A Travellerspoint blog

May 2010

Of Myths and claims...The Highest in the world??? Bullsh*t

False advertising to con/hook in Backpackers and their [sometimes] hard-earned money.

Travelers across the world are frequently bombarded with information and marketing to do once in a lifetime activities. Some, such as shark cage diving, swimming with whales and the like are indeed special activities, and though often associated with a specific location (especially amongst backpacking/traveling circles) can normally be done in several locations across the globe. Shark cage diving, for example, is a big attraction in Cape Town, although it is not unique to the Cape.

Other attractions, however, though still exciting and worthy are more common place. But because they are common place, the operators try and find ways to sell their experience as more special or unique (more unique? meh...) than anybody else's. Hence you get a preponderance of people offering the biggest, largest, highest, longest, tallest, scariest or fastest: And that just refers to your beer tab in the average hostel bar.

Naturally, at least half of all these claims – and probably much more – are dubious, out of date, requiring several qualifications, or just plain wrong. Within a week, we saw two different places (Table Mountain in Cape Town, and one in Lesotho) advertising the worlds highest abseil. Or, take the bungee jump at Bloukrans Bridge, east of Knysna on the South coast, for example. It proudly claims to be the worlds highest bungee jump, and even has a large certificate from the Guinness Book of World records on one wall to prove it. But what does that mean?

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Maaret doing what might – or might not - be the worlds highest abseil, off Table Mountain

A quick glance at the certificate reveals that the wording is 'commercial' bungee jump. And a date of issue is very conspicuous by it's absence. A (very) small amount of research later and you discover that Bloukrans is actually only the 3rd highest commercial bungee in the world (though it is the highest bridge), and soon to get much lower as higher jumps open, though you can bet that they will still claim to be the highest. The highest, as of November 2009 is the Macau tower, which at 223 metres is 17 metres higher. The second highest is the Verzasca Dam in Switzerland, the same dam jumped off by Pierece Brosnan in the opening of the Bond film GoldenEye. A jump off the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado is over 100metres higher still, although at present it is only open to commercial jumpers every couple of years and so does not allegedly really count. AJ Hackett, the pioneer of bungee jumping and still one of the major players, has plans to turn it into a fixed commercial jump soon. And then, of course there are special jumps off tall buildings, and from helicopters, airplanes and hot air balloons which are much, much higher but not commercial or fixed, and thus not listed.

I am in no way a bungee expert – I have no desire to ever do one: i enjoy going up things, and normally get little kick from going down – but traveling with Maaret, I have suddenly learned quite a bit about them. Maaret is a bungee enthusiast. The Bloukrans one was her first ever jump, and she has since done many more including 7 of the top 10 highest in the world; once went all the way to Switzerland for a weekend just to do a single jump, and generally knows quite allot about them. One continual bugbear of hers is the misadvertising involved: Many people have jumped off the bridge at Victoria Falls linking Zimbabwe and Zambia, and say they have done the 3rd highest in the world. They say that because Lonely Planet tells them that it is, and LP is always, of course, 100% correct and never, ever has any errors. And the operators are not going to correct people either, as they are a major overland travel route and on to a good thing. In point of fact, at only 111m, it barely features in the top 10 highest commercial jumps. That is not to say that it is not a good jump or a great experience and should not be done. Merely that the advertising and hype is horribly incorrect.

The other thing that I only discovered at Bloukrans, watching a couple of people jump and talking to Maaret (there is no doubt that however many higher ones there are, it is still an impressive bridge and an impressive jump) is how the height is measured. In my naivety, I had assumed that if a jump is 218metres high, then you would be jumping/free falling for 218metres. This is not so. 218metres is actually the distance from the platform to the ground and a messy death below. The actual distance of rope, and thus the jump, is much less. At Bloukrans, for example, it looked as though jumpers got barely halfway down, whilst at Victoria Falls they probably covered ¾ of the distance.

I admit that I was amazed by this discovery.

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Bloukrans Bridge, home of a very high bungee jump, and the highest fixed commercial bridge bungee in the world

All these things are at best annoying. Sometimes ignorance is best, but in practical terms, it is basically false advertising (lying) as a way of making money from gullible tourists, and to my mind should not be allowed. Whether most people care is actually a moot point. If something says it is the worlds highest bungee jump, people are going to tell their friends that they have done it, regardless of whether it actually is or not.

But next time you are offered the chance to do the 'biggest', 'highest', 'longest', 'largest', 'fastest' or any other superlative of pretty much anything, and decide to do it solely for that reason, stop for a moment, do a bit of research and take the claim with a pinch of salt.

And at the end of the day, whether it is the highest or not, the chances are you will enjoy it (and/or be scared sh1tless by it) anyway.

Posted by Gelli 15:06 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Baby Cheetahs

Sometimes when you travel, you just get lucky. You can't always explain how or why, but for whatever reason, circumstances turn out in your favour. Pure dumb luck. Which partially explains why we were in a non-descript house in Oudtshoorn. With these guys:

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We ended up there for convoluted reasons pretty involving me being bored at the bar the previous evening. and talking to a random Finnish girl there. She mentioned something about baby animals, my ears pricked up and after a while the girls got talking. The next morning I then took the main guy looking after them on some chores in Ruth, and in return Maaret and I were allowed to join Johanna, the Finnish girl, in playing with the cubs, and in Maaret's case, feeding them.

They were less then 3weeks old, and would not be taken into the zoo - the same Cango wildlife sanctuary from yesterday – for another 6weeks or so, where they will doubtless become huge attractions to the mass of holidaying South Africans and tourists. For us, this was an incredibly rare chance to see and hold them much much younger, out of the spotlight and before they were officially announced to the world.

It was absolutely brilliant.

Posted by Gelli 12:42 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Meerkats and Ostriches

I liked Oudtshoorn. A small, friendly town nestled in a depression in the hills of the Western Cape, it lies about 70km inland and forms a triangle with the resorts of Mossel Bay and George. It is not the worlds most exciting place, but it is the centre of South Africa's Ostrich trade, and that was the reason for our visit. That and Meerkats, obviously. Meerkats are an animal that has long fascinated both Maaret and myself, and the chance to see them up close was not one that we were about to turn down. Sadly, things didn't work out as we had hoped. The fabled Meerkat Magic project never returned our enquiries, whilst we also discovered that their price had gone up in the past year by over 400% to an eye watering 1400Rand. And whilst we both wanted to see Meerkats, we didn't really want to see them 130euros worth. For that price, I would want to take a couple home with me.

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And so we were pointed in the direction of a wildlife sanctuary nearby which had meerkats. The Cango wildlife sanctury is actually a very strange place. It is basically a zoo – and the idea of going to a zoo in Africa when there are so many wild animals around is a strange one to me – and though they did have a great meerkat enclosure for us to view, the rest was a a bit odd. There was the standard reptile and snake house, an aviary and some aquarium exhibits amongst others. But there was also a crocodile pit where they would lower you in a cage into the crocodiles, which just wasn't quite right.

And then there was their main attraction, the big cats. Going to see big cats in a zoo in Africa really does seem bizarre, but that wasn't even the main thing: amongst the leopard, cheetahs and lions (which included 2 very rare white lions) were a number of Tigers. And they were breeding more. Yes, Oudsthoorn, a small and obscure wildlife zoo in a continent where tigers have never lived is part of the world breeding program to try and help endangered Tigers, and they have several, including rare white tigers and, apparently, some white tiger cubs very soon on the way. I haven't seen a tiger for many years, but whilst cool, this was just a bit too strange. And after a quick look, we returned to the meerkats, and then left. We had other animals to visit.

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Obviously, with all the cats in Africa you come to see... Tigers?

Being the Ostrich capital of South Africa, we pretty much had to visit an Ostrich farm, and so found a good one (translation: cheap because of discounts we had). We had the standard tour and history, explanations about the farming and soon, before the serious stuff: standing on ostrich eggs to prove how hard they are, watching them race, and for me, the highlight: Riding an Ostrich. I actually rode one years ago, but was happy to do it again – they are large, ungainly and evil looking birds that move really quickly and there is always comedy value in it. And so after signing the normal disclaimers (In event of injury or death, nobody will sue the farm; It is at my own risk; I will donate a kidney if asked at any time in the next 15years; No, i won't mention that I have seen Elvis. That sort of thing), it was onto the back of an ostrich with a cash bag over it's head (to calm it), grab onto the wings and lean back as somebody whisks the bag off its head, and you hold on for dear life as the bird goes sprinting madly around the enclosure. Always good fun.

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About to ride the ostrich - I always love the daft look of the Ostrich with the bag over its head!

That evening, we partook in the other obvious activity in the Ostrich capital. We had Ostrich steak for dinner, and damned good it was too. Admittedly it would have been better if Maaret had not been served the unordered and optional shards of glass in her salad, but on the plus side there was no permanent damage (except to the now eaten Ostrich, naturally) and we got lots of extra food and a free shot for our troubles. In the circumstances, I can live with that.

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Ostrich racing. The excellently named 'Hopeless' won

Posted by Gelli 10:37 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

The end of the world

At the end of the day it is just a few rocks, with some scrub and cliffs set back a bit, with relentlessly pounding waves and water. For me, it was the part-realisation and semi-achievement of a long held dream. Back in the early 2000s, I had got to know a Danish guy, Morten. Morten had a land-rover, and several dreams of long trips to be undertaken. It was the early days of the Landy project. We exchanged some emails, met a few times, became friends – which we remain – and even did a small pre-trip trip, driving through Norway right up to Nordkapp and with plans for several more and a start on the main part only months away. Details of the long haul were always sketchy, except to say that it was a long term plan of several years, and the first part of the journey involved driving from Nordkapp to Cape Agulhas: the Northernmost point in Europe to the Southernmost point of Africa. And the Nordkapp loop had already been taken care of.

Sadly, circumstances and sh1t happens then got in the way. Problems with time, finances, the vehicle and other friends/people due to appear at odd times led to several postponements. Life, and all that entails, got in the way. Despite an official farewell party for Morten way back in 2004-ish (?), the Landy never really left. Morten ended up going to South Africa to work, and I traveled to Asia. The Landy, I believe, is currently in Portugal. We still periodically talk or consider plans of trips of varying length, extravagance and scope, but the original Landy dream in its form is pretty much dead.

But Cape Agulhas retained its hold on me, and it was pretty much the one non-negotiable wish that I had had before coming to South Africa. I just had to go there. And really, it is just a lump of windswept rock. By the time we arrived, it was close to 6pm and it had already been a long and very successful day. It would be close to 11pm before we finally arrived in Oudtshoorn for a night of well needed rest. But to me, it was worth it.

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Despite what you might think or be told in Cape Town, it is here and not Cape Point that the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. It is the site of innumerable shipwrecks over the years, especially in early years of ship exploration in this part of Africa. Well over thousands of men on hundreds of ships have come into trouble and lost their lives here, and even today, it remains a dangerous location for the unwary captain or small boat.

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I love these sorts of desolate cliff and rocky outposts, which almost feel like the end of the world. As I have at several others (Erimo Misaki in North East Japan is another favourite), I could have sat for, probably, hours just gazing out to sea over the crashing waves and windswept rocks, pretty much until i had frozen to death. The knowledge that the next land to be reached if you headed due South, West or East would be many, many days and thousands of kilometers is in a way, to me at least, awesome. Head due South - and the closest landfall - and you won't meet anything until you crash into Antarctica.

But at the end of the day, a rock is a rock, and after the obligatory cheesy photos it was time to head onwards. As we drove slowly away, I reflected that whilst I might not have gone the whole way from Nordkapp to Cape Agulhas in one trip, I have now visited both extremes - without ever getting on an airplane for good measure - and also seen a good chunk of the world in between. And for that, I will always be happy.

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Sign 800m before the end of the world. Well, one end anyway

Posted by Gelli 05:08 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

72 puppies, Chris Cornell & an increasingly militant Hamster

Sometimes, a story or idea gets concocted on the spot for no obvious reason, even though everybody involves knows that it is a load of rubbish (Maaret: that part is obviously a lie. The puppies and Chris are still doing fine and will be appearing very soon, although we are now down to 53, and the poor Hamster has checked into rehab). This tale, or parts of it then become part of the whole experience and periodically pop up until such time as those involved part ways or a new tale takes it's place. They are normally so bizarre as to be obviously impossible or untrue, but that doesn't matter at all. It is not really something that can be explained to anybody not present at that time: In a very true sense, you had to be there.

This is not an occurrence unique to traveling, but in my small experiences, it seems to crop up with more regularity when you are away, meeting new people, and being put in more unusual situations and places. Hippos with beachballs (Zambia), Ants with Nukes (Malawi), Booking tickets One-way to Nuuk [no known relation to Nukes], Kangaroos in Africa and Idi Amin dancing blindfolded with the Bolshoi are examples of random concoctions by one or more people in the last few months which have subsequently lived for days or weeks to much mirth, and normally utter, utter bewilderment to anybody not involved that happens to later overhear one of these exchanges.

Maaret loves baby animals. Most people, to be fair, love baby animals, but she loves them more than most. Except Barbequed. Traveling with pretty much anybody has it's ups and downs: people have their quirks, their likes and dislikes, styles and wishes; Things they must do and things they can't or won't. People have ups and downs, moods and changing emotions. And, though a surprising idea to some people, just because you are away from home or traveling does not mean that you don't have these. It is not one long high. Indeed, you are often actually more prone to such things simply because there is so much that is new, and there is no set routine/background that has already solved or removed many of them.

With Maaret, I always know that however bad things are and however bad the day is being, a bar of chocolate, some good cheesecake* or ice-cream and seeing baby animals will always bring a smile and help things to get better. It will bring a smile to a bad day. It will turn a good day into a great one, and a great one into a totally unforgettable one. And as it is a reasonably quick, easy and cheap thing to often arrange, I happily take any opportunity to try and incorporate baby animals into a day. Which explains why we were in Stellenbosch, one of the wine growing and tasting capitals of the world, going into, of all places, a pet-store.

It also, in a very convoluted and roundabout way, explains the title of this entry, and the story made up on the spot. For after wandering around the pet store, Maaret asked, a little disappointedly, “but where are all the puppies?”. Details are unimportant here, except to state the obvious to anybody still reading that has no idea what on earth any of this twaddle means: The hamster had led a daring puppy escape the previous night. Chris Cornell became involved a day or two later for convoluted reasons, and the hamster became increasingly militant later still.

But if you were trying to lead that many puppies, you would probably become militant as well.

* The worlds best cheesecake is a deep and serious subject, and one which Maaret has happily spent some serious time researching. At the time of going to press, the current leading entry appears to be from a small restaurant/coffee shop in a park in Windhoek, Namibia, which will doubtless also be remembered by several other people from way back in this African tale and anybody else who has ever eaten Cheesecake there. If you have a suggestion as to even better cheesecake, please send me a message with details. Anybody** offering one which becomes the new number 1 will win a prize.

Possibly, a slice of cheesecake.

**Except Maaret and people who know her, and think they can play the system to get free cheesecake

There really should be a picture of cheesecakes, or them being eaten here, but I would probably be castrated if i did. So I haven't. And yes, I am an under-the-thumb wimp

Posted by Gelli 01:30 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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