A year in South Africa – my highlights

This time exactly a year ago we were perched  on the sofa in our garden, nibbling at sandwiches made with the sort of peanut butter I have since learned never to buy, wondering at the cold air but hot sun, listening to the strange sounds of the screeching hadedas and trying to contemplate our new life in this huge and hugely exciting country.  I can’t believe it has been a year. Fresh off the overnight flight, we felt like pale, strange animals found under stones – defenceless and pathetic, entirely reliant on others to keep us safe.

But here we are, 365 days on (or rather, 366 as it’s a leap year) and we’ve toughened up. Learnt our way around. Found out where to source the food we want, the clothes and shoes we need, and the books we desire. Bought a dog. Completed a year of schooling (the children) and a year in a new office (husband). Found friends, and sadly lost some of them to repatriation. Travelled far and wide but at the same time realised how much more there still is to see.

It hasn’t always been an easy year but overall we have loved our life in South Africa. I could drone on for hours about what we have been up to since we got here but really, that would get pretty dull. So here, instead, are just a few highlights:

Best trip

A hard one this as we have had so many great holidays since we arrived. Namibia, Cape Town, Mauritius are all up there. But for sheer excitement and for memories that will last with us forever, I think it was our six day safari in Kruger National Park with my parents in December/January that wins this one.

Best meal out

Again, so many to choose from. Eating out in South Africa is  genuinely.one of the best things about this country – possibly because to us, it is so much more affordable than at home but also because the food is great quality and very innovative. So there have been many, many good meals and quite a few great ones. But probably the one I enjoyed most overall was a wine-tasting meal at Zest Bistro in Pretoria where we sat at a long table with other guests and were given different wines to taste with each course. The food was fantastic (I have been back and enjoyed it even without gallons of wine to wash it down!), the wine was world class and the mixed company of friends and strangers was perfect.

Best tour

When my mother came to stay I decided it was time to dig a bit deeper into South Africa’s recent history. I had yet to venture deep into Soweto so when a friend recommended a tour by a lady called Snowy Mattera we decided to book it. I am so glad we did: Snowy’s father was Don Mattera, a poet and activist during the apartheid years. Snowy grew up in Soweto and was part of the student protests in the 1970’s. Learning about the history of the area through the eyes of someone who was actually there gave a unnique experience and really helped understand the actions of the people of that era. Highly recommended!

Best view

Oh so hard! The views in Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain were incredible. Ditto the unique panorama from the top of the sand dunes in Namibia. But in the end I think I have to choose the Drakensbergs where around every corner was another stunner!

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Best memory

I am going to cheat a little with this one and choose two – albeit it of doing the same thing, just in different countries. When you have had a year like we have, there are so many good memories, it’s hard to single it down to just one (or, in this case, two). However, sometimes it is the simplist activities which are the best and I am going to chose star-gazing as one of the things that I will remember for ever. Sitting at the back of our cabin in Namibia in the middle of a meteorite shower, watching shooting star after shooting star fall from the sky. And lying on our backs at our lodge in the Drakensbergs with the huge, huge night sky above is. It makes you feel so small and insignificant but at the same time so glad to be alive.

Best wildlife

So there have been zebras and whales and penguins and dolphins and octopusses (octopi?) and a lots of antelopey things and rhinos and elephants and giraffes and dung beatles and bats and warthogs with their hoglets and wild dogs and….how can I chose just one? Our entire year has been one wildlife-bonanza. So I will just have to chose the one that gave me the best picture:

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Best non-wildlife experience

Way back not long after we arrived I was invited to the local footy derby in Soweto – the Orlando Pirates vs the Kaiser Chiefs. Two of the biggest teams in the world, each with some of the most loyal supporters on the planet. This was, apparently, one of the biggest derbys it was possible to watch but I don’t think I quite appreciated the enormity of it until we walked into the stadium. I have been to big matches before, including watching Arsenal play and England vs Germany in Munich. But this was on a different scale altogether – whether it was the numbers, the sheer passion or just the noise I don’t know but it was certainly an experience never to be forgotten.

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Best luck

What started off as terrible luck in the end worked out for us in a way we could never have predicted. I had booked a balloon flight for my husband’s birthday shortly after we moved to Pretoria. Unfortunately due to an unseasonal rain storm, the original flight was cancelled and then rescheduled to a few weeks later. So here we were, up at dawn and floating across the landscape – lovely! It was so early that after we had landed and eaten breakfast, it was still not yet 9am. So we decided to hot-foot it across to the nearby Maropeng museum where the recently discovered fossilised remaines of Homo Naledi were on display for a limited period before being moved away to tour the world/be studied properly (whatever they do with bones and things). Anyway, we arrived so early we were the first people in and, having visited the museum previously, bypassed all the normal exhibits and made our way straight to the main attraction. Where, again, we were first in and thus had the exhibit totally to ourselves for a brief few moments. It isn’t often you get so see such an amazing discovery so close up and in such privacy – it felt like a private viewing and we definitely felt very lucky.

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Best discovery

I’m not sure if I can really call it a discovery as so many others seem to know about it, but a little cafe called the Moroccan House has become a favourite place to meet people for morning coffee or lunch. Great food and drinks, a lovely, cool, secluded terrace and fantastic service makes it a stand-out in a place of stand-outs. And did I mention the price? Definitely worth a visit if you are ever in town.

Most photogenic place

I think this one has to be won by Namibia. I have never seen so many photo opportunities in such a short space of time. Around every corner there was something else I wanted to take a picture of – helped by the most amazing light and bright blue skies. Here is a taster:

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And finally (because I could go on forever) – most relaxing holiday

This one is easy – hands down, it’s Mauritius. It helps that we stayed in an all-inclusive but the sea, the beach, the pools, the diving, the bars, the staff, the service….When you really need somewhere to unwind, what more could you ask for?

Well, that’s just some of my highlights from the last year. I notice I haven’t even included Cape Town in this post which just goes to show how much great stuff we have done! Maybe I will have to do another one at the end of this year – I wonder what will make the grade this time?

Have you been to South or Southern Africa? What have been your highlights?

A sojourn in Mauritius

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The spectacular mountains of volcanic Mauritius

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed a bit of tumble-weed blowing through its environs recently. No I haven’t given up altogether (although exciting ventures elsewhere have been keeping me busy) but one of the reasons things have been so quiet is that we have been on holiday.

On holiday, I hear you cry. Isn’t life as an expat in South Africa one long holiday? Well yes you have a point, we do get to travel a lot while we live here – and hell, if you lived in the most beautiful country in the world (trademark) wouldn’t you do your best to see as much of it as possible?

However, travelling and holidaying are two different concepts and what we really needed was a proper break. A time to be able to do nothing, to not move an inch from the sunbed should we chose, to totally re-charge our batteries. Unfortunately we do of course have two very active pre-teens so this total relaxation was never going to happen. But all the same, we wanted to get away somewhere really beautiful and life-enhancing for a fantastic fun-filled family vacation and Mauritius fits the bill completely. It’s also only 4.5 hours flight from Johannesburg, which of course helps!

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There’s nothing like a sun-drenched beach to lighten your mood.

Mauritius is one of those countries that most people simply associate with holidays and little else – a bit like one of the many Caribbean islands dominated by resorts geared up to doing nothing more than sipping rum and dipping the occastional toe in a pool. However, just like many of those Caribbean islands, dig a little deeper and there is actually a fascinating history to this island involving pirates, runaway slaves, a mish-mash of cultures which altogether add up to a very unique identity, a famous now-extinct bird (the dodo) and a man called Peter Pepper (yes, really!). But we weren’t really here for the history and culture, fascinating as it was – we were here for the sea, sun, sand and (remember, kids involved) snorkelling!

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Under the sea…is where we want to be….

It is hard to chose a resort on an island like Mauritius because there are so many of them and most of them looked fantastic. I know people who have gone rogue and stayed in self-catering houses on the island and this also looks like a lovely option for some real rest and relaxation. However for this, our official “breather break” from South Africa, we wanted to stay somewhere where we really didn’t have to lift a finger. In the end we settled on the Ravenala Attitude, part of the Attitude chain and a newly refurbished hotel.

The Ravenala is not paying me for this review (unless they wish to do so retrospectively….contact me tab above….) so I can say anything I like but in all honesty it was a fabulous resort. There were issues and you can read my review on TripAdvisor, but the pluses far out-weighed the minuses and I would both recommend it and return to it. In particular, the staff were outstanding and made us all (especially the children) feel as welcome as it is possible to feel. Clientele were a little mixed – we were out of season so there weren’t many families, with honeymooning couples taking up most of the room on the sun-loungers. But this mattered not a jot, we were still treated like royalty by waiters, bar-staff, room cleaners, the dive crew and sports guys as well as pretty well everyone else we met.

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Sun-loungers waiting for the childless honeymooners to arrive…

The main reason we picked Ravenala was because it offered us as a family what we wanted – a family suite so we didn’t have to book two rooms (which would have racked the cost up considerably), lots of activities, and good choices of restaurants. As well as snorkelling, we spent the week on the sea on various vessels including a glass-bottom boat, kayaks, pedaloes, stand-up paddle boards, water-skies and lasers (small sailing boats which capsize easily….). On the land we played badminton, beach tennis, petanque and table-tennis (ish). When we fancied a dip we had both the ocean and several large pools to chose from. And of course there was plenty of choice when it came to needing a drink to quench that thirst – although this being a sugar island, that choice mostly revolved around rum for the grown-ups.

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Rum shack!

Our favourite activity though was under the sea. I learnt to dive more than 15 years ago and reached over 100 dives before our five year break in the UK (where diving was off the menu thanks to a non-tropical climate). Having completed a refresher course here in Pretoria a couple of weeks before our holiday, dusted down our wetsuits and polished our masks we were ready to go. The hotel has a new dive centre attached so it was super easy to book a package of six dives shared between me and my husband, plus a couple of try-dives in the pool for the kids. Which turned out to be a great success because our 10-year-old daughter went on to do not only one but two dives in the sea and loved it!

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Daughter number one on her first ever open water dive.

The reason this was such a huge success for us was because, despite living on a Caribbean island as a child, she has never liked beaches or salt water which has been a bit of a struggle for the rest of our sea-loving family (my younger daughter, at eight, is still too young for a sea dive but snorkels like a pro and enjoyed her dive in the pool).

Diving, for anyone who hasn’t tried it, seems like a faff while you are above water but as soon as you get below the surface can be one of the most relaxing things you can do. I liken it to a session of yoga or meditiation – you drift around looking at beautiful things with just your thoughts for company (you do of course dive in a group or with a buddy but as you can’t talk it can feel very peaceful). On some dives the excitement does rack up with sightings of sharks, large rays or other “big things” but the coral reef diving we did around Mauritius wasn’t that sort of dive. Lots of fish life and plenty to look at but it was never going to be one of those “Top Ten” dives. Just very relaxing, very beautiful and very de-stressing.

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Wreck dive

Sadly all good things come to an end and after a week of indulgence we settled in for one last evening on the beach, rum cocktails in hand. And luckily for us, the island decided we deserved a fabulous sunset on our final day – watching this spectacular show was a wonderful way to end our week away and will stay in our memories for years to come.

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So now we’re back in South Africa and I am trying to catch up with everything, I hope to be able to get back to some sort of blogging routine soon. Which, if everything goes to plan, will include a new link-up for expat bloggers in Africa – so watch this space!

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