Monday, September 28, 2009

Out of Africa

After 14 days, over 50 elephants, a dozen lions, and countless World Cup 2010 billboards - we are back from a fantastic vacation in South Africa.


We tried springbok steak, slept in a home guarded by three ostriches, drove 800 kilometers on South Africa's superb highways, saw our first wild elephant (and rhino, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, hippo, and hyena). I had a dinky point-and-shoot camera with a 25mm lens and just 3x zoom, so thankfully the animals cooperated by coming up close to the vehicle to get their pictures taken. John was ready to zoom off if inquisitive giraffes came too close, but we wondered whether our car rental insurance would cover elephant damage.

We successfully resisted the touristy urge to cram tons of sightseeing into our two-week trip, and visited just two places: Johannesburg, and the area around Kruger National Park. In our too-short stay, we visited friends, took in a good dose of South African history, and saw an amazing number of wild animals up close. I can now identify lion tracks and elephant poo - or rather, "spoor" and "dung". Our ranger would be horrified if he heard me call it "poo." And I'm still far from being an expert at classifying antelope.

Johannesburg was an interesting mix. Posh and cosmopolitan in Sandton City; semi-abandoned and in need of revitalizing in the old downtown; still relatively quiet and full of bird life in the suburbs, where Kathy's good friend Mathew offered us a guest room at their lovely family home. World Cup 2010 posters were everywhere! John scoped out the stadiums and moaned that we were a year early.

South Africa has great roads (that is, except for the areas undergoing roadwork for the World Cup). After being car-less in expensive Singapore for the past four years, it was refreshing having a smooth highway all to ourselves. In fact, this Africa trip may end up costing us a lot if it entices John into buying a car! We opted for a practical Corolla instead of a high-performance BMW - I figured we'd save on speeding fines, and anyway typical game-viewing speed is below 30kph on Kruger's unpaved roads. We got one speeding ticket in 10 days of driving... and that, only because John overtook a queue of 3 light vehicles and an agonizingly slow truck, uphill, on a highway bridge, while passing a parked police car. No hope of getting out of that one.

(John says - at least it wasn't curved, at night, and raining!)

We booked a variety of places - a lodge at the exclusive Sabi Sand private game reserve, a cozy guesthouse with two resident hippos, and regular bungalows at Kruger National Park. The view from our room:


But the absolute highlight of our trip was the Wolhuter Wilderness Trail that we booked in Kruger. We spent three nights out in the bush, in a section of the park that is closed to regular tourists. Eight guests doing the walking trail, two armed rangers, one great cook. Oh, and Corlia, our ranger's wife.

Living in a tiny city-state, it is hard to comprehend the vastness of the African bush. On our wilderness trail, we had just our group (and the resident Section Ranger), alone in a wilderness section more than half the size of Singapore. No other sign of humans or human habitation in sight. And that section in turn was just a fraction of the total Kruger National Park, which is over 350 km long and an average of 60 km wide... close to two million hectares. How many hectares is Singapore? About 60,000.

We saw a tiny corner of a tiny pocket of Africa. It left us humbled and feeling very small... insignificant in the thousands of hectares of African wilderness, and the tens of thousands of years that humans and animals have co-existed on this planet.

More stories to come.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thank you, Africa


We've just returned from a fabulous, amazing two weeks in South Africa. We spent about 10 days out in the African bush - and it wasn't nearly enough.

More stories to come... but in the meantime, our deepest thanks to:
  • Kathy, for inspiring us to go
  • My parents, for raising me with a spirit of adventure and a friendly familiarity with elephants
  • Mathew for being a fantastic host and introducing our taste buds to South Africa
  • Tita Birgitta and Tito Carl for graciously welcoming us into their home, and for patiently staying up to hear our excited stories about Kruger
  • James, Corlia, Philemon and Johannes for an unforgettable introduction to Kruger's Wolhuter Wilderness Trail
  • Our very good-humoured trail companions - it was a pleasure evading rhinos with you
  • Wayne and Connie at Elephant Plains for finding us 4 of the Big Five on our first game drive
  • All the staff of the Kruger National Park

And most of all, to the two hippos of Gardenia Hide... for making Africa personal, and memorable.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is often described (not entirely accurately, I might add) as a "beginner's mountain".

That's because it doesn't require special technical expertise. Anyone reasonably fit and determined can walk to the summit, the highest in Southeast Asia at 4095 meters. So when our friend Alex invited us on a Kinabalu climb with her sister's friends, we said "Sure!"

However, like any mountain, Kinabalu deserves plenty of respect... starting with a good training plan before you go.

I was a little too taken in by the brochures ("anyone from 7 to 70 can climb!"), busy with work, and perhaps a tad overconfident after having survived our trek in Nepal. So we were lax in training for KK... a few enthusiastic running sessions when we started out, eventually tapering off into a short hike up Bukit Timah (a whopping 165 meters high) every other week.

Moral lesson: when travelling with a group, always check out your tripmates before you go.

I knew I was in trouble when we got to the airport and one of our travelling companions was wearing a Singapore Ironman 70.3 km t-shirt. Not just any Ironman shirt, a FINISHER's shirt.

We spent the night at a lodge in the national park at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. Early the next morning we set off via Timpohon Gate. Naturally the glossy ads failed to mention the pouring rain. It IS a tropical rainforest, after all...

Luckily there were no leeches.

We reached Laban Rata rest house after a 5-hour climb. Grueling for me, an easy jaunt for our fit mountaineer companions. Why is it we always end up on trips with semi-professionals?

We spent the afternoon resting and pondering our crazy itinerary for the following day. Our group originally planned to hike up to the summit first thing in the morning, and then do the Low's Peak Circuit via ferrata and descend by the longer but more scenic Mesilau trail.

One thing we've learned from travelling is that we have limitations. John and I made it up to the summit (slowly) but decided to skip the via ferratas, saving energy for our descent. Alex took the easier Walk the Torq ferrata while her sister Caroline completed Low's Peak Circuit. In the end all of us descended via Timpohon -- after learning that Mesilau goes down into a valley and finishes with a 2 km uphill walk!

Our advice: If you're planning on the Via Ferrata, we recommend planning a more relaxed schedule with two nights on the mountain instead of one. That way you can see sunrise on the summit and then take your time with enjoying the breathtaking views on the Via Ferrata -- instead of rushing back down to safely descend off the mountain before dark. Apparently it's quite common for groups to be over-ambitious and end up scaling back their ferrata plans or dropping them altogether. When the expeditions agent tells you that the ferrata route is strenuous and difficult... believe them.

Even though we didn't do everything we'd planned, it was an exhilarating experience watching the sun rise from Low's Peak. During every step of a trek, we always swear we'll never do this again. But on our ride back to the KK airport -- safely recovered from any vestiges of altitude sickness -- we were already thinking of our next climb.

Tips for climbing Mount Kinabalu:
  • Train properly - cardio and stair-climbing twice a week and a steep 3-hour hike each weekend, starting 2-3 months before you go.
  • Know your limits and go slowly. This also helps reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
  • Book early. Accommodation fills up really fast.
  • Spend two nights on the mountain if you are planning the Via Ferrata.
  • Bring earplugs. Unless you're a sound sleeper who can rest with snorers in the same dorm!

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Life: A Doublebill

Last night I went to see Life: A Doublebill at the Drama Centre Black Box. Both plays, Implosion and Just Late, were good - funny scripts and good delivery. This was the first play I've seen in Singapore that didn't have a Q&A session at the end!

I'm looking forward to seeing more plays by the same creative teams: Lionel Chok (director) and Suzanne Choo (writer) from Implosion, and Christina Sergeant (director) and Dora Tan (writer) from Just Late. I enjoyed watching Shem Teo's portrayal of a Tourette's sufferer and Jasmine Yong's filling in as Anita. She was so funny - and to think she stepped into the role at the last minute because the original actress was ill. And Dick did well too, of course, as the doctor with a slight obsessive-compulsive bent himself.

It's always great meeting more people who like going to the theater. Anna and I were there with Ash, who was there with her friends because of Dick, who was acting in Implosion. It was complicated trying to explain to Ash's friends how I'd met her!

Anna, Ash, and I have common friends who all play in the same band. When we say that, people always ask, "So, do you play any instruments?" It's funny. As if hanging out with someone who's musically inclined means some of their talent rubs off on on us. :)

Ash and friends are going to catch Lord of the Flies in December, hope I can free up enough time to join them.


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Sunday, July 29, 2007

GV Gold Class Cinemas

GV's Gold Class cinema may be expensive, but it was worth every cent. We went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at the Gold Class Cinema at VivoCity last week. The plush red La-Z-Boy-style seats recline to just the right angle, and the blankets are perfect for keeping warm in the cold theater.

Since we were watching during off-peak times, we paid just S$25 for each ticket instead of the regular S$30. Our Gold Class experience started downstairs at the Golden Village ticket counter, where a separate area is roped off (complete with red carpet) for Gold Class viewers. We were handed our tickets in a glossy Gold Class envelope, and then directed to the lounge upstairs to wait for our screening to start.

The lounge is essentially a bar and cafe just outside the Gold Class theaters. The lounge staff welcomed us, then handed us a menu and a glossy little envelope containing feedback cards. While waiting in the lounge, you can watch TV, flip through a stack of Vanity Fair issues and other magazines, and pore over the menu. You can pre-order food to be served inside the theater. The set dinner looked yummy and was reasonably priced - S$25 for an appetizer, a main course, dessert, and coffee or tea. We'd already had dinner so we decided to go straight to dessert, but in any case I imagine it must be difficult eating an entire meal inside a dark theater. Plus, the cinema tables are a tad small for a full meal. So you may be better off having your appetizer and main course in the lounge, and then asking them to serve your dessert during the movie (as we did!).

We pre-ordered the warm chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream, a couple of drinks, and a bucket of popcorn, then settled in with a couple of film magazines until the movie was ready to start. They handed us our credit card slip and receipt in yet another glossy envelope - by now we were accumulating quite a stack of them.

Once inside, we had fun playing with the motorized reclining seats and finding just the right viewing angle as trailers flashed on the screen. As usual, we booked late and ended up with center seats in the very first row! That would normally be a painful, neck-stiffening experience in any other theater, but at Gold Class it was made bearable by reclining our seats almost all the way down. The whole experience was a bit like being on an airline - complete with a little concierge button to call someone over in case you want to order more food.

The theaters are pretty cozy, with maximum capacity ranging from 24 to 48 seats. Seats are arranged in groups of two, which makes it a bit awkward if you're a family of five or a group of three friends - I guess Golden Village is primarily catering to the couple crowd. Spacious aisles and low seating capacity eliminate the mad rush to the exit that happens at the end of each screening in regular theaters.

The sound quality wasn't so great in the particular theater we tried (GV Gold Class 3 at Vivocity), but picture quality was excellent. I wonder if the sound would have been better if we'd sat a little further back.

Overall, the extremely comfortable seats and blanket more than made up for any hiccups in the experience. While I don't think we can afford to catch films at Gold Class every week, we will definitely be back.

Contact Information and More Details
  • Golden Village's website is at - you can check showtimes, reserve seats, and buy tickets online.
  • Gold Class cinemas are available at GV VivoCity (Harbourfront MRT) and at GV Grand (Great World City, 1 Kim Seng Promenade)
  • Ticket prices for Gold Class films generally range from S$25 for weekday and off-peak screenings to S$30 for weekends.
What others are blogging about GV Gold Class cinemasDid you like this post? Check out my other posts about our adventures in Singapore.


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