Category Archives: Travel

Underbelly of Paris – Les Catacombes

There is this incredible little pastry shop in the middle of Paris – quite possibly the middle of the map (though of course this depends on where you place your map)… And it is right opposite the entrance which goes down a stone spiral staircase that opens up onto thousands upon thousands of human remains. You know, location location location. (The bakery was really lovely though, don’t get me wrong!)

Bones

Les Catacombes, the Catacombs of Paris, France, are home to what seems to be an infinite number of old human remains that were dug up a couple decades ago from churchyards around the city, and placed, according to custom and set rules and regulation (because they have rules for how you stack bones, naturally), in the old underground quarries from even longer prior to that. People are weird. Maybe we were weird for being so intrigued and enthralled and captivated by it?

Greenstick fracture

This place is immensely creepy. Thankfully, I, unlike my crazy travel partner, had not watched “As Above, So Below” before going into the twisting, dark, dank tunnels, so I had no fear of imminent supernatural about to attack, but that didn’t make it any less freaky.

Tunnel

 

But enough of those childish descriptions. The information down there was great: I had no idea there were underground quarries below the densely populated city of Paris, and I got to learn a heck of a lot about the methods behind it. Also, how crazy miners are, and the people who don’t think things through, resulting in some ceilings of the tunnels collapsing. How do you not see that coming? Have you never built a sandcastle on the beach before (or in any sand whatsoever)? Silly…

Stone-masonry

What was not silly, was the fact that there was information in ENGLISH as well, for a change. It was a really nice relief to actually know what was going on down there. Except for the creepy Latin inscriptions as you head into the tunnels which house the actual skeletons – which makes it even eerier (grown up words!).

Typically people don't appreciate or respect others, or the dead, and they go and vandalise history... Spooky though

Typically people don’t appreciate or respect others, or the dead, and they go and vandalise history… Spooky though

It was really something nice and different to do in Paris. They are open until fairly late, the place is extremely accessible, and we even got a student discount, which is always great! The only problem (apart from having to do even more stairs) was that you come out somewhere quite different to where you go in, and we forgot to familiarise ourselves with the route back. It was fine, we were in Paris! Stunning little sight-see, not too busy, absolutely worth the visit!

666 graffiti

 

Palace of Ver-sigh

The Palace of Versailles is lovely, especially in the first few rooms you walk through. After that, though, the loveliness seems to spread and average out until the whole place has a lovely ranking of “Average”. Gold room, after carpeted room, after fancy chandelier.

Grand Trianon Ballroom

After the main Palace, you walk through incredibly expansive, stunning gardens. Now, I really wouldn’t mind having a garden like that outside my bedroom window! We couldn’t figure out how it was kept so impeccably neat though: we saw one lone gardener who was mowing the lawn, but we never saw anyone tending to the perfectly cropped trees, or sweeping up fallen leaves. It must just stay like that naturally, from years of being tamed to do so.

Gardens of Verailles

And it really has been years. A visit to the Palace of Versailles is like a snapshot into history that you enjoy but would rather not see. It’s almost as bad as visiting a concentration camp if you have any vague idea of what actually happened in that place. Everything is extremely grand, even the dwellings labeled as “petit”, and they clearly didn’t spare any expenses. But as you’re craning your neck to see yet another golden chandelier, you remember that there were people in the streets not very far from that very room who were literally starving to death.

Marie Leczinska

Some other Marie (Marie Leczinska)

Now, I completely understand Marie Antoinette’s instruction to “Let them eat cake”, I mean, cake is absolutely wonderful, and everyone should be allowed to enjoy it, but the detachment that the French government and bourgeois had from their people is horrifying. Then again, so is the massive economical divide we see around us even to this day…

But enough of that morbidity. It was a gorgeous day, and we got to see and learn quite a bit from the visit. I had never been to this particular overcrowded tourist destination, but I am really glad we made that long journey – though the “journey” around the Palace itself felt far more extensive and excessive and had us walking many miles through echoes of the very first chamber we went into.

Paris Day 1 – The Circumnavigation

Start: top left corner of the map. Walk “downhill”. Take a slight wrong turn. End up at Arc de Triomf. Realise your new camera’s lens does not zoom in or out; time to be creative.

Arc de Triomph

Take a stroll down the Champs Elysee, slight detour to the Grand Palais, and a nice long wait to go through security at the Louvre. Blur through the sculpture room, Medieval Art, Mona Lisa, Roman and Greek art,  foot-rest break in the Egypt chamber, and onward to the lock bridge. Slight wander to get to the Notre Dame, and a much welcome break at Quick. “Healthy” does not feature when in Rome Paris.

Petit Palais

Mona Lisa crowds

Notre Dame

Grand Palais

Obelisk Champs Elysee

A “just-around-the-corner” walk to Eiffel Tower, pause on the grass, pause in the queue, and begin the ascension to the second floor. Pause for elevator to the top, try not to get blown off the top, pause for elevator back to second floor, and some eccentric quad exercises to the bottom. Catch a bus that’s much further away than it seemed on the map.

Eiffel Tower

Get home to leave some baggage and go out for an evening walk, but end up crashing before 8pm, despite not having dinner other than cool cereal, and despite having no curtains for the remaining 2 hours of daylight.

Total: 15km of city walked. 1 wing of the Louvre explored. ±700 stairs up and ±700 steps down the Eiffel Tower. Day 1 = complete.

Oui went to Paris

We went to England for his first time overseas. He wanted something exotic for his first time though, so I figured why not hop on over to Paris for the weekend. After all, it is just around the corner.

Surrounded by history is the city of Paris

Outside the Army Museum: Surrounded by history is the city of Paris. It really makes me wish I had taken the noble subject of History, even if only at school level

The city of love, of lights, of overpriced restaurants, too much vandalistic graffiti, and enough litter in the sheets to tower over Le Toer Eiffel. I guess that’s how it’s always been though, a city of start contrasts. Our visit to The Palace of Versailles highlighted how lavishly the French Bourgeoise lived, while the proletariat went starving. Walking through the narrow lanes and alleyways of Paris, and suddenly, out of the cobbled streets, will rise, gold and grand, some immense building of some significance or other. And then it’s back to uneven paving and spray painted tags, where some French kid thought he was being cool by cussing in English.

Paris is full of rebels, even if it is just a way for them to declare their undying love

Paris is full of rebels, even if it is just a way for them to declare their undying love

The first time I went to Paris, I went by ferry, and it gave a stunning view of Dover (and boats are always fun). This time, we caught the Eurostar, for £72 one way, and £56 for the return trip. I expected more from the train trip, but hey, it was efficient and it delivered us safely to Gare du Nord train station, a short bus ride from our accommodation. If only we knew how to catch a bus in France… Luckily, the French folk were really helpful, contrary to my limited past experience. I still don’t know how to catch a bus though.

Beauty is in the sunglasses of the South African

Beauty is in the sunglasses of the South African

We booked our accommodation through Air BnB, which is pretty much my new favourite travel website, on par in usefulness with Skyscanner.net, We stayed in a 6th floor, one bedroom apartment which had windows that would have been completely perfect if their view had been one of the Eiffel Tower. Also, if they had curtains, especialy with the sunrising at 5am, setting at 11.

Check: he's holding the Eiffel Tower!

Check: he’s holding the Eiffel Tower!

The highlights of this trip:

Day 1

  • Arc de Triomf
  • Champs Elysee
  • The Louvre (and getting in for free)
  • Walking to Notre Dame
  • Grabbing a Quick burger
  • Walking to the Eiffel Tower; climbing the 700 stairs to the second level and then catching a lift to the top
  • And finally catching bus home
The classic French dinner: Sirloin and Pommes Frites (French Fries). The irony that they are called Poms...

The classic French dinner: Sirloin and Pommes Frites (French Fries). The irony that they are called Poms…

Day 2

  • Oversleeping, meeting some Americans on a train, and waiting nearly an hour to get into the Palace of Versailles, walking through endless illogical halls-come-bedrooms then corridors of said palace, being very hot walking through the extensive and gorgeous gardens
  • Returning to town for a trip through the Catacombs,
  • Dinner in Paris
  • Sunset from the Sacré Cœur, and
  • An evening stroll home along Place de Clichy (think red light district and “cabaret”)

Overall, it was a really lovely trip. Quite an expensive expedition, but that’s what you get when you visit one of the most popular world tourist destinations. We walked 15km on each of the days, excluding the walk around the inside of the Palace of Versailles, and excluding walking around the Louvre. We were only there for 3 nights, but we really made the most of the limited time that we did have there.

Paris has this uncanny ability to be an amazing fantasy before you get there, somewhat awful and scruffy while you are there, and then still manages to leave you feeling as though you went to this magical place of beauty and excitement when you return to reality. It’s bizarre and I like it.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Chopper at Ngorongoro

Living in South Africa is great, but I must just clarify that we don’t all spend our time on a safari, we don’t have lions in our gardens and we don’t ride elephants to work every day (only some days). I know many people have cottoned on to the fact that we are actually a pretty progressive country, but we still get asked some of the most absurd things (see here and here).

Elephants in the mist

Elephants in the mist rain

Speaking of safari… I have never been to the Kruger National Park, even though I live in South Africa. Apparently some people think that is a little bit of treason… I, however, have not yet learnt how to appreciate seeing buck after buck after buck. It’s kind of like going bird watching when you know nothing about birds…

You don't need to know anything about birds to acknowledge just how majestic this one is...

You don’t need to know anything about birds to acknowledge just how majestic this one is…

So going into Ngorongoro Crater was a massive breath of fresh air. It was the last leg of our big adventure. We though we might attempt doing the crater, going across into the Serengeti, and traveling up through to Kenya from there, however, there were supposedly really dodgy border crossings there, so we chose not to risk it. It also transpired that Serengeti was ridiculously expensive, so it worked out well for us that we couldn’t make it.

In fact, most of Africa is just geared to wealthy (American) tourists who have lots of “dollas” – we had to pay to get into the Ngorongoro national park, for both of us as well as our Landy, Chopper. Then we realised that we had to pay AGAIN to get into the actual crater. As if we were just driving into the national park “on the way” to somewhere “better”. Yeah right, you need to actually see this place.

The crater has its very own climate as well... I can't even begin to tell you how quickly rains came and went and came again and then disappeared like they had never happened

The crater has its very own climate as well… I can’t even begin to tell you how quickly rains came and went and came again and then disappeared like they had never happened

Ngorongoro Crater is this massive bowl full of the most incredible African wildlife you could imagine, all enclosed in a natural game reserve of sorts. Except you don’t feel like the animals are actually caved in at all. They also live happily alongside some Masai people. So maybe some African people do have lions in their back gardens…

We saw all the animals. I didn’t realise that I hadn’t actually seen a buffalo in real life, but when I saw this thing, I finally learned the difference between them and wildebeest. It’s largely based on size, in case you weren’t aware.

Sup buffalo

Rolling buffalo

Judgmental Zebra is judging the buffalo who really just knows how to have a good time...

Judgmental Zebra is judging the buffalo who really just knows how to have a good time…

The animals in this little oasis are completely comfortable in their home, they show no fear about tourists because they know that they are the ones in charge. It is really great to see how conservation efforts are paying off, and it reminds you of why they are so important.

IMG_7781 IMG_7888

We had a really friendly and informative tour guide by absolute chance who we somehow managed to squeeze in the Defender with us. It was useful having him there because he knew were to go to find the specific animals, like the lions (who were asleep in the heat of the day. You know, cats and stuff) and the hippos.

Hippo and baby

The drive in and out of the national park as well as into the crater was extremely hectic uphill and downhill with blind rises and hairpin bends and of course, in true Landy style, we had a bit of a smokey moment, which was repaired in no time at all (again, in true Landy style).

Before the trip, I had never even heard of Ngorongoro, but I would highly recommend a trip there if you are ever considering a trip to Africa. It is the reason that going on Safari is so highly revered – nature is awesome, Africa is powerful and we will never truly be able to tame it. And that’s what makes it so special.

Ngorongoro Landscape

Overlanding through Tanzania

Chopper, the Land Rover Defender 100 that took us on our epic journey through Tanzania

Chopper, the Land Rover Defender 100 that took us on our epic journey through Tanzania

I saw Mount Kilimanjaro. And it was so amazing that I forgot to take a picture of it. That’s when you know a moment is special: when it’s so amazing to be in the moment, that all other superficial cares of the world are lost in it – there’s no need to take a photo, or check in on Facebook, or prove to other people how much of a good time you are having. Those are the ones that are often cherished the most. It’s difficult for me, though, because I love to share my experiences with other people. Now, all I can do is tell other people I have seen it, but I have no proof! I have had to learn how to appreciate that moment for what it was: just me and the awe of being in nature’s massive presence.

The moment was amazing: we were driving along, trusting the GPS that there was a large mountain somewhere ahead of us. We tried to identify which one it was – maybe it’s that one over theeeeeere in the distance, it seems a bit bigger than the others, right? Then you see a slightly larger one, and you wonder if it’s not perhaps that one. Then all of a sudden, you look up. As in, up up. High above the clouds, high above any of the surrounding mountains that you were assessing, and you are left without a doubt as to which one it is. And you can’t help but feel small at the foot of this enormous chunk of rock that just rises high above all that is around it.

Then it gets confusing to your mind because it is so far away but so big that it actually looks small…

The roads were long, and mostly decent. The sun was bright, and it was hot. You can see the water effect on the horizon - polarized sunglasses were necessary

The roads were long, and mostly decent. The sun was bright, and it was hot. You can see the water effect on the horizon – polarized sunglasses were necessary

Tanzania was beautiful. I was highly surprised by how green it was though! Particularly in Ngorongoro, but everywhere you looked there was green. I definitely had different expectations. Traditionally I had pictured Africa to be more Savannah-type landscapes, with bush-veld as far as the eye can see. Instead, there were trees, and green fields. It was almost like the UK or Europe, except with skies brighter blue than you could ever imagine, and a sun that shines directly from above chasing all shadows away.

I also wasn’t expecting the traditional cultures to proliferate as they did: you drive along, and there are just Masai tribesmen walking along in their traditional blankets, with massive looped earlobes, with their knobkieries, just herding their cattle. Yes, I am most definitely a city girl, but this experience particularly highlighted how different South Africa comes across to me: yes, we have traditional people, but often it feels like they are traditional at certain times, and then resort to commercial, modern, “first-world” tendencies. For example, they live and work in the city, wearing suits, driving BMWs and drinking expensive coffee (I’m thinking bank executive here), and then get married in their traditional garments with cows as labola. The Masai tribesmen seemed all-tradition, all the time. It was fascinating and good to see that there are still some cultures out there that have held on to their traditions and the simple ways of life that don’t require the hustle and bustle and stress of today’s “modern world”.

Yes, there are people that still live in huts like this every single day of their lives. It's incredible and beautiful and so simple it just about makes you want to live like that too

Yes, there are people that still live in huts like this every single day of their lives. It’s incredible and beautiful and so simple it just about makes you want to live like that too

Having said this, however, I didn’t get any photographs of the locals. Unfortunately, while they still live according to their old ways, they have been touched significantly by the tourism industry, and as a result, I found that one of the only English words in their vocabulary was: “Dollar?” We tried to drive up to Lake Natron and got stopped along the worst dirt roads and we were asked for toll fees (you know, to maintain the dirt road?) a good number of times. At the one stop, there was a Masai woman who was trying to sell us her jewellery, which is fair, but after the heavy tolls, I didn’t want to be buying some piece of jewellery (which, to be honest, was basically the same as what I would get back in South Africa, except triple the price). When I told her “No”, she insisted that that I at least take a photograph of her: “Photo? Dollar? Photo? Dollar?” I tried to say no in as many tones as I knew, and she kept repeating those two words and ignoring (and not understanding) my refusal. The Dollar tourism industry has made travelling quite expensive, even (especially) in Africa. None of the Masai folk would let us take photos of them without us handing over some cash. So I didn’t take any photos of them (religious reasons would be ok, but tourist exploitation was unfair on principle).

***

We took a slight detour off the only just beaten track to check out this huge crater mountain thing. This is what we found on the inside (a crazy hat man! Just kidding).  It was easy to imagine a lone tent sitting at the bottom of the basin, but we unfortunately didn't have time to spend the night

We took a slight detour off the only just beaten track to check out this huge crater mountain thing. This is what we found on the inside (a crazy hat man! Just kidding). It was easy to imagine a lone tent sitting at the bottom of the basin, but we unfortunately didn’t have time to spend the night

The journey took us up from Dar Es Salaam (which was polluted and busy and full of traffic and taxis far worse than any Johannesburg Kombi) to the foot of Kili at Moshi, up through Arusha, and a slight detour to Ngorongoro Crater and National Park. We would have done Serengeti too, had time and finances allowed. We took the scenic route from there up to the border. This route took us past some cool volcanoes and craters that we did our best to explore (uncomfortably by excitingly off the beaten track). There were Zebra, wildebees and buck roaming free, and the expansive wilderness was breathtaking and typically African. Unfortunately we never made it to Lake Natron, but it worked out better as far as time went anyway, so I can’t complain too much.

We were tasked with getting some rock samples from the foot of a special volcano in Tanzania. This sounded simple, but it turns out there's a whole load of different rock types at the foot of a volcano, that aren't necessarily volcanic rock

We were tasked with getting some rock samples from the foot of a special volcano in Tanzania, Ol Donyo Lengai. This sounded simple, but it turns out there’s a whole load of different rock types at the foot of a volcano, that aren’t necessarily volcanic rock

Tanzania (I still don’t know how to pronounce it properly) was an awesome African experience. It challenged my preconceptions of my continent as far as the landscape goes, and it showed me just how far of an influence America actually has. I loved seeing that there are some people who still hold onto their cultural traditions as tightly as they can, with no desire to change that, where I am a person who is confused by people who are not looking for progress, growth and development (in themselves or in the world around them). It is definitely a place everyone should experience some time in their lives. I’m not sure that I would go back, but if I did, I would definitely go with lots of “dollar?” just to make the journey that bit easier and less frustrating.

Chopper delivered us safely through this unknown terrain. Such an awesome experience

Chopper delivered us safely through this unknown terrain. Such an awesome experience

Good ol’ G-Spot, EC

It’s been nearly a year since I finished up in Grahamstown. I was rather keen to leave, when the time came, but I miss it now. It’s the same as missing school though. You know, best days of your life and all that.

Now, I wasn’t particularly fond of Grahamstown. I was a city girl, from Johannesburg, and I somehow ended up in one of the most poorly run provinces of the country, in a town that didn’t even have a McDonald’s. Or a Woolworths Food. When people asked me if I was enjoying it, I would tell them how much I like the University, my course and the overall student life. I would explain how convenient being in a small town was because you can literally walk to any destination worth your while in the town. You hardly needed to worry about having a designated driver, the only time you really wanted a car was when it was raining or when you had to carry your 5L water up the hill (which is closer to 25L by the time you get to the top!). And this is where I would start talking about the problems.

We had no water. We would go for weeks with no running water. In my residence, we had 73 girls all sharing 2 toilets. There were minimal washing facilities – you could go to the gym, but that was so busy and eventually dirty and they ran out of water pressure too from trying to meet the demand. One benefit: the university paid for 2L of bottled drinking water every day. If you were smart, you would let this accumulate so you didn’t have to drink the tap water, which was sometimes brown, sometimes smelled like a chlorine factory blew up.

Water protest gif

One of the water outages was so bad, we held a march in protest. The truck that was meant to come fix the situation went missing, and then was found to have not even left Johannesburg yet. When they got to Grahamstown, they could not install the pump because there was no electricity. The electricity problem was another bad one. Slightly more liveable, because you don’t have to live in each other’s filth, but not cool when you are trying to study. Most of the power failures happened during exam time, naturally. Sometimes even in the middle of your exam. It was tedious, but I guess we all learned to live with it.

High street

The High Street, one of the most lovely views of the Cathedral and the quaintness of Grahamstown. Along this road you will find most of the restaurants, plenty of pharmacies, and plenty of dodgy car guards

I suppose, if anything, it taught us to be grateful. We learned to appreciate when we did have certain things, like water and lights on at home, because after all, these are luxuries that many people do not have access to at all, obviously in Grahamstown, but even in South Africa in general. But, you know, perspective only comes after the hard times… I’m very glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore, but I have new problems that have come about with living back in the city. Now I can just reminisce about the beauty and quaintness that was Grahamstown. I learnt a lot from being there, I had a fabulous experience, met the most amazing people, and met a lot of different people with different backgrounds and different opinions. We were all shoved into one teeny backwards town, forced to live alongside each other, and that is why Rhodents are generally so open minded and fun (but also well-rounded and responsible individuals).

IMG_7000

Once you get over the gnawing absence of things that were once a staple sight in a civilized town, you start to notice the beauty of the old buildings, and the heritage that came along with them. You eventually realise why people would want to keep making the trip down every year for the National Arts Fest (apart from general art-appreciation, of course).

Cnr High Street and Cuyler Cathedral with Jacarandas

Grocott's

Grahamstown is home to some lovely old buildings and some significant South African Heritage. The old newspaper buildings could have something to do with the Rhodes School of Journalism’s reputation perhaps?

High street court

Provost

Provost coffee shop was established here shortly before I left. While I wasn’t a massive fan of their coffee, their location was great – set in an old battalion-related building (or something like that), as were their delicious freshly-baked croissants

Grahamstown grows on you. But that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to stay there forever. I had an awesome time while I was there, great memories, but I am happy to be moving onto other things as well now in my life. For now, I think I will go have a reminiscent mare up in Northam.