Thursday, October 11, 2012

Blue Train, Victoria Falls and a Marathon August 2012

Pictures and Video at the bottom

The Blue Train - Today we take The Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria (just north of Johannesburg), the trip will take 30 hours, covering approximately 1,100 kilometers.

Upon our arrival we were greeted by name at the Blue Train departure lounge, they took our bags, hopefully we were not just robbed. I would love to know how they knew our names. The lounge was more like someone's living room than a departure lounge for a train, we were offered drinks and some breakfast treats. While in the lounge the food manager came by to ask about any food requirements, our butler stopped by to introduce himself, yes we get our very own butler.

Once we boarded we were shown to our suite / cabin, each rail car has 3 cabins, each cabin has a room with either 2 twins or one queen bed and a full bathroom, our room also had a full bath tub and shower. The train departed at 8:30 AM.

The train was elegant, all the walls were made of fine polished wood and all the accents were solid gold. Once we departed Margarite and I went to one of the two public lounges. The service was second to none. The train carried 62 passages and had 35 staff. We had our own butler (Albert), he took care of anything we needed, even if we did not realize we needed it. We had our own server at meals (Sydney), and Margarite had a personal chef because of her allergies (Esther).

At 10:30 AM we were served brunch in the dinning car. Brunch was served on fine china and silver. We had an appetizer of smoked salmon, soup was a vegetable purée, the main course for me was rack of lamb, and Margarite had kingklip (fish). All prepared to perfection.

As we left Cape Town we entered the wine region passing through some snow capped mountains. We then passed through 4 tunnels the last being 13 kilometers long. When we exited the tunnels we had gone from a lush mountainous area to dry high desert plains.

We stopped at a small village by the name of Matjiesfontein, we got a 10 minute tour of the village on an old London double-decker bus. The village was bought and created by a Scottish gentleman by the name of James Douglas Logan that wanted to have an oasis for travelers in this part of South Africa.

Once back on the train we were served high tea, which included some of the best pastries I have ever consumed, and consumed I did. Our cabin is at the front most part of the train. This is just perfect as no one walks past so it is very quiet. There are three public sitting areas, from our cabin walking toward the rear of the train the first public car we reach is the non-smoking lounge, next we come to the dining car. After the dining car we contined on to the last car which is the smoking lounge. From one end of the train to the other is over a quarter of a mile.

We found the smoking lounge to be empty, I guess not many smokers on this train, so we spent a lot of time in that car, it gave us a nice walk as well as a quiet place to read, and watch the world go by. The motto of the Blue Train is "A Window to the Soul of South Africa" and we had the best window there could be. As with every part of the Blue Train the service in the smoking lounge was impeccable.

We had chose the early seating for dinner, which was at 6:30 PM. At 6:00PM the train made a stop to refill the water tanks and get supplies. While we waited for our seating we got a tour of the engine car.

For dinner I had Beef Wellington and Margarite had Salmon. This was our first experience on the train of not being blown away. Do not get me wrong, our meals were very good, but they did not blow us away as the food had so far. My dessert made up for my dinner, it was a courant mouse very light and very, very, tasty.

Dinner was formal so I had to wear a jacket and tie. As I did not want to lug a jacket around Africa my plan was to buy one in Cape Town and then donate it before I headed back to Botswana. The first shop in Cape Town I stopped at I miss heard the price until I went to pay for a jacket, slacks, and shirt, in U.S. dollars the cost was $1,250.00 and that was after a 40% mark down. I never ran out of a store so fast, what were they thinking, I just fell off a turnip truck. I doubt I looked like I had $12.50 let alone $1,250.00 in my pocket.

The second shop was much better, a jacket and slacks for the equivalent of $60 U.S. dollars.

Margarite and I had been speaking and becoming friends with our lounge tender Oscar who happened to be my size. He was married with a daughter and had been interviewing for jobs on cruise ships. After dinner we walked down and gave him my jacket. I thought he was going to cry, he was so happy. He said it would be perfect for his interviews and church. It was used but Oscar did not care, and it fit Oscar better than it fit me.

Day 2

Sleeping was a little tough most rooms had 2 twin beds, we opted for a queen, all through the night the train would rock from side to side, it was not a restful night.

One huge negative was at 5:00 AM our room started to smell of cigarette smoke. What we realized later is the crews quarters were just in front of our cabin, and they must light up their cigarettes when they wake up, with our cabins being so close the odor from the smoke must of drifted into our cabin.

Breakfast was just fantastic, I had Eggs Benedict and Margarite had eggs wrapped in smoked salmon.

As we continued our journey to Pretoria, we past a few towns, but most of what we saw was high desert plains. Our traveling speed was between 80 and 100 kilometers per hour. There was a GPS on the Television screen in each room, as well as a camera on the front of the train.

We would stop every once in a while, I assume this was to regulate traffic on the rails. About an hour outside of Johannesburg we stopped for 2 hours. It was explained that the stop was do to track maintenance, and a pilot was needed to take the train through the construction area, we had to wait our turn in the queue. While many passengers got irritated by this, Margarite and I enjoyed the extra few hours of being treated as if we were royalty.

Once in Pretoria, Albert packed our bags and delivered them to our driver. It had been arranged that a driver would meet us to take us to our hotel for the night, the Sheraton Pretoria.

The Sheraton was a historic building, I am not sure it's previous life, but the open style, granite columns, along with the magnificent tapestries on the grand walls were elegant and welcoming. We had a room that looked out toward the parliament building. Pretoria is the capital of South Africa.

Day 3

In the morning we had a driver pick us up for our flight to Victoria Falls which is on the boarder of Zimbabwe and Zambia, North of South Africa.

One interesting fact is Zimbabwe uses U.S. dollars as it's national currency. They switched to the dollar around 2007, at the time of the change Zimbabwe had such high rates of inflation that the smallest bill they had was a billion Zimbabwe dollar bill.

On our arrival at Victoria Falls another passenger on our flight asked if we were in Victoria Falls for the Marathon. We asked, what Marathon? He explained that on Sunday, (it was Friday), the Victoria Falls full and half marathon was taking place. This intrigued Margarite!

We had a driver take us to our hotel, we were staying at the Elephant Hills Hotel. The hotel was fine, but after the Blue Train I am not sure anything will ever measure up again.

The one negative of the Elephant Hills Hotels is that it is out of town, so you either have to wait for a shuttle or take a taxi to get to town (about 5 kilometers). It was 3:00 PM by the time we were checked in and settled. We went and met with the local travel company, Wild Horizons, to get an idea of what we should do while in Victoria Falls. We signed up for a white water rafting trip on the Zambezi River for the next day (Saturday). We wanted to find out more about the Marathon before we committed to anything else.

We took a cab to the Kingdom Hotel, which was the marathon hotel, this is also the hotel Grant had told us put human feces in the water so we stayed away from any liquids. We found out that we could still register for the marathon, so Margarite registered for the full marathon 26.2 miles and I registered for the half 13.1 miles.

We then walked down to the bridge that connects Zimbabwe to Zambia, we were staying on the Zimbabwe side. From the bridge you could see Victoria Falls. It is the dry season so the falls are at their smallest, though still spectacular. We walked across the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia. On the way back we stopped at the bungee jumping platform, this is the same platform that during New Years 2012 a women jumped and the bungee broke, some how the women lived. (see below video)

Once back our hotel we had dinner at the only Restaurant in the hotel, the food was a little less than desirable, but it did not make sense to go back to town just for dinner. Early to bed as we had an early wake up call for rafting.

Day 4

We got picked up from our hotel at 7:00 AM, there were two others from our hotel on the rafting trip, Rob and Andy, we found out later Rob would be running the Marathon and Andy the Half Marathon.

We had our rafting briefing at the rafting company, we learned a few safety tips, and some rafting techniques. We then took a 10 minute drive to the starting point of the trip. They dropped us off at the top of the gorge, the river was about 1,500 feet below. We had to climb down a very steep river gorge, in some places there were very steep steps and I use the term steps very loosely. In other places it was just loose rock. The climb down was not for the faint at heart, which there were some with us, a few never made it to the bottom.

Once down at the bottom we got in our boats and did a few drills. We found out there was a girl in our boat also doing the Half Marathon (Inge).

The river rafting was great. I have rafted 4 times prior to this trip, the New River in West Virginia, the Nile in Uganda, the Taylor River in Colorado, the Snake River in Idaho, and now the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe. I would rate the Zambezi second to the Nile. We rafted down 19 rapids, only skipping one as it was rated a class 6. Of the 18 we rafted through 3 that were class 5 rapids, many had very technical sections. We flipped once, we are sure our guide, Colgate, wanted to flip us, for the thrill and some good pictures.

The water temperature was cold but comfortable. The air temperature was warm, but not hot. We had a very nice group of people in our boat and our guide was excellent. What a great day on the river.

The entire trip was through a giant spectacular gorge, 1,500 feet deep, in some places the river was very narrow and the walls were just shear drops. There was some wild life along the river, baboons, monkeys, birds, and a few small crocodile.

At the finish of the trip we had to hike back to the top of the gorge. This hike was just as steep as on the way down the steps were made of rotted branches and stones. The guides could fly up these steps, many bare foot carrying the deflated rafts.

We had a simple lunch and then a 30 minute drive back to the hotel.

For the afternoon we hung at the pool and rested up for the big run.

Day 5 Marathon Day

The marathon started at 6:30 AM and the half marathon started at 7:00 AM. We took a taxi to the start arriving at 5:30 AM. We had heard there were about 300 people registered for the Marathon and 500 for the half. The two races followed the same course, with the Marathoners having to do most of the course twice.

The marathon started right on time, and they were off. There was a wheel chair race that started at 7:15 AM. There were 8 wheel chair entrants some in just regular wheel chairs not racing wheel chairs.

Andy, Inge, and I started at 7:00 AM on the dot. The course left the parking lot and headed across the bridge to Zambia. Inge was a bit ahead of us, Andy and I were running together. This was the first time I had run to another country, Zimbabwe to Zambia. The sunrise was beautiful coming up over the Zambezi River Gorge. We clicked our first mile at an 8:36 pace. Faster than I had planned to run, but it felt comfortable, plus it was mostly flat or down hill. We made the turn to cross back over the bridge, once back in Zimbabwe we had to deal with a truck convoy bring goods across the boarder. We hit mile two with a 8:28 pace. This mile was all flat so we had picked the pace up, my heart rate was elevated, but still in a comfortable place. As we left the bridge we started heading back up the gorge until we made a sharp right turn just as we crossed mile three at a pace of 8:22 even faster, plus a good part of that mile was uphill. I was very surprised at how well I felt. It had been weeks since I had done any serious exercise.

Our first water stop was at the 5 kilometer mark, just past 3 miles. They handed out sealed bags of water. I had never seen anything like this, it was great, you simply bite into the plastic and sucked the water out, no trying to drink out of a cup while you run. I grabbed two bags, one to poor over my head and one to drink. It was not hot yet, but heat was my biggest concern. I knew I had to keep my core temperature down if I wanted to finish.

As we started mile 4 we had armed guards running / guarding us, we were running through a national park where there are many types of animals that might decide a runner would make a good breakfast. The guards were there for our safety. Though mile 4 was slightly uphill we did an 8:07 mile. This was a bit fast for me and my heart rate was higher than I would like this early in the race. I talked to Andy about his goal since we were still running together. He said anything under 2 hours, but he would really like to finish at 1:50 or better. I knew we could slow down some and still hit 1:50. Plus if I kept this pace, I would not finish at all.

I did not know this at the time, but there were more hills to come. As we crossed mile 5 at a time of 8:28 we saw Rob, this was an out and back section so we could now see some of the Marathon runners. Mile 5 was a slight gradual uphill, mile 6 was mostly down hill we stayed relaxed and recovered doing mile 6 at a time of 8:28, my heart rate was back where I wanted it. Mile 7 was flat, we did mile 7 at a time of 8:12. We did hit some sand where we passed a wheel chair racer.

Unbelievable, fortunately she did have legs and was able to hobble and push her chair through the sand like she was using a walker. We wanted to help her, but knew that would disqualify her. Mile 8 was flat and we were fully recovered, we hit a time of 8:22. At the start of mile 9 they had coke (the soft drink) at the water stop, I had a nice big cup. I was feeling the miles and needed some energy.

Mile 9 was the start of the hill we had come down after seeing Rob. We did mile 9 at a time of 8:46. Mile 10 was a rolling hill with a sharp right turn our time was 8:39. We were catching Igne, but had to pick the pace up to hit a time of 1:50. We had about 3 miles to go and I now realized since we finished at an elevation higher than the start there would be more hills. Our 1:50 goal time was slipping away. As we passed Igne I started pushing them to pick it up, I did not want to leave them but knew we had to pick it up to hit 1:50.

Mile 11 was a brutal uphill, and we had slowed to a time of 8:52. We had to make up time and it was all up hill, I picked up the pace hoping Andy and Igne would stay with me. They could not, mile 12 was 7:59 mostly uphill. I knew only one more mile and a few hundred meters. I just had to make a low 8 minute mile and I would hit 1:50. Those last 400 meters was brutal, flat but you had to weave around the grass field to get to the finish line 400 meters seemed like 400 miles. Mile 13 was 8:15 with a finish time of a few seconds over 1:50. I was very happy, Andy was right behind me at 1:52 and Igne behind him at 1:54.

For the marathon the loop was the same except they only crossed the bridge once. To make up for that, they had to run past the finish line about a mile and a half and then run back. Think about this you have run 23 miles you can see the finish line but instead of running to the finish line, you have to run past it on a flat isolated road just to run back and finish. Also the marathon course was 700 meters to long.

Margarite was the fourth women finisher with a time of 3:30 and Rob finished in 3:54.

A great day by all..

The afternoon was spent at the pool.

In the evening we took a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, what a beautiful sunset, from there we went to the after party, party for the Marathon, where I had a few to many drinks.

Day 6

Surprisingly Margarite and I had no soreness from our runs. We took the shuttle bus into town to do a little exploring. Town is not very big, mostly tourist type shops, no real restaurants to speak of. There are a few commercialized craft center. The tourist police advised us to go to the local craft bazaar. It was a few hundred meters past the commercial craft center.

Going down the dirt road we were not sure what we were getting ourselves into. There were 18 vendors, each had laid their wares out on the dirt floor. My guess is each vendor had a 10 x 10 piece of dirt, they called their shop. As we walked by, they would ask us to take our time and just look, "no pressure", they would say, until we would start to walk to the next shop, then it was all about price. "I will give you a great price", they would say.

Most of the items were hand carved from stone or local woods. The quality was exceptional. After much haggling Margarite bought a few items.

We took a taxi back to the hotel. The cost of a taxi from town to the hotel was $10.00. I gave the driver a $20.00, he quickly said he did not have change, and that I should get change from the hotel. I said, "Are you sure you do not have 10 dollars". He pulled out a wade of money and counted out $10.00 which was really $11.00. It was clear he did not know how to count. I try to explain he gave me to much money and I gave him the extra dollar back. Still not understanding his mistake he thought I was giving him a tip and thanked me for it.

At 11:00 AM we got picked up by our guide Innocence, we had scheduled him to take us to a local village. I wanted to compare the villages in Zimbabwe to our village in Botswana. The village we visited was 10 kilometers out of town. We stopped off at the local grocery and got some food staples, salt, sugar, corn meal, etc. to bring as gifts.

The village we visited was similar to my village before I had moved there over 6 years ago. The only electricity they had was very small solar panels, they used the solar panel to charge cell phones. Besides the solar panels and cell phones, there was no other electricity or electrical devices. They did have a few bore hole wells, for water, but the pumps were all manual. There was no sanitation what so ever, they thought the world was their bathroom.

The first family we visited were 4 siblings, an older brother and sister and their 2 younger brothers. They grow all their own crops and had chickens for eggs. About 50% of the children are orphans in this village, the main cause of death of the parents is AIDS.

The huts are of mud and wood construction, with thatched roofs.

The second family was a mother and father and their children along with some of the children's friends. The father was an artist. While we were there he was painting some art work on the outside walls of the main hut.

The last family we visited was a grandmother and her granddaughter. The grandmother was weaving a straw basket, that she felt would take over a month to complete.

All three families were very gracious to show us their homes, and share their lives with us. The second family had chickens, but also had a few goats and cows.

They were all very appreciative of the food we brought.

After visiting the village we had Innocence, drop us off at the Victoria Falls Hotel. The Victoria Falls Hotel was the first hotel in Victoria Falls, it was originally a hostel for the workers building the railroad bridge over the Zambezi River, connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe. The hotel has come a long way since it's days as a hostel. A grand hotel, reminiscent of the days when Zimbabwe was a British Colony, with it large white pillars, and grand court yards. We had a very nice lunch at the hotel, while watching the falls in the distance.

After lunch we took a walk down to the falls to get a better look, we had been in Victoria Falls for three days now, and had not really taken a good look at the falls, one of the seven wonders of the world.

The falls are very long, wide, straight across, at the bottom of the falls the water flows into the narrow river. Being the winter time, and the dry season, the river is low, still the falls are very powerful. The views from the Zimbabwe side are breath taking. We spent an hour walking the falls taking in the views from many different angles.

We took a taxi from the falls back to the hotel, the fare for this ride was $15.00. During the ride the taxi was stopped for a random inspection he was sited and fined for bald tires and a smashed windshield. The fine was $5.00. We gave him $5.00 to cover the fine.

Day 7

Our hotel has a beautiful golf course so we decided to take a walk and check it out before we headed to the airport for our flight to Johannesburg. It was an interesting walk seeing, wart hogs, impalas and even a crocodile roam the fairways of the golf course.

Our flight to Johannesburg was uneventful. We decided to get a hotel at the airport, we would be heading back home tomorrow but had nothing planed for the night.

Day 8

Margarite had a flight out back to the states at 9:00 PM and I was heading on a flight to Botswana a little after that. We had to pick the bikes up from De Wet's house sometime during the day but did not have a set schedule.

We decided to visit Constitution Hill, Constitution Hill is currently where the Constitution Court is located. The Constitution Court is similar to the Supreme Court in the United States. The location of Constitution Hill was originally a prison that housed both criminals and political prisoners, one prison for men and another for women. The tour was very enlightening as to how brutal the South African prison system was to it's people, some of which the only crime they committed was being black.

The location to build the Constitution Court on the grounds of the prison, was so the dark past will always be a reminder for the future.

After our tour we had lunch with De Wet and his wife and picked our bikes up. Remember 31 days ago we arrived in South Africa for the Tour De Tuli.

Margarite took off for New York, she has some work to finish at the United Nations, I headed back to Botswana.

I have a feeling I will be announcing some big news about my village in Botswana in the next few weeks.






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