“This must not be your last time.”
So said our safari guide near the end of our time in the Kalahari and near the end of our safari ― my first ever. Never, in all my travels, did I think I would ever get the chance to go to Africa. Never, in all my dreams, did I think I would ever go on safari.
But when a friend who just happened to be travelling to South Africa invited me to meet up with her, I jumped at the opportunity. After I had worked out the details of how and where we would meet, my next step was to arrange a safari for us.
And here’s the first thing I learned: when you type the keywords “South Africa” and “safari,” the destination at the top of the list is the Kruger. Safari-goers like to talk about checking the Big Five off their list (Big Five = lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) and Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa, has all of these and more. Plus, it’s conveniently located near Johannesburg. Which makes the Kruger a popular safari destination.
But with a little more digging, other choices are discovered. I began reading about the Kalahari in the northwest part of South Africa, near the Botswana and Namibia borders. It’s more remote, so it takes a lot more schlepping to get there, but I was intrigued by the descriptions of its landscape.
My friend said the choice was up to me. I went all pragmatic and made a list of pros and cons. The two options came out dead even, so I was right back where I started.
I then sought the advice of a co-worker who had grown up in Zimbabwe and had spent a lot of time in South Africa. In the end, my choice came down to her warning that, because we were going to be there in February, at the height of the rainy season, the foliage in the Kruger might be so lush and full we ran a fair chance of not seeing any game at all.
That settled it. We were going to the Kalahari.
Following a recommendation from my trusted Lonely Planet, and after several emails back and forth to South Africa, I booked us on a six-day camping safari with a small family-run operation out of Upington in the Northern Cape, the largest and least populated province in South Africa. Our safari would take us to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a game reserve that straddles the border of South Africa and Botswana.
And so, on the appointed morning, our guide picked us up at our guest house in Upington. Introductions were made all around. There were only four of us on this safari and our companions were the best we could hope for: two Germans who never stopped laughing or joking around and destroyed every stereotype I ever had about Germans. By lunchtime on our first day, my friend and I realized they were going to be a lot of fun. (What was almost unbelievable, given how well they got on, is that this couple had never met before our safari.)
And our South African guide not only took very good care of us, he was a gifted tracker and a wise man. I enjoyed his stories immensely ― and I am pretty sure he enjoyed ours.
Upington to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a bit of a trek and it took us most of a day to get to our first campsite. The roads inside the park are unpaved and covered in sand (which we soon learned makes them an excellent surface for tracking!).
We also soon learned that these roads were prone to flooding because (1) it was the rainy season and (2) they follow dry river beds. Flanking the edges of these river beds were dunes. The day we drove cross country from the Nossob River bed to the Auob River bed gave us a marvellous roller-coaster ride over waves of dunes that rippled the landscape before us.
We spent three nights camping in Botswana, in basic, unfenced campgrounds. (Basic = pit toilets and no running water. Unfenced = absolutely no leaving the tent at night without waking our guide.) There were two tents for the four of us paying customers that we quickly learned how to put up and take down ourselves. Our guide slept in a smaller tent or, when it was too windy, the back of the SUV.
The other two nights we camped in South Africa, in full-service campgrounds that included a gas station, small store, showers and flush toilets, and a high fence encircling the entire campground. The gates were closed from dusk to dawn, but by 6 a.m. each morning there was always a line-up of SUVs eager to start their game drives.
Our daily routine was rather basic. At 6:00 a.m. sharp, our guide gently woke us by calling out “morning, morning, morning.” At that hour it was scarcely light enough to see without a flashlight, but mornings were the best time to see game, so we wanted an early start.
Once we were on the road, we stopped anytime we saw game. On the days we moved camp, we’d reach the next campsite by early afternoon. On days we weren’t moving camp, we still went back to the campsite for the height of the afternoon as there was little to see in the way of wildlife at that time of day. There would be another game drive in the late afternoon/early evening, and then back to camp for our sundowners (gin & tonic were our drink of choice) and dinner: always a braai (Afrikaans for “grill”) prepared and served by our guide.
My safari experience, to put it simply, far exceeded my expectations and then some. I loved the landscape ― I blame my love of flat horizons on my Prairie upbringing ― and I loved the early mornings at dawn when the world was cool and soft. Although the Kalahari is a desert, the daytime temperatures never seemed overwhelming ― again, my Prairie temperament loves a dry heat.
As far as the main attraction of the safari went, my expectations were exceeded and then some as well: two cheetahs, 14 lions (three of them cubs), and springbok, gemsbok, blue wildebeest, and red hartebeest, including fawns and calves, by the herdful. Lots of birds as well. A handful of giraffes. A couple of jackals. And of course the barking geckos who serenaded us every single night.
As we were driving back to Upington on our last day together, we teased our guide about the stories he would tell his next group about all our antics. He laughed along with us, but then turned serious for a moment and looked right at me and my friend. “This must not be your last time,” he said earnestly.
Never, in all my travels, did I think I would ever get the chance to go to Africa. Never, in all my dreams, did I think I would ever go on safari.
I can only hope and dream that I will get the chance again.
For the Third Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of the door to the Mission Abbey church. The abbey grounds are open to the public during daylight hours, and the church as well, when not in use by the monks.
Mission Abbey is located on a 200-acre site overlooking the Fraser River. Benedictine monks have lived, farmed, and prayed here since 1954.
The abbey church, tower, and seminary were designed by a Norwegian architect named Asbjørn Gåthe and were built over a period of 25 years, culminating with the church, which was dedicated in 1982.
For the Second Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of Mission Abbey’s bell tower. It was dedicated in 1958.
So, here’s a thing: it wasn’t until after my African safari that I realized I wanted to do more with my photos than simply post them on Facebook. I also wanted to tell the stories behind the photos. Starting a travel blog seemed like the natural next step in my social media evolution.
But here’s another thing: even though it was five years ago this month that I was on that safari, and even though I am well into my fifth year of posting to this travel blog, I have yet to write about that safari.
So consider this a heads-up: my Kalahari safari will be the focus of this blog over the next few
weeks months. If Africa and animals aren’t your thing, feel free to tune out for a couple of weeks.
To get us started, here’s a photo I took just before sunrise at one of the watering holes we camped beside.
As is my custom, this being the Season of Lent, I’m going to post a series of church photos. Unlike previous years, this year I’m going to focus on a single place of worship, one I feel an appropriate follow-up to last year’s tour of European cloisters. And, unlike previous years, this year we’re on this side of the pond.
And so, for today, the First Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of the church of the Mission Abbey, located east of Vancouver in the town of Mission. Its official name is Westminster Abbey and Seminary of Christ the King.
Back when I lived in Toronto, I used to joke that I never went north of Eglinton if I could help it. Here in Vancouver, I make similar jokes about how I do everything I can to avoid travelling to bridge-and-tunnel land. These kinds of comments can easily get you into trouble with certain folks (as in: the ones who live north of Eglinton or in bridge-and-tunnel land). They are also the folks who know that there are many excellent reasons to venture out of the downtown core.
The Pear Tree is one of those reasons. Ranked 49th in the 2015 list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, it has been serving quality, classic food in Burnaby Heights for almost two decades. Was it the sole reason I trekked all the way out to North Burnaby the other weekend? Not entirely. But the offer from my sister and her husband of a nice dinner out (who am I to turn down a free meal?) as a thank you for hanging out in Solo so I could watch over their house and feed their cats while they were on walkabout in Southeast Asia was all the incentive I needed to spend an hour Skytraining my way east.
Upon arrival we were immediately seated by a young hostess who took our coats ― and then promptly disappeared. (Seriously. We never saw her again.) But in no time at all we were sipping cocktails and studying the menu in earnest. We made our selections with care.
And then we sat back and enjoyed ourselves. There wasn’t a wrong step with any of the dishes.
The highlight of my evening was my first course: Orange Caramelized Scallops with Double-Smoked Bacon Risotto. Creamy and full of flavour, the risotto was neither too bland nor too cheesy. I was a wee bit worried that the citrus flavour would overpower the scallops, but there was just a hint of it. The dish is also available as a main course.
I ordered the Twice-Cooked Fraser Valley Belly with White Bean Cassoulet so I could compare it to the cassoulet I so fondly remembered from a long-ago visit to Carcassonne, France. The Pear Tree version was nothing like the Carcassonne version. (No surprise there, to be honest, and I would have been disappointed if it had.) The pork belly was crisp, but moist; if you like your bacon well-cooked, this is not the dish for you as you will likely be turned off by the fattiness of the pork belly. The meat lay on a bed of white beans and green pea puree.
Roasted steelhead and grilled pork tenderloin were the choices for my sister and her husband and there were no complaints at our table. As we all tucked into our main courses, our waiter brought us a plate of lightly dressed fresh greens to share.
We finished our meal with a cheese course of stilton and candied walnuts, but it was the arrival of our trio of desserts that drew gasps from our neighbours. No wonder ― they looked spectacular. I had the Chocolate Ganache with a Crisp Nut Base, Salted Caramel, and Orange Chocolate Sorbet. Now here’s a revelation: salted caramel is the perfect companion to deep rich chocolate. Even so, my favourite part may have been the nut-based crust.
The Vanilla Crème Brulée with a Crisp Brandy Snap was the creamiest crème brulée I’ve tasted in a long while. I loved how the vanilla flavour was front and centre.
But the star of the night was the Fresh Lemon Tart with Lemon Sour Cream Sorbet. I say this because it was the dessert with the most dramatic presentation with its tower of spun sugar. I happen to think that lemon tarts have long been underrated ― the fresh lemony taste of this one only confirmed my belief.
When we were finally sated and I had heard all about my sister and her husband’s travels, we got up and I moved towards the coat closet beside our table. But Stephanie, co-owner and front of house, had already placed them on a table in the lounge. How did she know which coats were ours without a coat check tag? This is a mystery to me. (Remember, the hostess who took our coats upon our arrival had long disappeared.) Stephanie’s husband, co-owner and chef Scott, stood beside her and chatted with us as we put on our coats. It was a homey touch, as if our hosts were seeing us to the door the way they would in their own home. For me, that personal touch was the most impressive moment of an impressive evening.
Which means I may be trekking out to Burnaby Heights more often in the future.