Thursday, December 28, 2023

Eight countries in one year

One plan for after my retirement in 2020 was to travel the world and experience new places and peoples before I kick the bucket. Covid quickly put a stop to my plans, but 2023 was finally the year that Roma and I got to believe in our dreams. This year we visited eight different countries - some for the first time: UK, France, Spain, Dubai, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and South Africa.

My Google Timeline.

First up in January was a trip to London with our daughters Claire, Kate, and Vicki. It's not often that the five of us manage to get together at the same time, so this was quality family time. London is a fantastic city to visit, though I did find it very crowded and a bit on the expensive side.


A big trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand (with a stop off in Dubai) followed in February and March. This was the furthest from Ireland that I had ever been, and by far the most different experience I ever had. We visited Hanoi, Hoi An, Saigon, and Bangkok, and also enjoyed trips by boat through swamps and the Mekong Delta. Vietnam is a fabulous country to visit with lots to see and do.

Two Paddy's in a Vietnamese field.

After we left Vietnam we spent a few days in Siem Reap in Cambodia. A much different pace to life here and we certainly had a very relaxed time. Angkor Wat is an unmissable sight to see and we certainly had our fill of temples and ruined buildings.

Going for a ride in Siem Reap.

After Cambodia our plan was to fly home via Bangkok. But since neither of us had ever been to Thailand, we decided to stay for a couple of nights. Bangkok was a very different city to Saigon, and especially to Hanoi. While distinctly Buddhist in nature, it had a European/American feel to it with tall buildings and streets full of cars.


In June we took the motorbike to Spain and France. We had the unique experience of watching our daughter Kate's marriage to Brenno on my phone in the middle of the Bay of Biscay on the ferry from Rosslare to Bilbao. We planned on a four stop holiday starting in the Rioja region at the city of Logrono. This was our fourth holiday on a motorcycle together, but the first with rain. Previously we had travelled to Germany/Austria, Route 66 in the USA, and Netherlands/Luxembourg/France, and not had a drop of rain fall on us. While we had good rain gear, it still was not too pleasant riding in the rain.

Logrono, Spain.

After plenty of nice wine in Logrono, we headed over the Pyrenees to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. I have crossed these mountains on a bike before, though on this trip it was not as spectacular as  through Andorra a few years ago. Unfortunately Roma had to leave for a few days to attend a family funeral back in Ireland, so I finished up here on my own.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France.

I moved on to Bayonne on the French coast and stayed for two nights on a river boat near the city centre. I got to ride down to Biarritz and also to see the Sare Grotto and Caves. Bayonne is a lovely city with a lot of water about. While I enjoyed myself, I did miss Roma.

Pont St-Esprit, Bayonne.

Our fourth and final stop was in San Sebastian back in Spain. Roma rejoined me here and we set about to explore this beautiful city. A highlight for us was a food tour around the Old City. We loved the tapas bars in Spain as it was a great way to try different foods. When we left San Sebastian to get to the ferry back to Ireland, we had some time in Bilbao and saw the incredible Guggenheim Museum.

Food tour in San Sebastian.

I though that was it for the year. I had spent most of the summer in Wexford and knew that Roma was planning her ninth trip to volunteer with Mellon Educate in South Africa. She thought it would be her last time, so we decided that I would join her (after all the building work was done!) So I headed off to Cape Town crossing the Equator for the first time ever on the way. We packed in lots during our week's stay with the highlights being Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope, Franschhoek, a Township Experience, and Robben Island. 

So that's it for this year - we are so lucky to be able to visit eight countries in one year. We are already looking to see where too next while we are still able for long trips. We are considering Japan for our big trip of the year, and I'd also like to get in another bike ride in Europe - probably Italy. We had a trip booked to Iceland a few years ago, but had to cancel - I'd like to check out some volcanos and perhaps ride around the island!

Thursday, December 07, 2023

South Africa Part VIII

I visited the Imizamo Yethu (IY) Township near Cape Town with Roma while I was in South Africa, it was the first time I had ever been to see anything like this. We had a tour guide to provide the township experience. We walked about for about an hour and saw plenty to ensure massive white guilt on my part. The cramped conditions where people live in mostly corrugated iron sheds are hard to take in. Yet people exist and get on with their lives. I spent all my cash on over-priced crafts in one shop - I was not going to bargain here. I did not take any photographs while in the township - it just didn't seem a right or cool thing to do.

We were shown actual proper houses built by the Niall Mellon Township Trust over 10 years ago - a huge contrast to the sheds around them. In 2014, Roma and my daughter Kate worked with the Trust helping to rebuild the Orangekloof Primary School, which was close to where we were. Huge admiration for the Mellon Trust and all it does. 

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

South Africa Part VII

On my last full day in Cape Town, Roma took me to see Robben Island, which housed a jail for political prisoners during the Apartheid era that so shamed white South African rulers. The trip to and from the island, plus a tour takes about three hours. We were met by a bus which took us on a short tour around the island. Our tour guide was very informative, but we were not allowed to leave the bus except at a designated shop. I would have like to have seen the Irish cemetery and Robert Sobukwe's house. 

My Mandela pose.

At the end of the bus tour we were met by Sipho Msomi, a former political prisoner in the 1980s on Robben Island, who brought us on a tour of the facilities. He first described the torture and cruelty of the guards, before describing the miserable daily life they all led. He of course showed us the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner. His cell is about 2m by 2m - my garden shed at home is bigger than this. He slept on a mat on the floor, and had to slop out with a bucket. Despite 27 years in prison, his will was never broken. He was not the only one who suffered here, at one stage Sipho told us that there were over 1,000 prisoners here at one time. 

I wonder will attractions like this still exist in years to come. Today as I write this, it is the 10th anniversary of Mandela's death. There are now just 20 former prisoners working as guides on the island, soon there will be no more. Long after everyone who knew Mandela is gone, his legacy will survive, and the bitter memories of Apartheid will fade.

Roma at Nelson Mandela's cell door.

Cape town viewed from Robben Island.

Monday, December 04, 2023

South Africa Part VI

Before we left Franschhoek, we decided to have a go at being wine makers for a day at the Café du Vin on Huguenot Street. It was two hours of great fun and worth having a go. Our job was to make a blend for red wine using Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. We had three attempts to create a wine to our personal taste. I started out with 70% Shiraz and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and it was nice. I then tried for my second effort to make a small change to percentages - this time I tried 60% Shiraz and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. I could not tell the difference between it and my first effort. For a final blend, I decided to do the complete reverse of my first blend and made a 30% Shiraz and 70% Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought this was the best I had done - my last task was to make up a bottle of my chosen blend. We got to cork our own bottles and create labels for them.

Our sommelier was Ricardo who definitely knew his stuff. He was great fun too and added to the enjoyment of what we were doing. 

Our own wine!

I knew I would put Chemistry classes to use some day1

A professional Chemist at work.

Before we left Franschhoek we paid a quick visit to the Huguenot Museum to learn about the French Protestants who escaped religious persecution in France to set up vineyards here. A great way to round off a couple of days on Franschhoek.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

South Africa Part V

Our first day in Franschhoek was all about wine - we were staying for a couple of days here which is in the Stellanbosch wine growing region in South Africa. They have a really cool wine trail which is part tram/part bus. We set off at 11:00 in the morning to taste some wine! Our first stop was at Leopard’s Leap Winery - a very cool and modern building caters for wine tasters. They gave us six wines to taste (small portions of course!) which were all delicious. We got the whole story on each wine from our excellent sommelier, but I quickly forgot everything. Too much information about smell and tastes was very confusing. I still can’t smell anything since getting Covid last year, so that part of the tasting was no good to me. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant way to start the tour and get going. I felt that I would be drunk by mid-afternoon. 

Leopard’s Leap.

Our second stop was at Rickety Ridge Winery where there was a more modest three glasses of wine to taste. I was only interested in red wine, but I did get to taste a nice Semillion here, again we had an excellent sommelier to give us all the information about each wine. We did some wine-influenced Christmas shopping too. It was also interesting here that the tram line was connected by tractor to the winery. I got a couple of photo ops with Massey-Ferguson and Ford tractors.

You can take a man out of a farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the man.

Enjoying the tractors.

I often wondered what it would be like to up-sticks from Ireland and buy a vineyard somewhere else in the world. It’s not a dream of mine, but when you are in verdant vineyards - there’s a part of me that would like to make wine, and of course drink it!

A would-be wine maker?

Our third stop was at Grande Provence Winery here we had lunch - with a glass of wine of course. At this stage I had already tasted 9 wines, I’m guessing that the portions added up to at least three or four glasses of wine. However, the tour was already stretched out over a few hours and I was not yet too tipsy! We didn’t go for tasting in Grande Provence and moved on to our fourth and last stop at Franschhoek Cellar. This was by far the least interesting of the stops. We had three wines to taste with accompanying chocolate. Our sommelier was not interested and the chocolate was nearly melted. Suddenly it was five o’clock and time for the last tram back to base. We had been on the wine tour for nearly six hours, but it did not feel like a pub-crawl.

Chocolate and wine.

Overall, the experience is definitely worth it. If you are in to wine, as I am, this is a must see/do. The town of Franschhoek is lovely, and the wineries are brilliant. Most staff were very informative and enhanced the experience.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

South Africa Part IV

This post is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, admired all over the world, and revered here in South Africa even though the 10th anniversary of his death is coming up next Tuesday. 

Today we travelled from the Aquila Safari Park to Franschoek to spend a couple of day in South Africa’s wine region. On the way we stopped at Drakenstein Correctional Centre, which was formerly known as Victor Verster Prison. It was here on the 11th of February 1990, that Nelson Mandela finally walked free from prison after 27 years. I remember this day very well and being absorbed by the news that he was at last free.

Outside the prison there is a statue of Mandela with his right fist raised - there was only one thing for Roma and I to do, but pose in front of the statue with our right fists raised too.


Friday, December 01, 2023

South Africa Part III

The next part of our trip to South Africa was a visit to the Aquila Safari Park about two hours out of Cape Town, where we would stay the night as well. We were far removed from everything and Aquila is a large safari park.  

At the Aquila Safari Park.

Our ride out into the park started at about 16:00. We were warned that due to flooding that the dirt tracks were in bad condition - they were not wrong! It was a very bumpy ride despite our drivers best efforts. Soon we saw hippos and zebras. The hippos were mostly under water, and the zebras turned their arses to us - not much to see there. A real treat was seeing four elephants up close walking past us. These gentle giants are amazing and it was good to see them walking in a far bigger space than a zoo. Soon after we came upon a small pride of lions who have their own large enclosure. They were sleeping, but we could get right up next to them.


Do not disturb!

White rhinos were up next and we could get very close again to watch them munching on saw dust. 

Super rhinos!

We were treated to a brilliant dancing troupe in the middle of the park - very energetic. This was a pit stop in the middle of the tour where we were also provided with sparkling wine and biltong - we were being well looked after. 

Dancing and singing.

After refreshments, we continued our quest to see more animals in the (almost) wild. Ostriches came up close to our bus looking for food - I kept well back as I did not want one of my fingers to be their next snack!

Curious eye.

Dinner at the Aquila is buffet style - it had to be as a couple of hundred hungry people descended on the restaurant at the same time. The food was OK - nothing to get excited about. Afterwards there is nothing much to do though star-gazing was in the schedule for the evening. I wanted to see the Southern Cross, but my Night Sky App told me that it was still under the horizon.

The next morning we were up at 6:30 for a 7:00 start for a second tour of the park. Apart from seeing giraffes for the first time we saw the exact same animals at almost the exact same places doing exactly the same thing as the day before, all on exactly the same bumpy road. It was great to see the animals again, though apparently they were supposed to be more active in the morning.

A nice place at Aquila to write this blog post.

Overall impressions were that it was a fantastic experience dragged out a little bit. We basically did the same thing twice. I also felt that though it was wonderful to see the animals that we did, I just thought - there are not that many to see? Four elephants, four lions, three giraffes, you get the message. The food was just OK, and we had a lovely room though not much time to enjoy it. I also decided that later in the morning before we left at 12:00 that I would have a go at a 45 min quad bike tour. Our brochure told us that a tour would start at 11:00 - perfect timing so I thought, but when I went to book I was told that there was no tour at 11:00 and that the next one would start at 11:30. Disappointing again. Very much a 6/10 experience. My recommendation is that you should do the tour - it is brilliant. But not stay over and do it again.