Bikes, Wine and Cheetahs

Malawi | South Africa | Qatar | London |

DSCN6602  I have never been a cyclist.  So, I’m not quite sure why then, I agreed to mountain bike across Malawi with my friend Peter (who also dragged me cycling at the Olympics and starred in Chad and PNG stories).  Our three-day 170km trip would take us from the mountains of Malawi’s north down to the inviting shores of Lake Malawi.   Peter, a keen road cyclist but just recovering from a triple whammy of typhoid, dengue fever and parasites, was content to take it slow and steady.  And surely it would be mostly downhill.

Jauntily, we set off.  Within half an hour, at the top of a long climb, I was gasping for water and absolutely exhausted.  Within the next hour, I was walking my bike up anything but the most gentle of inclines.  It was going to be a long three days.   Pawex, our guide, told us of a one-legged woman (yes – not even a prosthetic) who had recently cycled the route.  I developed an irrational hatred for her.  Somehow, though, we pushed on through that interminable day with never ending hills in crippling heat and collapsed at our camping site 5 ½ hours later with that satisfied exhaustion that comes from knowing you have really pushed yourself out of your comfort zone.

Day 2 began with a grimace as our aching bodies endured the agony of being back in the saddle, but luckily, with a much more pleasant downhill to uphill ratio, prettier scenery and less rutted tracks, we found our cycling legs and had a slightly easier day.   The village kids lining the road and cheering us on like Tour de France participants also helped.   However, the one-legged woman still haunted our journey.  At the top of every hill that I walked up, I learnt she had cycled. up   My irrational hatred escalated when, by the afternoon of Day 2, I was lagging behind and decided to jump in the support car with Yamikami, our driver and let Peter and Pawex speed ahead (Malawians have the coolest names).

Peter, now fully acclimatized, set speed records for the rest of the trip (avenging the one-legged woman!) although we slowed down and enjoyed the views as we pedalled through stunning tea plantations.    A little tip – if you decide you want to set your own pace by urging your companion and guide to go ahead while you wait for the driver (but really you just want to meander and take photos of the tea estates), don’t miss a key turnoff and go a significant distance in the wrong direction and have everyone looking for you. They’ll all be really mad.

At lunchtime on Day 3, the sweet view of Lake Malawi and a gorgeous beach cove made it all worthwhile and we had the opportunity to rest our weary bodies.  Peter summed it up nicely “This has been a brutal ordeal – torture, pure torture.”  Soon, though, it was off to our next adventure as we headed out on kayaks from Cape Maclear to the wilderness camp of Domwe Island.  Being much more comfortable in a kayak than on the bike, I had visions of besting Peter on a long kayak around the island but sadly, rainy weather meant it wasn’t to be.  However, Lake Malawi, an enormous freshwater lake with more species of fish than in North America and Europe combined, has lots of places to explore (and great diving) and I’m sure I’ll be back one day. Peter – it’s a trip we won’t forget!

Malawi gave way to South Africa with my German friend Dani (of Toronto Gang Dubai, Austria and Switzerland fame) where I finally ticked off the last on my list of the great Bay cities of the world – Cape Town.   It was here that we involuntarily began the refrain that would continue through the whole trip  “Oh – it’s soooo beautiful!!”.   Sweeping views from Table Mountain, sunset at Camp’s Bay, the view from Robben Island of the city glittering like a jewel at the base of the mountain…  Our refrain carried us from the city to rolling vineyards, hiking Echo Valley on the Peninsula, driving the coastal route (complete with African penguins) and then the Garden Route, walking the cliffs at Hermanus, hiking the Kingfisher trail at Wilderness, checking out one of the world’s most famous surf waves at Jeffreys Bay and the rugged beauty of Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope.

Cape Point was where the second theme of the trip really came into play – “It’s soooooo windy”. Cape Town is known as the windy city but this took it to another level – with gale force winds that literally had us holding on to anything nearby for dear life, terrified of being blown away.  Check out the photos for a sense – taken in a clamer moment.  Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa and meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic oceans was tame by comparison but still exuded an “end of the world” kind of feeling that came complete with dinner at a caravan/trailer in the Harbour carpark.

Speaking of food, our third theme “Oh – it’s sooo good” – was all about the food and wine.   South Africa is a foodie and wino’s delight with the wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek a highlight.   Six glasses per tasting, generous pours, friendly servers, outdoor seating options, few crowds, often free…we were in absolute heaven.    And we topped it off by happening upon one of the social events of the year – the annual champagne festival – where we indulged in our new sparkling favorite – the Piper Heidsieck Rose.  Funnily enough, the theme for this year was black and white and both of us, completely coincidentally, happened to be wearing black and white that day so we felt right at home.   For my fellow Aussies, it felt just like going to the races (that’s horse races for the rest of you!).

Of course food always goes with wine and champers and we didn’t neglect this… oysters at Knysna on the Garden Route, seafood platters at Camp’s Bay, fine dining at Sevruga (treated by two dashing Italians Dani rustled up from Dubai), vineyard dining at Overture, grilled calamari everywhere (chefs of the world take note – fried calamari is a travesty!).   But the standout meal was a very special five course dinner at Serendipity in Wilderness on the Garden Route.  Run personally by a husband (sommelier) and wife (chef) team, their passion and attention to detail transcended everything and a visit here is a must do.      Other contenders for dinner were Enrico’s at Plettenberg Bay while best lunch was prawn and peri-peri butter eaten seaside at Jeffreys Bay and accompanied by wine out of chipped enamel cups.  Best breakfast was Giovanni’s in Cape Town.

Luckily all this food and wine was possible because of the fourth theme “It’s SOOOO cheap”.   With the slumping of the Rand, South Africa is incredible value right now.   When perusing my first wine list I literally thought I had the exchange rate wrong.  How could a fine bottle of wine be only $18???  And that five course dinner at Serendipity – $35 each!  Cost of a glass of wine at Agulhus Bay – $1.40.   Book your tickets now!  Even the roadside assistance is free.  Yes – in a clichéd move, we became those two girls on the side of the road with a flat tyre.   Then the credit ran out on our local phone, then the battery was dead on our international phone, then the toll-free number couldn’t be called from the international SIM, then I couldn’t find the rental car contract to get another number….and then, just as we resigned ourselves to changing the tyre ourselves (a scary thought), a hero in a car titled “Toll Road Services” pulls over. Turns out his entire job is to drive up and down the stretch of road we were on and look for people needing assistance.  Another score for South Africa.

DSC00243Our fifth and last theme for the trip was “We want Cats!”.   Having whetted our appetite for large cats by spending a couple of hours taking two cheetahs for their morning walk (tip – let go of the lead when they start to run – you will NOT be able to keep up), we headed to Kruger in search of more.  We saw an incredible amount of animals and had the extraordinary experience of being in the midst of a herd of over 100 elephants teeming with mothers and babies (it was birthing season), but lions, cheetahs and leopards eluded us.   In desperation, on our last afternoon we danced to the cat gods and were rewarded the next morning with a massive lion wandering 2m from our car on his way to reunite with his lioness and cubs waiting in the river bed below us.    The leopards eluded us to the end (except for the one at the cat sanctuary) so we’ll catch them next time.

Of course, no visit to South Africa would be complete without mention of Mandela and we were there when he passed away.    As you would expect, his name and story dominated the media from the moment the news broke and it was a very moving time.   Many South Africans expressed concern that his death would lead to destabilization within the country.  It remains to be seen whether this happens but I was a little shocked to see that very little integration seems to have occurred – at least in social settings.   Hopefully the next generation can achieve this.  We had our own intergenerational moment when we visited a senior citizen’s community centre in the Townships – a visit with the express purpose of encouraging interaction between older blacks who lived under apartheid and white people.   Both Dani and I held back tears as they sung and danced songs of forgiveness and joy. RIP Mandela.

Dani – So much fun traveling with you – and confusing everyone on who is German and who is Germany! See you on the slopes.

Heading back to the UK, I decided to spend a day in Doha, Qatar on the way.  With the Museum of Islamic Art and the Hirst Exhibition closed, I headed to the Souk instead and found myself fascinated by the falcon shops and hospital.  Falconry is an obsession in Qatar and the best can cost thousands of dollars and be issued with their own special passports so they can’t be stolen and taken out of the country.   I also learnt a lesson about keeping your friends up to date on ALL of your travel plans when, waiting to fly out I was casually emailing with Anna (one of my three London gals) about our London social plans and she mentioned she was currently in Doha!  I tried frantically to change my flight to hang out with her for the night but to no avail.

Nevertheless we caught up for some well-deserved champers in London where I also had dinner at the London outpost of Hutong (a Hong Kong favorite) in the Shard building (great view but they need more work  on the food and service execution).  Thanks for the company Amee, Deb and Terry.    I also had my first “participatory theatre” experience with a production of  “The Drowning Man”.   In this surreal evening, you create your own theatre journey by wandering at your own pace around an enormous darkened warehouse, elaborately set up as a film studio, embracing scenes as you come across them.   While I didn’t fully understand what was going on all the time, the quality and creativity was extraordinary and I highly recommend attending if you get the chance.  Thanks for organizing Emma!

I’m now exploring Myanmar and India.   More from there in a few weeks…

Happy Holidays!

– Nikki

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