Wednesday, Sept. 3 - Monday, Sept. 8
We had a few hours before we needed to be at the airport for our 2:10 pm departure from Capetown to Mauritius, and spent a little of it in the morning taking a walk around the pleasant neighborhood our B&B was in, on a lovely spring-fresh day. Unfortunately all the houses have walls around their yards, so all we could see of any gardens was what billowed over or grew above those walls. This is probably our least-favorite part of South Africa - the pervasive paranoia, evident in the constant presence of high walls, usually topped with razor wire or other nastiness, around almost everything including houses (of whites); and security guards everywhere.
We had enough time to visit an Internet Cafe near where we had had our laundry done, and I began to try to solve a recurrent problem. For the second time, an Internet charge we had made to secure an advance booking for lodging had been refused by our credit card company, with no explanation. The first time an expensive international phone call had gotten the charge through, but now it had happened again. I couldnt do much by Internet, so I determined to try calling them when we got to the airport and get it straightened out once and for all.
This proved to be the biggest exercise in frustration and failed technology we had had in the whole trip. Once we had checked our baggage at the airport, gone through security, and had time to kill, I called the supposedly toll-free number and began to explain the problem. I was transferred to security, and then the mobile phone shut off - the call had already eaten through the small amount of time we had left on it. I topped it up with some cards we had, and tried again. This call lasted even less time, which I spent mostly asking them to call me back, and finally being told they couldnt. The nearest place to get more phone cards was back through security, so we decided to try the pay phone. The operator tried the toll-free number, but a recorded voice said it could not be used or some such. I had them try another number. No luck. I tried to put it on my charge card, but that, of course, was refused, since it had that inexplicable lock on it. I asked if they could use a debit card, and was told no. I ran out of options at that point and returned to Rich in a foul mood. He went and tried the whole sequence again, and apparently got a better operator because they were able to make the call using our debit card, after warning him that it would cost $30 just to make the connection! I got on the line and began to explain the problem again, when the call ended with a clunk. $30 down the drain. He tried to get them to reestablish the call, with no success. Then he went to see if he could go through security and get more phone cards, but was told if he went out he couldnt come back in. By this time it was time to start boarding our flight, so we had to hope we could locate a phone that would get through at our hotel on Mauritius.
The flight was uneventful, (we had two window seats between us, which was nice) but at 5 hours long, with no back-of-the-seat TVs, and during the day so he didnt nap, it was too long for Colin, who was getting quite rambunctious by the time we landed. The airport was nearly deserted, and customs perfunctory, so it wasnt long before we were meeting our transfer to the hotel. It was after 10 pm local time so we didnt see much during the hour-long drive across the island except fields of sugar cane lining the road, and distant mountains against the clouds. It was past Colins bedtime by our internal clocks, and he slept most of the way.
Emily had been looking forward with great excitement to this part of our trip. It was partly for her that we decided to splurge on a resort hotel (also for the convenience, since we would only be here for 4 days/5 nights, and language was likely to be a problem). She has craved luxury in a trip for a long time, and knowing that there would be many water sports she had been wanting to try available as part of the package, and warm sandy beaches to swim on, she was quite looking forward to it. This was, however, a low-end resort hotel (and even at that, much more expensive per day than we had spent anywhere else), and Im afraid she was a bit let down that the rooms were pretty much standard hotel rooms (and without a door between them as we had requested, though we were able to change to adjoining rooms the next day). The hotel looked pretty and tropical in the night light, but we saved exploring for the next day - even though our time was three hours earlier, we were all tired, and also wanted to get on local time as fast as possible, since we would be moving another 4 hours (I think) east in a few days.
Before retiring, however, I used the phone in the room to finally get through to our credit card company and get the problem sorted out (I hope for good). The hotel phone rates were usurious, but if we wanted to have accommodations waiting in Perth (and since we would be arriving near midnight local time, this seemed to be a prudent idea), we had no choice. Apparently what had happened was that our international travel, combined with the recent address changes, had triggered their automatic security system, despite the fact that I had notified them before our departure of our itinerary. A charge made with the actual card could go through, but not one made by phone or internet. I answered all the many security questions correctly, and hopefully they have things reset now so that this wont happen again. (I guess I should be glad that they have a good security system, but it was frustrating!)
Thursday we began our excursion into resort living, which lasted 4 days, through Sunday. I wont detail what we did day by day, since it largely merges together. We had half-board included with the fee, which means buffet-style breakfast and dinner were included, but were on our own for lunch. The buffets were generally pretty good, though some of the dinner dishes were too exotic for our tastes, but no one went hungry. Colin discovered that he really loves Papaya! There was a nicer restaurant one could go to for dinner, but since it would cost extra we didnt. Also included in the fee was access to a small but pleasant beach on the edge of a quiet green bay, with a coral reef not too far out where waves could be seen breaking. A number of water sports were available - snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, pedalo boats, and excursions to the coral reef on a glass-bottomed boat. Land sports were also available, but we didnt do any of them.
The resort included a childrens club, which could theoretically keep children (Colin, at least) entertained all day while the adults relax, but since this was the off season and not a French school holiday, there were no other children to be found until Sunday, so we didnt even attempt to make use of it. On Sunday, our last day, there were suddenly several other families with children, but our one effort to arrange some playtime between Colin and a Belgian boy about his age failed because the other boy was either too shy or, I think, too tired to face a strange child.
The weather was warm (no colder than 70 deg. during the day, and probably reaching about 85 in the sun) and somewhat humid, partly cloudy much of the time, with frequent sun and some rain, though the only serious rainstorm was at night. Its a very gentle climate, no doubt too hot for us in the summer, but at this time of year quite nice.
With all these facilities at our disposal, we mostly did what one is supposed to do at a resort - hung out on the beach. Colin had the longest uninterrupted stretch of beach playtime in soft warm sand that he has ever had, and loved it - he hardly even used his pail and shovel, but just dug roads and holes with his hands. Emily tried snorkeling, but hated it because of the horrid taste of sea water in her mouth; she did, however, enjoy kayaking, and pedalo. She wanted to try water skiing, which we judged too dangerous, and scuba diving, which we couldnt arrange introductory lessons for in time (extra charge for both of those), and considered wind surfing but never got around to it. Both kids enjoyed playing in the swimming pool, too, and in fact this is the only time Colin would go in the water - he wouldnt go into the miniscule waves on the beach except to get in the pedalo boat, and in the pool stayed within a few feet of the edge of the shallowest part, even though he could easily have walked out 15 feet or more. But he had fun, despite his phobias.
I read and relaxed, and took Colin on the glass-bottomed boat, which was delightful - we saw all sorts of fish we usually only see in an aquarium. Emily didn't come because she thought she had seen enough fish snorkeling with Rich, on the same boat.
In between getting too much sun, we shopped here and there. There were several shops and restaurants almost across the street (a busy main road), and Emily found a lovely pair of wraparound pants which she liked a lot. They turned out to be a bit too long for her, but at another shop we found that the owner sewed most of the clothes herself, and had her sewing machine right there, so we asked her to hem them up and she did, for a nominal fee. I got a camp shirt in a subtler-than-usual tropical print which actually goes quite well with the rest of my travel wardrobe, and will provide some welcome variety. Clothes were very cheap there, especially if you get away from the resorts and are willing to dicker. Everything was cheaper away from the resorts, which typically double prices on the extra foods and drinks they sell to their captive market.
We also had a couple of lunches at restaurants across the street. The first was a welcome break for Rich and me by ourselves. Colin was so tired the afternoon of our first day that he almost fell asleep sitting up around noon. We put him down for a nap, got Emily a slice of pizza to eat in the room, (her preference, not parental neglect!) and went across the street for a nice lunch where we could literally see the door of our room from our table! The next day we all went to another restaurant, and had an even nicer lunch. By American standards it was fairly cheap for the quality, too. The waiter chatted with us a bit, and began tactfully sounding us out as to our plans for visiting more of the island. As it happened we had been considering taking a tour or some such, but the hotel tours were too overpriced and didnt necessarily go where we wanted to go. We were considering hiring a taxi to take us to the islands Botanical Garden, at least, which wasnt far away, but were a bit put off by the constant importunements of the herd of taxi drivers stationed across from the hotel (the day we took a bus into the nearby town, Grand Bai, to shop and explore a bit, one taxi driver followed us clear to the bus stop to give us his card because he just couldnt believe we actually wanted to take the bus!). We discussed the matter a bit, and ended up hiring the waiter, for a very reasonable rate, to take us on an all-day tour the next day, including the botanic garden and several other interesting-sounding places. I must say we took a certain amount of pleasure in bypassing the taxi drivers, too!
Saturday was the day of our tour, and we got started a little before 10. Our driver took us to the Pamplemousses Botanic Garden first, since we wanted to see it more than any of the other things. Pamplemousses is a town, and the word means grapefruits. The garden is actually named for someone unpronounceable, but everyone calls it Pamplemousses. It was raining when we arrived, though it stopped soon, but it left everything very damp. We took a brief guided tour, the guide pointing out plants of especial interest such as various spice trees (Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Camphor - we got to sniff bits of those), a Sausage Tree, with huge, sausage-shaped fruits, and others. Then we wandered around a bit on our own, looking at the huge tortoises, a herd of deer, the Victoria water lily pads which were already 2 ft. or more across, but would get much bigger by summer, etc. Then we drove on to the Domaine les Pailles, an old sugar cane processing estate. Rich and Colin rode a small train across the grounds, while Emily and I took a pleasant carriage ride (the handsome young driver even flirted mildly with her, though I dont think she realized it), and we met to take a tour of the old sugarcane processing system, including a taste of (awful) raw rum made from the cane. We had lunch at a fancy (and expensive) Creole restaurant on the grounds, then proceeded on through the heavy traffic of Port Louis, the islands largest city (we were glad we hadnt opted to stay there!) to Curepipe, where we drove to the center mound of the ancient, long-extinct volcano which originally formed the island. The views were wonderful, and you could see clearly the much-eroded remnants of the rim of the volcano in the distance.
Back in Curepipe, our driver (whose name I cannot remember - I should have written it down) asked us to come to a shop where he was in a contest of some sort, for drivers to bring customers, I guess. We agreed, figuring it couldnt hurt. It happened to be next door to a model ship factory/store, one of the things Mauritius is famous for, so we went there first and admired the wonderful models. Emily and I each bought a small necklace, then we went into the other store, and were promptly ushered upstairs to look at...rugs. OK. Not what we had planned at all, but there were some truly lovely oriental-style rugs, locally made, and of fine quality. We came very close to buying a particularly nice silk rug, for a quarter of the original asking price, and way less than we could get anything similar for in the US, but the diminished state of our finances (and Richs hard-headedness) stopped us.
The next day was our last on Mauritius, and we mostly lazed around. Emily did more water activities, while I took Colin on the glass-bottomed boat. During the morning we bought some lovely shells from a vendor, one of several allowed to hang around the hotel grounds to sell their wares. One shell proved to be a problem later, but we enjoyed picking them out and bargaining for them at the time.
Monday we were picked up early to go to the airport, and with the exceptionally slow traffic through Port Louis, we got there none too early. Fortunately customs was quick, and we soon set off on the 8-hour flight to Perth, Australia. Unlike our previous long flights, this one started at midday, so Colin was very reluctant to sleep at all and drove us all nuts. I finally, with much patience and persistence, got him to sleep late in the flight, and he slept for an hour or so before some small sandwiches were served (we had had a more substantial meal earlier). We arrived about 1/2 hour early, but it was still 10:30pm Perth time, though three hours earlier for us. Here we had our first run-in with customs. Australia is very strict about what can be imported, so the various bits of food we had with us had to be inspected, and the shells we had bought as well. It turned out that the loveliest and most expensive of the lot, a matched pair of clamshells about 7 long, were illegal Giant Clams, and they were confiscated. *sigh* At least we got to keep the rest.
After a rather long wait for the shuttle bus we were scheduled to take to our lodging, we found that they didnt have our names on the list of people to pick up (this was supposed to have been arranged by the same company that arranged the lodging). Fortunately the paperwork was at the front desk of the City Stay Apartments when we got there, and we finally checked into our apartment around 1am. We were not impressed. The whole building was depressingly utilitarian, built of bricks inside and out, with long brick corridors lined with featureless doors. The apartment was functional, but hardly attractive, and did not have an internet connection as I had supposed (I didnt ask enough questions when trying to book it from South Africa), only a lone computer at reception. Rather unhappy, we turned in. At least the beds were reasonably comfortable.
Tuesday Sept. 9 - Monday, Sept. 15
As things often do, everything looked brighter in the morning after a few hours sleep. The apartment, while not pretty, did have a separate worktable we could put the computer on, instead of having to use the dining table, and had a washer and dryer right in it - horribly noisy, but the first time wed had that convenience in our whole trip! It also had a nice eastern exposure, good for brightening things up first thing in the morning, a decent heater, and reasonably spacious kitchen. We overlooked a swimming pool, which it was really to cool to use, and there was a delightful and unusual playground off the second floor. Also, although the nearest real grocery store was a bus ride away, downtown, the reception area had a good stock of basics should we run out of anything.
We were only a block away from the Central Area Transit system, or CAT, free buses that whisk people around town every 5 minutes during the weekdays. Our first excursion downtown, on a lovely, sunny day, was quite pleasurable. Perths downtown is new, attractive, lively, and very pedestrian-friendly, with attractive shopping arcades (some with themes, like Old London) connecting the three main east-west streets, and a large pedestrian mall in the center. We ended up downtown at least briefly almost every day of our stay there, either shopping or tending to business.
Business dominated our first several days in Perth. We had to make some plans and arrangements for our next few weeks in Australia, reschedule our flight to New Zealand, and of course get the phone working and find the best places to plug in the computer to the Internet. At first it appeared we might actually be able to connect our computer through our mobile phone, which would have been an unprecedented luxury. Rich did get it set up, briefly, but it turned out to be horrendously expensive (it shouldnt have been, but things werent working as they should have) so we finally had to settle for Internet Cafes and a regular mobile connection. Rich had to spend a great deal of time over several days getting that sorted out, while I was working out the snarls in our travel plans: one of the first things I discovered when we arrived was that there was a major two-week school holiday coming up, and it threw a big monkey wrench into the tentative plans we had made. Because we had spent so much time in the cold in South Africa, we had decided to fly from Perth to the northeast, to Cairns, in the middle of the Australian tropics, and enjoy some more sun, sand and coral reefs. Then we would drive south to Brisbane and fly from there to Sydney for our departure (or some variation thereof - a lot depended on airline schedules and just what changes we could make to our existing Air New Zealand ticket for the Sydney-Christchurch flight). However, with the school holiday, there were no discount tickets to be had, and the regular fare for Perth-Cairns, or anywhere around it, was just too high to consider. Also, lodging was likely to be hard to come by, especially in the tropics. So we had to completely start our planning over. We decided that if we couldnt do what we had planned, wed do the cheapest and simplest thing available, and arranged to fly to Adelaide, the closest major city, and rent a camper to drive from there through Melbourne to Sydney. When all was said and done this turned out to be probably not as cheap as renting self-catering places and a car, but it would be simpler, since I wouldnt have to spend hours researching and booking such places during the holiday! Whether we could all stand to spend two weeks together in a camper remained to be seen. It would make the canal boat in Ireland look luxuriously spacious!
I was also investigating what we might want to do in Western Australia before leaving. We didnt feel it would be worth while to drive the immense distances to the northern part of the state or the outback, (Australia is almost as large as the US, a fact easy to overlook on maps) but within 3-4 hours drive south was the Tall Timber Country, an attractive-sounding Eucalypt-forested area with many fun activities, so we opted to go there, and I managed to book lodging without difficulty.
In addition to all this, I was finalizing work I had started in South Africa begin an on-line home school curriculum for Emily, since school had started at home and it was time for us to start, too. After almost three months of traveling, I knew that my original plan of having her enroll in an internet school and do her lessons on line wouldnt work - our ability to be hooked up to the internet was too variable, and often inconvenient, not to mention expensive. Also, with only one computer and four people needing/wanting to use it, having her do all her work on the computer would be difficult, too. However, we were still not in a position to carry around a bunch of books, either. The solution became apparent when we ran across a very small printer on sale in an office supplies store: I would download lessons from an on-line home schooling service, and print out as much as possible for her to do on paper. (This has turned out to be an imperfect solution, since many of the lessons require on-line links, which can be so slow that even with time at an internet cafe, theyre almost useless. However, it is better than nothing).
In between working on all that, we did some fun stuff, too. On a day when Rich was doing computer stuff and talking to some local companies about the employment outlook in Perth and Australia in general, the rest of us took a tram ride around the city, and Kings Park, a large, partly-indigenous park just across the Swan River from the downtown. A couple of days later, when it didnt look likely to rain (we had gotten totally drenched during a downpour when we were attempting to walk somewhere the buses didnt run, and didnt care to repeat the experience), we walked to the park, about 1/2 mile away, and rented bikes to ride around. We visited a large and varied playground area, which included a lake with an island play structure in the center, a dinosaur to climb on, a hollow tree stump to climb in, and lots more. Colin loved it. We had a picnic lunch there, along with many other Perth families out enjoying the day, then rode on through the native bush area (my knees complaining all the way) and back to our starting point to return the bikes. Then we toured the Botanic Garden, which included a long bridge with lovely views, and spent some time just laying on the grass enjoying the sun.
Another day, Friday, I think, we took a brief (10 min.) ferry ride across the Swan to the Perth Zoo. It was practically deserted, and a few parts were closed (this is winter, after all), but we had a nice time and saw many interesting animals. The most fun was the nocturnal exhibit, which included a very impressive white Ghost Bat. There was also another great playground for Colin, which in summer would have had some fun water play features.
On Sunday we walked to a nearby train station and took a train to the port of Freemantle, which was reputed to have an excellent weekend market. The market was a bit of a disappointment - great in fruits and vegetable, not very interesting in crafts - but we found a convenient Internet Cafe with a high speed connection, and got some on-line work done. We returned to our apartment in time to watch The Two Towers on the in-house movie channel - we had missed it in the theaters last Christmas, and were glad for the opportunity to see it before the third movie comes out! It was not suitable for Colin though, who was alternately scared, confused, and bored, though he did enjoy Treebeard.
Monday morning, our last full day in Perth, we spent finalizing our Air New Zealand tickets - it cost the same to change just the Australia to NZ leg as to change all the remaining legs at once, so we set a return date and changed them all - and some last bits of shopping. That evening we took our one formal tour during our stay in Perth, a nighttime visit to a nearby wildlife park (Caversham) to see nocturnal creatures. We were picked up about 4pm, and after about an hour arrived at a very rural, large park and sat down to a BBQ picnic. In the course of this meal we learned that the world is indeed very small. There were about 8 other people on the tour. One was from Japan, one from Switzerland. Two others were a couple from the US. Not only that, they were from Oregon. And not only that, they were students at OSU!! The remaining people were from London, from the suburb of Ealing, the very suburb we had stayed in when were were there. The mind boggles! Needless to say we had plenty of interesting conversation, while Emily and Colin enjoyed the nearby playground and a display of trucks (at least, Colin enjoyed that). As the sun came close to setting, we set off with our guide to tour the park. We began with a group of small, very tame Gray Kangaroos, which enjoyed being hand-fed and charmed everybody. Alas, Rich had left the camera behind on the grounds that it was to be a nighttime tour, so no photos.
Next we saw a truly incredible bird, a female Cassowary who is such an exceptionally fine specimen that scientists have thought she might actually be a subspecies. The blues and reds on her neck and head were stunning, and she had a very fine, tall crest on her head. Apparently the crest is used to cut a way through thick jungle undergrowth, and the birds are quite dangerous, with vicious claws on strong legs, like Ostriches. I really wish we had a picture of her, though it would have been too dark to take one by the time we saw her!
Then we proceeded on a torchlight tour of Wallabies, Echidnas, Opossums (much cuter than our American possums), Wallabies, Bandicoots, Dingos, Sugar Gliders, and so many small, cute Marsupials that we lost track, and the kids got bored. We also saw Foxes, an introduced species, and the subject of extensive extermination efforts, as they and feral cats have come very close to wiping out a lot of the indigenous fauna. (The method of choice is to airdrop meat which is filled with a poison made from a local plant, to which the native animals are immune - it only kills the alien animals, no matter who eats it. Not pretty, but effective and environmentally benign). We ended with two enclosures of Tasmanian Devils; one held a pair of babies, which we didnt see too much of, and the other held two battle-scarred adults, which roamed around grunting dangerously at each other, giving every impression of living up to their name. It was quite an unusual tour, greatly enlivened by the interesting commentary of the tour guide, a longtime bush walker with a great deal of knowledge about Australian fauna.
The tour ended with a stop in Kings Park to view the city lights (lovely), which Colin slept through - he barely woke up as we carried him back into the apartment.