Category Archives: Johannesberg

Packing suggestions for a South African family safari

When we were preparing and packing for our trip to South Africa I looked online for suggestions of what and how much to pack for us, two adults and two kids.

Our trip included:

  • 2 x 12-14 hour flights to South Africa and back
  • 2 nights in a hotel near Johannesburg (Maropeng) and day trips to the Cradle of Humankind and a Cheetah Research Centre
  • 1 night and 2 days on the luxury Blue Train, including a dinner requiring formal wear
  •  5 nights in Cape Town with day trips around Cape Town, to Table Mountain, and the Cape Peninsula
  • 4 nights on safari at Tswalu Kalahari with early morning and afternoon/evening game drives

The weather was predicted to be mid to high twenties (Celsius) during the day and colder in the mornings, evenings and overnight. It certainly was cooler in Cape Town than in both Johannesburg/Maropeng and Tswalu. It was especially hot during the day at Tswalu. But it was quite cold on our early morning game drives.

On many safaris, including ours, you are restricted in the amount of luggage you can take and you need to pack in soft sided bags (not wheely bags). For Tswalu we were restricted to 12 kg each of checked luggage and 6 kg each of hand luggage. So just 18 kg each. I also read online advice about colours and fabrics for safari clothes (not black, not navy, not white, not red!).

Also of relevance, in Cape Town (at the Cape Grace Hotel) we could send dirty laundry to the cleaners and have it charged to our room; at Tswalu our laundry was free. Several safari lodges include free laundry, so it is worth checking.

For families planning a safari, here’s how we packed and what we packed for this trip. Perhaps it will help you.

Luggage

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North Face Large Base Camp Duffel Bag 90 L

For checked luggage, we used two North Face Large Base Camp duffel bags (90 L each), packing 1 adult and 1 kid’s clothes per bag.  We also took a Samsonite suit bag, packing our “good clothes” for the Blue Train’s formal dinner, as well as overflow items.

For carry on luggage, my husband and I each carried a Crumpler Backpack (The Dry Red No 5, 20 L) for camera gear, electronic devices, stuff for the plane, wallets etc. And our two kids each carried a small backpack for a few books, toys, colouring pencils etc

Crumpler Dry Red No 5 Backpack

Crumpler Dry Red No 5 Backpack

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Herschel Packable Duffel Bag

In addition, we packed a light weight Herschel Packable Duffel Bag (30 L). This cunning bag folds up into a small package and then unfolds into a good-sized bag. We used this on the Blue Train to separate out items from our large duffel bags we wanted in our cabins (the rest of our luggage was stored in a luggage carriage). We also used it to carry home souvenirs we needed to declare to Customs.

Finally, I packed an empty Crumpler iPad bag in my luggage to use on day trips as my hand bag.    hand bag

When fully packed before leaving, our luggage weighed about 62 kg, 10 kg less than our weight limit. And we were well under our 48 kg checked luggage and 24 kg carry on luggage limits. This is partly because our kids’ back packs weighed very little. I recommend limiting toys and other items from home since kids will pick up souvenirs and other items on their travels. So start light!

Packing Lists

For both adults and kids we used a rule of thumb of 4-5 days of clothing, planning to do laundry when we reached Cape Town and then at Tswalu. We ended up doing a large load when we arrived in Cape Town and another small load just before we left for Tswalu. Then we did another large load our first day at Tswalu and small daily extras (because it was included in the cost of our room).

Here’s what we packed for our kids …

  • 1 pair of sneakers (Louisa, 5) or 1 pair of walking shoes (Oliver, 9); sneakers were fine for the game drives we went on, which involved minimal bush walking
  • 1 pair of pool side shoes (sandals for Louisa, Crocs for Oliver)
  • 1 pair of “good” shoes for our formal dinner and nice outings (silver flats for Louisa, fancy sneakers for Oliver)
  • A rain jacket (which we didn’t in fact use — no rain on our trip — but still worth packing).
  • A warm fleece jacket/jumper for planes, cooler mornings, early game drives
  • 2 short-sleeved t-shirts each, 2 long-sleeved t-shirts each, plus an extra long-sleeved t-shirt to wear on the plane; we found nice merino long-sleeved shirts for Oliver at Pumpkin Patch and nice long and short-sleeved easy care shirts for both at Kathmandu
  • For Oliver’s pants, 2 pairs of Kathmandu light weight pants (with zip off legs converting them to shorts), a pair of shorts, a pair of swimming “boardies”. We also took a pair of track suit pants but he didn’t use them
  • For Louisa’s pants, 2 long leggings (1 heavier weight, 1 light weight), 2 3/4 leggings (we only needed 1 pair), a pair of shorts
  • 4 pairs of underpants plus 1 extra for the plane; 2 singlets each; 4 pairs of socks plus 1 extra for the plane
  • A pair of pyjamas
  • Swimmers and goggles
  • A broad-brimmed hat each and a cap each
  • Toiletries (especially sunscreen for game drives) and a selection of medicine (we used panadol, neurofen, cortisol cream for various ailments while away)
  • For the formal dinner and other nice outings, for Oliver we took a pair of navy Chinos, collared shirt and blazer. For those in Sydney, I found the pants and shirt on sale at Birkinhead Point Factory Outlet Centre. For Louisa we took two sleeveless dresses from Pumpkin Patch (because she and I liked different ones!) and a light long-sleeved cardigan

Most of Oliver’s clothes were in neutral colours: grey, green, blue. Most of Louisa’s clothes were in purple, lilac, green. We didn’t especially look for “safari” clothes so everything could be worn again back in Sydney.

My husband and I followed the same pattern:

  • 1 pair of sneakers (for me) or 1 pair of walking shoes (for Peter)
  • 1 pair of pool side shoes (sandals for me, casual shoes for Oliver)
  • 1 pair of “good” shoes for our formal dinner and nice outings (silver wedges for me, leather shoes for Peter)
  • A rain jacket; we both took Kathmandu packable rain jackets, which fold up into a small zipped pocket
  • A warm fleece jacket for planes, cooler mornings, early game drives; we found these on sale at Kathmandu
  • I took 2 long-sleeved merino t-shirts and a vest for the plane and early morning drives. I also took 3-4 light kaftan tops layered over singlets for everyday wear
  • Peter took 2 short-sleeved shirts and 2 long-sleeved shirts like the kids, plus an extra shirt for the plane. Again, Kathmandu was a good source for easy care shirts
  • For pants, I took 2 pairs of 3/4 pants, 1 pair of long cotton pants, and 1 pair of light weight jeans
  • Peter took 2 pairs of Kathmandu light weight pants with zip off legs, an extra pair of shorts (which he didn’t use), and a pair of jeans
  • We took a similar number of pairs of underwear and socks as the kids
  • Pyjamas
  • Swimmers
  • A broad-brimmed hat or cap each
  • Toiletries, medicine
  • For the formal dinner and other nice outings, I took a pair of navy slacks, two fancier tops, and a soft jacket. I didn’t need the second top. Peter took a nice pair of pants, formal shirt, jacket and tie
  • I also took two extra warmer layers, but I didn’t really need them. I dressed in them on a few cold mornings but changed after breakfast. They were too warm. There was only one morning at Tswalu that I might have worn them but didn’t. So I could have left these at home

Most of my clothes were navy, grey and cream; colours I often wear. Dark colours such as black or navy are not recommended in summer in Africa because they attract the heat or flies, but I had no problem with them in spring. Peter’s clothes were like Oliver’s: grey, green, blue. Again, we didn’t want to buy special “safari” wear looking clothes, which we might not get use out of back in the city.

We easily had enough clothes as well as met our luggage limits. In addition to the items above we took chargers and cables for our electronic devices (including a plug for Africa and a power board), a large Canon 5D Camera plus lenses for good quality animal shots, a small point-and-shoot camera, and a small video camera for the kids to use.

I was tempted to buy into the whole safari look, but mostly we took and packed our normal clothes with just a few additions: Oliver and Peter’s pants with zip off legs, which they will reuse for Scouts; our rain jackets; our new fleece jackets; and some extra easy care shirts.

At Tswalu, a number of the other guests were wearing safari kit from top to toe, but many were in the midst of a series of safari stays spanning many weeks. For just 5 days, our selection of clothes worked well (with just a few items we should have left at home). The most important thing is to pack light if you can and use laundry facilities at your accommodation.

I hope this list helps in planning your African adventure. Please add any other suggestions in the comments below.

Cheerio Amanda

Recommendations for a family holiday in South Africa

Now that we have returned from our two week family holiday in South Africa, here are our top recommendations for places to stay and things to do, see and buy. I’ve already posted suggestions for successfully travelling with children (based on my trip with Oliver to Europe last year and which we tried to follow this trip). And you can read here for safari packing tips. So in this post I focus on people, places and things in South Africa that we loved and recommend to others (especially families).

#1 Recommendation

We all agreed that the highlight of our trip to South Africa was our four night stay at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Green Kalahari of the Northern Cape Province. Tswalu is a luxury private game reserve catering to just 30 guests at a time. We chose (and extended) the Cape Grace/Tswalu package, which gave us five nights in Cape Town (see below for more on Cape Grace) and four nights in The Motse, Tswalu. Read about our magical experiences at Tswalu here, here and here.

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View of the pool and waterhole at The Motse, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

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Tswalu’s Malori Sleep Out Deck

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Sunrise across the Kalahari, Tswalu

Getting There and About

We flew to South Africa from Sydney, Australia on Qantas. We were pleased to secure direct flights to Johannesburg with no stop over in Perth. So just 14 hours to South Africa and 12.5 hours home (which is a very manageable flight time and distance coming from Australia). The outbound flight worked well because we arrived in Johannesburg in the evening and could go straight to bed when we arrived at our hotel in Maropeng. Our evening homeward flight also worked well because the kids slept most of the way home, tired from the early starts for game drives at Tswalu.

We travelled from Pretoria in the north east to Cape Town in the south west on the Blue Train. The journey, in luxurious surroundings, takes 28 hours. Through the large picture windows we gained amazing insights into the South African landscape and life. Read about our experiences on the Blue Train here. Although we enjoyed the novelty and comfort of our overnight train journey, I think it is one best suited to couples, young or old, than to families with young children. We were the youngest by far on the train and the train’s magnificent style and five star service probably are best appreciated by those with time and freedom to sit and ponder in the Club Car or linger over drinks in the Dining Car. The Blue Train also is best for people who are untroubled by motion sickness. The ride could be rather bumpy at times and I had 24 hours of mild disembarkation syndrome when we arrived in Cape Town.

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Boarding the Blue Train

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The Cafe Car on the Blue Train

Recommended Hotels

As above, our #1 hotel recommendation is Tswalu Kalahari, especially if you are looking for a unique safari experience. But we also stayed at four other hotels, three in the major cities of Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

In Cape Town we stayed at and highly recommend Cape Grace Hotel. Situated on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, Cape Grace is a beautiful and very comfortable hotel. We stayed in a two bedroom apartment, which was enormous and included a kitchenette, dining area, large lounge area, two ensuite bathrooms, an extra toilet and a verandah with an outdoor table and chairs. The service was impeccable with lots of complimentary in-house activities for kids (including gingerbread decorating, free xbox games for the room’s xbox machine, board games). We used room service quite a bit for dinner, eating on the verandah. The meals were amazingly inexpensive. Louisa and I also tried Cape Grace’s Spa, which again was lovely and inexpensive. The Concierge and Reception Staff were extremely helpful, providing lots of tips for our stay in Cape Town as well as complimentary shuttle service within a 10km radius. On one day we ordered a picnic lunch to take on a tour of Cape Peninsula. We ended up with bags and bags of food and drinks that lasted us all day and night for a very reasonable cost of less than AUS$50. Read about our experiences in Cape Town and at Cape Grace here.

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Table Mountain, Cape Town, with Cape Grace Hotel in the foreground

Outside of Johannesburg, in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, we stayed for two nights at the Maropeng Hotel. This boutique hotel is located just moments from the Maropeng Visitor Centre and saved us a long drive from Johannesburg to this fascinating place. I was very keen to see the Cradle of Humankind Exhibition and the hotel made this easy. Again, it was geared more to adult visitors than children but the rooms were large and comfortable. The breakfasts, included in our room rate, were delicious. Maropeng is quite a way from Johannesburg and near no other shops or activities — we came just for the Maropeng Visitor Centre — so may not suit everyone, especially if you don’t have a car (we were driven from the airport to Maropeng in a shuttle). Read about our experiences in Maropeng here.

On the night before we joined the Blue Train we stayed at the Sheraton Pretoria. As you would expect from Sheraton, this was an extremely comfortable and beautiful hotel right across from the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African Government. Finally, on the night before we flew home, after Tswalu, we stayed at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg. This hotel seemed very large and busy after the privacy of Tswalu but appealed to us for its position next to Nelson Mandela Square and the Sandton Shopping Complex (good for souvenir shopping!). There are lots of hotels to choose from in the Sandton area.

All of our hotels included free wi-fi, which made life easier for adults and kids with devices!

Recommended Guides, Tours and Transfers

In places such as Johannesburg foreign visitors are recommended to hire cars or drivers since public transport is limited. So in Johannesburg and Cape Town we organised guides/drivers to transport us from airports to our hotels or to take us on tours.

In Cape Town we highly recommend Safari Lodge Shuttle. We were very fortunate to book Liese Mossner-Sequeira from this company to collect us from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and drive us to Maropeng, and then the next day to take us on a tour of the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre and some local markets before driving us to our next hotel in Pretoria. Liese was incredibly knowledgeable, very friendly and wonderful with our children. Read about our experiences with Liese at the Cheetah Centre here.

In Cape Town, the Concierge at Cape Grace recommended Jarat Tours. We booked them for a day to drive us down the Cape Peninsula. Read about our drive here and here. Although our driver was not as excellent as Liese in Johannesburg, our shuttle bus was comfortable and affordable (about AUS$325 for 7 hours of driving plus we paid all entrance fees and tolls).

Recommended Attractions

Here is a list of places we visited in Maropeng, Johannesburg, Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula and at Tswalu. All highly recommended for adults and kids.

1. Cradle of Humankind, Maropeng (photos from our visit here)

2. Van Dyk Cheetah Centre, De Wildt (photos from our visit here)

3. Table Mountain, Cape Town (photos from our visit here)

4. World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Park, Hout Bay (near Cape Town) (photos from our visit here)

5. Two Oceans Aquarium, Cape Town

6. The Penguin Colony at the Boulders, Simon’s Town (near Cape Town) (photos from our visit here)

7. Tswalu Kalahari Spa, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

Eating

We mostly ate in our hotels or quite simply. But in Cape Town we went to the highly recommended Gold Restaurant, featuring Cape Malay and traditional African food. Dinner included a lesson in African drumming as well as African face painting, music and dancing. This was a fantastic, and inexpensive, night of African food and culture.

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Drumming lesson at Gold Restaurant, Cape Town

Suggestions for Souvenirs

Although we had strict limits on the amount of luggage we could take on the small plane that flew us to Tswalu and our safari, we managed to find a few lovely souvenirs of our trip in Maropeng, De Wildt, Cape Town, at Tswalu, and in Johannesburg. Some suggestions:

1. Football jerseys. When Oliver and I visited Europe last year he bought some football (soccer to us in Australia) jerseys in London. We found some terrific new ones in a sports store in Sandton: the jersey of the Kaizer Chiefs and the jersey of the Orlando Pirates, two South African Premier Soccer League teams based in Soweto.

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2. Carrol Boyes silverware. Carrol Boyes is a South African designer who makes beautiful pewter and silverware with African and other motifs. In Tswalu I found some wonderful teaspoons with Meerkats on the handle. In addition to the specially created designs at Tswalu, we visited Carrol Boyes stores in Sandton and OR Tambo International Airport.

3. Born in Africa plush toy african animals. During our trip Louisa collected a whole zoo’s worth of plush animals including Cheetahs, African Hunting Dogs, a Rhino, a Zebra etc etc. Relatively inexpensive, good quality and a great souvenir for smaller kids.

4. In Cape Town we found Taunina, makers of hand embroidered teddy bears. From their website:

Celebrated for its iconic hand-embroidered teddy bears, Taunina is a luxury house synonymous with timeless artistry and social upliftment. The company provides full-time employment to women from disadvantaged communities in Africa through its flagship atelier in Cape Town. Each creation is one of a kind, designed and embellished by a single artist over five to seven days. The rare beauty of a Taunina collection pieGentian-SA-JK-SB-14-0004-FRONT-78x104ce lies in the opportunity it affords a woman in need to provide for her family and be recognized as an artist. Taunina bears carry the initials of the women who make them, symbolic of their sense of dignity and pride. Each bear travels in a handcrafted hatbox with his or her very own bespoke passport. A Taunina creation is a work of art, an heirloom to be passed from one generation to the next. It a gift that changes lives.

I chose a little one named Crispin who looks somewhat like this but in grey.

5. Books about South African history. I chose two with great reviews on Amazon: Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith; and A History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson.

6. Finally, in De Wildt outside of Johannesburg, in Cape Town, and in Hout Bay we visited local markets and shopped for smaller trinkets and jewellery. Because of Australia’s strict customs laws we were careful not to choose anything made of wood. But the kids chose a number of bracelets and necklaces made of stone or beads. I got ripped off in the De Wildt market when one stall holder started the bargaining process by asking for 4500 Rand (AUS$450), which I managed to get down to 700 Rand, but still too much for what I bought. I preferred the Cape Town and Hout Bay markets and shops where the prices were marked on the items. If not, then take a local with you.

We hope these recommendations are helpful. Please add your own suggestions below in the comments.

Hi 3/4T from Oliver in Africa!

Hi Mrs Taylor and 3/4T. We are in Africa. We are having a lot of fun. It’s been great staying in Maropeng, Cape Town and Tswalu. I will post a You Tube video to answer your questions, but I also will answer them here because I can give you more information about what I have seen and done:

Sheridan: I love the white peacock!

Hi Sheridan, I liked it too. Their tails are huge and look just like a long white dress. We saw these peacocks in a bird sanctuary in Hout Bay, which is near Cape Town. They had over 100 aviaries full of birds, like owls that were hiding right near the doors. The great thing about these aviaries was that you could walk into most of them, so there were no cages or bars between you and the birds.

Lauren: The monkeys are so cute!

Hi Lauren, I loved how if you held your hand out the monkeys would reach out and try to open your fingers to see what was in your hand. They felt really light like a feather and their paws felt really soft. They were very curious. They would jump on you from a long way away. One looked right into my dad’s camera.

Michael: That is a seriously huge hole! I can’t believe that you got to see it Oliver! Next time can I come to Africa with you?

Hi Michael, the hole was huge. When I looked down I felt like if you ever fell down into it you’d never come out. It’s the largest man made hole in the world. They dug it by hand to find the diamonds. Even though the mine was closed a long time ago (in 1914) there are still diamonds left in the hole. They aren’t going to get them out because if they dig them all out, according to African law, an “exhausted mine” has to be filled back in. And they can’t afford to fill the hole in and return the land to nature. Africa is a once in a lifetime experience so there probably won’t be a next time. But I hope you like my photos!

Kate: Were you scared when the monkey climbed on you?

Hi Kate, I was a bit nervous but it wasn’t too scary. The monkeys were really used to humans and getting food from humans. But you had to make sure that you had nothing in your pockets and no jewellery on because they tried to get into everything. They tried to open my dad’s backpack! These were squirrel monkeys. There were lots of other monkeys at the park but you couldn’t play with them because they would bite.

Charlie: The big hole looks pretty scary!

Hi Charlie, it was quite scary. There was a bridge with a huge platform that was just over the edge. We looked over guard rails because if there wasn’t any you’d fall right in. I didn’t ask if anyone had ever fallen in before. When I looked into the hole there was water down the bottom. The hole was brown (earth) and light navy (water).

Sienna (3): What was your favourite part of the trip?

Hi Sienna, my favourite part of the trip is here at Tswalu because of all the animals we’ve seen, the horse riding and bow and arrows. We’ve tracked a lot of animals such as a leopard, cheetahs, lions, baboons, a Black Rhino, zebras and lots of South African animals you probably haven’t heard of such as kudu, springbok, blesbok, gemsbok and others.

Jemma: I thought that flamingoes are pink. In that picture they’re white.

Hi Jemma, some flamingoes are pink. On our train trip from Pretoria to Cape Town we saw a flock of pink flamingoes on a lake just before our stop in Kimberley. But the kind we saw in Hout Bay were white with some pink colouring. We saw a lot of birds that look like Australian birds but with different colouring. Here at Tswalu there are many beautiful birds with amazing colours and songs.

Cristian: I love the monkeys and I miss you!

Thanks Cristian. I miss you too and I loved the monkeys too!!

Edith: Those peacocks look like they’re angels that fell out of heaven.

Hi Edith, my mum agrees. These were her favourite birds. They sat up high on a branch with their long white tails streaming down like a bridal veil. We also saw more traditional peacocks with the blue and green colours.

Tom: Where were those diamonds? Can you mine some for me please?

Hi Tom, there are still diamonds in and around The Big Hole but you’d be arrested if you picked up an uncut diamond from the ground. That’s a law in South Africa. In the vault of the Mine Museum we saw huge cut and uncut diamonds, which had been found in the mine. But you couldn’t take diamonds away with you because there was lots of security!

Kye: Wow! It looks like an epic journey! I wish I could come!

Hi Kye, it has been an epic journey. It took 14 hours to fly from Sydney to Johannesburg. Then two hours to drive from the airport to Maropeng. It took 28 hours on the train from Pretoria to Cape Town. Then two hours on a very small plane (with only 8 seats plus 2 for the pilots, who we could see working the controls) from Cape Town to Tswalu. We have a two hour flight back to Johannesburg tomorrow and then a 14 hour flight from Johannesburg back to home. So it has been epic! We’ve also seen so many amazing sights and animals.

Prue: Those birds look really beautiful. I wish I could go and see them in the school holidays.

Hi Prue, most of the birds were really beautiful. The ones with no feathers weren’t so beautiful though! The most beautiful animals I have seen are meerkats, monkeys and penguins. The most scary animals were snakes and the rhino. Rhinos can charge at safari vehicles so our Guide, Juan, had a rifle with him. We were pretty nervous as we tried to get close enough for a good look but not too close to die! Apparently rhinos have bad eyesight but good hearing. So if they hear a threat they charge first and ask questions later!

Edward: It looks like a really interesting trip.

Hi Edward, thanks for your comment. It has been really fun. Your Earthkeepers camp looked really fun too and I was sorry to miss it. But I have learned that it is really important to protect your environment and not do things that are bad for the animals. The people at Tswalu have worked hard over the last 50 years to return this part of the Kalahari to what it was like 200 years ago before farmers came and changed the environment and wiped out many of the local animals.

See you soon! From Oliver.

 

A letter to you from Africa

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway (thanks to Oliver’s teacher, Mrs Taylor, 3/4T at Boronia Park Public School, Sydney, for the quote).

Looking along the corridors of The Blue Train

You said that you like me writing to you, so here’s a letter from the heart of South Africa …

I am sitting in the dark on a train travelling from Pretoria to Cape Town. We started our journey this morning in Gauteng Province and headed south to Johannesburg and then to Soweto.

Welcome to The Blue Train

Peter boarding The Blue Train

Turning south west, we skirted the edges of three provinces as we travelled diagonally across country: North West Province, Free State Province, and Northern Cape Province. Almost right in the middle of South Africa we stopped in the town of Kimberley, home to the De Beers Diamond Company and their vast open pit diamond mine, “The Big Hole” (read Oliver’s separate post on his excursion into Kimberley here). Tonight, in the dark, we are racing towards Western Cape Province and Cape Town, at the southern tip of the African continent.

The train is making those rackety and whistle sounds that remind me of trains in movies. Perhaps the sounds of the train that carried Lara across Russia in Dr Zhivago? Or perhaps the sounds of the train at the start of a Phryne Fisher mystery?

Our cabin has been turned into a bedroom and Louisa is fast asleep in the fold down bed. I am sitting looking out of the big picture window in our cabin at the landscape rushing by. There’s a full moon high above us but I can’t make out any familiar constellations in the Southern Sky. There are few towns and only a smattering of lights from isolated farm houses. Mostly it is just moon lit black with vague shapes suggesting geology, vegetation, and the occasional man made object: road or railway siding.

The Blue Train certainly is a luxurious experience. Riding in beautifully appointed sleeper cabins with Italian marble bathrooms; calling the ever patient and gracious butlers to cater to Louisa’s whims; lounging in the elegant surroundings of the Cafe car; and dressing in formal wear for four course meals in the Dining Car.

Cabin 23 on The Blue Train

Our Butler, Frank Mathosi

The Cafe Car aboard The Blue Train

Lunch in the Dining Car

But I must admit that it is a somewhat incongruous experience to be looking out from all this luxe and privilege to a country full of day to day hardships. We passed many shanty towns with tiny dwellings made of tin or wood, sitting in harsh, polluted environments. I am not sure what I was expecting: wild animals running photogenically alongside the train? Huge viaducts spanning deep gorges (of the kind I travelled on at the end of the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand last year)? Maybe these are to come? But so far The Blue Train has lived up to its reputation as the “window to the soul of South Africa”.

Out of this window we can see the real South Africa, in all its beauty, vastness, contrasts and inequalities.

Later …

Overnight, lying beside Louisa, I thought I heard animals howling outside. Perhaps howling at the full moon?

Louisa and I have been awake since just after 5am looking out of our picture window, waiting for sunrise. I think I can see the Southern Cross low in the early morning sky.

 

As the sun rose, and we moved to the Cafe Car to wait for breakfast, the scenery outside changed entirely. The flat dry plains of yesterday have given way to mountain ranges and fertile green pastures. Early this morning the landscape was empty of settlements; just a few trucks tooling along nearby roads. Now we are passing scattered farm houses and a few small towns. Certainly no large towns or cities and fewer Township settlements. So perhaps less confronting in its majesty today?

The view from our window yesterday

The view from our window this morning

And I guess that is the value of this journey. When we booked and boarded The Blue Train we probably thought that the journey worth having, to paraphrase Hemingway, was a journey to spoil ourselves a little as we traversed the country. But because the train windows reveal everything and hide nothing, the journey we’ve ended up with hopefully also is one of reflection. A chance to reflect on how fortunate we are in our lives. And fortunate to live in Australia. Australia and South Africa seem somewhat similar in their vast, sometimes inhospitable, landscapes. Are we similar also in entrenched or deepening inequalities? I would like to think not but then we haven’t been on a 28 hour train ride right across Australia! What would we see out the window then?

 

Soon we will arrive in Cape Town where another face of South Africa no doubt awaits us.

See you soon.

Amanda x

 

 

Speedsters of the veldt

This morning, day 2 of our African adventure, we drove from Maropeng to the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in De Wildt.

Ann van Dyk established her Centre in 1971 during a period when farmers, who feared Cheetahs and resented heavy stock losses from Cheetah predation, were hunting them towards extinction. van Dyk established a breeding centre to secure the long term survival of Cheetahs as well as other wild animals such as the African Wild Dog. Over the years, the staff of the Cheetah Centre have worked hard also on outreach activities to educate and involve farmers in managing Cheetahs in the wild. And van Dyk and her team are educating the next generation of South Africans to love and respect Cheetahs and other wild animals. They believe:

“We will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Ann van Dyk

We arrived at the Centre and first read this sign:

 

Mildly nervous, we signed waiver forms and joined our guide. She explained that the Cheetah Centre is home to 60 Cheetahs and 50 African Wild Dogs, some from the wild and some hand raised at the Centre, as well as many other wild animals such as Cape Griffon Vultures.

Cape Griffin Vultures are one of the most endangered animals in all of Africa. This is because they are a highly prized hunting target for Africans who believe that if they eat the eyes of the Vulture and sleep with its head then they will be able to predict the future. This is because Vultures fly so high; above the clouds and able to see far ahead.

 

Our first stop on the tour was to see two Honey Badgers. These cute fluffy little guys apparently are the most dangerous creatures in the park! Lions are afraid of them because they are fearless, vicious fighters with long sharp claws, which they use to rip the soft under bellies of Lions and Cheetahs. Their favourite food is live snake! This is the one animal in the Cheetah Centre where the Keepers will not enter their enclosures. We also learned that young Cheetahs’ colouring mimics that of Honey Badgers, which keeps Lions away. What an amazing example of evolutionary adaptation!

 

Next we climbed into a safari bus for an extremely bumpy ride up into the hills surrounding the Cheetah Centre, past many enclosures with Cheetahs, African Wild Dogs and other animals.

 

First we saw beautiful Cheetahs that prowled up and down the fence waiting for large chunks of meat that the Ranger threw over the fence. The pattern of spots on each individual Cheetah is different from all others; like human fingerprints! Nevertheless, the general patterning of these spots is inherited from their parents, including the elusive King Cheetah pattern. This distinctive dark striped pattern once was thought to represent a separate species but is now known to be the result of a rare mutation within Cheetahs. The De Wildt Centre helped to solve this mystery when it bred two litters of Cheetah cubs, each with one King Cheetah cub.

 

Next we saw many groups of African Wild Dogs, who live in packs. They are under threat in the wild but thriving at the Cheetah Centre. Cubs bred at the Cente are released back into the wild. Our Ranger told us that whereas wild dogs are quite wary of humans, hand reared animals are extremely dangerous to the Keepers. This is because in the wild, dog packs are organised hierarchically. African Wild Dogs fight their way to the top by biting other dogs. So if they think you are in their pack, as they view the Keepers who rear them, they will bite you to assert dominance!

We saw two litters of pups with their Mum and Dad. These pups below are about 16 weeks old. They are greedy, noisy, impolite eaters!

 

We also saw sweet, little Meerkats. Oliver and I saw a large group of Meerkats at London Zoo when we visited June 2013. We also expect to see more when we fly to Tswalu and the Kalahari Desert.

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It was amazing to get up so close to these beautiful animals. But not too close! One of the Cheetahs sized us up from behind his fence and growled a very menacing growl at us. Beautiful but happily separated by a fence!

 

Tomorrow we board The Blue Train for our journey across South Africa from Pretoria to the Cape.

 

 

 

Maropeng, “welcome home”

We flew into Johannesburg, South Africa, last Friday night and drove around the outskirts of the city to our first night’s accommodation at the Maropeng Hotel, within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. As we drove, we passed a city of immense contrasts: the homes and cars of wealthy South Africans. And the crowded, extremely basic conditions of South Africans who live in Townships. Our guide Liese told us that entire families live in a space probably no bigger than Oliver’s bedroom.

Maropeng is the centre of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. From their website:

“The 47 000-hectare site has unearthed the best evidence of the complex journey which our species has taken to make us what we are – a place of pilgrimage for all humankind. It is not only a place of ongoing scientific discovery into our origins, but also a place of contemplation – a place that allows us to reflect on who we are, where we come from and where we are going to.”

We woke very early on Saturday and waited for sunrise looking across the veldt towards mountain ranges in the distance. Not far from our door, Blesbok Antelopes grazed and wandered.

 

Over a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, juice, pastries, meats and cheeses Louisa started a diary to record all the things she is learning about Africa. She remembered that last night our guide told us that there are at least 8 official languages in South Africa. As we explored throughout the morning Louisa stopped often to record thoughts and observations in her diary such as:

“I love Africa. I want to live in Africa. Africa has lots of rocks.”

 

At first, from our balcony, the mountain ranges in the distance looked a little like the Blue Mountains, which lie west of Sydney. And yesterday the road to Maropeng reminded us of the road between Canberra and Jindabyne in southern New South Wales. But on foot, our surroundings looked entirely distinct. With red, red earth, enormous prickly cactuses (Aloes) like something out of John Wyndham’s imagination, and warnings of snakes just off the path.

 

Soon we came across something completely mundane yet beautiful amidst the glorious African landscape. A playground. This playground included equipment you had to navigate on all fours, just like our very distant ancestors, as well as equipment you had to navigate upright. Just like our nearer ancestors. The playground was part of the Maropeng Visitor Centre.

 

 

The Maropeng Visitor Centre is a museum/exhibition that focuses on the development of humans and our ancestors over the past few million years. It is housed inside and underneath a massive burial mound called the Tumulus.

 

 

The idea that all humans originated in Africa was first proposed by Charles Darwin, who introduced the theory of evolution (together with Alfred Russell Wallace), in his book “The Descent of Man”. This view was controversial for a long time. Many other scientists believed that the “cradle of humankind” would be found in Europe and Asia. But the fossil record for an “Out of Africa” hypothesis proved compelling and was finally confirmed by DNA evidence in the 1980s.

Maropeng and surrounding sites are home to the oldest hominid fossils as well as fossil remains of our nearest ancestors. The Maropeng Visitor Centre tells the story of evolution, explains the timeline of and controversies around the discovery of hominid fossils in this area, and argues that Africa (and this area in Eastern South Africa) is the birthplace of humankind. Thus, we were greeted by “welcome home” when we arrived at the Maropeng Hotel on Friday night.

 

An Australian anthropologist, Professor Raymond Dart, was central to this story. We learned from the exhibition that:

 

Dart published his controversial conclusions about Australopithecus africanus in a 1925 paper in the journal Nature, which you can read here.

Professor Raymond Dart and the Tuang Skull

On Saturday night, after a busy day exploring Maropeng, Oliver and Louisa were falling asleep at the dinner table. The jetlag hit them hard; dinner time here, 6pm, is 2am Sydney time. But they slept well and long Saturday night, and woke ready on Sunday for Day 2 of our African adventure! A cheetah park, a monkey park, and preparing to board The Blue Train early Monday morning …

 

More soon!

 

The day before the day before we leave: Packing

Peter and I are packing for ourselves and the kids — Oliver and Louisa — before we fly to Africa in less than 36 hours. We realised today, as we debated which bags to pack what into, that we have an awful lot of luggage lying around our house. Peter has the original backpack he took on his first journey around Africa more than 20 years ago, as well as the backpack from his 18 month sailing voyage from Sydney to Europe via South East Asia and the King’s Cup in Thailand, across the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea to the Sailing World Cup in Cyprus. And I have luggage galore from an academic career of conferencing and lab visits around the world, not to mention an ongoing love affair with Crumpler and Rushfaster, among other luggage and travel specialists (Magellan’s, Flight 001, Ciao Bella Travel …).

Our packing task this trip has a slightly higher degree of difficulty because although we each can take 40 kilograms of checked luggage and 7 kgs of hand luggage onto our international flights, we only are allowed 12 kgs of checked luggage and 6 kgs of hand luggage each on the small private plane that will take us 850 kilometres north from Cape Town to the game reserve, Tswalu Kalahari.

We also need to bring formal(ish) wear for dinner on The Blue Train, which will take us from Johannesburg to Cape Town on one of the first legs of our journey. And Tswalu is almost the last leg of our journey after 5 days in Cape Town. So where and how to pack any souvenirs we might like to buy?

So here’s our first crucial piece of packing equipment: a portable digital travel scale. I picked mine up in Flight 001 in San Francisco, but you can buy similar versions very easily. For around $20 you can keep under those weight limits.

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I also really love Herschel Packable Luggage. I have a backpack, again from Flight 001, which transforms from a small little soft parcel that is easily stashed in your bag into a good sized, light weight backpack. I use it when I hire a bike during a conference trip or when out and about for the day.

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For this trip and for Father’s Day, the kids gave Peter a packable version of Herschel’s duffle bag:

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10078-00003-OS_02_0503e114-8135-4a8d-bb99-3b760d2ba317_grandeThis will be perfect for when we need to decant some of our luggage for The Blue Train trip. Our sweet little sleeper cabins (perfectly formed but limited space) can’t fit all of our luggage, so we need to separate what we need for the train journey from everything else, which will be stored in a luggage hold.

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Herschel Packables also include a messenger bag and a tote. I often buy a cheap tote bag from the airport book store to carry my overflow water bottles, coat, magazines etc, but Herschel’s likely would be more long lasting.

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My final go to bag when packing is my Crumpler Dry Red No 5 backpack. I have blogged about this before and have been singing the praises of this bag far and wide. Recently I purchased two of these bags in black for our memory research team, so they can transport our electronic and audio equipment back and forth from Sydney to Melbourne. This carry on bag safely stores my laptop, iPad, kindle, a change of clothes, wallet, some toiletries, paperwork and other odds and ends.

I adore Crumpler bags and have far too many or not enough. This is one of my favourites:

Crumpler Dry Red No 5 Backpack

Crumpler Dry Red No 5 Backpack

So back to the packing. The only other challenge we face is that Peter and I both are reasonably seasoned travellers; at least for work travel. So we each have our own preferred luggage, methods of packing, tricks and lists. Yes, so back to the packing and the negotiations. Next stop: the airport.