It’s been a long time since our last update and we’ve had a ton of great adventures since our 7 month post which was right before we reluctant left South America. Since then we’ve travelled to 7 countries on 3 continents, reconnected with old friends as well as my Malian maman, and wrote a mini-thesis on responsible tourism to kick off 2019. We’ve had our hands full to say the least. Now we’re once again on the Great Continent being awestruck by the incredible diversity and beauty of it all. But first, let’s catch up!
From South America to Portugal
Just as the December summer sun started to shine in Buenos Aires, we set off for a brief stay in wintry Portugal. Using expert-level travel hacking we scored a flight from Buenos Aires to Lisbon with a stopover in New York City for a paltry $240 for both of us. NYC was experiencing a cold snap which resulted in an almost 30 degree temperature shift between the two cities.
To our delight, the airline rechecked our bags so we didn’t need to lug them around the city despite it being a 12 hour layover. With that we grabbed a train into the city and started with a nice tour of Greenwich Village which is a borough I missed on my first tour of NYC and stopped in at Caffé Reggio for one of their famous cappuccinos.
From there, we made our way to REI to switch out my hiking boots. Unfortunately during our 8 days of hiking in Patagonia, I learned that boots that work for hiking might not be good for backpacking. Something about carrying the heavy pack made my feet come back from that experience completely wrecked despite my boots being very broken in. I picked up a new pair of boots at REI which have been good so far. No more blisters and numb toes, rejoice!
Next, we went to midtown to catch up with a friend from my time in Mali. We rehashed our memories both good and bad over a couple beers before reluctantly parting ways again. Our layover was coming to an end but we checked out the people skating at Bryant Park for a NYC movie moment and jumped out at Times Square so Phil could see the famous city lights for the first time. While our time in NYC was far too brief and I didn’t even get to see the sexy mandarin duck, we went back to the airport for our trans-Atlantic red eye flight to Lisbon.
Red-eye is right because we managed hardly any sleep at all during this 9-hour ordeal on account of how brutally unforgiving airline seats are. Bleary-eyed, we wandered a bit of Lisbon in a zombie-like state and drank our weight in espresso. Even in our deflated state, we were impressed by how delicious and affordable Portuguese food was. Finally able to check in at 3 pm, we slept until 10 pm, prepared a late dinner, then slept again until 10 am the next morning.
All caught up on sleep we toured Lisbon proper and found ourselves getting into the Christmas spirit with all the beautiful light displays around town. Full of pastries and bacalau, we boarded a bus to Porto for some more cold weather touring.
Porto was insanely beautiful in its offseason so I can only imagine how nice it is in sunnier times. In fact, we were asked by some friendly locals we met while enjoying a craft beer to not talk about nice Porto is. It would appear that they were afraid that their city was becoming too popular for its own good and some locals were getting priced out of neighbourhoods by wealthier people immigrating to the country as well as by people kicking out tenants to turn a profit on short term vacation rental sites. Indeed this is one of the moral quandaries that appear during travels. What might seem as progress by some is the loss of a home to others.
Here’s a tip for anyone travelling to Europe any time soon: download an app called The Fork. It’s like an across the pond version of Open Table. You can make reservations online and many restaurants offer discounts during certain times. This worked out really well for us since we tend to eat earlier than most Portuguese people so we were often offered up to 50% discounts on earlier dining times. Also because of this app, we had one of our best meals during our time in Europe at an adorably intimate restaurant called La Maison Rouge.
Being early diners we had Margarita’s full attention which made for a memorable experience. This formidable woman is the chef, hostess, sommelier, and server of a small restaurant in a red house that offers up traditional Portuguese fare. We had a charcuterie board, francesinha sandwich, a wine tasting, port tasting, and pavlova for dessert for a price point that’s unheard of in other parts of Europe. Bellies full we went to pay but she didn’t take credit cards so we had to leave to go get money from a machine.
She told us that we could come back later or even the next day but if we didn’t we would “go to hell”. Not wanting to go to hell, we found an ATM and paid the lady all the while marvelling at how nice and trusting she was. Sometimes when you’re travelling it feels like you always have to be on the lookout for swindlers and scammers trying to take advantage of you, so it was nice to have someone treat us so well. Get the Fork App and go see Margarita at La Maison Rouge in Porto! Also, head to Bird of Passage for some truly amazing coffee and great service from the fun young people who work there.
We’ll definitely be back to Portugal someday, maybe a road trip is in store next time
On to France
Given that the weather wasn’t great for exploring the best of what Portugal has to offer (we will be back to hike the Fisherman’s Way!), we decided to move onto to France where we hoped to continue our reconnection tour and meet up with some old friends. We flew with Aigle Azul airlines which seemed nice enough until we landed in Orly and realized that Phil’s multitool had been stolen from his backpack and my backpack had somehow become soaked in port from Porto. You can’t make this stuff up.
We stayed with some dear old friends just outside of Paris where we got to enjoy some amazing food with great company. We took several trips into Paris to soak up the city of light, eat great food, and catch up with some people from my host families from my exchange during high school. While we tried a few restaurants, nothing beat going to the markets and buying cheeses, rillettes, charcuterie, and of course fresh baked bread all of which we had our fill. I would say of all the restaurants we tried in Paris, the best was actually an Italian place called Trattoria Di Gio where I had the best carbonara ever. The wine was top notch as well.
In addition to touring around Paris, we headed to Rennes in Brittany to see the famed medieval abbey on a mountain, Mont Saint Michel in nearby Normandy. The site is exquisite and exceeded our expectations both in terms of historical significance and unrivaled views from the top of the mountain. The sun setting on the moor was one of the best. In addition to enjoying the sights of the region we also made a point to try some of the local flavors including ciders, crèpes, and butter cakes.
After an unfortunate bus-booking SNAFU where we purchased tickets for January 29th instead of December 29th as desired, we ended up spending an extra night in Rennes. To make the most of it we splurged on a Michelin starred restaurant as it was a fraction of what we would pay for a similar experience in Paris. Phil tried frog legs, while I opted for the fresh local oysters. Our mains were unfortunately quite forgettable and the dessert might have actually had too much chocolate sauce which was something I didn’t think was possible until then. Despite the high ratings for that place, we couldn’t help but think it didn’t hold a candle to Margarita in Porto’s cooking or our amazing dining experience at Gustu in La Paz.
Back in Paris we prepared for a New year’s eve feast including buying and shucking our own oysters to the detriment of our poor friend Mike’s knife which ended up with an unfortunate gouge in it. We were rather clumsy first time shuckers (sorry Mike). The oysters were freaking delicious, as was the duck confit stuffed ravioli we made for dinner!
Following a nice evening where we kept the resident parents up to midnight, we headed to Belgium on New Year’s Day. There we enjoyed walking the fairytale medieval streets, eating waffles, and drinking Belgium beers, including the one that is delivered via the world’s first beer pipeline.
Wanting to expand their production capacity but not wanting to increase the amount of heavy delivery trucks on the city’s fragile historic streets, one of the oldest breweries in Bruges, Half Moon came up with the idea to crowdsource an underground beer pipeline. People who bought in get a free pint of beer a day for life and the pipeline replaced the nightmare of heavy trucks trying to navigate through the narrow, historic streets. It’s nice to see one of Bruges oldest breweries embracing technology to improve their business model. If the crowds at the brewery were any indication, business was good!
Trouble Leaving France
From Bruges, we spent a few more days in France before heading to Dakar, Senegal where we hoped to meet my Malian host mother given that Mali’s security situation is unfortunately too grave for travel right now. We took an Uber to Orly thinking that everything was in order to catch our flight but when we got to the desk we were informed that our reservation had been cancelled without the airline even notifying us! We were given the choice of paying over 500 euro more to take the flight we were supposed to be taking or to book with someone else. And that we did, thanks for absolutely nothing Iberia Airlines!
Much Needed RnR in Cape Verde
We ended up finding a flight to Dakar that routed through Cape Verde (also called Cabo Verde) which is somewhere I always wanted to visit so we took our journey to Senegal in stages. After what was one of our most frustrating travel days on this trip so far, we were happy to sojourn on the sunny island of Sal where the slogan is “No Stress.”
There we enjoyed lazy beach days, SCUBA diving, a trip around the island from the back of a pickup truck, and many amazing sunsets. Cape Verde is off the radar for many Canadians, but we would love to go back. Each of the islands has it’s own personality and seeing one just isn’t enough.
Dakar, a Top Destination of 2019?
Dakar from the island of Sal was quite a transition. The bustling capital city was named one of the top travel destinations of 2019 by the New York Times and reminded me of Bamako, but with it’s own unique charms. We didn’t have the time that I had in Bamako to get to love the place despite its faults, but the city pumped with that intoxicating street life that West African cities are famous for.
Just off the coast of Dakar is a small enchanting island with a sad history called Gorée Island. It was fought over by many colonial powers and was used as a slave warehouse where captured people were stored until they could be sent to the Americas. Many died in the cramped, dirty rooms that felt claustrophobic with only 10 people in there when we toured it, but were routinely filled with hundreds during the slave trade. One particularly devastating feature of this place is the “Door of no Return” that slaves were lead through before making their perilous journey across the ocean where they would be put to work in inhumane and cruel conditions. For the tens of thousands of souls that were lead through this door, they would never again see their home continent.
Tragic history aside, the island offers a beautiful respite from Dakar’s bustling streets and is a great place to try thiboudiènne, a local specialty of fish, vegetables, and rice in a spicy tomato sauce, or poulet yassa, which is grilled chicken in an onion sauce served with rice. Make sure to try a glass of bissap on the side too.
From Dakar, we took a bush taxi to Saint Louis, the former colonial capital that although is only 250km from Dakar, the journey takes 4-7 hours by car and that’s only after your vehicle fills up. All in it took us 8 hours to arrive!
We stayed in a nice thatched hut on the beach but unfortunately Senegal is by far the most polluted place we have ever been. The beaches were positively covered with garbage which made it difficult to lounge on the beach like we did in nearby Cape Verde. Indeed, the “listing” of Senegal as a top travel destination of 2019 might be premature. Nevertheless, there are pockets of beauty to be found and one such place is the Djouj bird sanctuary that’s about 80km from Saint Louis. There you can see a large pelican rookery complete with cute, fluffy chicks.
For our return to Dakar, we opted to take the slightly more expensive “sept places ” shared taxi where 7 people plus the driver are crammed into an old station wagon. Miraculously it was both faster and more comfortable than the bush taxi, but still nowhere near as comfortable as a private, air-conditioned car hire. Prior to leaving, one of the passengers prayed for all of us and then bought Phil and I some snacks during a break which was impossibly nice of him to do so.
Then, on the outskirts of Dakar, we saw a blood-soaked man lying in the streets with an ambulance rushing toward him. Presumably he had been thrown from his motorcycle and it was not clear if he was still alive. This juxtaposition of devastating scenes of piles of garbage and people being brutalized by unsafe streets, against the backdrop of human kindness and pockets of beauty and colour is what makes travelling to this part of the world such a memorable and eye-opening experience.
Once in Dakar we awaited the arrival of my Malian maman, Fatamatou so we could catch up and meet her extended family. Once she landed we enjoyed a couple days of visiting her family. We shared many cups of tea, always in sequences of three where the first is “bitter like death“, the second is “gentle like life“, and the third is “sweet like love” while catching up on the past eight years.
We were also treated to some delicious local food, including a super spicy thiboudiènne that left us reaching for more bissap. It was a brief stay in Senegal, but so nice to see Fatamatou in person and hear about how everyone was doing back in Mali. Were we to spend more time in Senegal, we would be certain to check out the Saloum Delta and Cassamance areas too, but we might wait until that high speed train from the new airport is actually built…
Superlative South Africa
From Dakar, we hopped on a completely free flight (travel hacking win!) to Cape Town where we once again enjoyed soaking up summer sun in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We sampled local wine in Constantia, hiked the knee-punishing Skeleton Gorge in Table Mountain National Park, toured around the Bo-Kaap, City View, and V&A Waterfront areas, and caught up with some fellow hikers that we met in Peru’s Colca Canyon. We reconnected over a beautiful Clifton Beach sunset picnic and a backyard braai which was easily one of the top 5 barbecues we’ve ever had, and that’s a pretty high standard to reach considering that we’ve been to Austin, Texas which is America’s barbecue capital.
From Cape Town, we headed west to Cape Point to see the most southwestern tip of the Continent where rough seas have claimed many ships and the wind from the top of the lookout will try its best to knock you down. Afterward, we missed penguins so much since leaving Antarctica that we went to see the only penguins that breed in Africa at Boulder’s Beach. Instead of living in the snow, these guys make their home on sand and are just as cute as their Antarctic counterparts.
From there, we embarked on our first South African road trip to the Garden Route and there are few words to say about it other than wow. The Eastern Cape’s coastal cities, towns, nature reserves, and beaches leave one groping for superlatives. We hiked to scenic vistas, lounged on seaside patios, looked for the Knysna seahorses from a kayak, and dined on delicious fresh seafood. There will be more posts on this subject.
A Close Call in Jo’Burg
Feeling blissed out by Cape Town’s beauty and the Garden Route’s relaxed seaside living, we took a brutal 17 hour bus ride from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg where we almost got ourselves robbed leaving the bus station. We were warned that is was very sketchy, so we called an Uber but didn’t know where to send it so we picked an exit close to us and started walking toward us.
A parking attendant told us to stop walking in that direction because he was sure we would be immediately robbed if we walked any further without his accompanying us, saying he had seen many bad things happen to people on that corner. He also redirected the Uber to a slightly safer spot and had us jump in as hastily as possible. The Uber driver scolded us too on choosing the wrong exit and pointed out the right one. So if you’re ever taking the bus to Johannesburg, exit through the second floor (not the first floor like us) and wait by the stop light for your ride. Phew. Other than this experience we have found South Africa to be very safe and immensely beautiful.
Beautiful Blyde River Canyon
From Jo’burg we picked up a tiny Hyundai to head to Kruger National Park with a stopover in the Blyde River Canyon. Is it the 3rd largest canyon in the world or does that honour go to Colca Canyon in Peru where we met our South African friends? There seems to be some competition here.
Regardless, the Blyde River Canyon is found along the Panorama route which is on the way to Kruger National Park from Johannesburg and it is one of the largest and deepest canyons in Africa. We opted to stay two nights in a chilled-out small town called Graskop to be sure to have time to take in the sights of the canyon. While many people skip this stop on the way to Kruger, we highly recommend it because the area is so beautiful and prices are very affordable.
Small Car Safari in Kruger National Park
No gas-guzzling Jeeps required for this safari! The park has mostly paved roads so there’s really no need for the stereotypical massive Jeep to go on a safari there. There are of course advantages to having a larger vehicle, as well as drawbacks and we’ll discuss those in a future post. For now, being budget-minded so we can keep travelling, we loaded our small car up with a tent and some food and headed for an 8 day stay in the park where we saw 4 of the Big 5 just on the first day. We also saw countless elephants, giraffes, jackals, hyenas, zebras, and birds in their finest breeding plumage.
Absolute highlights included a brief but very good look at a gorgeous leopard, arriving at a waterhole during elephant bath time, coming across not one but two prides of lions as they caused a lion jam on the road, seeing three of the park’s 120 endangered wild African dogs, and marveling at the colourful diversity of the local bird life. Unfortunately, due to poaching rhino populations in the park have been reduced by almost half since 2014 so they are tough to spot and we only had a very brief look at a couple through some dense bush. Phil also had a quick view of one crossing the road from the rear view mirror.
We capped off our week in Kruger with a DIY braai in our campsite only to realize that there were hyenas on the other side of the fence just meters away from us, licking their bone-crushing chops in anticipation of us throwing a treat over the fence for them. Seriously, people do this, so these highly intelligent, social animals have been conditioned by careless tourists to be reduced to begging for scraps. If you ask any local guide they will tell you that hyenas, not lions are the best hunters around so while seeing these creatures so close was a bit frightening for us, it was pretty sad for them. If they continue to be conditioned to human food, unfortunately, like grizzly bears in Canada, they have to be put down.
Nevertheless, our braai was delicious and once the hyenas realized we had no intentions of sharing the eventually wandered off. The next morning as we did our last game drive through the park, we saw a cackle of hyenas devouring a kill pretty close to the camp so hopefully the beggars are still skilled hunters.
With our time in Kruger over, we reluctantly made our way back to Jo’Burg where we are staying for second time at Rose Garden Guesthouse, a cute and comfy place that offers some calm in a city that can be hard to navigate as a tourist. Yesterday, we went to the immeasurably powerful and moving Apartheid Museum which is an absolute must do when visiting South Africa and unwound afterward with a nice bottle of Stellenbosch pinotage.
Today we’re catching up on writing and planning our next leg in Egypt. Christine the owner of Rose Garden Guest House is so sweet and she is letting us stay on our last day until our 10:00pm flight to Cairo instead of kicking us out in the morning like most hotels would. She also did our laundry without any added fee. Seriously, if you’re in Johannesburg, stay here!
So to recap, since our last update we have been to 7 countries on 3 different continents, reconnected with countless friends both old and new, and have been blown away by the incredible diversity and beauty found on the African continent. Now we head to Egypt where we’ll soak up more culture and ancient history as well as hopefully add a few more dives to our log in the Red Sea. We haven’t completely hammered out our last few months on the road but one thing that we know for sure is we will come back to South Africa some day!