Boerewors: Vinegar, spice and everything nice

It’s solace in a bun. It’s what you trade for wine with your friends from Cape Town when they visit. It’s what you buy by the metre and eat sizzling hot off the flames at Mzoli’s in Gugulethu. It’s eaten with All Gold or chakalaka or smoor. It’s an ode to our collective history as a nation. It’s spicy, fatty, succulent boerewors.

Continue reading “Boerewors: Vinegar, spice and everything nice”

An adventurer’s guide to exploring the Sunshine Coast

There are two types of summer holiday-makers in South Africa.

The ones who prefer beach holidays – salty, sandy days of lounging in the sun, reading a book or filling a crossword. And the buzz-seekers – those who like zooming across the water on jet-skis or being dragged behind a boat…

Continue reading “An adventurer’s guide to exploring the Sunshine Coast”

Welfare of SA’s ‘bone lions’ sidelined​ by DEA, DAFF

Captive Bred Lions destined for canned hunting or slaughter for their bones are not protected by South Africa’s animal welfare laws. The Departments responsible for their welfare and regulating the industry are simply ‘passing the buck’.

According to Karen Trendler of the Wildlife Trade and Trafficking unit of the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA), the welfare of South Africa’s captive-bred lions is falling through the cracks.

Continue reading “Welfare of SA’s ‘bone lions’ sidelined​ by DEA, DAFF”

Major SA hotel group continues to promote lion walks

Human-wildlife interactions with iconic big cats including lions, cheetahs and their cubs are being promoted via the Ranch Protea Hotel in Limpopo, owned by Marriott International, despite statements distancing themselves from such activities.

Continue reading “Major SA hotel group continues to promote lion walks”

Into the Okavango with SA’s NatGeo Adventurer

“I had made a terrible mistake…” wildlife biologist Steve Boyes says, describing the day when he and his research assistant were thrown off their mekoro into the waters of the Cuito river by an angry hippopotamus.

When he saw a rustling in the reeds, he immediately thought they were approaching a crocodile and headed to deeper water, where crocs aren’t as powerful.

But he assumed wrong. By the time one of the team members shouted “kubu!”, ‘hippo’ in Setswana, the ill-tempered mammal had already crushed the canoe with its powerful jaw.

Steve and his assistant managed to swim to the riverbank safely, but the two massive holes pieced through the solid 500kg mekoro served as a reminder of the wilderness territory they were in.

 (A hippo bull. Photo James Kydd)

Steve led a 35-person team of explorers and scientists across 2 540km from the source of the Okavango delta in the Angolan highlands to its desert estuary in Botswana in 5-metre, flat-bottom mekoro, or canoes – an expedition which qualified him as a contender for the 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

NatGeo named him the ‘Wilderness Protector’ and the 36-year-old nature-lover is the only adventurer from Africa in the group of finalists.

When the hippo bit through his boat, he was a month into his four-month-long expedition, which he hopes will make a convincing case for the forests, floodplains and rivers of this area to be officially declared as Africa’s largest wildlife reserve.


(The Okavango Delta. Photo James Kydd)

The Okavango Delta in Botswana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, but Boyes says that as long as the rivers that feed the delta remain unprotected, the delta is at risk.

NatGeo describes it as an “unprecedented international conservation effort that would ensure the preservation of the entire Okavango catchment”.

On the expedition, the team of researchers, area experts and data collectors ventured into territory that had never been explored before. They were the first people to explore the source of the Okavango delta and document their findings in this life-giving southern African artery from its spring in Angola, through Namibia and finally to Botswana.

They spent the first nine days of the expedition harnessed to their half-tonne mekoro, dragging the boats over dry land where the river channel was too narrow to pass through.


(Dragging the mekoro through the marsh. Photo James Kydd)

“We anticipated the trip to the source to take no longer than 21 days,” Steve said. They arrived there six weeks later, 21 days behind schedule.

“Police helicopters and the Angolan government were resupplying us so we could make it to the river – we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the Angolan government”.

Once on the river, 15 team members joined him in six mekoro. Their river journey wasn’t any easier as they were constantly faced with the typical challenges one comes across when you venture into uncharted territory. Apart from the hippo, they had to row alongside crocodiles, drift past herds of elephant – the largest remaining population of elephants in the world.

“At one point, we encountered a herd of about a thousand buffalo,” Steve recalls.

 (Herd of buffalo. Photo James Kydd)

Many times their boats would capsize because of the obstructive fig tree roots lying just below the water’s surface. But the technology was never damaged says Steve. “The waters in these rivers are so pure, it has no conductive power. You’d drop your laptop into the river and it wouldn’t even know it’s under water!”

The expedition’s dangerous edge had a few upsides too.

On the trip Steve and his team came across hundreds of new birds, fish, insects and plants. Many of these newly-documented organisms are still being accessed before they will be officially declared.


(Possible family of the Mormyridae, sometimes called “elephant fish”. Photo James Kydd)

In total, they recorded 11 000 wildlife sighting on their live stream app on the expedition – that’s more than 32 000 individual animals.

Steve says they chose to broadcast their expedition in real time in order to save time. “We can’t be conservationists and hide away with any kind of data, because action has to happen now,” he says. For Steve gathering all of the scientific data they did, and then hiding it at a university waiting to be published would have been counterproductive.

The expedition was streamed on the interactive page intotheokavango.org.

“We got to share the new experience with people around the world. School kids in Canada as well as our family members could be on the expedition with us. We never considered the research our own – it belongs to the Okavango delta. We wanted to make a statement for conservation.”


(Steve’s brother Chris Boyes, who accompanied him on the expedition, looking at a research sample. Photo James Kydd)

Steve says he strongly believes that this ‘open science’ is the way to raise awareness about conservation.

“Very few people get to walk the moon – but with technology, we all get to share the experience,” he says. “And that’s how you create awareness and open the world to everyone.”

Despite the setbacks early on, Boyes and his team made it to the delta on 18 September 2015.

The team’s heart-rates, which were monitored on their live streaming devices, averaged a whopping 135 beats per minute throughout the trip – the norm should be 100.

Evidently, their hearts were in it.

Check out the NatGeo 2015 Adventurer of the Year motivation video for The Wilderness Protector, Steve Boyes, below…

https://assets.nationalgeographic.com/modules-video/assets/ngsEmbeddedVideo.html?guid=00000150-fdf0-dd5e-a751-fdf42bad0001&t=59


(The expedition team on their mekoro, with buffalo in the background. Photo James Kydd)

 


(The expedition team at the source of the Delta. Photo James Kydd)


(Chris Boyes and a young elephant. Photo James Kydd)
*This article was originally written for and published by News24 Traveller24. View it here.

Gunfire, ambush and the bush – time travelling in the Caprivi

Before visiting the SADC countries of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe last year, we were told by everyone who had been there before that we’ll see thousands of elephant.

We didn’t doubt them, as it is, after all, home to the largest remaining population of elephants in the world.

As our luck would have it, we drove through Botswana for three days without seeing a single animal. Forget the elephants, we didn’t see even an impala. (We did see endangered vultures pulling apart a roadkill cow, though.)

As we entered into Namibia through the Mohembo border control and into the Caprivi towards Katima Mulilo, we were gatvol.

We were travelling with my parents and their friends – a group of mid-forty-year-old Afrikaans farmers who were as desperate to see a buck as they were for a decent plate of boerekos.

By the time we reached Namibia, trekking through the sand, 2 400km away from our point of departure in Cradock, the thought of seeing elephants was about the only thing motivating us to drive on.

Camping on the banks of the Okavango River the first night in the Caprivi strip in Namibia, I realized this was not the first time my dad and some of the other men had been in this part of the world. The previous time they were here, though, they were 18 years old, and not so much interested in spotting elephants.

The Caprivi strip is one sought after piece of land in sub-Saharan Africa, bordered not only by three countries, but also four African river arteries, the Okavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi. But its rich natural heritage, it seems, is also its curse, as this 105km-wide stretch has seen a significant amount of conflict over the past couple of decades.

It was during the 1965 – 1994 operations, when the South African government sent troops to fight SWAPO (the South West Africa People’s Organization) in the area, when my dad and his pals, along with thousands of other 18-year-old South African boys, fought in the Border War here.

We set up camp in the Mahango Game Reserve close to the Botswana border our first night in the Caprivi. As the fire crackled, one of my dad’s friends recalled a night spent here, in the very same bush, some 26 years ago.

“I was on the night shift, patrolling the area,” he remembered, “when I got a horrible feeling that the enemy was surrounding us”. SWAPO insurgents, he said, had the upper hand as they knew the area well, and had prying loose on the South Africans from the thick bush.

Snapping a dry twig between his fingers, he demonstrated the sounds he heard that night, when he thought they were ambushed. “In my mind, I could see them trying not to make a noise as they maneuvered past the bushes towards us.

“I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” he said, but managed to walk into the night, finger shaking on the trigger of an automatic gun. “When I finally got the guts to put on my flashlight, I was standing two metres from an elephant!

“These things can be anywhere,” he said pointing to our dark surroundings, referring to our current search for the ‘enemy’.

That night in my tent, I was woken by a giggling hyena scavenging in our camp. As I lay awake, slightly spooked by the hyena, I thought of the war that once tormented this strip – and those who lived here then. I might have dosed off and dreamt it, but I could have sworn I heard gunfire in the distance…

The next day we were as adamant as ever to see elephants.

As we were driving thought the dense thicket looking for the elusive giants, we drove past a dilapidated little concrete building, consumed by the trees and grass in which it was first erected.

My father whipped out the walky-talky from between to two front seats as if he’d just seen an elephant. “Hendrik, Hendrik kom in…” he summoned his comrade in the vehicle in front of us. “This must be where 32 Battalion was stationed”.

As if back on the “grens” (the border), as they called it, they tried to establish the layout of the old army camp in intervals on the two-way radios – each radio-holding party adding a bit of info between screeching bleeps and standardised communications like “copy that”, “loud and clear” and “over and out”.

There are no real roads in the area, and you pretty much drive where it looks like there was once a track…

And then it happened. An elephant bull came charging out of the thicket, about a hundred metres ahead of us. It stopped in the track, looked directly at us with flapping ears, and then turned around and sped off again, stopping to look at our vehicle once or twice as it ran away.

We thought it strange, but concluded it must have been an agitated bull in musth.

Futher down the track, we stumbled upon another sort of army camp – this one, though, was still in use…

As our vehicles stopped on the premises, a friendly looking, AK47-bearing, army-clad man came walking up to us, greeting us in fluent Afrikaans. He told us they were stationed out here to monitor poaching. “We arrested some suspects just last night,” he said. I thought of the gunshots…

“It’s better now, but people were killing the elephants as they pleased here after the wars,” he said. For the elephants, the war has never stopped.

“The elephants are traumatized. They’ve seen too many wars. And elephants never forget, you know.”

*We did see elephants in the end, hundreds of them. But spotted only the rogue bull in the area where the South African soldiers were once stationed. 

 

*This article was originally written for and published by News24 Traveller24. View it here.

When it rains in South Africa…

South Africans have this interesting fascination with rain which, understandably, has a lot to do with the greater part of the country being a semi-desert, arid place. And for the people who are directly dependent on the rainfall and seasons, like my farming family, rain is always an otherworldly blessing.

It’s like experiencing a miracle – not very different to celebrating a wedding or welcoming a newborn into the family.

During the 2016 December break, when the rains finally started to come down after what has been one of the driest years I’ve seen in my life, Christmas was an even more special occasion.

Thunder had been threatening since Christmas Day, and when large, loud drops descended the day after, everybody in the house instinctively grabbed a chair and went to sit on the stoep in a straight line facing the mountain ahead – just looking at the rain.

We didn’t communicate, apart from the occasional eyebrow raise my dad gave every time it came down hard. That’s us in the photo above… and when the curtain of rain passed, everyone jumped in the bakkie to go and see if the rivers were flowing.

In Cradock, where we live, the Great Fish River flows through the town, and a rise in river levels is headline news.

When the river would come down, we all used to go to its banks to witness the power of the flowing water, and to listen to the frightening sound of the gushing water.

It’s rained in Cradock again now. And I’ve been getting WhatsApp updates from the family group since dawn. They’re at the riverside again.

But it seems we aren’t so unique in our fascination with the river and the rain.

A photo on Facebook also show a bunch of Kalahari folk camped out at the side of a flooding river. These campers are far from Cradock, in the Kalahari, and yet they share the same awe for water I grew up with.

 

Most of South Africa, in fact, shares in this love for the rain. And I think it might be because rain is like an equaliser.

We’re all equally dependent on it and we’re all equally powerless against it. But it brings us together. Remember with the floods in Gauteng in 2016?

Photos of motorists forming a human lifeline, waist-deep in gushing water, still make my eyes water. And the story of that truck driver that braced the turbulent waters to save a woman who became trapped after her car was swept away still send shivers down my spine.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fleon.kruyshaar%2Fvideos%2F10154679877919643%2F&show_text=0&width=626 

Fire has a similar equalising effect. While my father is rejoicing in the rain, firefighters in the Western Cape are fighting relentlessly to save people’s lives and homes. Like the truck driver in the rain, they’re risking their lives to save people they’ve never met in their lives (and perhaps even to fight fires that have been deliberately started).

Luckily the fires, like the rain, bring new life to the unique vegetation found in the Western Cape floral kingdom.

Either way, this is what it means to live in South Africa.

It’s risky business living here. The elements are against you. But boy, when it rains in South Africa… that’s something to experience.

 

*This article was originally written for and published by News24 Traveller24. View it here.

Namibian Tourism Ministry brushes off questionable killing of desert elephants

Two of the only five remaining mature desert elephant bulls that occupied the Ugab region of Namibia have recently been hunted and killed.

Tsaurab and Tusky, along with another juvenile bull, Kambonde, were shot in the midst of an international outcry and ongoing petitions attempting to halt the killings – an uproar brushed off by the Namibian Ministry of Environment & Tourism (MET) as a “fabrication and misunderstanding over the issuance of permits for the destruction of problem-causing animals,” stating also that the killing of a problem-causing animal is “often the last resort after other alternatives have been tried.”

However, with the killing of Kambonde, supposedly a problem-causing animal, this was not the case.

Inhumane killing

According to the daughter of the owner of the property where Kambonde was shot, landowners and locals attempted to save the elephant. “We made a lot of effort to relocate the elephant, but the Government refused to give a permit.”

Instead, a hunting permit was issued by MET. But on the day of the kill, the hunter refused to go ahead with the kill because the 18-year-old Kambonde was too small. Instead, the hunter was issued a last-minute trophy hunting permit to shoot Tsaurab, a desert elephant affectionately known for his meek and gentle character and one of only two young breeding adult bulls in the region.

The next day, MET ordered the killing of Kambonde anyway. And, according to a community game guard in Sorris Sorris Conservancy, the animal’s death was a bloodbath. “The elephant had to be shot eight times after the hunter just wounded it with the first shot. The MET warden present at the hunt had to apply the coup de grâce,” or mercy kill.

According to MET spokesperson Romeo Muyunda, problem animals are often outsourced to be killed by paying hunters, as was the case with Kambonde.

Kambonde - Facebook EHRA
Kambonde – Facebook EHRA

Voortrekker, the famous 45-year-old bull, 35-year-old Bennie and 25-year-old Cheeky are now the only bulls of breeding age remaining in the region.

Why kill rare desert elephants?

Following the hunting, MET assures “all international followers” that they “have created platforms that incentivize communities to co-exist with wildlife”. As is evident in the case of Kambonde, however, no “co-existence” effort appears to have been considered, despite the relocation option put forward by the community itself.

No reply has been received to a letter and extensive research document put together by concerned stakeholders, including Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), either. The document and letter, obtained through a lodge in the area that participated in the survey, was addressed directly to Minister of Environment and Tourism Pohamba Shifeta and outlined the conservation status, population breakdown, financial value, ecological importance and job opportunities surrounding desert elephants.

MET’s reluctance to consider alternative measures to deal with problem-causing animals is further marred by the absence of a legal checking mechanism which establishes whether an animal in question is indeed “problem-causing,” and whether its killing is indeed the last resort. According to the Earth Organization Namibia, MET may in its discretion declare any wild animal a “problem animal.”

These obfuscations are causing suspicion among conservationists, who argue that MET is being dictated to by outside influences and benefactors, such as the Dallas Safari Club (DSC) Foundation who facilitated the 2013 black rhino hunt in Namibia.

Despite the backlash spurred from the aforementioned hunt, Namibia’s MET and the US trophy-hunting group DSC earlier this year signed a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at “promoting” Namibia’s conservation hunting and allowing the hunters’ club to help with auctioning off the country’s “old” rhinos, among other hunting objectives.

Denying desert elephants

MET continues to justify the killing of desert elephants through trophy hunting by denying the existence of these adapted animals altogether. In September, Muyunda told The Namibian that there is no such thing as a desert elephant. He says the definition is a mere “marketing tool for tourist attractions or conservationists with the apparent intention of implying to endangerment or eminent extinction of those elephants.”

Scientific, peer-reviewed research suggests otherwise. A study published in Ecology and Evolution in 2016 found not only that the Namib desert elephants were different from their Savanna cousins, but that their adaptations are also not genetically transferred to the next generation, rather through the passing on of knowledge. Morphological differences, like the adapted elephants’ thinner bodies and wider feet, also distinguish them from typical Savanna Elephants, which MET claim them to be.

EHRA’s annual report for 2016 also showed that only 62 desert-adapted elephants remained in the Ugab and Huab river region. Muyunda, on the other hand, says Namibia’s elephants are not at risk at all.

Although MET states that it considers “all aspects on the basis of science and research when granting a permit to hunt any species,” attempts to attain such “science and research” have been ignored.

 

*This article was originally written for and published by Conservation Action Trust

Snow, stars, serenity, Sutherland

 

Sutherland is what you’d call a perfect winter weekend breakaway destination in South Africa. While it may seem like a sleepy town at first glance, it offers all the iconic Karoo charm plus a few extras.

Sutherland’s charm is linked directly to the weather. See, Sutherland is one of only a few places in SA that gets really, really cold. It also sees snow more regularly than other places, thanks to its exposed and high location in the Karoo.

Apart from being a cosy haven where you can snuggle by the fireplace, the weather is also very important for another uniquely Sutherland feature – star-gazing.

Experience Sutherland

Sutherland is home to the South African Large Telescope – or SALT. This in itself makes it worth a visit, as it is the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

It’s a marvelous thing to see, and if you have kids, chances are you’ll have an aspiring astronaut or astronomer on your hands after a visit to SALT.

In winter, it gets so cold at this remote location that the frozen grass and soil audibly crunches underfoot. I don’t know if the architects were being ironic when they built SALT, but it actually looks like a massive saltshaker, standing isolated and tall in the arid Karoo.

That it still stands is another incredible thing. The winds up there get so strong that you hear them howling from the inside of the building – even though it’s built in a round shape. But it stands, un-phased by the winds of earth and looks solely to matters of outer-space.

Since the early 1970s, the major telescopes of the South African Astronomical Observatory have operated on this hilltop, 1 800 metres above sea level, near the Karoo, about 370 km inland.

It’s best to do a fully guided day tour one Saturday morning. It includes a walk through the Visitor Centre as well as a guided tour of selected research telescopes including SALT. Hourly tours, which are self-guided, are also possible, but not nearly as insightful.

Night tours are also possible at the visitor centre, and this includes the viewing of interesting objects in the sky through two dedicated visitor telescopes, a 16″ Meade and 14″ Celestron.

NOTE: Visitors cannot visit any of the research telescopes at night, not even SALT. Astronomy is a light sensitive science and no lights are allowed up on the plateau in the evenings.

Much less risky to the global astronomy practice, and much more personal for star-gazing visitors, it the Sterland experience.

Jurg Wagener runs the show at Sterland, a privately-owned interactive star-gazing farm just outside of town. The show at Sterland starts at 20:00 sharp, and lasts two hours. First an indoor presentation will give you a bit of background on the area, the people and essentially, the stars, all the constellations and planets in the universe.

Then, you’ll head out to for some stargazing… and this is so much more exciting than what it sounds. Star-gazers are first taken into the Muisbos-Amphi theatre, a sheltered area where telescopes are propped up, ready for use.

Wagener uses 5 x 11 inch (280mm) Celestron Go-To telescopes, each fitted with its own GPS. The telescopes are clear, and very easy to use, and at each station, a knowledgeable guide will help you identify and understand the different things you spot. They make use of a very powerful laser so that each stargazer can see what they are talking about.

NOTE: Bookings are essential to avoid disappointment. You can contact Jurg for bookings 082 556 9589.

Eat the Karoo

Apart from snow and stars, Sutherland is famous for one other thing – Karoo lamb. The icy weather and barren Karoobossie landscape make for the most tender of lamb products, with that distinct Karoo flavour.

Added to this, lamb from this area is naturally free-range, hormone-free and 100% organic. If you’re after a first class Karoo meal, Cluster d’Hote is one of the best places in town to experience this. They serve the best lamb shank in town, and perhaps even in the country! Go early and have a sherry at the bar to warm you up before dinner.

NOTE: Booking is essential to avoid disappointment. You can contact the owners Johann and Anelia Marais at 023 571 1436.

Stay in Sutherland

If you’re going, Saffraan lodge on Middelfontein Farm just outside Sutherland, is a lovely spot to stay. This stone cottage has no electricity and is the perfect romantic winter getaway as it is very private and intimate.

The cottage also provides the perfect spot for stunning astro-photography. On nights when there is no moon, the Milky Way and Megallan clouds appear so close, as if you can touch it. Winter is the best time to go, as this is the time when Sutherland receives a lot of snow, and photography results are at their best.

 

*This article was originally written for and published by News24 Traveller24. View it here.

Incredible Vietnam experiences in and around the ancient city of Hoi An

If there’s one thing South Africa can learn from Vietnam, it’s to embrace and showcase its UNESCO World Heritage sites.

I know we embrace and love our natural, cultural and historical heritage, don’t get me wrong. But reflecting on a trip through Vietnam, I think we can do better to promote these sites as sustainable tourist attractions.

Our countries have the same number of Heritage Sites, and yet a typical Vietnam travellers’ guide would lead you straight to their UNESCO declared wonders first.

In SA, apart from Robben Island in Cape Town, visitors to our country often only learn about the rich cultural heritage of the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape or the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape after they’ve ticked off all the ‘other’ travel hotspots like Cape Town, the Garden Route and the Kruger National Park.

In Vietnam, I found, it was the other way around. When asking around, the locals all proudly directed us to their UNESCO sites as the most prominent places to experience first. And nowhere in Vietnam was this more prevalent than in Hoi An – one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Hoi An is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then it’s also surrounded by two other individually declared sites. All are cultural heritage sites, all dating from different eras and tied together beautifully by the Old Town UNESCO area in the heart of Hoi An, where ancient Chinese culture meets French-inspired colonial architecture and influence.

But wait, let me not get carried away. Travelling isn’t all about ticking off UNESCO World Heritage Sites anyway. It’s about getting a sense of the destination and the local people that make it great.

Just go exploring…

Wherever you’re stationed, whether it be at a hotel or Airbnb spot, ask someone local to give you a few pointers on where to go. Then whip out Google Maps and mark down the places that seem interesting. Then, go…

To the Gardens 

Before you head go in search of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, just take a day to explore the town of Hoi An and surrounds.

Hike a bike (it costs $5, about R70, for a day) or take the hotels’ complimentary bicycles and ride out to the rice paddies, or Bale Well and local gardens just outside town.

The local villagers tend to the garden, and there are a few little restaurants where you can eat the local produce.

To the Beach 

An Bang Beach sits right by the local gardens and is a lovely spot with straw umbrellas en desk chairs laid out by the restaurant operators. The vibe is definitely more touristy, with big beer gardens hogging the beachfront. But for an afternoon chill, it’s just the spot to hang out and take a dip in the (surprisingly cold) South China Sea.

To the Island 

Cam Nam is a little river island that is accessible from Hoi An via a single bridge only. We took the motorbike to the island to a little restaurant, on the recommendation of Noel Cameron, hotel manager at our Anantara Hoi An.

He said that Cam Nam serves a small-scale representation of everything agricultural Vietnam offers – from fishing, rice plantations and small piggeries and chicken coops – and right he was.

In a single afternoon, I got a base knowledge of what all to expect from Hoi An, and where exactly the fresh local fish came from.

Thu Bon River cruising

Another way to gain some perspective – geographically speaking – on how exactly Hoi An looks, is by doing a cruise on the Thu Bon River which runs right through the heart of the city.

We were there when a monsoon struck central Vietnam, but judging by the locals’ nonchalance about this imminent disaster, this was the sort of this that happened quite often…

Either way, the elevated river gave us an even better view of the famous Hoi An market at dusk, just when the Chinese lanterns lit up the streets…

What was an even greater experience, was sleeping on a renovated old fishing boat which had been converted into a lovely, romantic houseboat, complete with a sundeck on top (where our crate of local Saigon beers tasted even better at sunset).

Enter the Old Town

Speaking of sunset, Hoi An’s Ancient Town and UNESCO World Heritage Site closes its streets after the workday, leaving the narrow cobblestone alleys open to exploring.

I must admit, the first time we walked into the Old Town, I didn’t even realise I was walking into a World Heritage Site. The ancient culture had been preserved immaculately, no doubt. But this is done alongside sustainable tourism initiatives to get people into the area, spending time and spending money.

We did both, and we went back to Hoi An’s Ancient Town every day during our week long stay to spend time and money. It was truly the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

Local craftspeople occupied the heritage buildings, offering tailoring services and making the most beautiful leather products. I bought a couple of dresses, hand-made and tailored to my body on the spot.

I picked the fabric and style and 10-hours later, picked up my exact order. My husband had a pair of leather shoes made, also fitted and tailored to his feet exactly, and collected them a day after ordering.

Then, the night market. The iconic Chinese lantern-lit fairy tale market. You can’t help but feel the ‘love in the air’ walking underneath those rich coloured lights, eating some freshly fried banana pancakes or coconut ice-cream.

The markets are also the place to buy some well-made Vietnamese souvenirs like dainty porcelain bowls or bamboo chopsticks. And the food markets are perfect for buying fresh or fermented Vietnamese goodies.

Exploring the wild side in Hue ancient city

Located on the banks of the Perfume River, Hue is the ancient city which served as the national capital from 1802 to 1945 when the Nguyen Dynasty emperors ruled the lands.

The vast, 19th-century Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls is certainly the biggest attraction, but the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines, the Forbidden Purple City (once the emperor’s home) as well as a replica of the Royal Theater.

History and culture are certainly the main attractions here, but if you’re after something different, there are many tour agencies that operate boat trips along Perfume River, from which tourists can see the beautiful scenery.

At 1 450-metres-high, the Bach Ma National Park also provides a wild escape from the city in some four-seasons-type weather and immaculate views. Hook up with a local guide and do a hiking trail to the various lakes in the park – you’ll be blown away by the beauty.

Drive out to My Son Sanctuary

Tour operators will try to persuade you to go on a group tour to the  My Son Sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage Centre, about 40km from Hoi An. But my advice is: Go alone.

It’s a gravel road, and you’ll need a good map, but if you’re up for the adventure, a motorbike drive to the My Son Sanctuary is a must-do experience.

It’s about an hours’ bike ride out of Hoi An through the most beautiful rural areas – which just keeps getting more and more beautiful as you approach the old ruins.

My Son Sanctuary dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries.  In this time, a unique culture which owed its spiritual origins to Indian Hinduism developed where My Son Sanctuary is now. This is graphically illustrated by the remains of a series of impressive tower-temples located in a dramatic site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence.

 

*This article was originally written for and published by News24 Traveller24. View it here.