Family Vacation – January 2011

WARNING: Yes, this is a long post, I know, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to – I just felt like sharing it with those interested in what we got up to – photos of our trip and what we encountered along the way are included below.

Before the vacation

It’s been almost five years since the last time we took a family vacation – don’t get me wrong it’s not been no time off in the last five years – we’ve made the most of the odd long weekend here and there the last few years and almost always took the week between Christmas and New year off – but it’s been that long since we actually went away, really away, not just an hour’s drive.

2010 has been a busy year, a really busy year. So much so that I don’t think I would have been able to face a new year without a break, a decent break. So after a little planning and calculating we planned another trip to Knysna again – staying at Monk’s Caravan Park.

Day 1 – Wed 5 Jan 2011

Dina packed the suitcases and car the night before so that we didn’t have to rush to do it in the morning and managed to leave the house just after 8am – I wasn’t too worried about leaving too early since we had air-con in the car (which almost ended up being a hire-car as I was worried I wouldn’t get my new car before our trip) and most of the traffic would be inbound into Cape Town while we were travelling outbound. We opted for the N2 instead of the more scenic back roads (like the R62) since it was the most direct and quickest (kids get grumpy quickly and easily, even with two boxes full of toys and a Netbook to watch movies on).

The halfway point was Heidelberg (about 240km from Cape Town) but we stopped at a farm stall about 50km or so first that everyone could have a bathroom break. Arriving in Heidelberg we stopped at the Engen 1-Stop (Garage) to eat brunch at the Wimpy.

Next stop – Knysna. The drive from Mosselbay to somewhere between George and Wilderness (town before Knysna) was completely covered in a thick fog-bank. We arrived in Knysna (470km from Cape Town) just before 2pm and checked in (Dina arranged the same cabin as last time).

The outside temp was about 28C so it was a foregone conclusion that the next thing was unpacking the car into the cabin, popping into town to buy some groceries and changing into swimming trunks as the kids couldn’t wait to get into the pool, which was probably warmer than most people’s bath water, nevertheless refreshing. After spending almost four hours in the pool we dried off so that I could make a fire and braai some spare-ribs.

The evening was ended off with some movies before heading off to bed.

Day 2 – Thu 6 Jan 2011

After a lazy start to the morning we headed off to the Knysna Waterfront to check out the different ferries and decided on the Featherbed Nature Reserve ferry trip (good thing because we got there about 5 minutes before launch time at 10am). It consists of a guided ferry trip along the Knysna lagoon from the harbour on the eastern side across to near the heads and the estuary and mooring on the western head just outside the Featherbed Restaurant.

From here we were driven through the reserve up to a look-out point for photos, where we could see across to the other head (eastern side) and across the lagoon to see the rest of Knysna, Thesen Island and Leisure Island. We were then taken further up along the mountain to our trail starting point. From here we were guided on a leisurely stroll through the forest along a 2.2 km route snaking its way back to the restaurant. Approximately 400m from the restaurant (and end point of the trail) there was an optional detour (120 steps down) to the cave at the water’s edge. Then the same 120 steps back up (Melissa and I opted to go that route while Dina and Rebecca carried on towards the restaurant). We caught up with them about 150m from the restaurant and then sat down for a very welcome (and needed in that heat) cold drink and buffet.

After a very filling and scrumptious lunch we had some time before the ferry took us back to the harbour and we took the kids down to the beach to cool off with their feet in the water (which mind you was pretty chilly, not as cold as the Atlantic, but cool nevertheless).

About 1:30pm we all boarded the ferry once again for our journey back. Once back at the waterfront we headed back to our cabin to change and hop into the pool once again. Dina took the kids up to the pool and Rebecca started getting adventurous by exchanging her water-wings for an inflatable ring (one of the other kids in the pool had a bunch of inflatable stuff that the kids borrowed).

I had just walked up to join Dina by the side of the pool, but I had not changed into my swimming trunks. Instinctively though, as I sat down I took my mobile and cabin keys out of my pockets and put them down on the table as I sat down next to Dina. Like I said, Rebecca, for one, was becoming more and more comfortable about being in the water and swimming (she’s been taking once a week group lessons for almost two years now – I attended one of those lessons and they don’t last more than about 10 minutes, since they’re in a big group) so it wasn’t more than about 10 minutes after I sat down that Rebecca (who was merrily drifting around near the deeper end of the pool now) slipped out of the inflatable ring and under water.

Now in all the times we’ve swam with the kids at other family members’ and friends’ pools, Rebecca hasn’t once showed us what she’s learnt – she just always flat out refuses and wants to swim with her water-wings on. Of course, instinct kicked in (remember I had already subconsciously prepared myself by taking out valuables from my pockets earlier) and bolted off and jumped into the pool right next to her. But by the time my feet hit the water, Rebecca had calmly kicked her way to the surface, her head bobbing above the water line and breathing normally – her instinct and lessons had kicked in too! She wasn’t scared, she wasn’t crying, she was bloody well smiling at me and laughing – silly dad with his clothes on in the pool. I caught a few of the parents off-guard at how quick my reactions were as they were re-telling the events to family members joining them later on.

From here on in, Rebecca (oh yeah, she’s only 4 and a half now) became increasingly confident about swimming without her wings, showing us how she takes a breath (and sometimes not) puts her head down under water and swims like a bloody fish for a couple meters at a time, sometimes stopping and other times just pausing for another breath, and repeats the process again. Yup, our kid can swim! She even takes her water-wings now, throws them as far as she can in the water and then jumps in from the side of the pool to swim after them.

We’ve been wanting to get Melissa to also attend formal swimming classes but never find an available space at the same place where Rebecca goes (offered as an extra mural activity at the crèche) but Melissa has always swam whenever we’ve swam (with Polly-otter or water wings) since she was about 18 months old so she’s well used to the water and comfortable in it, as long as she has her floaties.

Melissa is 8 and a half and of course you can imagine the ego bruising one feels when one’s younger sister (four years younger than you) is merrily swimming without water wings, while you do. So it wasn’t more than a few minutes after I joined them (clothes were already wet after all) that Melissa wanted to try and swim without her water wings on. It took a little coaxing for her to fully trust that I wouldn’t let her sink or if she did go under to quickly pull her back up.

I tell you by end of the afternoon even Melissa was swimming with her head in the water, albeit only in the shallow end and only half of the short length of the pool. From now on, I had to have another pair of eyes in the back of my head because now both my kids’ confidence in the pool was growing at an exponential pace. At the same time I’m not too concerned because after all, this is what I wanted to happen – they need to learn to be aware of what they are capable of doing in the water and know that should they fall in be able to surface and swim to the side to safety – for me swimming isn’t just something you might do one day, it’s a necessary life skill (there are just way too many incidents in the news of kids drowning in pools and dams in South Africa).

The evening was ended off with some hot-dogs for supper, quite a few hands of Uno, a movie and then off to bed.

Day 3 – Fri 7 Jan 2011

Another lazy start to the day, we are on vacation after all, we headed out to the Wolf Sanctuary (about 5km outside Plettenberg Bay) after breakfast. It was a scorcher of a day with the mercury sitting at 38C – you walked out into the sunlight and your body just instantly begins sweating.

Luckily there’re quite a few big trees in and around the sanctuary between the animals that you can take a break and cool off, ever so slightly before walking to the next area. We saw a number of wild dogs and wolves in the enclosures as well as your garden variety animals, like geese, ducks, sheep, goats, rabbits, pigs, tortoises and emus (all of which you can feed if you want and/or a brave enough to). The kids opted to stick to feeding only the rabbits and the goats.

We bought some drinks to cool off before climbing back into the comfort of the cool air-con in the car and drove into Plettenberg Bay and then back to Knysna just to cool off as it was blisteringly hot. Interestingly though, while the sanctuary, about 5km from Plett, was sitting at 38C, in Plett it was a more reasonable and comfortable 26C – that’s right twelve degree difference in such a short distance – South Africa is amazing isn’t it?

Back at our cabin, we made some sandwiches and the rest of the afternoon was spent in the pool again as it was just too hot to do anything else (about 31C for the rest of the day in Knysna). By the end of the afternoon, you would swear our kids have been swimming for months already they were so confident and adept already. Since there were other kids either the same age or older than Melissa they wanted to also do what they did and it wasn’t long before “Cannonball!” cries were heard and the kids were running and jumping into the deep end of the pool (water-wings on though since the deepest part of the pool was about 2.5m deep). Rebecca was quite funny because a number of times she also runs and jumps into the pool shouting “Cannon…” by which time she’s now under water and then as she surfaces she’s not even taken her next breath yet and shouts the second half “…ball!”

Later that evening I made another fire to braai some pork chops and garlic bread for supper while Dina steamed some nice veggies. The evening was concluded by more games of Uno with the kids, reading and catching up with the outside world via Twitter and Facebook on my mobile before heading to bed.

Day 4 – Sat 8 Jan 2011

I’d planned to do my second tandem sky-dive sometime while we were on our vacation so I gave Skydive Plett a call to find out how the weather and wind was and whether or not it was favourable for a jump today or tomorrow. The wind had just picked up and it was looking like it was going to stay that way for the rest of the day. I scheduled a jump for 12pm the next day (weather and wind permitting of course).

After some coffee and rusks for breakfast we got into the car and drove to about 7km outside of Plett and stopped off at the Knysna Elephant Park. Here we bought two buckets of veggies and fruit, to feed the elephants, and then sat down for the safety video. After going through all the dos and don’ts of being around elephants we were taken by tractor out into the fields where the elephants were.

These elephants are so well trained and used to people that as soon as they hear and smell (since they cannot see very far in daylight) the tractor carrying all of us coming up the hill, the instinctively walk up to the feeding area. The feeding area has a long flat A-frame structure that the elephants know they must stand behind with all of us humans, on the other side.

The guide then explains how to hand the elephants the food and we can then step closer to hand the elephants some cut up fruit and veggies. They have very dexterous trunks and carefully sniff what it is you’re offering before gently taking it with the tips of their trunks and putting it into their mouths. And don’t stand too closer or dawdle too long or they’ll help themselves!

Once the feeding is done the elephants back away and head off into the field to eat some grass. This is when we get the opportunity to stand closer to the elephants, feel their mud-covered skin with short spiky hairs. The backs of their ears feel just as soft as suede. Once we’d asked all our questions and taken our photos we hopped on to the carriages and the tractor took us back to the restaurant. At the restaurant we sat down for a really good lunch before heading back to our cabin.

Once back at the cabin, can you guess what we did next? Yup, back into the pool for the rest of the afternoon. For supper Dina made great pasta with cheese and ham followed by more games of Uno, relaxing and then off to bed.

Day 5 – Sun 9 Jan 2011

Typical lazy Sunday morning and we didn’t get up too early. After breakfast and around 10am I gave Skydive Plett a call to check if it was still looking promising to jump at 12pm – we were good to go. Woo-hoo, just two hours till my jump!

Just after 11am we all got into the car and headed off to Plettenberg Bay Airport (long dirt-road off of the N2 so wanted to leave a little earlier as I couldn’t drive too quickly on the dirt road). A little before 12pm we arrived at the airport and headed off to the landing zone to sign-in and pay for the jump. In case you’re wondering it is R1 600 per jump (and with the high cost of aviation fuel, it’s actually not bad a price at all – I think I paid around R1 200 more than 5 years ago when I jumped the first time).

The nice thing about doing a tandem jump is you don’t have to stress about remembering anything other than, smile, scream and enjoy yourself – the instructor does everything for you. While we waited for another jumper (first timer) to join us I got strapped into my safety harness. This harness has four points which clip securely and snugly onto the instructor’s harness so that where ever I go, he goes too. Four points of failure means the likelihood of falling without the instructor is pretty slim.

Since this was my second jump Jeff (my instructor) asked Dina how much of a thrill he should give me from 1 to 10. Dina replies, about a 15 should do it. Game on, I said! Once the other jumper was ready and harnessed up and gone through the pre-flight routine we walked over to the little Cessna, which has no side door mind you, to take us up to 10 000 ft for our jump. Jeff asked who’s jumping first and I said since the other guy was jumping for the first time he’s welcome to go first.

I hopped in and sat on the far side of the plane while Jeff got in behind me. Next the other two squeezed in and sat by the door. The pilot started the engine and we taxied off to the far end of the runway. If you’ve flown before you know the engines and flying makes a bit of noise – but you’re in a pressurised and enclosed cabin. Nothing quite like the sound of the propeller being revved to warm up the engine and then later the howling wind passing by the open side of the plane to drown out any sound.

Jeff asked me if I was ready for a one-way ticket to 10 000 ft – thumbs up from me! About a minute later the pilot released the brake and we were hurtling down the runway and lift-off! We made a steady climb upwards to around 5 000 ft while heading out towards the ocean. The pilot then banked right while climbing to head back over land and roughly above our landing zone. When we reached around 9 000 ft Jeff clipped himself onto my harness. He tightened it so that we were tightly attached to one another.

A quick check of the altimeter on Geoff’s wrist and we had reached our jump altitude – 10 000 ft! The other two were already harnessed to each other and making their way out the doorway. Geoff and I shuffled up to the side of the window so that we could see them as they fell out. Ever stuck your head out of a vehicle moving at 160 kph? Then you’ll know what it feels like standing out of the doorway of a plane moving at that speed – oh and not to mention the 10 000 ft below you!

Now that they were out of the way we shuffled over to the doorway too. Geoff’s one leg out on to the step then my legs out next to his, my arms crossed against my chest, his leg on the step. 1… 2… 3… a quick rock back and forward; and tumble into nothingness.

The feeling of falling through the air at close to terminal velocity (we reached 209 kph during our free fall) is a feeling next to nothing else you’ve experienced before. The usual free fall time is around 35 seconds and since this was my second jump Geoff let us free fall a little longer – the rush of air against your face is simply exhilarating (we wore goggles so that we could see through the rushing air).

Next I tilted my head back against his chest while he deployed the chute. I’m sure there’s a similar feeling to F1 car drivers as they head down the straight and come up to a corner and have to brake very suddenly because as that chute deploys you slow down very abruptly from over 200 kph to just a few!

Now that the pace has slowed down you get a chance to look around a bit more and take in the beautiful view of the area. Once Geoff had made sure the lines were untangled and the chute was completely and correctly deployed he handed me the left and right lines and showed me how to bank gently and sharply left and right as well as pulling down to slow us down to what feels like a complete stop!

This was awesome being in control for a short period of time, a few nice sharp banks left and right and slowing down every now and again Geoff took control again and brought us in for a landing (of course he threw in a couple sharp banking turns as well just to add to the fun). The landing was a nice gentle one just 100 m or so from where Dina and the kids were sitting.

What a high! If you ever want to feel alive, and I mean really alive – do yourself a favour and get one of those one-way tickets to 10 000 ft and jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane!

Thanking Geoff for another thrilling ride, adrenalin still pumping through my body, he handed me my certificate – yeah baby!

Well, nothing was going to beat that experience so we headed back into Knysna for lunch at the Spur in the waterfront so that the kids could play in the play area a little (that’s actually the reason they want to go and eat at Spur, not really for the food!).

After lunch we stopped down stairs and the kids picked out some temporary tattoos for themselves and then we headed back to our cabin for the usual afternoon activities – swimming.

It is simply amazing how much the kids have progressed in the last 5 days when it comes to swimming. Their confidence has grown ten-fold and Melissa is swimming better and better by the day – she’s even learning how to dive into the deep-end properly now and not just jumping in with her feet or doing belly-flops.

Supper was some simple sandwiches followed by the usual games of Uno a movie and off to bed for everyone.

Day 6 – Mon 10 Jan 2011

The weather was much cooler today than the previous day, which actually was very welcome. After the usual morning breakfast we headed out to the Eagle Sanctuary about 7km from Plett.

We walked around and looked at the various birds of prey in the sanctuary that were on display (outside of their cages perched on wooden perches or tree stumps). These included eagles, falcons, buzzards, kestrels and owls.

Just before 11am we followed the guide down to the other display area where we sat down in rows of benches to wait for the show to start. We each had a glove next to us on the bench which we could put on and hold up so that the kestrel could fly from one of us to the next as the guide put a piece of food on each one. Rebecca and Melissa both got a chance for the kestrel to sit on their gloved hands.

Next up was a barn owl. He too flew around the area from the guide to the cages and intermittently sitting on people’s gloved hands. When it was Melissa’s turn I shifted a little away, held my phone in my hands to take a photo and the barn owl landed right on my hands before jumping off and on to Melissa’s to feed quickly. While perching they have a surprisingly gentle grip that I barely felt him landing and sitting on my bare hands. Of course it’s a different story if you’re a little rodent being grabbed by the owl! They’re also exceptionally quiet while flying that if you’re not looking they just whizz past your head and you see them before you hear them.

That concluded the birds that were allowed to land on our hands – next up were two spotted eagle owls that took turns flying back and forth taking food from the guide. Followed by the buzzard showing us how it catches prey on the ground swooping down from high up in the air. They have an incredible wingspan for their body sizes allowing them to monitor the ground while floating in thermals. The last bird on display was the falcon. He showed us how he chases after and eventually catches a flying lure which the guide was swinging around.

Most of the birds in the sanctuary are  there for rehabilitation to be eventually returned to the wild – while some of them have too much of a human imprint, meaning they’ve either been reared by humans or been living with humans for too long that they would not be able to hunt for themselves and survive in the wild.

Once the show was over we let the kids play a bit on the home-made jungle gyms in between the trees and swing on the swings while Dina browsed the curio shop. We then made our way over to another bird farm just a few kilometres down the road back towards Knysna.

This farm contained a number of different species of exotic birds from around the world including toucans, lorikeets and galahs. There were also usual ducks, geese, peacocks and finches. There was another three displays one with a small tree squirrel and another two with sets of small capuchin monkeys.

We then headed back to Knysna, picked up some lunch at KFC and back to our cabin. We relaxed the rest of the afternoon and in the late afternoon went for another dip. Everyone clocked out pretty early that evening – it’s been a busy six days so far.

Day 7 – Tue 11 Jan 2011

Today has been a pretty much stay at home kind of day. We all had a nice two hour mid morning swim. I only took Dina and the kids into town late in the afternoon so that she and Melissa could walk around browsing the different shops on the Knysna main road, while Rebecca and I went back to our cabin to finish watching “Cloudy with a chance of meatballs” for the how-many-eth time and then played a few hands of Uno before heading back to town to pick up Dina and Melissa. Now, as I’ve finally caught up with jotting down what we’ve been up to I need to head back down (found a nice cool spot under a tree to sit and type this) and start the fire, hop in the pool with the kids for a bit and then cook up some supper (lamb chops and sausage!).

The last week has taken a bit of a toll on us and we all ended up having an early night to bed (after all the kids, and in fact us too, need to get used to going to bed earlier since we’ll all be getting up earlier from Monday onwards – you know, school and work).

Day 8 – Wed 12 Jan 2011

Last night Dina suggested we venture out a little further past Plett, about 20 km east of Plett to be precise. It’s an area called The Crags and there are a number of tourist-friendly places to visit. A little before 9am we were all up and busy having breakfast and getting ready to go out. We had decided we would attempt to visit three places: Tenikwa (a wild-cat sanctuary), Monkeyland (as you would guess a monkey sanctuary – home to 9 different species) and Birds of Eden (which is a huge enclosure of various birds (including about 7 monkeys).

Arriving at Tenikwa we were greeted by our guide, Daniel, who let us watch an introductory video about the various cats they have there and why they are there (due to poaching and farms trapping and killing them due to them hunting their livestock). All nicely wrapped up with fading titles and photos to make you go ooh and aah (with backing music that made me feel like scratching my ears out) but with one purpose – to make you feel guilty – no, to raise awareness.

Daniel then walked us around the various enclosures (open on top but with high sides and some of them electrified sections on the top each side to prevent them from getting out). Remember they are wild animals but they’re there for rehabilitation (either been captured on farms or saved from traps). Some brought in will be returned to the wild while the rest are there for education purposes. That being said, we weren’t able to get closer than a few feet from any of the cats. The closest cats we got to were a pair of young cheetahs that were lazing in the shade of a tree that allowed us to stand next to them while taking photos. In total we got to see the following cats: black-footed cat, African wild cats, servals, caracals, cheetahs and leopards. There was also an enclosure next to the restaurant that had a few meerkats and tortoises, while on the other side of the restaurant was a small pond surrounded by ducks, storks and blue cranes (for those that don’t know the South African national bird).

After our guided tour we stopped at the restaurant for a bite to eat and drink to cool off before heading down the road (only a few kilometres) to Monkeyland and Birds of Eden.

At Monkeyland we joined another guided tour through the enclosed forest containing a wide variety (nine different species) of indigenous monkeys as well as those from other countries around the world such as India, Madagascar and Malaysia. Ralph was our guide and he took us on a meandering walk through the forest stopping every now and again as we spotted a monkey or lemur.

The fence surrounding the forest is a good 20m or more from the ground and the trees have been cut at least 6-7m from each side (outside and in) to prevent the monkeys from jumping to the fence and then to the outer regions of the forest. Although with the timely feeding each day, I don’t think any one of them actually would.

We even got to meet a movie star – Julian from Madagascar – he likes to “move it” but he wasn’t in much of a dancing mood today. At least we can say we met a movie star while on vacation!

One section of the forest trail before we headed back to the start was a rope bridge over quite a high ravine which was a lot of fun to walk across – it was quite long too. Dina’s not real good friends with heights so she took it quite easy; she made it to the other side without looking too green though.

The forest is quite dense with foliage about halfway up in some parts and right on top in others which meant it creates a very humid environment – conducive to monkeys not so much for humans. We were hot when we left there.

Just on the other side of the parking lot is the Birds of Eden enclosure. We bought a special ticket for both attractions so showed our tickets and walked into the enclosure. This one, since it has birds, obviously had a wire-mesh roof and also very high sides, some sections I think were easily between 50-70 meters high.

This attraction is un-guided and you walk along a boardwalk path winding its way back and forth through the park going up and down, over and under waterfalls, as well as across another rope-bridge (however this one seemed a lot more rigid than the one in Monkeyland).

The birds here were also used to humans moving in between and past time but not tame (as it’s not encouraged by the staff) to pet them. We encountered a number of the usual small birds found in urban areas in South Africa like doves and finches but also various parrot species, loeries, flamingos, ducks, ibises and swans.

Between Monkeyland and Birds of Eden we easily spent around 3 hours walking around seeing the various monkeys and birds. The kids, especially Rebecca, were quite tired and everyone was thirsty now – we’d covered a good few kilometres of walking in those hours.

We walked back to the Monkeyland restaurant and bought some cold drinks. I sat outside drinking my coke when a small troupe of yellow spider monkeys ran around me between the outside tables (they warn patrons to sit outside at their own risk since the monkeys do become mischievous and will try and steal things from you).

I then headed back inside to sit with the kids while Dina sat outside for a little while to see what the experience was like of the monkeys so close to you while sitting down. Well, she got a little more than she bargained for. The usual troupe of yellow spider monkeys were running around over and under the tables while a bigger (smaller than chimpanzee though) black monkey walked right up to her. It first sat on the bench beside her then calmly sat on the ground between Dina’s legs and proceeded to lick her leg. Dina wasn’t quite sure whether she should be worried or not – luckily not as it wasn’t more than a minute or so that he then meandered off to the far side of the restaurant outside area and back into the forest. Dina’s little bit of an adrenalin rush for the holidays (since she’s no friend of heights as I mentioned and you wouldn’t get her to jump out of a plane with me even if you paid her).

On our drive back to Knysna we passed a snake sanctuary and a place called Plett Puzzle Place which we might try out before we go home on Saturday – will let you know whether that pans out or not. The kids fell asleep on the 50-odd kilometre drive back to our cabin since they were quite exhausted.

We got back and Dina organised some supper (leftover supper from the night before) and the kids and I splashed around in the pool to cool off (the afternoon was still quite warm). After watching Prince of Persia, catching up on the news of the world, reading and updating today’s events we headed off to bed, wondering what the next few days await us.

Day 9 – Thu 13 Jan 2011

It’s been eight days away from my bed now and I can feel it. Don’t get me wrong, we’re all enjoying ourselves but there’s no bed quite like your own, and these soft mattresses don’t do your back any favours.

After a reluctant and stiff start and stumbling to get coffee ready, to wake up, we all got ready to go out. Dina wanted to take the kids to the Waterfront as there was guy that has little sand-art sets that the kids can make. However, upon our arrival the guy wasn’t where he was the week before. Apparently he’s not there every day of the week, although Dina said she swore she remembered the sign say otherwise. She asked around and apparently there’s a store near by one of the shopping centres in town that sells the sets.

Once we eventually found the store found out that they didn’t quite sell what Dina was looking for. However, just outside, and next to the Mugg and Bean cafe, was a pirate’s ship in a sand pit – a kids play area.

This area was an inner quad of various shops with a little fountain alongside the cafe and a little gazebo in the middle with a band playing some live music. A perfect setting to sit down have a coffee (or two) and catch up on the news of the world on my phone while Dina browsed some of the shops in the area and went for a pedicure.

Two hours later, with the kids barely seen or heard from, except for the occasional visit to my table for something cool to drink before heading back; and now I was getting hungry. It was after all a little after 12pm already. Dina joined me again and we ordered some lunch for the kids and us. During which the kids played again in the sand pit intermittently or painted on a little kids easel provided by the cafe for kids to use.

About three and a half hours after we got there we coaxed (with difficulty) the kids out of the sandpit. I gave the child-minder (who doesn’t officially charge for looking after the kids in the play area) enough money to roughly cover three hours of baby-sitting, which I thought was only fair, she got a nice hug from Melissa (as you know kids bond easily so after three hours they were almost BFFs!

Back at the cabin the kids and I had another swim for an hour or so before coming back to the cabin to watch some more movies. Later on I headed into town to order some pizza from St Elmo’s (who we can highly recommend as making awesome and tasty pizzas) in the Knysna main road.

The evening was ended off with some computer games, a few rounds of Uno and a movie. It’s only 9:30pm now with the kids in their beds to try and coax them back to those earlier sleeping hours for when school starts next week.

Not sure what tomorrow has in store for us – nothing concrete planned yet but it’s our last full day here in Knysna. Saturday morning we pack up, clean up and head back home. Although by the looks of things we won’t be heading back along the N2 but making our way north-west in land to Oudtshoorn for a few sight-seeing things and then heading towards the N1 back home.

Day 10 – Fri 14 Jan 2011

Well it doesn’t look like we’ll be doing much other than being cooped up in our cabin since it’s been raining non-stop since last night. I guess we shouldn’t moan about it too much – we have had awesome weather for the last 9 days and it is the last day of our time here in Knysna.

A little before 12pm we thought we’d heat out to Spur for lunch so that the kids can play in the play area and all of us can avoid the dreaded cabin fever. Thereafter we walked down the main road and in the Knysna Mall doing a little browsing some shops before heading back. The rain had subsided but it was still very humid, so much so that the kids and I jumped into the pool for another hour or so. Not before I replaced the light-fitting in the cabin as the capacitor started leaking and smoking – even on holiday one gets to do some DIY.

The rest of the afternoon involved some packing and cleaning so that we can just get up and go tomorrow morning and get an early head-start towards Oudtshoorn.

Day 11 – Sat 15 Jan 2011

So today we woke up around 7:30am and the idea was to freshen up, pack the last few items and head out to find some breakfast on our way to Oudtshoorn. Things however, changed quite drastically when I walked in to the front cabin room Rebecca was sleeping in – the other bed on the opposite side of the room looked strangely empty. The other odd thing was that the curtain over one window was open and the window wasn’t latched open any more (we opened most of the cabin windows as it was very humid the night before).

As I gazed around the room and looked at Dina – the realisation set in – there were things missing – a lot of things missing. Sometime between going to bed last night around 10pm and this morning, someone had climbed in to the cabin through the window and stolen a number of items right from under our noses. Rebecca had been sleeping on the bed on the other side of the room at the time too!

Dina’s Dell Netbook, her handbag (which included her wallet, mobile phone, driver’s license, identification and all her bank cards as well as her digital camera – with all our holiday snaps on the memory card), a pair of headphones as well as the kids two Leapster Explorer handheld console games and a bag had all been stolen!

Well, now isn’t that just the perfect way to end off a week and a half of excellent holiday time? After getting dressed and freshened up I headed off in to town to the local police station to report the theft and get a case number for insurance purposes. The upside is that, excluding the kids’ consoles which we bought for them at Christmas, the netbook and digital camera were insured. The downside was that now Dina has to re-apply for her identification document before she can re-apply for her driver’s license and replacement bank cards.

After I got back we cleaned up and packed the last few remaining things in the car we headed back in to town to stop off at the bank to cancel all Dina’s bank cards (there had luckily been no transactions yet on any of the cards) and then took the kids to Wimpy for breakfast.

Just before 11am we drove out of Knysna, through Wilderness, George and from there took the N12 up to Oudtshoorn where we stopped off at the Cango Wildlife Ranch. Here we got to see baby Nile crocs, bats, turtles, red river (designer) pigs, some bigger crocs (for the cage dives) and an array of cats including cheetahs, white Bengal tigers and lions.

After a hot walk through the park seeing the various animals and listening to the guide we bought some ice-cold drinks to cool off and went to sit in the restaurant to order some food. All around the waiting areas and restaurants they had big fans blowing at full speed with a fine mist of water being sprayed in front of the fans – instant cool, refreshing air!

Tummies full, feeling a little cooler and refreshed we walked back to the car and hit the road once more. Does it get hot in Oudtshoorn you ask? Well, to give you an idea, we parked the car in the shade when we arrived. Two hours later the car was still in the shade and the car’s thermometer read a brisk 35C – in the shade!

With the car pointed west, we headed out of Oudtshoorn and along the famous R62 (Route 62) road towards Worcester. The R62 is a great road because it’s in a good condition, it has a lot less traffic than you would expect and best of all there are many, many hills and passes which make for an eventful drive instead of the straight and boring (and prone to falling asleep, since everyone else in the car sleeps while on a long trip) national highways. Of course the other reason to travel the R62 is so that you can drive by Ronnie’s Sex Shop, internationally known, didn’t you know?

From Worcester we joined the N1 and headed through the Huguenot tunnel (instead of going along the pass which adds to the distance and time) since we just wanted to get home now. After paying at the toll gate it wasn’t long before we were greeted by familiar neighbourhoods straddling either side of the highway and eventually glimpses of our favourite Table Mountain, somewhat covered in a lot of clouds.

We reached my folks place a little after 7pm – did the meet and greet, dropped off the kids and headed back home. With a lot of unpacking, a lot of washing to be done we relaxed and later that evening got into our bed – what a great night’s sleep!

If you’ve read this far – congratulations – and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing our holiday experience with us – till next time!

Click on any of the photos below for a bigger version.

Goodbye 2010 – Happy New Year!

And so another year draws to a close. Is it just me or do the years just seem to be getting faster and faster or is it just a by product of getting older? It’s been a busy year, a year filled with hard work, change and new beginnings. What does 2011 hold, not sure but one thing I do know, is it’s what you make of it – so make it a good one!

As usual, Boston.com‘s Big Picture are busy putting together a great post filled with photos from around the globe as people welcome 2011 – keep an eye on the post as it will be constantly updated as and when new photos are made available.

To you, your family and friends – Happy New Year – make 2011 the one!

Fireworks explode above Singapore's financial district at the stroke of midnight to mark the New Year celebrations Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

My new car

For the past 17 years I’ve owned and driven a compact car, a Toyota Conquest/Tazz – it’s small, reliable, affordable and got me from A to B.

My family, and my god-parents have always been Toyota fans – they’re great vehicles, they almost never give you problems and they just keep on going – Toyota’s motto – everything keeps going right, Toyota – is really true.

Yes, they’re slightly more expensive than vehicles in the same price range/class as other makes but there’s a reason there’s that saying – you get what you pay for.

My current Tazz I’ve had for a little over 8 years now (it’s 11 years old) and we’ve been together on almost 180,000 km (it’s currently got 220,000 km) now – and you know what? She’s still going strong, and if continued to be looked after, at least another 10 years to go. That’s just how reliable Toyota is – you’d be hard pressed to find that kind of reliability for the same price or less.

So why a new car? Well, there’s two sides to that decision. Firstly, I think I’ve worked long and hard enough to own a bigger saloon car, with air conditioning, power steering, electric windows and mirrors (oh and a decent sound system doesn’t hurt either). The second reason, well, that’s the more practical one. The kids are quickly getting bigger and older, and well going anywhere with the whole family, and a car full of bags, like we’ll have in Jan when we go on holiday, just isn’t easy or practical in a compact. Neither is driving long distance in the South African summer heat with a full car without air conditioning.

Then it should be no surprise to you that I bought another Toyota. I pretty much had my mind set on getting another Toyota even before I knew I wanted/needed another car it was just a case of what would be affordable.

Initially l was very much inclined to going the Toyota Avensis (although I did feel a little bit like a grandpa in it) but it was very affordable for a 2.0 litre vehicle with all the bells and whistles – what put me off though was that Toyota South Africa was no longer importing/producing/selling them any longer – the reason? Apparently the class and price-range of vehicle cannot compete with the likes of Mercedes and BMW. So that meant the Avensis was out of the question for me – why buy a vehicle that is no longer available in SA? Yes you’d get parts from Toyota for servicing but the resale value would be next to nothing.

I wanted something in the 1.6 litre range or better – and when I looked at, and test-drove the 1.6 Professional Corolla instantly fell in love with it. A saloon vehicle, with the bells and whistles I was looking for (power steering, electric windows, doors and mirrors, air-conditioning and a great sound system). The drive is great, it’s extremely roomy (front and back), has loads of boot space, it’s economical, and affordable. Wait, there’s one word for that – Toyota.

And there she is in all her glory – had a couple of days to driver her and no complaints – really looking forward now, to our trip in January to Knysna.

My Boys

After the muddy and rainy on-again off-again weather we’ve been having my two boys needed a bath, desperately. As you can see from the photos below they’re getting on really well with one another. Max will be six this year in November and Shadow will be five months old in a week’s time. And as you can see Shadow is almost as tall as Max is and barely five months old – I’ve got a suspicion he’ll be bigger than Max when he’s fully grown.

The Godfather

The title of this post has nothing to do with the Marlon Brando movies but with my Godfather.

It was just another ordinary day, except for Cape Town because it was the last World Cup match to be played in Cape Town with Netherlands clashing with Uruguay at the Cape Town stadium.

Late in the afternoon, a little after 5, I got a call from my brother with some distressing news – it seemed so unreal that I just couldn’t accept it as truth. I then contacted a good friend, my god brother who, for all intents and purposes is just like a brother to me to confirm the news. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s not at all that I didn’t trust my brother, whom I do trust, but I just couldn’t fathom it as truth, it just didn’t make sense.)

A few minutes later, it was confirmed, my godfather had passed away, at home, from a massive heart-attack. Just like that, once again, the world is a little different.

The plan after work, usually around 6 in the evening, was to join friends along the fan walk (since our office is right on the fan-mile) towards the stadium, just for the spirit of it all, then head back and when things had subsided a little, head home. Since the office is right on the fan-mile, trying to drive is next to impossible, so I’m forced to wait.

We walked the fan-mile, and under normal circumstances, I’d be taking it all in, the sights and sounds, but today was just different. The only thing I can really recall, while walking the 2.5 km stretch there and back, was the Caltex garage on Somerset Road.

Why on earth, a garage, you’ll ask. Well for many years, my godfather owned and ran the Caltex garage in Rondebosch.

My godfather has always been involved with motor vehicles so much so that after he retired, selling the garage business, he worked from home, servicing vehicles at home, for family and friends. If you had a problem with your car you could ask him or have him fix it for you. Ever since I’ve had a car of my own, my godfather has always serviced it. For one, whom better to put your trust in to service your vehicle and know that it will be serviced properly and why not support family financially.

If you didn’t know my godfather and met him for the first time, you’d probably think he was your typical older generation Greek and stubborn. But that was only one side to him, he was a smart and respected man whose home was always open.

So after heading back to the office just a little before 8 in the evening, most of the people traffic had subsided and I could leave the office and drive through to my godparents house. I hadn’t spoken to my godmother yet, I didn’t want to call as I wouldn’t know what to say over the phone.

I stayed there until a little after 10:30 in the evening. Chatting with my godmother and some friends and family that were there and helping out where I could and with whatever was needed.

The next day I arranged a half-day off to pick up both my god-brothers from the airport heading into Cape Town from London and Johannesburg. We’ve not seen one another for a while now, but this was not the circumstances that any of us thought or would have wanted to meet. But nevertheless, good to see them again and spend a little time together. I dropped them off at home and headed off to work. It’s such a strange feeling, wanting to do as much as you can, but at the same time stepping back and giving them the space they need and do what they need to do, as a family.

Today, I’ve taken the day off as in a little under an hour we’ll all be meeting at the church to say our final goodbyes and celebrate his life. It’s all still a little surreal to be honest.

Peace be with you, Nonno.

Update: Back from the funeral ceremony and wake and I realised I’ve come full circle. In the exact same church that my godfather baptised me, I helped carry him in and out of. A moving ceremony and time spent with family and friends – now, we keep moving and looking forward, cherishing those precious moments from before.

South Africa – World Cup 2010

There were many sceptics when it was first announced that we were drawn as host nation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. For years after, there were many that said we could not do it, even rumours about Australia being asked to be a ‘backup’ host nation.

Well, it’s been 4 years along and we’re just past half-way through all the games for the 2010 World Cup. What do people have to say now? Just positive things – all the stadia were built on time and to the FIFA standards. Additional infrastructure, road upgrades and additional public transport (free to game ticket holders) and very well organised safe and secure venues, fan parks and fan walks. Even as someone working in the city center, right smack-bang in the middle of the fan-walk no less, I’ve not been inconvenienced any more than I’d normally be in normal traffic. In fact with the school holidays coinciding with the World Cup traffic has never been better or easier.

There are always security people, officials and/or ushers wherever you look and they’re friendly and helpful. Where are all the sceptics now?

As for Bafana-Bafana? Many are saying they, and we the South African host nation, should be disgusted in ourselves? First host nation to be knocked out of the first round World Cup.

Excuse me, did you forget to take into account we’re ranked 83rd in the world? Did you forget to take note that between ourselves, and two previous world cup winners, France and Italy. We tied with 17th ranked Mexico in our opening game. We were the only country team of the three to actually win a game? One of the games, which knocked out the former world cup champions, France?

Well done South Africa, well done Bafana-Bafana.

Enjoy a short video clip put together (it has done the round as a PowerPoint presentation too).

Fila said it best, “have faith, like rugby balls!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YW4nwsqgz8I

Dell: Real Customer Service

A little less than a year ago I bought a new Dell Vostro laptop. It’s a nice light-weight, yet powerful little laptop that has done me well until now. Actually, to be honest, it’s still doing me well, it’s just the hard drive that’s been giving me problems.

I’ve had intermittent crashing since last year November. So much so that I got fed-up and rebuilt the machine from scratch. Re-installing the OS all my apps and restoring my backed-up data.

Then, about six weeks ago, it started happening again. Fed up with the constant and intermittent crashing (not limited to any particular application) I gave up again – backing up my data but I didn’t do a re-install. Instead, I called Dell.

When I bought the laptop I included an extended warranty (next business day) for a little extra. Now, I know, I don’t normally do the extended warranty thing with appliances as it’s usually over-priced and most of the time not worth it. This time, however, it paid off for itself.

Firstly, Dell call center staff actually are not only helpful but friendly too – something a lot of call centers around the world can learn from. All they needed to look up my details was my laptop service tag number. With that they could tell me what my warranty period was, when it expires and asked me how they could help. I explained that I had been having intermittent crashing and IO read/write failures.

They then asked me if I had any diagnostic error codes – I said I didn’t note down the actual error codes from the blue screens but they all pointed to IO failures. He then asked me if I had the laptop with me and I said no that it was at home. He then proceeded to explain to me that if I power the laptop off and then hold down the function (Fn) key while pressing the power button it would boot up into a built-in Dell Diagnostics mode. Wow, I was impressed, I’d learnt something new about my laptop (apparently this is built-in into all Dell machines).

So when I got home I ran the diagnostics tool (which looks very similar to a BIOS screen) and it let me know that there were indeed errors with the hard drive. I noted the error codes down and continued with the rest of the diagnostics. It even continues into a windows-like interface with nice options where you can either run a quick, full, or specific diagnostic test. It also has a symptom-tree function where you pick from a list of symptoms (like blue-screens, hanging, etc) and it shows you the various tests that can be performed. Let me tell you, it’s exhaustive. I ran all the tests and all of them passed, except for some of the read/write tests on the hard drive.

Obviously, now, the problem actually was the hard-drive. I called them up the next morning, following-up from my previous call and they verified that the drive would need to be replaced. Since this was a Friday and we would be going away for a long weekend I asked if the drive could be delivered to me at my office the following Wednesday (my first day back). They said not a problem, all I had to do was call the business day prior to when I wanted it delivered (before 4pm) and they would ensure next-business day delivery.

Monday morning I gave them a call again to confirm my delivery address and contact number. I was warned however that due to the volcanic ash from the Icelandic volcano that the delivery might be delayed if they did not have enough stock on hand. I understood. Before ending the call the agent asked me if I needed assistance removing the drive, re-installing the new one as well as whether or not I had the operating system to re-install. Oh, they also asked if I needed any data recovered/backed up on the drive once it was delivered to Dell. Is that service, or what? I said that it wasn’t a problem I could remove the drive, re-install the new one and re-install the OS by myself.

When I got home on Tuesday I made sure I had backed up all the files I needed and began shredding various sensitive and personal files before completely uninstalling everything down to just the OS and then removing the drive from the laptop, inserting it into my portable drive enclosure and using my work laptop to format the drive as well as removing the partitions, re-creating a new single partition and formatting it. Yes, I know it’s overkill but I wanted to try and make it as difficult as possible for any data to be recovered from the drive (there shouldn’t be a reason for it).

To my utter amazement, a little less than 20 minutes after I walked into the office at 8:30am on Wednesday morning (today) the courier brought me my new hard drive, sealed (not with a kiss, but with anti-static wrapping in a padded box). I removed my drive from the laptop (I had re-inserted it the night before again after cleaning it) and gave it to the courier, took my new drive from the anti-static enclosure and he left with the faulty drive. I installed the new drive – ran all the diagnostics and all the tests passed – clean as a whistle. I was a happy man – now all I needed was to re-install the OS, my applications and restore my data.

By the way, Windows Easy Transfer (for moving your entire windows profile, application settings, personal files, etc) works like a charm. Less than 12 hours later, I’m fully up and running again.

Dell Customer Service gets an A+ from me – well done!

Veggie garden update – the secret to peppers

So, it’s been three months now since we first started our veggie garden. Our watermelon plant has taken upon itself to try and escape along the garden, down the driveway and out onto the street – but I have plans for it. The cherry tomato plants have grown so thick and heavy that they’ve fallen over (using wooden dowel supports I put up to help them when they were smaller). They’ll have to stay that way until we’ve taken all the tomatoes we can. The corn are almost finished now, seems they only produced one each.

As you saw last month, we finally had some delicious corn and more peppers. I’ve specifically left a pepper or two from the first batch of fully-grown peppers since I wanted to prove to my mom that the different coloured peppers aren’t different species but the same green peppers that are cultivated for much longer to get their colour.

Well, I don’t know what it’s like overseas, but here in South Africa green peppers are a standard price but yellow, orange and red peppers are on average at least 50% more expensive than green peppers (sometimes even more). It always irked me that they were so much more expensive – just for different coloured (and sweeter) peppers.

But now I’ve seen first hand how much more work goes into these peppers. They need to stay on the plant (like mine) for at least a month, or more, longer than the green peppers. And it seems like it’s turned (almost) completely yellow overnight – not gradually as I had expected them to grow.

I’ve added a photo below (I haven’t picked it off yet) as well as a photo showing off one of our (picked six already with four more growing) egg plant fruits (bringel). We gave four of them to my folks and hopefully get to make some Moussaka this weekend with the other two. Oh, and there’s a handful of our cherry tomatoes as well!

Precious little time

I begin this post with a huge lump in my throat (a little more than 36 hours after I got some distressing news my mind has finally began to process it) and although I post this on the 1st of April, let me make one thing clear from the get go – this is in no way an April Fool’s joke.

It seems like just the other day, but 6 months ago my family and I lost my aunt. Just over a week earlier my cousin’s twins were born. I guess the universe has a strange way of keeping the balance. To make space for new arrivals, others must leave this world.

To some, six months might feel like an eternity – to others, it’s barely a drop in the ocean. When my aunt passed away I mentioned how difficult and unfair it must be as a parent, to out-live your children – but when we’ve lived a full life, it seems slightly less unfair. You had a good life, you saw your own children and grand-children grow up, your time came and those that are left behind have to deal with the loss.

But, how do you deal with this as a parent losing a child, of just over six months?

One of my cousin’s twin sons passed away suddenly in his sleep yesterday morning. As a parent (and even before becoming a parent) I’ve known known about SIDS and how today it remains unexplained. But you never, in your wildest dreams, think it could happen to someone you know, let alone yourself.

I cannot begin to imagine what my cousin, her husband and children must be going through right now. How does one process what has happened? How do you explain it? Whom do you blame? Something inexplicably wrong has happened, someone or something is to blame? You want answers, I know for sure I’d be questioning everything and everyone if, God-forbid, something like this had to happen to me. All I know for sure, is that it’s not fair – life just isn’t fair.

Since my cousin and her children live in New Zealand I’ve never seen their children in person, other than photos on Facebook and keeping in touch electronically. Regrettably, I never got to know my little namesake, but we shared an invisible bond of a family name and a blood-line. I know he will be missed by many, but especially so by his parents and siblings.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you dear cousin. May you all somehow find the strength to get through this. I’m not sure I could, you’re all much stronger than I am.

Veggie garden update – fruits of our labour

On my previous blog posts about our home vegetable garden I said I’d let you know what the fruits of our labour look like. Well here it finally is. We’ve picked off one or two cherry tomatoes already but the rest are all still green – but there are LOADS of them so we should have quite a few when they all ripen.

The lettuces and spinaches have served us well, but no photos since we never picked the whole plant/head just a few leaves at a time. We’ve had a few peppers already (probably half a dozen in total) and below are two that I picked this morning, along with three of the corn cobs. I just had to take photos of them to share with you.

Just look at the size of these suckers. The pepper a good 4.5″ (11.5 cm) long and the corn a 7″ (18 cm) – not bad I say for some home-grown veggies, eh?