Coimbra

acd9bd8b-80b9-437a-82c9-5eaa9afdc22bWe all had a great nights sleep and were up for breakfast at 8:30am. Of course the boys overslept and only woke up at 8:30am when we messaged them to say we were going for breakfast. They did get up in 5 minutes at least. The breakfast was a buffet with a really good array of breads, cold meat, cheese, scrambled egg, fresh fruit etc. I thought it was pretty good for the fact that it is included in the room rate.

We headed out to see the University of Coimbra which was founded in 1290 (one of the oldest universities in the world). The only issue is that you have to walk up (and I really mean UP) to get to the university buildings as they are on the top of the hill (see yesterday’s photo). As it was only 5 degrees C outside, everyone was panting when we finally got to the top due to the cold air. It was also quite a steep climb so even the summer we might have been panting.

227af858-0189-43e4-91fc-028886b2769dWe went into the New Cathedral of Coimbra. “New” is really not an appropriate description as it was built-in the 17th century. But it did displace the Old Cathedral as the seat of the Bishop of Coimbra and so it is now the officially recognized Cathedral of Coimbra. What struck me was the number of ways they try to get money out of you in the Cathedral. Not only did you have to pay €1 per person to enter it but there were at least 25 other forms of money collections in the Cathedral itself. From electronic candles (pay €1 and the candle lights up to pray for some dead person – the Cathedral has numerous stations remembering Our Lady of Good Death) through to electronic guides (pay €1 to be informed about some statue or altar) to a plain box on the wall to give whatever money you feel you need to give out of guilt or to get your loved one out of purgatory or whatever. It was so obvious to us that it makes you wonder why people attending can’t see it. It also frustrates me to think how much money would have been spent on the Cathedral in the 17th century  (it is pretty impressive inside) and that money would have definitely come from the people in the town who would most likely not have been very wealthy.

Michael was just itching to get himself into a confessional booth and eventually when everyone else in the Cathedral had vanished he did slip in (though unfortunately the photographic evidence didn’t come out well). I did get a shot of Lara and Olivia bowing at the altar though (don’t worry Simon & Bryan … I’ll sort out their theology by the time we get back). The best comment of the day did come from Stephen. When we were all together at the back of the Cathedral just before we were about to exit he said “Thank goodness for Martin Luther”. Quite appropriate given 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his thesis to the door at Wittenberg.

0f820646-9f0f-4f76-b22c-a0ca903c9ee7We also walked around the university buildings which have quite fantastic views over the city and river. We had hoped to visit the botanical gardens but when we arrived we found a sign on the gate saying they were closed 31/12 and 1/1 so unfortunately our trips timing was going to prevent us from seeing those (they are the biggest gardens in Portugal). We walked back towards the hotel and found a street cafe to have some lunch. I am staggered at how reasonably priced everything is. Our beers at lunch cost us €1.50 each which really is incredibly reasonable and the total lunch only cost us €35.

This afternoon the ladies went shopping at the mall while the 3 men got in some sleep and recovered from the 7-8km of walking this morning. It is now 10pm and Helen is already fast asleep in the bed next to me. She is definitely not seeing in 2017 tonight. I am not surprised as she has walked about 40% further than me today and I’m tired too.

We had hoped to go to a restaurant for dinner tonight that was a recommendation on TripAdvisor. I had messaged them to ask for a reservation but got no reply. We walked up to restaurant anyway but unfortunately discovered they were totally closed. We tried a few other places also with no success and so we finally headed to the side of the river where we had seen an Italian restaurant yesterday and we were fortunately able to get a table (outside though they did have a heater). Nothing fancy as they had a limited New Years’ Eve menu but enough for all of us to find something we wanted to eat (I think Lara was the happiest because she managed to get a vegan pizza made for her). The food was fine but the dinner was quite enjoyable because of the company.

There are meant to be fireworks over the river tonight (and there is a band set up as well) but Helen is clearly not going to make it and I might not either given the lethargy I am currently feeling. I’m definitely posting the blog now regardless of whether I make it through to midnight or not because I am likely to get less criticism tomorrow morning at breakfast because they won’t be reading the blog while we eat breakfast. The 6 people traveling with me are the most brutal critics of my daily blogs (or at least 5 out of the 6 are).  They tell me what I said incorrectly, what I missed, what I shouldn’t have commented on etc etc etc. Lara remains the only exception to that general statement and for that alone she deserves to move up on the blog sign-off tonight.

Until 2017 …

P, S (for his comment on Luther), L (for her lack of commentary/criticism), H, C, M & O (and O earned her last spot today!)

On our way to Portugal

Yesterday (now day before yesterday when you read this!) we left home at just before 2pm for the airportimg_2065 and we arrived today at 3pm (Portuguese time which is 5pm SA time) at our first overnight stop in Portugal.  27 hours of traveling! No easy way to get to Portugal from South Africa unfortunately.

We flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg to Frankfurt to Lisbon. While we were all on the first and third flights together, we were on different airlines on the JHB-Frankfurt route. Chloe, Helen and I were on Lufthansa and the other four (Stephen & Michael and girlfriends) were on SAA.  My preference would have been to rather fly on SAA as Lufthansa is my least favourite airline in the world.  I always get the feeling when traveling on Lufthansa that since I don’t speak German as my first language that I am a second class person. They speak to you constantly in German despite you clearly only replying in English (I know enough German to be able to respond to their questions). It happened again last night in that in the middle of the meal service she offered Chloe and I something and only spoke in German despite all our interactions up until then being in English.

img_2064The good thing about the traveling was that everything went smoothly for all of us.  At least it went smoothly until we arrived in Lisbon where there is a ground handlers strike at the airport. When we disembarked there was no way to actually get into the terminal as no one had opened the exits into the terminal. When we did finally manage to get out into the terminal, our bags were delayed for about an hour. The baggage belt would come on, a few bags would be delivered and then it would switch off again. Just tempting you into thinking something was going to happen. The boys went out of the baggage area to get SIM cards for everyone and they found the collection point for the car rental company so that once we had the bags we could spend the least time possible at the airport before getting on the road.

Picking up the car was relatively painless except that the rental car company had not filled up the car at all (we have a Mercedes Vito) and so we had to find a garage to do that before heading out of Lisbon. What also makes life a lot easier is using a cellphone app to navigate with (I use Waze – best app for navigating anywhere in the world). Helen remarked that it was a the first time I hadn’t taken my GPS with me on holiday.

We were headimg_2063ing north to Coimbra for the next 2 nights.  Coimbra used to be capital of Portugal and today has a population of just over 100 000. The drive took us about 2 hours including a quick stop at one of the motorway service areas for the usual. We arrived at the hotel (we are staying at Hotel Oslo – http://www.hoteloslo-coimbra.pt). The pictures (as usual) look better than the hotel really does but it is perfectly adequate for our purposes. What always strikes me about Portugal is that you get the beautiful alongside the run down. That is the case in Coimbra too. It is really a beautiful city alongside a river but there are then abandoned buildings and a significant amount of graffiti.

Once we had settled into our rooms and had a short break, we decided to go for a walk to explore a little of Coimbra and then find a place for dinner. We walked over the river and found one of the historical places – a monastery which was abandoned due to the river flooding it (it was built below the river – not very clever). They have now obviously controlled the flow of the river and started excavating the monastery. It looks pretty interesting and worth a walk around it but we couldn’t see img_2067how to get into it and so decided to skip it especially since the sunset was at 5:15pm. We then crossed back over the river and walked on the other bank and by this stage the sun had set.

There seems to be a competition between everyone to see who can get the best photos and so there are numerous stops for selfies, attempted artistic shots using iPhones etc. The only person with a ‘proper’ camera with her is Lara. I am sure you will see numerous photos on Instagram or Facebook if you follow any of family or girlfriends on those platforms.

We discovered that no restaurant opens before 7pm and as it was only just after 6pm (we were all starving already) we decided that we should go kill a little time at the hotel and then find a place for dinner.  We had spotted a place on our way back to the hotel and so at 7pm we headed back there. It was called Solar do Baculhau (rated 15th best restaurant in Coimbra on Trip Advisor). The waiter only had a smattering of English but enough for us to get by. He was very impressed with my choice of wine (a Pinot Noir from Portugal). Not sure if that was because it was definitely above the average price of wine on the winelist (most of the wines were around €15 which is pretty cheap) or whether I had genuinely picked a good bottle. Either way it was a pretty nice wine so I’m going to claim the latter.

img_2061The food was also pretty reasonably priced with most dishes around €12-14. Helen was probably the most adventurous having the cod fishcakes (made using dried fish) which came with a side portion of rice & beans (mixed together).  4 of us had a type of Risotto (though it had a lot more liquid than a traditional risotto) – 2 of us had risotto with prawns and 2 with calamari (the calamari being all parts of the octopus cut up). The waiter also came back to try and explain the difference between the Pinot Noir I picked and 2 others from Portugal. He got as far as explaining the regional differences and then couldn’t do more without getting a younger waiter to come and do the translation.

By this stage I was ready for bed and while I tried to get the blog out last night I realised at just after 9pm that I was in a losing battle with sleep and packed it in and completed it this am. I certainly had an excellent night sleep and I woke at just after 6am and Helen at 7am. Who knows about the rest of them but we going for breakfast at 8:30am (sunrise is only at 8am).

Until tomorrow

P, H, C (because she sat next to me on 3 flights), S, L, M & O

And we’re home!

IMG_1808We had 700 kms to do today. The first thing that was evident is how much better the roads are in South Africa to either Botswana or Namibia. The quality of the roads and the general maintenance are in a different league. In order to maintain that though it means people working on the roads all the time and so today was slightly frustrating because of the amount of road works on the way back including numerous stop and go’s.

We left at 8am and arrived home at 4pm with only two main stops to refuel and to buy biltong (at our favorite store in Trawal). The other 2 ‘minor’ stops were made because Michael’s toilet needs didn’t coincide with the other two stops (or he was drinking more than the rest of us). It was a pretty uneventful 700 kms. We are glad to be home (including a nice home cooked meal tonight) but also sad to be home (as we have to be back to reality and work tomorrow). It is incredible how disconnected we have been over the last 2.5 weeks. News updates have been seldom and even getting sports scores have been sporadic. It was like living in another world entirely.

We also really enjoyed the company of the other families. You would have thought that after 2.5 weeks everyone would be tired of each other but it really wasn’t like that at all (or at least we think so!). We will miss the dinner table conversations of the group of 14. One of the families stayed an extra night at Oewerbos and texted this morning to say they were having withdrawal symptoms. It was strange only having 3 cars driving together and not the 4.

As I usually do, here are my random thoughts to summarize the trip:

With hindsight things we would do differently next time

  1. Spend more time in Moremi and ideally sleep overnight there for at least 2-3 nights
  2. Skip Maun altogether (lowlight for many people)
  3. Spend at least another night at Elephant Sands (that’s the pic) and go iIMG_1772nto the Makagagadi Pans
  4. Drive straight from the Caprivi to Etosha and spend a few nights there and then back to SA
  5. Take all our meat for the whole trip from SA with us (with a decent freezer)
  6. Take replacement valves for the tyres (quickest way to let down the tyre is to take out the valve but if you lose it then you’re really in trouble)
  7. Take a full set of cutlery and crockery and proper glasses and mugs

Thoughts on Botswana:

  1. Lovely friendly people, no hint of crime, no hint of corruption. A pleasure to travel through the country.
  2. Poor roads generally with potholes appearing out of nowhere sometimes. Drive carefully and definitely don’t drive at night. The further north you go the worse the roads.
  3. Very poorly stocked shops even in the main towns (including Maun). Don’t expect to find much fresh produce (and as I said rather take your meat with you from SA). I wonder how the locals survive.
  4. Animals everywhere you look. In the ‘town’ areas goats, cattle and donkeys all over the place and regularly on the roads or crossing the roads. Drive carefully. In the outlying areas, warthog, kudu, elephant, steenbok etc on the road side. Drive carefully. I was staggered by seeing elephant on the side of the national road while driving 120 km/h (and not in a national park).
  5. It seems to be poor country and yet it is the wealthiest country in Africa (per capita). I suspect the money is in a few people’s hands only or in the main towns like Gaborone or Francistown (which we didn’t visit).
  6. Beautiful country and amazing to see game and the bird life was incredible.
  7. They worry a lot about ‘foot and mouth’ disease and I wonder whether it really is a big problem and whether their checkpoints make any real difference.

Thoughts on Zimbabwe:

  1. Vic Falls is beautiful but you get a sense that it is an outlier of a town in Zimbabwe (given most of its revenue must come from tourism).
  2. You also get a sense that corruption is the way of life. My sense is police checkpoints would be hard to get through without a local guide.

Thoughts on Namibia:

  1. Infrastructure is much better than Botswana (even in the Caprivi) and just seems better run and better organized (much closer to SA).
  2. Besides the shops in the Caprivi (which were absolutely horrendous, I really do wonder how the locals survive there), the shops are much better stocked and run and much closer to what we have in SA (even in the remote areas).
  3. As we have noted before, there is a strong German influence and that almost seems to be getting stronger and not weaker.

IMG_1778The highlights of the trip remain the Chobe River cruise (pic on left) and lunch at the Vic Falls Hotel. Final bird tally of 159 (though we have a few photos we are hoping a friend can identify for us which might add in a few more!) including 17 lifers (now up to 413).

Until next time … P, H, S, M & C

 

Windhoek to Oewerbos

Today’s drive went without incident (thankfully). It was the longest drive of the trip being just over 800 km and including the last border crossing from Namibia to back into SA. Thankfully PG Glass had my car ready with a brand new windscreen installed and we collected it immediately they opened at 7:30am Namibian time (which was 8:30am SA time). We packed up and left Windhoek at 8:15am. We stopped to refuel twice (once at Mariental and then at Keetmanshoop) and also stopped for lunch at Keetmanshoop. Otherwise we drove straight through (and straight is a key word as the road is very straight and the landscape is desolate).

We arrived at the border at about 5pm (SA time) and as this was the 6th border crossing of the trip we now have it down to a fine art. Paperwork for Namibia pre-filled in so no waiting to do that and then back in the car to the SA side. It all went very smoothly.

Tonight we are staying at Oewerbos which is just over the SA border on the side of the Orange River. Immediately after crossing the border we turned right and then followed the river for about 12 kms before we arrive at Oewerbos Camp. It is a beautiful setting on the river looking across to Namibia.

They have a bar and pizza oven at the river side and we met for a drink, our last group photo and pizza for dinner. The talk over dinner was about the highlights and lowlights of the trip, the things we would do again and the things we would do differently. It was pretty unanimous that the Chobe River cruise was a universal highlight. The periods of sickness for various people were the universal lowlight (for their period of sickness). Once again it was an enjoyable night with good company and conversation. It is our last night together as tomorrow we will be home.

Until tomorrow (when I will send out some thoughts on Botswana and Namibia) …

P, H, S, M & C

PS: That’s a picture of the view of from Guma Lagoon Lodge

IMG_1359

Ghanzi to Windhoek

We left Ghanzi this morning at 7am. We had 500 kms to do to get to Windhoek and a border crossing so we figured it would take us at least 5-6 hours. There was not really anything in Ghanzi to keep us there so we left early. The accommodation in Ghanzi was minimalist and the cold was not staying out of it. When we left at 7am the temperature outside was -2 C.  The road from Ghanzi to Windhoek has a lot of warnings about ‘Beware of’ followed by kudu, warthog, horses, cattle. There clearly is a reason for it because after about 45 minutes of driving the lead car dodged a few guinea fowl but unfortunately one flew up and hit IMG_1801our windscreen. We were driving at 120 km/h and the impact shattered the windscreen entirely.

The impact was massive – Helen and I both could feel the windscreen shatter from the force. The two cars behind us said the impact was impressive in that the guinea fowl flew up about 50 meters in the air (like a soccer ball) and there were feathers everywhere. The window was very badly damaged and so we pulled over and applied ducktape to the top and one of our group had a sticker for cracks which we applied to the middle to try to hold it all together. Fortunately I had a small square uncracked in my line of vision still. Helen was a little shaken and so she had some tea while we stopped.

One of our group (Bryan) has an office in Windhoek and he got the numbers of the places who could possibly replace the windscreen and my PA kindly called them (thank you again Cecilia!) and found out that PG Glass had the windscreen and could replace it for us this afternoon. It is a 2-3 hour job and then it has to set overnight. Fortunately we were heading to Windhoek and overnighting here. They said to get the car to them as soon as possible. We managed to get to Windhoek around 12:30pm (there is an hour time change as Namibia is one hour behind Botswana and SA) and so we got the car to them around 1pm. We will collect it tomorrow at 7:30am when they open as we have a long drive tomorrow (800 kms).  We are very pleased that we are OK and that we were heading for Windhoek where the windscreen could be relatively easily replaced.

What I have failed to mention though is that about 2-3 minutes after we hit the guinea fowl, a male kudu decided to cross the road between us and the next car and they almost hit the kudu (which would have been a far worse result). An hour later we saw another car who had hit a cow (cow dead on the side of the road). We also managed to kill another sparrow and we found it stuck in our front grill (when we took the car to PG Glass we discovered it).

We are staying tonight at Arrebbusch Lodge just on the outskirts of Windhoek. It is right next to the airport situated inside Windhoek (Eros Airport). We have the best wifi and cellphone signal we have had in over 2 weeks and so everyone seems to be catching up with world news, emails etc. It is incredible how much has happened in the two weeks (including Portugal winning Euro 2016, an about to be new UK Prime Minister etc etc). We had pretty much forgotten there was anything but open expanses and wild animals.

IMG_1805Tonight we went to Joe’s Beer House for dinner. Bryan had booked when we were in Botswana already but when we got there they didn’t have our booking. After a bit or arguing they said they would make a plan and about 40 minutes later we actually got a table. Joe’s is a Windhoek institution and even on a Monday night the place was packed. The food was pretty good so long as you like meat! Michael and I had Gemsbok fillet which was very tender and tasty. Helen had Eisbein and it was massive. Even when she was full it looked as if she hadn’t made a dent in it. Chloe had Gemsbok lasagna and Stephen had a trio of Kudu, Gemsbok and Springbok. It was an enjoyable evening even though we had to wait for the table.

Until tomorrow …. P, H, S, M & C

Guma Lagoon to Ghanzi

No blog post yesterday because we didn’t do much (at least the Temples didn’t) and the WiFi was very ‘sketchy’. The other 3 families went on Mokoro’s but we all opted out. Firstly, we have done it before and while enjoyable it wasn’t something needing to be repeated and secondly, it was pretty windy and cold. I haven’t mentioned much about the weather in the blog posts mainly because there has been nothing remarkable about it. It is usually quite chilly in the mornings (between 2-7 degrees) and then it heats up during the day eventually getting to around 24-28 degrees. But at Guma Lagoon it felt much colder. The wind was blowing off the lagoon and straight into our accommodation or the main lodge area which made it feel pretty cold (especially in the morning).

We spent the day at the pool area which was more sheltered and we just read, played Frisbee, watching TV shows and just relaxed. It was just what I felt like and I was glad we did it. At about 3pm the group got back from the mokoro trip and unfortunately young Ben had felt unwell toward the end of the trip and he was pretty unwell the rest of the afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, Lara (Stephen’s girlfriend) who also stayed behind to work also developed a similar thing and so she spent the afternoon and evening in her accommodation as well. The end result was that Chloe ended up sleeping in Stephen’s bed last night and Stephen (very generously) slept on the floor. Fortunately both Ben and Lara and slightly better today (though neither is fully recovered).

This morning we left Guma Lagoon and are now starting our long trek back home. We need to do over 2000 km in the next 4 days. Today we went from Guma Lagoon to Ghanzi (about 400 kms). It takes about an hour to get back to Etsha (nearest main road) and we had to follow the process to get out as we did to come in. We then had to re-pump up our tyres and back onto the ‘main’ road. The road was appalling for about 100 kms. Very bumpy and numerous potholes. Not really pleasant driving.

To add to the frustration, when going through one small town two of the four cars in our convoy were pulled off for speeding. Bryan & I were in the front and we were not pulled off. You can figure out who was … we’ll call them the lawbreakers in future. What was quite annoying is that the back car was waved through originally and then he stopped to wait for the 3rd vehicle and ended up getting a fine as well. As you can imagine how annoying that was. Spot fines of Pula420 and Pula320. About 25 minutes of paperwork and then we were on the road again.

There was nothing on route for lunch to be purchased and supplies are running low and so it was pretty much biscuits and Marmite for lunch for everyone. We got to Ghanzi at about 3:30pm and filled up our cars (fortunately multiple fuel stations as the first one was out of diesel) and we purchased some snacks and some lunch for tomorrow.

We are staying at Thakadu Lodge which is about 2-3 kms out of Ghanzi and about 3 kms off the main road. The lodge to get to the lodge was very bumpy and now that we are here we will do dinner here (they do have a restaurant). The accommodation is pretty basic but it has a bed and en-suite bathrooms and there is Wifi in the lodge area.

Until tomorrow …

S (because of his sacrifice of his bed last night), P, H, M & C

Mahango National Park

This morning three of us (me, Stephen and the male Bluer who is with us) decided to get up at sunrise and head to the Mahango National Park.  It is part of the greater Babwata National Park but separate from the main park. The eastern boundary of the park is the Okavango River. It is about 45 minutes drive from our lodge and the first challenge we had was to get the owner to come and unlock the gate (he seemed surprised anyone would go out at sunrise).

Our aim was to do some birding without feeling guilty stopping regularly and holding up the other people who are traveling with us. It really did work out well. The road follows the river for most of the way and the game was prolific. In fact I would say we saw the most we had seen of any of the parks we have visited so far. The guidebook did say the game life was substantial especially in the dry season (as everything comes to the river for water) and they were absolutely correct. We saw giraffe (a large journey of them – two of them fighting), a massive herd of buffalo (could have been 500), elephant (we are getting bored with them now), impala, baboon, vervet monkey, red lechwe & kudu. Still no lion or leopard though they are found in the park. In addition we saw numerous birds including another lifer (taking my lifer tally to 413 in total and 17 for the trip). Our birding tally for the trip now stands at 148.

On the way back we made a quick stop at Divindu to see if we could get some additional food but both of the supermarkets in town are really appalling. For instance, neither of them had any kind of chocolate at all. It does make you wonder where you would actually buy food (especially perishables) in a place like this. Even though it is sparsely populated you would think that there is a market opportunity for a properly stocked supermarket (if not for the locals at least for the tourists that must be regularly coming through).

The rest of the day was just spent chilling (and in my case trying to do a little work using ‘edge’ signal on the cellphone). Most the group spent some time on the island (sun tanning, reading or doing nothing). One of the group also tried their hand at fishing on the river but unfortunately caught nothing. Late afternoon we went on a sunset river cruise both up and down the river from our lodge. The cruise was nothing like that of the one in Chobe River but was still enjoyable. We saw some birds, a few crocs (including two who decided to jump into the river right in front of us) and we cruised in the Angolan side of the river as well. The other bank of the river is Angola and our guide told us that they are allowed to cross into Namibia to come and get healthcare in particular (no border post or any formalities for these people).

Half of the group braai’ed for dinner and the rest of us (including us) had pasta for dinner (we were tied of braais). We ate together and once again it was an enjoyable and relaxing evening.

Until tomorrow … P, S (because he came birding with me this am), H, M & C