Thursday, 28 January 2010

How to Ride an Ostrich

Of all the things you thought you'd get around to doing in Cape Town & the Western Cape ... riding an ostrich has got to rate as the strangest by far!

Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world producing 75% of all ostrich products worldwide. So if it’s riding an ostrich you’re after, then its Oudtshoorn you’re heading to.

Located in the Klein Karoo in the Western Cape and at little more than 4 hours out of Cape Town, Oudtshoorn is just enough off the beaten path to make you feel like you’ve found a secret place.

To ride an Ostrich, you’ll need to visit one of the 5 Ostrich Show Farms in Oudtshoorn where you can observe large flocks of ostriches, cuddle the chicks and hand feed them. Ostriches are the largest birds on earth and when fully grown, they easily weigh over 120kg pounds. This however, does absolutely nothing to hamper their speed, which can reach up to 70 km per hour. They may not be able to fly, but they sure can cover ground in a hurry!

Professional multilingual guides take you on a conducted tour where you learn about the birds. Next there’s a chance to visit the restaurant and try out some ostrich steak which interestingly enough tastes more like beef than poultry. If you're a big group, you could even share an ostrich egg which easily feeds 20 people. Or try ostrich paté and biltong.

Finally if you’re really brave you can try sitting on an ostrich. Better yet, why not try riding it. Mounting one of these big birds is no easy feat, the ‘saddle’ is made of denim and the ostrich has no reins! Riders have to hold onto the ostrich’s wings for dear life and pray that they’ll last a few seconds once the guides let go. Then it’s all about trying to stay aboard a speeding bullet before the guides grab your arms at the end of a lap, and pull you off ! … the only way to dismount.

How's THAT for the ride of your life!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Newbie blogger


Oh I am so excited. I haven't quite figured out everything just yet but i'm getting there. Still working on loading images. Very clueless about it indeed. HELP anyone? Any help/ pointers/ advice would be very appreciated.

I've just loaded some of my published travel pieces. Have a look and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Sunrise over Sossusvlei - Namib Naukluft Park, Namibia

"... this sheltering giant of desert and sky is like a world in which man seems to be such an unlikely visitor that he has no place. Yet he is beckoned and enchanted by the ghostly silence and surreal space of the Namib.", Jon Manchip White, author of "The Land God Made in Anger"

Sossusvlei, located in the Namib Naukluft Park – the largest conservation area in Africa measuring about 19,300 square miles (50,000 km²), and the fourth largest in the world, is a clay pan found in the park and is, with the exception of the wildlife in Etosha Park Namibia's chief attraction.

Known as the 'Gathering place of water' by the indigenous Nama of Namibia, Sossusvlei was formed by the Tsauchab River 60 000 years ago when it gave up its battle to meet the Atlantic Ocean and chose instead to drain away beneath the massive surrounding dunes. Thomas Smit, my resolute Namibian tour guide in a moment of unnatural cheerfulness, revealed that two years ago, “... this place was buzzing. It rained so heavy, the vlei filled with water and created a turquoise lake that lasted for months, and people came from all over to see it". No evidence of any lakes during my visit, but perhaps not so uncommon as it generally only occurs every five years when the Tsauchab floods its banks.

Dune 45

Having read every online review written about Sossusvlei, I still found myself largely unprepared for the size of Dune 45 which took my breath away, both literally and figuratively.

So named for easy referencing and not for its distance in kilometres from Sesriem Canyon, as is generally thought, it is the most popular and at 170 metres, most accessible dune in the Sossusvlei.

We’d somehow gotten really lucky and as the only two people around, had it all to ourselves on our  arrival before 5am in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise – reportedly the best time to view Sossusvlei as the air is still mercifully cool, few make it all the way to the top and the sunrises were said to be wonderful. 'Tell me you have seen anything more beautiful ... and I will say you are lying”, Thomas stated.  Too exhausted to utter a word I dropped in an ungainly heap at the spot where he’d been waiting for the past ten minutes, patiently watching my hour long, lungs bursting and chest exploding plod up the edge of the dune. I was ready to see what all the fuss was about.

Surreal sunrise

It soon became apparent. That high above the ground, there is a stillness so complete and endless and the landscape, so remote and filled with deep gulleys and shadows seemed like another planet. The desert cloaked in darkness was an eerie phenomenon until the moment the sun slowly flushed the sky with faint orange blooms and began to fire the sands of the Namib. Suddenly every laborious step up the dune was worth all the effort.

Watching the sun climb and rise over majestic sand dunes, some of which at a height of 300 metres are the highest in the world, was magical. Their beauty is undeniable, so simple and stark yet so evocative. The shadowy dunes seemed to cast aside darkness, transforming into shimmering mirages of deep orange, reds and mauves against a sky so blue, it was almost too bright to capture. Sossusvlei brings out the creative photographer in everyone. Surreal shapes, colours, textures and landscapes are accentuated by the ancient trees and desert-adapted wildlife like gemsbok, springbok and ostrich.

Heart in my throat, utterly spellbound by the mystery unfolding before me, I was lost in the moment but as the sun continued to rise I was faced with a harsh reality. Within an hour, the sand would be impossibly hot to walk on and possible wind storms could make life very uncomfortable. It was time to leave the wonder behind and return to reality.

Coming down from the top of Dune 45 proved much easier on the legs, and the lungs, and where its ascent required a full hour, the descent – shrieking with laughter as I tobogganed down its side on my towel lasted a mere five, fun-filled minutes.

Sunrise over Sossusvlei? ... Sublime.

Where to stay

Visitors have the option of staying at luxury lodges in the area or choosing more economical accommodation in the tiny village of Solitaire or Sesriem camping grounds which are 60kms from Sossusvlei.

The gate from Sesriem to Sossusvlei opens in time for campers to drive to Sossusvlei before sunrise. To protect the fragile wilderness, only day trips are allowed into Sossusvlei and due to the opening time of the national park gates the only way to be on the dunes in time for sunrise is to either camp at

Solitaire or Sesriem or stay at Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, Kulala Lodge, Little Kulala or Kulala Wilderness Camp.

Wanting the best of both worlds we cheekily tried out one of each option:

Sesriem Campsite

To start with, we spent two laidback economical nights at Sesriem camping grounds where on the first night, we struck up friendships with fellow travellers Jane and Scot Ireland from Wales, and shared travel experiences and laughs at the lively bar late into the night. Situated just 4kms from Sesriem Canyon, the views from the camp site are brilliant and if you’re on the west side of the campsite which we were fortunate enough to be, chances of seeing springbok, gemsbok and mongoose strolling through your camping area are pretty good.

The campsite which has a general store, petrol station, dipping pools and plenty of hot and cold showers is managed by NWR (Namibia Wildlife Resorts) and reservations must be made in advance at the Central Reservations Office in Windhoek.

Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge

Having read that Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge had been featured as one of the world's top 20 new lodges in Condé Nast Traveller UK, we had no choice but to check in on our final night in Sossusvlei.

The lodge and the excellent service provided by its helpful and attentive staff were amazing. No request went unattended and everyone’s friendliness made us feel very welcome and at home. The large suites, made up almost entirely of glass are wonderfully designed so that regardless of where you are, you’d still have a perfect view over the plains. I loved the outside shower, a wonderful treat in the afternoon and the king-sized bed in the bedroom, raced with skylight above it, made for perfect star gazing. Furnishings were both luxurious yet comfortable enough to make you feel utterly pampered and relaxed. A personal favourite of mine was the lodge’s swimming pool which was an absolute delight. Acting as a massive birdbath it draws many different species of birds, which presented great photo opportunities. I could happily have snapped away for hours had we not arranged a guided night drive with the resident astronomer. Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge is the perfect mix of luxury, excellence and friendliness. I was loathe to move on the next morning but our stay was over and the real world was waiting. 

Wining and dining.

There are no restaurants so if you are camping you will either cook or eat at the lodge where you are camping. Campgrounds usually have barbeque facilities.

Lodges offer three meals a day. Breakfast comes with your room but lunch and dinner are extra. Meals at Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge were a study in gastronomy and worth every penny. Our meals prepared by master chef Hugo Hayes were sumptuous affairs. On the whole, the cost of meals are reasonable and packed lunches can be ordered the night before. Dinner is generally a buffet or a barbeque set off with a fine selection of excellent South African wines.

If you like meat you and love adventure, then you will not be disappointed. Prepare yourself for game as the meat is usually a choice of kudu, oryx or eland. Some lodges will have beef, pork, and lamb and sometimes even ostrich or crocodile.

What to See                                                                            

  • Big Daddy - Highest dune in the world - Wait 30 million years and you get Big Daddy, one of the oldest sand dunes on the planet and thought to be the biggest. Sossusvlei’s ziggurat of red sand, Big Daddy rises 325m from the parched African earth of the Namib Desert. 
  • Sesriem Canyon – Ses is six in Afrikaans and riem means thong – six thongs. Sesriem derives its name from the time when early pioneers tied six lengths of rawhide thongs together to draw water from the pools. The canyon is a narrow gorge 30m deep and 1km long and is evidence of shallow seas and wet periods of days gone by. The canyon is usually filled with pools of water good for a refreshing dip. Walk along the dry riverbed or watch the amazing sunsets from this superb point. The canyon is only a few kilometres from the campsite. 
  • Dead Vlei a short drive from Dune 45, is a pure white, 1km long salt pan. Due to the lack of water, petrified camel thorn trees carbon dated to 900 years old, though dead, have been nearly perfectly preserved for centuries. 
  • !Nara Vlei – a salt pan which has a number of endemic !Nara bushes eking an existence from the scarce water that occasionally makes it down from the Naukluft Mountains; and Hidden Vlei which is a barren amphitheatre some distance beyond Dead vlei. 
  • Wildlife in the area includes antelope, mountain zebra, springbuck, hyena, Cape fox, aardwolf, black-backed jackals and bat-eared foxes and the elusive leopard. Great bird watching opportunity abounds with several species to view. 
  • Fauna and flora - a fascinating variety of dune-adapted reptiles and beetles as well as unique desert plants are the dominant life form in this desiccated realm. 
  • Namib - Oldest desert in the world - Stretching 1,600 km along the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia, the Namib, having endured arid or semi-arid conditions for at least 80 million years, is the oldest desert in the world. The startling red colouring of the sand is an indication of its age. Slow iron oxidization and fragments of garnets cause the colour change: The older the dune, the brighter its colour.

What to Do

  • Ballooning – go hot air ballooning over the Namib’s Great Sand Sea for an excellent perspective of the expanse of dunes. 
  • Scenic Desert Flights – take to the skies on a 40 minute to an hour flight in a light aircraft.
  • Eco Quad Biking – most lodges offer exhilarating yet eco-friendly, fixed quad biking trials which have been meticulously laid out so as not to interfere with the area’ s indigenous plant and animal life. 
  • 4x4 Guided Nature Drives – as with the eco quad biking, most lodges offer relaxing drives through pristine nature where Oryx and springbok wander freely. 
  • Elim Dune which is about 5km from Sesriem, makes for a worthy climb and excellent photographs.

Getting There

Pretty easy when like us, it’s as simple as hopping onto a two hour flight from Cape Town to Windhoek, and then sitting pretty for 5 hours in a air conditioned 4x4 to Sossusvlei.


There are several airlines flying to Namibia from Europe, America, the Far East and other destinations.

 Some flights are direct, though most connect from Johannesburg via British Airways and South African Airways and fly overnight so you can fall asleep on the plane and wake in southern Africa, ready to explore.

* Air Namibia offers direct services to Windhoek from Frankfurt, Cape Town and Johannesburg.


Flying:              Scheduled charter flights and light aircraft operate to Sossusvlei

Driving:              Sossusvlei can also be reached by two wheel drive vehicle on good gravel roads. The travelling distance is 380 km (235 miles) from Swakopmund and 360 km (220 miles) from Windhoek. The drive is approximately 5 hours long.

Tour operators:  Most tour companies operate tours from Windhoek and Swakopmund to Sossusvlei.

Pipes of Peace

"You know what I like about this place? Everybody comes here. Arab, Christian, Greek, Australian, everybody comes to Marmounia to pull shisha. And why? Because it's just so good!"Ali Al-Amoud, patron. 
Marmounia Lounge in Queensway, London
erupts into loudly appreciative cries. Brightly coloured shisha pipes are raised in salute and hazy circles blown to Ashraf Yaseen, the manager as he changes the track and sultry songstress Shakira huskily belts out that her “hips don’t lie”.  On the lounge next to me, two smoky eyed Norwegian blondes raise languid arms and shake their bodies in fair imitation of belly dancers to rapturous cheering from their party who enthusiastically sing along and clap out the rhythm. My Norwegian friends are firm advocates of the pleasures of shisha. They’ve been at it for the past three hours.

Belly Dancers

Ashraf Yaseen laughs indulgently at his patrons, “we used to have real belly dancers here and we will again. It doesn’t even matter. See we are as packed tonight, a Tuesday as we are over weekends”. And then he’s excusing himself and rushing away to greet a group of regular customers who have entered the lounge and ushering them towards the comfortable couches.

Ancient Water Pipe
Shisha, also known as hookah, nargileh or hubbly-bubbly is an ancient water pipe that originated way back in the Middle East, Turkey to be exact. It was made for smoking specially prepared tobacco while relaxing with friends and was hugely popular for centuries throughout the Eastern cultures. With the advent of cigarettes however, the water pipe lost its popularity but is now firmly back in rage thus leaving me free to enjoy the rich fruity aromas permeating the air, relaxing and liberating.

If you’ve never smoked shisha, it’s less harsh than cigarettes. The tobacco sits in a little clay pot on top of the pipe, covered with a piece of tinfoil on which pieces of glowing charcoal are placed. When you suck at the pipe, air is drawn through the charcoal, becoming hot and causing the tobacco to give off smoke. The smoke is drawn down to swirl around a glass chamber where it’s cooled by the water that fills the bottom. Traditionally the tobacco is sweetened and moistened with honey or molasses – heady stuff.


Just like the atmosphere in the lounge today - heady and intoxicating. Bright red Arabian décor, prints depicting eastern scenes, lit brass lanterns and pots and hip swaying Egyptian music are reminiscent of the sukhs in Marrakesh and Baghdad. Here the pace is easy, worlds removed from the bustling London scene outside.

Patron’s lean back, sink into couches and give themselves over to the experience. An experience well known to Ali Al-Amoud, a long time patron who calls Marmounia Lounge, home. Ali draws on his shisha and with dancing eyes and great animation tells me “I’ve been coming here for almost three years and I’ll still be here for a long time to come. I love this place. It is good. Just look at them.” He points to an exotic oriental looking couple locked in a passionate embrace and blows them a kiss before turning his attention back to talking to me. Though every few minutes he stops talking, wildly throws his hands in the air, fingers pointing outwards and in typical Arab abandon shakes his shoulders and sings along to the heady, beguiling music. I catch his eye and he bursts out laughing encouraging me to do the same. “Come on, you must enjoy shisha. Allow it to relax you so that you want to dance too. Here, puff on this. This is my favourite, double apple”

Ashraf Yaseen who’s managed the place for the past three years comes over to sit with us and tells us about some of the patrons. “Your friends over there, the blonde group, are from Oslo and the one’s in the corner over there, they’re from Greece and you see that couple opposite, they’re Afghanistanis. See, we have the whole world here.”

Shisha Lounges
Shisha lounge’s once completely foreign to the UK, have sprouted up in every corner of the kingdom and become a permanent fixture in the hottest night clubs and restaurants reaching as far a field as Glasgow and Guernsey. There’s even a sheesha lounge at the Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow.

A popular piece of Arabia in central London, Edgware Road with its sidewalks dotted by more than 20 shisha café’s is a water pipe lover’s heaven. One such café, Café du Liban, drawing full houses every weekend is a traditional Lebanese coffee bar with outdoor seating and one of the longest surviving shisha lounges in London.

Also in Edgware Road is Al Shishaw, a vast Egyptian-style ahwa (coffee shop) with an over the top interior of mother-of-pearl and coloured stone. Considered pretty old school – its home to the serious sheesha-smoker.

Social activity
Pulling shisha is the new uber cool. A leisurely social activity advocating patience and tolerance, it’s all about taking time out to appreciate good company. As is evident at Marmounia Lounge where the world’s cultures congregate to share a simple pleasure which transcends borders. And that it would seem is the real secret to its popularity.

So here’s a thought, let’s get the UN to Marmounia Lounge, let them relax amongst its bright intricately woven pillows and soak up the laidback atmosphere, introduce them to the heady fruity tobaccos of shisha and who knows, pretty soon they may all be smoking pipes of peace.

Drumbeats of a Sufi circle - Bokaap, Cape Town

When you are afraid of something, dive straight into it for the intensity of abstaining from it, is greater than your fear. (Sufi saying)

Cloaked in a long flowing robe known as an abayya, I hurriedly slip into the heated room of a house right at the very top of steep Shortmarket Street in Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay Quarters in Cape Town.

Essence mingles with incense. Thick golden air light as a whisper, rich as a treasure brushes against my face, filling and intoxicating me. Unobtrusively as possible, though not without stepping on some toes and mumbling apologies, I make my way to the back of the room to sit against the wall with a handful of other women. The old aunties frown disapprovingly and hush me, motioning for me to sit down and be quiet. They’re all transfixed by the heady call of the drums. Next to me Ayesha Kamaldien, a Bo-Kaap local squeezes my hand and breathes excitedly “Feel my pulse. It’s pumping in tune to the beat of the rabannas (drums).” The women, their eyes half closed, sway to the longing rhythm of the rabannas. Lost in motion.

Before us by turns, young boys, old fragile-seeming men and those in their prime give answer to their souls. Their eyes inwardly focussed, their lives held in safekeeping by faith, the hoarse singing voices and knowing hands of the drummers. The rabannas heated by braziers to soften their call, reverberate, evoking the same responses they did thousands of years ago. Males whirl and step to innate rhythms in a clearing fenced by circles within circles of men. Razor sharp sword blades gleam in the lamplight as they lift them above their heads and let them fall to their outstretched arms, necks and abdomen again and again. Their dance is achingly beautiful. Movements flow freely, the expressions on their faces radiant… as if they are within the presence of Light and filled with it. The swords continue their deathly ballet and pierce, sweep and slice. Yet there is no blood, no pain, only joy and light, a complete exultation in faith which surpasses all earthly holds.

This is the rhatib, a moving meditation practised by the Cape Malay to deepen their understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life.

Yunus Davids, the rhatib imam (leader), lifts his kufiyya (fez) and wipes the perspiration from his round brown face with a huge white handkerchief. “Seeking sacredness takes a lot of energy and concentration but leaves you feeling so light” he sighs, softly exhausted.

After what feels like an hour but which in fact turns out to be five, it is 2am, the rhatib has wound down and we’re feasting on a succulent savoury chicken bredie (stew) and the best samoosas I’ve ever tasted from a take-aways down the road in Wale Street, Bismillah Café.

Boeta Yunus, dreamily lays his finger against the blade of a sword only to swiftly retract it. The blade is razor sharp and he has nicked himself.

He explains that “…rhatib was brought to the Cape in the 17th century by Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar in Malaysia. He was a prince, a freedom fighter and the leader of a Sufi Order. The British considered him a threat to their reign, so they exiled him to Robben Island”.

The Cape Malay people of the Western Cape are the direct descendants of political exiles imported from Malaysia, Indonesia, Java and Batavia as slaves by Dutch settlers who colonized the Western Cape.

Almost four hundred years later, they’re a free people whose cultures and traditions are deeply imbedded in South Africa’s fabric. Instrumental in the development of the Cape culture, architecture and the Afrikaans language, they also had a large and lasting influence on South African cooking with the introduction of bredies (stews), boboties (a spicy minced meat dish covered with savoury egg custard) and koeksisters (plaited doughnuts dipped in syrup).

Bo-Kaap, with its secret lanes and brightly colourful stoep-fronts is a reflection of the sweet, loud people who long ago converted its narrow steep streets from a place of slave oppression to one proudly bursting with life and colour.

A close knit community where everyone knows each other’s lives, they’re well meaning, caring folk. In many instances the adage: it takes a community to raise a child, still holds true here. Here children run and laugh freely in and out of neighbour’s homes.

Best of all, they’re a sharing community, always ready to burst forth into Hollandse lietjies (ribald Cape Dutch songs dating back to the days of slavery) and eagerly welcome visitors to experience their world and unique culture.

Cape Town Routes Unlimited – Leading the way to the Regional Tourist Board of the Year, 2008 Global Awards

Nominated by European CEO for the Regional Tourist Board of the Year, 2008 Global Awards, Cape Town Routes Unlimited (CTRU) the destination marketing organisation for Cape Town and the Western Cape, is a logical choice and in fine position to clinch the title.

Emerging from a year which has seen its share of both triumphs and adversities, Calvyn Gilfellan, CEO of CTRU, whilst acknowledging the great importance of securing the Regional Tourist Board of the Year, 2008 Global Awards, continues to proudly lead his team with foresight and determination and has worked resolutely to get to this point.

Gilfellan's personal vision for the organisation is to develop and grow the tourism potential in Cape Town and the Western Cape for the benefit of everyone who calls it home. This, helped along by a unique leadership style based on a deep and innate connection with people and the fundamental pride he has in his country and its citizens, all combines to impassion the way he markets the destination and truly makes him its best ambassador.

In the beginning

CTRU, was created in 2004 and tasked to promote Cape Town and the Western Cape as a premier leisure, events and business tourism destination, and ensure that visitors enjoy their stay.

A task made simpler when the region in question is renowned for its unforgettable natural beauty, considered one of the best year-round value for money holiday destinations in the world, has a mild mediterranean climate, an existing and expanding infrastructure, four world-class universities, conference, exhibition and event facilities capable of accommodating everything from a meeting to a world cup, and is dead on par with other world cities such as London and Sydney.

Branding Cape Town and the Western Cape

CTRU actively markets Cape Town and the Western Cape as a brand which promotes sustainable growth, transformation and pride, and provides strategic direction and marketing support to the province’s tourism industry.

And with five focus areas - leisure tourism, events, conferencing and incentives, visitor services and product development, CTRU has successfully built a brand which has already seen Cape Town become the number one long-haul destination in the world, the top convention destination in Africa and receive the 2008 World Travel Award for being Africa’s leading destination.

Results from an AC Nielsen research survey commissioned by Cape Town Routes Unlimited confirms that South Africans regard the Cape Town and Western Cape brand as the strongest destination brand in South Africa. And while still eclipsed by Kwazulu Natal with domestic visitor numbers, this destination is fast closing the gap.

Unique thematic approach

Always progressive in its thinking CTRU has developed a unique thematic approach with which to market the experiences of Cape Town and the Western Cape. The themes cut across and address both geographic spread and seasonality and captures the character of the province which is defined by seven overarching experiences which describe the quintessential Cape Town and Western Cape way of life.

Very briefly, these seven experiences fall under the headings of: Exploring eco and nature, Being outdoor active, Discovering culture and heritage, Savouring gourmet delights, Revitalising body, mind and spirit, Enjoying the cosmopolitan vibe and Dynamic business networking.

Cape Town as a "hook"

On the topic of innovations which set CTRU apart from its competitors, Gilfellan outlined how the organisation has used the destination’s natural beauty and resources to implement an aggressive marketing strategy across its six regions to further geographic spread.

This key strategic objective is effectively addressed by exploiting all that Cape Town has to offer and using it as a “hook” to leverage exposure for the Western Cape’s lesser known regions which are marketed under the following sub-brands i.e. Cape Town, Cape Garden Route and Klein Karoo, Cape Karoo, Cape Overberg, Cape West Coast, Cape Winelands. In this, CTRU is singular in its approach as this practice has not yet been adopted by other South African provinces.

Mesmerising Marrakech

…for you, only 500 dirham", he murmurs softly … and I am almost hooked. Almost, but not quite because this is Marrakech, and these are the souks and here bargaining is a way of life.

“I'll give you 100”, I hedge, trying my luck.

Mohammed Zuhaf, my charming Moroccan trinket vendor, pretends to be shocked by my audacity but his eyes have lit up and gleam with pleasure. Invisible battle lines have been drawn and we’re off and away, engaged in the exhilarating age old ritual of bargaining.

To the victor go the spoils and after nearly twenty minutes of incessant banter, two cups of mint tea, discussions ranging from Nelson Mandela to the 2010 Football World Cup, outrageous flirting and lots of bluffing to “forget it “on both sides, I gleefully walk away with not one but three heavy, ornate, distinctly Moroccan necklaces, very pleased to have spent just 200 dirhams a piece. Until I spy them being sold for a paltry 150 dirhams at a stall not even ten metres away!

Mohammed, you sly thing you …

Bargaining in the souks is an expected pastime with stall owners actually looking forward to the opportunity to honeBargaining in the souks is an expected pastime with stall owners actually looking forward to the opportunity to hone and fine tune their negotiating skills. Most love clients who aren’t rushing off elsewhere and are willing to try their hand at negotiating.

In you’re invited and once seated on an exquisitely worked leather pouf, out comes the engraved, slightly battered, little silver teapot and accompanying tea glasses – often a very necessary part of the negotiation process. Syrupy sweet mint tea is slowly brewed and with an almost hypnotic lifting and falling arm motion, skilfully poured into glasses. Conversation is light and mellow with barely any reference made to the object of desire and it is only once you’ve relaxed that the bargaining begins.

Popping into Mohammed’s stall a few days later, I’m pleased that he remembers me and comes over to laugh at my latest antics. When asking about bargaining practices, he confides that “…always you must say half of asked price”, as in peak season most vendors put a significant, sometimes almost 100% mark up on their goods, and “bargain, you must bargain, we like it!” he adds.

I’m starting to get the distinct feeling that haggling over prices here gains you a vendor’s respect.

And then I’m off to the souks again, in pursuit of my next bargain and bargaining.

The Souks (markets)

The souks which cover over a square kilometre and extend from Djema el Fna to the northern walls are magical and a must for any visitor to Marrakech.

Alleys within alleys, labyrinthine, shrouded in shadow or open aired, they’re comprised of individual sections and enclose a host of colourful, highly exclusive handicrafts workshops and bazaars. Here you’ll find everything from imposing mounds of rich exotic spices, clothing, braziers, lanterns, wrought iron doors, antique furniture to the most delightful babush (slippers), sensuously exquisite carpets, shisha pipes, endless selections of big juicy dates and stalls selling natural medicines and every herb known to man.

Crazy. Loud. Alive. Frenzied, crowded and bustling with energy, except for midday prayers on a Friday, it is not uncommon to be hooted to the sides of alleyways by men in cars, on mopeds, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and creaking ramshackle wagons pulled by sage mules. Everyone one of them whizzing by at top speed and high volume.

In some parts of the souks the pathways are so narrow that you can literally touch the walls on either side but despite this and the sometimes dark and dusty alleys, it is not a threatening environment and any fear of getting lost is wasted as all alleys lead right back to the main path and Djema el Fna. 

Djema el Fna

There are few places on earth as exotic, or as strange as Djema el Fna (Place of the Dead). Listed by UNESCO as a "Masterpiece of World Heritage", it is the busiest square on the entire African continent, and much of the reason why travellers have been lured to Morocco for centuries. At any time of day there is something beguiling occurring on this public square, where wealthy sultans once beheaded enemies and criminals.

Food stalls, snake charmers, orange juice vendors, storytellers, shady henna artists and monkeys. Acrobats, coconut cookies, medicine men, twirling jugglers, musicians and sneaky pickpockets... Djema el Fna, the heart of Marrakech, has it all.

By day, a relatively quiet and empty square but at night, it transforms into a wondrous mediaeval plain. A thousand glinting lanterns hang from stalls or poles, wink and shimmer, casting their light wide to chasing away the dark. Hazy, incense-infused mist drifts through crowds and casts its spell.                                                                                                          
Locals and tourists, seduced by the exotic aromas wafting from hundreds of brilliantly displayed food stalls, descend in their hordes. Evocative drumbeats, trumpeting horns and the hoarse singing voices of Moroccan men fill the air. Parcels of friends wander leisurely from group to group breathing in Marrakech, listening to long ago tales woven by wizened Berber tribesmen, laughing at the antics of acrobats and jugglers, trying their luck at games which seem simple but turn out to be feats of strategy or simply hang out with a pot of mint tea on the rooftops of surrounding restaurants to watch the square come alive as the day bids the night salaam (peace).

Tasting Tajines

For the most authentic Moroccan dining experience, join the crowds and eat within the Djema el Fna itself. As twilight falls, hundreds of open air kitchens are swiftly set up, lined with benches and illuminated by overhead lights, creating one of the world's biggest open-air eateries. Most stalls specialise in one particular dish such as merguez (spicy sausages), grilled brochettes, pastilla (savoury chicken and almond filling in puff pastry) or harira soup. For the more adventurous try boiled sheep heads, eels and mounds of snails.

Clouds of smoke drift over the square as meats are grilled and served with cooked vegetable salads. Take your time, wander around the square and let your senses be your guide to Moroccan gourmet.

Once you've settled on your kitchen of choice, squeeze onto one of the benches and watch as your waiter theatrically pours your mint tea while your food is freshly prepared. Then using bread as your utensils, tuck into the feast of a lifetime.

Not to be missed though not generally found at the open kitchens, a tajine is a must for any food lover. A slow-cooked stew with aromatic vegetables, sauce and succulent, tender meat which falls from the bone, it is commonly served on a bed of couscous. Exquisite, sublime, a gastronomical delight, your first tajine is a life altering experience within itself and lives on long after you’ve polished off the last grain of couscous.


Marrakech consists of two parts: the old town or medina, which dates back to over a thousand years; and the new town, Gueliz, designed and built by the French early this century.

Gueliz is the wealthier, more westernised district of Marrakech where most of the major businesses are located. It is also a major shopping district, offering a wonderful range of luxury stores selling international brands. With its wide streets and squares with fountains, choice of excellent restaurants, night clubs, bars and street cafes, it is a real contrast to the winding alleyways of the Medina.


Framed by the snowy heights of the Atlas moutains, with rose-colored ramparts and a thousand year old palm grove, Marrakech casts a magic spell. Sumptuous and exuberant, the red city radiates splendour and mysticism and captivates the heart and mind despite of or perhaps because of it’s extreme contrast - impoverished yet industrious, ancient but vibrant and so much more … in every essence, a land where fantasy and reality speak the language of negotiation. 

What to See

  • Koutubia Mosque - a 12th-century mosque with a 70m high minaret, it is one of the most important mosques of the Maghreb countries. 
  • Ben Youssef Medressa - a 16th-century Koranic school with exemplary mosaics, wooden carvings and other hallmarks of classical Moroccan artistry. 
  • Museum of Marrakesh - a renovated 19th-century palace with exhibits by contemporary Moroccan artists as well as displays devoted to historical ceramics, metalwork and other crafts. 
  • El Bahia Palace - an especially large 19th-century palace: it had to be to hold an aide to the Sultan, his 4 wives and 24 mistresses.

Where to Stay

  • There are now about 300 restored riads in the medina that serve as hotels or B & B's.
  •  Many are quite luxurious, featuring fruit-tree-planted courtyards, beautifully tiled pools and rooms with colourful Moroccan elegance. 
  • Some agencies, like represent multiple properties.

 Where to Drink & Dance

  • For the best bars, nightclubs and discos, head for Gueliz and Hivernage. 
  • Going under the name of discothèques, music tends to range from Moroccan pop to groovy Ibiza-style dj mash-ups and belly-dancing. 
  • Clubs are an expensive extravagance so expect to fork out a hefty admission fee and bear in mind that getting into the hottest clubs over weekends is no guarantee regardless of how well you’re dressed or moneyed you are.

Geography for Giants - Limpopo, South Africa

'One more thing, the Samango Monkeys are very friendly. You may want to keep your windows and doors closed If you're not in the  mood for  visitors." Mike Gardner, Tourism Expert - Limpopo 

Lush valleys and meandering rivers where samango monkeys keep watch over hippos and crocodiles, where myth and fact are bedfellows. This is Limpopo, land of mist and mystery, and this is where giants live.

One such giant is quirky founder of his own religious sect, diminutive sculptor Jackson Hlungwane

A visit to his place in Mbhokota, a village located in Elim in northern Gazankulu, finds him comfortably ensconced on his throne, a rusty steel chair and holding court in New Jerusalem. Labyrinthine styled New Jerusalem is his stone palace to the Glory of God. It is the place of worship Jackson and his followers built. Here he lives, creates and preaches his own religion, Jerusalem One Christ, a form of mystical Christianity firmly rooted in African culture.

He's wholly engrossed in a book depicting religious icons. A bit of an oddity, he crackles, pointing out different saints. It is clear that he's been through it a number of times already and is particularly impressed with the fact that some saints seem to be missing a finger. "See, see no finger. Just like Jackson". Its proof enough for him that he's a saint too.

An oddball, mischievous saint though. His advice "Go home now, You must make a baby. You will have twelve". 12 for the twelve disciples? What a thought.

Jackson forms part of the South Africa's big 5. No, not wildlife, though you could be forgiven for the mistake as Jackson is as wild and free as a monkey. Big 5 as in the case of a group of 5 world-renowned artists who all hail from Limpopo. His sculptures, much acclaimed, grace South African and European art galleries. He says 'The whole country is Jackson" an ideology which is carried through in his art depicting Christianity through all of Africa.

Giant of another sort, The Sunland 'Big Baobab in Modjadjiskloof is the oldest and quite likely the largest living thing in the world.

Anna Mahasha, head cook who is on hand for visitor ‘liaison" at Sunland Baobab Jungalows informs groups that the tree is more than 5000 years old, is 47m's wide and 22 metres high. In a word, massive.

There is a surreal sense of wonder and reverence about it. Fantasy novel 'The Belgarath Series' speaks of the One Tree, ancient meeting place of the Gods. Surely this must be the tree of author David Edding's inspiration. It seems as old as time itself. 

A quick calculation: it is possibly older than the Giza Pyramids and was certainly here thousands of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. When the first leaves sprouted the Sahara Desert was still lush and green and our Iron Age ancestors were roaming the land. With things put into perspective, the miracle of the tree is even more astounding.

In 1993 the owners, Doug and Heather van Heerden cleared out the hollow centre of the tree and installed a railway sleeper pub inside the trunk which has space for nearly 60 people. At a sqeeze.

"The pub is not allowed to trade", says Anna, "we're waiting on the go ahead from the authorities. So now you can't experience the whole thing. Hey, it's a pity".

Almost as old as the baobab, and just as spellbinding is the reign of Modjadji, the Rain Queen

Late Queen Makobo Modjadji VI who died in June  2005 is a direct descendant of the first rain queen, Dzugundini, who’s father  the King of Monomotapa gave her a magic horn with the necessary 'medicines' to make rain and to defend her against any enemies.

Her dominion is a fascinating world of cultures and legends and encompasses an entire district named in her honour.

This honour extends to the special place of respect she has always held amongst African leaders including the great Zulu king Shaka and Nelson Mandela.

The royal house of Modjaji is located on top of lush hills and is surrounded by the Modjadji Cycad Reserve where the world's largest cycad trees, reaching up to 13 meters in height grow in profusion under an unbelievable mist and rain belt.

James Ndhlovu, a local cultural expert explains, "There are many, many mysteries and legends about these cycads. Also, they are protected by Queen Modjadji and they are sacred for the Bolobedu people." Even in the midday African heat, the forests have an evocative atmosphere.

True giants dating back almost 300 million years, the Modjadji Palm is the most famous of all the cycads.

Limpopo, land of legend, mystery, myth and miracle is rich in culture and abundantly populated with innumerable giants who's presence has you yearning for more

Have your Cow & Eat it - Baragwanath Taxi Rank, Soweto - Johannesburg

"Meat makes a man to stay healthy. Ever since small I am eating the meat. And you see there is no gout." Oupa Sithole, Baragwanath Taxi Rank, Soweto - Johanesburg

Thembisili Kubheka, his glowing face wreathed in smiles, laughs boisterously at something a hawker says and proceeds to calmly pop out a cow's eyes before cutting its tongue off. Completely engrossed in the task before him he doesn’t notice the horrified, incredulous looks on the faces of the tourists leaning over Baragwanath Taxi Rank’s bridge railings, in the heart of Soweto, Johannesburg.

A girl bolder than the rest in the group waves and asks what they’re doing. Momentarily distracted as his friends tease him in Zulu, he laughingly calls up, inviting her to join him at the makeshift table laden with raw meat and see for herself. When she joins the bloody group they merrily give her a practical hands-on education about the most effective ways of removing meat from a cow’s head. It’s a messy job to the uninitiated.

Thembisili and his friends work for Oupa Sithole who sells meat at Baragwanath Taxi Rank, the biggest and busiest taxi rank in Soweto. Oupa buys raw cow heads, which is locally known as 'skobo’ and gets his workers to chop off all the meat. Thembisili says "…nothing is wasted, ears, eyes, tongue, the whole head, all goes in the pot to be boiled”. The meat is boiled in two huge pots and when ready is seasoned with chilli salt and served with rice or pap. By all accounts, one “ngca” meal!

But there is a price to pay for this plate of food. According to the South African Meat Safety Act of 2000 the sale of meat from an animal not slaughtered in an abattoir is illegal and unfit for human consumption.

Notwithstanding the above, slaughtering cattle at weddings and funerals held in townships and then eating the meat is a regular occurance. It’s a practice dating back to mankind’s very beginnings and remains a crucial part of black male culture. Oupa obviously understands this which is why he makes a good living. And judging from the queues of loyal, satisfied customers, he’ll still be in business until the cows come home.

Now on the off chance that cows’ heads don’t quite your tickle your taste buds, you may want to consider taking the long walk to freedom and heading for Vilakazi Street, the most famous street in Soweto. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winners, call this street home. And so does Sakhumzi Maqubela, proud owner of Sakhumzi’s Restaurant.

Sakhumzi’s is a fine example of business thinking gone very right. “I used to like to sit outside with my friends watching the tourist visiting Madiba and Desmond Tutu’s house, and drink”, said Sakhumzi, suddenly coughing into his hand to hide a devilish grin and dancing eyes, “water that is… nothing else. But getting the umm … water on the other side of Orlando was a real mission so I began thinking of starting my own waterhole”.

These days a trip up Vilakazi Street is synonymous with a visit to Sakhumzi’s. Brimming with visitors both local and international, it’s a welcome surprise bursting with enough African cosmopolitan flavour and vibes to tempt any taste bud.

And the rest is as they say, history.

The Sunland Baobab - 6000 years in the making

"I tell you this baobab is old, very old. Some people say 5000 years, others say 6000 years old. Maybe older than anything else that’s living on earth." Anna Mashasha
Anna Mashasha is the cook at Sunland’s, the farm in Modjadjiskoof, Limpopo on which the baobab stands. She’s worked there for 25 years and is accustomed to having the awestruck bombard her with questions about the tree. Every year thousands of visitors pop by the farm to stand wrapt and amazed, marvelling at what has got to be one of the most amazing miracles of nature, the Sunland Big Baobab.

This baobab is internationally famous for being the widest of its species in the world and at 22 metres high and 47 meters in circumference it qualifies as one of the all time largest living things in the world. In addition to this, it is also the OLDEST living thing in the world today. Carbon dating has it as + 6 000 years old.

To really understand what this means, try imagining this, it is possibly older than the Giza Pyramids and it was certainly here thousands of years before the birth of Christ. When its first leaves were sprouting the Sahara Desert was still lush and green and our Iron Age ancestors were roaming the land.

Once put into perspective, the baobab is even more phenomenal than at first glance. And though the baobab’s fame is internationally acknowledged, nothing adequately prepares visitors for their first sighting of it. Anna recalls that “…some people cry. They don’t know what to do, they just cry".

When baobabs become a thousand years old, they begin to hollow inside. In the Big Baobab this has resulted in a large cavern, in which the owners, Doug and Heather van Eerden, built a Bar and Wine Cellar. The tree bar can accommodate more than 60 people. Must be a group of 60 very emaciated people but there you are all the same! Now whether a wonder like the Sunland 'Big Baobab’ should have been turned into a bar is questionable. What I’m trying to impress upon you is the sheer size of its hollow chamber.

The Baobab has been associated with many myths, mysteries and folklore. And it’s not hard to see why.  The mind takes flights of fancy and fantasy beneath its shade. Immediately David Edding’s book The Belgarath Series comes to mind. It speaks of a lush green vale in which a tree older than time itself blossoms. Its branches stretch far and wide, its bark, knarled and warm to the touch. And it is this tree which throughout the millenniums has been the meeting place of the Gods. Could it be that David Edding’s inspiration was drawn from our Baobab?

The Bushmen believed that the Baobab had offended God and, in revenge, God planted it upside down. Certainly, when winter comes, the Baobab resembles a mass of roots pointing towards the sky instead of being underground. Even the flowers bloom at night. Well from the looks of things, this Baobab doesn’t seem to mind divine wrath one little bit and instead seems to be a timeless testimony of divine touch.

As for folklore, the Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions, because there are spirits in the flowers. Spirits? James Ndhlovu, a local cultural expert agrees and adds that “…they’re pretty potent. You should try the beer they make from the bark! For that you need a really good strong stomach”. The Bushman also say that water drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, serves as protection from crocodiles. And while this may very well be true, I’m not prepared to put it to the test.

The Baobab as a symbol of Africa has a special role in this fascinating continent. Elephants, monkeys and baboons depend on its fruit (the vitamin C content of one fruit is the equivalent of 4 oranges); bats pollinate them by crashing into the flowers while chasing insects and bush babies also spread the pollen which can be used as glue.

At one time it was believed that Baobabs were in danger of becoming extinct. But our One Tree continues to thrive and if it’s legacy of 6 000 years is anything to go by, it will still be standing tall for millenniums to come. 

Dancing for a Rain Queen

In Limpopo, in a district called Modjadjiskoof there remains the only Royal House in Africa where a woman reigns supreme as a queen, with supernatural powers capable of making rain. This is Modjadji, the Rain Queen.

And it is HER we're waiting for.

There is a feeling of expectancy. The Bolopedi tribe of Modjadjiskloof, Limpopo though welcoming and friendly …are filled with it. The air is laden with it, ears are cocked and voices hushed waiting for it - the announcement of the reign of the new rain queen.


The late Queen Makobo Modjadji VI who died in June 2005 at the age of 28 was crowned Rain Queen in 2003. The youngest in a line of matriarchs dating back almost 400 years and the first to be educated in the history of the Balobedu royalty, she reigned over more than a million people. 

James Ndhlovu, a local cultural expert when speaking about the successive queen says, "She has a small daughter but we don't know if she will be the next queen. The Council has not decided yet. It is a tough one. You see, the child’s father is not royalty, he is a commoner." And therein it appears lies the problem. The rain queen may only bear children fathered by indunas chosen by the royal council. It is a complex web and has been so from the very start.


Modjadji’s history is captured in a small museum at the entrance to the Modjadji Cycad nature reserve. 

The late queen was a direct descendant of 16th century princess, Dzugundini. Her father, King Monomotapa, ruler of the Karanga people in Zimbabwe, gave Dzugundini a magic horn with the necessary 'medicines’ to make rain and to defend her against any enemies. Then he banished her and her illegitimate child to the south where she began a new kingdom in Limpopo.

For the next 200 years the tribe of Dzugundini built a substantial territory and increased their power amongst the lesser tribes.  And it was to this tribe in the 1800s that a daughter born to queen Mugodo signaled the start of the female dynasty.

She was the first Modjadji and ever since then the queen has lived in complete seclusion deep in the forest where she practices the age-old rituals. Her rain-making rituals take place every October when she pours water onto a shrine in her palace and implore the tribes ancestors to send rain to the region. Beer is brewed and poured on the ground. All the people drink the beer off the ground after which she plays the traditional drums to initiate the rain dance.

Believed to have been bestowed with the power to control the rains and rivers, the Rain Queen's mystic powers kept her small tribe safe from regional wars of conquest for two centuries.


To reinforce the legend of her miraculous rainmaking powers one only needs to visit the royal house of Modjadi to be convinced.  Located on top of the splendid hills is the Modjadji reserve where the world’s largest cycad trees, known locally as mofaka, grow in profusion under an unbelievable mist and rain belt.

The reserve boasts a dense 305 hectare, home to more than 12 000 cycads, the largest natural concentration of a single cycad species in the world. Living fossils of a primeval plant group, the Cycadales, which was the dominant type of vegetation approximately 300 million years ago is the most primitive living seed-bearing plants known to still exist. 

On average the cycad grows to 6 metres in height some reaching the height of 13 metres. Ndhlovu says that "…there are many, many mysteries and legends about these cycads. Also, they are sacred for the Bolobedu people and are protected by generations of Modjadji’s." and it is due to her particular vigilance that the area was eventually declared a national monument in 1936 and proclaimed a nature reserve in 1985 and is now part of South African heritage. Even in the midday African heat, the forests have an evocative atmosphere.


Her realm is a fascinating world of cultures and legends and encompasses an entire district, called Modjadjiskloof.

The naming of Modjadjiskloof itself has an interesting history. Originally called Ga-Modjadji by the Balobedi tribe, it was 'christened’ Duiwelskloof (Devil’s Ravine) in 1894 by Dutch Reform colonialist who objected to the town being named after the Modjadji Royal family who at that time were allegedly regarded as sinners by the church. Finally in June 2004, the district was officially renamed Modjadjiskloof by Sello Moloto, Premier of Limpopo, who says that the name is an icon of tourism and would help bring investment to the area.

Investment in the regard is already underway with a hotel planned for the area. Spokesperson for the Modjadji royal family, Clement Modjadji, has confirmed plans to build a hotel in Khetlhakong village near the spectacularly scenic forestry town of Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo province's subtropical Letaba Valley.

"We are negotiating with local companies and the municipality with a view to raising funds to build the hotel," Modjadji said, and added that the hotel which was long overdue, was expected to create hundreds of jobs in the local community.

The Greater Letaba municipality has also set aside R160 000 to build a cultural village in Khetlhakong village. To be called Modjadji's Kraal, the village will showcase Balobedu culture, technology and art.

And so the realm of the Rain Queen comes of age and flourishes. All in readiness for HER that we’re waiting for.