way through we decided to jump off and take another one that headed to the suburbs and into South Chicago. The plan was to get off a the Science & Industry Museum. The tour of South Chicago took us past 2 famous people’s houses – Mohammed Ali’s and Barack Obama. They are very proud of the fact that Barack Obama comes from Chicago and they keep pointing out facts. Both bus trips claimed that Michele Obama met Barack at two different places – who knows who is actually correct! We jumped off at the museum and after a quick lunch in the foodcourt we went to sample the 800 interactive displays. It was like the MTN Science Centre on steroids. They have a German U-boat from WW2 and a United Airlines Boeing 727. They have a Storm centre which shows how Tsunami’s are caused, how lightening strikes, how tornado’s develop etc. It was interesting and entertaining. We planned to catch the 3:25pm bus back into the city centre and when it arrived it was pretty full. We (the strong lads of the family) ended up standing the whole way back (which turned about to an hour) while the ladies took seats vacated by two younger men. Stephen reckons he has developed a blister from holding on (it was my feet and ankles that were, and still are, killing me). The tickets for the Trolley tour give you a free T-Shirt so we collected those and then walked back to our hotel (about a 30 minute walk).

    At about 6pm Janet (Greener) called to say she had arrived. She came in from London today and is attending the ICRS conference with me at St Louis from Sunday through Wednesday (more about that from Sunday onwards). We agreed to meet at 6:45pm at her hotel (which is directly behind our hotel – one block difference) and we went to dinner at an Italian family restaurant. Helen kindly told the waiter that it was my birthday 3 days ago because you got a free Brownie. I thanked her for that and reminded her how much she would have hated that if I had done it. (I have a memory like an elephant and I will get revenge!) We all started feeling quite tired over dinner and I am again battling to finish typing this without falling asleeppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp (oops – sorry follow asleep again).

    We have noticed a number of things about the US so far. Stephen reckons that he needs to speak to the women’s clothes manufacturers and tell them to lengthen the short pants. He is right – I don’t think you could get shorts any shorter as they would then be called underwear. While about 1 in 10 could wear them, the other 9 in 10 are simply scaring the children in the city (and they are actually scaring me as well!). When you have legs like tree stumps then you should cover them up and not flaunt them! The 2nd observation is that while I knew this before, their small (of anything but especially drinks) is like our large and sometimes our extra large even. If you drink the whole thing you just spend the rest of the day in the loo getting rid of it again. And then thirdly, after driving through one of the poorer areas in the South of Chicago, I was reminded again that even the poor in America are significantly better off than most people in Crossroads or Westlake. This country really is extremely prosperous and the pity is that I am not sure that most people are aware of how fortunate they are (and that is true even after the financial crisis).

    And now it is 21:30 and I cannot keep my eyes open any longer.

    From the Land of the Free and Wealthy

    P, H, S, M, C

    Day 1 of Trip to the Land of the Free

    Some of you know and some of you might be surprised to know that we are actually now in the USA.

    While I said Day 1 in the header, it is more like Day 1 ½ as we actually left on Wednesday (23rd) evening from Cape Town. For those of you who don’t know, it was my birthday (no – don’t bother with late wishes I know who you are already 🙂 ) so I got to have my birthday dinner courtesy of BA. Given the frequency with which I do the Cape Town – London trip, I did allow myself (and Helen because I am such a generous person) a little treat in that I used my miles for the 2 of us to go First Class. The kids were originally spread over 2 cabins but we managed to get Stephen upgraded as well in the end. When I went back on one occasion to check on the kids the chief cabin controller said he was wondering whose kids they were as they seemed remarkably comfortable flying by themselves.

    Helen and I did enjoy the seats and service. There were only 5 people on First Class and 3 cabin crew serving us! The service was ridiculously good and the kids said their service was also good. The food was also some of the best I have had on a plane and to top it off the wines were excellent. The only problem was that the entertainment system hung in the middle of us watching a movie. First it happened to Helen’s TV and then mine. The Chief cabin controller said he would re-boot the whole system (on account of Helen and my problems!) and the kids were miffed as they were also in the middle of watching movies. As it turned out they never managed to fix the system until they called London on the satellite phone from the plane (which only happened in the middle of the flight). I never did finish watching the movie and nor did the kids. We did all get a good night’s sleep though.

    We landed at Heathrow at 6:55am this morning (Thursday) and after going through security again we were back in the departures hall waiting for our flight to Chicago at 11:45am. We spent the time in the BA lounge catching up on emails, having showers, breakfast etc. We boarded on time but eventually left an hour late due to traffic congestion at Heathrow. The flight was 8 hours long but only actually took 3 hours (Stephen told me I had to say that). The service wasn’t great on the flight but we survived it. We all managed to have lunch (which was actually breakfast time in the US) and we all finished our movies and managed to get in at least another one as well. The boys both watched ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (which I had already seen on a flight – worth watching in my view) and ‘Invictus’ (which I still need to watch). Chloe watched ‘Toothferry’ and ‘How to train a dragon’ and I watched ‘Ghostwriter’ (which was very good as well) and ‘Shutter Island’ (which was spooky). We all managed to get in an hour or more sleep as well.

    We landed at Chicago O’Hare airport at 2:50pm (9:50pm SA time) and managed to go through passport control, collect our luggage and clear customs in 35 minutes. We took a taxi into Chicago and even though it was only 3:30pm the rush hour traffic had already started and so it took us about 50 minutes to get the hotel. We are staying at Four Points by Sheraton in downtown Chicago (pretty much in between Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) and Trump Tower). It is a nice hotel, nothing fancy but it has everything we need – free internet access (very important!), in room coffee (next most important), business centre, swimming pool, fitness centre (who needs that?) etc. The kids are sleeping together in one room and Helen and I are across the passageway.

    We spent the late afternoon just relaxing in the room, catching up on World Cup scores and watching the record breaking tennis match at Wimbledon. At 5:30pm I went to check on the kids and we had 2 grumpy ones who were so tired they couldn’t possible do anything and Stephen who was making the most of the free internet. I forced them (I know none of you could imagine me (being so placid) forcing my kids to do anything but I have now broken that illusion) to have a shower and then we went out for dinner. They improved as we walked and we made our way down to Navy Pier on Lake Michigan (about a 20 minute walk). We found Bubba Gump Shrimp Factory (remember that from Forest Gump? – if not get the DVD) and had dinner there. Nice food, good service and we actually sat outside and enjoyed the buzzing atmosphere and warm weather. After dinner we walked around the Pier and back up to the hotel again. It is now 8:51pm and if you add on 7 hours you get 3:51am in SA so you have to forgive missing words, poor grammar etc in the above narrative. I am surprised that I made it this far without falling asleepppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp (oops sorry – nodded off there for a second).

    That’s it for tonight … will write again tomorrow.

    P, H, S, M & C all from the Land of the Free

    Final Day at the Okovango Delta

    We were woken up again at 6am so that we could have our sunrise boat cruise with the hope of adding a few more birds to our list as well. It was still cloudy from the previous evening’s thunderstorm and much cooler than we had previously experienced (probably in the earlier 20s). After our morning coffee and hot chocolate we were in the boat and off into the Delta. It started to drizzle lightly but not before we had seen 2 lifers (one quite rare bird and only found in the Delta but we had a very good sighting of it quite close by). The ranger handed out poncho’s but we didn’t feel it was necessary to wear them as it was only raining softly still. We then set out to see if we could find Pel’s Fishing Owl (a bird that had eluded us so far and yet a special of the area – people come from all over the world to see this Owl in the Delta). We went to Pel’s crossing because this was known (as you can guess from the name) to be a place where you found the bird and it was thought it had a nest in the area. We heard it hoot 3 or 4 times and it came behind us on an island. Stanza decided to get off the boat to see if he could find it and so we dropped him off and then we tried to see it from the waterside. However, after trying for around 20 minutes we couldn’t find it and we picked up Stanza about 300 meters further down (he had to wade back out to get into the boat). It was no raining quite hard as well and so the poncho’s were put on by everyone, camera equipment went into a black bag and we headed back to the lodge at top speed with the raining blitzing in our faces.

    At one of the big open areas Ska spotted a hippo and pulled in close for us to have better view. It was a little too close for my comfort and given the comments of Stephen and Michael about how fast can a hippo swim etc, I suspect I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Just when we were looking at one then number two came up followed by number three as well. And we weren’t more than 15 meters away (I suspect). Speedy had told us that when you at first see 1 hippo, you can bank on there being another 9 underwater nearby. As we had seen 3 I was still wondering where the other 7 were. I got a little more edgy when he cut the motor of the boat as well! Fortunately it did start first time and we left the hippo watching us carefully in our retreat.

    We got back just after 8am and had breakfast and then we went to pack up. They had told us our flight was leaving from the landing strip at 12:55 and so we need to leave Xudum at around 11am as the boat trip would take about 40 minutes to Xarana and then a drive back to the landing strip would be another 40 minutes. I wasn’t looking forward to either as it was raining quite hard and was getting colder and colder as well. We finished packing up at around 9:45am and instead of sitting in the room we decided to go to the lodge and wait as we could at least get internet access from there. When we got there, the camp manager (Johann) came over to say that he was very concerned about the rain and that we would get very wet on the way back via boat & game truck and so he had ordered a helicopter to transfer us to the landstrip (at their expense – $900 per trip!). This was obviously very disappointing for everyone as we wouldn’t be able to see any more game (or not!). It meant two trips as the helicopter could only take 4 passengers and it was decided that the entrepid people should go first (Chloe and me) and then the more scared threesome (Stephen, Michael and Helen) would go second. The helipad was underwater so the manager said he would get him to land right in front of the lodge. The helicopter arrived at 12:15 and everyone came out to have a look and say goodbye. I had to help Chloe into the helicopter due to the force of the wind from the blades. It was only a 10 minute flip to the landing strip (much too short for my liking!). The Xudum landing strip (which we flew over) was totally under water and I wondered what the Pom Pom airstrip would look like. It was much better but also quite muddy.

    Soon after we were dropped off a small plane did a flyby and then landed so it was clear that the runway was still in working condition. At about the same time Helen arrived with the 2 boys and then the rain stopped and it suddenly got quite humid and hot. Our plane (fortunately for Michael who didn’t enjoy the 6-seater experience) was a 14-seater Cessna Caravan (the same one we had flown from Maun to Sandibe on) and it arrived about 20 minutes later at 13:15. 20 minutes later we were in Maun and after a short walk inside the terminal building.

    There were only 2 check in desks and neither of them had any signage above saying Air Botswana but I figured that they could only be Air Botswana. The check in process was manual – handwritten boarding cards, handwritten bag tags – no seat allocations and our names just crossed off the computer printout she had. This whol process still managed to take 5 minutes though as it was clearly interrupting her conversation with her colleague. The bags were simply piled on top of each on a baggage cart and that was that. We were told boarding would only take place at 2:15pm and so we had 30 minutes to kill doing duty free shopping (oh no – that’s right there weren’t any shops in the airport). Helen decided to be adventurous and to have a look at the shops outside and about 3 minutes later she was back with us again. I never even bothered to ask why she took so long – I knew as I had been to the bank on the 1st day we arrived. We then went through security which was a long line of people going through a single scanner (Helen was no doubt itching to offer to re-organise it again for them). The fire alarm went off twice while we waited in the queue but no-one moved so it was obviously a regular occurence. The scanner beeped for me despite the fact I was wearing exactly the same clothes I was wearing when we arrived and it didn’t then – how is that possible?!

    After security we had to go to passport control. When we got to the counter we were handed the forms to fill in and they only gave Helen one. It took a reasonable amount of convincing to get another form and we were told the children didn’t need to fill it in they were covered under our forms. There were 2 counters open but the one lady after handing over the forms announced she was now closed and then left! We completed the forms (no pens around but fortunately I had one) and handed it back to the lady who then officiously stamped the form, our passports and our boarding cards. After passport control we had to pass through customs which involved another lady who stamped our boarding cards again (nothing else happened just a stamp, no questions, nothing!). If you didn’t know, 70% of Batswana (that is what you call the people of Botswana), are employed by the government. I think 50% of them must be employed at Maun airport to stamp your passport and the other 50% were on lunch. We were then through into the international departure lounge which looked remarkably similarly to the domestic departure lounge we had experienced 6 days earlier (including the sign in the toilet of ‘No water in the bathroom by order of the management’).

    Our flight to Johannesburg left slightly late and so we arrived in Johannesburg at 5pm just at the same time as the Delta flight from Atlanta and various other SAA flights from other parts of Africa. The queue at immigration was quite long and it took us about 20 minutes to get through. Our luggage was already waiting for us at the carosel and then we were through to check-in for a BA flight back to Cape Town which left at 7pm. It was on-time and we got back to Cape Town just after 9pm. We were all quite tired and the kids were asleep within 30 minutes of getting home.

    It was a thoroughly enjoyable 6 days and the last 3 days in particular were very relaxing (which is what Helen and I in particular needed).

    Yours until next time.

    Day 5 at the Okovango Delta

    Today was a day that won’t be forgotten quickly. It is now 9:30pm and I am not sure that I will have energy to finish writing this tonight as I am exhausted. The kids were almost falling asleep into their food at supper they were so tired (and this after Helen, Stephen and I all had afternoon naps!). Well – let me tell you what happened.

    We were woken up at 5:30am with the delivery of orange juice. Helen and I didn’t sleep brilliantly. We weren’t disturbed by animals (it is remarkably quiet except for the frogs who make the biggest noise for the smallest creatures – they are about 1cm long and yet they make a huge noise). The problem was twofold. Firstly, it is very hot and still at night. We do have aircon in the bedroom but as there are no windows at all (just mozzie netting), the aircon is actually trying to cool the whole Delta and that isn’t very effective. I have woken up each morning in a pool of sweat. The second problem was that our house is built right next to and slightly under a Marula tree and the fruits are ripe at the moment so they keep falling off onto our roof which makes a loud thud and reverberates through the whole house. As you can imagine that tends to wake you up as even the frogs noise doesn’t block that out.

    We set off the game drive at around 6:30am as the sun was rising and we saw a reasonable amount of game and birds. We even saw Roan Antelope which is very rare and generally seen much less than any of the predators. With all our game park trips I think our kids have never seen them previously or if they had it certainly wasn’t up close. We also saw reedbuck which we hadn’t seen on this trip and a number of lifers as well as quite a few other birds which we hadn’t seen yet on the trip. The one special sighting was that of a Giant Eagle Owl which we heard hooting and then managed to spot it in the trees very close to the road. At about 9:30 it was evident we weren’t getting back to camp for breakfast and it also explained the 5 plastic chairs on the back of the game truck. Our ranger (Stanza) said that the plan was to get to a pan where there were lots of water birds and where some Flamingo’s had been spotted earlier this week (Flamingo’s don’t usually come to the Delta and so this is a very rare occurrence). We were just about a kilometre from the pan when we had to do a water crossing. And that is where the fun started as about half way through at the deepest point the truck lost momentum and the tyres dug in and there we were stuck! I was sitting in the front seat and within moments the water was filling the entire foot well (well being an operative word to describe it!). The water level was just below the fronts eat level actually. Ska and Stanza insisted we remain in the vehicle while they took off their socks and shoes and got the jack out.

    Their first plan was to jack the vehicle up and put logs under all the wheels. This isn’t an easy task and they managed to only do one side when suddenly one of the trucks appeared. The driver was actually lost and looking for the other group (a group of Mexicans) to take them their breakfast. He dropped off a rope and promised to return after he had delivered breakfast to them. In the meanwhile they tried the jack and log method and the first attempt didn’t seem to move the truck anywhere and probably only dug it in further. By this stage the kids had figured that wading around in the water was a better option than being truck bound. As kids usually do they got more and more immersed in the water and eventually Stephen & Michael were swimming and Chloe was trying to figure out how to do it with her skirt on. When Michael took off his shirt she put it on and it was long enough to be a dress on Chloe and so that became her bathing costume.

    After about 45 minutes of trying, Stanza suggested that we have breakfast in the water and not at the pan. So we all got out and unpacked the chairs, tables, cadac and skottle and food containers. We set them up in ankle deep water and Stanza and Ska started to prepare breakfast for us in the Delta! Getting stuck in the Delta turned out to be a lovely experience of breakfast in the Delta. You have to see the pictures to believe it! We had egg, bacon and sausage all freshly prepared by Stanza. After breakfast while we were still waiting for the help to arrive, Stanza took us on a walking safari down to the pan and we saw the Flamingo’s (3 of them) and various other water birds including 1 lifer. It was now getting very hot and I could feel myself burning despite liberally applying sun cream twice within an hour. The mozzies and flies (biting type) were also mobbing us and so we gave up relatively quickly on the bird watching and headed back to the vehicle. Ska had been hard at work jacking up each wheel and putting logs under them. We couldn’t take the heat anymore so we got into the vehicle to get some shade (all the game vehicles in Botswana are covered fortunately). Ska tried to drive the vehicle out and while he probably made it forward by 50cm or so, the wheels dug in again and even deeper this time. [I got this far last night and then sleep overcame me!] It was evident that we had to be pulled out. We had to wait for another 10 minutes or so and then Thsepo arrived in the Landcruiser bakkie and fortunately the rope held and he managed to pull us out. In total we were stuck in the crossing for 2 hours. We were a long way from camp still and so we started to head back but only got back at around 1:30pm in the end. The game drives take it out of you as the roads are incredibly bumpy and you are bouncing up and down all the time. They say the roads are so bad due to the sandy soil and the water. They are slightly better at Xudum than at Sandibe but both places are considerably worse than any other game park we have visited.

    As we were all tired and hot and full, we decided to skip lunch and all the afternoon activities and just spend the time in the camp. The staff were playing Delta Volleyball to which the kids were invited but they also decided to opt out of that after the morning spent swimming in the Delta. I feel asleep on the bed downstairs and Helen nodded off on the bed on the observation deck (yes – we have two beds!). Stephen also fell asleep later in the afternoon. We just spent the afternoon relaxing, swimming in the plunge pool (or at least Helen and Chloe swam) and just watching for game over the Delta. At about 5pm Helen suddenly noticed an African Barred Owlet sitting right in front of us in the tree. We weren’t sure how long he had been there but we had fantastic view of him before he flew into the neighbouring tree. Shortly after that we noticed a single elephant bull crossing the Delta toward the main lodge so we headed over to see how close it would come and to have some drinks before dinner. It didn’t get much closer but we did see it a few more times across the Delta.

    Dinner was meant to be a bush dinner but when we heard that we had to share a table with 10 Mexicans we asked whether we could stay at the lodge rather. These guys were incredibly noisy and are big (no that is an understatement), MASSIVE drinkers. They kept apologising for their noisiness but quite honestly it does destroy some of the atmosphere of a peaceful game lodge. There was no surprise from the staff – they seemed to understand how we felt. To give you some idea of how they behaved, when I was over at the lodge at 4pm during afternoon tea, they were raiding the bar for Tequila instead of coffee. We were very glad in the end that we didn’t go over with them last night as they only left for dinner at 8:30pm and we were finished at 9pm. None of us would have made it and it would have been an unpleasant experience as well with the drinking, smoking and general loudness. (News of our comments about their noisiness must have gotten around because the manager even mentioned it to us this morning that things should be more peaceful now as they were leaving this morning.)

    So another adventure filled day passed and we were all a little sunburnt for the experience and thoroughly exhausted but a day that definitely will not to be forgotten.

    Yours from the sunburnt Temples.

    Day 4 at the Okovango Delta

    Either we are getting used to sleeping with the sounds of elephant and hippo eating or they both weren’t around last night (we think it was the latter). We decided not to go for an early morning drive as we had to leave at around 10am to be taken to the landing strip for our next flight to Xudum (pronounced Koo – dumb). We had a leisurely breakfast, packed up and said our goodbyes to the staff at the camp (who were excellent – we think the best we have experienced at any game lodge we have visited). We decided to take a slow ride to the landing strip and see if we could add to our bird list which was now over 100 birds. We did add one or two on route and in addition also saw another pride of Lion quite near the landing strip. We then had to clear the landing strip of game which turned out to be quite entertaining as there was a herd of giraffe (I am sure that is not the right collective noun for giraffe but can’t think what it is at the moment) on both sides of the landing strip.

    The plane landed slightly earlier and after we had obtained our boarding passes and passed through security (of which there were neither) we switched places with another family who came out of the plane. The plane was a 6 seater Cessna. The luggage went underneath and we had to repack it slightly to ensure it fitted in. Then I got the seat next to the pilot (he wanted the heaviest upfront with him), and then Helen and Stephen behind us with Michael and Chloe at the back. The take off was smooth and I thought it was a fantastic 20 minute trip but when I turned around to see how the family was doing it was evident that only Stephen was enjoying it like me. Michael was as white as a sheet and looked as though he thought the plane would drop from the sky any minute and while Helen was smiling she told us later that she didn’t like the bumps and bobs that the plane did.

    We did get a fantastic view of the Delta and while I didn’t see any fame from the air, Stephen saw elephant and giraffe on his side of the plane. We landed at about 11:45am at Pom Pom which is the airstrip for Xarana (sister camp of Xudum). The Xudum airstrip was under water about a month ago and had not yet been approved by the government for re-opening yet though the Xudum manager says it is now repaired. We therefore had to take a game vehicle to Xarana (about 40 minutes) and then a boat from Xarana to Xudum (another 40 minutes). The road trip took slightly longer as we ended up seeing a whole lot of birds and our ranger (Stanza) tried to spot a Pel’s Fishing Owl for us at various places. Eventually we were radioed to ask where we were as they needed the game truck for another collection. Xarana is a beautiful tented camp which (if we ever come back to the Delta), we would definitely select as a place to stay. We just had time for a quick pit stop and then we were onto the boat. 2 minutes outside of Xarana the fuel ran out and we had to switch over to the reserve tank. Unfortunately they then couldn’t get the engine going again and I had visions of someone swimming back to Xarana to get help. Fortunately they figured out where the blockage was and we were off again up top speed with Sta (our tracker) at the wheel. As he was going quite fast the water was spraying up and wetting us from time to time which was really cooling in the hot Botswana midday heat.

    We arrived at Xudum at 2pm and had lunch and then we were shown to our rooms which are beautiful wooden structures with their own splash pools on the side of the Delta. You have your own viewing deck over the Delta. We met back at the lodge just after 4pm and then went on a Mokoro again with Stanza taking the kids and Sta taking Helen and myself. It was very peaceful and we were in the Mokoro for about an hour and half. Very enjoyable even in the heat and despite the insects and spider webs. We got back and had a drink and watched the sunset from the lodge and I downloaded and sent some emails. After dinner it was back to the rooms and asleep at around 10pm as we had a morning game drive again at 6am.

    Cheers from the mozzie chewed Temples!

    Day 3 at the Okovango Delta

    We were again up for the 5:30am morning drive and it was pretty much a repeat pattern in that we didn’t see much game but we did see quite a few more birds.  By the end of the drive we were on over 90 birds and closing in on 100.  Our target is 150 so that definitely seems reachable.  When we got back Speedy said we were going to fish for our lunch so we had 30 minutes to ‘freshen up’ and then we were into the boat.  The giveaway sign was that Thusi (our butler) also came with us so we knew we were going to have lunch somewhere else.  They took us into the Santandibe River and we followed the main channel until we got to an Island which was previously used by the local people when they hunted (they usually hunted hippo as they believed the meat was very good for you).   On the island was a picnic laid out for us under the trees and so we disembarked from the boat, got our land legs back and once we had gotten rids of the ants that had attacked the ‘stokbrood’, we settled down for a peaceful lunch under the trees and did a little more bird watching.   On the trip back everyone nodding off for a few minutes as it was so peaceful on the river and what we our full stomachs it really was the only thing you could do.

    That evening we decided on only a short game drive as it had been a full day and so we left at 5pm (you usually leave at 4pm) and we just stayed close to the camp.  Speedy took us to see the remains of an elephant bull (including his tusks which were still there).  The elephant had been injured in a fight with another one and as he was hanging around the camp and being quite aggressive (and the wound wasn’t healing), the government had agreed that it could be shot.  (You cannot do anything in Botswana without the government approving it.)  The tusks are meant to be collected by a government agency but as they already have so much ivory stored they haven’t been yet to collect these but it is illegal for them to even move them off the spot (and it seems no one does!).  We then got a lesson in poaching & culling from Speedy and Steve who were both very passionate and knowledgeable on the subject.  It was a very educational drive.  We then stopped to have drinks next to a patch of water and as we did a hippo came up out of the water and grunted and opened its mouth in a show of aggression to us.  He just wanted to chase us away and Speedy just clapped his hands and shouted out him.  The hippo kept up his show for about 10 minutes or so while we were having drinks and snacks and watching the sun set over the Delta.  It then figured we weren’t going to do anything and ignored us until we pulled away again when he again displayed his aggression.  It was an amusing and entertaining drinks stop.

    Day 2 at the Okovango Delta

    We were woken up at 5:30am for a morning game drive.  After a quick breakfast we headed out in the game truck and while we saw the usual game (giraffe, elephant, impala, lechwe etc), we didn’t see much else except adding significantly to our bird list.  While looking at one particular bird and trying to identify it (we probably spent 15-20 minutes doing that), Michael suddenly pointed out the buffalo on the other side of the game vehicle!  We were so busy watching the bird that we didn’t even notice the buffalo for the first 10 minutes or so.

    That afternoon we were taken for a trip in a Mokoro.  This is a traditional dug-out canoe which they use in the Delta.  It was traditionally made from the trunk of a sausage tree but the government stopped that about 10-15 years ago as it was resulting in too many trees being chopped down.  Now they are fibreglass only.  They are poled by a person standing at the back.  We were just told to sit like a bag of potatoes as they do not want you shifting your weight as they do the balancing with their feet.  It was a very peaceful and pleasant experience.  The kids went with Speedy and Helen and I were with Steve.  It was only a short ride (about 10-15 minutes) and then we spent the balance of the afternoon with another game ride.  At the end of the day we finished on around 80 birds.

    It is probably worth saying that by the end of Day Two we had been bitten by mozzies all over.  Peaceful Sleep seems to attract mozzies in the delta rather than repel them.  That night Chloe got bitten 14 times on her hand, I have multiple bites around my shins (and so does Michael) and it seems that only Helen doesn’t get bitten much (we think it something to do with the sourness of her blood).  They even manage to bite right through our shirts – both Stephen and I have had bites through our shirts.  As there is always water nearby there are generally insects around so if you can’t take insects then the Delta is definitely not for you!

    Michael didn’t sleep that well as he woke up at around 2am to munching outside his room.  He said it was so loud he was scared stiff (and I know the feeling from the previous evening).  He thought it was a hippo originally until we saw the elephant tracks on the path around their house and the large present he had left behind on the path as well.  Helen and I also heard the hippo splashing around in the water again that night.