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WideEyedWorld.co.za

Family travel in South Africa and beyond

Author: lucycorne

The Gorge Cottage at Augrabies Falls National Park

When I was a teenager, long before txt spk wz a thng, we used to shorten words in a way that only teenagers seem to be lazy enough to do….

When I was a teenager, long before txt spk wz a thng, we used to shorten words in a way that only teenagers seem to be lazy enough to do. One of my faves (see what I did there?) was ‘gorge’, most often used to describe whichever pin-up we were in love with that week (at a risk of ageing myself, it was usually Corey Haim). When the SAN Parks powers that be named the Gorge Cottage, they could almost have been using my teen years lingo. They weren’t of course – it is named for the geological marvel it overlooks – but it could have been, for if there is one thing you could say about the Gorge Cottage, it’s that it is gorgeous in every way.

My pic of the cottage was blurry through excitement – thanks to SANParks for this version

They didn’t get the name 100% correct though, for I’m not sure I would call it a cottage – more a dream apartment or a super swanky bachelor pad. It’s simply furnished with a double bed, comfy couch, a kitchenette and a few shelves and side tables. Photos taken in the park hang on one wall, though I couldn’t describe them with any conviction. No-one comes here to comment on furniture or admire paintings. One whole wall is made up of windows and the couch and bed face these windows the way they would face the flat screen in your average hotel room. Here of course, there is no TV, and nor is there any need for one. Instead you have the kind of panoramic view of the Oranjekom Gorge that no TV show or photograph could ever faithfully replicate.

For the longest time, this place was simply a lookout point. It still is, with a viewing platform sitting above the cottage, but in late 2016 some smart soul saw fit to add the park’s most impressive place to stay. As dusk approaches and the park’s gates close, the day visitors disappear, throwing back envious glances at whoever is lucky enough to be staying over at the cottage. And my advice to you is to put it on your bucket list, like now. I can’t begin to properly convey the magnificent silence and the deep honour of having this view all to yourself. And it only gets better if like I did, you manage to time your stay with a full moon.

I tend to peddle more in straight-talking than poetry, but sitting outside on a huge boulder sipping cold beer as the moon softly illuminated the 240m-deep gorge gauged out by the Gariep/Orange River – well, it was nothing short of magical. There are no sounds except birdsong and the distant flow of the river and just as I thought the scene could get no more perfect, a dassie scurried by, leaping over a gap in the rocks in that agile manner that their tubby appearance belies.

The laziest photo I’ve ever taken – the view from your bed at the Gorge Cottage

Those beers – or G&Ts or whatever way you choose to celebrate sundown – could come back to haunt you later since the bathroom was built some 30 metres away. Luckily, a plan has been made for those middle-of-the-night calls of nature. It’s undoubtedly the least romantic aspect of the accommodation and not something you’d be keen to use in the early stages of a relationship, but the chemical loo is a bit of a godsend if you wake up after one sundowner too many (or if you’re a mom and midnight peeing is just a part of your routine). It’s been done as well as it could have been, hidden away in a wooden box and emitting no aroma. And it really is the ultimate loo with a view.

This place is firmly filed under “parental retreats”. I really don’t think kids would appreciate the setting and anyway, the cottage sleeps a maximum of two people. I visited alone on a work trip. I thought I’d get plenty of work done but the view is such that I couldn’t take my eyes off it and I didn’t write a word other than to gush about the beauty of it all.

But while it’s undoubtedly a fine place for some ‘you time’, this really is a perfect spot for couples; for reconnecting or recharging batteries. We actually spent one night of our honeymoon at Augrabies many moons ago and I’ll tell you this, if the cottage had been there then, we wouldn’t have spent the night trying in vain to sleep in a tent in the oppressive January heat (side note: the cottage has no air con and will get obscenely hot in summer). But I will be back here soon with Shawn, for the Gorge Cottage has made it firmly onto my “second honeymoon” bucket list (which is now a thing). Now to find a babysitter for Kai…

The Gorge Cottage costs R1600 per night for two people. It’s situated 10km from the main camp and there’s no access to the camp’s shop and restaurant once the gate closes around 7pm. There’s a small kitchen and a braai area but a distinct lack of plug sockets – bring an adaptor for phone-charging. There is cell reception.

An attempt to capture the vista from the Gorge Cottage

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Family activities on the Garden Route: George

Whenever we travel around South Africa, I tend to look ruefully at the under-utilised train tracks. “Ah man, I wish there were more passenger trains,” my husband often hears me…

Whenever we travel around South Africa, I tend to look ruefully at the under-utilised train tracks. “Ah man, I wish there were more passenger trains,” my husband often hears me mutter, “that would be such an awesome train ride…” My biggest travel regret of all time is that when I first visited SA in 2002, I didn’t take the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe. The insanely scenic trip from Knysna to George has been out of action since floods damaged the tracks in 2006, although there’s regular talk of the line being repaired. There are occasional steam train trips between George and Mossel Bay, but if you’re looking for a reliable train ride to do with the kids, there’s always the Outeniqua Power Van.

I’ve taken the Power Van twice and I think the weather in this pic is pretty representative of the region…

OK, so the Power Van isn’t exactly a train, but it leaves from George train station and it runs along tracks, so most kids will let the nomenclature go. It is in fact a rail trolley – a funny little petrol-powered vehicle that pulls a small carriage behind it. Trips leave from the Outeniqua Transport Museum – also a cool place for kids that like trains, trucks, cars and – well – transport.

Into the mountains…

The Power Van trundles up into the Outeniqua Mountains on a 2½-hour trip. A local guide joins you on board, giving a commentary on the history and geography of the area but you’ll excuse me for not being able to share too much of that info with you. It was just me and Kai so between trying to get him to stay in his seat and stopping him from eating every last bite of our picnic before we got anywhere near the picnic spot, I didn’t take in much of the info.

Driving the Power Van

I can tell you that it’s an extremely scenic ride offering views of the Cradock, Outeniqua and Montagu Passes. I recall hearing that the track was built by convicts. And of course, having travelled with a four-year-old, I can tell you that we went through seven tunnels (you can thank Kai for that piece of information). After about 90 minutes of scenic trundling, honking at the occasional klipspringer playing chicken on the tracks, you turn around and come back down towards George. And when I say you turn around, I do mean you and not the van. The seats all flip, so those who boarded last and got stuck at the back on the way up get the best views on the way down.

There’s a cursory picnic stop with views over George – you get about half an hour to munch on anything that your children haven’t already eaten. And note there are no toilets on board or en route, so come prepared for some au naturale ablutions…

In truth, I think Kai might still be a little young for the trip. He enjoyed sitting at the front and pretending to drive, but at 2½ hours it might be more suited to kids a little older.

Strawberry picking… and another train

One thing he utterly loved was the Redberry Farm in Blanco, just west of George. The farm is perfect for little kids, with a mini train (got to admit, I think I enjoyed this just as much as Kai), bunnies to feed, bumper boats and a pretty cool jungle gym. For slightly older children there are go-karts, horse rides and bubble ball (kind of like zorbing but on water). And for even older people, a craft beer and wine tasting room is about to open. And there’s dessert everywhere… You could easily spend a couple of hours here, lunching and partaking in the activities, which range from R20 for a five-minute session to R35 for the maze, which could take hours…

This is Kai’s proud face. He took the strawberries to playschool in his lunch box the next day so he could tell everyone he’d picked them himself

But the biggest hit was the strawberry picking itself. Granted, I felt like a bit of a party pooper as I attempted to explain the concept of ripened fruit, but I didn’t want to end up with a punnet of minscule, lime-green berries. Kai was so excited that if I hadn’t intervened, he would have picked the first twenty strawberries he’d seen, most likely uprooting each plant as he went. But after a little schooling on what constitutes a good berry, we spent half an hour filling our containers. And as we left, Kai turned to me and said “Mummy, I love it here. And I love you…forever!”

In my book, that’s a pretty successful day out.

 

The Outeniqua Power Van operates Monday to Saturday. Times vary and booking are essential. It’s R150 for adults and R130 for children. To book, call or SMS 082 490 5627.

Redberry Farm is open Monday to Saturday, 9am-4pm, although many of the activities only operate on Fridays and Saturdays. New cafes and shops were due to open when we visited.

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Why travelling with children can really be quite wonderful

When I met my husband, we were embarking on an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He’d been backpacking through Europe, I’d been living in Spain. Over the next…

When I met my husband, we were embarking on an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He’d been backpacking through Europe, I’d been living in Spain. Over the next eight years or so, we visited 25 countries together across four continents. It was only the sheer beauty, vibrancy and diversity of Cape Town that eventually soothed our itchy feet.

I’m not telling you this to brag or attempt to incite jealousy but to show how travel has always been a major part of our life together. We are engaged in a perpetual competition to see who’s been to the most countries (it’s him, but I will catch up), our shelves are full of guidebooks, our walls full of maps. So when we had a baby back in 2013, you can imagine what people said. “Oh, that’ll be the end of your travels.” “Your life is going to change!” “You won’t be able to travel around once the little one arrives.”

Who needs a kids’ playground when you have a sunset shadow to play with?

 

Of course, they were right about one thing – our lives changed. Of course they did – anyone who thinks they can bring a small human onto the planet and not change pretty much everything about their lives is probably a fool. But it’s often insinuated that when it comes to kids, the change will be a negative one. I don’t want to sugar coat things – travelling with babies or toddlers is tough and you  may well have to rethink the way you travel. Gone are the 24-hour train rides and the days spent walking 20,000 steps around a city; here instead are plans that revolve around bottle-warming or nap times or being back at the accommodation in time to start the bedtime routine.  But there really is something quite magnificent about travelling with young children, particularly when they reach the chatty years.

Kai – he was named for the city in which we met – is now four, and he is a pretty cool travel companion. Sure, stuff goes wrong. Sometimes you spend weeks carefully planning an itinerary tailored just for him and then all he wants to do is stay in what he calls the “holiday house”. There are tantrums to deal with, colossal piles of luggage to bring, road trips are certainly not as much fun as they used to be and more often than not, we all end up going to bed at 8pm.

No TV, no wifi, no central heating, but still the best holiday house ever

But here’s the pay-off: children are so innocent, so unjaded that everything is wondrous. As grown-ups we rock up at destinations with preconceived ideas of how our trip will pan out. Our bucket-list destinations had better be perfect, our game-viewing experiences had better be David Attenborough-worthy and we want our perfectly-planned holiday to run, well, perfectly. We can learn a lot from travelling with little kids – they can help get back to the basics of travel and help us to appreciate not just the world wonders but everything we find along the way.

We just got back from a short road trip through the Northern Cape. Admittedly it was shorter than planned (after realising just how cold Namaqualand is in winter, I vetoed the camping section and we came home early). There were no big ticket stops on our list and virtually nothing you’d label a child-friendly attraction, but Kai embraced it all as though we were at Disney World. “This holiday house is my favourite!” he shouted as we arrived at the 19th-century corbelled house just outside Carnvarvon. “I’m going to stay here forever!” he told me excitedly, as I cursed the temperature and my decision to visit in winter. “I love Carnarvon so much!” he yelped as we briefly stopped in the tiny town to check out a collection of antique beer cans (yes, really). It’s a statement I can only imagine doesn’t get uttered too often. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Carnarvon, but it’s not exactly Paris. It’s not even Springbok.

Smelling the flowers – all 12 of them – at the Hantam National Botanical Garden outside Nieuwoudtville

One of our main goals on the trip was to finally witness the spring flowers after living in South Africa for seven years. But there was not a lot blooming in Namaqualand thanks to the drought. I was pretty disappointed and regretted my choice to tell Kai that we were going to see lots of flowers. But then I had an awakening of how travelling with children really can be something special. My momentary disappointment in the lack of floral carpets was quickly washing away by Kai’s boundless enthusiasm for every petal he spotted. “Mummy, I found a yellow one!” he’d shout, gleefully, as he ran through the barren Hantam National Botanical Garden on the most exciting flower hunt he could ever imagine.

It was on this trip that I finally decided to start a family travel blog. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, on-and-off, ever since that first ultrasound. I hope you’ll join us as we try to see South Africa – and the rest of the world – in that wide-eyed way that every child does.

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Little travellers in Lesotho

I’ve never been very good at noting down my son’s “firsts”. I always think I’ll remember them and so  don’t know the exact day he started walking or the first…

I’ve never been very good at noting down my son’s “firsts”. I always think I’ll remember them and so  don’t know the exact day he started walking or the first time he said ‘mama’. But I do remember that he learnt to wave while on holiday in Mauritius. Travel has a way of etching things forever on my memory. I can tell you what I ate for lunch in any given random town in Thailand back in 2010. I know what my husband was wearing when we visited the border between North and South Korea. And I can tell you that in Lesotho, Kai learnt his first non-English word – and we all learnt how something so simple can turn an OK day into a magnificent one.

The whole family quickly took to Basotho culture

Lesotho is probably not a destination that springs to mind when you think of travelling with a toddler. But toddlers don’t really need soft play parks or touch farms or all the other things that we think they need to make for a successful holiday. Lesotho has horses and donkeys, a great big waterfall and a little over two million people, most of whom seem to be smitten with little kids.

We toured the country for a few days, but it was in the mountaintop village of Semonkong that we found a real family travel gem. The Semonkong Lodge is delightful. Spacious chalets with bunk beds and roaring fires, marvellous views across central Lesotho and a menu of activities that see visitors mingling with the villagers in a way that never seems tacky or forced. It’s community tourism at its very finest and it’s just perfect for families.

Exploring the streets of Semonkong, led by Ezekiel

Activities on offer included abseiling, fly-fishing, rock-climbing, hiking and riding  – whether that was mountain bikes, ponies or sturdy little donkeys. Kai was about to turn three at the time, so the world’s longest single-drop abseil wasn’t going to work, and I doubt there’s a two-year-old anywhere that has the attention span for fishing. So on day one we tried our hand at hiking. The easy three-hour hike to a viewpoint over Maletsunyane Falls wasn’t quite so easy with an 18kg child in arms and I quickly began to realise the value of those hiking child-carriers as my arms began to ache long before my legs did. I’d like to say it was worth it for the gorgeous family photo we shot in front of the falls – part of my plan to finally fill that empty frame hanging on our living room wall. But alas, what I have instead are fourteen photos where at least one member of our three-strong family either has their eyes closed or looks like an extra from the Walking Dead (see here for the best of the bunch).

It was still worth it though, particularly when we’d pass some local shepherds or traders and Kai would look up from the shoulder of whichever parent was carrying him at the time and shyly murmur “dumela”, inciting smiles all-round. Plus there’s a great sense of achievement in completing a hike with a very large child over your shoulder.

Happily, we didn’t attempt a mountainous hike

Saying hello in Sesotho wasn’t the only thing Kai learnt in Lesotho. He also played his first game of pool, thanks to the enduring patience of pretty much every man in Semonkong, and of course, he rode his first horse. I was a little hesitant about the whole ‘horsey ride’ thing, not least because I’ve fallen off pretty much every horse I’ve ever got on, including a so-called sure-footed Basotho pony that clearly sensed my extreme hesitance and slipped on a rock. But we’d needed a “be a good boy and…” type reward, and a horsey ride was it. Kai loved the ride and he loved his guide, Ezekiel just as much. So much in fact, that the whole family ended up taking a tour of the village on donkeyback, just to prolong the glorious grins and giggles (from both Kai and Ezekiel).

I would never have thought a Lesotho tavern visit would be so family-friendly

Confident in the saddle, Kai led the way, followed by his exceptionally tall father, feet dragging on the floor, and zoophobic mother attempting to preserve the whole hilarious scene on camera. We stopped for Kai to play with some local kids and indeed for Kai to play with some local grown-ups. They quickly adapted to toddler rules on the pool table and all put their games aside to let Kai wave a cue around for a couple of minutes. It was one of those impromptu travel experiences that you remember forever and it came with another memorable first. This was the first trip where we realised we didn’t need to plan every activity around Kai’s presumed likes and dislikes. Children are highly adaptable and can find fun anywhere, whether it’s a jungle gym, a deserted beach or a near-empty tavern in a rural African village.

 

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Family-friendly sleeping: AfriCamps at Pat Busch

Pat Busch Mountain Reserve, Robertson. Tel: +27 (0)63 170 4222. www.africamps.com Tent from R990 per night. Great for: Little ones, tweens, teens. I remember years ago, long before we became parents,…

Pat Busch Mountain Reserve, Robertson. Tel: +27 (0)63 170 4222. www.africamps.com
Tent from R990 per night. Great for: Little ones, tweens, teens.

I remember years ago, long before we became parents, we were camping in the Cederberg. At the next site was a family with a young baby – couldn’t have been more than three months old. I remember saying something along the lines of “good lord, that would be my worst nightmare”. Then something called glamping came along and I realised that kids and camping could work for me after all.

Earlier this year we spent a night at AfriCamps in the Pat Busch Mountain Reserve, northeast of Robertson. This is my kind of camping. There are beds and duvets, en-suite bathrooms and a kitchen that has almost as many utensils and appliances as our kitchen at home. What it also has that my home certainly does not, is a magnificent view over the Langeberg. Each of the tents has a deck facing toward the mountain and there’s plenty of space between the tents, so if the kids get a little giddy you don’t have to worry about your neighbours.

AfriCamps would be ideal for a couple retreat, but it’s also perfect for families. For little ones there’s a jungle gym and a large swimming pool, while tweens and teens can take a canoe on the dam or hike the mountain trails.  For adults there is bass fishing, plenty of peace and quiet, a fridge to keep the beers cold and a magnificent deck to braai on. There’s even a babysitting service should you need it, though I can’t imagine many who come here venture out for dinner – why would you when you can cook under the stars?

At breakfast time you can get a little lazy though. Each morning a picnic hamper is delivered to your tent (at an additional fee), filled with breads and jam, bacon and eggs to cook any way you like, muesli and fruit, juice and ground coffee for the French press that comes with your tent (told you the kitchen was well-equipped). It’s optional, but I recommended opting in, at least once.

AfriCamps is a wonderfully peaceful place that offers the rare combination of luxury, tranquility and plenty of stuff to keep kids happy. Perfect for a spring splurge…

Disclosure: We received a complimentary night’s stay at AfriCamps.

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Babes on a plane: 5 tips for flying long-haul with an infant

Although we’re now past the nappy and dummy years, we flew long-haul a few times when Kai was still under two. It’s never going to be easy but I thought…

Although we’re now past the nappy and dummy years, we flew long-haul a few times when Kai was still under two. It’s never going to be easy but I thought I’d share a few tips that helped us to stay sane.

1. Have a glass of wine

Or beer, or G&T – or whatever it is that helps you to relax. And not just because relaxed parents tend to lead to relaxed kids. The first few times we flew with Kai, I was so stressed about how annoyed other passengers would get if he started to cry. Then I read this superb article on why we need to stop apologising for our kids behaving like kids. That advice  and one or two of those miniature bottles of merlot – have gone a long way in helping me ignore everyone else on a plane, even if Kai is having a mid-flight meltdown.

2. Bring something to suck on

Whether it;s bottles, boobs or an arsenal of dummies, stuff to suck on is possibly going to be your saviour on a long-haul flight (and it’ll also help guard against popping ears). It’s always a good idea to check, but usually bottles filled with formula or milk do make it through security. If your baba, like mine, won’t contemplate a cold bottle of milk, be sure to plan ahead once on board. I found that bottles of milk tend to come back at a temperature that could melt rock, so allow plenty of time for it to cool down. Breastfeeding moms are at an advantage in keeping babies happy on board, but of course there’s the issue of protecting your modesty. Grab a window seat and practice with a blanket or feeding apron if you’re shy about flashing your boobs to fellow passengers. And as for dummy lovers – my son was – be sure to stock up. If that sucker pops out in the middle of the night, scrabbling around on the floor in the dark while baby bawls is not the ideal in-flight entertainment. I used to sleep with a dummy hooled over every finger, ready to slip a new one in if he dropped one on the floor.

Happy mommies make for happy babies…

3. Plan your layovers carefully

Kai took his first long-haul flight at the age of 10 months. We thought it would be best to keep the journey time as short as possible, leaving layovers of less than an hour between connections. This turned out to be a terrible idea. He had just learned to crawl, wanted to move and we ended up simply running – in a state of permanent stress – from one flight to the next, with no chance for him to stretch or explore or even get into a new onesie. We have also tried the opposite and learned the long and very tired way that a 10-hour layover is no fun at all (although that could be said for travellers without kids). There’s a balance to be found here – I’m hoping to discover it one day…

4. Forget the routine…and your principles

This would actually be one of my main mantras for travelling with little kids. When you travel, your routine is all over the place so you can’t expect baba to still be down by 7 and to sleep through the night (if you’re lucky enough to have a child that does such a thing). Whatever time you board the plane, the cabin lights will still flicker on once you’re up in the air and the plane will soon bustle with pre-drinks and movie screens, trays of food and the clink-clink of complimentary gin and tonics. To stay sane you kind of have to put your parenting principles on hold while you’re in the air – think of it as international waters, where anything goes. Let them stay up late, let them watch cartoons – it’s only one day and after all, you are on holiday…

5. Accept help

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to refuse all offers of help without actually considering them first. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction to instantly say “Oh, thanks but I’m fine”. But the first time I flew solo with Kai on a long-haul flight, I made a pact with myself wo accept every piece of assistance I was offered. Let the kindly old lady across the aisle hold your child while you go for a wee. Say yes to the young gent who offers to carry your hand luggage through the terminal. And try not to choke up as an army of people pile your absurd array of luggage on and off the airport train. Not only will it make your journey easier, you’ll also realise that in fact, most people love kids and not everyone who sits by a baby on a plane is silently wishing they were bumped to another flight.

 

What are your top tips for flying with a child under two? Please share in the comments section.

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