Thursday, 27 August 2015

Life List 1: Tsodilo Hills, Botswana

As a traveller, there are those places you know will stay with you forever. You may get back to them if you're lucky, or you may not, but you'll be forever grateful that you made the effort. One such place for me was Tsodilo Hills in Botswana, a mythical place in the far-eastern corner of that splendid country.

The Male Hill

Tsodilo Hills is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the prolific rock art to be found there, the work of the Bushmen (or San) for whom this place has long held spiritual significance. There are apparently more than 2750 paintings at 200 separate sites on these hills and traces of human habitation go back some 100 000 years.

Although Laurens Van der Post has fallen into disrepute posthumously for a whole bunch of reasons, he certainly could evoke the spirit of place. In his book The Lost World of the Kalahari he describes in some detail his visit to these hills and a series of misfortunes that befell his party because they disrespected the ancestors (by shooting a warthog and steenbok on their approach). By way of an apology, Van der Post buried a letter asking for forgiveness below a sheer rock face now known as the Van der Post Panel, before heading back to Maun.

On the first night camped beneath the hills, Van der Post took himself for a short walk but soon got spooked. "The silent rock faces made me feel acutely uncomfortable," he wrote. "In that red afterglow of an immense Kalahari sunset they (the hills) had a strange, living personality as if their life had been only temporarily suspended in the sleep of motion that we call 'matter', and they might wake up, at any moment step down, and walk the desert on some cataclysmic occasion of their own."

There are, in fact, four hills laid out in a row - the Male, Female, Child and Unborn. The highest is the Male Hill.

I can confirm that these hills certainly feel alive but nothing like in the Sound of Music. They are deeply animistic and, perhaps, if you caught them on a bad day, would have more than a hint of malevolence about them. We visited on a benign Easter Sunday.

What they also are is quite beautiful and apparently have some plants and animals unique to what are essentially Inselbergs in an otherwise flat landscape. Our walking guide told us that he'd seen wild dogs here and we spotted dried up elephant dung, although we were several day's walk (by an elephant) from any permanent water. It had probably passed through during the wet season.

Disrespect of a different kind. Not sure what the hills had in store for these graffiti artists who carved their names into the bark of this baobab.
On our visit, we picked the Rhino Walk (a circular walk around the Female Hill) because we were a bit pressed for time, having decided to make only a day trip from Guma Lagoon Fishing Camp where we were staying. There are longer walks, but then you'd need to camp nearby in the community camp for a few days to tackle these.

We sampled some ripe marula fruit. 
This painting depicts Africa's most poached animal, not the rhino but the humble pangolin.
There are spiritual benefits to washing your face at the Gobeka waterpoint, we were told, but I can't remember exactly what they are.
This outcrop is towards the end of the Rhino Trail which takes you down a steep gorge.
Everywhere you look, the rock art animals 'creep' out of the rocks. Archaeologists speculate that this depicts an 'entrance' into the spirit world and that the art was created during shamanic ceremonies for religious reasons.

The day we visited was Easter Sunday 2014 and we stopped for brunch before heading back to the panhandle. This water melon bought from the side of the road proved to be more water and pips than melon. 
The Male Hill Trail is a more serious outing. Something I'll have to return for.

Brooding, atmospheric, ominous.

The outdoor gallery at Tsodilo. The Female Hill has several famous paintings, among them the Van der Post Panel, some rhinos (hence the name of the trail) and another mysterious depiction of what some people read to be a whale.
You have to sign in before you're allowed to enter the area around the hills.

Getting there

There's a reasonable 50km gravel road to the hills, off the main (tar) road that runs up the panhandle from Maun to Shakawe. Because of their World Heritage Site status, you have to sign in at the entrance and pay the relevant fees before you can proceed to the visitor's centre. You may only walk with a guide who will show you the most famous art. In the old days, you could camp just beneath the hills (as did author Laurens van der Post) but now visitors are restricted to a community campsite, some distance away. Perhaps, given the reputation of these hills, that's a good thing!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Road-tripping in Scandinavia 3: Lofoten Islands

Islands have long been a source of fascination to me, and so when it came to choosing a destination for a two-week holiday from Sweden we settled on the idea of visiting the Lofoten islands, an archipelago in northern Norway, about 200km north of the Arctic circle. Although far north, these islands enjoy a relatively mild climate due to the Gulf Stream along with some quite awe-inspiring topography. 

View from above the village of Vikten in the middle of Lofoten.

What I knew about these islands was precious little, but as a keen birder they appealed to me. I was hoping to see puffins and had read about a rare breed of dog called the lundehund (once used to hunt puffins). I saw neither, but this omission was more than compensated for by the staggering beauty of these islands, which makes them popular with landscape artists. 

While there, aside from bracing walks and enjoying the scenery, we visited the Viking museum which was a good indoor activity for a rainy day and The Lofoten House Gallery, featuring a collection of classic northern Norwegian landscape art, in the scenic little town of Henningsvaer.

Our first glimpse of the archipelago was at the end of the three-hour ferry crossing from Bodø to Moskenes. It was a murky day, and to be honest, the sun (albeit the midnight sun) was rather elusive during our week on the islands. 

First glimpse of the islands from the ferry.

Lofoten is popular with outdoor enthusiasts who come here to hike, bike and kayak. This adventure centre is in Reine close to the southern tip of the islands. We didn't really have the gear for serious outdoor activities however. If you are planning to go messing about outdoors, come prepared even if you think it's summer!

World War 2 is still very much present in the minds of Norwegians who suffered terribly under the Nazis. This is an outdoor sculpture by a Japanese artist (see details below) which pays homage to the war. It's close to some bunkers on the islands. Apparently many of the Lofoten residents were evacuated to Scotland during the war.

The artist responsible for the landscape installation above. 

We visited this glassblower in a village called Vikten which was a pleasant interlude. There's also a lovely circular walk here that starts at the end of the village and returns you to the carpark. I saw the short-tailed eagle here (also known as a sea eagle). A bonus!

Sheep crossing close to Vikten.

This was our awesome base for a few days at Sakrisøy near Reine in the south. Beyond in the fjord we actually saw a small family of orcas (or killer whales) and later spotted some kayaks heading out to get closer to them. 

On the western side of the islands there are sandy beaches and some pleasant walks that don't require serious outdoor gear. This was close to a place called Fredvang.
Also at Fredvang.
View from Å (which means stream) at the southern tip of the islands.
Everywhere we saw these racks of cod drying in the breeze, the export Lofoten is most famous for. They have to wait for a dry spell before they can take them down, but we tapped a couple of these, and they were hard to the touch and so really like fish 'biltong' (in South African terms).
A place called Hovsund close to our second home base near Gimsøysand. Here it rained for two solid days but we witnessed this lovely play of light and shade during our evening stroll on our first day there. In theory, this was our best chance of seeing the midnight sun but that didn't happen.
Anyone wishing to be a road engineer should visit Norway. What we would celebrate in South Africa as a major achievement is quite commonplace. This reminded me a bit of Chapman's Peak in Cape Town.

Early June but spring had only just arrived.
This chap was fishing from the pier while we were waiting to catch the Hurtigruten from Svolvaer back to Trondheim. Turned out he was also from Africa, but from Algeria at the other end of the continent.

A hired car does make it easier to get around and to explore, especially if you base yourself in one spot. The weather is very changeable so be sure to bring good outdoor clothing with you if you're planning to spend any time outdoors. You could start at Svolvaer and work your way south, or vice-versa, as we did. From a scenic point of view, the southern end around Reine was by far the most dramatic.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Road-tripping in Scandinavia 2: What to eat and drink

One of the joys of international travel is that every day outings, like grocery shopping in the local supermarket, are entertaining simply because of the novelty factor. When my husband and I embarked on our 3 000km roundtrip from Stockholm to the Lofoten Islands and back, we decided self-catering would save us a heap of money, and it did. 

The ICA store in the Swedish ski-resort of Åre

We were advised that Sweden was cheaper than Norway (by about at least a third) so we stocked up on as many groceries as we could before we crossed the border. We kept it simple: muesli for breakfast; rolls with egg-and-tomato spread or cheese and crackers for lunch, and a simple cooked meal at night. 

An essential item was a flask filled with hot water so that we could stop and make ourselves a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at scenic spots while snacking on our packed lunch. The picnic blanket we'd optimistically brought was never used because it was just too cold even in mid-June, but we did enjoy a few beautiful views, like this waterfall called Laksforsen (or salmon falls) in northern Norway.

A feast for the eyes at Lakforsen

Eating out isn't something you really do in Norway, unless money is absolutely no object, but at Klostergården on the island of Trauta near Trondheim, there were no self-catering facilities and we had decided to treat ourselves. Here, we nursed a glass of delicious craft beer (one glass only at 80 NOK each), enjoyed a free serving of nettle and seagull soup before the main course of gammon and beef stew, respectively. Good hearty fare. Seagull eggs are apparently collected for only three weeks in the year, and once a bird has laid three eggs, she will start to sit on them and so she'll be left in peace. The egg tasted like, well, an egg, albeit a fresh one.

Loved this nettle soup

The only other memorable meal out was perforce in a town called Bodø where we had several hours to kill before we caught the three-hour ferry across to Moskenes on the Lofoten Islands. It had been a long and grumpy day, crossing the Arctic Circle and driving on the 'wrong' side of the road on narrow roads for hours on end. Every road-trip has one of those and this now goes down in family lore as my 'Arctic moment'. Our mood lifted, however, when we found this Lebanese takeaway with some plastic tables and chairs, where the owner was only too happy to cook up a storm. We fell on the freshly baked pita bread, homemade humus and this assortment of odds and ends, like hungry Arctic wolves. 

Lebanese feast in northern Norway

I was hoping to eat more fish in Norway, but aside from the ubiquitous salmon, it wasn't always that easy to find what I was hoping for (and perhaps we are a little spoilt coming from the southern tip of Africa). A hop and a skip from where we stayed in at Sakrisøy there was a little fish deli that stocked some interesting items but I'm afraid I just couldn't bring myself to sample the smoked whale meat. Apparently, this is minke whale that is sustainably hunted but I'm too old to eat things I don't want to and I imagine it's an acquired taste. I read somewhere that even though Norway continues to hunt whales, there is a decline in demand among the country's own population.

Yup, it's whale!
They also sold seagull eggs (at a price). No wonder these poor birds would mob us at every turn when we were out walking.

Another Lofoten speciality is the salted cod which hangs in the breeze on racks to dry. While we were there, the cod was still strung up and there was a distinctly fishy pong in the air. The cod come to spawn in the waters here early in the year, and most of it is destined for Italy and Portugal, where it is highly sought after.

Lofoten is famous for its salted cod

I have no photograph to illustrate this last foodie mention, but Trondheim had a fabulous farmer's market in its main square on the Saturday we were there. For dinner, I tucked into a 'craft' sausage on a home-made roll, which 'only' cost 80 NOK. But, hey, it was almost time to head home!

And, finally, a note for the thirsty...

Craft beer at Klostergården 

Alcohol, of course, is an entirely different story and, outside the odd spoil like the craft beer above, one is best advised to carry with you that duty-free bottle of whisky you picked up at the airport for your evening tipple. For the most part, it is expensive and only sold in state-controlled bottle stores. You can buy beer in supermarkets (low alcohol in Sweden and full-strength in Norway).

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Road-tripping in Scandinavia 1: Where to stay

For two weeks in June 2015, my husband and I went road-tripping through Scandinavia from Stockholm in Sweden to the Lofoten Islands which lie about 200km north of the Arctic Circle. It was close to a 3 000km round trip (with a sea leg aboard the Hurtigruten). 

Fishing cottages at Sakrisøy on Lofoten
As a keen camper, I initially thought it would be a good idea to pitch a tent, but mercifully was forewarned about the fickleness of the Scandinavian summer. We opted for self-catering accommodation as the next-best budget option, and found it to be remarkably cost-effective. Good choice, as for our whole trip, the outside temperature seldom went above 8 Deg C. We stayed in everything from a hostel to an Air BnB cottage. Here's a roundup of what we found...

1. Vandrarhem (or hostel), Mora, Sweden

Prinsgården in Mora
Our first stop was in a town called Mora in Sweden, famous for its carved wooden horses, where we opted to sleep in a vandrarhem (or hostel) called Prinsgården, because it was conveniently on our route and was reasonably priced (less than 500 Swedish Krone for the night). We had a basic en-suite room, could do our own cooking in a galley kitchen and eat upstairs in an equally tiny dining room. We went for an evening stroll down to the nearby lake (there's practically always a lake nearby in Sweden). Comfortable enough for a night but certainly not a destination in its own right. We saved money by taking bedding and doing our own cleaning.

2. Bed-and-breakfast, on the island of Trauta, Norway

The view from our room at Klostergården after the storm
On the second night of our road-trip we decided to treat ourselves to a night at a bed-and breakfast called Klostergården on the island of Trauta, about 30km north of Trondheim. It lies next to the ruins of an old abby and is home to a craft brewery and restaurant. The evening of our arrival, there was a wild gale blowing but it had abated by morning and we had a sparkling view of the fjord from our room. I could happily have spent more time here.

3. Cabin, Mo-i-Rana, Norway

Yttervik camping, Mo-i-Rana, Norway

To avoid too much driving, we spent two nights in a little cabin on a fjord at Yttervik campsite, 16km south of the town of Mo-i-Rana close to the Arctic circle. Here, we spent a bit extra for a fjord-side view to see the almost-midnight-sun circling around, and watch the locals out on a fishing trip with their dogs. The simple cabin had bunk beds in a separate room with a living area and a deck overlooking the fjord. We could have done our washing here in the on-site laundromat had we had the energy to do so. The only drawback was that the campsite was sandwiched between the road and the fjord so it wasn't really possible to go for a proper walk.

Fishing trip on fjord

4. Rorbruer (fishing huts), Sakrisøy, Reine, Lofoten Islands, Norway

Rorbruer on Sakrisøy

What's cooking?
I will write more about the dramatic Lofoten Islands, an archipelago in northern Norway, in due course, but for the purposes of this blog, just to say that these fishing huts, run by a lady called Dagmar, and located on a wharf at Sakrisøy outside the town of Reine, are very traditional and utterly charming. We had a loft bed with with the kitchen/living area down below. By now, we were experiencing 24 hours of daylight, which made the skylight directly over the bed a bit of an interesting feature. This gull popped by regularly to see what we were up to.

5. Air BnB cottage, Gimsøysand, Lofoten Islands, Norway

We found this cottage through AirBnB 

A real bargain and booked through AirBnB which is a service I will definitely make use of again when travelling abroad. This little cottage was comfortably appointed with a separate kitchen, bedroom, and loung/dining room with two sofas (one each) where we could happily read books and watch videos while waiting for a two-day storm to abate (that Scandinavian weather again!). An added bonus was the little wood-burning stove which kept us cosy. Sadly we didn't get to climb the tantalising mountain because of the weather. It would be great to return here to see the Northern Lights in the Artic winter.

6. Aboard the Hurtigruten (from Svolvaer to Trondheim), Norway

Polarys enters Svolvaer harbour on Lofoten Islands

More about this later, but a couple of nights aboard one of the Norwegian Hurtigruten mailships is practically essential. They ply their way up and down this extraordinary coastline, making multiple stops along the way so that passengers can get off and explore. It's not particularly cheap but if you treat it as a combination of transport and accommodation, you can almost persuade yourself you're getting a good deal.

7. Pilgrim's hostel, Trondheim, Norway

Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim

Drain cover, Trondheim
It's easy to fall in love with Trondheim, for its beautiful architecture, glowing light and the impressive Nidaros Cathedral that lies at its heart, the largest gothic cathedral in Scandinavia. The cathedral is also the end point of a northern pilgrimage known as St Olav's Way (a bit like the more famous Camino in Spain). But you don't have to be a pilgrim to stay in the pilgrim's hostel that is conveniently located in a tranquil spot on the river, just behind the cathedral. It was a good pad for one last night in Scandinavia before flying all the way back to Cape Town in the southern hemisphere!