Tag Archives: Travel

A Dazzle of Zebra, a Journey of Giraffe and a Crash of Rhino

The journey was long, an 11 hour flight overnight and a three hour transfer into the Waterberg region in the North East of South Africa. We were particularly relieved to arrive at Ants Hill Safari Lodge not just because of the journey but due to a “mix up” with some paper work which could have seen on the next plane back home again without setting foot outside of the airport… I won’t go into detail here as I don’t want to get myself or anyone else into trouble but I will say that from now on I’m going to check, re-check and triple check all paperwork before I leave home. Thankfully the kindness of a stranger (and probably some middle class, married, white privilege) saw our holiday wasn’t ruined before it had started! And even more thankfully that was the only minor hiccup of what was otherwise the most perfect family adventure ever…

The welcome at Ant’s Hill at around 2 o’clock was warm, friendly and instantly relaxing. The weather was also warm, sweltering in fact and so some cool drinks and a light lunch was perfect. The kids were far too excited for sensible things like naps after the long journey so we had a dip in the pool before getting geared up for our first horseback safari that evening.

It was Rob’s first time ever sitting on a horse and luckily he loved it. The kids took to it too, although Alfie was a bit nervous as he still has a clear memory of our friend Angela getting kicked in the face by her own horse on our farm a couple of years ago… frankly I’m still pretty traumatised by that myself so it’s no wonder it’s well imprinted in Alfie’s mind! By the end our four days at Ant’s Hill Alfie was cantering.

On the first evening though it was a matter of easy going walks around the huge 12,500 acre reserve. Orla took to her mischievous and elderly pony and enjoyed riding so much that she started to fall asleep! I noticed from a few horses back that she was slowly slumping and sliding to the side… we had to keep her talking until we reached the sundowners.

Sundowners… drinks at sunset. Yes it is a slightly colonial concept but it’s also totally awesome to ride on horseback to a high spot for the best views over the South African mountains to watch the sunset with an ice cold glass of wine or gin and tonic. We were on holiday!! The other guests all meet at the same point so you can compare notes on animal sightings and horse riding experiences.

Us being us, we were rather relieved that there weren’t any other Brits staying for the first couple of days, although most guests were European, which, let’s face it, are rather embarrassing to be around these days whichever way one voted. At least Brexit wasn’t off bounds in conversation until other Brits turned up at which point it becomes a rather basil faulty-esque case of “don’t mention Brexit” lest we should disagree! Ahhhh… Brits abroad, all our funny ways are inflated and seem more comic than normal. Anyway, I digress…

After sundowners we get safari trucks back to the hotel, as we’ve let the horses go off into the wild to make their own way home. A bright torch scans the trees for elusive bushbabies and spots nightjars and mongoose. Dinner is superb; impala fillet, but we’re so exhausted it’s a struggle to get through and little Orla falls asleep at the table with her mouth full of impala. When Rob picked her up she woke up and carried on chewing!!

The days at Ant’s Hill are relaxed and don’t involve the traditional safari early starts; Breakfast at 7.30am-ish, hopping on the horse about 8am for a morning ride, getting right up among the zebra, giraffe, warthogs and antelope. Back for a swim about 10am and a leisurely lunch at 12ish either at the hotel or out in the South Africa bush. More pool time and parents taking turns for naps followed by another horse ride to the sundowners spot. What more could you ask of a holiday? Not a lot… but we certainly got more!

One evening instead of horse riding we climbed into the game drive vehicles and headed to the sister hotel, Ants Nest on the far side of the huge estate. The owner, Ant (obvs), is dedicated to the Save the Waterberg Rhino conservation project and to that end has a Rhino breeding programme on the reserve. At this time of year, the tail end of the dry season, they are feeding the rhinos and other animals on the reserve – an expensive necessity in this arid landscape. However, for us this meant we were able to get extraordinarily close to these magnificent, pre-historic beasts as they fed on hay just below the platform we were on. We also got to see the two week old baby rhino feeding from her fiercely protective mum. I’ll write more about the plight of the rhinos in a future post as it warrants awareness raising efforts all round.

The other incredible experience at Ant’s Hill was the opportunity to take part in a game capture. Within a managed reserve such as this it’s vital that an active game management strategy is employed to control populations and ensure the health of the various herds on the estate. There are a few leopards within the reserve but no lions or other major predators so it’s all the more important for humans to manage them. An old, lone, male buffalo was causing problems and given his genetics were already strong within the buffalo herd it was time for him to be moved to another reserve were he could sow a few more seeds. Also a male eland (the largest of the antelope) was unwell and needed to be assess by the vet and potentially isolated for a time. It was an earlier start and a picnic breakfast in the car that day as we set off in the direction of the helicopter noise. It was a rapid and bumpy drive up the mountain to where the buffalo in question had been spotted and by the time we got there the vet had already darted him (from a helicopter into exactly the right spot… IMPRESSIVE!). It takes a lot of strong men to get a buffalo onto a moving stretcher and then into a trailer. And it has to be done before the sedative wears off! It’s also important they keep his gigantic tongue out and a blindfold on him. The eland was next and after another speedy drive across the rugged terrain (because helicopters are a hell of a lot fast than cars!) we found him staggering around having just been darted again with incredible precision by the vet. This one was treated and hauled onto the stretcher but instead of going to a trailer he was moved onto a neighbours patch for a while and we got to see him being woken back up and wander off looking a bit confused.

Other highlights of our stay at Ant’s Hill include waking up to a noisy squirrel looking at me from our bathroom and watching a warthog wander past the bedroom window and then there was Craig… Craig the snake man whom our kids developed a major hero worship for. He keeps snakes; big snakes, little snakes, harmless snakes, highly poisonous snakes, fast snakes, slow snakes, friendly snakes and very unfriendly snakes… most of his snakes were a combination of those things. For example the brown house snake which is harmless, fast and friendly. Or the puff adder which is highly poisonous, very unfriendly but thankfully also slow! He brought us snakes to meet. It was an experience! The kids loved it… me? Not so much. But Craig was also great at catching lizards and geko and was an absolute font of knowledge and Patrick has decided he wants to be Craig when he grows up. He spent a fair proportion of the sundowners creating villages for the giant millipedes and then gathering millipedes to populate them faster than they could crawl away (pictured below was one that settled in his new house!).

It spoke volumes about the area that with so much on their door step Ant’s Hill was popular with people from Johannesburg as a weekend getaway and we were lucky enough to hit it off with a family whose son was Alfie’s age. I say lucky… basically they got my kids playing a game which involves rolling impala poo in your mouth and seeing  who can spit it the furthest and eating live giant flying ants. I didn’t (boring!) but the rest of them and Rob did!

Ant’s hill was only the first half of our trip, next we moved onto Madikwe Game Reserve which I’ll tell you about soon.

For all the photos from the trip follow me on Instagram @MumaDean or on Twitter or Facebook.

 

_dsc9409

The majestic Sable antelope was the logo for Ant’s Hill

 

From East to West – The Road Trip Days, Part 2

Image

Oklahoma to Mesa via Santa fe

Image

The following morning seemed to drag also, due to various mishaps such as muffin mushed into carpet and painful splinters in feet requiring two man extraction. Plus the traffic around Oklahoma slowed down our pace. But our plan for the day was to drive… and drive we did. We detoured from the interstate at Elk City to drive across the Black Kettle National Grassland. Now these were country roads… Big skies, long empty roads and stunning views stretching for miles and miles.

Image

Open views for miles and miles

By the afternoon the sky had interesting clouds though and we were mystified by the strange mists rolling around us blocking the views… Suddenly the “clouds” closed in and smelled of smoke… we were headed straight for a wild fire. The winds were picking up and an email arrived from a friend warning us of the tornadoes building in the area. Now quite honestly I’m all for a bit of excitement and extreme weather and were I not with my three small children and beloved husband I would be well up for sticking around in the thick of the action… but with our parental instincts kicking in with full force we were driving on adrenaline to get the hell out of there!

Image

The smoke was closing in and getting thick

A sheriff come in the opposite direction and turned us around away from the fire. Following her directions to safety we relaxed until the moment the wind made a dramatic change in direction, the smoke thickened and we realised this way was even worse… so did everyone else and trucks, cars and bikes started turning around as three fire engines with gas masked men on the front wizzed past, lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Image

The fire engines had wizzed past and we decided to head the other way

Detouring again down dirt tracks we managed to put some distance between us and the smoke and finally came across a small town with a Subway for some sandwiches, as our picnic plans were somewhat scuppered by the extreme weather. From the car to the door was treacherous with strong winds which nearly picked feather light Patrick off the floor. We ate and we drove… and we put as much distance as we could between our children and the dangers we simply aren’t accustomed to.

Image

We put some distance between us and the fire as quick as we could!

A beautiful sunset and clear interstate got us to New Mexico and we stopped for the night at Santa Rosa, transferring sleeping babies straight to their beds. Far more efficiently we rose, had a quick breakfast and hit the road, making it to Santa fe by mid-morning for a fantastic brunch. Santa fe is an interesting place. It’s hard to remember you’re still in America feeling far more Spanish/Mexican. Stunning art and crafts line the streets and the wealth of the area seems to seep through the side walks adding glamour to your steps.

Image

Santa fe is a beautiful city. Even the drive to get there is stunning with the snow capped mountains of New Mexico towering over the desert

A city for hippies and artists we didn’t spend long with the children but is definitely on my list of places to return to in the future with adult only company. It’s beautiful, romantic and exciting. After the delicious food we wandered back to the car peering into the pricey shop windows wowing at the cowboy boots and massive diamonds and set off again to reach Mesa by nightfall. It was a long drive but it was fun and we made another detour once we reached Arizona.

Image

The Painted Desert within the Petrified Forest National Park. The colours are from various geological periods with gaps from erosion between vast time frames.

The Petrified Forest National Park, an incredible desert landscape with fascinating geology spanning almost unfathomable periods of time and littered with trees so old they have turned to stone. It’s hard to get your head around the process of wood being changed into stone and yet retaining it’s fine detail, character and appearance. More than just retaining such detail it is enhanced with vibrant crystal colours and a texture which is difficult to process when your eyes see trees but your fingers feel rocks. It’s hard to picture the forest that once was in this barren, Mars like landscape but the evidence is there, fossilised and palatable and so real to the naked eye and fingers.

Image

The Petrified Forest National Park… fossils like you’ve never seen before.

The kids have been great, looking out and discussing the landscape. Although there have been plenty of rows over toy guns and catapults, goodness knows how many toilet stops and far more hours watching films then I would ever have thought I would allow. Rob and I have been listening to the audio-book of The Earth Abides, at the start of which he completes the same road trip in reverse – it’s passed many hours and complemented the landscape with apocalyptic loneliness we both love to imagine.

Image

Lucy Skinner, Adventurer

Image

Our adventures aren’t just about the places we go and the things we see. They are also about the people we meet, the stories they tell and the songs they sing. Posts about people can take a little longer to get ready and up though as they can take research and checking. We stayed with Lucy two weeks ago in Buffalo and now it is time I tell you the tale.

I’ve known Lucy all my life. Our mothers trained as nurses together and Lucy’s mother is my godmother. We grew up playing together at barbecues and gatherings and when I was 13 Lucy dyed my hair for the first time.

We grew up, Lucy trained as an Archaeologist and I as a nurse, like both of our mothers. We’ve seen little of each other in adulthood due to distance and general life, although thanks to the wonders of Facebook we know a lot about each others lives, work and loves.

Now Lucy is an art conservator specialising in the preservation of historic materials. You may not have a clue what that means but please, read on…

Having travelled adventurously around so much of the world, in particular, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Norway, she now resides in Buffalo where she teaches at the University, which is how we came about rocking up on the doorway of her lovely apartment in a unique Victorian house on one of many Avenues in this pretty American City.

And when we arrived, once the whirlwind of children had settled for the night and the wine was cracked open, the stories began… Oh the stories… Who knew Archaeology was such a hard core career???

The story I want to tell you about is a cold story, of dead dogs and rancid tins and frozen urine… but it’s a great story. A story of Antarctic adventure and history and the amazing efforts we go to in order to preserve the important stuff that represents so much. But the picture Lucy paints isn’t all bad.

The best thing about Antarctica was the landscape, totally untouched by humans. It was complete isolation and silence apart from the sound of the wind and in the summer, birds. Up on the cliff top overlooking the edge of the sea ice, I would sit for hours in the evenings, under the sun staring through my binoculars, looking down on Emperor penguins marching and waddling across the ice; later in the summer the ice had drifted away leaving open sea and I’d see killer whales surfacing just off shore.”

Image

Lucy’s beautiful Buffalo apartment is just what you would expect from such a well travelled adventurer – Pictures from the Antarctic decorate the shelves and wine is served in Egyption chalices. The whole place feels worldly and experienced.

In 2010 Lucy travelled to the Antarctic for a 6 month expedition. The aim: to conserve the historic huts (and their contents) from the Heroic era of polar exploration. Huh? What’s that I hear you ask… Okay so you remember Scott right? And Shackleton, polar explorer who went on to attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica, amongst other expeditions. And we all know how hard core these guys were with their basic equipment and depressing lack of knowledge about frozen landscape survival skills. They took ponies for goodness sake! The successful South Pole winners from Norway took dogs… enough dogs to feed dogs to dogs on the return journey, which is how they did it – Horses eat hay and there isn’t a lot of that at the south pole! Well all these explorers had huts and took rations and thanks to a lack of humans and extreme frozen temperatures they have been preserved very well for a hundred or so years. But to keep them longer they need a little extra care.

So what are the contents in the huts for conserving? Things like the semi decomposed remains of penguins they had killed to eat for survival. Clothing, tinned food, and 100 year old coco powder that still smells perfect… Imagine that! As she would dig to expose the remains of the ponies they had taken smells which had been trapped there were released… the smell of the horse urine from an animal that died 100 years ago rising up through the air as if if were doing it now. Dog remains are persevered too, those not eaten by their keepers before starvation.

Interestingly it’s not the work and conditions that really challenge life in the Antarctic. Lucy tells me about the aspects that were most challenging for her and I wonder if it was similar for the early explorers, that yes conditions were hard, fatally so sometimes, but it’s the interpersonal stuff that makes survival in such isolating conditions even harder The toughest elements of being there were I guess the group dynamics. Sometimes and with some people it was easy and fun. Other relationships could be difficult on occasion and when you are stuck with these same people for many months small problems get blown up inside your head into huge issues.”

Now I’m not normally someone who takes the slightest interest in celebrities and fame but there are a couple of guys out there who really get me excited. You all know I’m a big Ray Mears fan but my other top outdoor handsome hero has got to be Sir David Attenborough. Lucy met him… he ate her Antarctic home baked cookies… How majorly cool is that? Meeting David Attenborough at Cape Evans: Well it was a dream. He is certainly older than you imagine. He had an assistant who followed him around with a fold up chair so that he could rest after he’d walked about for anything longer than a few minutes. He was extremely lovely and interested in us and the work we were doing there. He held me in a firm shoulder hug while we had our photos taken. I was prepared for Sir David’s visit with my homemade Peanut blossom kiss cookies – of which he ate two and took one with him for the helicopter ride home.”

Lucy Skinner you are such a dude for having such a cool career. I know it doesn’t come without sacrifices and hard work but WOW… what an inspiration to our youth and what an amazing adventure you have had!

Image

Sunrise…

Image

It’s a matter of weeks now until we go. Excitement is mixed with nerves. Ruthless clearing is mixed with emotion as my hoarding tendencies are tamed.

I’ve reduced my clothes to just a couple of draws and packed away photos, books and toys. The sheep are sold and we are getting on with selling our cars.

A big map of America now spans our largest plain wall and we have blobs of blue tac dotted across it marking our “must see” locations, which is increasing constantly the more we learn about the history and geology of America.

Christmas presents are all travel related with a focus on home education, photography and suitable clothing.

We’re getting essential dental work done, eye tests up to date and sorting out the death watch beetle infestation in the house….

It’s liberating to be getting it all sorted but it’s emotional too, and a little nerve racking… What if we don’t like it, what if something goes wrong or someone gets sick or injured, or we struggle to keep to our tight daily budget or the kids turn feral and we ruin their educational potential, or something at home goes wrong, a sick relative or a house fire, what if our marriage struggles without any space, what if we get really fat from junk food and no exercise or there’s an apocalypse while we are there…. What if, what if, what if?

Well, I guess any of those things we just wake up the next day and deal with…

Alfie’s Knife Safety Instructions

Image

Bout yor lbaoz on yor neez.doant mes a rwond wiv a nighf.

Our five year old, Alfie, came home from school today and announced he needed to use the computer. After much confusion over what he wanted to do on it, on account of him not really having a clue what a computer does, we established that he wanted to type something. So I set him up on my laptop, showed him the space bar and delete button and then shut myself in another room with the younger two so he could get on with it.

He wanted to type up instructions on safe use of a bushcraft knife for other children.

Translated, the above screen shot reads “Put your elbows on your knees. Don’t mess around with a knife.”

He wanted to also add, “always have your first aid kit and hold the knife properly” but alas, what you see took him about an hour and fifteen minutes so he’ll have to add the rest over the weekend.

Inspiring people

Image

There is a girl I was good friends with at school who is now a man.

That man has had an impressive career with non-profit organisations helping women experiencing domestic violence, defending women’s right, defending the rights of native Americans, reaching out to bridge cultural divides and encouraging equality and fairness in our mixed up society.

Just over a year ago he, Luke, and his fiancé, packed up their flat in California and set off around the world. En route they would help community projects and non-governmental organisations to achieve their goals and make the world a better place for all in the ways they were able. Their blog and photos started my feet itching… but we’ve got three kids and a business so we’re tied down, thought I.

In January I reached a bit of a mental block with the work I was doing for the charity Pregnancy Sickness Support and I contacted Luke for some guidance about how to drive forward the charity to the next level. In particular I needed input on motivating volunteers – and myself. The email correspondence we had gave me the kick I needed to keep going and do it even better. Our network is growing exponentially now – for that I know thousands of women are grateful!

Recently they’ve settled down in London and have taken over a little vintage clothing company selling all sorts of clothes and curios for people and places. I’m quite partial to vintage wares and have had to limit myself to items of use for our travels – which in part is down to Luke showing me that our lives need not be boundried. If Luke can become a handsome man and find a beautiful woman to travel the world with while helping others and then turn their hands to running a business, then we can certainly pack up our business and head off around the world on our own crazy life adventure, with our gaggle of children in tow, if that is what we want to do. If we can let go of the perceived limitations of life, from mortgages, work and belongings to our very own bodies and mindset, then we can achieve a liberation and lightness like no other. Our freedom should not be sniffed at either – it should be cherished and honoured and above all utilized! How few people in the world can achieve true freedom – I am so grateful for mine.

So, I now have the first items I’ll be taking with me round the world: a hanky for my hair and a deliciously worn leather bag, both of which will remind me en route that the world is ours for exploration and discovery, we are free and we can achieve whatever we set our minds and bodies to. I don’t need a lot else to be honest!

Check out their shop, it’s an absolute gem 🙂 www.kookielondon.com

Image

Hanky for my hair from Kookie London

Image

This bag was made for walking – from Kookie London to around the world 🙂

Obtaining our Visa’s – And what sort of Alien are you Sir?

Image

Rob wasn’t sure if I was joking about the phone being tapped before we arrived at the American Embassy for the visa interview and although I was joking I also had no idea what to expect. We had googled what to wear and were duly in our smart attire, not entirely necessary on reflection but certainly didn’t harm. Armed police surround the place as one would expect at the American Embassy but to my surprise a lot of the staff were English, or at least had English accents. It made me wonder if the British Embassy in Washington has bobbies with truncheons and staff with American accents? I doubt it.

I’ve never applied for a visa before or been though any similarly official processes and I’ve certainly never been to an Embassy before. Looking online there wasn’t a whole lot about how it works and what to expect so for those of you interested I thought I’d share the experience.

It started online… Lengthy application forms involving photos and a contact in the states, employment history and five pages of tick boxes declaring that you are not a terrorist, people trafficker, pimp, drug baron, drug user, money launderer, arms dealer, involved in genocide, communist, prostitute or any other untoward profession or hobbyist. Even our 18 month old had to declare she was none of the above.

The first application took a while but by the fifth I’d got it nailed to about 15 minutes. You need a printer to print out the confirmations but for the photos you need only a smart phone or camera and can do them yourself at home thus saving a trip to town for passport photos.

Then you make the appointment – I messed this bit up with confusion over a badly worded question and it wanted me to bring all the kids to London for the next step… the interview. Luckily a phone call to the helpline which was answered by a real person relatively quickly solved this thanks to the chap really persevering with trying to understand what I had done wrong and helpfully correcting it all for me there and then on the phone… I was impressed and we were spared the nightmare of traipsing the children to London.

Less impressive is having to pay a vast amount (£800 for the five of us!) and then the cost of Rob and myself attending an interview in London. From Cornwall the travel alone costs about £100 then we stayed in a hotel because it was -2 degrees that night so the bongo wasn’t very appealing. Plus food and taxis, and all the money we gave out to homeless people having lost our desensitisation from years in Cornwall. Oh and as we didn’t have the kids we had a few cocktails and £10 pints when we arrived in London at 11pm… The paracetamol the next morning was cheap though.

So what happens at a visa interview? Well, first you queue outside in the pouring rain to get through security. You are not allowed any thing electrical including phones, chargers, iPods or anything else which makes modern life so convenient. Bear in mind that without a phone you’ll need a map to find the place! You’ll also need somewhere to leave said items. We were lucky as we have a friend with an office just around the corner so we left our bag (not allowed to take anything bigger than a handbag in) there with our phones and so on. Otherwise train stations have lockers and cloakrooms where you can leave things. Once you’re through security you can replace your watch and belt (seriously!) and then you get a ticket with your number on. You hear people ask questions like “And what sort of alien are you sir?”. Then you go and sit in a massive waiting room with a screen pinging numbers to call people to windows numbered 1-1,000,000. Okay maybe not that many but there were a lot! We we number N195 and it was only 10am so you get the gist.

Once up they take your passports and scan your fingerprints and ask why you want to go to America for more than three months… be ready with a good answer! Then you sit down and wait again for your number to come up again with a new window number. We had been told it could take up to three hours but I guess because we were pretty straight forward we were done in just over an hour. So our number pinged and we walked about half a mile to the window we were summoned to and had our fingerprints scanned again. The woman here was lovely, as in fact were all of the staff from the queue outside through security and at the desks, the only grumpy sod was the café guy in the waiting room but the fact there was a café made up for that.

So here is the real point of the interview… You need to prove two things: 1. that your can fund your trip without working in the States and 2. that you will leave the States when you say you will because your links to home are strong. We took along a letter detailing our ongoing income steam from investments and my work which I can do remotely anywhere in the world and we had a letter from Rob’s work saying his job is being held open for him on his return. Our children are in school here and Patrick will be enrolled to start on return and all our family are in the UK so it was pretty straight forward for us. She did say that the income evidence made it easy for us and I suspect that if you couldn’t prove that you have sufficient funds you may have a bit more work to convince them.

Our excitement on our return trip to Cornwall, just 12 hours after arriving in London and still with lingering hangovers, was bursting at the seams – No longer do we have to choose between the Appalachian Mountains and the deep south, between Monument Valley and the Great Sequoias or between Yellowstone or the West Coast… We can do it all!

The final stages of the process hasn’t happened yet. They still have our passports and we will need to collect them from a depot in Plymouth next week. After that it will be up to the officer at New York airport who will have the final say as to how long we can stay, up to 6 months. So we’ve been advised to have a firmer plan for our route and schedule, which we can now work on having confirmed the visa’s and to take the letter proving our income with us.

I must admit, apart from the cost and the need to travel to London the whole process has been very straight forward. I had been apprehensive about what it would entail and the amount of work it would involved but apart from the cocktail hangover it was surprisingly painless!