Category Archives: Travel

The Joy of Flying


I step from the Gautrain station into the airport and feel a little thrill of joy. A sudden sensation of well-being. I love this airport. The first of the Christmas lights are up. Twists of white lights along each railing, sprinkling the hanger-like space with sparkle.

I don’t have time to pause above the international arrivals area today. If I was here longer, I would. Just to stop for a few minutes and people-watch. It’s my secret joy, the opening scene of Love Actually in real life – meetings, greetings, love and hugs.

Today I trip past, run a quick errand, narrowly avoid a trolley-full of spinach, follow complaining south Americans up the escalator and head for check-in. Not too long to wait. I drop my bag and grab a paper.

Past security, I wonder about a little airport shopping. There was a time when Exclusive Books concluded that domestic departures OR Tambo was my “home” store  because I shopped there more often than anywhere else. They used to send me newsletters about it. No time today.

Past the boarding gate, on the sky-walk, that little thrill of happiness hits again. Up the steps, into the plane, find my window seat – always, for a Cape Town flight, especially. The plane is full but I have an empty seat beside me. I settle down and put my bag away. I’m smiling to myself.

photo-2016-11-11-9-33-14-amThe taxi and the take-off. As we lift into the air, I feel relief. Breaking away from the ground and soaring into the sky. Leaving the earth and its worries behind. I look down on Joburg – green, now the rains have come – until it disappears below drifting clouds.

Raising my eyes, I look up and out. This morning’s thunderstorm clouds. High, wispy ice-crystal clouds. Fluffy-white eiderdown clouds. We rise towards them and I wish were could go faster and be up there among them.

Then we are. Up above the cloud-line, looking out at a world of white and the incredible blue of the sky. I take a deep breathe. I feel my body relax. Below, glimpses of fields and houses still exist through the clouds. Up here we glide soundlessly, the clouds and I.

Somewhere over the Northern Cape, the cloud cover thins and I look down on a real live topographical map. A farm road angles and cuts through dry-looking land. There are a few fields near the road, stretching towards the red-grey-brown dirt. Two streams come together to form a small river that flows away, twisting and turning, into the distance. From up here, the land looks parched. A few minutes later, the earth disappears below the clouds again.


The fields in the Western Cape valleys are dark green and bright yellow and dull brown. The dams lie deep, dark blue. We begin our descent. The mountains grow higher and more majestic and more rugged as we get closer. Each ridge and valley, each farm and field become clearer, sharper. Song lyrics, nostalgic, long-not-thought-about, pop into my head:

Daar’s ‘n dorpie wat ek ken daar tussen die blou berge
En die lower van die eike oor die straat

First sight of the sea and Robben Island in the bay. From my seat on the right side of the plane, I’ve missed the sparkling blue of Gordan’s Bay on approach. Instead – a choice over and over again – the left turn reveal of the spectacular view of Table Mountain.

Durbanville rises towards the top of the hill, green and pretty. Table Bay. Lion’s Head. With an elegant turn, the striking, familiar beauty of the Table Mountain massif itself. A few wispy clouds rest on top, like a table-cloth about to fall off.

Over hostels and compounds and the plane comes in to land. We land with a bump – there is wind out there. The sensation of speed and resistance as we slow.

The grass beside the runway is Cape Town summer-dry. In the distance, from the window of my earth-bound plane, the mountains are green-blue-postcard-picture perfect.

Paris to Rome

A week ago, I woke up in Paris. The idea still makes me smile. I did some work and got organised, then headed down the precarious steps to check out. A quick breakfast of coffee and croissant (and sadness that I can’t do this every day). It had rained in the night and the morning was fresh. It felt more like a European city than the sunshine of the previous day. It was really pretty. I headed off to the meeting that was the official reason I was in Paris. The meeting ended sooner than expected and rather than remain at the office, especially as I had gotten a lot of work done that morning, I headed out again to enjoy Paris just a little bit longer.

I planned just to sit along the marina and enjoy the view, but I found myself walking back towards Notre Dame. I walked along the river, along the Seine, thinking about the history and the way people must have lived in those buildings and the people who lived and who live in those beautiful attic windows.

I didn’t go as far as the Notre Dame – it looked a little dusty and windy, so I decided just to enjoy it from a distance. Instead, I spent a happy 20 minutes picking out souvenirs. Yes, I realise that is terribly touristy but it’s one of the things I really enjoy about travel, choosing something to bring home. Besides, I wanted to remember Paris. My thought over coffee that morning had been that Paris seems an eminently liveable city. I could live here. Not something I normally say about anywhere outside of Africa, and a feeling that should be tempered by what I know about how expensive Paris really is. Still.

I walked back past the Hotel de Ville and along the river. Far below, beside the water, an old man and an old woman sat in garden chairs, she with an umbrella in case it should rain. On the ground between them was bottle of red wine. Oh, to grow old in a city as beautiful and convenient and bohemian as Paris.

The receptionist at the hotel, when I picked up my bags, looked a bit perturbed when I refused her offer to call a cab and instead said I would take the subway back out to the airport, but I had directions from a colleague in the Paris office, so I ignored her dismay. Into the Metro, where a very business-like woman helped me to buy a ticket – I didn’t really need help but I’d gone to the window instead of the machines, where apparently, which I didn’t know, it was only possible to use a card not cash, so she clearly felt I needed to be assisted all the way through the process on the now-English language machine.

Ticket in hand, I set off on the trek to find the right platform. The trains here worry me just a little, with enough light in the tunnel to show the expose wiring and the open doors providing a clear view of the lurching twists in the track and the run-down 70s decor. Such a contrast with the Gautrain. Just a few stops and then a train to the airport. Out of the window, I caught a flash of an old stone building with beautiful flowering wisteria around the wooden, top floor windows.

At the airport, I set off through the maze of passages and eventually found my terminal/gate and settled down with a delicious baguette, trying to ignore the soldiers with large guns who were, for some reason, patrolling the airport. Automatic check-in machines, find the right counter, through security and wander towards the gate. The airport – well, at least the bit I was in with the flights to  Europe, was crowded with people. Small children ran around, parents looked harassed and business travellers looked long-suffering.

photo (765x1024)I was flying to Rome. This was only my second trip ever to Europe. It felt so odd not only to have had the opportunity to explore Paris but now to be heading off to another European capital that has existed, for me, only in stories and pictures. I boarded the plane, realising with a sigh that the person in the seat next to me was a very small (admittedly cute) little girl with brown curly hair and
green, green eyes. Her vociferous objection to the seatbelt subsided once we’d taken off and I settled down to read. A little while later, I looked up and glanced out of my window. Far below, as far as they eye could see, were soaring mountain peaks, white with snow.

We land in Rome and the pilot makes the usual “Please remain in your seats” request. Before we’ve even come to a stop, everyone is up and out of their seats. I let them go – I was in no hurry.

Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport of Rome. Another airport with poor directions and miles and miles to walk. I eventually found the baggage reclaim and then found myself wandering another good 10 minutes to find the train station. I asked for a ticket for Leonardo Express. The woman at the counter took pity on me and said there is a shuttle bus (mini-bus) leaving immediately. I just reached the shuttle in time and sit back, barely noticing the city as we headed towards Rome.

I got out at Termini, the main train station in Rome. The hotel would be nearby but I was nervous of getting lost – I have even less Italian than French and I didn’t trust the map I’ve been sent. The taxi driver I approach, however, was adamant that the place was just 400m up the road. Which is how I found myself lost in Rome with my all bags, at 10 o’clock at night, trying to figure out how I had accidentally misplaced a large, stone church that was supposed to be my landmark.

After wandering around for a while, I spotted some taxis (sitting, as it turns out, in the shadow of the church) and went up to them, determined this time to take a cab. The driver looked at me with pity and pointed to the hotel, across the road and a few buildings up the street.

The man at the hotel handed me the key to room 52 and cheerfully informed me that it was four floors up and no, there was no lift. I was too tired to argue. Not that I’m complaining now – in fact, it was the perfect option – I got to stay in one of those beautiful attic rooms, with double-door shutters opening onto a gorgeous rooftop in Rome.

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Joburg Zoo

It felt good to wear my boots again; to slip into jeans and boots and a loose T-shirt and set off with my camera and my bag. Of course there have been plenty of other places in between but I haven’t set off on a local adventure, an adventure close to home, like this in a long time. It’s how I used to adventure in Korea. The familiar anticipation of discovery coupled with the joy of being outside and walking and being alone. Which is not to say, at all, that I do not enjoy exploring with others, but this is how I first learned to travel alone.

Today wasn’t a complicated adventure. I finally decided to buy a new camera. I’ve been using my cell-phone recently but using a cell-phone as a camera runs down the battery and is rather inconvenient. So I picked up a new camera this weekend. It’s nothing fancy – just the sort of basic camera I like, but I thought I’d better get in a little practice. I’ve also been meaning to do some exploring in Joburg. I have a super-convenient set-up – living within a few minutes of the shops, from where I catch a train to within 5 minutes of work. It’s great, but it means it’s very easy never to leave this comfort zone. And that doesn’t make for very good stories.

So, on Sunday morning, I put on jeans and boots and packed up my camera and set off to the Joburg Zoo. I’d been torn, initially, about whether to go to the Joburg Zoo or the Pretoria Zoo (So much choice!). Pretoria has the added draw-card of possibly, maybe, seeing okapi but there were other things that needed to be done during the day, so the shorter trip to the Joburg Zoo won the day.

It is a short trip – around 15 minutes. I got the bus from the Rosebank Gautrain station at about 10:15. The route goes through Parktown North and then towards Emmerentia and around Zoo Lake. As we rounded the lake, I saw the fountains and people walking around the lake and it looked so much like Suseong Mot (Lake) in Daegu, Korea, that I nearly got off the bus at the next stop and gave up the Zoo entirely. I decided not to, at the last minute, deciding instead to try and visit the lake next weekend. The leaves have begun to change and there is little as lovely as wandering gently around a pretty lake surrounded by autumn trees.

Next stop: the Zoo. The bus stop is on Upper Park Drive, near the main entrance. I joined the queue, wryly aware that everyone else was buying tickets for family groups (“two adults and a baby”) or couples. I didn’t care. Ticket in hand, I went in. Some tourist attractions are well sign-posted. This one was confusing from the start. I bought a map, which helped some, although it was also a little confusing. On a related side-note, what is it that makes the makers of tourist maps assume that people can’t read proper, at-least-vaguely to scale maps, so that they feel compelled to create not to scale pictures that, while pretty and interesting are not actually very helpful?

Not that I should really complain – it doesn’t seem to stop me finding my way around fun places like this. I started with a bored looking gorilla, some lively monkeys and a Howitzer. The Joburg Zoo, as well as backing onto the SA Military History Museum, includes a few moments, one of which is this Howitzer, commemorating the men of the South African Heavy Artillery who fell in the Great War.

Near the canon was one of my favourite spots, the meerkat enclosure. These adorable, if rather unpleasant-smelling creatures may have been the cutest of the day. Although they would have to compete with a red panda who just about turned itself inside out trying to climb down from a tree and a decidedly inquisitive ratel (on the other side of glass – or would’ve been less enchanting).

The Joburg Zoo has a wide range of animals. Some are fairly predictable, especially the big draw-cards like the lions, the rhinos, the hippos and the elephants. Although I imagine most visitors don’t expect to see the female elephant with her lunch on her head – yes, really.

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But there are so many others. From the scimitar-horned oryx and waterbuck to yellow- cheeked gibbons and the laziest of chimps. The yellow-cheeked gibbon pair had a young one, who – delightfully – kept racing along the fence to look at the people before rushing back to his mother. The other gibbon family, white-handed gibbons I think, also had a couple of young ones, one of whom was obliging enough to do that silly gibbon walk. There were also polar bears and brown bears and chimps and cheetahs and zebras and a camel.

But I think my favourite part may have been the birds. There are so very many birds. The wetlands area is home to flamingos and pelicans and so many ducks. Wild loeries and crows and hadedahs add their voices from the trees. Throughout, every pond was populated by beautiful waterbirds. The zoo also has two walk-through aviaries, one which was the quietest, most peaceful part of the day. The trouble with places like zoos, for me, is that they tend to be popular with families with young children, with whom I do not particularly enjoy sharing space and time. The birds, however, hold none of the fascination for small people that elephants and lions do. The second aviary, the Sasol Wing, is home to a range of birds, from parrots and cockatoos, to hornbills, swans, vultures and eagles. I stumbled upon it (again with the poor map) and found myself wandering around the edge, looking into every enclosure and really just enjoying the quiet beauty of birds. This was before I even realised it was possible to go inside. I’m glad I took the time – what a lovely part of the day.

There was another ubiquitous member of zoo life who I’m pretty sure wasn’t there on purpose – squirrels. I didn’t know there were squirrels in Joburg. I always think of them as belonging to the Western Cape. So, I was taken a little bit by surprise when I noticed movement in the grass at the edge of the Nyala enclosure and a squirrel sat up and started eating a nut. I’d not be surprised if they knew there were intruders, too – I swear I saw another, later, trying very hard to pretend it was a duck.

On my way out, I met some black spider monkeys, some ring-tailed coatis and a last few owls, before making my way back to the bus-stop. I know there are people who feel that zoos are cruel just on principle. I don’t agree with them, partly because I’ve met the reality of a creature like the okapi’s natural habitat and recognise that some species will never survive without zoos, partly because of the educational value and partly because I think it is important for humans to be able to spend time around great and tiny beasts. Joburg Zoo has a pretty good selections, but it’s also clear that how well-maintained a specific area is and now well-developed the programme around that animal, depends on the whim of the donors in question, which is not an ideal way to be. I’d like to see them make more effort to keep the whole place up to scratch, from taking a little more care to maintain the polar-bear enclosure to ensuring that the glass windows through which visitors view the animals are clean.

In spite of this, it was a great opportunity to enjoy the animals, to try out the new camera, and just to spend a few hours wandering along tree-lined avenues between ponds and streams and the open-spaces of large animal enclosures.

Joburg Zoo website: Entrance: R61 per adult. Bus trip: R20 each way.