Karoo NP to Home

Yesterday we spent the day in Karoo NP. The temperature was predicted to rise to 39 C so we decided that the best option would be an early morning game drive leaving when the gate opened at 6am and then come back for a late breakfast. Unfortunately because it is so dry, the first 45 minutes of driving basically yield no wildlife as there is no water and no shade for the animals at all. We only saw 1 or 2 birds and the odd springbok or gemsbok. The staff had told us that all the game is concentrated in the 4×4 loops and so we had a plan to drive whatever we could that would still enable us to get back for breakfast at 9am.

We did see a little wild life including a jackal, some birds, kudu, baboon, gemsbok, springbok but not really anything else. Unfortunately we couldn’t get as far into the game area as we wanted because it takes about 3-4 hours to do the best loop (which is apparently where you will find the lion, rhino etc). By the time we got back to the camp the temperature was already in the mid 20s C. The rest of the day was spent watching cricket, chilling by the pool and then our final braai and dinner together.

We usually on the last night share what the highlights of the trip were but we actually did it the previous night already. I’m going to fail to remember them all but here are some of them:
– Sani Pass (whole experience including view, drive and drinks/lunch at pub)
– Underberg (accommodation and view)
– View from our cottage at Golden Gate
– Swimming in the river pool at Maliba Lodge
– Thunderstorm at Golden Gate
– Male lion at Mountain Zebra NP
– Company
– Diversity of vegetation from barren Karoo to lush Drakensberg
– Mountain views in Lesotho

After having breakfast this morning, we headed off home on the N1 back to Cape Town. The traffic was quite heavy and of course you have stupid drivers to contend with as usual. At one point a tanker overtook another truck on a blind rise with double no crossing lines! When we passed the tanker I wanted to get what company they were from so I could report the driver but no stickers or name anywhere to be seen. It was ridiculously stupid and you can see how head-on collisions happen when people drive like that. The good news is that we did all get back safely at around 3pm this afternoon.

Until next time (which will be in about 3 weeks time for H & I) …

P, H, S, C & K

Golden Gate NP to Karoo NP

We had the whole day on Thursday in Golden Gate NP. S & I went for a short morning birding drive and we finally saw bearded vulture (which was a lifer and the last of birds we were hoping to see in our Drakensburg trip). After breakfast, S & I went into Clarens as we needed to fill the car up and I needed some things from the pharmacy and we headed back to spend the balance of the day admiring the view. H and the some of the others attempted a morning run but at 2400 meters and trying to run up the mountain, H said it was more of walk than a run. She almost stepped on a snake as well – she said she was putting down her foot and noticed it and stepped to the side instead (fortunately).

S, K & I went out later again for an afternoon drive but otherwise we just spent the day relaxing and enjoying the view from the cottage. The only drama in the day came while preparing for dinner. H decided to chop a portion of her finger off. Normally I would be the one to help but there were many good samaritans on hand (Mr M & Mr G) to help out and patch up the finger. I have decided that H should stay away from sharp knives in 2020 though! The only negative about the accommodation in Golden Gate is that the electricity seemed somewhat erratic. It went off in the morning and it took some time to rectify and in the evening the lights were so weak you had to supplement the lights (see pic!).

We left at 6:30am on Friday morning as we had a long (9 hour) drive to Karoo National Park. The route we picked avoided the N1 for as much as possible and did involve us taking a dirt road for about 60 kms. It was pretty bumpy but it did take some time and distance off the route. It also meant we avoided traffic for much of the drive as the roads were less busy. We joined the N1 just before Colesberg and the increase in traffic was noticeable. You also have to deal with trucks which on the back routes you don’t really encounter.

We did make good time and arrived at Beaufort West around 3:15pm. Karoo NP is just south of BW and the restcamp is about 5 km from the gate. We have stayed here once before in 2010 and we really liked it then and our memory wasn’t incorrect. The accommodation is probably the best Sanparks accommodation we have stayed in. The views from the cottage are again beautiful but very different from the Drakensberg views.

We did go for a brief evening drive (even after the 9 hours in the car) and added klipspringer to trip list of animals. It is very dry and hot in the Karoo (it was in high 30s C when we arrived at 3pm). The difference between the green Drakensberg and drought stricken Karoo was again very noticeable. When we got back from the drive we S, K & I went to the bird hide (at the rest camp) and we added another 2 lifers! That now takes me to 19 lifers for the trip and S to 22 lifers (and 111 for the trip).

There was a very tame kudu in the camp and it came to visit last night. It seems it has been fed by people and that really is a shame because it is a wild animal. It clearly was looking for food from us (which we weren’t going to give) but everyone did manage to pet the kudu (which is a lifer for everyone!).

Pasta dinner last night and off to bed relatively early after all the driving.

P, H, S, C & K

Golden Gate National Park

Yesterday morning we left Maliba Lodge at 10am as we were heading out of Lesotho and to Golden Gate NP. It isn’t a great distance from where we were staying. It took us an hour to get to the border post at Caledonspoort. It was not at all busy and we basically just walked up and handed over our passports and then headed back to the car to drive into SA and did the same thing there again.

We then headed to Clarens where we planned to have an early lunch and do some shopping for supplies. On route we saw a long-crested eagle sitting on the telephone pole which was a lifer for S and taking his tally to 16 for the trip. He added another one later in the day while walking around near our accommodation and I also added one at the rest camp. So we are now on 14 for me and 17 for S for the trip.

Clarens is a quaint little town in the Free State. I was surprised at how English it was given it is in the Free State. We ended up having lunch at the Clarens Brewery (and also had to sample their beers & ciders that they make). We all remarked on how much cheaper Clarens is than Cape Town for food – what we had for lunch would probably have cost us 50% more in Cape Town. We did some shopping for essential supplies we needed for the next few days and some people did gift shopping as well.

We headed to Golden Gate NP with the iconic rock faces you always see advertising the park. I was surprised that the national road to Harrismith actually goes straight through the park. We had to check in at Glen Reenen rest camp but we are actually staying at Highlands Mountain retreat (https://www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate/tourism/highlands_mountain_retreat_accommodation.php) which is on the side of a mountain at 2200 meters above sea level looking over the park. The views are incredible and no photo can really do it justice.

Just as we arrived at the rest camp, it started to rain. We grabbed a few items and headed into our chalet and then the mother of all thunderstorms passed over us. The thunder and lightening were a thing to behold against the landscape. At one point it looked like a lightening strike hit straight over the M’s chalet. We checked in via WhatsApp and found them to be (fortunately) all alive still. It turned out later that their appliances weren’t unharmed though as the strike seemingly knocked out a circuit and so they have no power in the kitchen area. Having grown up in Pretoria with regular thunderstorms, I am pretty used to them but their were some shrieks from the rest of our party especially when the storm passed right over us. We were able to watch the storm for most of the night as even when we were having dinner we could still see the intra- cloud lightening in the distance. It was beautiful to watch.

S, K & I went for a short evening drive and saw a number of black backed jackal. We didn’t add to the bird list though we did go to the vulture hide but unfortunately no vulture to be seen there at that point. We did see a secretary bird fly up and roost in the top of the tree for the night though – always interesting to watch them as they seem to fly and balance really awkwardly.

Braai for dinner and off to bed relatively early. The mist had moved in and was quick thick yet strangely dry. Really quite strange and never experienced something like it before.

Until tomorrow …

P, H, S, C & K

Maliba Lodge

Sorry for not posting for the last two days but we had no WiFi and international roaming on your cellphone is very expensive so I was limiting data usage to a minimum. We left Oxbow Lodge at around 10am (check out time) as we only had about a 2 hour drive to Maliba Lodge (https://maliba-lodge.com/3-star-river-lodge-2/). Driving in Lesotho is slow going as the speed limit is either 50 or 60 km/h most of the time. There is valid reason for it because you encounter potholes, rock falls, mudslides, speedhumps in random places, goats, sheep, cows and (of course) taxis stopping randomly.

I failed to mention that after the Sani Pass (which is at roughly 2700 meters) we actually got as high as 3400 meters above sea level in Lesotho. Just to put that in perspective, that is the same height as Jungfraujoch in Swizterland! Maliba Lodge was at around 2000 meters above sea level so from Oxbow to Maliba we dropped almost 1500 meters (in a pretty short time). The scenery is fantastic throughout Lesotho. The only thing that spoils things is the litter on the side of the road. It seems people are quite happy to just throw stuff out of the window in the hope someone else will pick up after them.

Maliba Lodge is located inside the Tshelanyane National Park. The bureaucracy to get into the park is a thing to beyond. You have to fill in your name and vehicle details in a book and then get out of the car and go into the office to pay a park fee. That also required a written receipt to be issued with all the parties details on it. Then when you have that another guy with a book copies of those details into his book before you’re allowed to enter. Job creation at it’s best! We eventually got to the lodge at just before 2pm. We had two River Cottages for our party (which were obviously right on the river though bushes and trees obscured our view of the river unless you stood on a chair).

Everyone basically chilled for the first afternoon except for a short walk for some and a swim in the river pool for some. Yesterday morning S & I went for a birding walk while some of the others went for a morning run (more like a trail run and involved crossing rivers). S & I did add another lifer while on our walk and that takes our tally up to 13 for me and 15 for S on this trip (he has now seen 2 on this trip that I had already seen). It has been a very successful trip and we have basically seen everything we hoped to see in this area except for the bearded vulture which we would really like to still see. I have now crossed the 450 lifer mark (I am at 454) and so to see 13 lifers in a trip now is really hard and really impressive to do.

Yesterday afternoon everyone in the party, except S, C, K & I, decided to go for a hike up the mountain to a waterfall. They were about gone for 2 hours when it became very overcast and then the heavens just opened and it bucketed down. There was some thunder and lightening as well and I hoped they were heading back soon because you really shouldn’t be out hiking in that sort of weather. Fortunately they did make it back shortly after that (in one piece but pretty wet).

Late afternoon Mr G brought out his drone (parting gift from the job he just left after 20+ years) and he gave H & S a chance to fly it. Some of us were somewhat concerned about H crashing it into the lodge or trees. Fortunately neither of them did crash it!

We had a braai for dinner and given all the exercise everyone had done, we decided that we were unlikely to see the new year in together. Most people were asleep by midnight though I was still up and saw and heard some fireworks over the Lesotho mountains.

I will post either later tonight or tomorrow morning on today’s activities and hopefully that will get us back on track again. I have included some photos below from Lesotho and the Sani Pass as I couldn’t post them when I did the Sani Pass blog.

Until later …

P, S (for birding walk yesterday am), H, C & K

Sani Pass Road – hard to differentiate road from the river!

Mountain Zebra to Himeville

Today was a long driving day. We left MZ at 7:30am after pumping up our tyres (we drop the tyre pressure for 4×4 routes and gravel) and refueling – which was a very slow process not because the pump was slow but more so the process of the operator. Filling up 2 cars simultaneously was beyond his ability or seemingly thought process. When I suggested it as an approach it slowed down things further. Fortunately K decided to test her window washing skills which when I sent a pic to her father he replied with “has she been photoshopped in?”

We had an 8 hour drive ahead of us as we left the Eastern Cape (and Karoo) and headed to Kwazulu-Natal. The route took us through small Eastern Cape towns of Cradock, Tarkastad, Queenstown, Cala, Elliot, Lady Frere, Maclear and then into KZN taking us through Mount Fletcher, Matatiele, Cedarville, Underberg and then finally to Himeville.

The road is interesting for a number of things. Firstly, the route went from drought stricken Karoo to lush KZN cattle farm land. The contrast was remarkable in one day. Secondly, you have to play dodge-em with goats, sheep & cattle. They just seem to be wandering all over the road. On one occasion I had to slow down from 100km/h to basically a stopped position otherwise we would have had a sheep attached to the front of the Beast. Mrs G told me they encountered a sheep lying down in the middle of the road. It took 8 hours of vigilant driving.

Thirdly, the towns are mini-traffic jams. We don’t know if it was simply because it was Saturday and end of month or always like this. But as we hit Lady Frere we had our first taste of it. Despite there only being one small section of the centre of town there was a traffic jam (even Google maps had it marked in red!). That is because it seems you can simply park or stop wherever you want, whenever you want. You wonder what is going on and just when you think it is time to depress the hooter (honk horn for the Americans reading the blog), someone would open a door and climb slowly out and then have a conversation with the driver and do that for a minute or so and then finally close the door and amble off. That wouldn’t necessarily mean that the car would drive off at that point – sometimes it would remain stationary for another few minutes and then suddenly pull off at a very slow rate. Take this and repeat through multiple towns and that was part of the driving experience today.

Fourthly, the speed limits and signposting were a non-stop amazement to me. At one point we hit the town and it never marked the speed limit down from 100 km/h but the sudden appearance of a speed hump made for a very quick slow down. No signpost of a speed hump to be seen at all. At one point, there were two speed humps a few meters apart and the 40 km/h sign and warning about the speed bump were between the two speed bumps! It was also not uncommon to have speed signposting of 60 then about 100 meters on, 80 then a further 100 meters on back to 60 again. That also repeated itself multiple times through the day.

We stopped for lunch at Maclear. The only option being KFC. It was a newly built one (or so it seemed). Fully electronic ordering and delivery process. Fully manually operated by people that clearly didn’t know they had an automated process. After you placed your order you would expect that the order would appear to those making them up (which I am sure it did) but you actually had to give your slip to the lady at the counter who then shouted out the order through the hatch instead. Unfortunately we lost 5 minutes as we didn’t understand this process thinking that the automated system was doing it’s job. We did all eventually get our food though at least.

We arrived at Himeville and more importantly our hotel which is the Premier Sani Pass (https://www.premierhotels.co.za/hotels/kwazulu-natal/sani-pass/) at around 4:40pm. The views from the rooms are incredible as they stretch over the Southern Drakensberg. It was heavily overcast (having rained a little on route) but just when H & Mrs M went out for a run, the heavens truly opened and it bucketed down. They came back relatively quickly though was still totally drenched. The picture above is the view from our balcony of our room.

The hotel is a resort with golf course, putt putt, indoor and outdoor swimming pool, tennis court, soccer pitch etc etc. Lots of things to do. It does make us want to come back at some point and just spend a few days relaxing here. We had the buffet dinner which was pretty impressive including oxtail, lamb chops, turkey, stir fry of your choice, make your own pizza and most importantly for me – pap & tomato sous (something I love but hardly ever eat it as it isn’t getting made at home). There were a lot of other things but I didn’t bother to waste my effort on salads and soup and the like. When we left after dinner they were doing after dinner bingo (by popular demand it seems!) and Mrs G kindly pointed out the full days activities which we had missed (see pic!). Everyone was really torn about staying for the bingo but the call of our beds won the contest.

Finally, but not unimportant, we added another lifer today while driving (how impressive is that) and the birding tally to 57.

Tomorrow is Sani Pass day and after driving for 8 hours today I want to get to bed now (H is already asleep as I type this).

Until tomorrow!

P, K (for washing the windows), H (for staying awake the whole 8 hour drive today – at one point all the other 3 were asleep), S & C

Mountain Zebra NP Day 2

We were up early and heading out at 6:30am for a morning game drive. We decided to do a longer 4×4 route which turned out to be a lot easier than yesterday’s route. It was rocky in places but was not particularly difficult. We added a few birds for the trip and also added Eland. We did stop for morning coffee at a view point though they did warn you to alight at your own risk.

We were stopped at a waterhole – one of two that actually have water in it – when one of C’s school friends (incredibly they are also staying in the park) pulled up and asked whether we had seen the lion kill! We said no, they told us that a pride had killed a buffalo on the road and told us where to go. We headed off a top speed and sure enough found it. When we arrived none of the pride were eating and we saw a few lionesses and one male lion (and of course the dead buffalo). The females almost immediately headed off up the mountain side and the male was asleep in the shade. None of them eating the buffalo though.

We went back on two other occasions later in the day and while the male was still there, they were still not eating the buffalo. The staff at the camp say that all the cars are disturbing them and that is why they aren’t eating. We will go back tomorrow am to see what has happened over night. It was a great sighting though especially since a few people in our party had yet to see a lion in the wild.

We headed back to camp for breakfast. The chalets have DSTV and so I settled in to watch a masterful SA bowling performance against England, some slept and some went for a walk. Around lunchtime the G’s went to the other waterhole and we joined them shortly afterwards (we being me, S & K). We ticked off a number of new birds for the trip and we are now at 47 after the first 2 days.

Late afternoon we did another game drive and again passed the dam and this time added a lifer to our lists after seeing the African Black Duck. We completed a loop which took us up the ridge of the mountains and to about 2000 meters above sea level. The views over the valleys were amazing. A photo doesn’t really it justice.

Back to the camp for a braai. By the time we were ready to eat though it was pretty cold outside (it never got above 23 degrees C today) and so we all squeezed inside to eat dinner together instead. We really didn’t expect it to be this cold especially since yesterday was in the mid 30s.

Until tomorrow …

P, S, K (because they came out with me midday for a game drive), H & C

Mountain Zebra National Park

After an early breakfast at Matjiesfontein with my in-laws, we were on the road just after 8am heading toward Cradock and Mountain Zebra National Park. That is where we were meeting up with the rest of our group – the Ms and Gs. Unfortunately the Ws (family that joined the last two road trips) have left for the darker, wetter world of England.

The route from Matjiesfontein takes you to Beaufort West then to Aberdeen, Graaff Reinet and then on to Mountain Zebra NP. It was a 6 hour car journey. Traffic was still pretty light most of the way. We made a stop in Beaufort West to re-fuel and then a minor detour into Aberdeen so Helen could revisit the street and house where her Mom grew up and finally a stop in Graaff Reinet for lunch at Steers. We arrived at the gate of the national park at just before 3pm and the Ms pulled in behind us while we were doing the paperwork. They came from Knysna and so their timing was impeccable.

It was noticeable how dry the landscape is at the moment. The whole Karoo is in a severe drought and the whole landscape is very arid. It was also pretty warm at 36 degrees C when we arrived. We unpacked and had a afternoon rest. Some slept, some watched cricket (they have DSTV in the cottages). At 5pm we decided to head out on one of the 4×4 drives. There are 3 4×4 routes in the park – two of them are rated 3 in difficulty and the other is a 5 in difficulty. We picked one of the 3 in difficulty. As we were deflating our tyres slightly at the reception area, the G’s arrived (they had come all the way from Cape Town – an 9 hour drive). They said they would aim to catch up after they had checked in.

The road took us straight up the side of a mountain. A short way in I realised that I needed to engage 4x4Low range in order to get up the steep and rocky incline. Once I did that the Beast powered her way to the top without any issues. B’s Subaru also made it to the top without any issue. We did figure that given the rocky nature we should deflate the tyres a bit more and so S braved the lions & cheetahs (there are in the park) to do that for us. Due to the lack of water, the game is pretty sparse though we did see kudu, gemsbok, springbok, mountain zebra, wildebeest, mongoose, ground squirrel, red hartebeest, baboon, vervet monkey & black-backed jackal.

On the birding front, while I haven’t tallied the list yet for the trip, we did see a lifer today (Cape Long-billed lark) which now takes my tally to 439. We are hoping to add substantially to our list this trip as we are going places we have not gone before and there are birds you can only see in this area.

We got back just before the gates closed at 7pm, started the mandatory braai and we all ate together before heading off to bed.

Until tomorrow …

P, S (for his lion bravery), H, C & K

Matjiesfontein

We are off on another road trip with the key aim to get to Lesotho and do the Sani Pass. All the rest of the trip is just leading to and from the Sani Pass. That is the pinnacle of the trip and we are hoping it won’t disappoint.

We left this afternoon at 3:30pm for Matjiesfontein. My father-in-law has been preaching at Matjiesfontein over Christmas for the last 26 years (including today) and we have not as yet been here with them over Christmas but we thought this was an ideal opportunity to rectify that. Given it was Christmas day, the traffic was very light and we made it to Matjiesfontein in 2.5 hours.

As we arrived, the bus was departing for the trip around the town. S, K (S’s girlfriend) and C joined my father-in-law on the bus for the quick tour. H & I went to check in and then we unpacked the car. We are staying in the Old Museum Suite – it was originally actually a museum.

After we had unpacked we joined the in-laws on the porch of the hotel for the a pre-dinner drink and then headed in for dinner afterwards. They have a special Christmas dinner with 4 different meats (lamb roll, lamb roast, pork belly & turkey). After the main course the staff came in and sang a number of songs including ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, ‘Silent Night’ and then ‘We will make you fishers of men’ to which all they invite all the people to join behind them as they move around the restaurant (I have the video as evidence!).

My father-in-law then does a quick speech (apparently a tradition now it seems – after 26 years I guess that is what happens!). He said today that after 26 years of being called the Rector of Matjiesfontein he thought it was time for a promotion and so if you agreed that you should raise your glass to him being called the Bishop of Matjiesfontein. He was duly elected/approved/toasted in as the Bishop. The main purpose of his speech though is to say they will pass around the hat as a donation for the staff and then he promptly takes the hat around himself. I am sure they get more that way as it is pretty hard to say no to him!

It was a lovely evening that capped off a lovely Christmas day. The only problem was that it was a first Christmas Day that I never saw my one son (the now married one) as we went to an earlier service than he attended at church today.

Until tomorrow …

P, H (though she slept for 2 hours of the 2.5 hour car journey today and so doesn’t really deserve 2nd spot but it’s Christmas and I’m in the giving mood), S, C & K

Japan – My thoughts

So here are my summary thoughts (in no particular order) about Japan:

They are very organised. Everything runs exactly on time. There are specific places to leave and board trains. The train stops at exactly the correct spot each time.

They are very polite and respectful. They form orderly queues for everything. I think they beat the British for their queuing ability. I am pretty sure we broke rules or laws but no one would ever say anything to you. They probably just thought ‘idiot foreigner’. Bowing is a thing you do regularly. When a train conductor leaves from one carriage to another, he/she turns and bows to the entire carriage. You walk past a cleaning lady in the hotel and she bows to you.

They are incredibly helpful. Even if they can’t speak English they go out of their way to try and help you and communicate to you. They clearly want you to be happy.

They are very neat and tidy. There is no litter around at all. Even though it is pretty hard to find a public bin (some days we carried our empty bottles around with us for hours before we found a bin), there is no public littering. They have trash days when they put out their trash and then even they cover it with netting so nothing blows away inadvertently.

While they might not be litterers, they must be the biggest consumers of plastic in the world. Given how careful everyone else is in the world about plastic, the Japanese seem to love plastic and they don’t seem to recycle most of it either. Everything comes wrapped in plastic and often two layers of plastic. We bought cheese for lunch the other day and the cheese was wrapped in three separate layers of plastic and the biscuits had a plastic outer cover as well as plastic inner cover. They burn their trash using an incinerator so not sure what they do with the melted plastic in the end.

Japanese are rule followers. They always stand a red pedestrian crossing even if there is not a car in sight. We sometimes crossed and then only would they follow. We might have created some lawbreakers!

Their rail system is fantastic. You can basically travel anywhere in the country on the train. If you have read the blog consistently you would know that we often took 6-8 trains a day at some points. In the entire time we were in Japan (just over 2 weeks) only 1 train ran late and then it was only 1 minute late and they made a public apology for it. If you visit Japan, get a Japan Rail Pass before you come. It is definitely worth the money.

For all their technology, they are really backwards in the use of technology especially for things like train travel. You have to have a physical ticket – see our Japan Rail Pass below which you have to show every time we entered and exited. Compare that to London where you can tap & go to get onto a tube or train, it really is surprisingly backwards. In addition, the more outside of the main cities you travel, the less widely credit cards are accepted. You must have cash in those places.

The Japanese love vending machines. There are ones all over the place. Yes I really do mean all over the place. You are never more than 100m from a vending machine. But they don’t take credit card (see point above). You can generally get about 20 different types of drinks from a vending machine and there usually are two next to each so generally 40 different drinks available.

Japanese seem to like their coffee cold and not hot. Even at Starbucks you get asked ‘hot or cold’ every time you order anything. The majority of people are having iced lattes or something similar. The vending machines also always have some form of iced coffee drink. Besides Starbucks, forget about getting a decent coffee though. They are actually the 5th highest coffee consuming country in the world but they prefer to use the “siphon and pour over” techniques for making coffee (drip coffee). Apparently they drink more coffee than tea now but as I said, I reckon most of that is some form of iced coffee.

Japanese love muzak. In the elevators, in the malls, in the hallways of the hotel, outside shops, inside shops, as you’re walking down a random street …muzak playing. Generally it is some classical piano (think Richard Clayderman for those who know him) or some 60s/70s/80s/90s US song. They love Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley etc. Nothing recent or modern out of the US – must be 20 years or more ago it seems.

Japanese love kitsch. You could clearly see it at Universal City. Branded merchandise does extremely well here. Hello Kitty is massive. You see it everywhere. Apparently there are over 15000 Hello Kitty branded merchandise. Disney characters are also very popular. The queues at the World Cup merchandising stands were ridiculously long. You clearly must have merchandise for every event you attend. At breakfast they had the restaurant decked out in a Halloween theme. Christmas adverts already up.

You don’t see overweight people in Japan. They only have 4% of the population classified as obese. They must be the sumo wrestlers only because I never saw any of them. It is probably because they (a) walk a lot (b) cycle a lot (see next point) (c) eat a lot of fish.

Other things you don’t see a lot in Japan are petrol (gas) stations and banks. Besides one bank that I saw in each of Tokyo and Kyoto, I don’t recall seeing a bank. ATMs are prolific but not banks. I also wondered where everyone fills up their cars because you hardly see petrol stations and when we did there were not a lot of people filling up either.

Cycling is clearly the first method of transport anyone considers. They have paid bicycle parking. Cyclists don’t use the road, they use the pedestrian walkways. Even though the roads have markings on them for cyclists, no one seems to ride on the road. Helmets are entirely unnecessary. Never saw anyone wearing a helmet in 2 weeks. Mothers cycle with their children in seats behind them (sometimes even two seats for the children). You would think that Japan would as a result have lots of international cyclists but B reckons its because their legs are too short and their riding style wrong.

M’s pet peeve about the Japanese is they wander around and don’t walk in straight lines. People don’t really seem to be in a hurry ever. They are on their phones incessantly and maybe that is one of the reasons they wander seemingly aimlessly when walking on the sidewalks. It drives M insane. Their phone usage is a thing to behold though. At the restaurant 2 nights ago the man at the table next to us was on his phone the entire time except when he was eating – no conversation with his wife at all.

Japanese must eat out a lot. They have very basic facilities in their homes (from what we can see from the AirBnBs we stayed at) but there are thousands of restaurants around. It seems (from my quick google search) that what is quite common is that people buy pre-cooked food at a market, supermarket or restaurant and take that home to eat. Eating out though is expensive. Fast food will start at around R150 ($10) per person. Expensive restaurants will be very expensive – R3000 ($200) per person could easily be the cost for a good restaurant. The quality of the food is generally very good though. Their sushi is really in a different league to what I have eaten elsewhere but expect to eat sashimi, nigri and maki as the main items. The stuff we get at home isn’t ‘real’ sushi.

Every restaurant has chairs outside. Even if the place is empty they make you sit there first before they give you a table. Not sure if it’s because they just love queues (see point 2) or if it’s because they want everyone to think they’re busy or what. You should expect though to always be made to wait before you get a table.

Japanese toilets are a thing to behold. M has come to love the use of the ‘shower’ facility in the toilet. Don’t know how he is going to cope when he goes back home. Some of the toilets have a place to wash your hand on top of them. Very clever because when you flush the water runs into a bowl at the top and you can wash your hands. That water then flows into the cistern to be used for the next flush. That is a clever form of recycling and I wonder why we don’t have these back home. It really is sensible. The controls next to the toilet seats are amazing though. Still haven’t figured out what they are all for. Every Japanese toilet comes with a heated seat though. You can generally adjust the temperature as well. Now that is what I call unnecessary.

Japanese people don’t seem to feel the heat or sweat much. It was pretty hot and humid the whole time we were in Japan. Yet we would often see people wearing jerseys. Hardly anyone wear shorts. We were sometimes pouring with sweat and they were walking around like they were in Iceland in the winter!

Japanese woman dress extremely well. I don’t think I saw a poorly dressed Japanese woman – regardless of their age. Hair, makeup always done well. It is clear they take pride in their appearance. It was very noticeable and striking. I left this one for near the end of the blog for O’s sake (soon to become M’s wife) but I must admit it was one of the first things I noticed (M was well-behaved though O).

It also seems like there are a lot more Japanese woman than men. The ratio of women:men is 1.05 but it feels much bigger than that. It seems the women are often out and about. In restaurants you will often see tables of women meeting for lunch or dinner but never men. Apparently Japanese young adults are dating less and less. The men are socially awkward and some withdraw entirely from society. They are called hikikomori and they estimate that 600 000 young men (aged 18-30) now fall into that category. Young women are interested in pursuing careers and so dating has now fallen to an all time low. It is a further problem for the Japanese birth rate which is already pretty low at 1.45. Despite knowing all of this, we saw a lot of young families and young children in the main cities especially in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. It seems the older people live outside of the main cities.

Japan is very quiet. Eerily so at times. You wonder where the 140 million people are actually because unless it is rush hour, you don’t really see them on the streets. We saw the most people at the stations and on the trains. During the day they must be in their homes or at their offices and they don’t venture out a lot. But even when they are out, they are quite. They don’t talk loudly and their children are generally very well-behaved. Their cars aren’t noisy (many of them are hybrids) and I think we only heard someone use their hooter once. Once or twice someone on a bike would ring their bell at us but otherwise it is very quiet.

I know that is long but I hope it is worth the read! I certainly have enjoyed my time here and I know B & M did as well. It really was a great experience. If you have the means, I would say give Japan a visit!

P, M & B

Last day, last game

Yesterday was our last day & night in Japan and the last game we were watching (SA v Italy). We really had done everything there was to see in Hamamatsu so we decided to spend the morning in the room and leave for the stadium around 3pm. We had to take a train to the stadium this time – about 5/6 stops – 30 minutes roughly. We got off at Aino station which then requires a short walk to the stadium.

As we (and most of the train) exited, we were directed toward a fan area which had food stalls and a stage where various people were doing performances. There were a large number of Safricans around. M & I got some lunch of fried chicken, soba noddles (for M) and fries (for me). We sat on the edge of the area and ate our late lunch and watched the festivities. They started to play a South African house song (recognisable to both M & I but we don’t know the name). A large group of Safricans took over the stage and started dancing as only Safricans can do. The announcer said ‘5 minutes only’.

M & I then started walking up to the stadium. In honour of B we had one last soft serve ice cream as we headed up. The stadium is on the side of a hill and has a travelator to get up to it. Probably the longest travelator I have ever seen. Of course our seats were on the other side of the stadium so we had to walk right around the stadium to get to our seats.

M got his second cider of the trip (Japanese don’t do cider clearly) at the stadium and we were in our seats relatively early again (despite leaving much later). The atmosphere in the stadium was the best we have experienced so far. You could hear the Safricans singing the national anthem and there was definitely more support for the Springboks (even from the locals) than Italy. We really enjoyed the game especially since we were so dominant but the atmosphere really added to it as well. It was pretty chilly though and for the first time in over 2 weeks M & I put on a jersey towards the end.

As the game ended we headed out as quickly as possible knowing that it was going to be difficult to get onto a train as everyone was likely heading to the station. We walked very quickly and also did some good Safrican jaywalking to get past the baton wielding traffic police. We managed to pass a good few thousand people and into the station about 2-3 minutes before a train left. We headed to very last carriage which was relatively empty in comparison to all the other carriages. The train going the other direction was packed full though and they were literally pushing people in so that the doors could close (the classic Youtube clips you see of people being pushed into Japanese trains at rush hour).

We got back to the hotel at around 10pm. We are now on a Shinkansen train to Shinagawa where we change to a local line to Hamatsucho and then onto the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport. Our flight leaves at 5pm for Singapore where we have two hours layover before connecting onto the flight back to Cape Town.

It was a really great trip not only experiencing Japanese culture and people but also watching the rugby. It is a country well worth visiting. I will send my summary thoughts of Japan later today as well so today you get blessed with a double blog!

Until next time (which will be a road trip in Dec/Jan) …

P & M