South Africa 2012

Thursday February 2nd

It's hard for me to believe that you can go from London to Paris and back in a day and have enough time to see many of the major sites - but today we did it! A couple of weeks back, while on our trip, I went on line and purchased a couple of return tickets on the Eurostar train - Kjell at Naledi Bushcamp was kind enough to print out the tickets for us. 

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We were up well before dawn and took a taxi from our hotel to London's St. Pancras station - arriving around 6:00AM. It was unbelievably cold, we were well wrapped up, and when we arrived in the deserted station we thought we might be at the wrong place. However, we soon figured out that the check-in for the Eurostar was on the lower floor and our driver had dropped us on the upper floor. There are lots of indications all over London of the upcoming summer Olympics - even in St. Pancras station. Checking in for this train is very much like an airport check-in; bags and bodies scanned - and a nice departure lounge with shops and a coffee shop. Steaming hot lattes were great.

At the announced time we followed the directions on our tickets to locate our coach and pre-assigned seats - the train left exactly on time at 7:01AM. The seats were comfortable though a little tight - we were seated opposite each other and had trouble arranging our knees under the little flip down table that was between us. The Eurostar travels at 186mph and is extremely smooth - we were whisked through the countryside of southern England and in what seemed like no time we entered the Channel Tunnel. During the tunnel transit the train slowed down a bit, but in about 20 minutes we were in France. Continuing south we arrived in Paris's Gard Du Nord station at about 10:15AM local time - the whole train journey had taken about 2 hours and 15 minutes, amazing! 

Our plan for Paris was roughly; The Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and dinner. The first hurdle was navigating the underground train system - which in Paris can be quite daunting, even though we'd visited before. The problem is that the rail map actually depicts three different but connected transportation systems overlapping on the same map - once you figure this out things become a little clearer (just a little). The confusing map, my limited French and the, as usual, not too helpful people made for an interesting encounter - but we finally made it onto the underground train and down to the center of Paris. 

A short walk along the banks of the Seine in incredibly blistering cold weather brought us the The Louvre. A former palace, The Louvre is an absolutely massive and spectacular building with a very strange and modern addition at the front that looks like a gigantic Egyptian greenhouse - I wondering if maybe there would be a special tomato exhibit, I'm very partial to a tomato sandwich.

Neither of us had been to The Louvre before so after we got in from the cold we headed straight for a cafe where we could study the museum map and make our plan of attack. Given our limited amount of time, we needed to be very selective in our choice of exhibits. Sandra discovered that the map actually offered a selection aimed at folks in our predicament; 3 or 4 of the most important pieces on each floor and in each wing were identified on the map. This became kind of a treasure hunt.

After depositing about 3 tonnes of outerwear at the free coat check, we began our navigation of the various wings and floors of the Louvre. Blinkers were definitely required in order to make it from one highlighted piece to the next without a major detour. Memorable items included the statue of "Aphrodite of Milos", better known as the "Venus De Milo" - it being a very cold day in February we benefited from the museum being under-populated, which was great. Even the crowd in the room containing the Mona Lisa was not too big; we were able to stand right in front of the masterpiece un-hassled for as long as we wanted - but no matter how long we waited, she still did not break into a full smile.

We also enjoyed the Napoleon apartments - left over from a time when the emperor used to live in the palace. This series of lavishly adorned rooms seemed to be left exactly as they were when Louis Napoleon (not the one who kept turning Josephine down) lived here.

By the time we left the Louvre it was late afternoon and the weather had turned even colder as we set off to walk through the Tuileries gardens and on to the Eiffel Tower. All of the ponds in the gardens were frozen, making it difficult for the resident birds to keep their balance. As we approached the Place de la  Concorde a large Ferris wheel came into view - personally I find this trend for all major cities to install a huge hideous carnival attraction in the middle of their cultural sites appalling!

We paused for a brief rest, Sandra found a handy chair, before crossing the river in our quest to reach the tower before nightfall. Walking up a classic Paris side street we stumbled into a small cafe so we could get warmed up and grab a snack. The cafe also had free WiFi; bits of French came back to me from a long ago Conversational French class and I was able to successfully order two milky coffees, a Nutella crepe, get us on the internet and pay the bill - I was beaming with pride.

We arrived at the Eiffel Tower just as it was starting to get dark and joined the other frozen souls in the queue to ascend to the top. Even though the line was relatively short, after about 10 minutes I estimated that it would take us about an hour to get to the ticket booth. There were two problems with this; first we would not have time to see Notre Dame before having to head back for the train and also there was a good chance that several of our limbs would have fallen off due to extreme exposure. So we decided to skip the tower, we'd been up it before anyway, and headed for the underground station to catch the train to Notre Dame. 

It was approaching 6PM by the time we arrived at Notre Dame, so we were not expecting to get inside. It had been about 20 years since our last visit to Paris and we both remembered Notre Dame as being a particularly dark place - both outside and inside. We could hear the famous bells as we rounded the corner to view the cathedral; it was lit up and we were pleasantly surprised to see that the stonework had been cleaned - the entire facade shone beautifully. We also realized that an evening mass was about to start which meant the cathedral was open - we hurried in and parked our bums in the pews. 

Not being of the Papal persuasion, we politely declined the candles that were offered by the kind nun - opting to observe rather than take part in the mass. The choir started to sing, the organ played, all the participants had lit candles and the priests began a slow procession through the building swinging the censer which emitted clouds of sweet incense smoke - it was a wonderful sight. We were able to quietly walk up the side aisle of the church while the mass was in progress - allowing us to see the choir and the other interesting aspects of this incredible structure. 

Just up the street from Notre Dame we found a collection of small restaurants - none of which had any appreciable customer count, so were not able to use our usual rule of thumb "when in doubt pick the busiest restaurant". We picked a place at random and the welcome as well as the environment was warm. It was downhill from there. I thought it would be interesting to order French Onion Soup and Steak Frites - the same meal we had in the little French cafe in London. I won't dwell on it, but this could have been one of the worst meals in the history of food! To the surprise of the proprietor Sandra asked for boxes into which we loaded the copious amounts of uneaten food - we had seen a homeless guy on the street bedded down with a dog, sharing body heat no doubt. But when we left the restaurant we could not find the guy, time was short so with extreme guilt the uneaten food went in a garbage can.

Rather than struggle on the underground at rush hour we took a taxi back to the station. This turned out to be a very entertaining ride; the driver had only two speeds - stop and flat out! Driving through Paris at rush hour in this manner was very stressful - especially for the driver who seemed highly emotionally invested in getting us to our destination as fast as possible. At one point, stuck behind another taxi while it's driver waited for a customer, our driver launched himself out of the taxi window (well half of his body anyway) in order to give his brother driver a piece of his mind (I'm sure I heard sacreblue several times). By some miracle we arrived safely at the Gare du Nord. 

Our train left on time at 9:15PM and we were back in London at about 10:30PM - a short taxi ride had us back at our hotel by 11PM - incredible!

So we are almost at the end of our great adventure, and we've enjoyed every minute of it. We will be visiting with family (me for a few days, Sandra for 3 weeks) before heading back to the US.


Wednesday February 1st

Another bitter cold day in London; our plans today are to head to the British Museum - another great favorite of ours. Then later in the day we plan to go to the National Gallery where we have tickets to see a very special exhibit. 

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The British Museum is nothing short of amazing - I find that a particular diligence is required in order to get out of the place in a reasonable amount of time; I'm not kidding, gallery after gallery of jaw-dropping artifacts. The central courtyard area, that was covered in 2001, is an architectural masterpiece.

We particularly enjoy a visit to the ancient Egyptian collection - I've never seen so many mummies in one place at a time. Other favorites include the Rosetta Stone - a kind of ancient translator that finally enabled the code of hieroglyphics to be cracked and also we cannot resist a visit to see the famous Elgin Marbles. Personally I find the story behind the acquisition of the marbles, and the ongoing Greek requests for their return to the Acropolis, way more interesting than the stones themselves.

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After a quick lunch in the museum, we took a short walk to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Several months prior to our trip I noticed an article in The Times about an upcoming exhibit of Davinci paintings to be held at the British National Gallery. I did a quick check of our schedule and confirmed we'd be in town while the exhibit was on, so I jumped on the website and purchased a couple of tickets. Little did I know that the tickets would become such hot commodity by the time the exhibit started; we even saw one guy almost come to blows with a scalper outside the gallery. 

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The exhibit was indeed very special "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ is the most complete display ofLeonardo’s rare surviving paintings ever held. This unprecedented exhibition – the first of its kind anywhere in the world – brings together sensational international loans never before seen in the UK." 

Access to the exhibit was limited to "small" groups each given a specific entry time and allowed only about 40 minutes viewing time. As usual with these kinds of events we found the galleries way too crowded, creating a crushed feeling and causing long lines at the more famous pieces. In addition, while the exhibit did contain the advertised works - it also contains a very large collection of partially finished pencil sketches - a bit boring after a while.

The main pictures were indeed amazing; The "Virgin of the Rock"s (two versions) and "Girl with an Ermine" in particular. I later found out (from my Dad) that an Ermine is actually a Weasel or Ferret - I suppose "Girl with a Weasel" is not quite as catchy a title. It also made me wonder how Leonardo got the Ferret to sit still long enough to do the painting - I remember when I was a kid some of the old men in my town used to keep Ferrets as pets and they were constantly running around (the Ferrets that is). Perhaps the Ermine was stuffed? The other thing that caught my eye were some of Leonardo's notebooks - he was so paranoid that he wrote all of his notes backwards! Finally we were amazed by a full-size copy of "The Last Supper" painted by one of Leonardo's students very shortly after the famous fresco was created. 


Tuesday January 31st

We took an overnight flight from Johannesburg to London, with a stopover in Frankfurt - 10.5 hours to Frankfurt then another 2 hours to London. This was our first flight on the new Airbus A380 and we were suitably impressed; very quiet and the external cameras allow you to watch the take off and landing on your seat-back TV. Despite the itching from the mosquito bites, and annoyance of a slight cough that I had picked up (actually we both had coughs), I managed to get some sleep - I was actually really knackered from the long drive back to Johannesburg. 

We arrived in London at about 7:30AM and headed for the Heathrow Express train - in fact on the way to baggage claim we noticed a couple of employees selling tickets right in the terminal, this was very handy and saved us from waiting in line later. The Heathrow Express is definitely the most convenient way to get from the airport to central London; it's not the cheapest way to go but the trains run about every ten minutes and the journey only takes 15 minutes - right into Paddington Station.

We wrestled our herd of luggage into a cab and arrived at Le Meridien Hotel, just down the street from Piccadilly Circus, at about 9:30AM. We had no expectation of getting a room this early in the day, but to our surprise the hotel was able to accommodate us - this was great because we both needed to change our clothes and get washed before heading out. 

Having visited London many times in the past we felt no rush to run out and see all the major attractions; our rough plan was to try and visit some of our favorite museums and galleries and play it by ear. Our first target was the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, one of our favorites. We headed for the tube station and en-route stopped for a quick lunch at a great little French cafe; Le Garrick - where we had the best french onion soup we've ever had! The weather was bitterly cold - I mean it did not get above freezing all day. There is nothing quite like a bowl of good hot soup on a cold winter's day.

The London Underground Train (tube) is a very efficient way to get around; but over the years we've come to also the appreciate value from walking above ground - and the amazing things you can see as you stroll along. We tend to take a good street map and a tube map - using the tube for some of the longer distance trips only. If you are going to use the tube more than a couple of times during a day it is a better deal to buy the limited day pass than to  buy individual tickets. The only limitation is that you can't use the pass before 9:30AM. 

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The V&A is an incredible museum located in the Kensington area of London - along with the Natural History Museum (that's the one with the dinosaurs) and the Science Museum; one could easily spend several days in this area alone. The Victorian's were great collectors and catalogers and the V&A has an amazingly eclectic collection perfectly organized. The museum also has an exceptional cafe on the lower floor - we can highly recommend the tea and scones!

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My favorite exhibit at the V&A is the collection of "cartoons" by the renaissance painter Raphael. These are not cartoons in the modern sense but rather they are more like stencils that the artist painted as an aid to transferring the image onto tapestries, or frescoes. These particular cartoons were painted in 1515 and used to create tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The seven large Raphael cartoons are housed in their own room at the V&A and I can't resist a visit to see these amazing paintings every time I'm in London. 


Friday January 27th - Monday January 30th, 2012

We will be spending the next 4 days on safari in the Balule Private Reserve; rather than do a day by day account I'm going to break down the whole experience into appropriate sections. 

Getting There

I must admit I was a bit worried about driving from Johannesburg out to the safari lodge - but as it turned out it was no problem at all. In South Africa you have to remember to drive on the left hand side, but since we grew up in the UK this was not a problem for us. I rented a GPS from Avis, but I had also printed out a detailed route using Google before I left home. The GPS worked just fine; I selected Hoedspruit (pronounced Hods Sprit - meaning Hat River) and hit go and the appropriate route was calculated. My plan was to use the GPS to get to Hoedspruit and the printed map from there to the game lodge. It takes a good 6 hours to drive from the airport out to the reserve, so we set off at 6AM hoping we could get there in time for lunch and the evening game drive.

Following he GPS prompts led us through some suburbs of Johannesburg and out to the motorway / freeway (N12). Heading NW for the next 2 hours on the freeway was easy; the roads and signage are almost exactly like those in the UK so it was all very familiar. This area is relatively flat and quite heavily farmed, mostly corn - it could have been England. We occasionally noticed the odd person walking along the side of the read carrying a bag, after a while we figured out that hitch-hiking is very popular and a major means of transportation for the many people who don't have cars. Note if you take this route after about an hour there is a toll booth and you have to pay 40 ZAR to continue - but the road gets very smooth. The speed limit on the freeway is 120 kph and I did see the occasional speed trap - staffed by about 6 cops, one to operate the radar gun and five to watch. We later learned that the cops look  out for rental cars with tourists; a favorite pastime is to extract "instant fines" - we were told that the best way to handle this is to remove all but 50 ZAR (about $6) from your wallet and claim this is all you have. Luckily we did not fall prey to this blatant bribe game.

Exiting the freeway at a town called Belfast the road turns more northerly and is a normal 2 lane road (one in each direction). We stopped at the SPAR store and stocked up on water, chips and chocolate - Sandra went in while I guarded the car, not that we felt unsafe - but we had cases and bags that could not fit in the trunk and we did not want to tempt fate. The next section of the journey goes through Dullstroom and out to Lydenburg and see the scenery change to gently rolling hills; we felt this was strongly reminiscent of the borders region between England and Scotland. A special mention for the town of Dullstroom; we found this to be a very picturesque little town with many small guest houses and quaint shops - from the signage we deduced that this is a major trout fishing area. Unbelievably there is also a Seattle Coffee Company shop in Dullstroom, we stopped here on the outward and return legs. This section of the drive takes about another 2 hours and the road conditions get progressively worse - the main problem is potholes. Doing about 100 kph on an otherwise smooth road and then all of a sudden there will be a large and very deep pothole - I'm convinced that if I'd hit one these holes the car wheel would have come off. At first I thought the potholes were the result of a very large storm that had come through the area about a week earlier - but then we saw official and permanent signs warning us of potholes!

After Lydenburg the scenery changed dramatically and for the next hour or so we climbed up into a spectacular mountain range; lots of switchbacks and even more potholes - also cows roaming free on the road. Now it started to look like Africa. Cresting the range we could see a large and fertile valley stretched out before us with the Oliphants River winding it's way off into the distance. As we descended the other side of the mountains we had great views of a series of spectacular rifts off to our right forming large craggy cliffs - this is the kind of scene that , no matter how hard I try, I could never capture appropriately with a camera. Occasionally we passed roadside stalls selling local craft items - mostly carved wooden masks and such.

Beyond the foot of the mountains and out to Hoedspruit is a about a half hours drive through lush mango groves. Hoedspruit is a small town immediately to the west of the private game reserve / Kruger National Park area. Now we did see significant storm damage; the main river bridge at the entrance to the town was undergoing major repairs. We later learned the the area had received about twice it's annual rainfall in one day about a week ago. From Hoedspruit we drove about 10km to the entrance to the game reserve and turned in at the Oliphants West Gate where I was instructed to fill out a form and paid 40 ZAR for an entry permit. 

From here on there are no more tarmac roads, just progressively worse gravel tracks - at times deeply rutted and rocky, requiring a slow weaving path in 2nd gear at best. We followed the main gravel road for about 12km and it took us a while to realize that we were now inside the reserve - the impala we sighted just off the road finally made us realize "this was it!". We found the turn off for our lodge and now the road got really interesting - mostly dry mud and rocks in two tracks separated by grass down the middle; not the kind of place I would ever take a car that I actually owned. After a few kilometers we came to a dead stop due to the presence of 2 large trucks blocking the entire road. The trucks were from the power company and they were repairing a stormed damaged power line; I tried in vain to get information from one of the work crew  - but he did not speak English. It looked to me like this was going to take several hours - I could not believe we had come all this easy only to be stopped a few kilometers short of our destination! After about 10 minutes a young smartly dressed African guy came walking down the road and introduced himself - he was Prem and worked at Naledi Bushcamp, our destination. Prem explained that he was going to bring the large Toyota land cruiser around to us via a different route. After a while Prem arrived with the cruiser, we offloaded all of our luggage, abandoned the rental car at the side of the road (it was later retrieved by Naledi personnel), hopped in the cruiser and headed off to Naledi via very bumpy road - at one point we even forded a small stream. We arrived at Naledi Bushcamp at about 1:30PM.

Naledi Bushcamp

We spent many weeks while planning this trip trying to decide where to take our first safari. There are many lodges to choose from within the many private reserves that border the Kruger National Park and they range from budget tented camps to 5 star luxury accommodation - at the high end these places can be extremely expensive. A stay in a safari lodge will typically include two drives per day as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner. We selected Naledi almost entirely on reviews we had read on the Trip Advisor website where it is rated one of the highest among specialty lodges in this particular private reserve we also found the price point very attractive. We dealt directly with the owner of the lodge, Kjell Bismejer, via e-mail during the planning stages and he provided a safe payment method - the whole thing has to be paid for up-front. Yes at this point we felt that things were a bit risky; first safari, selected entirely based on guest reviews and all paid up-front - Naledi did not disappoint.

Naledi is located in the Oliphants West section of the Balule Private Game Reserve; this reserve borders the much larger Kruger National Park - but there is no fence between the reserve and the park. There are many private game reserves that have this same type of arrangement with Kruger. The area is gigantic. A private game reserve is actually owned by individuals; some operate lodges and some just live there. I'm not an expert but it appears that there is some type of representative governance model that sets out the rules for the reserve.

Naledi Bushcamp is a small lodge with only four guest rooms in 3 structures; one structure contains 2 adjacent rooms - the lodge typically accommodates 8 people at a time. There is a also a very nice central two story structure that contains the bar and breakfast area downstairs and a large sitting / lunch area upstairs - the upstairs area is fantastic as it is completely open on 3 sides and offers brilliant views across the reserve. While having lunch on our first day I happened to notice several giraffe wandering over towards the camp! We found the large comfortable whicker chairs in the upstairs area great for relaxing in between game drives. Below and in front of the main building is a very nice swimming pool surrounded by extensive decking and a gazebo area with a large table that is used for dinner. The quality of the construction of very high and looks quite new - several of the building have thatched roofs, common to this area.

     

We were given the Paperbark Suite and we really loved it; this suite contains a large bed, bathroom area, an indoor and an outdoor shower. Large glass doors open out onto an expansive private wooden deck which is separated from the bush by a low electric fence; we surmised this was to keep the animals out, not us in! The room is arranged so that you can see out of the patio door and into the bush while lying in bed. This suite has a sloped thatched roof and from inside there is no sub-ceiling below the thatch - this creates a quite dramatic high-ceiling effect and the wooden structure that supports the thatch is visible. The room also has air conditioning, though we rarely used it. The room could do with perhaps one more table; this would have enabled us to more clearly lay out  all of our cameras, batteries and other stuff needed for a safari drive.

The attention to detail and service level at Naledi is outstanding; Kjell maintains a staff of 13 for a typical guest count of 6 to 8. Several of the staff were waiting to greet us when we arrived and Kjell gave us a personal tour of the camp; in fact Kjell takes a personal interest in almost all aspects of the lodge. A bush camp is not a hotel in the bush; there are no locks on any of the doors (though we were instructed to keep our doors closed so the camp monkeys wouldn't rob us blind), there are no menus (though accommodations are made for those with special requirements) and Kjell joins the guests for breakfast and dinner. One of the staff members, TK, would meet guests as they returned from the game drive in the evenings and offer special African drinks - another would be ready with flashlights to enable a safe return to your room. There is a very personal feel to the whole place and we thought it was just brilliant.

The food at Naledi is out of this world - Sandra and I have been known to enjoy a good meal now and again, and I'm prone to spending excessive amount of time in the kitchen - so we know a good meal when we eat one. At one time Kjell's wife Kim used to do all the cooking for the lodge, but now they have selected and hired some great chefs. Before every meal the chef appears at the table to describe the dishes and take questions - I thought this was a great touch. Breakfast, which is served after the morning game drive, consists of a selection of cereal, fruit, muffins or scones, smoothies and is then followed by a hot dish - typically eggs with bacon or sausages. On the last day we had a fantastic Eggs Benedict! Naledi bakes all of their own bread and muffins. Lunch is typically served late at about 2:30PM and consists of a light meal; wraps, salads, kebobs.

Dinner is a special event normally starting around 8PM; Kjell and his assistant Craig joined us and the conversation turned quite lively. Kjell is an absolute expert on all things safari - he has a deep knowledge of the bush and it's flora rand fauna; one night he talked for about 20 minutes on the subject of snake bites! A deeply committed conservationist, Kjell can hold forth for ages on the steps that have been taken (and should be taken) to conserve the bush. Kjell's knowledge of the bush animals is very impressive; sounds, mating rituals, tracks, habits - he is a veritable encyclopedia.

I found the dinners to be very creative and well executed - with many things I had not tried before. Springbok filet cooked perfectly, ground duck inside a fantastic pie crust, pistachio encrusted lamb chop, ostrich burger - none of these dishes would have looked out of place at any fine dining restaurant.

Naledi is obviously a business in it's ascendency; the personal touches, attention to detail, investment in staff, training, general appearance of the lodge - all these things are held to a very high standard by the owner. Just before we arrived at Naledi we learned that Kjell is taking over the running of another nearby by lodge (Singwei) which will be rebranded as a second Naledi lodge. During our stay Kjell talked excitedly about the plans for the new lodge, which include some new staff and remodeling. During our game drives we passed the Singwei lodge several times - it has a fantastic location right on the Oliphants river, but was in obvious need of a spruce up. Let's hope that Kjell can successfully extend the Naledi brand to this new venture.

The Game Drive

The routine of the lodge centers around the game drives; there are two drives each day, timed for increasing the chances of seeing the animals. At around 5AM Kjell would knock on our door and ensure that we were awake, another nice personal touch. Getting up at 5AM was tough - especially after 3 weeks of lazing around on a cruise ship. We used the time between getting up and the drive actually starting to put on sun screen and insect repellant, and also to check over all the camera equipment. The first drive sets off at 5:30AM, evening drives set off at 4PM - both last about 3 1/2 hours.

Game drive transportation consists of a large Toyota 4 wheel-drive land cruiser with 3 rows of 3 seats each for passengers; we learned that the ride is a lot smoother the further forward the seating - so try to get the front passenger row if you can. Also an outside seat is better for taking photos. Some of the tracks in the bush that we rode were extremely bumpy; I don't know if this was a result of the massive storm that had occurred the week before. Also, because of residual water, we got stuck in the mud several times - once for an hour and a half, requiring Kjell to call out all his reinforcements to pull us out.

During the game drive Kjell is in radio contact with vehicles from other lodges and information is shared about animal sightings. The reserve has a rule that no more than 2 vehicles can be present at any sighting. On the drives we did, we only occasionally passed other vehicles - the reserve is very big. We did benefit from shared information on several occasions; there appears to be a high degree of cooperation among the various lodges in the reserve. Our trusty tracker, Prem, would sit out on the front of the Toyota watching for tracks in the mud and animals in the bush - he had a way of scanning the environment with his eyes that reminded me of an eagle hunting it's prey. In the evenings Prem would use a high powered flashlight to scan the bush, looking for reflections from the eyes of animals.

Apparently the animals have, for the most part, become acclimatized to the presence of the vehicles in the reserve. Before setting out on our first drive Kjell gave us a short safety briefing; stay in the vehicle, don't stand up, don't shout, flash photography OK. In almost all cases when we came across the bigger animals they pretty much ignored us - those lower on the food chain were a bit more skittish. 

The frequency of animal sightings on the game drives (with the exception of impala, which are very common) is quite low - it was not uncommon to go for an hour or more without seeing anything major. Looking for animals in the bush reminded me a lot of when I used to go fishing as a kid - lots of waiting around, but never loosing faith that something exciting was about to happen. Since this was our first safari, I can't tell if this level of animal sightings is normal - I also couldn't help myself from imagining the layout of a few radio towers from which suitably tagged animals could be easily located. I suggested such a scheme to Kjell a little later and this brought looks of disdain and admonishment along with comments about the "thrill of the hunt".

When we did encounter one of the larger animals Kjell would shut off the engine and give us a very detailed description of the species - again demonstrating his incredible bush knowledge. As the animal moved, Kjell would also reposition the Toyota to allow us to get the best picture angle. Emphasis was placed on long detailed quality sightings over a brief viewing - Kjell's safari drives are not about checking off the list of animals to be seen.

About 2 hours into the drive Kjell would stop the Toyota at some convenient spot for a break; in the morning we would have tea or coffee with cookies, in the evening we would have "sundowner" drinks. KJell and Prem set up a small portable table and we'd all climb out of the vehicle for our refreshments. Kejll takes the orders for the sundowners before setting out on the evening drive; beer, wine, gin and tonic, soft drinks. I often found these times a welcome break from the bouncing around of the drive - though I believe the breaks also afforded the mosquitoes more opportunity for attacks.

Prior to the safari I did a little research into the best mosquito repellants available and settled on a high concentration DEET plus one that the US army uses. I have to qualify this bit by saying the I am especially prone to insect bites. We spent 3 nights at Naledi and did 6 safari drives; we did not have any problem with bites until the last day - and actually several bites continued to appear a few days after we left South Africa. I don't have a good explanation for this - as my repellant ritual was the same each day. Overall the number of bites was not too bad - 10 on my right arm and a few on my lower back; but they were some of the worst insect bites I've ever had.  On the advice of our family doctor, we procured a prescription for anti-maleria drugs prior to leaving on the trip. The drug comes in pill form and is taken 2 days before entering the malaria zone, each day in the zone and 7 days after leaving the zone - one pill per day. So far so good.


The Animals

We got word from another vehicle of a lioness sighting fairly close to our location; so we tooled over and took up position to get some pictures. The lioness was in the process of devouring a zebra that had been killed the day before; Kjell later showed us where the kill had occurred, in an open area, and the drag marks where the lion had pulled the zebra under a bush and out of view of the vultures. So there she sat under the bush, chomping away. The sweet smell of dead rotting putrid flesh was unbelievably bad - at some points Sandra was almost retching. Initially we could not get a good view of the lion, as she was down low in the grass and under the bush - but we could clearly hear the crunching of bones and the tearing of flesh. This was not the zoo. Kjell moved the truck around to the other side of the bush, pausing on the way to show us the remains of the guts of the zebra - they had been torn out and strewn over the grass. About a billion flies swarmed around the remains. Eventually the lioness had to get up to rip off a fresh piece of meat - this afforded us the best photo opportunities. Apparently sated, the lioness walked off towards the river and we slowly followed. We watched as she stretched out on the cool sand and appeared to be getting ready for a snooze. To our amazement another lioness appeared on the opposite bank of the narrow stream, and in a flash the two animals had a small skirmish.  Sandra was lucky enough to be shooting some video at this most opportune moment - she was the only one to capture the event .

 

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 We were very fortunate to come across a large male white rhino at a watering hole. The reserve has white and black rhino - both of which are actually grey on color; Kjell explained that the the name "white" rhino may have come from the old Afrikaans word for "wide" - but he was not sure. The main way to tell the two types of rhino apart is by the shape of the jaw; the white rhino has a square jaw - like a vacuum cleaner for hoovering up the grass. The black rhino has more of a hooked jaw for eating bush and leaves. Either way it's hard to believe an animal this size only eats vegetation. Unfortunately the rhino are still being poached for their horns; Kjell estimated that the horns on the rhino we saw would weigh about 8 Kg and be worth about 400,000 Euros on the poaching market. It's a shame that there is so much ignorance in the world.

  

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We got a call from another truck about an elephant sighting, but somehow we were surprised and excited when we rounded a tree and there in front of us - almost blocking my entire view, was a 7 tonne bull elephant. The elephant was chomping on a bush and seemed a bit pissed off at being disturbed; however Kjell shut off the engine and there we sat no more than 2 yards from this gigantic animal. On a couple of occasions the elephant actually turned to the truck, flared his ears and snorted at us - Kjell remained unconcerned. However I for one was glad for the presence of a cardiologist in our party! Elephants have the most incredibly long eyelashes.



Here is a selection of other animal pictures…

Hippo                                                                Dung Beetle                                              Zebra

Impala                                                               Lynx                                                            Gnu

Giraffe                                                                                                                             Termite Mound (7ft tall)

Warthog                                                          Impala (after a Leopard encounter)          Coyote 



Thursday January 26th, 2012

We enjoyed an excellent breakfast at the club level in the Westin Cape Town; in addition to a wonderful array of items on the buffet (including oysters and sushi) a cooked breakfast could be ordered from a menu. Of course Sandra could not resist ordering her favorite Eggs Benedict and had no complaints - in fact she was impressed.

Back at the V&A we purchased our additional suitcase - this is becoming a bit of a tradition for us, we end up buying an extra bag on almost all of our major trips (I'm running out of attic space at home!). 

The taxi ride from Cape Town to the airport is a flat rate of 250ZAR and takes about 20 minutes - we got a very energetic driver who talked our heads off the whole way there. All of our interactions with people in Cape Town have been very positive; I found them extremely friendly, very helpful and overtly proud. We experienced this again at the airport when a very friendly, but not pushy, porter offered us help with our massive collection of suitcases. The porter took care of the bags, escorted us to the correct check-in counter, waited for us to check in and even helped attach the baggage labels - he was extremely grateful for the 50ZAR I gave him (about $6).

And so the argument with the airline desk clerk about the baggage allowance. Actually it was not really an argument; after a minute of discussion she immediate admitted even she did not understand the rules, made a quick phone call speaking in a very animated African language, then she assumed that we both had Gold status and issued baggage tags without charging us anything. We walked away ecstatic!

The airport terminal in Cape Town is very modern, probably built for the World Cup in 2010. We gained access to the South African Airways executive lounge because of my Star Alliance Gold status. The lounge is very well equipped and stocked; free wifi, drinks, food (they even served soup) and very comfortable chairs. The 2 hour flight to Johannesburg was uneventful and arrived on time at about 7PM.

We found our way to the Avis counter and picked up our car; a brand new Toyota Corolla - I had also rented a GPS. Even though our hotel was only a couple of miles from the airport getting to it turned out to be a royal pain. Due to rebranding, the hotel was not listed in the GPS, the map I had printed from Google was wrong (can you believe it Google was wrong) and the directions given to me by the Aviz person were useless. We were tired, it was dark, we were driving on the LHS of the road and in a strange city - but we finally found our way to the Protea Hotel. 

Quirky - that's how I'd describe the Protea Hotel at the Johannesburg Airport. The hotel has an airport / flying theme, it's new and the whole thing has been designed to look like an airport hanger. It reminded me of the "Soaring Over California" ride at Disneyland. Again the staff were very helpful, the food was passable, the room very clean and functional and the price was right. We set alarms for 5:30AM and tried to get some sleep.


Wednesday January 25th, 2012

It's always a sad day when you have to leave the ship at the end of a cruise; but we've been on board the QM2 for 22 days and had a great time - we were ready to get off. Disembarkation was a doddle since we had already cleared immigration the day before; we picked up our bags and easily found a taxi on the dock. We were charged a flat 100 ZAR for the 10 minute ride, we should have asked the guy to use the meter. Arriving at the Westin Hotel in Cape Town at about 9:30AM we were not totally surprised to find that our room was not ready. The Westin is conveniently located near the waterfront in Cape Town; the hotel is a 20 story glass structure - very modern and tastefully designed. A free shuttle bus runs every 30 minutes from the hotel to the V&A shopping / dining complex.

We stored our bags with the very helpful busboy and took a tax to Table Mountain; the weather was brilliant - a bright warm day with very little wind, so we were hopeful the cable car would be running. The line for the cable car was very long; we had picked up a couple of tickets from our friends on the ship who were unable to take the ride yesterday due to high winds. Even so, we ended up waiting about an hour and a half before we got on the cable car. If you are going to do this ride I recommend you bring a parasol or wear a hat and lots of sunblock - the first half of the wait is in direct sun. Water is for sale at the little kiosk around the corner from the ticket booth. 

The cable car at Table Mountain is quite unique; each car takes about 60 people for the short 4 minute journey and during the trip the floor of the car rotates so that everyone gets to experience a 360 degree view. The upper part of the car is glass with a couple of large openings which offer the best photo opportunities; the trick is to arrange to be rotated in front of one of the open windows while looking back out across Cape Town and Table Bay.

Visting the top top of Table Mountain is an incredible experience, if you come to Cape Town and the wind is favorable this trip is not to be missed. At the top of the mountain there are several very well maintained concrete walkways, with maps to offer guidance, as well as lookout spots for those not to be missed photo opportunities. There is even a cafeteria style restaurant, shop and bathroom facilities. The views from the top of Table Mountain are breathtaking; we took about a million photos and then stopped for a coffee. Later we saw a team of teenage girls abseiling over the cliff, ah the fearlessness of youth - my palms were sweaty just watching!


Back at the hotel we were able to get into our room and begin the process of rearranging our luggage so we could determine what kind of additional suitcase we needed to buy. We also spent a good bit of time trying to figure out the baggage allowance on South Africa Airways - we even had the very helpful hotel concierge call the airline for us, but the answers were ambiguous and complicated by the fact that my Star Alliance Gold status should have guaranteed me an extra free bag. I'm convinced that airlines now make the baggage rules so complicated in the hope that customers will just give up trying to figure it out and pay for excess baggage. We decided to take the risk and buy a forth suitcase.

We jumped on the hotel shuttle bus and headed to the Victoria and Alfred waterfront complex; a full shopping mall (complete with supermarket), a crafts mall, lots of African themed shops, some excellent restaurants, lots of live music, the boat dock for trips to Robben Island (to view Mandela's cell) and Cape Town's very own "little eye" ferris wheel - are just some of the attractions at the V&A. Sitting at an outdoor restaurant called Balducci's eating a great hamburger and brick oven pizza we were entertained by a troupe of singing African guys in traditional dress - it was brilliant , I even recognized one of the songs from a Paul Simon album released many moons ago.

We located the luggage store that the concierge had recommend to us, did some quick checks of the available options, and then in true procrastinator style - decided to come back the next day. If you are looking to buy African craft items there is a whole separate building attached to the main mall that only sells this kind of thing - some stalls are even specific to a region or tribe.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed the club level snacks and drinks with two of our table mates from the QM2 transatlantic crossing, who also happened to be staying at the Westin. Club level in this Westin is a bit different, there is no buffet - instead very helpful wait staff bring you prepared plates of snacks and what ever drink you desire. 

A general observation about employment in South Africa; following the fall of Apartheid the African National Congress (ANC) coined the phrase "one man, one vote" to indicate the new equality - after spending a couple of days in South Africa it is evident to me that there is "over-employment". Where I would think one person should be doing a job it looks like they have three; leading me to think that an additional phrase is needed - "three men, one job". I'm probably being a bit harsh - but we saw this kind of situation in many places, including the club level in the hotel when 3 different waiters asked us what we wanted to drink in the space of 5 minutes.


Tuesday January 24th, 2012

Wow what a fantastic day; the QM 2 arrived in Cape Town this morning at about 7:30 and the view of table mountain was excellent - even with the table cloth in place, which is what they call the clouds when they cover the top of the mountain. After a lengthy on board immigration clearance and a very farcical process to assign tour stickers (Cunard management should have been shot!) we were on our bus for the shore excursion by about 10AM. 

The contrast between this shore excursion and our last one could not have been greater; a great tour guide, very comfortable only partially filled bus and the commentary volume was just right. We learned that normally cruise ships would dock nearer the tourist wharf area - but the QM2 is so big she has to dock in the regular commercial shipping area. After leaving the docks we drove through the Victoria and Alfred (V&A) wharf area - named after Queen Victoria and her son, Alfred - who apparently laid the first cornerstone for the construction of the docks way back when. The V&A is a large shopping and dining complex; a bit like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, only with class. The wind was really blowing and we heard that the cable car running up to the top of table mountain would not be operating and so we were glad we had not planned to visit the mountain today - though Cunard was running several excursions, we wondering what the folks on those tours would do.

We proceeded south through several very high end beach-side suburbs on route to Cape Point in the Table Mountain National Park. All of the houses had electrified fencing and signs posted indicating "Armed Response" would be called in the event of any security issue; our guide told us that there at twice as many private security police in Cape Town as there are regular police.The beaches along this stretch of the coast are beautiful though the water is very cold due to the Antarctic current. The road hugged the coastline and at times was dug into the cliff side - the drive was nothing short of spectacular, perhaps the best we have ever done.

We passed a couple of townships; one for black people and one for colored people - colored people being of mixed race. These townships were set up by the government during the Apartheid era and the black and colored people were forcibly removed from Cape Town. When established, the townships had infrastructure services for 2500 each, now it is estimated that each township has a population of over 25000. With little opportunity for employment so far from the city, crime, drugs and gangs became popular pastimes.

There are actually two points within the national park, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope - neither of which is actually the southern most tip of Africa, that particular cape lies another 200km further east. The national park landscape is very windswept and desolate - there are virtually no trees but a very large diversity of heather and other low growing flora. Signs warned us not to feed the baboons, which got us excited - but we did not see any. We arrived at Cape Point after a drive of about 2 hours and were issued with tickets for the short funicular ride up to the light house. Despite all the talk of howling gales we'd heard on the journey - the wind speed was amazingly low, I think we got very lucky.

    

A short drive brought us to the actual Cape of Good Hope, again the wind was very kind to us - the main attraction here is to wait for a picture opportunity next to the Cape of Good Hope sign. It's amazing how rude some people can be. We learned that when the cape was first discovered by the Portuguese they called it the Cape of Storms - and then wondered why they could not encourage new settlers to take root. In an amazing stroke of 16th century marketing genius someone decided to rename the place Cape of Good Hope and that seemed to do the trick.

Back on the bus we headed to Simon's Town, home of the South African navy - all 4 ships. We had an excellent lunch at the Seaforth Restaurant and then took a short walk to an area within the national park called Boulders. Our tour guide provided us with entry tickets and we walked along the wooden decking to the beach area, famous for viewing the African Penguins. These penguins used to be called Jackass Penguins because they make a sound very like a Jackass - Sandra said they didn't sound anything like me. Short in stature, but very energetic and cute - these penguins are definitely worth a visit.

Our final stop of the day was at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens - we enjoyed the hour we spent here immensely. It was late in the day and the sun was low in the sky - making for great light and cooler temperatures as we strolled along the garden paths with our tour guide, who happened to have a passion for plants. The gardens feature a gigantic array of native South African plants immaculately presented and very well maintained. If you are ever in a trivia competition where the subject is plants of South Africa - just answer Protea to all the questions, chances are you'll score very high. The Protea is the national flower of South Africa and there are hundreds of different types - many of which look nothing like each other.

Arriving back at the ship at about 7PM we missed our diner in the Dining Room and instead had to opt for the buffet. This being our last night on the ship we spent some time packing up our stuff and realized that we'd need to buy an extra suitcase (out 4th) before we got to London - we had not accounted for the fact that later in the trip Sandra will be going off to Scotland and I would be returning home to California, making it difficult to divide up our 3rd (shared) suitcase.


Monday January 23rd, 2012

This is our final sea day before we end our cruise in Cape Town, South Africa. We've spent the day lazing about, but we also packed up all the stuff we won't need for the rest of our trip into one suitcase. The commodore has announced that due to a shift change in the port we will be arriving half an hour late, at 8:30AM - and we've received our instructions for clearing immigration on board the ship in the morning. We have a Cunard shore excursion booked for an all day trip to Cape Point - hope it's better than the Walvis Bay trip!

The ship will actually stay in Cape Town for 2 nights but we will be getting off after the first night - to allow the next group to get on for the subsequent leg of the world cruise which sees the QM2 heading to Australia. We'll be staying on in Cape Town for one more day at the Westin, before flying up to Johannesburg for our safari. Well we hope we'll be having a safari; we've been following the weather situation in the area as there has been a lot of flooding - the local river has burst it's banks. 

We are also hatching plans for a day trip to Paris while we are staying in London, on our way back from Africa. We've become good friends with a couple at our dining table who live in London and hearing them talk of the Euro Rail train that goes through the channel tunnel got us thinking of the possibility of a trip to Paris.

I can't go on without interjecting a good old British Winge about the Cruise. So here are some comments on QM2 service, food etc. Please bare in mind that we have been delighted with our time on board the QM2 and look forward to a return visit - but perfection has to be the goal, so…

Overall, while the standard of service and the quality of the food is very high, we do feel that things have slipped since our last trip on this ship in December 2010. We are especially disappointed with the buffet; we both seem to remember each of the 4 sections of the buffet serving different choices at lunch - now they are all the same. We both felt that the quality of food in the buffet had slipped significantly. Then there is the $10 cover charge to eat at the buffet speciality restaurants. Many times over the last 22 days we have gone to the dining room for lunch and found nothing on the menu that jumped out - we wondered if the overall cuisine design is influenced by the make up of the passengers. Food in the Golden Lion Pub has also slipped - to be honest the only thing worth ordering in the pub is the fish and chips. Early on I had a Ploughman's Lunch and it was passable - as the cruise wore on the ham on the ploughman's appeared to go off - we sent the last one back. The Boddington's beer continues to be excellent.

We often overhear many British passengers lamenting the fact that none of the waitstaff are British and the obvious inference about how this affects the service - this is often coupled with a whine about how the service is not "good old British service". The fact is that good old British service only exists in our memories, it's a thing of the past - even in Britain!


Sunday January 22nd, 2012

Walvis Bay, Namibia.

Today we visited Walvis Bay, a busy commercial port, in central Namibia. The attraction here is obviously not the town of Walvis Bay (which we learned is pronounced Wol Fish Bay) but; the lagoon just south of town, the desert and sand dunes immediately east of town and the old German settlement of Swakopmund which is 30km north of town. Average rainfall in Walvis Bay is 0mm per year! The Namib desert literally comes right down to the coast, in fact it's like the beach just extends forever inland.

We cleared Namibian immigration on board after waiting about 30 minutes in a gigantic, but fast moving, line right through the middle of the ship. This gave us time for breakfast in the dining room before assembling for our shore excursion. Service in the dining room this morning was an absolute disaster; we waited about 40 minutes before our food arrived - Sandra even went over and complained to the Maitre D' who offered a lame excuse about not expecting such a large crowd.

We boarded our air conditioned coach, along with 38 other brave soles, at about 9:30 AM and off we went. The coach driver was also the tour guide; he wore a headset microphone that was permanently turned on - so along with his very loud commentary we also got all of his coughing, wheezing and groaning. Speakers immediately above our heads generated sufficient brain resonance to produce pain. Despite repeated requests the driver could not get the volume correct - in the end we gave up and suffered.

The bus headed first to the lagoon where we were told to expect a gigantic flock of wading birds, including flamingos. The tide was out and so there were no birds close to land; way off on the horizon we could make out a thin sand bar with tiny specs that way well have been birds. So far so good. 

Heading inland the edge of town is marked by the immediate start of the desert and off in the distance we could see some immense sand dunes. The sand on the dunes is just like the sand on the beach; in fact the dunes reminded me of childhood trips to the dunes on the beach at Bamburgh in Northumberland, England. As we got closer I realized that the dunes in Namibia are a lot bigger than those of my childhood - a lot bigger.

We stopped at Dune 7, which I learned is creatively named as the 7th dune from the coast. Dune 7 is a very impressive large pile of sand and is just like you'd imagine a desert sand dune to look; it reminded me of one of my favorite Laurel and Hardy movies in which the comic pair have joined the French Foreign Legion. I had expected the weather in the desert to be unbearably hot, but it was actually very pleasant - the temperature must have been in the mid 70's. A small oasis has been constructed at the base of the dunes  with palm trees and barbecue areas; however the builders must have missed the fact that the dunes move from 1 to 7 meters every year - consequently some of the palm trees have become buried in sand. That's me attempting an ascent of the dune in the LH picture above; I had to abandon my attempt due to a lack of Sherpas.

Back on the bus for more wheezing and brain rattling and the drive north to Swakopmund - often referred to locally as just Swakop, which we learned means stink pit - wonder why Cunard did not put that in the brochure? The nice name apparently refers to the accumulation of dead animals at the river mouth following a storm - I wasn't sure if this was an historical or contemporary reference, but hoped for the former. On approaching the town we caught a glimpse of some Springbok grazing in the dry river bed, but since this was not a scheduled stop we whizzed on by.

We learned that the itinerary for the visit to Swakopmund was to go to the Museum then the spinning and weaving factory and finish up with free time in the town. Swakopmund is an odd mix of 1890's German buildings and what looked to me like American midwestern storefronts from the 1950's - if tumbleweeds had blown through the town they would not have looked out of place. The overall effect is really quite quaint and there are obvious signs of civic pride. To be honest we would have preferred to have spent the whole time just wandering the town, but this was not an option.

The small museum in Swakopmund is very well kept and features mostly items from the German colonial period; military uniforms, guns, medals, a complete pharmacy, old steam equipment - along with an odd collection of stuffed African animals. There is a bar attached to the museum and on the way out I wished I'd just sat and had a beer, rather than visit the museum. Back to the bus which was parked in an area where locals had set out many craft items for sale to tourists - this was obviously an organized market and the sellers were very pleasant, no pressure or harassing which we found very surprising.

On to the weaving factory; I don't know why cruise ships persist in taking tour groups to these kind of obvious sales events - in all the times we've been cruising we've very rarely seen anyone buy anything. We stopped at Karakulia Weavers in a small industrial estate; Karakul being a type of native Namibian sheep - not much different from the run-of-the-mill sheep as far as I could tell from the pictures. We observed the old guy spinning the wool into yarn, the young guys washing and dying the yarn and the middle aged folks weaving the yarn into rugs - who knew Namibian rug making could be such a multi-generational enterprise! 40 people on the bus, no one bought anything at the weavers - though the Cunard rep did buy a pair of shoes at the leather shop next door, hmmm?

Back in town we had only half an hour of free time; it being Sunday half the shops were closed and many that were open would shut at 1PM (in 20 minutes). It had been at least 2 hours since our last meal, so we stopped for a quick coffee and a snack. A strange mix of cultures was evident in the coffee shop; the head lady served us speaking German, she issued orders to a squad of young girl helpers in some kind of local dialect and we paid in South African Rand - this despite the fact that the official language is English and the currency Nambian Rand. All very friendly and the food quality was good - especially the German style pastry that Sandra ordered.

We wandered down the main street and into a shopping alley; all tourist type shops selling carved wooden items, semi-precious stone jewelry and some plates and bowls that had been very creatively crafted from used computer motherboards. I wondered if electronic recycling was an industry in Namibia - I did not see any boards from the company I work for. We had heard that there was a Uranium mine just outside of town - but I could not find any carved Uranium items - very disappointing! Also I did not see any real jewelry stores - something I expected since I could see diamond dredging boats just off shore. Yes, they actually collect diamonds by dredging the sea floor. 

Back on the bus we began our return to Walvis Bay; this time the journey south took us along the coast road - actually part of the Trans-Kalahari Highway, ocean on the right and sand dunes on the left. This stretch of coastline is called the Skeleton Coast due to the large number of ships that have been wrecked here, we were hoping to see wrecks and we did briefly glimpse the small bow of an old ship sticking out of the sand. Passing a town called Longbeach our driver mentioned that this was where Angelina Joile and Brad PItt had spent some time a few years back, she even had her baby in the hospital at Swakopmund. The coastline is very beautiful; one very long pristine beach that stretches for about 20km and is almost totally undeveloped. A little further along we passed a fairly large wooden platform just above water level and not far from the shore - an enterprising Namibian had step up a Guano collection business for use as a fertilizer, apparently crap is very profitable.

On our return to Walvis Bay we saw a small township community that our guide described as where the "lower income" people lived. Townships like this sprang up after independence in the late 90s to accommodate masses of people who moved from the tribal areas to the cities in anticipation of housing and jobs in the boom that didn't come. From what I could see this township was not like those I've seen on TV in other parts of Africa; the houses were well spaced, clean, tidy and there was even new construction of small A-frame style houses.

Overall Namibia was surprise; I suppose we were expecting more obvious poverty. In contrast, the areas we saw were far from affluent but not 3rd world. While we did see bars on a lot of windows we never felt unsafe, the people we encountered were very friendly and there is a lot evidence that the area is really trying to attract tourists - not just from outside Namibia. Along the lagoon and again at Longbeach we saw some fairly lavish (even by US standards) vacation homes.

We did not enjoy the Cunard shore excursion; back at the ship that night we heard from others who had banded together and hired a car and driver to visit the dunes and Swakopmund for a lot less money. This is actually how we would normally do a port call, but this being our first trip to Africa, in an unknown port, we opted for the guided tour - lesson learned.


Saturday January 21st, 2012

News from The Perch. Here is today's news from the balcony of cabin 8022 on board the Queen Mary 2 somewhere off the coast of Namibia. 

Banging Doors! Sandra and I are hatching plans to lobby the Commodore to bring back the maritime court to prosecute, convict and severely punish all those passengers who seem to have lost the ability to gently close a door. As you may know a combination of air conditioning inside the ship and winds on deck can create a significant pressure differential across an open door. Some passengers seem to think the best way to close the door in a situation like this is to just let it go - the subsequent bang can be heard several decks away, and can even wake up unsuspecting passengers - especially on the balcony for cabin 8022.

More on Walvis Bay. We received news that all passengers on board will have to go through a face to face immigration check with Namibian officials; whether getting of the ship or not. The immigration officials will board the ship with the pilots early tomorrow morning and the check will take place in the dining room - everyone is moaning about this because it is common practice, when cruise ships only stop in a port for a day, for the local officials to accept the ship's manifest in lieu of a full check. It is especially tough on those, like us, who are going on an official shore excursion - our allotted time for immigration check is 6:15AM, bloody hell! The only consolation is that we will get Namibian entry and exit stamps in our passports.

Lifeboat Training. I've just sat through my first official training session on how to deploy and operate a QM2 lifeboat, what a treat. Actually I was eavesdropping. We have some lifeboats outside our balcony and today, as I was sitting reading my book, a young Irish officer climbed up to the platform by the lifeboat and was presently joined by about 10 Philippine deck hands. The officer proceeded to very rapidly talk through the steps necessary to launch the boat, without actually launching the boat. This was followed by opening up the boat, entering and talking through the operation of the boat. Fascinating, I think I got most of it - so now I'm going to find the commodore because I'm sure I should have a special badge or maybe epaulettes on my tux.

Oh, there goes a large pod of dolphins - amazing (sorry they went by too quick, so I could not get a picture) - but this is where they were… 

You'll just have to use your imagination - I'm sure you all remember Flipper; those too young to get this, will have to Google it.

By the way, I only know that a large collection of Dolphins is a called a Pod because the officer of the watch announced their approach over the PA system.

Night Showers. For the past few nights we've been sleeping with the balcony door wedged open by our handy, multipurpose cabin garbage can. The nights have been warm and we've enjoyed the sound of the ocean. Last night, shortly after retiring, I thought I heard rain and so I got up to confirm my suspicion; upon opening the balcony door I received a light dowsing of fresh water from the hose of the deck hand who was down on the promenade deck hosing off the balconies above. I was delighted as this meant I could skip my morning shower - I'll have to arrange for him drop by again tonight.


Friday January 20th, 2012

Had a very late night and did not get to sleep until after 2AM, including the final 1 hour time change. We met up with the British couple from our dinner table in the Queens Room for dancing - they happen to be very expert dancers and very generous teachers, so we had a great time. The dance floor was also not so crowded since it was a regular night as opposed to a formal Ball. 

So we slept late this morning despite the fact that Sandra ordered coffee for 8:15AM - I don't know what we were thinking, it sat untouched until I crawled out of bed at about 10AM - nothing like luke warm coffee with a good book out on the perch on a sunny morning. 

The weather continues to be very good; calm seas, light breeze and about 72F. Sometime during the night we crossed the Greenwich Meridian moving from west to east, currently off the coast of Angola with about 970 miles to Walvis Bay. The ship normally covers doubt 530 nautical miles in 24 hours, but we are currently battling a south to north current (the Benguela Current) so we only covered about 470 nautical miles over the past day. To close this section on navigational buffoonery here is a picture of some port holes.

We finally broke down today and took in afternoon tea - I can't believe we resisted for 17 days. Cunard does tea very well; white glove service, finger sandwiches, little cakes, scones with jam and clotted cream - and the tea is actually brewed in a pot! Tea is served in the Queens Ball Room and today they had the ships harpist playing some fine jigs while everyone scoffed down their grub. We find that this is not something we can do everyday, given that we have early dinner at 6PM. However attendance at tea does reduce our mean time between meals - a very important metric for the serious cruiser





Dinner, show and dancing - Sandra's shoe broke again so it will be going back in for repair tomorrow. The ballroom was decked out for the African Ball; which means the hanging Neptune flags had been replaced with hanging African flags. Not much in the way of passenger participation; after all it's difficult enough trying to meet the airline baggage allowance with having to pack the lion's main wrap and the leopard skin suit. 

This is Sandra returning to the cabin at the end of the night, broken shoe in bag.




Thursday January 19th, 2012

Pirates! I continue to be amazed at the present day fascination with pirates. Today's lecture on the history of pirates (aka piratic history) was the best attended of all the talks I've been to - standing room only. The lecture was given by John Nixon, the maritime salvage expert, who had previously talked about the Russian submarine Kursk. John is a very entertaining speaker and today's topic was a bit lighter than his previous talks - if you ever get the chance to listen to this guy I highly recommend him. I learned that Black Beard really did stick matches and fuses into his beard and light them - but there is no record of him actually killing anyone. 

The weather continues to be excellent; 79F with a light breeze across the decks. We sat out on the loungers on the promenade deck and read our books; occasionally when I looked out over the water I could see sizable flocks of tiny birds skimming across the surface of the ocean - in fact they appeared to spend as much time under the water as they did above it, leaving me to wonder if they were flying fish or diving birds? After a while I realized that it didn't matter, and went back to my book. As we were preparing to leave our loungers the commodore mysteriously appeared right in front of us, all decked out in his sparkling white uniform - out for his morning walk. I managed to get off a snappy "hello there", but unfortunately he caught Sandra mid-yawn - before he was off down the deck, leaving us laughing.

We have begun to think about our next stop; we arrive in Walvis Bay, Namibia on Sunday. This will be the QM2's maiden stop in this location - but the talk around the ship is what the hell is there to do in Walvis Bay, nobody has ever heard of the place. Even the Cunard folks are recommending that those who do not have an official shore excursion booked should not get off and try to just walk around the town - apparently there is not much to see. The shore excursions are very few and they are all sold out; we feel fortunate to have booked ours many months ago. We'll be going on a trip up the coast from Walvis Bay to an old German Town called Swakopmund - this part of Africa used to be a German colony. On the way back we will stop to view one of the gigantic sand dunes, Dune 7. 

There continues to be a lot of discussion on board about the stricken cruise ship Costa Concordia; we have satellite news in the cabins and so we are pretty up to date with the latest information. Hearing the news unfold inevitably calls into question the safety readiness of the ship in which we are current sailing, and I find myself looking at the various spaces on the ship with new eyes - mentally questioning every aspect of the emergency preparedness procedures. I don't know if it is a result of the recent event, or if it's routine, but Cunard has conducted a few very public crew-only safety drills. 

Dinner back in the regular dining room tonight was very good - clam chowder, salad, superbly cooked lamb shank then chocolate decadence. It's going to be a very difficult re-entry into the real world when we are done with this trip! 

Later we are heading to the ballroom to see if we can stake a claim to some of the dance floor real estate. There no formal Ball tonight, just the regular band  - so hopefully it won't be too busy.

I don't have any photos to share today so here's one from our visit to Tenerife - taken at a butcher's shop, very cute.


Wednesday January 18th, 2012

At about 10:45 this morning we crossed the equator, marking our transition from Pollwogs to Shellbacks. I was shocked to discover that there is in fact no thick black line across the ocean marking the equator; others must have felt the same because, at the announcement that we were crossing, folks came rushing out onto the promenade deck to look at the ocean. Sandra obliged by pointing to the exact position of the equator and recording the event.

I was expecting the temperature to be blisteringly hot today, but instead it was very pleasant 82F - though the humidity was high at 75%. I did not realize the extent to which the ocean temperature influences the air temperature. We are most definitely out of the Doldrums as a quite strong wind was blowing across the decks, at times making it difficult to get comfortable on the Promenade loungers - what a life if this is all I have to complain about!

Shortly after noon there was a "Crossing The Line Ceremony" at the back of the boat; attendance was very high and we could not get anywhere near the event - in fact the ships crew restricted access to the deck once it had filled up. I later heard that the process involved daubing the volunteer Pollywogs with various items from the kitchen (called a galley on a ship) and then throwing them into the swimming pool - as I expected, ritual public humiliation, just my kind of thing.

I continue to be amazed at the number of passengers who are, every day, exposing themselves to massive amount of UV radiation. Most of the participants seem to be British and some are beginning to look like dangerously hideous prunes. I suppose this behavior stems from being deprived of sunlight for most of their lives.

Being sent to the library when I was a kid was the worst of punishments; on the QM2 I love it and we trawl through on most days hoping we can get seats. Today we got lucky and procured two prime seats right at the front of the ship; the seats are big and conformable and the view is fantastic - right over the bow of the ship. We sat for a while and read while the sun shone through the large windows, it was warm and cosy and we almost dozed off - in fact me might have if it had not been for those two in the corner who were actually talking - can you believe it, talking in the library? I summoned up my best admonishing glare and sent it in the direction of the two rude chin waggers - that'll teach them.

This afternoon I sat out on our balcony and read my book; I've moved on to "Into The Silence, The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest" by Wade Davis. It's a fascinating book but very detailed and I'm finding it tough going. The temperature was perfect for just lying around and as the afternoon wore on, I dropped the back of my chair and just nodded off - brilliant.

Had a very nice dinner at the La Piazza restaurant - which is actually a cover of the Kings Court buffet that occasionally is converted into a proper restaurant. When we first started cruising on Cunard these speciality restaurants were included in the price of the cruise; now there is a $10 per person cover charge. The food is generally a notch above the regular dining room, and tonight was no exception. While I feel these options are still worth trying, even with the cover charge, no matter how hard they try it still feels like you are sitting in the buffet.

Attended the Neptune Ball, attempted to dance but there was less than elbow room, no fun, went to bed.


Tuesday January 17th, 2012

We are in the Doldrums; not mentally but physically. At noon today the ship's position was at latitude 6 degrees north that puts us right in the middle of the region commonly referred to as the Doldrums - a region often characterized by very low wind speeds, which of course was a problem back in the days of sailing ships. Today the sea is dead calm, like a mill pond, with almost no wind and the air temperature is a nice 81F. We will cross the equator sometime late tomorrow morning - this will be a first for both of us. 

We've discovered that, by ancient maritime tradition, not having previously crossed the equator makes us Pollywogs; tomorrow after we cross the line we will become Shellbacks - sorry but I have no idea of the derivation of these names and I don't have enough internet minutes to Google it. The ship is planning a "Crossing The Line Ceremony" and today folks were signing up for what I'm sure will be some form of public humiliation. Personally I shall be running to the bathroom to see if indeed the water in the sink does swirl in the opposite direction.

QM2 is the only cruise ship that has an onboard planetarium and today we attended a show all about cosmic collisions, narrated by Robert Redford. We've attended planetarium shows on previous QM2 cruises and always enjoyed them - today was no exception. It's just so easy to forget you on a ship while watching the amazing show, especially today with the sea being so calm. The seats in the theater tilt all the way back affording a great view of the gigantic hemispherical screen that spans the theater.


Later in the afternoon we met a Bond Girl! Maryam D'Abo was the Bond girl in "The Living Daylights" with Timothy Dalton - that was her in the cello case with Bond sliding down a snowy mountain side while being shot at. Cunard had brought Maryam on board to screen her documentary "Bond Girls Are Forever"; a film in which she interviews many of the famous Bond girls and talks about their common experience. Before the film Maryam sat with the Cunard cruise director and was interviewed; we found her to be very down to earth and knowledgeable about the Bond genre. Following the film she sat and took questions from the audience. We sat in the second row and enjoyed the event immensely, being very much fans of the Bond films.


Monday January 16th, 2012

Attended a lecture about the salvage of the Russian submarine Kursk given by Captain John Nixon a maritime historian and marine salvage expert. Captain Nixon also gave a lecture yesterday discussing the theories about how the Kursk sank - but I missed that one, I had to attend a very important sporting event in the pub. Today's lecture was excellent and even included a lengthy animation to show how holes were drilled in the sub and wires lowered 100M to raise the sub to a floating barge. 

Assault by Macbook Air. I have to report a minor incident in our cabin today - a freak accident that has left me with a very good chance of obtaining employment leading a certain group of flying reindeer, if it was that time of year. As I was getting up from the couch I collided with Sandra's Macbook air computer as she was putting it on the table - I caught the computer edge-on right on the bridge of my nose. At this point I am, for the first time, thinking the hard metal case and very thin design of the Mac is not so great! Ice was applied along with that wonder creme, Germolene - hopefully I won't look like I've gone a few rounds with Ali come the morning.

The weather continues to be very pleasant as we make our way south, we are currently off the coast of Mauritania in west Africa. Following a light lunch in Sir Samuel's we sat out on our perch this afternoon sipping the cheap Spanish wine we bought in Tenerife and nibbling on cheese and crackers that we had sent up to our cabin - ah what a life!

Formal night again so we are back to playing dress-up. When the QM2 left from Southampton she was actually embarking on an around the world cruise; there are about 300 passengers on board who are going all the way - 108 days, I wonder how many formal nights that is? Most folks, like us, are only on for the first leg of the voyage to South Africa. After an excellent steak and lobster dinner we attended a cocktail party for folks who had sailed a few times on Cunard - we've had these invites before but rarely attend, a couple of glasses of free Champagne is not enough to offset the ensuing sales pitch. We attended tonight, hoping it might be different, it wasn't.

After dinner we had drinks in the Chart Room with two of our table mates, Joe and Sandee, we've been dining with them since New York and getting along very well. Too tired to dance tonight, following our exertions of last night, and of course our very heavy day - so it's an early night (11PM).


Sunday January 15th, 2012

The first of 7 sea days before we reach our next stop, Walvis Bay in Namibia. We've had a great relaxing day - we even managed to grab two adjacent loungers and lie in the shade on the deck for an hour. The weather has really started to warm up - though there is a nice gentle cool breeze over the decks, a very pleasant 72F. 

Visibility is limited as there is a kind of haze in the air which we've heard is caused by sand that is whipped up from the Sahara Desert, east of our current location. The passenger make up has changes slightly since the transatlantic leg of the voyage - even more Brits got on in Southampton, along with a fair continent of Germans; in fact the daily noon-time updates are now read in German as well as English. Again a good portion of the Brits seem to be from Lancashire or Yorkshire; "ee by gum" and "trouble 't mill" can often be heard in George Formby high pitched nasal tones. 

We have actually met a few folks from my original neck of the woods and one of them joined me in the pub to watch the futty - amazingly once again they were showing a Newcastle United game live. It was not the most thrilling game, in fact several of the older non-commited neutrals were seem dozing even before half time. Newcastle beat QPR 1 - 0 and moved to 6th in the English Premiere League - made my day!

A first for us - we danced in the ballroom until the band went home; close friends and family will know how unlike us this is. There are actually two main bands that play on the QM2; one in the Queens Ballroom and one in the Royal Court Theater. Tonight the bands combined for a Big Band Night in the ballroom - playing many of the classics and it was very well attended. This of course made maneuvering on the dance floor all that more difficult, but we tried our best - Sandra says I just have to be more aggressive, stick out my elbows and make our own room - I do believe they have a very well equipped infirmary on board so it should be OK adopt this new approach.


Saturday January 14th, 2012

Tenerife lies about 280 miles due south of Madeira and is part of the Canary Island chain belonging to Spain. The ship docked at the port of Santa Cruz; our first impressions were that this was a real working port coupled with a typical Spanish tourist town. As on Madeira, there are no natural sandy beaches on Tenerife - though in some areas that problem has been solved by importing gigantic amounts of sand from the Sahara desert. We heard that years ago, when the sand was first imported, they also unwittingly brought along scorpion eggs thereby introducing the scorpion to an island where it previous did not exist.

We had decided to not take an organized tour on Tenerife but rather just find our own way - normally this works out quite well. The port ran a shuttle bus from the ship to the dock gate and from there we attempted to use the Cunard-provided map to find our way to the town center. Cunard really needs to improve their port maps - absolute crap. The waterfront in Santa Cruz consists of a long line of apartment blocks with bars and clubs on the lower floors; there was a feeling of a town awakening from a long night of partying - a bit smelly and scummy. The streets running orthogonal to the waterfront are semi pedestrian with many shops, cafes and more bars - we wandered through the streets hoping it would get better, it didn't.

We found a small corner cafe and stopped for a coffee and croissant; we were the only patrons, the place was very clean, food and service great. We had noticed a reference the an African Market on the crappy map, and with the help of the cafe owner we plotted a course and set off. On the way to the market we crossed a large dried up river with graffiti covered concrete sides and some really run-down buildings - I was reminded a bit of Tujana in Mexico, only safer. The density of locals increased as the market came into view; we passed many people with bags of fruits and vegetables - and we realized that the African Market was African in name only. In fact the market in Santa Cruz turned out to be very similar to the one we visited in Funchal on Madeira; stacked with fresh produce, meats and fish. We found a supermarket in the basement and I bought a couple of bottle of Spanish wine - Sandra had suggested it might be nice to sip a glass of wine on our balcony on the warm nights to come. 

The return route to the ship just confirmed our feeling about Santa Cruz; more bars and clubs, smelly and run-down. Later, at dinner, we learned from our table mates who had taken a formal tour, that the interior of the island is quite mountainous and beautiful - they also drove past other small towns with sandy beaches (hopefully no scorpions). The bottom line for Tenerife is that if you are visiting on a ship and only have a day - take a formal tour or car, but get out of Santa Cruz and see the rest of the island.

Mid afternoon, as were taking a short nap, the commodore came on the PA system in the cabin - we knew it must be something important because PA announcements are not normally broadcast in the cabins. The news of the grounding and capsizing of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia in Italy came as quite a shock. The troubled cruise ship dominated dinner time conversion as everyone was hungry for news.

Following dinner and the show we headed to the Queens Room to do some dancing. The caribbean band were playing and we had a great time dancing and people watching - if all these other people would just get out of the way we'd actually be able to do some of the things we learned in our per-cruise dance classes. We've also stopped trying to deduce exactly what steps people are doing to each song - I'm convinced that the majority of the folks on the floor are making it up as they go along.


Friday January 13th, 2012

Madeira.

The ship docked in the harbor of Funchal on the Portuguese Island of Madeira at about 7:30Am this morning. Funchal is the main town on this small island and is basically situated on a hillside running down to the harbor; it's very beautiful with lots of trees, tended gardens and is well looked after. Madeira has no sandy beaches, in fact I don't think it has any beaches - just cliffs and muddy shorelines. 

Cunard ran a shuttle bus from the dock to the center of town, about 5 minutes away. Funchal is really quite compact and as long as you stay close to the shoreline walking is very easy. Zero graffiti and litter. The QM2 was the only ship in port so the ratio of locals to tourists was very high, it did not feel like a tourist destination at all. The weather was perfect for our visit; a slight cool breeze, bright sun and as the day wore on it warmed up a bit.

We wandered past large open air cafes along beautiful mosaic side walks; I'm not kidding all of the footpaths and sidewalks are made from hand laid stones arranged in nice mosaic patterns. We made our way to a large church which turned out to be Funchal Cathedral, built between 1485 and 1515. Inside, the cathedral was cool and dark but after my eyes acclimatized I started to make out the beautiful interior decor including what looked like the original wooden roof which was ornately painted.

I don't think the news about lung cancer has reach the island yet because it seemed like everyone was smoking; including in the cafes and bars. We did our best to avoid the smoke and in the end found it only a minor annoyance.

Wandering further through the town we caught sight of the cable car line and started to make our way in the direction of the terminus. Again I was struck by the lack of tourists; the town seemed to be mainly filled with local people going about their daily business - although we did pass a few older ladies in traditional dress on street covers selling embroidered  items and other local things for the tourists. 

We stumbled upon a market (Mercado dos Lavradores) selling fruits, vegetables, fish and craft items - it was a great place to spend some time rubbing shoulders with the locals as they haggled for bananas or Espada (scabbard fish). The variety and quality of the fruit and veg was amazing - everything was extremely fresh. Later we saw many terraced gardens cut into the hillsides; the only way to efficiently cultivate on an island that is so mountainous.  

We paid our 10 Euros each and boarded the cable car for the ride up the mountain to the town of Monte. The cable car is very modern and as we started our ascent a pleasant cool breeze ventilated the car as the sun beat throughout the glass enclosure. Before long we were treated to spectacular views across the top of Funchal and down to the water, with the majestic QM2 docked in the harbor. The main reasons for visiting Monte are the excellent Church of our Lady of Monte and of course the toboggan ride back down the mountain.


The small church at Monte is perched high on the hill and the final access is via some 70 steps to the front door. It would appear that the church's biggest claim to fame is as the final resting place of the last emperor of the Austrian Empire who was exiled to Madeira when the empire collapsed at the start of the first world war. The emperor must have endeared himself to the locals because he has pride of place in the little church. How is it that deposed emperor always end up on a beautiful tropical island? The grounds around the church are very beautiful and we noticed many workers sweeping and gardening - there is even a small pond with two magnificent white swans. 

So now it was time to take the toboggan ride back down the hill. Apparently, in times past, the toboggans were used to move goods down the hills - but now they are just for the tourists.  I have to admit to being a bit concerned about the toboggan ride - having seen older images of the wooden contraptions being pushed down bumped cobbled streets. But yesterday we learned that the route for the ride was changed a few years ago and that it now goes down a nice smooth tarmac road. On inspection of the toboggans I was also amazed to see that they do not in fact have wheels; instead the sleds skid down the road on wooden runners. Braking is provided by two guys who ride on the back and use the soles of their shoes to slow down and guide the sled. 

We paid out 30 Euros (for two) and boarded our sled. Immediately all fears of a bumpy, spine shattering ride were dismissed and we gently glided along as if on ice. In fact a close examination of the road revealed a shiny haze that must have built up from the repeated running of waxy wooden runners over the surface. We built up speed and at some stages must have reach about 30mph - it was thrilling and we giggled like school kids. Cornering was a bit dicy as our drivers skillfully turned the sled sideways before entering the corner. 

We were quite surprised to find the the toboggan ride did not end all the way back in Funchal; instead it ended about 2/3 of the way down the hill. We joined other equally confused riders and shared a cab back to town at 2 Euros a head. 

There are several open air cafes in the square by the cathedral and we decided to rest up and take in the sights. Acoustic guitar music filled the air, we grabbed a table and ordered cappuccinos, Portuguese tarts and Madeira wine. The cafe was most filled with locals  - the usual group of old men passionately arguing politics.

After doing a bit of trinket shopping we wandered along the waterfront to catch the shuttle bus back to the ship. Along the way we passed a sizable yacht that had been turned into a restaurant; the boat carried a sign claiming it had once been owned by The Beatles - it looked a bit run down so we gave it a wide birth. Feeling slightly peckish, we procured an excellent grilled sandwich from a shack along the shore; bacon on flatbread with garlic butter. While eating our sandwich we walked to the end of a small pier directly opposite the docked QM2 and took some pictures while avoiding the waves as they splashed up on to the pier.

All in all we had a great day in Madeira.


Thursday January 12th, 2012

Woke a bit late, with the sun shining through the glass balcony doors - this is a first and then I realize we are now basically heading due south and we have a port side cabin so we'll be getting morning sun and afternoon shade all the way to South Africa; this could be good as we cross the equator. The weather has brightened but a light jacket or sweater is still required for a walk on the deck, or while lying on the loungers. 

We are having a very relaxing day - just reading and writing; I'm even skipping a lecture on how to trap big game animals and also a question and answer session with the director of Chariots of Fire. In honor of the famous movie we have completed 6 laps around the prom deck, in 2 sessions (actually Sandra did 7 laps). As I lap an old codger for the second time I imagine myself as Sebastian Vetell and somehow Pastor Maldonado pops into my head  (Formula One Racing fans will understand) - then an old lady in a tracksuit whizzes by us and the illusion is gone. What's with these people who just can't follow the rules? By convention (and even by arrows on the wall) promenading is supposed to take place in the counter clockwise direction; inevitably there is a lone salmon trying to swim against the flow.

Today we saw (the ghost of) Andy Warhol sunning himself on the promenade deck, or maybe it was the urban cowboy. I asked him if he'd seen Lou Reed but he just told me to take a walk on the wild side.

At lunch today we sat at a mixed table for eight and witnessed a great verbal battle between a Canadian surgeon and a US health professional from Texas (both well retired) on the relative merits of social Vs private healthcare; it was like being at Wimbledon. Occasionally Sandra would interject with a comment about immigration laws or the financial crisis just for fun - then we sat back and watched as the two protagonists took the new topic and went at it. Later while Sandra was doing her solo lap she bumped into the Canadian doctor and he was still going on about health insurance; lamenting points that he had thought of subsequent to lunch but did not bring up at the time.

Some additional shots from around the ship…



Yes, this is a long ship              The book shop                                                             The library

The gym                                                       The theater                                                        Computer room











The casino                                                                                                  Kings Court buffet


Wednesday January 11th, 2012

So we are off to Madeira, a small Portuguese island off the coast of North Africa; we have 3 days at sea and will arrive on Friday. This morning I attended a lecture about Madeira, we have not booked an official shore excursion so we will be making our own way. The lecture gave a good overview of the island, which looks extremely beautiful and goes by the tagline "The Garden Isle" - I thought that was Kauai , oh well - maybe it's a franchise. We tentatively plan to take a cable car ride up the mountain and avail ourselves of the street toboggan (a whicker basket on wheels pushed along by two guys) for the descent; we'll see how that works out, especially if we sample the local Madeira wine.

I've thought of a new business venture I might start, or maybe just license the idea to Cunard. A series of small booths could be outfitted with a small computer and card printer. For a nominal fee passengers would go into the booth and create a card that could be affixed to their chest (or maybe forehead). The card would contain a brief life history and of course a summary of all financial assets and a statement of net worth. This way noise levels in all bars, lounges and restaurants on board could be dramatically reduced not to mention the idle chitchat quotient.

I've seriously toyed with the idea of inventing a completely fake persona for my next interaction event. My favorite choice is internet billionaire - "you know that blinking arrow on your computer screen? Well I invented that!". Now I just need to find the right situation to use this…

Attended a lecture given by a wee Scottish man, George McGhee, who used to work at the BBC; the topic was British royalty in the movies. I found the format for this talk very strange; George chose to focus on Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Victoria - and showed 3 movie compilation clips for each monarch. Before each set of clips a lengthy description was given about the scenes and actors; however there were so many clips in each segment that by the time the segment was half way through I could not remember the points that had been brought up at the beginning. Maybe this was intended for a younger crowd with better recall, though I don't know where he would find it on this ship.

We had a small change over of personnel at our dinner table tonight; one American couple moved to the Princess Dining Room and were replaced by from 3 Brits and of course we had another of Sandra's amazing coincidences. One of the new folks is a lady from Glasgow and she went to the same high school as Sandra (a year ahead) - they were even born in the same hospital! Stories were shared and I'm sure there will more to come.

Quiet drink in the Commodore Club then off to bed.

Tuesday January 10th, 2012

In honor of our arriving back in England this morning we had a full English Breakfast - the first of the trip. We picked a table by the window and we could see the Queen Elizabeth docked just a short distance away, along with a Royal Caribbean cruse ship. It took about 20 minutes of queing-up at the gangway before we could get our passes checked and we were off the ship. Since our last arrival in Southampton a new cruise terminal has been constructed; it's a large bulbous corrugated affair with lots of glass - functional and efficient. 

Cunard runs a shuttle bus from the terminal to a shopping mall in town and we had at first planning to take this and then find our way to the train station, for our trip to Winchester. But since it took us a little longer to get off the ship than expected we missed the first bus and did not want to wait 30 minutes for the next one. So we took a taxis and en route decided that since Winchester was not that far away we would just take the taxi all the way; the journey was about 15 minutes and a lot less hassle.

Our taxi driver, Ali, was very knowledgeable about Winchester and gave us a quick run down of the general layout before dropping us in the center of town. Winchester is definitely worth a visit; it has a central pedestrian area lined with a mix of very old and some newer buildings - lots of shops and cafes. Very close to the central area is the wonderful cathedral, we headed there first. 

After paying the nominal entry fee we entered the cathedral which we found to be largely empty, save for the volunteer guides who were hanging around just bursting to provide a wealth of information. The cathedral dates from 1079 and was built by William the Conqueror just 13 years after the Norman Conquest; Winchester was the capital of England at that time. Of course the building has been much modified over the years but parts of the original Normal construction can still be seem in the transept. The central nave of the cathedral is very long with a magnificent vaulted ceiling; great stained glass windows anchor both ends. Jane Austen is buried in the cathedral.

I was able to finally buy a card reader for loading pictures on to my Mac and then we found a nice cafe with free wifi (see results below). Wandering the streets I noticed that several of the shops had gigantic models hanging high up on their facades - the models seemed to represent the nature of the business; a big boot for a shoe shop, huge tea pot for a tea shop etc. I can only suppose that this tradition dates back to some less literate period in time.

We couldn't leave Winchester without sampling the fresh baked items that were on sale in numerous shops - including 3 Cornish Pasty shops. We nibbled on a traditional cornish pasty and a sausage roll; actually we were forced, via public ridicule, to buy two sausage rolls - this following the loudly expressed shock in the shop when I at first attempted to turn down the 2 for 1 offer. We did however pass up the chance to try an apparently new creation - the Haggis Pasty!

We called Ali, our trusty driver, and were back on board the QM2 by 2PM - having skipped the long line of newbies waiting to board the ship. We tried to get lunch in the pub but it appears the only option today is the Kings Court Buffet - which is odd because we had a pub lunch on embarkation day in New York. Still, they were serving beer in the pub, so since we were there…

It's fun to watch all the new recruits wandering the ship looking dazed and confused, checking maps and arguing with each other about the which route is the quickest to the buffet - that was was us a few cruises ago.

Standing at the stern of the QM2 tonight we were treated to a great fireworks display as we pulled out of Southampton docks with the Queen Elizabeth following closely behind us. We waiting about an hour in the freezing cold before things got going and the fireworks lasted about 15 minutes, so we missed our appointed time in the main dining room.  We headed up to the buffet to join the chow line. 

This was our first time at the buffet for dinner and it was a real disappointment; very limited choice and just very bland food. Also since the ship just had a major turn over of passengers we've gone back to being served by the staff at the buffets which slows things down, but does lead to better portion control (and hopefully virus control). Sandra had roast chicken and potatoes - somehow she ended up with a leg and dark meat portion, at home she feeds this to the dog.

After the exploits of the day we are actually a bit tired and so we are having an early night; Sandra ordered room service.


Monday January 9th, 2012

Sandra and I have decided to convert to Nocternalism; even though we "had an early night" last night we were both wide awake at well past 3AM - and so we have decided to join the ranks of the Fruit Bat and Owl. There is a possible explanation for our inability to enter the Land of Nod; if the purpose of sleep is to recharge energy stores that have been depleted during the day, I can only suppose that since we are not actually expending any energy during the day there is no need for recharging at night. We'll have to test this theory by perhaps taking a few turns around the deck today, maybe.

We are currently (noon) about 200 miles from Southampton and will soon cross below the southern tip of Ireland. The weather is a bit overcast but quite warm, about 55F - seas are calm and we expect to dock at about 6AM tomorrow. Instructions for the next leg of our cruise were delivered to our cabin last night; we have been issued new cruise ID cards and have to turn in the old ones when we get off in Southampton. On returning to the ship we do not have to wait in line with the new passengers; also we get to skip the safety drill - yippee!

Some additional views of the ship for those who have not had the pleasure…

The Chart Room

Attended a couple of lectures; one by Bill Miller who is an author and expert on cruise ships and the cruise industry - he's given several talks but this was the first I have attended. Bill is a very entertaining speaker and this talk covered the transition of ships from liners to cruising - lots of history, old pictures and anecdotes - including the story of the couple who were cruising for the first time and called down to the purser's office to complain that the microwave in their cabin was not working. The purser of course found this strange as the cabins were not fitted with microwave ovens; never the less he dispatched someone to investigate. It turns out the couple had taken a few of slices of pizza from the buffet and loaded them into the safe installed in the cabin; pushing the key code buttons did not seem to be turning on the microwave.

Another lecture I caught was by Chase Untermeyer a former government official, in the 2nd Bush administration I think. Chase had given several talks but this was the first for me and was all about the formation of US Foreign policy - very informative, though Chase is not the most polished of speakers.

We are beginning to see other ships as we get closer to Southampton, and while walking the deck this afternoon I convinced myself I could see land way off in the distance. Sandra even saw a dolphin this morning. The weather continues to be very mild and the seas calm. A barman we talked to this afternoon told us that on the previous Southampton to New York crossing the weather had been very bad with 60ft waves - glad we missed that one.


Sunday January 8th, 2012

What a joy it is for me to just do absolutely nothing; it's only when I get the chance to have this much spare time that I realize how busy, hectic and sometimes chaotic things are back in the real world. I've found myself occasionally having a slight adrenaline rush at the thought of NOT having to be somewhere, meet a deadline or worry about what's next on my calendar. I know this must sound weird but I find relaxing very stimulating!

Well we met our goal of making it to the dining room for breakfast - but we had to use the room service delivery guy for a wake up call since we do not have an alarm clock. Scottish Kippers are a particular favorite of mine the QM2 offers them for breakfast everyday - brilliant! Sandra showed particularly strong will power by only ordering a single Eggs Benedict, convincing the waiter to only bring one also took all her powers of persuasion.

Further comments on the state of the ship following the recent dry dock and re-fit; while many of the interior changes have been done really well - the addition of traditional glass sided booths in the Golden Lion pub for example. We have noticed a serious flaw in the carpeting in many of the public areas where it appears to be coming apart at the seams - and this only a few weeks after being installed.

The make up of the passengers on this leg of the cruise is about 75% Brit and 20% Yank - and from accents we've heard the majority of the Brits are Northern, with a few Cocknies. I believe most folks are getting off in Southampton and the ship will fill up with a new crowd for the leg to Cape Town - we think there will be a larger contingent from Europe (non-Brit). As mentioned our 6 person dinner table seems to have been deliberately assembled since we are all going on to Cape Town. However we have learned that we are luckier than our table mates because we do not have to change cabins for the next leg; our original booking did have us changing but just before we left Cunard changed it to keep us in the same cabin, which is great. Those moving cabin have all of their belongings moved by their cabin steward, which I suppose softens the blow.

This afternoon we've been thinking ahead to what we might do when we dock in Southampton, the day after tomorrow. Tentatively we are planning to make our way to the train station and go to Winchester, about 20 minutes inland from Southampton - we've been told this is a nice town (actually a city) to visit and of course it has the magnificent cathedral (not to mention a Marks and Spencers). I think we'll just play it by ear when we get off the ship.

Couldn't resist the lobster at dinner tonight - in fact I had 2, and half of Sandra's since she didn't like it (how is that possible?). Baked Alaska was also excellent for dessert; oh and I forgot to mention the Foie Gras appetizer. We made a failed attempt at seeing the show tonight; but it was one we had seen before and that, coupled with the fact that we took seats in the balcony where it was quite warm (actually a bit hot in my penguin suit and dickie bow tie), caused us to bail before the end.

We turned in early for us the first time on this cruise - skipping the Ascot Ball; I'm sure we've broken some important protocol - maybe they'll make us walk the plank.


Saturday January 7th, 2012

We again had trouble getting to sleep last night - this damn ship-lag is playing havoc with our body clocks! So we slept late again this morning - our new goal, before we reach Southampton, is to be up in time to make it to the dining room for breakfast which finishes at 10AM.

The weather has continued to deteriorate and this morning we have Force 8 gales with 14ft swells - it's great! We've learned that experienced transatlantic crossers just refer to the wind conditions as F8 or F10 and most of them are hoping to get in an F10 before Southampton. We went to the pub for lunch, which is down on deck 2 and has large windows looking out almost at sea level. At one point a big wave hit the side of the ship and completely covered the windows in the pub, everyone screamed! I finished my Ploughman's Lunch and pint of Boddingtons while alternating my gaze between the amazing sea and the football scores which were coming in live on the telly - life is good.

I must apologize for not including more pictures in the blog so far. I made the mistake of thinking that I would easily be able to transfer pictures from my iPad via "the cloud" to my Mac - I brought a card reader for uploading pictures to the iPad but not the Mac (I'm such an idiot). But of course the internet speed is so slow that moving pictures around via the cloud is impossible. I'll pick up a card reader for the Mac when we get off the ship for the day in Southampton, then I'll go back and add a few pictures to the blog entries below.

This afternoon while having coffee in the Sir Samuel Room (named for old Sam Cunard himself) we noticed Dale Kristien sitting at the table next to us; she had commented during her performance that she welcomed folks talking to her around the ship - so we stopped for a brief chat and thanked her for her great performance, she was very gracious and appreciative.

Dinner was outstanding again; roasted Sea Bass and a Chocolate Soufflé!

We danced again!

Snack.

Bed.

(Sorry but I'm a bit knackered)


Friday January 6th, 2012

Before retiring last night we hung the little sign on the outside of our cabin door indicating our breakfast selection, with instructions for delivery at 9AM - what were we thinking? 9AM and we lost another hour last night with the second time change! So at the appointed ungodly hour I was awoken from my slumber by a polite knock at the door - and I stumbled out of bed to meet the waiter and collect our tray of nosh. 

I think breakfast in bed is highly over-rated; crumbs from the toast, spilled milk and coffee - all while sitting in the most un-natural eating position. Never the less, we're on holiday so we have to try it. Sandra must have been tired because she promptly fell back to sleep after finishing her breakfast - they must have slipped us decaf or something. So Sandra slept on and I had a few hour of glorious reading time. I'm currently reading an excellent book; "1861: The Civil War Awakening" by Adam Goodheart and I highly recommend it to those interested in the origins of the American Civil War and the institution of slavery.

The lecture today was once again given by the Eamonn Gearon; this time his talk covered spies and military intelligence in North Africa from before the first world war and through the second world war. TE Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) of course featured prominantly in this talk and I learned that he was pals with The English Patient (an Hungarian count whose name escapes me, but he was played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie). The lecture also covered early explorations deep into the Sahara by motor car (Ford Model T if you can believe it) and the birth of the SAS . Another great job by Eamonn.

As I write this we are sitting in one of our favorite places on the ship; in a narrow corridor down on deck 3, almost at water level, in nice padded swivel chairs beside large windows. This is generally a very quiet spot and the waves crash right outside the windows. Today we can hear the rehearsals taking place for tonight's show in the theater which is adjacent to the corridor. Dale Kristien is performing tonight - this is the lady who took over from Sarah Brightman in The Phantom of The Opera and played the role of Christine for the entire time the show was in LA (over 1700 performances). As avid Phantom fans we are really looking forward to the show tonight.

For those who have never done a transatlantic crossing and are perhaps wondering how you would fill up the time if you do in fact partake - my experience is that I don't have enough time to fit in everything I want to do. Today I decided to actually skip a potentially great lecture about an Arctic Exploration - just so I could fit in some time for reading and writing. 

I also have to give a small plug for the Cunard service; Sandra broke the heal off one for her dancing shoes the other night (I tried to tell her the Argentine Tango was above our skill level) - this morning the shoe arrived back in the cabin with the heal smartly re-attached, brilliant. Actually the small end of the heal broke while Sandra was walking back to the cabin; quite by chance she found the small piece a few hours later on the carpet in the corridor, along from our cabin, where it had broken off!

Carrots. I have to say I'm amazed at the ability of the ships galley to produce perfectly cooked carrots for 1200 people at one sitting. We had an excellent dinner last night which included said-mentioned root vegetables - along with lemon sole cooked just right. All washed down with a bottle of Sancerre; actually we only drank half the bottle, the sommelier will bring us the rest tonight - a nice touch.

The show was very good; Ms Kristien sang a nice selection from Phantom and other Broadway hits - interspersed with a few funny anecdotes taken from her life experience. To my ear not a single note she sang was off-key and at one point I thought the glass containing my drink was going to shatter - really. 

We danced again last night - this time the music was provided by a great reggae band from St. Lucia. With the weather turning a bit rougher I had a hard time giving Sandra the correct amount of direction during the dances; and this, along with the crowd, led to a lot of pushing and pulling. We were able to figure out that you can dance the Rumba to most reggae beats - god we sound so accomplished!

Sandra needed her chip bitty fix before bed, so it was off to the buffet for a quick bite before turning in.


Thursday January 5th, 2012

Breakfast and a turn around the deck - I can see this becoming a nice habit on this cruise. Today the weather is a tad warmer, no snow flurries, and the sun even peaked through long enough for the deck hands to put out the cushions on the loungers. Panic immediately spread through the British contingent as word of the lounger availability disseminated - loungers filled up very quickly, really the Brits will lie out in any weather - Sandra and I just walked on by wrapped in our full winter gear.

We slept a little late this morning and so missed the first lecture which was about an antarctic exploration - it will be on the telly later so maybe I can catch it. I did get to attend the second lecture of the day given by the former head of the British Army, Sir Richard Dannatt aka General the Lord Dannatt. Sir Richard spoke for half an hour (no slides) about his 40 years in the army - covering Northern Ireland, Germany, Kosovo, Iraq and Afganhistan- to a packed house, and his talk was very well received. 

In the afternoon we attended a second lecture by Eamonn Gearon; this one was about the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century - gripping stuff! We learned that the arabs conquered all of North Africa from Egypt to Tunisia in only 71 years - spreading Islam as they went. But we also found out that the popular image of the massacring hordes of arabs on horses was just not true. For one thing, they rode on camels! But also they influenced the spread of their religion through a very clever economic mechanism; all non muslims in the territories conquered by the arabs had to pay an extra tax - even so it took another 200 years for the North African countries to fully convert. We also learned that parts of the original Star Wars movie were filmed in the Sahara Desert - in fact you can visit the house where young Luke Skywalker lived, and even sleep in his bed.

We have opted for a "night in" tonight - we'll be ordering room service; amazingly this will be a first for us on all the cruises we have taken. Also we have noticed that none of the buffet areas are self-serve and that the outer toilet doors in all of the public areas have been jammed open. Sandra suspected that the ship was trying to avoid the potential for a viral outbreak - she later confirmed this with a crew member.

I must also apologize for not posting the blog more frequently, but the internet service does not appear to be improved from the last time we sailed on this ship. Signal strength in the cabin does appear to be improved but the satellite uplink is very, very slow and intermittent.


Wednesday January 4rd, 2012

As everyone knows, there is a 5 hour time difference between New York and the UK - and so during the transatlantic crossing you loose this much time. We somehow made the mistake of thinking that ships time would advance one hour last night; and so we set our watches forward before turning in. So this morning we were up bright and early at 8AM, thinking it was 9AM - we did not discover our error until well after breakfast.

The weather has turned even colder today - in fact as we took a turn around the deck this morning it started to snow, leaving a light dusting in places (but still more than has fallen in Tahoe this season). We only managed 1 1/2 circuits before we had to come in - it was extremely cold!

We attended a fascinating lecture this morning given by Eamonn Gearon an author and journalist who had spent a lot of time in the Middle East. The lecture today was all about Saudi Arabia; he was a very polished speaker and his talk covered the history and culture of the country. I found out that only 6% of the women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to work - and apparently this has caused some issues when it comes to jobs in ladies underwear shops, where like everywhere else most of the workers are men. Female members of the Saudi royal family tried unsuccessfully to have the law changed to allow only women to work in the underwear shops.

Dancing lessons are offered every day on the cruise, and today it was Cha Cha Cha (I think this is different than Cha Cha - but I can't be sure, perhaps they should just mathematically describe this particular dance style as Chan). We turned up expecting to at least get a rudimentary run down of the steps but there were so many people it was a waste of time - I think it was more about the two professionals strutting their stuff than real knowledge transfer.

Lunch in the dining room was followed by a "meet and greet" event organized by the Cruise Critic website; Sandra has for months been exchanging information with a small on-line community of folks on this particular transatlantic crossing - the meeting was a chance to finally meet the other on-line cruisers. About 30 people showed up to be assigned sticky name badges and exchange idle chit chat - as I've said in previous blog entries, this is something Sandra is very good at but really for me who generally avoids human contact at all costs it presents a great opportunity to study the architecture of the room. Commodore Rynd (the ships captain) even showed up and everyone just swooned around him. I sidled off to the Golden Lion pub to watch a critically important sporting event.

As it turned out the football game (shown live in the middle of the north Atlantic - isn't technology great!) was Newcastle United at home to Manchester United. I had been looking forward to the match, but with the usual trepidation of a diehard Geordie fan - expecting our usual defeat at the hands of the Mancs. The bar was absolutely packed - standing room only; but there are several large screen TVs so it was not a problem finding a spot with a good view. The volume was cranked up and the atmosphere was excellent - allowing me to really get into the spirt of the event - and when Newcastle scored first I just could not hold back; jumping and screaming as if I was actually at the match. A good portion of the crowd in the bar were Man U fans, and so my outward display of emotion drew a bit of attention. We went on to win the game 3 - 0; a great and historic win. I left the pub with a grin like a Cheshire Cat.

Formal night - so it was tux and dicky; and also the first run out of the box for my new braces - which in America we have to call suspenders - and suspenders are called garters; life is very confusing - don't get me started on Mars Bars Vs Milky Ways! Tonight was the Black and White Ball - I found this very appropriate given the fantastic win for my football team, who happen to play in black and white strips (which in America we have to call uniforms….). Our excellent dinner was followed by several drinks in the Chart Room and then it was off to the Ball. A few more drinks and a few dances - it was a lot of fun; especially trying to compensate for the movement of the ship while trying to remember the dance steps.

A quick stop at the buffet for supper and it was off to bed; with the one hour time change we finally hit the pillow at 1:40AM.


Tuesday January 3rd, 2012

Wow what a cold day the temperature reached a high of 29F - by comparison, at 41F, yesterday was positively balmy. We dashed round the corner to Guy and Gallard, another deli-type place across from yesterday's Dean and Deluca - do all of these places have two names? Steaming hot coffee and the usual excellent bagels really hit the spot. The people in New York seem well adapted to the cold - going about their business in all manner of ear muffs, leg warmers, fur hats and scarves.

We checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge - this time by car - was a little extra treat. Checking in was very smooth and relatively quick; Sandra has Cunard Platinum level - so we got to go in the short line with the fur coat and diamond crowd. From arrival at the ship to sliding in our stateroom keycard took about half an hour. I always find the word stateroom a bit weird - what ever happened to "cabin"? In fact I will refrain from using the S word for the rest of this blog.

Our cabin (8022) on deck 8 is on the left (port) side near the front (bow) - if we look at a picture of the QM2's port side 8022 is between the first and second lifeboat. The entire ship was just refitted a couple of weeks ago including all new carpeting which we noticed on entering the cabin, along with a new flat screen TV.

After unpacking, we dressed for dinner (smart-casual tonight) and headed to the Commodore Club which is a really nice bar at the very front of the ship. We had a drink and watched the ship cast off and head out of port; we would normally do this from out on the promenade deck but in the bitter cold of the evening this was out of the question.

We have opted for the early (6PM) dinner service for this cruise along with a request to be placed at a table for 6. Prior to dinner we had performed a reconnoissance maneuver to locate our dinner table and make sure it was satisfactory - we need not have worried as our table (#73) is on the ground floor of the Britannia Dining Room right by the Captain's table. On arrival for dinner we met our table mates - two American couples, also traveling all the way to South Africa. Dinner was up to the usual Cunard standard and the conversation pleasant and light - we'll see how this goes after 22 days!

Following dinner we decided it was time to try out our new-found dancing skills. Over the past several month we have been taking private dancing lessons; on all previous cruises we have always just watched from the sidelines. The QM2 has the biggest dance floor at sea located in the Queens Ballroom; when we arrived the place was empty except for one old lady sitting reading a book. The band was not due to start up for their 2nd evening session for another half hour, but there was pre-recorded music playing. And so, with great trepidation, we took to the floor for a slow waltz. Over the next half hour we danced a few more times, gaining a little confidence each time. Soon the band started and more folks arrived, we danced a bit more but then beat a retreat for the evening.


Monday January 2nd, 2012

We slept a bit late today - catching up on the slight jet lag I suppose, or maybe we were suffering the effects of low energy due to starvation from the previous night. With a forecasted high of 41F we opted not to don the full monte - leaving scarves and gloves behind. 

The Dean and Deluca eating establishment was our prearranged destination for breakfast - it was just around the corner from our hotel. Ah New York bagels - it's a bit like Guinness in Dublin, just simply better than anywhere else. I could also not resist a Nutella scone - brilliant start to the day. 

Having visited New York City several times in the past few years we did not feel the need to rush around and see all the major attractions. Our rough plan for the day included; the Brooklyn Bridge, Ground Zero, Bloomingdales and maybe a Broadway show - if we could get tickets without taking out a small mortgage.

IMG 1896

The pedestrian access to the Brooklyn Bridge on the New York side starts out right by city hall - from there the path curves to meet the wooden pedestrian walk way that runs down the center of the bridge, above the traffic lanes. The bridge is really a magnificent structure, steeped in history. Having recently read David McCullough's famous history of the bridge, Sandra was treated to a brick by brick commentary (whether she liked it or not) as we made our way across the span. It was a bright and cold morning, and at this point I was wishing I had brought my scarf and gloves - a great day for pictures. The views of the Manhattan skyline from the bridge are great - well worth the walk.

We next headed for Ground Zero where we hoped to see the recently opened memorial with the two reflecting pools. From the bridge to Ground Zero is about a 15 minute walk - with the aid of our trusty iPhones. Along the way Sandra noticed a few people heading in to a quaint little church, the wind chill was turning the end of my nose red - so we ducked in to the church to check it out. As we entered the church we were immediately greeted by the sound of a small orchestra and, what sounded like, a very excellent choir. Within a few seconds I realized that we had stumbled into something very special. 

St. Paul's chapel dates from 1766 and is a real gem, filled with history - both old and not so old. The Chapel was the place where George Washington came to give thanks right after his inauguration and more recently was a place for quiet reflection during the 911 tragedy. The Trinity Choir and Baroque Orchestra were performing Bach and it was excellent. As the music played we took some time to wander around the small church and take in the many 911 memorials; a fire fighters scorched jacket and boots were particularly poignant.

Unfortunately after reaching the Ground Zero site we found out that pre-purchased tickets were required - even to see the reflecting pools. The site has change a lot since our last visit two years ago - several large gleaming towers have begun to rise up close to where the former towers stood.


We took a taxi up to Bloomingdales; Sandra had decided that a new pair of Ugg boots were needed and that they should come wrapped in a Big Brown Bag. Feeling a bit peckish on our arrival, we opted for a hip burger place called Flip in Bloomingdales. Nothing like a $15 hamburger - no really, it was very good - especially washed down with a Lagunitas Pils (I tried to get a Brooklyn Larger, but they were out). Fed, refreshed and new boots in the bag we set out for Time Square in search of cut-price theater tickets.

The line at the last-minute ticket booth in Time Square was unbelievably long - we later learned that people were waiting an hour and a half in the freezing cold. There was no debate, we both decided we were not going to wait in the ticket line. Our first choice show for that night was Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and we felt a bit down as we realized we would not get to see it. The theater where Priscilla was showing turned out to be right opposite the cheap ticket booth - so, on the off chance that I might be able to get tickets, I popped in to the box office. Amazingly I was able to get 2 balcony tickets at a 30% discount - so you don't have to wait in the freezing cold to score a deal on tickets.

After a quick trip back to the hotel for rest and warmth (and of course the free booze at happy hour), we headed back out to the theater. The show was absolutely brilliant; highly recommended - funny, a great score and (as usual for Broadway) very well produced. Who knew watching a bunch of Ozzies dressed in drag could be so much fun. Of course there was the usual incredible coincidence that always seem to follow Sandra where ever she goes; this time the two guys sitting next to her in the theater were from Scotland - and getting on the Queen Mary 2 with us tomorrow!

Following the show we headed for our favorite New York deli, for supper. Carnegie Deli is famous for their meats and gigantic sandwiches - you'll find our previous visits to this place described in this blog below. This visit did not disappoint - we split a corned beef sandwich and struggled to get through it and the side of onion rings. Never the less, we could not leave without ordering a piece of strawberry cheesecake - again it was was gargantuan. I saw several sandwiches leaving the kitchen that looked like they had been put together by a structural engineer!

Another great day in New York City - tomorrow we board the ship and we are both so excited!


Sunday January 1st, 2012

We are off on another adventure and, as I've told Sandra twice before, this is a trip of a lifetime. We have just arrived in New York City where we will stay for 2 nights before boarding the Queen Mary 2 for a 22 day cruise to Cape Town, South Africa. Along the way we will stop at Southampton, Tenerife, Madeira and Namibia. Following the cruise we will head to Kruger National Park in South Africa for a short safari and also spend time in the UK before returning home. 

Today we had a 10:40AM flight out of San Francisco and to our amazement we got upgraded to Business Class - I guess all those flights to Asia for work finally paid off! Business Class was quite luxurious and a great way to start out on our trip. I have to confess that I spent the first hour of the flight playing with the various controls on the seat. Our bags were first down the chute and we were off in a taxi heading for Manhattan within about 15 minutes of landing.

We left Santa Rosa at exactly 8:05AM and it was exactly 8:05PM when I slid the key card into the hotel room door - a nine hour trip (accounting for the time change) - I don't know why I remember this stuff. The Element Hotel is on W 39th St about three blocks from Times square. The hotel is very modern and eco-hip, though it has a curious shape having a very small footprint and 40 stories - perhaps not too curious for Manhattan. Our room is a reasonable size for NYC - I can actually stand in the middle of it and not touch the walls. Amazingly the hotel room comes with a small but nicely appointed kitchen complete with fridge / freezer, microwave, cook top and dishwasher! No Sandra I AM NOT cooking tonight.

After checking in we headed out to try and get a bite to eat - first problem, pouring rain and no umbrellas - not packing them was actually deliberate as we always figure we can pick up an umbrella if needed and they make good mementos. I had a hooded coat so I ran to the corner and picked up a couple of brollies and off we went - trying to blend in and not look like tourists, hard to do with umbrellas emblazoned with NEW YORK CITY.

Well I'm here to say that, contrary to the words of that popular song, New York IS a city that sleeps. We traipsed through the streets in the rain looking for a nice place for dinner but I think the fact that it was after 9PM, Sunday and New Years Day all worked against us. There were many street vendors and small corner shops but non had anything that looked appetizing.

So we are sitting in bed fighting over the last Malteser and discussing the Great New York Bagel Hunt that will take place in the morning - Sandra is even on The Google attempting to narrow our options.