Monday, 20 June 2011

Hoogland Health Hydro - ??

I'm not a 'hydro' fundi by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, just the thought of forcibly eating micro doses of vegan for a day or two puts me in a protein-deprived state of nausea... What people see in these 'houses of health-pantomime' is beyond me. If you like decadence get a manicure and a head-massage an hour or two before lunch at the Saxon; then leave!

Nevertheless, I recently visited the Hoogland Health Hydro on a whim, had a look around and was underwhelmed, to say the least. This 400 hectare property, a little west of Pretoria in the Schurveberg, is home to a variety of game. It's also the most accessible site for the pretoriae subspecies of the Short-toed Rock-Thrush, an ornithological favourite for those thus inclined! Partially endemic flora and particularly the winter-flowering aloes are a personal favourite. The drive through the reserve down to the hydro is pleasant enough. Even so, geologically there's not much on offer, but the views, generally, from atop the mountains are memorable. That's the good part.

The first thing you'll notice at the hydro is the surprising number of guest vehicles parked haphazardly under cover or under suitably shady trees. The hydro is seemingly popular and for the life of me I'm not sure why. The grounds are shockingly unkempt. Old jacuzzi-baths and three-legged chairs decay quietly in the nearby flower-beds. Rusted drums and other discarded bric-a-brac are strewn casually around the grounds, migrating, eventually, under the pull of gravity to the nearby stream; an obvious health-hazard! Garbage is collected and burnt in an old concrete 'dam', well within an average health-nut's stones throw of the pool. The pall of black smoke hanging over the garden is testimony to that fact.

Built in the 1970s the buildings are somewhat derelict and in need of renovation or a little TLC, at the very least. The interior decor is dated and altogether a little grubby. In a nutshell the ambiance / atmosphere is reminiscent of a retirement village, forlorn and forgotten.

Amazingly, per the owner, 50% of the patients (his words not mine) are 'returning-regulars'; suckers for punishment if you ask me...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Skukuza's 'Wooden Banana' - Enough is enough!

Eating at any of the restaurants in the Kruger National Park is usually unpleasant, mediocre at best. Whether it's at the buffet table or from the fast-food outlet, the experience is unforgettable and always for the wrong reasons.

The Wooden Banana (?) at Skukuza, the park's flagship camp, deserves its name. The staff are woefully incompetent, surly and poorly trained.  Management's to blame. It's a cheap and dirty business model. Who on earth awarded these people the catering contract?

I recently observed the counter staff treat a group of twenty American visitors with complete disdain. 'Culture' does NOT excuse incompetence. ALL front-line staff should treat their customers with respect. Private conversation should be conducted outside of WORKING Hours (remember the concept?) and certainly not between the counter staff and the kitchen staff some 30 meters away and NEVER whilst customers wait to be served. The American group, frustrated by the 'language barrier' [??] and obviously annoyed by their treatment still spent over R2000 on 'food' and drink.

If the staff are poor inside 'the banana', wait and see what's waiting out on deck.... It's plainly a dump. Tables are never wiped and just generally filthy. Litter is usually strewn across the floor. Condiments & sauce bottles are dusty or smeared with old sauce or grime. The deck itself is plainly a health hazard, covered in unsavoury bits of decaying food, guano and other 'material'. Umbrellas are never opened or clean.

All this, however, pales into insignificance when served the slop passed as food. The fries ['chips'] are fried in what could be old motor-oil and served an awful rancid yellow in colour. The chicken is precooked, then heated, a recipe for disaster. Do yourself a favour and NEVER order a toasted sandwich..Mouldy bread (bread rolls too) has been served to me more than once. On another occasion, the chicken mayo sandwich served to me was rotten. The shade of green on the chicken and the accompanying stench was a clue too subtle, obviously, and missed completely by the waitress, 'chef' and 'QC' Manager. Incidentally, whoever runs the kitchen should be fired. It's quite obvious that he/she is completely out of his/her depth. There's just never enough stock on hand, ever!

Now, let's be honest. Nobody expects the 'banana', which is little more than a canteen really, to serve 5-star fare. Expecting courteous service, fresh ingredients well-prepared, a hygienic surface from which to eat and a modicum of comfort should not, however, be too much to ask for, surely?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Go camping, it's fun..

The best trips are often 'spur-of-the moment' decisions and half the fun, usually, is anticipating the unexpected. We decided that a weekend away to the Kruger National Park would prove just the tonic for our JHB-wearied spirits. Anybody who has ever tried to book a last minute trip to the KNP will tell you that securing accommodation is virtually impossible, always fully-booked well in advance either by booking agents and or by self-drive travelers, local and foreign. Getting specific accommodation i.e: at a chosen camp, is even more difficult.

We wanted to stay at Satara, our favourite camp in the central Kruger, famous for its sightings of lion and other big game. As expected, the camp was fully-booked. There was, however, some 'camping' availability. We're not new to camping having over-landed in most of Africa's wilderness areas which require total self-sufficiency. Camping in the Kruger though had, until now, seemed 'unnecessary'. The park's formal accommodation is perfectly adequate and well-priced, generally. Given no option, however, we packed a 'three-day katundu' [camping equipment to see us through three days] and set off a little later than expected on Friday morning.

The drive to Orpen (the closest entrance gate to the central parts of the park) via Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga, is always 'fun'. Cattle, goats, 'thirsty traffic officials' and unruly pedestrians can be a distraction... Nevertheless, we arrived at the park a little before three and used the remaining two and a half hours of daylight to travel the 50 kms to Satara camp. Our first lesson in 'Kruger-camping' we learnt as soon as we arrived. None of the sites are pre-booked, allocated or demarcated in any way. It's a free for all first come, first served buffet of inefficiency. Getting to the camp late, as we did, obviously had us scratching amongst the 'campsite-dregs'. Caravans of all sizes, shapes and hues cluttered the area from fence-post to lavatory-post [why do caravaners actively pursue the closest spot permissible to the olfactory pleasure that is the communal latrine??)

We eventually found the perfect spot well away from halogen lights and the clamour of miniature-satellite-dish assisted television [??] and set up our little canvas dome-tent and some chairs. Our second lesson in 'Kruger-camping' became obvious when our grumbling stomachs hinted that it was time to light the fire... There wasn't a braai-stand to be found anywhere! Some of our fellow 'campers' had commandeered two, sometimes three, braai-stands. It takes a LOT of wors ('sausage'), it seems, to feed some of those boys... Housekeeping fortunately found and delivered us a spare braai-stand. Annoyingly though, the grid was befouled with old grease and grit. Take a brush or your own grid, another lesson.

A crackling fire is considered medicine for the soul and this night was no different. Scops, White-faced and Barn Owls called quietly in the dark. The distant roaring of a lion was almost, but not completely drowned-out by drunken laughter from the nearest chalets [...yes, it's not ALWAYS the pesky campers that make the most noise] (BTW: KNP authorities have banned the sale of alcohol to non-residents, a BIG thumbs-up! You'll see fewer cans littering the roadside and better behaved visitors at the picnic sites. Now for those unnecessary 'day-trip safari vans'....). 

The most unnerving aspect when camping in the Kruger is the enforced use of the communal ablution facilities. Shades of plague-ridden nightmares past conjure up images of filthy pans and mud-splattered baths all of which usually haunt the first-time camper. This is, however, not the case. We found the ablutions clean and orderly. Besides the precautionary and obvious need for foot-gear, there's nothing 'grim' about the ablution facilities; our forth 'Kruger-camping' lesson.

The 'old-timers' will remember years gone by when strangers met around a fire to discuss the day's events; what was seen, where and when. Some formed lasting friendships. Interestingly, those days still exist in the campsites of Kruger.

Go camping, it's fun....

ps: for those of you who consider yourselves spiritual please note the 'orb' in the top right of this picture... (That's a story for another time)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

South Africa - New grading criteria

The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA) recently updated the travel industry with its new grading criteria. I'll admit it's internationally competitive and credible but it still falls short on the most critical issues.

Travelers to this country are entitled to quality assurance. Unfortunately, the majority of first-time travelers don't know what to expect from their chosen lodges / hotel etc. and settle for a less than full experience. This is particularly the case  in the safari industry. It's possible for lodge-owners to secure a top grading without providing the traveler with the appropriate safari-experience, which I imagine, is what the traveler wants from his /her safari in the first place. A 5-star lodge in a small private reserve with semi-tame wildlife does NOT provide the same experience as a 5-star lodge in a wilderness area with free-roaming wildlife. Both lodges advertise their grading and both are entitled to charge a similar rate, yet it's obvious the lodges don't provide the same experience. In fact having been to many of these 5-star lodges in small private reserves, advertised as Big-5 [i.e: free-roaming lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard] I can say from experience that the vast majority fall woefully short on providing the right wildlife experience. For example, a small pride of lion in a small camp within the reserve, separated from the rest of the wildlife in the reserve, can be legally advertised as 'free-roaming' [ie: not tied to a tree?], but this is NOT the experience we should be providing our visiting guests.

In addition, 5-star lodges with an unacceptable environmental impact should NOT have the same grade as a 5-star lodge with minimal impact on the environment. The same can be said of the facility's social conscience. Lodges which involve the local community should have a better grade than a similar aesthetically appealing lodge which doesn't.

In my opinion food plays an important role too. Defining 'good food' is subjective but it's quite obvious that guests should be exposed to SOUTH AFRICAN cuisine prepared well rather than international cuisine even if well-prepared, particularly in the bush. I would like to think that we can provide local dishes to our visitors without embarrassment. I recall a visit to Londolozi, a private lodge in the world-renowned Sabi Sands, adjacent the Kruger National Park which served my party French cuisine for our entire three-day stay. The food was well-prepared and yet local travelers were VERY unhappy. Our foreign guests, once enlightened, were also unhappy. Even though the game-viewing experience was magnificent, the staff wonderful and the facilities world-class, the EXPERIENCE fell short, badly so and remains the abiding memory from that particular trip.

In the end it's up to the travel industry to enlighten our foreign guests, prove that the REAL South Africa has a place as a world-class travel destination and stands alone as an experience to be remembered as truly South African. Being good at what we're not doesn't differentiate us as a destination.