Bruce Stainsby's Blog: Muttering from the mo

“You’re welcome”

November 30th, 2017

Tray with receipt and cash

The US tipping phenomenon effects everyone.

In Eastern Europe, especially in the more remote places, if you speak English, you must be American.

Therefore you tip and tip well.

However there is often no service and in many cases a total disdain for actually serving you at all. This reflects their recent Russian heritage.

There has to be a happy compromise.

As I have bleated about before, the service industry in the US is a result of a corrupt capitalist ideology. It believes that it’s the customer’s responsibility to pay staff wages, as well as your food, not the restaurants.

This results in most Americans tipping when overseas at the same ridiculous rate that they do at home.

Something between 18% to 35%.

This ruins it for the rest of us and creates a false expectation within the service industry in these countries.

On the bright side there is little waste, as there is in the States, due to the use of proper washable crockery an cutlery.

When we do get great service, we don’t mind rewarding the staff – with about a 10% gratuity.

Then it’s a real reward not part of their salary.

Don’t follow, lead.

October 29th, 2017
Laisvės-Alėja. The longest walking-street-in-Europe

Laisvės-Alėja, Lithuania. The longest walking-street-in-Europe

Soomaa National Park Peat Bog walk in Estonia

Soomaa National Park Peat Bog walk in Estonia

As a tourist it’s easy to buy a package tour and visit the places that are high on the wish list.

This can have its problems.

The issue is that you are not alone, as there are millions following you.

As mentioned in a previous blog, this was highlighted in a BBC article about tourists flooding popular destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, Florence and some Greek islands.

And more recently Iceland.

It is expected that over 2 million people will have visited this spectacular and sparsely populated country in 2017 – completely overwhelming the local population of just 334,000.

This has been exacerbated by the influx of tourists from China, India and Russia, plus the growth of cruising.

Some of the popular destinations are so overrun with tourists that the locals are moving out during the high season.

This year 70 million tourists will have visited Spain.

Another factor that changes the state of the destination is the accommodation.

The more tourists there are, the more places they need to stay.

In steps Airbnb and other accommodation sharing businesses.

The result is that the locals move out, because their apartments are worth more when they are rented.

Apart from the sites, the other attraction in a destination are the locals.

Increasingly the only people you see in the tourist areas of Berlin, Athens and Santorini are other tourists.

Another casualty of excessive tourism is the loss of local cuisine.

Unless you venture into the backstreets of Geneva, Hamburg or Prague you won’t find much more than pizza and pasta.

The local restaurants all left with the locals and moved into the suburbs, well away from the tourists.

Try finding good Catalan food in the centre of Barcelona.

What is tourism about, if not experiencing the culture, food and people?

On this trip we have been to some big cities like Berlin, Helsinki and Warsaw. There English is always spoken and everything is relatively easy.

But you are not alone, tourists are everywhere.

The prices are higher and you are more likely to get fleeced, as the locals are aware of what the punters will pay.

While in many unexplored countries the prices are very reasonable.

This trip we have been fortunate enough to visit Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovakia. In Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia we seemed to be the only tourists that weren’t from Eastern Europe. Most seem to be from bordering countries, such as Hungary Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The countries we visited offered us an insight into Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. It also gave us a new perspective on the history and culture of these places, both before and after the Second World War.

Both the German occupation and subsequently the seizure by the Soviet Union left its mark. However the history before that was equally as turbulent, as invasion from neighbouring countries seemed to happen on a regular basis.

Travelling to unique places allows you to experience different people, cultures and geography. We discovered the ‘longest walking street in Europe’ in Lithuania and walked in a peat bog in Estonia.

However travelling in uncharted water isn’t without its difficulties.

Language can be an issue as English isn’t widely spoken and communication can be an issue. Especially when it comes to ordering from a menu that’s only in the local tongue.

Tour guides at these tourists sites tend to deliver the narrative in the language that most of the tourists speak and in many cases this wasn’t English.

Failing to find an English speaking guide we turned to the next best thing – maps and and printed information.

Even this had its problems, as on many occasions they weren’t printed in English either.

In large, well patronised, tourist towns you can always find a meal, at any time of the day or night.

When you are in these smaller places you have to eat when the locals eat, which isn’t necessarily when when you’re used to eating.

The benefit here is you are eating and talking with the locals and having a genuine tourist experience.

One of the real pleasures in visiting these off-the-beaten-track destinations is that you are an oddity to the locals and local tourists.

People want to engage you in conversation, just to discover; “Why on earth are you here?”

Democracy is dead.

September 15th, 2017
Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy

Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy

It’s been high jacked by the ‘popularists’

The democratic process was designed so society could move forward, towards a better future, by voting in people with vision, compassion and a willingness to selflessly serve society.

We now have candidates running for office who are more interested in remaining in power than doing anything positive.

No sooner do they win an election than they put all their resources into being re elected and remaining in power.

Their only strategy is to win the next election and their only policy is to pander to their electoral base.

Any media who is against them is considered ‘fake news’, any opposition organisations are regarded as ‘terrorists’ and any inquiries into their behaviour is a ‘witch hunt’.

They try to divide the citizens into good and bad.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to crackpots and political minions like Pauline Hanson or Jackie Lamby in Australia. It’s playing out on a world stage, at a very high level.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Beata Maria Szydło in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Hun Sen in Cambodia and even, as unlikely as it may seem, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, who has turned a blind eye to the ethic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims.

The list goes on.

And let’s not forget, Donald Trump in the USA.

They all claim that they have a mandate and are doing if for the ultimate good of the people.

Foreign policy is even used as tool to promote the local popularist agenda.

The increased US sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea will do nothing to solve the issues. They will however pander to Trump’s electoral base.

The same goes for the right wing Polish government’s demonising of Lech Wałęsa, a pivotal figure in the Solidarity movement.

And now, Erdoğan is encouraging the Turks, living in Germany, to vote against Angela Merkel because of her opposition to his draconian measures.

History has also had its fair share of those seeking the popular vote.

Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Tito in Yugoslavia, Franco in Spain. And more recently Frank Bainimarama in Fiji.

They are just a few who have come to power with a popularist agenda. Which usually involves marginalising some part of their society.

Then there are the countries that have tried to avoid popularist politics by holding a referendum on divisive issues.

That didn’t all go well for the Conservatives in the U.K.  Now they have Teresa May and Brexit to contend with.

There’s also trouble in the UK, north of the border, with Scotland wondering how they will survive when they are out of the EU.

Closer to home we have Malcom-in-the-Middle wondering what to do with an ex PM who seems to want to grab onto the popularist mantle and do a Lazarus, back to the top spot.

Abbott is also playing a sly hand with branch politics within the Liberal Party – some might even call it ‘branch stacking’.

All this back room politicking is happening in Australia, while housing is becoming unaffordable, infrastructure needs replacing, banks and aged care facilities are screwing their customers, climate change and aboriginal rights are being politicised, and farmers are being sidelined by the supermarket chains.

Now same sex marriage has gone to a postal vote, because the politicians don’t have the guts to have a ‘conscience vote’.

Basically no one is looking to the future.

The collective eyes are most definitely off the ball.

Many Australians seem to share my view about the demise of the current political system.

According to research, commissioned by the Museum of Australian Democracy in 2016, satisfaction with democracy has halved over the last decade.

The same research also found that federal governments, of any persuasion, were incapable of solving current issues.

The Athenians, led by Cleisthenes, established the first democracy in 508 to 507 BC.

Democracy has always been considered as the answer for social justice and equality. A system that allows all members to have equal say and power. (However this form of ancient democracy did exclude women, slaves, men under 20, foreigners and non-land owners.)

The Greek meaning of democracy is ’the rule of the people’

Popularists polarise and try to convince the electorate that only they have the answers.

If you’re not with them, you are the enemy of the people and therefore against everything that they believe is ‘good and just’.

Articulation is the answer, the ability to convince people that there are alternatives.

Not a popularist way but a way forward – one that delivers benefits to all of society.

Not policy on the run at 120 character bursts of incongruity.

There is hope and it comes from North America, Europe and across the ditch in New Zealand.

Emmanuel Macron in France, Justin Trudeau in Canada and Jacinda Ardern in NZ are offering sane, sensible and rational alternatives.

They are seen as a ray of hope, in a world of turmoil.

It will come down to how well these young, new wave, politicians can articulate their vision for the future.

Let’s hope that more politicians can move their countries forward, not just push their own agendas.

This will only happen if they can get society involved in the debate and participate in the decision making.

Then democracy may yet survive.

Will tourists kill tourism?

August 28th, 2017
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Dubrovnik, 2012

Tourists, in major tourist sites around the world, are starting to isolate the locals.

This is not a good sign for tourism.

I have recently read articles that describe how cities such as Barcelona, Venice and Florence have become such a draw card for tourists, that the locals are being displaced.

With the expansion of a globalised middle class, more people have the opportunity to travel.

This creates inherent problems.

The more travellers there are, the more places they need to stay and the more places they need to eat.

Last year 17 million tourists visited Barcelona. That’s more than two thirds of Australia’s population.

Airbnb and even the mainstream hotel booking sites like bookings.com are clamouring for accommodation. This has the effect of forcing up prices, which in turn disadvantages the local rental and buyer market.

Restaurants within the heart of the cities tend to ‘dumb down’ their offering in order to cater for a broader market. As a result restaurants serving up local cuisine are forced to move out of the central city areas.

Try finding authentic Catalan food in the tourist areas of Barcelona or German food in the centre of Berlin or Frankfurt.

You’ll more than likely be offered pizza, pasta or hamburgers.

Another contributing factor to the boom in tourism is expansion of the cruise market.

Mega ships, with the capacity to hold more than 6,000 passengers are descending on the major ports.

When we arrived in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, we were surprised by the number of tour groups that were wandering around the old city.

We were frustrated by how long it took us to negotiate through the crowds to get to our apartment. This crowd came from just two of the regular size cruise ships that dock at Tallinn, every day over summer.

Just imagine how the locals feel.

The more the locals are disenfranchised by the tourist industry the more tourists will become alienated from the destinations.

Especially if the the locals become aggressive, which has happened in Catalunya and the Basque regions of Spain.

We experienced this anger first hand in 2012, when a tyre on our leased Renault was slashed when we were at traffic lights in Naples.

We were on red French tourist plates.

Tourists behaving badly is another issue that puts them at odds with the sites and the locals.

Just recently a British museum at Prittlewell Priory, in Southend-on-Sea, had an 800 year old stone coffin damaged by tourists.

The happy wanderers thought that it would be a great photo opportunity to place their child in the coffin and take a snap.

The ancient walled city of Dubrovnik is actually considering limiting the number tourists they take.

The city has always been a must see on the tourist hit list, but now that it has a staring role in Game of Thrones, as King’s Landing, it’s become even more popular.

This summer, Dubrovnik will have been invaded by a flotilla of 538 cruse ships, delivering 750,000 of its two million visitors.

Another, and very worrying factor, is the threat of terrorist attacks.

As we have seen recently in Barcelona, tourists, not just locals, have now become the target of the jihadists.

The larger the tourist crowds the more vulnerable they become.

Major cities like London, Paris, Florence, Rome and Barcelona may be put on the ‘no go’ list by the tourists themselves.

Internal politics is yet another factor.

Egypt’s tourist industry has almost been wiped out, as a result of the domestic conflict during the Arab Spring of 2011. People were too afraid of being caught up in the violence to visit one of the world’s premier destinations. They felt that the risk was too great, even to see the Great Pyramid of Giza – they still won’t travel there.

Turkey has its own issues with the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his nationalistic political agenda. The more he isolates Turkey from Europe, the more tourists will become isolated from Turkey. In the worst scenario, this alienation could turn to violence.

Once tourists are specifically attacked then the results for major destinations will be devastating.

One outcome, of this growing antagonism towards large numbers of tourists, is that lesser known destination might become more attractive.

As we have seen on our travels through Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, these places have a lot to offer. Countries like Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania might ultimately be the winners.

However I do hope that they don’t get overrun.

The Slovakian and Polish national summer pastime.

July 30th, 2017

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We have just spent about three weeks in Slovakia and Poland, travelling to both the big cities and out-of-the-way places.

One thing that struck us was the amount of ice cream that’s consumed in both these countries.

Eating ice cream is gender and age neutral and seems to happen at anytime of the day or night.

Families do it, teenagers do it, older people, office workers and even tradies do it.

Here are some of the people I snapped – doing it.

Whatever happened to service?

June 30th, 2017

This is where the service has gone

Ever since the post Second World War boom in consumerism, the customer has always been placed first in the US.

“The customer is always right”, was the catchphrase

Now, “Put profit first”, takes that mantle.

Auto manufacturers lost the plot in Detroit during the 80s by building cars they wanted, and ignored their customers needs. Now the service industry has done the same.

Service appears top of mind when you are in restaurants and hotels but it’s very far from reality.

Everything is done for the convenience, and profit, of the establishment, not for the benefit of the customer.

If you don’t order enough you’re frowned upon. At the Biltmore Estate we were literally scowled at for not ordering a full meal each. Thea had a side-salad and soft drink and I had a coffee, as I don’t usually eat lunch.

Their issue was the bigger the bill the greater the tip and we therefore didn’t warrant the effort.

In most Brewpubs we visited in the eastern US, you couldn’t carry your bill from the bar to the restaurant. Why? Both the bar staff and the ‘wait staff’ need to have their separate tips.

The same happens at the end of a shift. You are rushed to finish your meal so the staff can close your account and get the tips earned during their shift.

This isn’t about you, but all about the staff making tips and the restauranteur making profit.

The tipping regime is out of control.

Most ‘wait staff’ get the standard rate of $2.13 per hour – this is below the poverty line. They ultimately hope to make about $25 per hour, which comes from tips.

In effect you are paying their wage, not their employer.

Most restaurants include a ‘suggested tip’ on your bill this starts at 18% and goes as high as 35%.

Then taxes are included before the tip is calculated.

Your hotel room won’t get serviced, unless you ask. There are no longer, ‘Please clean my room’ hangers to put on the door.

The excellent concept of not changing sheets and towels every day has been extended to no service at all. Beds aren’t made, floors aren’t vacuumed, even the bathroom isn’t cleaned.

This has nothing to do with the environment, they do this to cut down on staff.

Everything is plastic and disposable.

Most cafés don’t offer anything but disposable cups, plates and cutlery, which you are expected to clear away when you are finished. However the counter staff still expect a tip.

The cost of the disposable crockery and cutlery is offset by not having to employ staff to clear tables and wash dishes, at $2.13 per hour.

Again the customer loses out.

At breakfast, In most hotels and motels, even the milk for your coffee only comes in half pint (236ml) containers.

Most people only use a fraction of the contents, the rest goes in the bin.

In effect service has gone into the trash, along with everything else.

Graduation Day.

May 27th, 2017

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“There’s a time a for joy

A time for tears

A time we’ll treasure through the years

We’ll remember always

Graduation day”

‘Graduation Day’ was a hit single for the Four Freshmen in 1956 and then covered by the Beach Boys in 1964.

The version by the Beach Boys is the one I remember best.

We had come to New York for Steph’s graduation and had no idea what to expect.

Graduations aren’t that big a deal in Australia and both Hayden and Even had missed theirs entirely.

Steph had just completed a two years Masters at Columbia University Teachers College (TC).

My vision, probably developed from 1960s US sitcoms, was of students, dressed in black academic gowns, throwing their mortar boards in the air at the conclusion of the ceremony.

There was much more to it than that.

My first big surprise was that the Columbia graduates didn’t wear a black gown, but sky blue.

The celebrations and presentations went on for three days. There were welcome drinks for the International Students and their families and friends on one night. This was followed the next day by the Masters presentation, called the Convocational, at St John the Divine. It was preceded by a light lunch and followed by a dessert of strawberries dunked in chocolate and chocolate chip cookies.

The following day was the ‘big one’.

It was called the ‘Commencement of 2017′ celebrations, however it was really the conclusion of the 2017 academic year.

It was attended by a crowd of over 30,000 guests and students, sitting in the hot sun, with most having no shade, not even a hat. That is apart from those clever people who improvised with headwear made from the Columbia newspaper.

It was huge.

It took close to two hours for everyone to be seated and the academic staff to parade in.

The speeches, awards and confirmation of degrees took another few hours.

Finally, when it was all over, I waited for the mass mortar board toss.

It didn’t really happen.

The biggest surprise to me was the tone of the speakers.

Without every mentioning his name ‘The Donald’ and his administration was put down in every conceivable way.

The President of Columbia, Lee C Bollinger, led the charge by reminding the graduates that they would always remember the graduation of 2017 as a dark year in the history of the US.

Another fascinating part of the event was discovering the history, and culture, of the Teachers College.

The Teachers College was founded in 1887 by Grace Hoadley Dodge. Today it has over 90,000 alumni in 30 countries.

It was the world’s first Teachers College and incorporated the study of educational psychology and educational sociology. It was also mindful of the vast number of immigrants entering the US and tried to incorporate their special needs in the teacher training. The founders insisted that ethics and the nature of ‘good society’ should also be a part of the curriculum.

No wonder both the college and the university are at odds with the Washington administration.

I do love a good line. 

April 30th, 2017

Brunswick-Bitter-coasters

With the current trend of thinly spreading advertising budgets across all the media, good ads and good headlines, are hard to find.

So when I sighted this great line on the side of a Thunder Road Brewery delivery truck, it was a little ray of sunshine in a thunder grey sky of mediocrity.

And it’s very clever.

The craft beer market prides itself on being anti-establishment. So, to subtlety put down a main stream brand like Carlton Draught with humour, makes it all the more praise worthy.

My favourite Africans.

March 31st, 2017

There are so many more animals to see in Africa than just the ‘Big Five’.

Sure the lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalos might kill you but there are others that have their own intrinsic character, beyond their ability to take your life.

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Giraffes for their pure beauty and elegance. 

The supermodel of the animal kingdom with their extremely long neck and legs, as well as their come-hither eyes.

Measuring between 4.3 and 5.7 metres in height, they’re the tallest living terrestrial mammal.

They are most vulnerable to predators when drinking, as they have to spread their legs in order to get down to water level.

Currently there are believed to be six species of giraffe. The West African, Rothschild’s, Reticulated, Masai, Angolan and South African.

Their habitat ranges from Chad in the north to South Africa in the south and Niger in the west to Somalia in the east.

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Warthogs for their character. 

The ugly comedian – a combination of Marty Feldman and Rowan Atkinson.

The common warthog is a wild member of the pig family with a head and body length ranging from 0.9 to 1.5 metres and shoulder height from 63.5 to 85 centimetres.

With a disproportionately large head, two formidable tusks, steel wool for hair and skin that’s like extra course sandpaper, they are neither graceful nor beautiful.

Due to their short necks and relatively long legs they kneel on their front legs when they eat.

I am so taken by the warthog that I was given a pottery one for my birthday. It’s a very flattering representation of a truly ugly animal – it has pride of place in our living room.

There are four subspecies, the Nolan Warthog, Eritrean Warthog, Central African Warthog and Southern African Warthog.

They are found all over central and southern Africa.

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Hyraxes for their cuteness.

They seem to love life and enjoy just mucking about.

Hyrax have a number of nom de plumes and are also known as Dassies or Rock Rabbits. They measure between 30 and 70 centimetres in length and weigh between 2 and 5 kilograms.

They are closely related to elephants and dugongs but look more like a rodent. There are four species, the Rock Hyrax, Yellow-spotted Rock Hyrax, Western Tree Hyrax and the Southern Tree Hyrax.

They can be found across Africa and the Middle East.

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Hornbills for their annoyance factor.

If their squark didn’t wake us up pre-dawn, then the banging on the window did.

They vary in length from 30 centimetres to 1.2 metres and are characterised by a huge, often brightly coloured, bill and strong neck (all the better to bang on the window with).

There are about 55 species ranging from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent to the Philippines and Solomon Islands. There are 25 species found in Africa.

The hornbill is the most travelled of my favourite Africans – a true tourist.

Along the Garden Route, Port Elizabeth
to Cape Town, South Africa.

February 10th, 2017

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Day 1, November 11: Port Elizabeth to Tsitsikamma National Park.

The weather had certainly changed for the cooler as we commenced our trip west, from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town.

The change wasn’t just in the temperature, as everything else seemed very different to what we had become used to in other parts of Southern and Eastern Africa.

The roads, shopping centres and housing were much more western and white faces much more evident.

And the internet worked.

We drove into Jeffreys Bay, the home of Supertubes, one of the world’s most famous surf breaks. It was made even more notorious when Mick Fanning was nearly taken by a Great White in the opening moments of the 2015 J-Bay Open.

Remarkably he returned to the competition in 2016 and won.

A drive along the shopping strip at Jeffery’s Bay is like being in Torquay, Anglesea or Lorne. There are surf shops, cafes and all forms of associated surf culture.

Brands like Billabong, Rip Curl and Quicksilver were all there.

It’s a pity they’re not Australian any more.

Continuing westward on the N2, past Storms River Gorge, our next stop was Tsitsikamma National Park to see the Grootboom or Big Tree. This massive yellowwood is believed to be around a thousand years old: about the time of the Norman conquest of England.

We spent the entire drive, from Port Elizabeth to Tsitsikamma, listening to Leonard Cohen.

It was November 11, 2016, the day we heard of his passing.

Thea, Hayden, Evan and I were great fans. Leonard’s music was often heard in our house and it played a big part in the soundtrack of our lives.

Our accommodation in Tsitsikamma was within the park and yet again we got given the honeymoon chalet.

What is going on?

The bonus wasn’t the king-size bed or the spa but the spectacular views. The accommodation consists of chalets and camp sites, all of them have sea views. However the ‘honeymoon’ chalet had a particularly good position with 180° views of the Indian Ocean crashing into South Africa.

 

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Day 2, November 12: Tsitsikamma National Park to Plettensnerg Bay.

We had planned to do the 3.5 hour Waterfall Walk in Tsitsikamma National Park.

That was cut short by rain.

The rain wasn’t so much the problem, but rather the rocks we had to scramble over to get there, became very slippery.

Tsitsikamma National Park covers about 80 kilometres of coastline and is a popular destination for visitors travelling along the Garden Route.

It was spring in South Africa and the wildflowers were in bloom.

We came across three Giant Green African Grasshoppers mating. Another sure sign that spring was in the air.

As the rain came down, I could hear our raincoats laughing at us from the back seat of the car – stupidly we had decided not to take them.

There was nothing left to do but to return to the visitor’s centre and console ourselves with a cup of coffee.

Then the sun came out.

Plan ‘B’ was to go on the Suspension Bridge Walk. This was very crowded but at least there was a boardwalk for the entire journey and no rocks to worry about.

When we returned to the visitor’s centre there was a group of Hyrax playing on the lawn.

They are very comical animals and seem to love life.

 

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Day 3, November 13: Plettenberg Bay.

We were told that very little is open on a Sunday night at Plettenberg Bay, but lunch is always available.

We decided to spend the morning at Birds of Eden free fight sanctuary. This was only a 25 minute drive away, so there would be time to visit before lunch.

It’s the largest single dome, free flight sanctuary in the world, inhabited by African species as well as birds from all over the world.

Many of the birds have been rehabilitated. We even spotted a galah called Rosie who had been rescued – in fact all the parrots in Birds of Eden are ex-pets.

Our lunch was at Equinox, a short walk from Swallow’s Nest, our guest house in Plettenberg Bay.

It was a contemporary restaurant, with great staff and excellent decor.

The food was very good as well.

If you’re a tourist in South Africa, it’s great value for money. We had a four course Sunday lunch for A$15 per head.

The bar prices for wine is also very inexpensive, with the average bottle costing around A$15.

Craft beer is again very reasonable, with a bottle of King’s Blockhouse IPA only costing A$4.

Equinox was right on Plettenberg Bay overlooking a large swell. Late in the afternoon a couple of surfers arrived and attempted to tame the waves. When the surfers left the birds moved in and then the Dolphins.

 

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Day 4, November 14: Plettenberg Bay to Knysna.

Unseasonable wet weather in the Western Cape kept us confined to short trips, or indoors.

It wasn’t a long drive from Plettenberg Bay to Knysna, our next stop. We therefore had time to do a bit of housekeeping.

Thea’s nails were in need of major reconstruction and my hair was looking rather scraggy.

The last cut was in Zanzibar.

I was told that the ‘Cutter’ was due in the salon soon.

A hour and a half later he turned up.

It was a Monday morning and I think he had slept in after a hard Sunday night. That’s if the energy drink he was downing was anything to go by.

This part of the drive would continue on The Garden Route, along the famous Route 62, and then onto Stellenbosch and the Winelands.

‘Coffee culture has come to the Western Cape.’ Well that was the theme in one of the many magazine articles I read while waiting for my haircut.

Knysna is on a narrow bay, fed by the Knysna River and surrounded by hills.

We were in Paradise, literally, as this was the name of the suburb we were staying in.

Before checking into Hamilton Manor, our guest house, we did a short circuit around the area.

Noetzie Beach in the Pezula Private Estate is a very weird place.

We had to drive for several kilometres, on dirt roads, to get there and our only access was to Noetzie Beach. The rest of the area was enclosed in electrified fences and large gates covered in razor wire.

The reason for the security are the ‘castles’ dotted throughout the the peninsula.

These are stately holiday homes, designed to look like stone castles, using the local rock and complete with turrets.

The strange thing is, that along the stretch of Noetzie Beach we could get to, they were sitting next to fibro-cement beach houses.

Quite a contrast.

Our next diversion was to Knysna Heads, the narrow opening to Knysna Bay.

On one side of the heads is a viewing area and housing while the other side is the Featherbed Private Nature Reserve.

The Southern Cape coastline is truly spectacular, with rugged rocks and a pounding Indian Ocean.

Parking is a strange affair in South Africa.

There are very few parking metres and the locals seem to control who parks where, for how long and at what cost.

There are official parking people or ‘car guards’ and they have a high-vis vest and identification to prove their authenticity.

Then there are the opportunists, who believe that there is money to be made by ‘pretending’ to be a parking official.

They may have a vest, of sorts, and no identification. They appear from nowhere, as soon as you approach a parking spot, and offer to “Watch your car, boss?”

For two reasons we decided to pay most of the people, official or not.

Firstly, in the hope that our car would be looked after and secondly, and more importantly, to give some money to the locals.

The suggested parking fee is somewhere between 20 and 50 cents Australian, so it wasn’t going to break the bank and it’s cheaper than parking metres.

 

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Day 5, November 15: Knysna to Oudtshoorn.

We drove along the N9 and then over the Outeniqua Pass and into Oudtshoorn, the Ostrich capital of the world.

We drove through the pass three times. All the best lookout points are on the right hand side, as you climb up through the pass, heading north from George. They are inaccessible from the left of the road, so we had to double back and then come down. Then of course we had to go through the pass again in order to get to Oudtshoorn.

There were two ostrich feather booms in South Africa, one between 1865 and 1870, the other between 1900 and 1914. The start of WW1 caused of the last boom to collapse. Fashion was the driver behind both booms and the price of the feathers soared. At one point during the first boom the value, per pound, of ostrich feathers equated to that of diamonds.

The town was named after Baron Pieter van Oudtshoorn, who became Governor of the Dutch Cape Colony 1772.

The town is full of grand old colonial homes, called ‘feather palaces’ that were built by the wealthy ostrich farmers, known as ‘feather barons’. There are also some magnificent public buildings such as the 1907 CP Nel Museum building and the NG Moedergemeente (Dutch Reformist Church) completed in 1879.

All signs of Oudtshoorn’s past glory.

There are similarities between cities in Australia such as Adelaide, Ballarat and Bendigo with Oudtshoorn. The difference is that Oudtshoorn made is wealth from feathers, not gold.

Parking was a different experience in Oudtshoorn. We arrived in the town just before lunchtime and decided to visit the museum first.

The temperature was on the rise again and there was no one around so we parked our car right out the front.

After touring the museum we walked a short distance to a cafe so Thea could get some lunch and I could get a coffee. When we returned to the car there were a few very dishevelled looking chaps hanging around the vehicles.

They made no attempt to even look like car guards and still expected me to pay for their protection, even though they had just turned up.

This lot went empty handed.

Craft beer, as well as barista coffee, is becoming very popular along the Garden Route.

I discovered Kango, a local craft brewery making a Larger and an IPA. Both are naturally brewed, the IPA was cloudy and both were very drinkable.

We had dinner at a local Italian/African, fusion restaurant.

The food was good, the wines inexpensive and the bill, so low that you wonder how its possible to make and serve a meal for that price.

What we didn’t know was that November was high season and the restaurants were full. We were told by our host to book in advance if we wanted a good one.

At the current prices I’m not surprised that many people are eating out.

 

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Day 6, November 16: Oudtshoorn to Hermanus.

This was going to be the longest drive on our trip.

We left Oudtshoorn at 10am and planned to have a coffee break on the way.

In Barrydale we discovered Diesel and Créme, a very funky cafe and western style bar serving good coffee, craft beer and an interesting menu.

It was in an old motor workshop and decorated with a eclectic selection of memorabilia, much with an automotive theme.

Very fitting being on Route 62.

Our drive to Hermanus took us over the Tradouws Pass on the R324. Again we drove both ways through the pass, as the only vantage points were on the return journey.

Hermanus is the whale centre of the Western cape and everything is geared to whale watching.

We had a drink at Coco, a very pleasant bar overlooking the Hermanus waterfront.

They even had binoculars on the wall, just in case you spotted a Southern Right Whale – we didn’t see any.

 

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Day 7, November 17: Hermanus to Stellenbosch.

All our accommodation in South Africa, apart from Stormsriver Mouth in the Tsitsikamma National Park, had been in ‘Guest Houses’. These are a fusion between a boutique hotel and a B&B. Many are built in old homes that have undergone extensive renovations to accomodate tourists. We always had an ensuite and the facilities were first class.

They are similar to the ‘Casa Particulares’ in Cuba.

The first recorded guest house was established in 374 AD by St Basil the Great, in Caesarea, (or Kayseri) Cappadocia, Turkey.

There are many benefits of staying in guest houses, such as personalised attention, quietness, lower cost and the food.

A guest house breakfasts was always a good way to start the travelling day.

The Gumtree Lodge in Oudtshoorn, prided themselves on their local produce. At breakfast there was local cheese, cold meats, chutneys and even single origin African coffee. In the evening the owner, Phil Putzel, even ran a little bar serving wine and craft beer, all locally produced.

Running a guest house isn’t without its problems, as we discovered in Hermanus. As we headed to breakfast at the Potting Shed Lodge, we discovered the owner, David, cleaning out the small pond next to the slightly larger swimming pool.

He was looking for a frog.

Apparently its croaking had kept the guests awake for much of the night and they weren’t happy.

On the way to Stellenbosch we made three diversions. The first was to the Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens at Betty’s Bay, then Stony Point to visit the penguins and finally Pringle Bay for coffee.

The botanical gardens is located between the mountains and the sea, with spectacular vistas of both. Then there’s the plants, a stunning array of indigenous flora that was in full bloom, all set in 10 hectares of cultivated gardens. There are about 1,600 plant species in the area, more diverse per unit area than any place on earth. We even discovered a critically endangered Geometric Tortoise wandering across the lawn.

African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguin, due to their donkey-like braying.

They are the only penguin that breeds in Africa and can grow to a height of between 60 and 70cm. They have a distinctive pink gland above their eyes which is used for thermoregulation in the wildly changing temperatures of the southern oceans.

On the way back to the car park we came across a group of young Hyrax playing in the rocks.

At any age Hyrax are very cute.

At Pringle Bay the cafe offered Red Espresso. The waiter couldn’t explain what it actually was but I decided to have a double shot anyway.

It wasn’t coffee.

It’s made from ground Rooibos tea and then prepared in an espresso machine.

It has no caffeine.

Worth a try, but only once.

 

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Day 8, November 18: Stellenbosch.

In Stellenbosch the Hop-on Hop-off wine bus or Vine Hopper is the best way to visit some of the wineries, taste some wine and not get picked up for drink driving.

When we went to book the Vine Hopper we were told that it was full (remember this was November and the height of the tourist season).

Plan ‘B’ was to drive ourselves.

The company soon put on more buses so it was back to ‘A’ again.

The Vine Hopper offer three routes with seventeen wineries open for visitors. It was Friday and the Friday tour takes in the northern wineries – we visited four of them.

The Stellenbosch wine tours was one of the highlights of our South African adventure.

All the wineries we visited offered a unique experience, not just the wine but the ambience and location as well.

We followed the driver’s advice and had the full wine and cellar tour in Bergkelder, then wine tastings in Beyerskloof and Simonsig, followed by lunch in Delheim.

Like everything else we have come across as tourists in South Africa, generosity and value for money were key.

The tastings were a half serve in a full size wine glass. It was your choice how much you drank.

We soon learnt to pace ourselves.

There was no time limit or pressure to buy at any winery. The cost for five wine tastings averaged A$5 and the Vine Hopper bus was A$60 per person.

The bus gave us plenty of time at each location.

Each of the wineries strived to be individual and their marketing reflected this.

Bergkelder was ‘Following nature’s lead’ while Beyerskloof claimed to be ‘The home of Pinotage’. (Pinotage is a uniquely African variety of grape, being a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Hermitage vine stock). Simonsig, who first produced sparkling wine in South Africa was, ‘The Cuvée experience’ and Delheim, being out of town, was ‘Worth the journey’

Our wine regions in Australia, and possibly others around the world, could benefit from how Stellenbosch market their area.

Like the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula, Stellenbosch is close to a major city, Cape Town. Yet they offer a unique ‘wine experience’ with restaurants, accommodation and services all catering to the wine lovers.

Most people don’t do a day trip from Cape Town, to visit the wine region, they come and stay for a night or even two.

Apart from wine and tourism Stellenbosch is a university town and therefore has a thriving alternative culture.

After Cape Town, Stellenbosch is the second oldest European settlement in South Africa. It is situated on the Eerste River and is also known as the ‘City of Oaks’ due to the abundance of the trees that were planted by its founder Simon van der Stel in 1679.

Stel named the town after himself and Stellenbosch means ‘(van der) Stel’s Bush’.

The Dutch were excellent hydraulic engineers, which can be seen in Mill Creek, a canal that’s still runs down the main street.

 

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Day 9, November 19: Stellenbosch to Cape Town.

After a bit of gift shopping in Stellenbosch we headed for Cape Town, the final stop in South Africa.

On the way we drove via the other Cape Wineland towns of Franschhoek and Paarl. We then did a brief tour, circling around Table Mountain, before arriving at the Verona Lodge, our guest house in Cape Town.

We walked down to the V&A Waterfront, as we did every night, and got our first view of Table Mountain.

This 3 kilometre level plateau overlooks, and dominates, the city of Cape Town. It also seems to be a barometer to the local weather. When the ‘tablecloth’ rolls over the top, the winds are strong and the temperatures are cooler and when the mountain is clear, then so is the weather. The tablecloth is caused by orographic clouds that are created when wind rolls up the the mountain from the south-east and runs into cooler air causing the moisture to condense.

Contrary to science, there is also the legend that the tablecloth is caused by a smoking contest between the Devil and Van Hunks, a local pirate. Van Hunks was a prodigious smoker and the contest has been repeated yearly since the early 1700s.

Breaking dishes will be a constant reminder of African restaurants. It happened at least once a night in the majority of restaurants we visited.

If it’s not the crashing of plates, then it is the clatter of cutlery.

The staff, on the whole, have been fantastic but they do have a total disregard for the hardware.

We were told by one waiter, after we heard yet another crash in the kitchen, that a glass has a lifespan of about one week.

 

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Day 10, November 20: Cape Town.

As we do in many cities, we took the Hop-On Hop-Off bus and explored Cape Town. There were four routes covering the city, coast and wine areas.

First we did the city and then the coastal route. The most memorable part of the city route was a drive through District 6. This is an inner suburb of Cape Town that was laid bare during the sixties and seventies. Over 60,000 residents were forcible removed by the apartheid regime in an attempt to stop racial integration.

The place has become a shrine with little development. All that remains now are vacant blocks of land covered in long grass.

After the bus we went walking around Cape Town. This took us past St George’s Cathedral, the Anglican church made famous by Desmond Tutu and his stance against apartheid. The role this church has played in the fight for democracy and the anti apartheid movement has resulted in it now being known as the ‘people’s cathedral’.

Next was the Company Gardens, started by the East India Company in 1652. The gardens were originally planted to provide fresh vegetables to the Dutch trading ships sailing between the Netherlands and the East.

The first wine produced in South Africa came from grapes grown in the garden.

South Africa is a very multi cultural country. Muslims, Malays, Coloureds, Blacks, Whites, Indians and others all form part of the demographic.

But it’s not very equal.

Wherever we travelled there was little sign of a coloured or black middle-class. Admittedly we might have been in the wrong areas but even in the restaurants and bars of the V&A Waterfront there were very few non-whites.

South Africa is also diverse, with a wide variety of cultures, religions, languages and ethnic groups amongst its 52 million people.

According to the 2011 census, Africans make up the majority with 79.2%, Coloured, 8.9%, Whites 8.9%,  Indian and Asian, 2.5%  and Others, 5%

Cape Town has a population of 3.74 million people with the white folk making up 15.7 %, a lot more than the South African average.

It’s no wonder that there seemed to be a lot more white faces there.

In the afternoon we discovered the South African Jewish Museum in Hatfield Street.

The Jewish story in South Africa is an interesting one.

It makes absolute sense that the Jewish community in South Africa played an important role in the dismantling of the apartheid system.

They know a lot about racial discrimination.

Jewish lawyers were the only whites willing to represent the ANC members charged with crimes against the state.

There was even one lone Jewish voice, in the all white parliament, during the apartheid era. Helen Suzman fought for thirteen years, from 1961 to 1974, to give the Blacks equal rights.

 

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Day 11, November 21: Cape Town.

The departure point to Robben Island, at the V&A Waterfront, is known as the Nelson Mandela Gateway – this sums up the tone of the trip.

In many respects it’s all about Mandela.

However the history of Robben Island goes back to the end of the 17th century, when the Dutch used the island as a prison for political prisoners.

The island has also been used as a whaling station, leper colony and quarantine station.

During the Second World War it was fortified and became part of Cape Town’s defences.

Due to wide spread pilfering of artefacts by the tourists, you don’t get much freedom to explore Robben Island. After the 45 minute ferry ride from Cape Town you are met on the Robben Island wharf by an armada of buses. From there you are taken around to the various sites, which you view from your seat on the bus before being taken to the main prison complex.

On the bus the commentary was informative and graphic. So much so that a middle aged African American woman, sitting near us, was reduced to tears after hearing the countless stories of atrocities committed on Robben Island.

The guided tour around the main prison area is given by former prisoners and again they painted a very grim picture of life there.

The highlight for most was seeing Nelson Mandela’s cell – this was his home for 18 years from 1964 to 1982.

This is probably the most photographed site on the island.

 

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Day 12, November 22: Cape Town.

On our final day in Cape Town we planned to go to Table Mountain.

And, as it has been for all our time in the city, luck was with us again.

The tablecloth had cleared, the sun was out and the wind had dropped.

The cable car had only just re-opened, after being closed for over a week due to bad weather.

We booked our tickets online and within an hour we were on the mountain. We even got a rare parking spot metres from the front of the cable car station.

Table Mountain is a constant backdrop to Cape Town. It’s only 1,084 metres high but dominates the city.

The views from the top are stunning.

Our host at the guest house, Sean, suggested that we walk to Maclear’s Beacon on the northern side then take the rim track, on the southern edge, back. It was a great suggestion and we had spectacular views in every direction.

Maclear’s Beacon is a large cairn on the highest point of Table Mountain. It was built in 1865 by the Irish born South African astronomer, Sir Thomas Maclear (1794-1879) to assist in measuring the curvature of the earth.

Our luck continued, as the clouds converged just as we neared the end of our walk.

In the afternoon we drove down to the Cape of Good Hope.

So it seemed, did everyone else.

The placed was packed with bus and car loads of tourist racing to get a snap of themselves in front of the sign post for the Cape.

The Cape of Good Hope is the most south western point in Africa. It’s the spot where ships coming, from Europe, start to travel more eastward than southward.

We then drove to the Cape Point Lighthouse and took the funicular to the top.

The wind was so strong that we had to hold onto the hand rails to stop being blown into the Indian Ocean of even the Atlantic.

We were in Cape Town for four nights and each evening we would walk to the V&A Waterfront for dinner.

It was a pleasant 30 minute walk and there was a huge range of bars and restaurants to choose from.

Getting back to our guest house wasn’t as straight forward, as we had to take a taxi.

There were plenty around but they weren’t allowed to stop and pick-up a fare.

Traffic was controlled by security guards, dressed like real police, they were everywhere.

Actual coppers were nowhere to be seen.

On three occasions we managed to be able to corner a cab, negotiate a price and get in before he was forced to move on.

On our final night guards were again controlling the traffic, this time there were more of them and they had bollards. They were only letting taxis in that were pre booked.

We finally found a rogue driver outside of the control zone and flagged him down.

He explained that the security company and the big taxi groups had joined forces to control the price and keep the independent drivers from working the lucrative tourist areas.

The whole thing smelled of corruption – he wasn’t happy.

He told us that they were charging 100 Rand (A$10) to take the tourists back into the down town area.

This was about a five minute ride.

Our trip with him was about seven minutes and we paid 50 Rand (A$5).

The V&A Waterfront has interesting history, in that the ‘A’ in ‘V&A’ doesn’t stand for Albert, as you might expect. It actually stands for Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria. In 1860, as a 16 year old Midshipman in the Royal Navy, Prince Alfred visited the the Cape Colony and instantly became a hit with the locals. There is even a plaque on the waterfront commemorating the fact that he tipped the first truck of stone for the new waterfront breakwater.

Day 13, November 23 and 24: Cape Town to Melbourne.

It seemed fitting that on the flight from Cape Town to Dubai I watched the David Yates film, The Legend of Tazan. 

It was set in the Congo and nowhere near where we had been, but it was Africa.