Archive for January, 2015

Christmas and NYE in Canada (19 Dec 14 – 03 Jan 15)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

The two weeks around Christmas and New Years we spend in Canada – mostly in Vancouver, with a three-night stint in Yellowknife in the North Western Territory.

J has extended family in Vancouver, and her mum and brothers also had come, so we spend a lot of time with family eating. Vancouver has some fantastic food, at a fraction of the price we would pay in San Francisco, so we indulged quite a bit: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, seafood, as well as some fast food specialties, like the “Japadog” which is a Japanese style hot dog – sounds strange but is actually very delicious. Other than eating, and of course celebrating Christmas with the family, we walked around the city a lot, including a visit to the Christmas lights display in the Van Dusen botanical garden, which is really very impressive – trees and plants around the whole garden are lit with lots and lots of lights, and there are also some themed sections like a gingerbread forest.

The highlight of the trip, however, was the visit to very cold (-30 degrees) Yellowknife. We had come mainly to see the northern lights, for which we had booked two nights of aurora viewing in the “aurora village” half an hour outside Yellowknife. The stay came with warm clothes (definitely required), transport etc. The village itself is not really a village, but rather a tourist operation with “tipis” that you can sit in and have a hot drink to warm you up between being outside and looking out for the aurora, a restaurant, gift shop, etc. On our first night, we were quite lucky since the aurora put on quite a spectacle shortly after midnight, with green, white and pink lights swirling and dancing across the whole sky. While we have some (long exposure) photos, it is quite difficult to fully imagine or describe all the detail and the movement of the lights in the sky – truly a unique and amazing experience! The next night, we were far less lucky – it was a bit cloudy so we could hardly see the lights, but after our experience the night before we were not disappointed at all.

In the daytime, we did some other winter activities: one day, we went ice fishing. Our guide, Greg, took us out on the  frozen lake in his little ice fishing mobile, which looks like an oversized and closed snow mobile. It has four holes in the ground through which you can fish, after having drilled holes in the ice with a massive hand-held drill. We didn’t catch anything, but since Greg operated a camera in one of the four holes, we could at least see a few fish below the ice, but they were apparently not hungry since they weren’t interested in our food. At least, the evening of that day we went to eat some fish – at Bullocks, which is a local joint that offers fish and chips that are expensive, but also extremely extremely delicious.

Another day, we went snow mobiling one the lake, which was a lot of fun – a bit like riding a scooter, but across an endless snow-covered white desert. The lake is so solidly frozen that for multiple months each winter they operate an official highway on it. In the afternoon, we went dog sledding – two persons on each sled, pulled by four dogs. Our dogs, however, seemed to be the worst pick: the two in the front were constantly distracted, looking back or trying to lick up some snow, and a third dog refused to run at all, sitting down again and again until the guides took him away. Only when the guides gave us one of the other sled’s dogs did we pick up some speed, but we still were the last ones to finish the course.

The cold in Yellowknife was really quite something. It has been a while since I have experienced cold winters in Germany, but -30 degrees is really a different world even to the -20 centigrade it sometimes reached in Germany. At that low temperature, every exposed part of skin hurts, and just from breathing, your nostrils start freezing – we were definitely glad that we had proper rental clothes provided by the various companies organizing the activities we took part in!

Some pictures follow.

Highway 1 and Los Angeles (27-29 Nov)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we drove down from SF to LA along the old State Highway 1, which is a really pretty stretch of road along the Pacific Ocean coast. We started off in San Francisco on Thursday morning. We made it to Monterey by noon, and visited the big and very well-made aquarium there. The aquarium has lots of interesting exhibitions, including one on jelly fish and one on octopi, squids and related animals. The marine research institute which is associated with the aquarium also does some groundbreaking research particularly in the deep sea right off the coast, which we were also shown a movie about.

We had lunch in Carmel, and also had a look at the very picturesque mission there – unfortunately, the grounds were closed since it was Thanksgiving day so we could only peek in through the gate. The afternoon, we spent driving through the barren but really beautiful landscape of Big Sur, the road always meandering along the coast line. We spent the night in San Luis Obispo, around half way between SF and LA. The next day, we went further south along the coast. We visited the grounds of the mission La Purisima, which was very interesting to see and gave a good impression of what lives the Spanish missionaries must have lived in those days. Afterwards we stopped by in Santa Barbara where we walked through town, soaked in the beach town atmosphere, and visited the very pretty old court house. As a last stop for the night, we drove through Malibu, but since it was already getting dark, we didn’t see much. We stayed for the night in Thousand Oaks, very close to LA.

Saturday was our last day before flying back to SF. We spend the day in and around LA – starting with a very brief visit to the Getty Center, which was very impressive in its location, architecture and the art on display (and all for free!). We didn’t have nearly enough time to look at anything in depth, but we vowed to come back another time. We then went to Venice Beach, looking at beach goers and hipsters, and spending quite a bit of time watching skaters in the beachfront skate park. Next stop – after a quick Mediterranean lunch somewhere on the way – was Hollywood, with the walk of fame and the hand prints in front of Grauman’s Chinese theater. Before we left for the airport, we took a drive through Beverly Hills and tried to spot some stars’ houses for fun – but most were too far off the road to really see anything.

All in all, it was a super fun trip, and we will definitely spend more time in LA soon.

Moving to San Francisco

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

End of June / early July marked the end of our stay in South Africa – after about a year and a half the time had come to move on. For work-related reasons, J had to move a few weeks before me, while I was wrapping up my last project in South Africa. The departure was therefore quite gradual – selling off furniture (mostly IKEA things we had bought in Germany and shipped to SA when moving there) over the course of a couple of months, firstly the non-essential things, later more and more of the stuff; putting everything in boxes and shipping it; J leaving; and lastly me moving out – the last few days I spent in the guest room of a colleague (and got pretty sick, not a good way to spend the last few days)!

On 11 July, my project was finished and I left the country that same night to fly to London. Despite the unfortunate timing that had seen J leave multiple weeks before me, we were lucky in the fact that she was booked for a training in London for the following week, so we met in London for a day and a half before she went to her training. I flew to Germany for a week to meet up with family and relatives (before moving to the next continent, again being far from most of my family). My week in Germany consisted mostly of a lot of driving – flying into Berlin and staying in Potsdam for a couple of days, and then driving to Frankfurt, Mönchengladbach/Köln/Leichlingen, and lastly Hamburg, from where I flew out again on Friday to meet J in London. From there, we then departed to San Francisco.

Arriving in SF, I still had about two weeks off, which was good to get organized, buy furniture and move, and unpack and get settled. On the first of August, I then went back to work in my new office in San Francisco.

After having spent more than five months in SF by now (time flies!), we really have been enjoying the time and we love it. Especially compared to Johannesburg: even though Joburg is a really very nice and livable city despite all its bad rep, SF is just so much more vibrant and exciting. Particularly for me, with a strong interest in technology, being in SF where you feel that you are at the forefront of development, is fantastic.

We haven’t nearly spend enough time scouting out the surroundings yet, unfortunately – two busy jobs just makes it a bit difficult sometimes, but we have done a few things that were definitely worth our while, such as visiting Berkeley and the East Brother Light Station, a tiny rock island in the bay with just an old light house and a fog horn (very important for the foggy bay); driving up to Point Reyes and eating cheese at the local creamery, visiting the computer science history museum in Mountain View (definitely super interesting for a CS geek like me, including one of the two working Babbage difference engines); and going to the Charles Dickens Christmas market in Daly City. Apart from that, we have been eating out in incredibly many different fantastic restaurants – just within ten minutes walk of the area we live in in Nob Hill, there is so much choice to pick from! Only downside is the cost – SF is really extremely expensive. For some of our restaurant bills in SF, we could have been eating out for a week in Joburg!

Another point we are really enjoying in San Fran is the walkability – in Joburg, you had to take your car everywhere, because it was dangerous without, but also because the distances were just too far. Now, we can walk to work, to restaurants, to town to go shopping, etc. And if we need to go further, we just take an Uber, a Lyft, or catch a cab – all from an app on our phones – such a difference to SA (where we were both still using employer-supplied BlackBerries)!

Garden Route (14-16 Jun)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Our last weekend trip before leaving South Africa took us to the Garden Route – another “must be seen” that we did not want to miss before moving to the other side of the world. In the winter, it was probably not the very best time to visit, but it was quite pretty still. We flew into George and rented a car to drive along the coast. We stayed in a very nice little place in Knysna.

On the way to Knysna, we made a few stops: We stopped to take a walk through the (rainy) “Garden of Eden”, which features a walking path through the thick and dense Knysna Forest, and we also stopped on the (very windy) beat in Buffalo Bay.

On Saturday, we drove further along the pretty coast towards Plettenberg Bay, and then on to the Tenikwa wildlife reserve. Tenikwa is a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for injured or abandoned animals, and most of the center is dedicated to preserving and supporting wild cats. There are lots of them in enclosures – including Leopards, Servals, Caracals, etc. , and (not a cat but still amazing) a Honey Badger. The highlight, however, was the cheetah walk. Around sunrise, a small group of tourists gets to take two cheetahs out for a walk through the surrounding forest – there are of course guards and the cheetahs are on leashes, but it was still quite amazing to walk – and sometimes run – with the cheetahs. It all happened at the cheetahs’ pace, so whenever they felt like sitting down for a while, or sniffing the bushes, the whole group had to wait. It was quite an amazing an unique experience.

After Tenikwa, we had dinner in Plettenberg bay (some nice sea food) and then drove back to Knysna. The next day, we had to take a flight back to Joburg already. However, since we still had some time and we had seen lol of the costal road already, we took some back roads and mountain passes on the way back to George, which was an entirely different side of the Garden Route, with steep climbs, rocks, and fields.

Some pictures follow.

Victoria Falls (6 – 8 Jun)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

After more than a year in South Africa, we finally made it to Victoria Falls – a destination that had been on our to-do list since the very beginning. We went over an extended weekend, leaving Friday and returning Sunday. We flew into Livingstone on the Zambian side and staid there as well.

After arriving on Friday afternoon, we went to check out the falls. First, we looked at the river above the falls from the shore and from an viewing spot atop an old tree, and then crossed the border into Zimbabwe to view the falls from the Zimbabwean side. The Zambezi River spreads out to a width of 1700 m where the falls are, and then narrows again right after. There is a bridge that spans across the deep canyon behind the falls, which also serves as a border crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Therefore, we got our passports stamped on the “Zam” side and walked across the bridge, getting a glimpse of the falls every now and then. The bridge was also very busy with lots of border traffic from pedestrians to big trucks. You could also bungee jump from the bridge if you wanted, but we didn’t opt to do that. Once we arrived on the “Zim” side, we got our visa on arrival and then proceeded to the park that gets you closest to the falls.

Since about two thirds of the falls are on the Zim side, these parks are quite big and there is quite a bit of walking involved if you want to see the whole falls. Given that it was already quite late (we had only left Joburg in the morning after all), we had to hurry a bit to see everything. First, we went up next to where the falls hit the shore. Then, we went down all the way along the edge of the canyon that the falls crash down into, so that we had views of the fall at all times. With the amount of water falling, there was constantly a thick mist in the air, especially when the path got closer to the falls, so we got quite drenched despite our rain coats. When we were done on the Zimbabwean side, we walked back over the bridge and visited the park on the Zambian side. As mentioned, it is quite a bit smaller, but it does also have a few nice features like a suspension bridge spanning across a canyon right next to the falls – crossing that bridge even at a running pace bridge got us completely soaked. The one thing we unfortunately could not make use of was the so called “Devil’s Pool” which is a spot where you can bathe in the river right at the edge of the falls – however, when we visited it was way too cold for that, at night the temperatures dropped to freezing!

On Saturday, we went on a combined boat and driving safari. For that, we got picked up in the morning, drove for about an hour and crossed the border to Botswana – another River border crossing, this time using a small boat to cross. Then, we embarked on a small boat for our boat safari. The river the safari was on actually separates Botswana from the small eastern strip of Namibia, so my phone picked up Namibian signals as well – the fifth country (including South Africa) in only two days! Seeing the wild life from the water was actually very interesting, especially since there were quite a few crocodiles and hippos in the river. The crocodiles were mostly sitting in the sun on the shore, and many of them jumped in the water quite quickly when the boat approached. Some of them, however, just sat still and couldn’t be bothered, so that we could get close and take some good pictures. The hippos mostly huddled together in large groups (making their strange grunting noises), but some also dived and resurfaced close to the boat, which was also quite cool. Towards the end of the boat tour, we also saw an elephant that had waded out into the river and was sticking out among some thick weeds in the middle of the water. We had lunch at a restaurant by the river, and then boarded an open safari vehicle for the second half of the safari, driving through the nature reservation along the river. We saw some more wildlife from the car, including more elephants, giraffes, meerkats, and many smaller animals.

After the safari was finished, we were shuttled back to our accommodation in Zambia, where we spent the last night before flying back to Johannesburg on Sunday. Some pictures follow.

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