Annchen

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It was dark when I left our room to go to the bathroom on the other side of the small nautical courtyard. I had to stop dead in my tracks. It was a warm summer’s night – the first evening of the new year – and the moon was full or close to it. It bathed the wooden deck chairs and fishnets in a silverblue light, outshone only by quick flashes of brightness from Africa’s southernmost lighthouse. I stepped out of the courtyard to admire the light, and it was magnificently surreal. The red-and-white tower was 150 meters away, but the light swung so powerfully around its neck in a bright white beam that I felt like we were right underneath it; like we were the lighthouse-keepers. And save for the actual lighthouse-keepers, I realised that I was probably the southernmost person on the continent right then – there under the light of the stars and the moon and the lighthouse. And we probably would be the southernmost people the whole night, because we were staying at Southermost B&B, in the southernmost private bedroom on the entire continent of Africa.

The Southermost house in Africa

The southernmost house in Africa.

Southermost B&B

Staying at Southermost B&B is really not like any other accommodation experience. The house was built in 1929, have passed ownership only twice, and has changed little in its 80+ years. The ceilings are low, the white-washed walls are thick, the rooms are decked out in familial vintage furniture, there are no TVs, and there is no en-suite option. You can find instead a jug of water, a tin bowl, some glasses and hand towels on a small table in the bedroom. The historic character of the house has been beautifully preserved and staying at Southermost B&B is more of an experience where you get to slow down and freeze time and travel back in time simultaneously. The toilet is across the Mediterranean-style courtyard, the shower is two steps across the yard, and our breakfast with fresh fruits and a pot of strong coffee was set out in a tiny, bright breakfast nook decorated with faded photographs and chalky seas shells. And it was a welcome breakfast which we enjoyed in the fynbos garden, with a view of the place where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.

Breakfast with a view at Southermost B&B

Southermost B&B

Southermost B&B

Southermost B&B

The charm of this historic villa is only helped by the warm welcome received from Meg, who manages and maintains Southernmost B&B (and co-owns it with her two sisters), and who also is, seemingly, an olympic-level gardener and artist. She showed us to our room as if we were old friends returning for a visit.

It was a slow morning of waking up to our window with a view to the two oceans, the salty smell of sea hanging in the air, and wishing we could stay another night, or two, or three. After coffee and beskuit (we eat as much beskuit as we can whenever we visit home), we strolled along the short boardwalk towards the actual southernmost tip of Africa, a short 15-minute walk from our blue ocean-weatherworn front door. And despite being happily surprised by the Kaapse Klopse – a Capetonian tradition also called ‘the 2nd New Year,’ in which minstrel clubs dress up in bright colours and go marching in the streets playing traditional songs with brass instruments – we did all of this slowly, as if spending time in the quiet old beach house made us believe that we had all the time we wanted.  

Room with a view at Southermost B&B

Cape Agulhas lighthouse

Kaapse Klopse at Cape Agulhas

Southermost point in Africa

Southermost point in Africa

Southernmost point in Africa where the two oceans meet

Staying There

Southermost B&B is really well priced, considering its charm and especially its location – even for South Africans. We found it on Airbnb, and we are not surprised to see that Meg is an Airbnb Superhost. (If you haven’t used Airbnb before – and we highly recommend it – use this link to sign up and get a sweet £25 discount from us)

You can also book by calling or emailing Southermost B&B directly.

Heads up! Southermost B&B closes over the winter months.

GETTING THERE

Head down to South Africa, and go as far south as you can, until you reach the sleepy beach town of Cape Agulhas. Follow its streets as it bends around the coastal bays, past the fish and chips shops, past the holiday market stalls selling firewood, ice cream cones and pancakes, past the icy cold tidal pool, until the very last house (or, quite literally, the very first house of Africa’s southernmost reach).

That is, right on the corner of Lighthouse Street and Van Breda Street.

Southermost B&B and Cape Agulhas

Southermost B&B and Cape Agulhas behind it, as seen from the top of the lighthouse.

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There is little use in trying to describe what Angkor Wat is like in words. (Which is why we’ve chosen to offer some practical advice instead – click here to see what you should expect during your visit). It’s so vast, and so beautiful, and steeped in so much history – even while we were there it was hard to wrap our minds around our experience. I remember leaves rustling in the welcoming breeze; I remember the dappled sunlight falling through forest foliage onto blocks of ruin sandstone covered in moss, I remember the wind in my face as the tuk-tuk driver whizzed us around in between fallen temples, over bridges and in and out of spots of sun; I remember clouds of butterflies billowing from the long grass; I remember a chorus of camera shutters as the sun rose slowly over that iconic ancient skyline. I remember different corners and separate moments dreamily – even our own memories are hard to patch together sometimes with some experiences that are so big.

So instead I’ve decided rather to do a photo post. But even these photos pale in comparison. Partly because Angkor is too much for any photograph and partly (mostly?) because they are actually just really average Sony Coolpix point-and-shoot photos. But still:

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1. ANGKOR WAT IS JUST ONE TEMPLE IN A GIGANTIC COMPLEX

That’s right. ‘Angkor Wat’ is the term scribbled on travellers’ bucket lists, but Angkor Wat – the prolific temple that features on the Cambodian flag – is one temple in the Angkor Complex, which actually consists of over 1000 temples.

I mean. That’s nuts.

Now, some of these are just rubbles of sandstone, but still. The word is Angkor is actually derived from a Sanskrit word that means ‘city’ – and Angkor is thought to be one of the world’s largest pre-industrial cities. Except it’s a city of temples. So in effect, you will be exploring the ruins of one of the world’s largest ancient cities, and the world’s largest religious complex to date.

Besides Angkor Wat, there’s Prasat Bayon (the one with all the faces),

Baphuon (the one that you can climb up in, but which doesn’t have the crazy queue that Angkor Wat has. And also the one with the enormous reclining buddha carved in it’s wall.),

Ta Prohm (the one overtaken by trees, famous from being featured in the Tomb Raider movie),

Preah Khan (equally overtaken by trees, but for some reason way less crowded),

and Neak Pean (the one where you have to walk across the water to a man-mad island).

And many many many more.

What to Expect at Angkor Wat: Prasat Bayon (the one with the faces)

Prasat Bayon: the one with the faces

What to expect at Angkor Wat: Baphuon (the one with the view).

Baphuon: the one with the view (but without the queue).

What to expect at Angkor Wat: Neak Pean (the one where you have to walk across water)

The road to Neak Pean (the one where you have to walk across water)

Whatto Expect at Angkor Wat: Preah Kahn (the one similar to the Tomb Raider one, but way less crowded).

Preah Kahn (the one similar to the Tomb Raider one, but way less crowded).

Which means:

2. YOU CAN’T WALK IT

Well, technically you could, but it would take you forever and you’d be sweating buckets in the 30+°C heat and almost-100% humidity. You can rent bicycles and cycle around, but I refer again to the above-mentioned climate.

Ideally, you should rent a Tuk-Tuk. It should cost you no more than $20 for the day and the pros are many:

  1. Shortening the time to get from temple to temple = more time to explore each temple.
  2. The drivers know the complex like the backs of their hands, taking the guess-work out for you. They’ll make sure you see everything you need to see, based on how many days you want to explore.
  3. The canopy over your head and the wind in your face offers a nice respite to the heat.

Where can I hire a Tuk-Tuk?

ANYWHERE. Literally anywhere. We flagged a tuk-tuk driver on our street, he named his price, we considered it, and off we went! They are also parked around the ticket office, and all the temples. At the end of the day we asked the driver if he wanted to take us around again the next day, and sure enough he was waiting for us outside our Airbnb at 4am like we asked.

3. TOURISTS

Believe it or not, but Angkor Wat wasn’t only on your bucket list. This place is crowded. And even though the complex is sprawling, expect to see a lot of tourists at the larger temples, and especially at the Angkor Wat. So, in many cases, you’re gonna have to get creative with your angles if you want a photo without other people in it.

And don’t be mad! They are there to explore just like you! Just because you didn’t come in a tour bus doesn’t make you any less of a tourist than they are.

What to expect at Angkor Wat: Lots of tourists!

What to Expect At Angkor Wat: Lots of Tourists!

The amount of people that show up for sunrise is especially jarring.

So…How Do I Avoid All the People Then?

Well, like I said, the complex is massive and there are tons of temples, and you can go almost anywhere once you’re there. So ask the driver to take you to smaller temples, where you might find only two or ten other people, or just find the quieter corners and courtyards of the bigger ones.

It’s really hard to avoid the crowd at that quintessential Angkor Wat sunrise (post coming about this soon!) – nay, impossible. But what you could do, is head to the further temples right after sunrise, when everyone else is heading into the main temple. We did this, and found ourselves basically alone.

What to Expect at Angkor Wat: Avoid Crowds in quiet corners

A quieter courtyard at Angkor Wat, the main temple.

What to Expect at Angkor Wat: Find the quiet corners

Lots of quiet corners to be had

4. EXPECT TO GET HUNGRY

You’re gonna work up an appetite doing all that exploring. There is a pretty big food area in the Angkor Thom section (where Bayon, the one with the faces, and Baphuon, the one with the reclining Buddha, are). However, we really didn’t feel like hot food in the middle of a hot, sweaty day, so we opted for lots of fruit snacks from any of the many stalls set up around the temples. Or bring your own packed lunches!

What to Expect at Angkor Wat: Food

Freshly cut pineapples on-the-go!

5. RELIGION!

Oh, BY THE WAY, Angkor Wat and the surrounding ruins are Buddhist temples. So expect to see some real life monks and DRESS FOR THE OCCASION. That means:

Cover your knees.

Cover your shoulders.

Wear loose-fitted clothing.

Don’t take any nude photos!? (Yes, this really happened…*face palm*).

6. YOU CAN DO IT IN A DAY

The park is open the whole day – from 5am to 6pm – so if you are really pressed for time and you really only have a day, you can definitely do it! Express this to your tuk-tuk driver and he will take care of you.

BUT

Beyond the day pass ($37), you can also buy a 3-day ($62) and a seven-day ($72) pass and the days don’t have to be consecutive. And you SHOULD definitely spend more than a day in Angkor. We only had a weekend, so we bought the 3-day pass and spent two days at the park, and we were completely satisfied with that. However, we did feel like we could probably spend a whole week there and never have to see the same thing twice.

7. TO GUIDE OR NOT TO GUIDE?

It’s the world largest religious structure, built in the 12th-century to honour the Hindu god Vishnu; the temples in Angkor are littered with statues and covered in relief carvings of warriors, demons, royalties, gods. So expect to be confronted with a whole lot of history of which you probably know very little about.

For this reason you can hire personal guides for the day – this is on top of what you will pay your driver. The guides, like the drivers, are everywhere. We didn’t do this! Instead, we watched some documentaries about Angkor Wat the day before, and ended up exploring with a general overview in mind. I can see how having a guide would be a valuable addition, but we have traveled enough to know that most of the time we are just not guide-people. We enjoy it more when we get to explore at our own pace.

But it would definitely be a better experience if you know something about what you are encountering.

What to Expect at Angkor Wat: Art

12th-century reliefs

8. TICKET POLICE

Ticket checks are done at all of the big temples, so DO NOT THROW YOUR TICKET AWAY! Keep it safe and close at hand.

9. KIDS SELLING STUFF

Unfortunately, Angkor Wat is one of those places where you’ll see little girls not in school selling cheap souvenirs instead.

10. MONKEYS!

Angkor Wat is basically being swallowed by the Cambodian forest, so there are a ton of monkeys monkeying around. They are super cute, but be careful and don’t get too close when you take that photo! They are very much used to all the tourists, and they get super cheeky – one even snatched my water bottle from right under my nose; I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard that they were grabbing cellphones from tourists’ hands!

11. BREATHTAKING LANDSCAPE

Most of all, expect to be inspired by the natural beauty of the park. Rivers, forests, lakes, lily pads, butterflies, the dappled sunshine through the forest canopy – we couldn’t believe our eyes. It is definitely one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. And when you can get away from the crowd – and it’s completely possible – it’s especially breathtaking.

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South African Safari: A Weekend in Nambiti

The sun was setting on our first safari drive; dusk was changing to darkness quickly and the warm evening was turning into a chilly night. We hadn’t seen any big cats, but we had basically seen everything else – hippos yawning boisterously, elephants mock-charging our vehicle, even a monitor lizard skulking in the murky shadows – so we were happy to head back to camp. But then our guide received the call, and after confirming this and that in ranger-code, we were told that we are not going home, we are going to look for lions…in the dark. 

We saw them up on the horizon first, when the sky was still dark navy, right before it would go black. And even from far away, they were so big that we made out their black silhouettes against the blue. And then those two pairs of red eyes glinting in the distance when our red spotlights pass over them. They moved slowly down towards the vehicles, with heavy intention; we watched and held our breaths and saw flashes of eyes as they moved right in between our car and the one behind us. Then they reclined slowly right next to us in our pool of red light; two male lions yawning wide and rolling over once or twice before getting up and moving along.

We drove back to the lodge with our jaws hanging open. We have seen lions on game drives before – dozing off or lazing around in the afternoons – but to see them prowl like that at night, to see them moving from the dark wilderness over there to the bushes and bristles right beside your feet, is a whole new way of seeing.

Safari: Hippo yawning

Nambiti Safari: Elephant encounter

Nambiti Safari: Giraffe

Nambiti Safari: Zebras

Something is going seriously right in your life when the first coffee of your day is out in the South African bush, with elephants, rhinos and countless impala grazing all around you. Especially when you follow that cup of coffee with some face-to-face encounters with herds of elephants and buffalo. And maybe the true mark of an immersive experience is that none of us have photos of these encounters. Because when an elephant walks right up to you, you stay very still, and when he turns his head to look into your eyes, all you can do is be captivated by his gaze.

And there is little left to say after a lion looks you right in the soul as he passes by, so close he may as well have rubbed his scent off your leg.

 

Nambiti Safari: Coffee time

Nambiti Safari: lions

South African Safari: Elephants up close

Nambiti Reserve & Ndaka Safari Lodge

Nambiti Reserve is private game park in eastern South Africa, just a few hours’ drive from Durban, and it is the perfect place for safari getaway, especially if you are only going for weekend. It is small enough so that you are pretty much guaranteed to see something besides antelope, but big enough so that you may drive for a long time without seeing anything (besides impala, of course…everyone’s favourite). But even besides the game, even if you go out on a drive and don’t see anything, it is still the perfect place for a safari getaway because of the incredible lodges on site – like Ndaka Safari Lodge, where we spent our 5-year-anniversary weekend.

Ndaka made our 2017 favourites list as my favourite hotel of the year, but it easily takes the cake for my favourite accommodation ever. Think waking up from your post-game-drive, mid-morning nap to towering giraffe striding across your ‘front yard’,  or soaking in a bath tub (or outdoor shower) with views of grazing zebra and wildebeest. And they don’t only take care of you at the lodge either. The vehicles are all equipped with cozy blankets and protective raincoats, and sometimes my favourite part of the drive was when our guide Ngcebo parked the car in front of a waterfall, or at a dam, or on the hilltops overlooking the lush valleys when we would watch the sun rise or set in that silence you only get in the wild bush – with the drink of your choice in your hand.

Nambiti Safari: Ndaka Lodge

Nambiti Safari: Ndaka Lodge

Nambiti Safari: Ndaka lodge 'back yard'

Nambiti Safari: Sundowners

Nambiti Safari: Sunset

I mean, is there anything better than watching the sun set behind what seems like the end of the world with some wildebeest teetering on the edge of it, WITH a glass of South African wine?

A BUCKET LIST EXPERIENCE

And during our penultimate drive we had one of the most magical experiences. It happened right around dusk. The sky was pink and on the horizon, far out over some valleys and hilltops, darker clouds were flashing with lightning every now and then, while the wind started to whip around us. And there they were again – those two incredible male lions. And once again, we held our breaths with every muscle they moved. They were looking into the distance, the wind whipping their manes around, and their eyes were fixed on a herd of impala down the hill. And as the wind rushed and the lightning lit up, it was like these lions were all that mattered. We were all – human and antelope – reacting to their presence. 

They set off running towards the impala, but the latter scattered like feathers in the wind – light and easy, and then they were gone. We had to leave soon after as dusk was becoming darkness again, but we will never forget those lions in the wind against the lightning-pink sky.

Nambiti Safari: Lion

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Budapest is kinda stealing the Hungarian thunder. Don’t get me wrong, I love Budapest! Really, if you’re going to Hungary, it’ll be a carnal sin to miss out on this spectacular city (get some ideas here), but, believe it or not, there’s life outside of the architecturally ornate, romantically lit up Hungarian capital.

Besides spending one really unique week in Debrecen (as a member of a children’s choir at a international choir competition), I’ve never been to other parts of Hungary and have actually not even considered visiting. Until Joel did some research and suggested we head out to some natural hot springs west of Budapest. And what followed was a perfect weekend exploring a peaceful (and cheap!) corner of the world that we’ve never considered before but would now absolutely recommend.

Cycling around the countryside in Hungary

THE HUNGARIAN SEA

We hopped into a rental car on Friday afternoon, trying to miss traffic as best we can, and headed out of the city towards Kezsthely – a small town on the southwestern shore of Lake Balaton. The drive to Kezsthely is about two hours, and a full HALF of it is along this lake, because it is GINORMOUS. It’s very long (77km) and skinny, and is the largest lake in Central Europe – it’s can’t-see-the-opposite-shore kind of big. We heard from our local Budapest walking tour guide that locals call it the Hungarian Sea.

We headed out to eat the best meal of our Hungary trip (read on!) and settled into our perfectly cozy Airbnb (you have to stay here…), before we fell asleep watching Australia’s Next Top Model (the best way to fall asleep?).

What followed was a Saturday of doing exactly what you’d want to do in a sleepy little ‘seaside’ town – whatever it is you want at whatever pace you feel like. We hopped on our blue cruiser bikes, and cycled the town silly – along the shore, around the village, through the foresty parks, stopping here and there to take in the spots of sunshine, the sound of swans paddling around, and just that quiet and peaceful weekend feeling. It was the perfect antecedent to a day in Budapest, which was buzzing with the electricity of Christmas markets and a Chinese delegation (weird, I know, but people were a bit hyped up about this).

Lake Balaton - the Hungarian Sea

Cycling around the forests in Hungary

Lake Balaton

We love Keszthely!

We were there in November, so although the lake wasn’t frozen over yet, we did not brave the water…But it is a super popular local summer holiday destination, when the average water temperature is 25°C, so we may have to come back for a dip in summertime.

THINGS YOU DIDN’T EXPECT

WINE! Lake Balaton has kind of a Mediterranean micro-climate, so it’s actually a wine region also. The winery near us was closed, so we didn’t get to go wine tasting, but maybe you could go out there and let us know what it’s like??

HEVIZ SPA

After getting our fill of countryside-cycling, we hopped in the car and drove the 15 minutes to Héviz, the teeny tiny town that gets its name from…wait for it…the world’s largest active geothermal lake! Lake Héviz is naturally replenished with hot and cold water from underwater springs every 72 hours, so the water is always fresh and never drops drops below 22°C. The temperature was around 25°C when we visited (but can get up to almost 40°C in summer), but I have to be honest and say that that doesn’t feel super warm when you have to go outside in your bathing suit when it’s like 10°C. However, the building is on stilts, so even though the water flows freely around and under the building, there are sections underneath that are insulated and actually nice and hot (think bathwater warm). But if you buy a combined ticket you can go in between the lake and the saunas and hot tubs in the attached spa area, which is kind of the ideal situation.

All in all, it was a pretty awesome, wonderfully unique, very eastern-european Saturday afternoon for the books! Really…get out of Budapest, and go to Lake Héviz! It is unlike any place we’ve ever been, in the best, coziest, most unfamiliar way possible. 

Lake Heviz

BEFORE YOU GO

Remember your sandals! It’s not required, but just like the Budapest baths, it’s way more convenient if you have some!

Lake Héviz is perfect for swimming around lap-style. It’s very big and very deep (almost 40 meters!), there’s very little restriction concerning where you’re allowed to swim, and it’s not crowded.

BUT, if you’re feeling like floating around, it might be nice to bring a floaty of some sort – a tube or a pool noodle or something like that, to make your lake paddling a bit less tiring. There are wooden beams here and there that you can swim out to and hold on to, but they are a bit slippery.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Tickets are 2400 HUF for three hours (that’s almost €8), OR

2 600 HUF for four hours (almost €8.50), OR

3 700 HUF for the whole day (almost €12).

This is for the lake entry only, and does not include the Sauna World, which we’d recommend getting since it’s only a couple euros more. We had a three-hour ticket, and after figuring stuff out and changing and renting our towels and everything, we felt a bit rushed. Four hours would be ideal.

It’s a bit inconvenient, but the towel rentals are way out in the main building over the lake (a bit of a walk from the changing room, so we recommend bringing your own towel if possible). It’s 1000 HUF (plus 1000 HUF deposit). CASH ONLY! We did not have enough money but the poor towel girl allowed us to rent a towel with the random amount of money we could scrape together.

Do not expect the same English-speaking tourist friendly, decadently designed setting as the Budapest baths! Things are a bit more local, and the clientele is 80% 70-year-olds – there’s a rheumatic live-in clinic or something on site.

Co-ed locker rooms! This was confusing at first, but men and women all use one big locker room. Look for the changing cubicles staggered in between the lockers.

You need to validate your bracelet in order to get your locker. Ons you validate it, your timer is activated. You will then see similar little boxes against walls and pillars everywhere against which you can check your remaining time. We did not have to check out with our bracelets or anything, so the jury is out whether anyone is actually keeping track of your time.

Expect some nudity! Some seniors don’t really bother with the private changing cubicles, so you’re in for a treat.

HOW TO GET THERE

We rented a car from Budapest, but you don’t have to. There’s also a bus service to Heviz, which takes just over 4 hours. Since we don’t ever drive in London, it’s always a treat for us to get out on the open road in a foreign place.

WHEN TO GO

We visited mid-November, and we were probably just on the edge of it being too cold and too quiet. Any of the other seasons would be a great time to go – the colours in autumn, the blooms in spring, and the festivities and swimming in summer. 

WHERE TO EAT

OMG.

We made a huge mistake.

And we are here to let you know not to make that same mistake.

Basically the biggest fail of our entire trip to Hungary, was NOT going to Jóbarát Vendéglö for dinner for BOTH of our nights in Kezsthely. Because DAYUM IT IS GOOD.

Don’t be fooled by the alluring ‘international cuisine’ or ‘BBQ nights’ of John’s Pub. Don’t even bother. Just spend all your time and money at Jóbarát Vendéglö.

Try some Hungarian wines and beers, the roast carp, the stuffed turkey, but most of all try the goulash with beans. OMG. Thank us later.

WHERE TO STAY

Keszthely is the perfect base for exploring the area and visiting Heviz. We sort of ended up here because the hotels in Heviz were disproportionately expensive and the Airbnbs were slim pickings. Lucky for us, because it lead us to Dora Holiday Housea super affordable Airbnb managed by Melinda, who is just one of the sweetest, most thoughtful Airbnb hosts out there. The apartment came with two bikes, and is just 2 minutes’ cycle away from the shore of the lake and the town market and coffee shop (very NB). Follow this link for a sweet discount on us! 🙂

Dora Holiday House

Joel and his two weekend whips in front of our cozy Airbnb in Kezsthely, Hungary

WHAT TO DO

Whatever your heart desires. Cycle, stroll, and bring your euros to dispense some duck feed by the lake. Go wine tasting, go souvenir shopping, go geothermal lake dipping. Eat and drink and take it easy. And if you’ve had enough relaxing and unwinding and unplugging, go check out the local 18th-century palace, because, you know, Europe.

Keszthely Palace

The 18th-century Festetics Palace in Keszthely

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