Oh the People you’ll meet..


Funny how you randomly meet people, eh? You are sitting quietly – doing nothing much, and then for some reason someone says something – and you end up in a conversation.

I just spent several hours talking about this, that and the other with Tommy – but as usual – I’m ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning.

I’ve just finished spending a week on the lovely island of St. Croix. Many years ago now I lucked into buying a small condo here, which meet my every objective – it was comfortable, not up too many stairs, and it has a simply magnificent view – nothing between me and the ocean but 40’ of sand and 2 palm trees. It’s heaven. But it also got hit by Hurricane Maria – and I felt obligated to go down and check it out personally. To find out what the island is like now – read my earlier blog. But this blog starts upon leaving the island.

Getting to and from the island, which normally at this time of the year is simple, has become a bit of a challenge. While the airport on St. Croix is open, and mostly in good shape, the airports that feed into the island are in worse shape, and that has complicated matters. Plus the recovery process has actually increased the number of folks arriving and departing from the island – there’s a large (over 2000 passenger) cruise ship docked semi-permanently in Fredericksted, there are the countless FEMA, Corp of Engineers, Red Cross and related personal who have come to aid in the recovery – and there are the folks that have simply decided that living without electricity for 6 weeks is enough – and they want off the island.

All this means that flights are packed, and the airline folks are working with limited technology – power is still on and off, and WIFI that is more hopeful then in fact!

But despite the challenges – I arrived at the airport in good time this afternoon, processed thru check-in, the long wait for border patrol, and finally sat down in the waiting area for my flight to finally board. I ate a decent dinner from the cute snack bar (great Jamaican Patties), and boarded the flight. I’d even settled into my seat and said hi to my seat mates. But then nothing happened. No announcements, no nothing. So we all waited, and waited. Suddenly the pilot is addressing us – explaining that a bird hit the plane during the landing – and the plane has to be checked out before it can take off. Nothing major – it will be just a moment.

A few minutes later he’s back – this time explaining that the bird made a direct hit on the nose cone – which is where all the radar is located, and the equipment need to check the plane isn’t on the island. In fact, it’s not even in Miami. It’s in New York, and they must fly it down. And without this specialized equipment to check that the radar is ok – the plane can not fly. We must de-board and wait for further information.

What follows is pretty much what one would expect of about 200 folks with plans and places to go who suddenly discover that their plans are going to have to change – and change fast.

We all de-board, and cluster around the poor gate agents. The three lovely local ladies are fielding questions – to which they effectively have no answers. Should we leave the airport and wait till tomorrow? Will we be rebooked on the plane tomorrow? Will American find places for us to spend the night if we can’t get off the island?

Quick answers – finding places to stay on the island isn’t going to happen. Too many of the hotels are closed – there’s no options. The pilot gets on the microphone and says – the best option is for American to find us another plane and get us off the island. Otherwise, we are stuck here overnight – the part to check the nose cone can’t make it to the island until tomorrow – at best. However, once in Miami – we’ll be able to figure out what to do with you. But I’m done here – it’s in the hands of the airport folks. With that, he leaves. And we are left sitting in the rather basic waiting area of the St. Croix airport, with no idea what is going to happen.

Exactly Where does our now ‘disappeared’ pilot think American is planning on finding a plane?

I’m no fool – I’m on the phone to American – please rebook me – I won’t make my flight to Louisville, KY tonight – make reservations for the first flight out of Miami tomorrow morning please.

Meanwhile, some people start to leave – but then the airport manager grabs the microphone to announce – STOP – don’t leave. American has found a plane in San Juan and it’s on it’s way here. You’ll board at 8:00 PM – and spend the night in Miami. There are hotels there – and American will put you up.

Ok – now we at least know what is going on – so we must sit and wait for the new plane to get here. Thank goodness I already have my flight arranged for tomorrow. I just don’t trust American (or any airline for that matter) to make those arrangements in a timely fashion. Nah – they will wait, and I’ll be stuck with lousy options.

While I’m waiting for the replacement jet to arrive, I call the hotel I’d organized for tonight – only to find out that I’d actually organized it for Monday night. Well, that’s a relief. Guess I knew something would go wrong… (nah – it was a lucky oops – that’s all).

All this organized, there is nothing to do but sit and wait. So I sit. Behind me are two guys talking about the shuttle from their cruise ship. I’m intrigued – and turn to chat.

Tommy – the young man closest to me – is a Stand Up Comedian. (No seriously – check him out at TommyDrake.com – he’s famous!) He works the cruise ship circuit for Carnival – 3 days on one boat, then 2 days on another boat, a few days off – and repeat. His friend runs the Guest Services function – and at first our conversation revolves around issues related to Guest Services.

Some of the issues are exactly the same as what I face – guests who have an issue, say insects or a broken DVD player, and simply don’t tell you. Or worse – only tell you via the guest book – or an on-line review. What gives – let me know what your issue is, and I’ll fix it. Why would it be a good idea to keep this stuff a secret? But then our conversation gets interesting. Like my guests – their guests are on holiday – and sometimes, that’s an invitation to behave badly. Traveling in multi-generation groups is particularly challenging – as we all know, and apparently getting on a cruise ship (or staying in a condo) doesn’t solve them!

On to happier topics, the guys go on to explain how the cruise system works – their boat is based out of San Juan, and they were on the most Southernly part of their trip when the hurricanes ran roughshod over the islands. This caused the ship to divert – landing most of the guests in Miami rather than San Juan. Naturally – some guests were really upset over this unexpected change of plans. Then they took several trips out of ports in Florida before FEMA hired the boat to provide housing for their staff in St. Croix. So now they are semi-permanently docked in Fredericksted, and providing ‘hotel’ rooms for FEMA, Red Cross, Corp of Engineers, etc. They are also providing entertainment – Hence the Comedian. There are over 500 Comedians who work for Carnival – rotating around ships so that the shows stay fresh for the guests.

And there’s a morgue on ship. With 2000 guests, 1000 crew – it’s a small city, and in a small city people die. And statistically because of the age issue (more cruisers are more older), deaths are more likely. Apparently, the per diem on a cruise ship competes with the per diem in a fancy full care facility – and it looks and smells a lot nicer! So there are folks who literally live on board ship. Maybe changing ships occasionally – or visiting family for a week or so – but effectively they are spending their retirement in a full care, luxury environment, with wait staff that know their names, porters who cater for their every needs – and nightly entertainment. Sounds like it might get a bit boring, but I can totally see why this solution would be super appealing.

Several topic shifts later, and we’re talking about being a Stand-up Comedian. Turns out that Tommy was the opening act for some major performers – including Cher. And he’s met Beth Middler among others. Must be an interesting life, eh? He tells me about after hour parties – for Cher they included bowling and going to the movies – but of course you don’t just go to the movies – you rent the entire theatre. I ask about private jets – but Tommy tells me that actually most of their travel – for the 3 years he was with Cher – were by bus. Very very fancy buses with lots of tiny bedrooms for the staff, but buses just the same.

We continue to chat – he talks about how he has to generate new material frequently – and can never be too overtly political today. Best topics are things we can all appreciate – like the issue of families divided along political lines. Some jokes have long lives, other jokes (like ones about the Hurricanes) were ‘old’ within a few weeks. Interesting, and not even close to anything I’ve ever talked about with anyone else. We chat about his ‘blog’, originally started long before the word ‘blog’ came along – it’s really his on-line journal. You can check out here: http://www.tommydrake.com/blog

Our time together has simply flown by – and the gate agents suddenly announce that our airplane as arrived from San Juan and boarding will begin immediately.

I say a fond goodbye to my fellow travellers – it’s been a fascinating 3 hours – but now it’s time to head on to Miami.

Frankly – I can’t wait!

Signing off to head on another adventure – The Soup Lady

Sugar Beach Update – Or After the Hurricane..


Hurricane Irma – followed closely by Hurricane Maria dealt the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico a severe One/Two punch. And the islands are all still reeling from having two – count’m two – Cat 5 Hurricanes come to visit.

I am fortunate enough to own not one, but two lovely condos on the island of St. Croix. It’s one of the 3 sister islands that make up the US Virgin Islands. We’ve been the property of the US since 1917, when concern with our military importance prompted the US to buy us from Denmark.

St. Croix is, by island standards, a large island. We have a population of around 35,000 – more when it’s winter in the rest of the US, although our weather doesn’t change that much. It’s pretty much 85 degrees year round here – with some rainy months when the cisterns get filled, and some dryer months when we use up the water. Our population is stable, hard working folks who count themselves lucky to live in Paradise. You just ask them and they will tell you – this is heaven, and we know it.

But back to that one-two punch. How did my beloved island fare under what can only be described as disaster conditions. And I’m proud to say – pretty well! I came down to check things out a week ago, and I’ve driven around the island from one end to the other – watching the line crews working hard to get electricity back up. There are still lots of places without power, and lots of places without gas, and lots of places without functioning WIFI or cell service – so things aren’t perfect yet – but the progress is visible.

Our roads – awesome by Montreal standards to begin with – are now in much worse shape in places. The main roads are generally fine, but I found some potholes you really don’t want to hit on some of the ‘back’ roads. Current Island advice – if you haven’t driven that road in daylight – don’t drive it at night. Good advice that.

After Maria left to pick on Puerto Rico, she left behind downed everything. Telephones were broken like match sticks, and even 6 weeks later you can see the remnants of poles that were dragged out of the roadways and left lying as mute witnesses to the devastation. There are transformers sitting next to downed wires – mostly telephone wires now. There are piles of what were once tin roofs neatly gathered at the side of the road. And there are branches.

It’s pretty interesting to see the quantity of dead branches that have been carefully stacked almost everywhere. There are no big trees on our island – but there are lots and lots of bushy trees – and these are the dead branches that had to be cleaned up. Fences were torn apart – right off their posts in some cases, and now they hang as forlorn and ineffectual property protection.

Some buildings fared a whole lot better than others, and I’m quite sure that there will be a lot of conversations among homeowner associations – why did the ocean front section of Colony Cove lose their entire roof, and why did Sugar Beach suffer so little physical damage. Even how Hurricane Shutters were attached seems to have made a significant difference. I had one real estate agent explain that at one nearby property, some hurricane shutters were attached to the outside of balconies, while other shutters were attached to the inside. Outside ones were ripped off – taking pieces of wall with them. Inside ones suffered little to no damage.

With the high winds came a lot of water – and in the early days after the storm there were lots of pictures of flooding. But flooding isn’t the only water problem. At Sugar Beach, the water torrents ran down our driveway and across our beach toward the sea. And they took a lot of our sand with them. There are huge gullies where before there was flat beach. And the tidal surge, which fortunately stopped short of the buildings themselves – also took out a lot of our beach. Palm trees have their roots exposed, and that’s a problem. The trees will die sooner or later – and I’m hoping that someone is working on a plan to get those roots undercover.

In Christiansted – which actually suffered very little damage – the flood waters overwhelmed the drain water system – and even 6 weeks after the disaster, we could still find places where water pipes must have been broken and sewer lids forced off. While we’ve been on the island, I’ve been watching these places – and the crews are going one by one to get them fixed and back in ‘business’. The plan island wide is to be totally up and ready to rock by Christmas – and I have no doubt this is going to happen.

For folks living here – it’s been a time of great challenges. We take having electricity for granted – even when it goes out, we naively assume it will be back shortly. But shortly turned out to be weeks and months here. Some folks have been told that it could even be spring before they are hooked to the grid.

The problems aren’t simple to solve either. Almost every telephone pole on the island was damaged – and they have had to import 42,000 telephone poles by barge from the US Mainland. And there aren’t enough lineman on the island to handle a job of this size – so NY State sent down by barge dozens of their trucks with their crews. We’ve seen them all over the island – gradually rebuilding the infrastructure. And consider the challenge. You must remove the old pole, re-dig the hole for the new pole, put the new pole in place, and then re-attach the electric wires. As far as I can tell – they are not even touching the phone lines. Those cables are still mostly dangling lose, or laying in coiled snakes on the ground.

The lack of ‘land lines’ has created an interesting problem for some of the re-opening businesses. If you accepted credit cards by internet (like K Mart), you are ok. But if you used a land line to do the credit card transaction – you are suddenly a cash only business. And that has put pressure on banks and ATM’s to provide a flow of cash for which they were not prepared. We’ve seen line ups a dozen folks long at some banks, yet the ‘pay’ ATMs are no problem. But we did find ourselves choosing dinner restaurants by their ability to accept credit cards, and one of our favourite grocery stores isn’t getting our business – they are cash only.

There is an entire alphabet soup of aid workers here – FEMA, Corp of Engineers, Red Cross, etc. There are NGO groups as well – including Doctors Without Borders. Last weekend they were giving free insulin shots to those in need, today I ran into a sign-language interpreter who told me how critical his team is to the operation. Because TVs are effectively ‘off’ for many on the island, the only source of information is the radio. And that’s an auditory medium. So if you can’t hear – you have no idea what is going on, where to go for help, or even what kind of help is being provided. And for many of the folks thus impacted – there is a decided fear of IRS. So his first job is to reassure folks that he’s not IRS, and his next job is to find out what kind of help they might require.

When I at the airport, waiting on my out-bound flight, I ran into some of the crew from the huge cruise ship that has been semi-permanently docked at Fredericksted. It’s been ‘booked’ by FEMA to provide housing, and apparently other facilities, not meals and entertainment. They said that they are locked in until February, although they were also sure that the island will be ready to rock by Christmas. Interesting, eh? We covered a lot of other topics as well – you might want to check out my next blog.

But despite the hardships, the lack of electricity, the cost of generators and fuel, there is still a feeling of optimism here. Folks are determined to get back on their feet – and the current word is back to normal for 90% by Christmas. Schools have re-opened, albeit with staggered hours to make it easier for kids to get around, and the curfew has been officially lifted. Tourists are finally returning to the island, boats are taking folks out to SCUBA dive, and fisherman are back to catching Wahoo for dinners at the restaurants. I was very relieved to find that one of my favourite ‘designer’ houses even had a party to celebrate their 20th year in business this weekend.

What does the island need now? Time and Tourists willing to understand that while the beaches are yet to be restored to their former glory – the ocean rolls on relentlessly, the seagulls and pelicans continue to soar and wheel above the waves, the sun sets, the moon rises – and life on this beautiful island goes on.

Please come. We want to see you!

Signing off to go spend some more money on the island – The Soup Lady

Pick Up Partners – or Exactly why am I doing this?


I decided about 18 months ago that I would learn to play Bridge better. I’ve played Bridge on and off (mostly off) for almost 50 years – but actually trying to improve – that never happened.

So 18 months ago I made the conscious decision to focus my energy, such as it is, on bettering my bridge play. Since then I’ve spent about 7 months playing ‘real’ bridge with real partners, and the other 11 months either studying or playing on line – or both. Mostly both I shall admit.

How is it going you ask? Not that well, unfortunately. Bridge is a really really tough game. There are 52 cards in the deck, but there are a zillion (maybe more) combinations and permutations on how those cards can be arranged in the 4 hands. And the trick is to figure out the optimum contract for each set of 4 hands – and then make that contract.

Easier to do if you can see all 4 hands of course. But that’s so not how the game works. Nope – you have to figure out the contract by bidding your hand – and trying to visualize what could be in the other 3 hands from the bidding. Example – the person to your left (LHO – Left hand opponent) bids 1 Spade. Well, he should have 5 spades, and at least 12 points. And so on.

I’m not trying to teach you how to bid, or play in this mutter. I’m just explaining that the game is complicated – and folks spend their entire lives trying to get better at it. It’s like golf. Some days are better than others, the goal is to have more better days than not so good days. But golf is a personal sport – you compete against yourself. In bridge – it takes 4 people, you and your partner – and the two opponents.

And that’s where PUPs – or Pick Up Partners get involved.

I am currently in Charlotte, NC attending their Regional competition. Like most competitions, it’s held in a big hotel, with games in a variety of different rooms, and at different levels of playing skill. To determine playing skill, there’s a thing called Match Points (MP). You get MPs by playing and winning matches of 24 (more or less) boards. In theory, the number of MPs you have earned should be a measure of your playing skill. But I’m reminded of the old joke – I’ve been doing this job for 12 years – 1 year of training, and 11 years of repeating the same thing over and over. In an attempt to make the MP system better at measuring skill, and not just being a reward for attendance, the ACBL (that’s the American Bridge League) created different colours – Black (gotten easily in club games), Red (gotten in Regional or National competitions), Silver (oddly enough – these come from Sectional Tournaments which I’ve yet to figure out how to know which they are) and the highly valued Gold Points.

Gold points are the toughest to get – and to earn the title of ‘Life Master’ – you need 50 of them. So it’s not unusual to meet folks with plenty of Black – but not enough Gold to get that title. In any case – you get the idea. There are MP (a measure) and coloured MP (another measure).

Back to my efforts – in 18 months, I’ve earned about 40 Match Points, 5 of them Gold and 2 of them Silver, – which isn’t amazing, but it is pretty decent. There are folks here with thousands of Match Points – yesterday I played (and we lost badly) with a gal with over 2000 match points. We should have done a lot better – I’m not sure what went so wrong, but there it is.

On Monday I played with a fellow with around 300 Match Points – and we placed first Overall in the Gold Rush Pairs. Some days I’m a hero, some days I should haven’t have picked up the cards.

So – partnership game – you can’t play without a partner. And I have yet to find a regular steady partner. I’ve been very lucky about Picking up Partners (PUPs) in the various cities I’ve been to, some of whom will play with me again – some of whom never want to sit across from me again – ever. (I had one PUP announce that to me about 3/4 of the way thru a game. Not one of my better days.)

So where do you Pick Up Partners? Most bigger games (like this one), have what is called a Partnership desk. Folks who aren’t fortunate enough to bring their own partner, put up a yellow card describing how many points they have, when they are available to play during the competition, and what biding conventions they use. I think there is a critical bit of info missing off the standard partnership cards. I’d really like to know how long you’ve been playing. My favourite partners generally haven’t been playing for years – they are still in the ‘learning’ mode – and know the newer conventions, and some of the newer ideas of partnership.

But it is what it is. You post your name, then other folks stand in front of the board – reading each and every card, searching for someone who sounds like they might be a good partner. It is a bit like the worst meat market ever. Think e-harmony with a scoring system. Or your first dance at Junior High – all the guys on one side contemplating all the girls on the other. If you have to post your name – you open yourself up to rejection – in a big way. And while some folks (like my 2000 point partner from yesterday) have been playing long enough to know that number of MPs is just one way of judging folks, other folks take actual point count seriously. And I have to agree. I don’t want to partner with someone with 20 MPs earned over 10 years. They probably aren’t very solid players. And in return, someone with over 1000 MPs might not want to partner me. If I’ve only been playing seriously for 18 months, I probably make plenty of beginner errors.

Which is true.

I make a lot of mistakes. I bid wrong – showing more points than I have, or too few. I pass when I should bid, and I bid when I should pass. And worse – I forget things – not usually what my partner bid – that’s often an error by folks who are more ‘beginner’ than I am, but I will lose track of the count of one of the suits, I might forget that a spot card in dummy is good and leave it stranded, or I might opt not to take a finesse when the odds are in favour of the finesse actually working. I have gotten better at making safety plays to make sure that the contract makes – but under the pressure of the match, sometimes I will forget that I made that play…

As I said, it’s complicated.

But fun.

In the past 18 months I’ve thrown myself on the PUPs board in 4 different Regional and National Competitions. I’m not sure that makes me a veteran, but it does give me some experience. And I’ve had some success – friends I played with in Toronto in April who were totally keen to play with me again in August. And I actually had a lady ask me to join her (as her bridge partner!) on a bridge cruise in February. So here’s my advice to folks who need PUPs.

1) Be nice to the folks running the partnership desk. They do an amazing job – there are hundreds of folks looking for partners, and their goal is to try to make as many of them happy with the match-up as they possibly can. It’s a completely thankless job and one that requires the patience of Job and the social skills of a match maker. Be nice to them. Thank them. They are your buddies in this game of finding a PUP – let them know you appreciate them.

2) It is easier to find a PUP later in the competition. I’m not sure why this is – but it’s true. I guess maybe things happen. I found my 2000 point partner because her regular partner suddenly had to leave – an emergency back home. On Monday – the partnership board was almost empty. Today (Friday), the board is almost full. But some of the cards, despite the best efforts of the folks running the desk, get left long after the player has found a match. I know – totally frustrating. But still – finding a PUP on day one of the competition is a huge challenge. Finding one later on is a bit easier. Maybe.

3) Keep a record of your agreements. Folks will say on Monday – let’s play Friday evening. Ok – that’s a date. But there are 3 games a day, and there are 7 (or more days). In my case – I needed PUPs for 16 games. And I blew it big time. Agreed to play on a team in the morning of day 3 – only to discover I’d also agreed to play in a single match in the same time slot with another person. Not a good way to make friends – trust me! I know I’m repeating myself – but on Monday at noon I needed to find partners for 16 games. I didn’t have a partner for all 16 games until Thursday at noon. At least my dance card is full now. That’s a huge relief.

4) Get your partner’s contact information. And keep notes. There is absolutely nothing worse than deciding after a game or so that you are not a match made in heaven, and forgetting that a day later. Or worse – a month later. Or in my case – a year later. Notes are critical. Email addresses matter to! You never know when you are going to be doing PUPs somewhere else and these folks will re-appear. It’s a universe after all – only so many folks in it!

5) Go over the convention card early – and try to keep to the simplest possible set of agreements. I played with 7 partners – not one of whom used the same conventions. I tried to make notes of who played how – but my little brain got completely bolloxed up by partner #5. No wonder my ability to play got worse during the week – I simply couldn’t remember if the person sitting opposite me played a specific convention – or not!

6) Be nice. Be very nice. People play a lot better if you compliment them then if you critique them. Trust me. And body language matters. If I messed up the last hand – don’t hold a grudge on the next hand – I won’t play better if you are sitting across from me with a scowl on your face. And no matter how badly I do – please don’t tell our competitors. One of my partners – after I’d played the hand, won and gotten a top score – announced – well she tried her best to lose.

7) And for goodness sake – don’t try to improve your partners play during the match. Waste of time. You’ll get them focused on the last hand – not the hand we are playing now – and it’s likely to be completely different. This advice is even more important if you are playing social bridge with your spouse. You’ll have a much better game if you just live with the mistake and solider on!

8) Always assume your partner is an expert – that they are bidding their hand correctly. And don’t try to ‘save’ them. Man – I wish I’d remembered that advice a few times when I tried to ‘save’ only to make matters much, much worse.

9) Partnership Mantras – My partner knows what they are doing – if it’s a mis-fit – Pass. My partner has a reason for doing what they did – try to imagine things from their point of view – what must they be looking at to make that bid, or not to bid. My partner knows what they are doing. They know what their hand is like – I don’t.

10) Thank your partner. Thank them when they put down their dummy, thank them when you finish playing, thank them for giving you an opportunity to play with them. They didn’t have to say yes. And they did.

Signing off to go play more bridge…

The Soup Lady

Elephants to the Left, Elephants to the Right – and the Bull is thinking about charging us!


Again we wake at dawn. Today is less foggy – it’s clear with no sign of rain. The Cape area has been suffering from a drought for going on two years, and the lack of rain is an issue. Here in the Shamwari it is less of a concern though. There is a river that runs thru the reserve, and it is flowing freely. Plus the balance between herbivores and carnivores is excellent. There’s no over grazing, and the carnivores eat well almost every day. Or I guess – what ever day they feel like it. So our surroundings are green and lush. Nice.

Coffee, biscotti, and we’re off. The former policeman and his wife have opted not to come – they are sleeping in and relaxing, but the 4 of us are keeners. We’re up, ready and waiting when the safari vehicle arrives!

This is likely to be the last safari I shall ever do. We’ve been to the Southern part of Africa now three times – and I’m done. The grinding poverty amid the extreme wealth is just too hard for me to ignore, but that won’t prevent me from enjoying my last time among the animals.

And we luck out.

We drive into the main section of the reserve, and Freddie spots an elephant. We drive closer, stop and turn off the engine – and realize it’s not just one Elephant. It’s a dozen or so. A complete family. There’s a huge Bull keeping watch on the ridge to our left, and lower down along the track are his wives and kids. And the kids are adorable. Under a week old, playing butting heads and push and shove, they run around our vehicle, get embarrassed and dash behind Mom, and then peak back out. Their trunks are extremely short – just long enough to reach Mom I guess – and they are awkwardly learning how to control them. Where the adults can use their trunks to pick up what ever they want (the ends are almost like fingers – with an opposable thumb), the youngsters don’t have nearly that much control. In fact – they have almost no control. Sometimes they actually act surprised to have a trunk. It’s amazing.

One of the females positions herself directly behind our vehicle. She is using her trunk to check us out – taking sniffs of the back wheels and literally peering into the truck to see what is inside. Meanwhile a young, but fully grown male is standing to our left. He’s either interested in the females, or thinking about some elephant porn because I suddenly appreciate the joke one of the rangers told us.

“How do you know how many elephants are in the herd you are watching? Count the legs and divide by 4. But sometimes the math just doesn’t work.” Everyone laughed at the time – now I can appreciate why you might count 5 legs…

Anyway – we’re snapping madly – enjoying how very close the animals are to us (I could easily reach out and touch the male elephant – if Freddie wasn’t repeating constantly his advice – keep your hands inside. Do not break the outline of the vehicle. Do not talk. Keep quiet.

Meanwhile – we are all keeping an eye on the large Bull. He’s huge – with good sized tusks, and is obviously dominate. No one argues with him. With surprising speed, he decides that he’s not too happy with our vehicle in the center of his family group. And he wants us to move out. He signals his displeasure by getting ready to charge us. He flares his ears, lowers his head, and starts moving directly at us.

Here’s the situation. Our engine is off. We are on a narrow track. There are high bushes to our right – clearly a challenge to move thru if they were empty, but currently there are 3 elephants in there – two junior elephants, and one large female. To our Left there are at least 6 more Elephants – including the 2 young babies, and several females. Behind us is the very curious female who is still sniffing at the tires.

And in front of us is the Bull. His flared ears make it obvious that he’s not happy with us. But to make it worse – he’s in Rut. Elephant must is staining his back legs, and it is obvious that this is one very discontent Elephant.

Freddie warns us again – no sound, no flash, no breaking the shape of the vehicle. Stay calm. It will be fine.

The Bull comes closer and closer until he is inches from our front bumper. One smash with those tusks, and we’re a vehicle without an engine. If he decides to hook his tusks under the safari vehicle, he could easily toss us.

But it’s not the right day. He veers to the left – and starts checking each and every female to see if she’s ready. He certainly is – of that I’m sure.

If we’d been with our Photographer friends – we should have stayed on the chance that we’d see Elephants matting. But this is not a photographers tour – and Freddie is more concerned with our safety then our Photographers. So as soon as the way ahead is clear – we’re off.

Well – that was cool!

But we’re not done yet. Freddie has been monitoring the radio channels – and he’s heard of another lioness sleeping with her cubs nearby. We drive in that direction and spot the sleeping lions. The vehicle that reported the sighting pulls out, leaving us to watch. We no sooner get into position than the sleeping cubs wake up – and they are hungry. They paw at ‘Mom’ to encourage her to feed them – and she gets up, stretches, and proceeds to lead the pack off to find food.

She takes the 4 cubs about 100 yards, and then clearly tells them to stay put. They are too young to hunt, and would only ruin her chances. The 3 female cubs obey completely – is it surprising to anyone that the male cub breaks rank and moves down the track towards where mom is hunting.

We watch as long as we can, but must eventually leave. We’re out past quitting time – and Victor and I have a long way to go today. We do need to pack.

We return to the Lodge, eat our 3rd Breakfast, pack and say fond goodbyes. We had fun here – and I know I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Baby Elephants.

Our return home, while long and very boring, is uneventful. We spend one night in Jo-Burg, fly overnight to London, spend a day sleeping in London, and then the flight back to Montreal.

I’m so glad to see my house and my bed and my grand-kids…

Signing off to enjoy Montreal – The Soup Lady

Sunrise at Shamwari Game Reserve


We wake at dawn. Seriously – game drives always start at sunrise – and I’m not surprised that this is true even here. So Dawn it is folks. They make it as relaxing as possible of course – this is a luxury version of a safari. So we wake, enjoy coffee and a biscotti while we admire the fog draped tree that stands between us and the game park. Quite lovely.

Freddie is there to welcome us. He’s been up since 4:30 – and I know he left the lodge last night after 9:00. He works seriously long days.

The safari vehicle has been given a wash and a re-load with 2nd breakfast goodies. We are promised a proper breakfast when we return – but for now it’s off into the reserve.

I don’t think I’d thought about the differences between a National Park, a Game Reserve, and the wide open, unfenced reaches of say Rwanda or Botswana. But they are vastly different. Partly it’s about the fences. The Shamwari game reserve is completely, 100% fenced. And the fences are checked every day for signs of tampering. There’s a path that runs along side the fence, we’ve taking that track several times- and it’s easy to see that no one is going in or out easily. Electrified, turned over to prevent burrowing, and then rocks placed every few inches for additional protection. No wonder the Shamwari has a reputation for being anti-poaching. And it’s hard to see the fence. In all my photos – it only appears once. The landscaping is such as to create vast vistas – with the fence carefully placed to avoid ruining the view.

In contrast, the wide open spaces of other game viewing locations means that the wildlife is less safe. We saw animals that were clearly having issues getting enough food in both Botswana and Kenya. But that wasn’t the case here. All the animals – prey and predators alike – looked healthy and well fed. Sleek coats, shiny horns, and lots of little ones spoke towards the feeling that life is good. Well, unless you get eaten I suppose.

Back to dawn at the reserve. Freddie is determined to show us the Rinos and the Water Buffalo, so that’s his focus this morning. But our first stop are Giraffes. There are at least 2 baby Giraffes, adorable in their long legged awkwardness. Giraffes have their young standing up – so it’s a big drop down for the infants. And the first thing they must do is get up to nurse. So really awkward long legs are a must. These babies are young – maybe 2 weeks at most – and spend their time and energy running around madly from adult to adult. Occasionally they might stop to try a nibble off a fresh twig, but since they are basically nursing, it’s run madly – nurse – run madly!

It’s obvious that the parents aren’t particularly worried, and our vehicle is such a normal part of life, we are totally ignored. If they happen to get really close (and they do), the photo opps are amazing.

Next a few long views of the Park as Freddie decides where we should go next – and then a run up a hill past the “Born Free” Foundation buildings. This huge collection of buildings houses predators, mostly lions, that have been rescued and can no longer be trusted in a park. You can hear them roaring good morning from quite a distance. And this is such a normal part of life that the herd animals graze right up to their fence lines. No fear here!

Not so among the warthogs that are literally everywhere in the Park. We have seen dozens of them – surprised at least two out of their burrows – and watched their young at play. Since I’m a particular fan of Warthogs – I’m quite happy to see so many, so happy.

Our game drive ends on a ridge admiring the sunrise, the views, and enjoying a 2nd cup of coffee. Life in the Luxury lane.

We return to the Lodge for third Breakfast, and are offered an afternoon game walk at 12:30 if that’s of interest. I’m the only one who takes Freddie up on the offer. I’m keen for any exercise – normally I get a lot of walking in, but that hasn’t been the case here, and I miss it.

I meet up with Freddie outside of the lodge, and after getting equipped (he has a stick and a radio – that’s nice), we amble off into the ‘open’ park land outside of the lodge. There are no predators in this section of the park – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful. Warthogs can break legs if they run at you, and there are snakes. Even the cute antelopes and Zebras aren’t to be messed with. I’m reminded of these challenges twice. Once verbally by Freddie, and once when I spot a safari vehicle ahead of us. When I ask Freddie why is the vehicle there – he tells me it’s for my protection. They are pre-spotting our ‘walk’.

Oh dear – I have managed to create a job for 3 rangers in my desire to just take a short (hour and a half) walk. Guilty, Guilty, Guilty. Freddie re-assures me. For him this is a nice break. We get to walk thru the reserve, spot animal scat and foot prints, and generally take the slow route.

I can’t say anything exciting happened – but that wasn’t really the point anyway. It was a lovely walk. I’m glad I went.

I return to the Lodge for lunch – and a new problem. All the guests at the resort (except us) are from South Africa – and the Springbox’s are taking on the New Zealand All Blacks late this afternoon. One of our fellow guests is actually a former member of the Springbox’s – and he is truly huge. Big, Tall, in excellent physical condition. Wouldn’t want to run into him anywhere. Anyway – the issue – the afternoon game drive will return AFTER the start of the game. And while Victor and I can’t really relate to the problem (can’t one just record it?), apparently missing the start is a disaster. And the team has been doing badly of late, so how they perform today will make or break it as to their remaining part of whatever competition this is. (I’m guessing Rugby World Cup).

There is a lot of discussion – and eventually the decision is made to turn on the game, which would effectively ‘record’ the start – and rewind when we get back from the drive.

The folks in our vehicle are keen to see the match, but not crazy. The folks in the other vehicle are totally determined to see the start as close to the time of the real start as is possible. I’m glad I’m not in that vehicle, but I say nothing. Not our country, not our sport!

Decision made, we head out for the afternoon drive. On the hit list are Black Rino (we’ve seen white Rinos, including a baby, but Black Rino’s have not made an appearance as yet) and of course Elephants, Lions, leopards, and Cheetahs. Freddie finds us several Black Rino’s, and we spot a clearly nursing lioness on the hunt. She has targeted some warthogs playing nearby and surprises everyone by disappearing into the brush – and then making her dash for dinner from the other direction. She missed – I’m not sure if our vehicles alerted the Warthogs to their danger, or if she just didn’t have the timing quite right. Too bad. Freddie tells us that she will continue to hunt until she finds dinner – clearly she’s feeding her cubs as well as herself, but we can’t wait around. We have that game to watch.

We return towards the Lodge, and spot some really wonderful photo opps with Black Rinos. Since we’re not in a hurry – the other vehicle has long since gone back – Freddie stops and lets us do our best with the Rino. That works great until the Rino flares his ears to let Freddie know that his patience has just about run out. Freddie announces that we are done here – it would be dangerous to try the Rino’s short fuse any longer – so home we go.

The game is in full progress. And low and behold – the South African Springbox’s are in the lead! Not by much, but still. We gather around and enjoy being with folks who know and love a game – and try their patience by asking dumb questions. I start by asking how do you score points? And then wonder if only the guy in yellow shoes can kick the ball. Our fellow guests think my lack of knowledge is kinda cute – in a dumb blonde way. And while the ‘professionals’ don’t even bother to answer – the Lawyer takes a stab at explaining some of the more basic aspects of Rugby. It is a brutal game – many of the players have ear protectors (apparently getting an ear ripped off isn’t unusual), missing teeth is the norm, and broken collar bones are considered a calculated risk. Players get tossed into the air to catch kicks – and there is something called a Scrum that defies description.

The All Blacks have been dominating the league – beating the pants off every other team by huge margins. I’m not sure I heard correctly, but apparently last year they beat the Springboxs by over 100 points. They are powerful. And ugly. Most of them have no front teeth, and apparently start the game by doing a dance that involves significant amounts of growling.

On the other hand, the South African team can be described as cute. There is a red-head (apparently a star, star player) who is completely adorable, and gets a lot of screen (and scream) time. I cheer along with the rest as the score see-saws back and forth. Finally one of the South African’s is given a Red Card – and escorted off the field. That leaves the Springboxs down one in numbers – and signals the end of the game. The All Blacks have won, by only a point – but still. Our fellow guests are not exactly disappointed – losing by one point is a miracle against the All Blacks – but hopes had run very high for a while. It did look like we might win.

Game over, it’s dinner and bed time. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day. Another ‘up at dawn’ safari, and then we must start the long long long journey back to Montreal.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Founder’s Lodge in the Shamwari Game Reserve


A frequent question on the ‘net’ is which Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth is the best – and while I can’t vouch for any of the others, I can tell you that the Shamwari Reserve was amazing.

But I’m ahead of my tail – which is not an unusual position.

We start the day in the absolute lap of luxury that is the Conrad Pezula. For the first time in our trip – I’d rather not leave. In fact – I’m even thinking of buying real estate. It’s only the discomfort of the South African reality that keeps me from chatting up a real estate agent. I just can’t get my head around the constant locked access points, focus on security, and the fences. There is a very obvious lack of respect and even comfort between colours and classes that just makes my skin itch. But that’s the topic of another blog.

Today we must drive to Founder’s Lodge in the Shamwari Game Reserve, and we’ve done the GPS thing to find out how long it will take to drive to Port Elizabeth and counted backwards. We must leave by 9:00 to make it there in time for lunch and the afternoon game drive.

Breakfast turns out to be more of an adventure than I’d planned on. I wanted to eat on our balcony – sitting in the sun and enjoying the stunning view. To do that – I must make coffee. And there’s a single serve coffee machine in the room. Perfect. Until I try to figure out how it works.

I’m old, but not stupid – and the thing stumps me. It just won’t turn on. Yes, I checked that it was plugged in, and yes I checked that the plug was on. No action. So I call the front desk. They tell me there’s a switch on the machine, hidden in the back. I try that – nope. It isn’t going to turn on. And worse – out of the 4 coffee packets they have given me – I’ve used up two. One in the first attempt – a second in the next attempt.

They will send someone. Who within seconds is there – with another machine. He checks our machine, agrees that it is not turning on, and plugs in the newer machine. It turns on – (green light on the front), and we thank him.

Try 3. I put in the coffee thingy – put the mug under the spout, and push the green light. The machine gurgles and burps and starts producing coffee. And doesn’t Stop! I fill my mug, and I’m on the 2nd mug when I turn the machine off and give up. I’m calling the office – again.

Seconds later another young man appears at our door – who shows us that to stop the machine from producing coffee you must push the button on the front when the light turns red… It offers you options you see – the first time it turns red, that’s a single espresso. The 2nd time – espresso Double, and the third time – Americano!

Problem – in learning how to use the machine – I’ve used up all the little single serve coffee things they have given us. So another trip from the front desk to give us a few more pouches of coffee.

I’m sure there is someone at the Conrad Pezula who is giving up on making any money on our stay! We have definitely kept their staff occupied.

Breakfast done (whew) – we call the front desk (yet again) for luggage pickup, Victor hikes up to the office while I continue to drink my lovely coffee enjoying my fabulous view and try to work up the courage to actually leave. But I have no choice – the bellman with the golf cart arrives, takes our luggage out to the cart and offers me a drive up the hill. We absolutely must leave.

When I come back to South Africa – perhaps in another life time – this is the place I want to stay!

We drive down the Head, and head East along the N2. This is a ‘major’ road that winds along all the Garden Route – but in this section it is just one lane in each direction, with large shoulders they use to create space for cars to pass on the right. Remember – drive on the left! At the sides of the road at first are what I’d call middle class housing, but it quickly becomes either township or informal settlements with the corresponding piles of garbage. Question to self – why is everything so clean except the areas near the townships and informal settlements?

Eventually even that bit of housing disappears and we are driving thru fields of grain, some irrigated, some not. There are also herds of cows and sheep to see, and the occasional horse farm. It’s not the most exciting driving – although the view of Plettenberg Bay is stunning. These are some of the finest beaches in South Africa, but we are on a mission – we must get to Port Elizabeth.

The road is often actually 3 lanes – achieved not by widening the road, but by changing the location of the paint. So imagine two lanes with large shoulders. To get three lanes – you get rid of the shoulders on each side – and either make the no passing line on the far right of the 2nd lane (we have two lanes heading east), or to the far left of the 2nd lane (we have one very narrow lane heading east – they have two lanes heading west). It’s actually pretty neat, although my husband thinks they should make the passing lanes appear only on the uphill sections – he can’t pass the heavy trucks on the down hill portions, they gain too much speed.

Speaking of speed – the limit here is 120 km/hr. And no one goes 120, except us and the occasional truck. So we are pretty consistently the passed, not the passer.

After about 2 hours of this, we decide to enter into the GPS the actual address of our destination – and discover to our alarm that it isn’t in Port Elizabeth – it’s an hour NORTH! Oh, no. We’d calculated our trip based on getting to the reserve in time for lunch – and now we are definitely going to be an hour off.

Mad checking of paper work later – we realize that lunch doesn’t even start till 2:00 PM – and the game drive is at 3:30. We should just make it – but there’s no time to waddle. Not like we’ve been going slowly – but we try to pick up the pace a bit.

The outskirts of Port Elizabeth appear – first informal settlements, then townships, then middle class housing and finally the city itself. It’s a huge port – I count over a dozen giant container ships at anchor in the bay – and I would imagine there are some actually in the port, but it’s not visible from the N2. Which has become a 4 lane highway at this point – and the roadway switches from concrete to asphalt. My husband says that the driving is easier on asphalt – I don’t know or care – I just want this road trip to end.

As we steam pass a gas station – I say – there’s a gas station – but my husband is focused – we are getting to the reserve on time.

Suddenly I see an Elephant on my left! Wow – it’s an Elephant!. We are driving past the Addo National Elephant Park – and the next stop will be the Shamwari Reserve. I’m getting excited.

Meanwhile the N2 is down to 1 lane in each direction again, and the side roads are not all paved. We’ve left Port Elizabeth (and what passes as civilization) far behind.

It is at this moment that my husband checks the gas gauge. We are at 1/4 tank – and we need to find a gas station. I keep my eyes peeled – but we are far from anything that even looks like a town. Hopefully there will be a gas station near the lodge.

The instructions say – take the unpaved road at Sidbery and follow the signs. We do as told, and find our selves facing a formidable wrought iron gate. Oh dear – what did we do wrong? We stop to try to figure things out when a guard appears to ask us – where are you heading? We tell him Founder’s Lodge – and he’s immediately reassuring. You are fine, you are right, this is the right place. You have arrived!

Whew.

It turns out that the Founder’s Lodge is inside the reserve, and we’ve arrived at a back door. The gate is there to keep the animals in – and given the number of Elephants, Rinos, Lions, etc that we will see – I totally get it.

Our welcome at the Lodge is lovely – Susie, the manager, greets us with cold towels and a drink of our choice, and quickly ushers us into lunch. We ask about gas – and are assured that they will get a spare tank with 10 gallons or so for us tomorrow. Meanwhile, they will park the car – we need to go into lunch.

There are only 6 rooms in the lodge, a total of 12 guests. We are divided into two groups, each with our own Ranger who will take care of our every need from dawn to bed time. One group are 3 couples who came together from the Cape Town area, our group is composed of two couples from Port Elizabeth, and us.

Our Ranger is Freddie – and he’s a charmer. He joins us at lunch to explain that the game drive will start at 3:30 – right outside the front door of the lodge, and we should dress warmly – we won’t be back till after sunset. He also asks what drinks we’d prefer for ‘Sundowners’ – I opt for water. I’m just not that big a party kinda gal!

Our quick tour of the Lodge is, as the welcome made us expect, impressive. Our room has a wall of glass facing out onto the private reserve of the Founder – independent of but adjacent to the Shamwari Reserve. Using the concept of an infinity pool, the garden appears to continue smoothly to the watering hole for the animals of the Reserve about 150 meters away. But actually there’s a wall with electric fencing separating us from the animals – at least the animals who would be daunted by a wall. Fortunately, there are no predators in our private reserve – so while the baboons and monkeys might be an issue – the larger vegetarians are happy to stay on their side of the fence.

Onto our quick tour of the Lodge (it’s lovely), and then onto our ‘Safari’ vehicles to start our first game drive.

These are very upscale vehicles indeed. Modified Toyota Land Cruisers – there three rows of two leather seats, so each person has an unimpeded view to the side and because the seats are raised one above the other, to the front as well. There is room for a driver and a spotter – but Freddie will be serving as both for us.

Turns out that all vehicles in the park are exactly the same design, color and style. That makes it very easy to spot any unauthorized vehicles – and Freddie starts our tour by telling us that the Shamwari Reserve has had no poaching incidents in the past 15 years. They have 24/7 anti-poaching teams – and they are armed and serious. You do not touch our animals. Kruger Park, on the other hand has had over 300 incidents this year – and while the numbers are down from 2016, any Rino poaching is bad. Folks involved with the animals are working hard to educate people on the absolute uselessness of killing Rino’s for their horns – they are made of exactly the same material as our fingernails – but folks seems to love to ignore the truth. It’s sad.

He also warns us to keep our hands inside the vehicle – the shape of the vehicle is known to the animals and they won’t bother us, but if you break the shape by sticking an arm out – you will alarm the animals. He also warns us to not make loud noises – or to call to the animals. They will in fact turn away if we do that – so we’ll get the opposite of what we’d like as far as pictures go.

And we head off. For our first drive, Freddie decides to head North – into the wilder, less traveled part of the Park. There are tracks carved thru the bush that keep the vehicles off the slow growing vegetation, yet allow access to almost all parts of the huge park. The rules for the drivers are simple – stay out of sight of other vehicles, but stay in contact by radio in case someone spots something exciting. And stay on the cleared tracks. There are parts of the park where you can drive off road, but generally that’s done either to go around a wash-out, to allow another vehicle to pass, or to get closer to a Cat. All other game is to be observed from the already tracked ‘trails’ in order to avoid disturbing them – or killing vegetation.

As we drive along, I’m impressed by the beauty of the place – despite knowing that there is a fence all around us – the place feels wild and free, and a lot greener than I remember either the parks in Kenya or Botswana. There are fairly large trees growing in the sections where the Bushman’s River winds thru the park, and the open ‘grass lands’ seem to go on forever. And game abounds. Zebras with colts, Springbok’s, Kudu, etc are everywhere to be seen. Freddie spots an Elephant across a valley from us, and heads in that direction. He’s a solitary Bull – and he is huge. Mildly chomping away at the tops of Acacia Trees, he ambles along, at times ahead of us, at times in back. He takes a quick right and heads up a steep hill – and Freddie tries to follow on the trail. Suddenly the Elephant is in front of us – right in the road. We can’t pass him, and he’s headed straight into the sun. Lousy photos – cool view! Finally Freddie takes a chance and at a widening in the trail, drives carefully behind the Elephant to put us ahead of him with the sun at our back. We take lots of very good photos – and then the radio bursts into life – they have spotted a Cheetah. So we leave our elephant to head in that direction.

The Cheetah is just sitting on the ground behind a bush – casually watching us watching him. So beautiful, and so peaceful. We also spotted a sleeping lion – there is little as boring of course. Well satisfied with our game drive, we stop at the top of a look out for a much needed ‘pee’ break and Sundowners. What an amazing landscape.

There are about 10 Lodges in the Shamwari Game reserve, most much larger than ours – and we have driven past several. I think ours is just perfect – but it’s nice to know there are options if we want to return.

I’m thinking that what really matters is the quality of your guide and his (her) ability to position the vehicle so that picture taking opportunities are the best. That often means knowing not only where the animals are – but to guess where they will be going – and keeping track of where the sun is since we can’t shoot into it. And since you are supposed to stay on the tracks – being on the right track at the right position at the right moment is an art!

Back at the Lodge, the vehicle circles around to the Boma – a raised area with a fire lit to welcome us home. The staff is lined up to greet us – and hand us warm drinks.

Sigh – I’ve gone to heaven and it’s in South Africa.

Signing off to ready myself for ”The Founder’s Dinner” – The Soup Lady

Whales – By George – I found Whales!


We wake to another beautiful day in South Africa – blue sky, blue sea, cool breezes. I’m finding it a bit cold, and since today we are going out on a Whale Boat Excursion – I choose to over-dress. I’m wearing almost everything I brought that’s warm – and thinking I wish I had more!

Yesterday I forgot to mention the odd thing. When we drove back from JJ’s Grill, we were stopped just below the entrance to the Conrad Pezula. There was a swing barrier and a guard checking your reason for going past his post. The odd thing – I didn’t see a guard gate when we drove up in the afternoon – nor when we drove back down for dinner. It’s a pop-up guard gate – only visible at night. Different, right?

Back to today – We enjoy the elaborate buffet breakfast provided by the hotel, and then wind our way back down to Knysna. This time we look – nope, no guard gate. But onto our adventure. Whale Odyssey takes small boats out into the ocean to see the whales 4 times a day – and it leaves from Thesen Island, a paradise of lovely shops, cute restaurants, and adorable housing located across a causeway from the main town of Knysna. The folks at the hotel have recommended a restaurant for lunch – the Ile de Pain – I’m guessing French influence here? The sparkling cleanness of Thesen Island is very impressive – it’s a lovely enclave, without a guard gate. First one I’ve seen in all our travels. But based on the ‘odd’ thing last night, I’m guessing that a gate appears on the cross way after dark. And access to the ‘residential’ part of the island is barricaded by a huge metal gate and a swing bridge. So sure you can get on the island – but don’t get near our houses…

Our Whaling trip starts at the Odyssey Shop where we join up with our fellow whale boaters – there are 12 of us, and we are given life preservers and basic instructions – primarily follow the Captain’s Instructions.

Our Captain takes us to our boat – it’s tiny, but with super powerful outboard engines. We’ll find out soon enough how necessary those are. We take our seats in rows of 3 or 4 – and soon cast off. Because we’re old, slow, and polite – we’re last to board. So I’m sitting on the end seat on one row, Victor on the end seat of a different row. Turns out to be great seats though!

The Captain tells us that when he stops the boat – we are free to move around as we wish – and there are plenty of grab rails to make sure we don’t have a problem going over board. But when he says – SIT Down Now – we are to take the first available seat and SIT. That means he’s going to be doing something that will rock the boat – or he sees something that will rock the boat.

He makes sure we are all clear on this point, that no one is feeling ill from being on a boat – and with a “Yes Sir” – we are all ready to go.

Our trip takes us thru the Lagoon, and between the Heads and out to sea. The trip thru the Heads is truly neat. The Captain slows the boat to a crawl and watches the waves coming in thru the narrow neck. When he sees several smooth rollers in a row – he guns the engine and off we go. We shoot thru the neck and up and over the rollers. These waves are so large that often at the top, the engines are out of the water completely!

There is a Whale Spotter positioned high up on the Eastern Head – and he’s radioing instructions to the Captain. He manoeuvres the boat away from land and towards the East – moving towards the position described by the spotter. All of a sudden he says – this is too good to miss – and turns the boat sharply towards the South. We are quickly among a pod of around 200 Normal Dolphins – who think the arrival of a boat is great fun. They jump and splash and swim around and in front of us – around and around we go among the Dolphins – snapping away madly. The Captain says they are fishing, and rounding up a bait ball – but they still take time to play with us. You just know this will be the highlight – how often have you ever seen a pod of 200 dolphins at play?

The spotter radios down that he has seen a whale – and off we go among the huge waves towards the designated location. And when I say huge – I mean these are large waves. They tower over the boat – but since they aren’t breaking this far away from shore, we just roll. Up and over – or along a trough, the ride is actually fairly smooth given the size of the waves and boat. Lucky I guess – I spoke to other folks who took a boat out on Tuesday, the day we got blown off the Penguin tour, and the boat just made it out from the neck before the Captain announced – this is too rough, and they headed right back into the harbour.

We find the whales that the spotter had seen – and it’s underwhelming. I’m sorry – yes, they are huge – yes, there are 4 of them – but all we can see from our low vantage point 50 meters away is a broad back floating inches above the surface of the water. They aren’t even really blowing – I was expecting towering heights of water, but no – little puffs – and that’s it.

The first pair opt to dive – and they are gone. A second pair appear a bit further off – we move towards them, but like the first pair, they are busy doing their thing, and not really showing off for the tourists. Did someone forget to send the fax?

We piddle around in this area hoping for something more thrilling, and then head back. Whale ride over.

As I said – the Dolphins were definitely the highlight – and they were amazing. So I’m pleased – and I buy a sweatshirt to prove that I was here at 34 degrees South Latitude! Bonus, it’s warm and cozy. And as stated many times this trip – it’s been a lot cooler than I’d thought it would be (90 degree days dropping to 70 degree days… seriously confusing to this old body).

We eat lunch as planned at the Ile de Pain – and it’s wonderful. I opt for a flat bread with olives (they grow olives in this area) and it is delightful. A bit overly generous with the olive oil, but that’s been a theme here in South Africa – if you’ve got it in abundance – flaunt it! And apparently Olive Oil is on that list.

It’s back to the Palace for a Spa Treatment. I know – totally outrageously extravagant – but oh so relaxing. My husband has a hot stone massage which he rates as one of the two best he’s ever had. I had a lovely Swedish massage – and enjoy every minute. After the massages, they put us on massaging water beds for 15 minutes of ‘cool’ down. Totally extravagant and completely delightful.

Dinner is at the Anchorage – a tiny (6-7 tables, tops) sea food restaurant in downtown (can you call part of a 7 block city – downtown) that boast super high ratings and great reviews. And it totally deserves them both. Our waiter – Benjamin – is a riot. He clearly loves his job, his restaurant, and his food – and delights in making sure we pick the best options of the bunch. He and my husband get into a bit of a discussion on the subject of dessert – and not surprisingly, Benjamin wins. His suggestion of a milky chocolate concoction that is unique to the Anchorage is a clear winner. For the main course – I try the Prawns. Everyone has been raving about the Prawns here on the Whale Coast – and I’m finally convinced to give them a chance. It’s a bit like eating tiny lobsters – lots of finger work involved, and your reward is really just the sweet tail parts! Prawns, by the by, are what we would call Shrimp – but these are the giant size versions. Almost 5” long, they are about 50% head and legs – just 50% tail.

Victor gets Angel fish. This is surely not the same fish we call Angel Fish in the Caribbean – it’s a fairly large filet of a very delicious white fish. So good food and delightful service. Perfect.

Back to the Conrad Pezula and yes – the gate has re-appeared. Our fire is lit, and after enjoying the view, the stars, the absolutely giant full moon, we settle in for the night.

Tomorrow is a long driving day. I do look forward to those. (Not). But it can’t be helped. We must get to Port Elizabeth for the last few days of our trip along the Garden Route.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Knysna is perfect! (What a relief!)


We wake in Mossel Bay to a perfect day. Cool and crisp, the sun is shining, the sky is blue – and the ocean is blue. And completely empty of whales.

This is getting a bit tough to take. Where are those whales? Folks who live and work around this area are constantly talking about seeing the whales – so the lack of whale is getting me a bit down. But I shall soldier on – the ocean has plenty of fish, and whales. Some are bound to turn up, Right?

We opt for the grocery store breakfast – bread and a bit of coffee. I’m not willing to pay $20 each for a buffet breakfast of more food than I could possibly eat. Makes no sense to me.

After our quick, and not very satisfying breakfast, we head over to the Dias Museum. It’s right next to the hotel – and houses something very special. A touch over 500 years ago, Bartolomeu Dias and 32 crew members sailed a Caravel from Lisbon to Africa on a voyage of discovery. 6 months after leaving Europe, while searching for fresh water, he made land literally 100 feet from where I slept last night. 500 years later, it was decided to build an exact replica of his ship, and sail it with a crew of 17 from Lisbon to Mossel Bay. After the 3 month voyage, the ship was towed by hand power up from the beach and into the museum. Once safely inside, the rear wall of the museum was constructed.

On the outside, the boat is an exact copy, right to the steering mechanism (no wheel – they used a rod tiller). And by today’s standards – it is small. In fact it is so small that it is hard to imagine 17 people working and sleeping and eating on board – let alone the original crew of 33! Inside some modifications had to be made – partly to make her sea-worthy by today’s standards – and partly to make her livable by today’s standards! They added a kitchen, 3 toilets, and bunk bed! The original crew slept on the decks, cooked on the decks, and well – I guess – did you know what on the decks. The cargo hold was filled with ballast to keep the boat steady in the water.

Definitely worth seeing! I was so impressed by the tiny size, and extremely durable construction. Naturally, when they made land, they did it in period clothing – so they have samples of that in the museum as well.

The rest of the Dias Museum complex is kinda silly – a shell museum, the original watering hole, and the Post Tree. Apparently, again 500 years ago, someone hung a message on the tree, and another captain from another boat months later retrieved the message. Hence the name, and the proper post box underneath for visitors to continue the tradition.

Have been there – seen the Museum, we motor on past beaches, houses, townships and informal settlements (their name for clusters of corrugated metal shacks that house folks not really ‘legal’ in South Africa. Our next stop is Knysna (don’t pronounce the K), and we are even going to stay 2 nights.

I’m really looking forward to this – my poor body isn’t built for one night stands – I need to get used to a bed before I can get a good night’s rest.

The drive into Knysna is actually ok – the town had a huge fire in June, so we were a bit worried – but apparently the damage was done to areas around the town, not the actually town. We stop into a hotel to ask directions – and are told that the Conrad Pezula is on the Eastern Headland.

Means nothing to me of course – but I follow the directions and find my self leaving Knysna and heading along the Knysna Lagoon towards the ocean. It turns out that Knysna occupies the far side of a lagoon – part of which is deep enough for proper boats, and the entrance to the lagoon is protected by two Headlands – East and West. These huge out-croppings of rock kept the harbour safe – but they are perilously close to each other. And directly facing South. The British navy named it one of the 3 most dangerous harbours in the world.

And justifiably it turns out. The waves outside the harbour mouth are huge – and if you attempt to enter as the tide is going in – you will be rushed in like no tomorrow. And if you are fool enough to try to bring in a sail boat when the tide is going out. Well – you aren’t going to make it.

In the days before motor – this must have be a entrance to challenge the brave and foolish. Even with the help of a motor – it’s not easy to navigate – you must still time your run in with the tides and waves.

Needless to say – all this nature makes for a spectacular setting for the Conrad Pezula. It’s perched high up on the Head – and the views to both the South and North are stunning. The hotel isn’t slum housing either. We drive up to the huge Portico entrance and are greeted by 3 bellman. One to take the luggage, One to take the car away (the only option is valet parking), and one to escort us in to registration. We are welcomed, offered our choice of refreshments – and assigned our room.

To get to our room, we must ride in a golf cart down and around to our 4-plex – 2 suites up, 2 suites down. Our suite is on the upper right, and features an entrance hall, a bar set-up with coffee machine, tea, etc, and then our room itself with it’s fireplace, sofa, bed and glass window wall open to the stunning view. And then of course there’s the bathroom – walk in glass shower, a toilet room, a double soaking tub, and two sinks. It’s a wow. I’m particularly impressed with the walk in closet (oh, I do like a walk in closet) – all wood, all black, and the doors are barn door style opening. Very very nice.

We love our lunch overlooking the pool, and opt to spend the afternoon relaxing in our room. We have dinner reservations at JJ’s Grill back in Knysna, so eventually we have to climb back up to the main lodge (we could have called for a golf cart – but that seemed overkill – it was only one stair case). Dinner is interesting – with a menu that features things like Ostrich, Kudu, and Crocodile. Victor opts for the Crocodile – looks a bit like chicken – I enjoy a nicely cooked T-Bone steak. The trim is different from what we do in Canada – more fat is left on during the cooking – resulting in a richer mouth feel, if also producing a lot of ‘steak’ you can’t eat.

Back to our palace with a view for bed – but first – can you please lite the fireplace? Of course – we’ll be right there. And they do! It’s lovely going to bed to a roaring fire. We will sleep well.

Signing off for yet another day – The Soup Lady

We Shoot – We Score!


Our plan for today is simple – we leave Stellenbosch, head just 30 minutes down the road to another town renown for it’s Wineries – Franschhoek – and do some more taste tests.

The winery Victor has chosen for us to visit is another larger one – Boschendal. And we’ve pre-arranged our wine tours. Victor discovered that by pre-arranging, you get much better hosts – and frequently a private tour. And Boschendal is no exception. The great-grandson of the original founder of the winery (now employed here by the current owner) is our host – and he regales us with tons of information about not only the wines, but also the Hugenaut history of this area of South AFrica. His name is Francois – but of course he speaks no French. That is long gone, but the naming tradition continues. Interesting.

Today is Sunday – and on Sunday everyone that has a bike uses it in this area. We pass rider after rider on our way to the winery – and not surprisingly – are surrounded by riders and their families who have made the estate their picnic ground. In a word – it’s mobbed. But our tour is private – so there!

Naturally – they have organized how to ship wine to the states – so two cases later, we head on to lunch (extremely forgettable meal at Fyndraai), and drive into Franschhoek. We are greeted at our newest lodging – Le Quartier Francais – with the news that we have been upgraded to a suite – and we are the first guests in this newly renovated space. And it is best described as huge and fancy! The art around the lodging is outstanding, the art in our suite makes one gasp – and the entire room is so huge I have to take pictures. The living room area has a fireplace (which they offer to light should it get cool), and the bathroom features not only the mandatory huge free standing bathtub (but please don’t use it – we are having a water crisis) and double sinks – it has a heated floor! Curiously to me, the toilet and the shower are both glass enclosed rooms. Odd – private but not so private if you get my drift.

It’s rather early in the day – so we opt to wander the one Main Street of Franschhoek and look for a book store. The first one we find is called the Treasure Box, and it’s a used book store run by an elderly lady. The door to the shop has a metal fence across the front – and a note to ‘ring bell and pull the gate’. We do so, and when we ask why the protection – she admits that she was robbed at gun point and decided not again. She also lets us know that her husband died suddenly (5 years ago), and she still has never discovered all the codes he used on the internet things – like bank accounts and wifi passwords.

Oh.

We buy a cook book from her – which she lets us know does NOT contain any recipe she would cook – it’s about Africian, not Afrikaner cuisine, and we head back out to explore. The rest of the village is composed of either tourist traps or stores for locals like 3 different grocery stores and a pharmacy. Despite the warning from the gal at the Treasure Box – we find that the village feels quite safe.

Our hotel was the site of a world famous restaurant for many years – but it closed in June (the chef wanted more time with her family) but the newly opened replacement is La Petite Colombe. The tasting menu looks very interesting, and by our standards is not terribly expensive, so we opt to give it a try.

An excellent choice as it turns out. The 12 course meal is well prepared, well served – and very interesting. I thought only one of the dishes wasn’t an absolutely standout – which is probably a record. My favourite courses were the “meet the chef” which had us up at a ‘chef’s table’ in front of the kitchen enjoying a soup made with expertly seasoned freshly made noodles, and a quail egg, the Asian style tuna that was yummy to the last dribble, and BBQ quail and lobster tail combo that hit all the right notes.

My husband of course had the wine tasting with his meal – I opted for sparkling water and a few sips here and there.

A wonderful meal to go with a wonderful suite and a wonderful day.

Signing off because bed is definitely beckoning- The Soup Lady

Day 2 in SA Wine Country – Only 1 Winery – Thank Goodness


We wake to our alarm, and go down stairs for breakfast. While not quite as wonderful as the breakfast at the Cape Heritage, it’s a delightful spread of various cheeses, cereals, fresh fruit (I love fruit), 4 different kinds of breads, and hot items such as scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes. I order a Latte (wonderful), and even score a newspaper to read. Nice start to the day.

We head out to Spier, one of the massively huge wineries in the area. Spier offers family friendly entertainment along with the wine tasting – there is a ‘Bird of Prey’ exhibit, a large area for picnics, and even Segway Tours of the vineyard. But we are here for the tasting. We are seated at a table, and asked which of the options on offer we would prefer – the standard tasting, the chocolate and wine tasting, or the prestige tasting. Victor reminds them that we’d pre-ordered our selections – and this upgrades us to the ‘knows something about wine’ category. A shift in staff happens – and our new ‘server’ is far more knowledgable about what Spier has to offer. It turns out that she started in the Cellars 3 years ago and has been steadily promoted to a role as one of the ‘top’ tasters.

She certainly knows her wines – and gives us an excellent taste tour though what the vineyard has to offer. The challenge comes when we try to buy some of the wines. They can’t figure out how to ship to the US. Seriously? You are one of the largest producers in the area, and you have no US distribution? How odd is that.

Well – never mind – your competitors have it figured out – we’ll buy wine from them.

After the tasting, we head over to the ‘Slow Market’. I’d seen the signs – it’s held at a winery near by on Saturday from 10-3 – and I think it sounds interesting. And I was right. Unlike the market we went to a few nights ago – this market is huge. There are vendors both inside and outside, and they are selling ready to eat food, soaps, African handicrafts, their personal art (paintings mostly, but there are a pair of brothers doing wire bead work that I love), flowers, vegetables, hand painted this and that – basically it’s a giant assortment of vendors, all selling things that they made.

We love it. We wander thru the entire market, checking prices and admiring this, that and the other before we decide on a freshly made waffle for lunch, along with strawberries picked that day by a local farmer. I surrender to the need to buy something by picking out beaded flowers made by the two brothers mentioned above, and Victor buys some wooden bowls to give as gifts.

After lunch, we head back into Stellenbosch to check out an antique store we spotted (it’s closed by the time we get there), and to visit two of the non-wine related highlights of Stellenbosch, the Village Museum and the Botanical Gardens.

At the Village Museum, the movie isn’t working, but the visits to the 4 older homes (one from 1750’s, two dating from around 1812, and the last from 1850. All 4 homes have interpreters dressed appropriately who give you the standard intro when you walk in. If you ask them questions, they actually know quite a bit about the homes, but the onus is on the visitor to be inquisitive.

We are particularly impressed with the knowledge of the gal in the first 1812 house, and actually leave her a bit extra as a tip.

The Botanical Gardens is a relatively compact area in town that has been a public garden for over 200 years. It is tied to the University – and there are students doing homework or just lounging on most of the larger green portions. The gardens has 4 large greenhouses, a giant Fern garden, a rose garden, several pond areas, and lots of paths winding here and there. It’s quite a lovely spot to spend some time. We are particularly intrigued by a large flowering plant that apparently grows in the shade. But of course – we can’t bring anything home with us like that – we must admire but not buy!

Eventually we head back to our hotel, change for dinner and again wander the streets searching for just the right spot to have dinner. We opt for a hotel restaurant that has set up tables on the sidewalk, making for a lovely outdoor eating area. I love my braised pork belly – a nice change from Lamb chops.

After dinner, it’s back to the Oude Werf for bed.

Tomorrow is another day, another winery… Signing off – The Soup Lady