Tag Archives: national parks

SOUTH AFRICA – Thendele, The Drakensberg Mountains

Why does it always rain on me..?

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Think of South Africa and many images are conjured up – arid landscapes, wild animals, colourful garments, Nelson Mandela. Rain, I have to say, hadn’t featured in my imagination. Rain did, however, feature heavily in our reality. On our journey from Cape Town to KwaZulu-Natal, days sprinkled with the most glorious of sunshine were rudely interrupted by the odd full-day torrential downpour. Forget cats and dogs, on those days it rained rhinos.

South Africa has suffered badly over the last two years with the worst drought in over a century. The consequences have been dire with many big game animals dying – their carcases a reminder of how dependent precious life is upon water. So, this rain was a slight inconvenience to our holiday, but at least the big picture had a big dam full of water.

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“Break it to me…what does it say?”

Weather reports are sometimes wrong, are they not? Nick and I had booked 5 days of camping in the Drakensburg, so named because of how the landscape looks like a multitude of dragons lying down for a siesta. Nick had dreamt of going since being a nipper, and with my love of Daenarys, ‘Mother of Dragons’ (Game of Thrones) I was firmly on the bandwagon.

“Tuesday, rain.”

“And Wednesday?”

“More rain…and thunderstorms.”

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As we looked further into the week, the millimetres of rainfall due increased, and although I didn’t know exactly how much 8 millimetres of rainfall was, it surely wasn’t going to be too much fun in our wee 2-man tent. Having said that, with all our faff trying to work out a route that would coincide with this, that and the other, it was the only blasted thing we had actually managed to book! We would just have to go and hope for the best.

It was a beautiful day as we drove from Nick’s auntie’s in Grey Town to Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensburg. Superstitious though we aren’t, we do always proclaim to be ‘lucky’ with the weather. Aha! Maybe rain wasn’t really due. Maybe South Africa’s version of The Met Office had written the report.

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Splat

As soon as we opened the car door, the hailstones started. Crap.  Having checked in, we both sat in the car next to our camping spot, wondering when, or indeed if, there would be a break in the rain, and both looking decidedly sorry for ourselves. Sinking into the mud, we did what any sensible person would in this situation – we had a beer and decided to…

Screw the budget!

This was one of the things we most wanted to do in South Africa and we had driven about 5000 kilometres for the pleasure. Looking at Nick’s sad face as he realised we couldn’t see the mountains from the campsite, I did a Beyonce and offered to upgrade him, though I had to be clear – this would not involve ‘looking fly’. What it did involve was swapping the 3 nights camping we had booked in Mahai camp site for 2 nights in a chalet in Thendele resort, paying the difference and not worrying about it.

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No words…

Oh c’mon now. We all know I never have no words…

Opening the front door we were like two kids at Christmas. Inside the bedroom-stroke-lounge was an enormous window. Outside the enormous window were some even more enormous mountains. Truely jaw-dropping. The velvety-green mountains sprawled out for miles – wide and expansive, they could have breathed life into a teapot.

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The next day up we got up super early hoping to get a hike in before the inevitable afternoon downpour. I was on track to receive a scar from every country we had travelled in: in Nepal I fell down a hole, in Myanmar I fell off a bike, in Thailand I kicked some coral. I just needed one from South Africa.  Well, the long grass soon sorted that out. With no long socks or boots, my ankles soon looked like that of a dyslexic self-harmer.

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The Policeman’s Helmet

Rocks being personified took us back to a cave tour in Thailand where the guide pointed at abstract looking rocks and said things like, “elephant” or “man with a beard skateboarding on one leg”. The likenesses were a stretch of the imagination at best. Here, however, was a rock looking exactly like that which it was named after – a Policeman’s Helmet. This was our target for the day, rested on a medium high ridge. We were not disappointed! From this ridge we not only had a stunning view of the Amphitheatre, we also had a 360° view of the endless mountains.

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We wanted to stay longer – up on this ridge was the perfect picnic spot, but knowing how quickly the weather can change in The Drakensberg and not wanting to push our luck, we headed back to enjoy our luxury digs. As it was, the weather was good all afternoon, too. We were still thankful for that first down pouring of rain, though – it gave us the perfect excuse to indulge ourselves for two nights. Drinking wine by the fire and looking out at the stretches of those slumbering dragons was absolute bliss!!

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THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: borders, bathing and tennis balls…

“Borders, bathing and tennis balls…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Day 7/evening:

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Professional model - an Akha lady fond of the hard sell in a Chinese enclave in the hills

That evening we headed up a detour road simply marked “adventure time!” on the map sent to Nick by his friend, Chris. We had no idea what this meant, but were unsurprised to find yet more steep dirt tracks leading the way. We rocked up to be greated by one lone man…who didn’t speak English. The strange expression on his face would have had us believe there was no accommodation, but as luck would have it, a few minutes later a few Thai people showed up. Their first question: “How did you know about this place?”. The fact was, we didn’t really. We weren’t even sure if this was where Chris had stayed or if any tourists ever ventured this way. But as sunset was only about an hour off, and with no monastery to fall back on this time, we were counting on this being a place to stay.

With the new Thai group standing in as translators, we were soon looking at our room for the night – a 6 bed dorm, cheap as chips, sleeping only us.  Score. The group were even so sweet as to invite us to eat with them. Thai camping is a military operation, not least in terms of the cooking. Whole kitchens are transported just for one night in a tent – food really is at the centre of their social events.

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However, we had some exploring to do – this place was not only special because of its remote location, it seemed that here you could quite likely do what we hadn’t succeeded in doing before – walk into Myanmar. As we started along a path leading into a forested area behind the accommodation, we looked on Google – only 1km from the border. Where was all the border control now, we wondered? Pressing on, we could see the blue dot moving nearer and nearer that line, the words of Chris echoing in my mind – be careful not to cross over to the wrong side. We weren’t sure exactly where he meant originally, but now we were here, it seemed this could be the very place – nowhere else had we found it remotely possible to get even this close. As dark was coming, and Myanmar militia groups were probably close by, we sensibly, for once, decided to heed Chris’s warning and head back to our digs. Still, after all the “no entry” roads we had encountered near the border, it was exhilarating to think we had got that close, unnoticed and unhindered.

 Day 8:

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A driving day. Stopped off in this arboretum, which we probably could have given a miss. The gardens a few kilometres before might have been worth the money, though.

Day 9:

That’s not what we learnt in school…

It’s funny how perspective can change something as rudimentary as history. Reading a book about the Israel/Palestine conflict, I remembered an Israeli girl remarking that they didn’t know that Palestinians were chased out of their homes at gunpoint – the story that they were told at school involved the Palestinians running away and abandoning their homes like cowards. Sometimes white lies are easier to swallow. Except when it comes to history, the white lies are often very dirty. So imagine our interest, as two Brits, walking into the Hall of Opium Museum in Chiang Saen to hear history told from a non-British perspective. Our country was no longer a nation of heroes, but one that intentionally got China hooked on opium to further our own agenda, notably, facilitating our tea drinking. Apparently tea was a major expense to us and we had to find a way of funding our indulgence. Now, I’m all about the tea, but to discover the lengths we went to, and the manipulation involved, was quite the eye opener. We spent a good four hours in that museum and I don’t think we missed one placard.

“The Golden Triangle”

The afternoon of day 9 and we were nearly at the point after which this loop was coined – “The Golden Triangle”. On a map, this is the point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. In reality, this is an ugly tourist trap with a ghastly monument, some misplaced attempt to mark the significance of the place. We were aware that this might be the case, and yet, we felt compelled to stop and decide for ourselves. Nick even got me on a boat up the Mekong. Now that might sound idyllic, but I can promise you that it wasn’t. The surroundings were that of an industrial bomb site placed next to a murky brown river. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but I boarded the boat, contrary to my better judgement.

“Shopping time!”

Noisy engine propelling us forward, we looped around the casino – evidently constituting something of interest for a nation where gambling is illegal. The next thing we knew, we had pulled across on the Laos side to go “shopping”!! When the guy selling us the tickets had mentioned the word, we explicitly said we only wanted a boat ride. Just when we thought people coming to the boat to sell us things was bad enough, around the corner appeared an elephant giving rides with one of those brutal chairs on its back. That was it, we got the boat guy to take us straight back across the murky brown water where we promptly moved on.

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A beautiful part of the Mekong

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Luckily that wasn’t to be our only experience of the Mekong. Aiming for Chiang Kong, we had the most beautiful ride along a road that weaved alongside the river. The water was now much clearer in colour, although still not quite clean enough to tempt me in for a dip. Nick, on the other hand, was raring to go, and it wasn’t long before we found him a spot to fill his boots, or rather, dunk his toes. Either way, he was in, and he wasn’t the only one. Two young boys were also swimming and had a great time trying to copy Nick swimming upstream against the strong current. We had such fun with them, practising their few words of English, that after they left, I made Nick ride after them on the bike to give them something I had been carrying around since the beginning of our travels – a children’s picture atlas. It had served me well in terms of learning my Middle Eastern capitals, but it was never intended for me. I had brought it along hoping to find a new owner, and as these boys ran off with it and sat on the step of their house to eagerly flick through the pages, I knew that they had been a good choice.

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Nick's swimming buddies

Day 10:

Accommodation along the Mekong road was far too expensive, so we had continued to Chiang Kong to sleep the night of the 9th. It was just such a beautiful bit of road, though, we decided to go back on ourselves this morning. Breakfasting looking out over the Mekong in the morning sunshine was a bit of pure bliss.

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Breakfast view!

After a lazy few hours reading in our glorious location, we headed for Phu Chi Fa, where it was said you could look straight down into Laos from the border.

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Sunrise from Thailand: peering down into Laos with a sea of cloud rolling beneath us

Day 11:

This time we did actually get up for sunrise. Us and the rest of the world. Certainly busier and more commercial than some of our stop offs, it was, none-the-less, quite beautiful. It was evidently a place for some of the Hmong people, who originated from China.

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We were meant to be doing a long journey on the bike today, but we hadn’t got far from the viewpoint when we passed a street full of people wearing the most amazing outfits, and this time it didn’t appear to be about the tourists. Now quite used to being brazen, we got off the bike to go and see what was happening in the school playground where all these people were congregating. Unmoving in two lines, they were simply throwing tennis balls back and forth. And back. And forth. Perhaps Murray had an opening for a new ball boy.

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Fruitlessly we tried to find out what it was all about.  Perhaps we assumed that because we were near a tourist attraction that someone might speak a bit of English. Not a sausage. It wasn’t until some other Thai tourists came along that they managed to find out for us that this was a new year festival and the throwing/catching game was one that was traditionally carried out between girls and boys that like each other. Now that’s what I call a date.

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 Day 12:

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Quick soak at Chae Som hot springs before heading back to Chiang Mai.

THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: hill tribes, hot springs & a Honda PCX…

“Hill tribes, hot springs and a Honda PCX…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

We had arrived in the north of Thailand only a couple of days before our visas were due to expire. But a couple of days would be fine to get an extension…or so we thought. Ah. The weekend. It had been so long since we had endured a proper working week that we had forgotten about the fact that offices close on Saturdays and Sundays. So we would have to extend on Monday, the day our visa expired. Donning our smartest clothes, as advised on the net, we headed off down Chiang Mai’s superhighway towards the visa office, and crossed everything that we could whilst riding a bike.

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Without a hitch (bar recognising our own names as they were called out in Thai accents) we got our visas extended for another month. Now we were free to do what we had planned since the beginning – explore the north, full of jungle, waterfalls, tribes and greenery. Time to get back on the bike – quite literally…

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Days 1 & 2

It was only day two of our second motorbike trip in the north of Thailand, and we had already met some funny characters. It was Christmas holidays, and so the Thai middle class, who love camping even more than me and Nick, were still out in full force. We got to a hot springs, of which there are plenty in Thailand, to a setting of picturesque pools, small bridges..and children…everywhere. We opted for the hot spring pool with the least kids in, and dipped in an empty corner.

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“Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la”

It was perhaps less than a minute before a Thai couple started talking to us. The guy’s English was minimal, but what he lacked in language, he made up for in laughter. He had a story and he was committed to trying to communicate it.  Oblivious to the stares of the more conservative eyes around him, he started clapping the back of his hand against the palm of the other; the next thing he was cradling an imaginary baby. We got the jist. As he got on his knees and mimed praying to Buddha, he reached his pièce de résitance, “Jingle Bells”; we were in fits of hysterics. He and his wife had been married a couple of years and had been trying for a baby. Camping was their romantic setting and Jingle Bells their prayer song to Buddha. We would have to take a note for future reference.

That night we rocked up at Wat Thummuangna, a monastery just a kilometre from the Myanmar border.  Nick’s friend Chris had told us he had stayed there before, but on arriving, it seemed like most of the people staying there had come to practise Buddhism. Funny that. Feeling a bit presumptuous, we did the obligatory tour before being offered some food and a bed for the night by a friendly monk. I have to say, it was the most glamorous room we have ever stayed in, though I’d hesitate to call it The Honeymoon Suite for obvious reasons. We made ourselves at home to the soundtrack of mantras being chanted, and in the spirit of things we decided we might join them for a while. How long would it go on for, we enquired. Oh, only three days…THREE DAYS?! People in the temple (built into the side of a cave) were literally falling asleep mid-chant, waking up and joining in again. For THREE DAYS! Forty-five minutes and my legs were going dead. The only Nirvana I knew about was in my CD collection.

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Days 3 & 4:

By the next morning we had racked up several offers from the monk – it seemed like he was taking his vows seriously and trying to give away anything and everything he owned – tiger balm, candles, snacks. However, “Thou shalt not take copious amounts of pictures of oneself” was evidently not in the Buddhist guide. As we sat together with him and his side kick – one very extrovert nun, he got out his phone to show us photos of where he’d travelled. This monk was a serial-selfier. Hundreds of pics and not one missing his face!

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Actually it was fascinating talking to those two, as well as a couple of other nuns there. What I hadn’t realised is that anyone can become a monk or a nun, and they can choose how long for. Each had their own reasons for being there, and each chose the length of time. One woman told us of her controlling Japanese husband she needed some space from, while our fun-loving nun had worked for the U.N. for a time and didn’t like what she found out. As for the reasons they shave their heads, stop wearing make-up, give up possessions, and meditate, I thought I might have had an idea. However, I wanted to ask those willing to do so what was their perspective.  Essentially, the fullest explanation I managed to wrangle was, “Because Buddha did.” Nuff said.

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We spent the next two days camping at Fang hot springs, right next to the pools. It was pretty idyllic, bar the smell of eggs from the sulphur in the springs. This is where photos sometimes do lie.

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Day 5:

The next day we headed up Doi Pha Hom Pok, the country’s second highest mountain at 2285m. So far Thailand had been tarmac heaven. Although we loved the smooth curves of the previous motorbike loop, it had admittedly been just a little too easy. Not that I was complaining – there’s no way I would have had a go on the bike otherwise (a brief 2 hour affair). We had ummed and ahhed about whether to both get a small bike for this loop (Honda Wave 120cc) or for me to take up my usual pillion position on a Honda PCX 150cc. As we approached the road leading up to this national park, I was pretty relieved we had gone for the latter of the two options! A steep dirt road, full of large rocks and uneven ridges led us up to the top, finally arriving at dusk. Just time to set up the tent and get some food…

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“Beer?”

We had asked for noodles. There were no noodles. Soup?  No soup. The cafe seemed to be strangely unoccupied, and instead, a national park guard was taking us on a tour of the stock room to see what we could find. It seemed they had had a big weekend and the cafe owners had gone to town to restock. Eggs and beer it was then. What more could a girl want? Actually, a thermal blanket for the brutal cold. The plan was to get up early to hike the last few kilometres to the summit – a hike that would start in the dark, last 3 hours, and get us there for sunrise. Bitterly cold, we renaged on that one.

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DAYS 6 & 7:

We stayed in a simple room next to the river in a lovely Thai town called Thaton. It’s the perfect place to take a 2 day boat journey to Chiang Rai, but we had the small matter of the bike we had hired. Instead we passed sunrise at the stunning, if slightly commercial, Monastery, Wat Thaton; swam in the river; and made a plan for the next day. We decided that, as wonderful as Thailand had been, we had only scratched the surface when it came to the hill tribe people there. There are 6 main tribes: the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, but like everything in Thailand, these tribes were now increasingly merging with the mainstream – a Thai commodity in fancy dress. We had even heard that the long neck Karen tribes (so called because of the beautifying coils placed around their necks as children, which encourage their necks to grow long like giraffes) had sometimes been forced into commercial tourism – fenced in and peered at like animals in a zoo to make somebody else profit. Sounded like something we would be loathe to support. So how could we meet these groups on a non-commercial level? Surely they all lived somewhere hidden in the hills…

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“Turn around. It’s another one. “

Looking ahead we could see this was another army base, small but ubiquitous this close to the Myanmar border.  Nick had had the cunning idea of using google’s satellite imagery to try and pin point some extra small villages on the map. Unfortunately for many of the hill tribes, the Thai government has tried to relocate them from the hills, where they go about their traditional ways of life, to near roads.  Something about border control and security. Still, it gave us the chance of finding an authentic group, or so we thought. This was the third army base we had mistaken for a village on the map, and we only had one more place to check out…

“What now?”

We arrived on our roaring bike to stares of disbelief, or bewilderment, or perhaps a mix of the two. Entering the village there were perhaps 5 houses on either side, and one at the end. So, casually pretending we were just passing through wasn’t going to wash with them. Enclosed in their horse shoe village, we conspicuously dismounted the bike, looking around for a guise – maybe that old, “Let’s sit in a cafe and have a cup of tea” defence. Scanning from left to right, there was no cafe, not even a plastic table and chairs set up outside someone’s house as we had come across so many times before. There were people, and pigs. And maybe a few chickens.

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“Sawadee kaaaa”

We saluted the suspicious faces with the Thai “Waa” (hands together in prayer position, and a bowing of the head to show respect). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Hill tribes have their own customs and language; had we been in any doubt, this confirmed that we were now looking at one.

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Unsure what to do next, we latched onto the kids. Even though they were shy, they seemed happy to entertain these strange people who had just invaded their village. The elder people were more cautious, although not unfriendly.  Obviously us turning up uninvited was probably quite bizarre for them, and with a communication barrier the size of the ocean between our respective lands, we weren’t able to convey anything about why we were there. Indeed, why were we there? I suppose were curious about a more minimalistic way of life and keen to understand what life was like for hill tribes in a society either trying to change or marginalise them. However, being there actually felt intrusive.

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Feeling like we should move on, we took a quick walk up the road first. Here we got a clue as to what these people hold dear and what they don’t. There a concrete building stood, with smashed windows, quite obviously abandoned. Venturing inside we found walls painted with colourful pictures, each next to the relevant word…in English. Whoever had opened this school, had seemingly tried, and failed, to introduce Western schooling to these people. As we so often do in our society, we assume that our ways are the best ways, not considering the fact that other societies live by a different set of ideals, perhaps contented to continue as they are.

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