West Coast Meanderings

I love getting overseas visitors. More importantly, I love showing overseas visitors around who have already done all the standard touristy things on offer in the Mother City and who are keen to get a local’s perspective on things to do.

I was able to indulge my preference for visiting spots off the usual tourist track when a very distant relative came over from the UK for a visit. Having already tried out the thrills of Canopy Tours, Shark cage diving and experienced the 7th wonder that is Table Mountain, she was only to happy to join me on a trip up the West Coast to visit some of our experience providers in the quaint village of Paternoster….

Being intrepid travellers (Helen was on her way home to the UK from living in Spain…. Not sure if it was the shortest route back but it sure is a scenic one!), we took all the back roads. Winding dramatically through the crop fields around Philadelphia then along through Atlantis onto the West Coast road and northwards through Vredenburg to the very quaint whitewashed village of Paternoster got me thinking about my West Coast bucket list of things to do….. it’s one of my favourite areas in the Cape so here’s a personal shortlist of places to visit and things to see on the southern parts of the West Coast that are a little more off the beaten track. It’s by no means exhaustive,  but includes all my favourites.

img_59451. Spend some quiet time at the Seeberg bird hide in the West Coast National Park. This somewhat windswept and tranquil spot gazes out across the upper reaches of the Langebaan lagoon and we spent some enjoyable moments adding to our twitchers list…. and it’s just so peaceful!

317939_10151040121776908_2013795609_n2. Walk or ride the beaches at the back of Saldanha Military academy’s nature reserve towards Jacobsbaai. It’s a completely different experience, beautifully deserted and has fabulous scenery for great photos.

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3. Lunch at Voorstrandt on the beach in Paternoster. This was a little gem that we stumbled upon in Paternoster. Right on the beach, it serves wholesome, hearty seafood dishes as well as some other meals. I tried their seafood curry and it was epic!

img_59194. Cycle through the West Coast National park – look out for Caracal, ostrich, Eland, enormous snakes, blesbok and more….. It’s hard work but completely worthwhile and if you’re there in flower season, it’s even more gorgeous although you’ll fight for road space with other sightseers then.

5. Take a mussel farm tour in the late afternoon and enjoy a pot of mussels in a creamy white wine sauce at Saldanha bay harbour. Remember to pack your sea-sickness pills but it’s informative and interesting and offers a great view of the deep-water harbour operations at Saldanha bay.

6. Spend the night or two in a wigwam with a hot tub under the stars in Paternoster. It’s unusual and novel. Set back from the beach outside the quaint town, you get to enjoy a secluded spot, plenty of privacy and a really novel weekend away.

 

The Stories I Love to Hear

Working at Gift Experience South Africa has some pretty memorable moments in it. Some of my favourite are hearing feedback from our customers. I love to hear their stories – how their experience went, the excitement around the occasion and sharing their photos with them afterwards… Talk about job satisfaction!

I recently went to go and see some of our experience providers in Johannesburg and surrounds and this trip opened my eyes to even more stories, but those told from the perspective of the experience providers dealing with our customers. I have to share my favourite with you!

My all time favourite is the one told to me by Stephan, the owner of one of the flying schools we work with on the East Rand. He told of how the one weekend, a very old gent in his 80s arrived for his hands-on flight accompanied by his grand-daughter and family. The old man used to fly Sabres and other fighter jets when he was in his youth during the Korean war and, while old and limited in mobility, was still an active driver and it was his dream to sit behind the controls of a plane again. We’d chatted with his grand-daughter prior to her purchasing this experience as a birthday gift for him and I recalled her checking whether he would be able to fly. We’d done our homework and the answer being in the affirmative, here he was about to embark on a grand adventure full of reminiscing.

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With a little assistance, Stephan and the very helpful instructors managed to get him inside the cockpit of Stephan’s personal plane and Stephan took the controls and taxied them over to the runway. As they’re waiting to depart, the old gent turns to Stephan, a healthy sized gent himself, and says; “Sonny boy, in my day I flew fighter jets and I’d really appreciate being able to do this take-off by myself.”

Now, each plane has dual controls for instruction purposes and, while it’s common practice to allow students to keep a light hold of controls during take-off and landing, the instructor will normally handle this part of the flying experience. Generally though, taking off is a little easier and less complex than landing and students are allowed more leeway in participating for their first flight in the take-off. Stephan, giving it some thought, agreed. Although he admitted to me afterwards he was very nervous about the arrangement and had his hands close to the controls throughout. Needless to say, the old gent sent the small two-seater into the air with a textbook perfect take-off. Stephan couldn’t fault him and settled back to let him have some fun at the controls.

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A few loops above scenic areas later, and the old gent once more put in a request. This time for a very tricky “touch-down” which involves bring the plane in to land and just before the wheels hit the runway, taking off again – it involves a high degree of skill and Stephan once again was put on the spot. His precious plane in the hands of an aged ex-fighter pilot…. Would his reflexes be quick enough? He needn’t have worried. It seemed that all those years and years of high intensity flight training had never left the old man, despite decades having passed since he last flew a plane. Stephan admitted he couldn’t have bettered the touch-down himself.

The two of them ended up having so much fun, a 25minute flight stretched into 90minutes of sheer joy as loops, mid-air stalls and many more touch-downs took place. I must admit, I wondered what his family must have thought of it all! This old gent had a birthday experience that took him flying back across the years to some of his best flying memories and Stephan? Well Stephan met a legend that day and he’s still telling people about him.

Stories like this one remind me of why I do what I do. These feel good stories where we, alongside our awesome experience providers, help people to have extraordinary experiences and have stories like these to tell make this job so worthwhile.

Want to try a flying lesson? Why not hint at your next Christmas or birthday gift and tell them to get it here:

Deserts, Dunes and Fatbiking

So I was recently in Swakopmund and got talked into doing the desert fatbike tour. I’ve not been on a bicycle in 6 years…..

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I clambered upon the seat of my heavyweight, fat-wheeled mountain bike to begin a tour that would take me across sand dunes in one of the oldest deserts in the world and which would open my eyes to the science-defying wonder of the fat-bottomed bike.

It was with great relief that the start of our tour went off without a hitch. Apparently the old adage of “it’s just like riding a bicycle!” holds true in terms of the memory stakes and I managed not to embarrass myself in front of my fitter group members. We cycled through a section of Swakop town, dodging the odd taxi and heading over towards the Swakop river – at the time just a dry river bed.

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Just before crossing the river bed, our guide, Richard, once again reiterated sand riding policy which involved high gear ratios, much spinning and remembering not to stand on the peddles as this causes the front wheel to dig in and you to take flying lessons across the handle bars… encouraging stuff really!

Then we were off! Spinning madly across the river bed and our first small set of dunes, we soon had the whole gear up gear down thing sussed and started marvelling at the wonder that is fat tyres on a bicycle! The effect of the increased weight distribution was driven home each time we stopped and put a foot down in the sand…. My feet sank well down – much further than that of the bike tyres!

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Richard was a mine of information with a mixture of fact, fiction, geology, history and more being shared with us. I learnt a whole lot more about the origin of the Namib desert dunes, the type of wildlife as well as dune creation and movement on this trip.

All the time we were climbing further and further into the dune field. The ride became progressively more challenging with the group needing to identify where the sand was firmer allowing for a smoother climb versus the softer thicker sand that would grab at your wheels and bog you down. Then, the challenges started arriving. Up to now, we’d been climbing constantly but we were suddenly faced with some very scary descents – some appeared completely convex! Richard’s instructions weren’t terrifying at all: Pedal like mad, make sure you go over the top at speed, don’t stand up, ensure you keep your weight back behind the saddle (like how?) and don’t brake…. Don’t what??

The first descent was by far the scariest… but I stand here, a survivor of the tale so it was definitely better than it looked. Then the climbs and descents came higher and faster until all too soon we were done and out of the dune field. Then began the long slog home.

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This memorable tour is a must for its fun, novelty and interesting and patient guides. Just make sure you’ve had a more recent cycling experience – my tender buttocks are still feeling the saddle and it’s been 5 days…..

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So here we are…

There’s something very daunting about finally knuckling down to start writing your first blog post…. I’ve had a collection of mutterings, thoughts and stories from years of travel and work in the experience gift industry and as a result of much persuasion, I’m finally getting around to sharing them. Here’s hoping that I can inspire you to experience more from life and to live with the aim of creating the most wonderful memories.

As a brief introduction, I’m writing from the viewpoint of my time as CEO of Gift Experience South Africa– a very cool little online business that helps people find the most amazing experiences to gift to loved ones, friends, family and colleagues. I was bitten by the travel and experience bug at an early age where every family holiday was an epic adventure by road to some far-flung corner of Southern Africa. The whole  journey was part of the adventure and my folks ensured I was instilled with a curious mind and a thirst for new knowledge of all things, but travel in particular featured highly. My wandering feet have taken me on solo trips overseas to Europe mainly but also to other African countries and it has been these tours that introduced me to a whole world of exciting experiences where, when you’re trying to pack light, you tend to rather take home great memories… and lots of photos.

This thrill of exploration and discovering where my curiosity could take me, resulted in me leaving behind my legal training after university to embark on the grandest adventure of them all… managing a business where our whole purpose is to put smiles on people’s faces as they discover for themselves the arm-pinching joy of doing something they never thought they would or could. Even more thrilling is being able to gift such an opportunity to another person and it’s this passion for giving great memories and sharing these memories with loved ones that makes my work such a pleasure…. I exist to hear the happy tales from excited experience goers, to see the tears of joy and expectation on an experience gift recipient’s face, for that moment of lit-up eyes and crinkly smiles as people are handed their wildest dreams on a plate. And it’s a collection of tales and stories from my time as well as musings of personal adventure, test-driving our own experiences and great gifting suggestions that I hope to share with you here.

Here’s to sharing amazing experiences and unforgettable memories.