Thursday, December 29, 2016

The joys of hosting an AirBnB place

It's now just on two years that we have been on AirBnB, where we host the Aloe Cottage, our one bedroom garden apartment. At last count, visitors from 26 countries have stayed with us.

Now, let me say up front, running an AirBnB place is hard work.

That's if you're serious about it, which most AirBnB hosts aren't. A while ago we had to relocate a guest after we had an unexpected power outage. We contact five or six AirBnB hosts in the area, and only two bothered to reply, the one only two days later. In the end we booked them into a guest house, because we simply weren't sure of the quality we'd get at the available AirBnB places.

A few weeks ago Adeline spent a weekend in Cape Town and stayed at an AirBnB place. She should have known it was going to be less than ideal when most of the online reviews complained about the intermittent wi-fi. But she didn't expect to open the door one morning and see the host's husband prancing around in his boxers! The same host approached Adeline afterwards, asking for tips on how to improve her rating. Start by dressing your husband properly in the morning, and then invest in an uncapped ADSL line, Adeline said.

Spring cleaning the cottage after each guest, doing laundry, and being on point when they arrive - sometimes hours later than they said they'd pitch up - is hard work. To be sure, we spoil our guests, which adds to the chores. There's juice on arrival, flowers, a bottle of wine, a bowl of fruit and a jar of cookies, and that's only a partial list of extras. Recently guests of ours who were traveling the world asked about hairdressers and dentists, and we booked their appointments. We've run many guests to Gautrain station a few kilometers away, just to save them the Uber ride.

With the number of AirBnB places growing in double digits, you have to go the extra mile to be on top.

But the work that one has to put in is far outstripped  by the sheer pleasure derived from seeing guests enjoying their stay. How do you know  your guests are having fun? Here's a clue: If a young couple checks in after a long flight and don't show up for three days, you know they're happy :). If you see a guests sitting under a tree in the garden with a laptop, catching up on their blogging, you know they're content. I mean, they could also be sitting in a coffee shop, but they choose not to.

Here are a few of the things we find guests are most appreciative of, and will help ensure a glowing review after they've left.

- The one thing most guests mention is our garden. We don't have a large, expansive garden, but there are five water features, which I think are the things that attract attention.

- A well-equipped kitchen. It's really just a small nook with a plate stove, fridge and microwave, but we can see the utensils, pots and pans are well-used, especially by those staying for more than a few days. (Which is also why we went to Mr Price Home this weekend and replaced the worn utensils!)

- The informal lecture on what to see, where eat, and what to do. We have a full range of brochures, but find that the 'knowledge sharing' we do is much appreciated. We've even worked out a country-wide road trip for a German couple who wanted to tour SA.

- Reliable Internet. This is really a given, but nothing makes a guest turn nasty like dodgy or no Internet access.

- A largish table. We have a six seater table in the kitchen/dining room, and we see guests with their laptops all the time. Basically, they appreciate work space.

- Safe, off-street parking. Especially in Joburg!

- Flexible check-in. From experience we know how much it means when you arrive on a 6am flight in a foreign city with the knowledge that you can check into an AirBnB place straight away. We've had guests arrive at all hours, and seeing the relief on their faces when we open the door shows they appreciate that flexibility.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A short drive through Johannesburg's history

This is a little tour guide written for the out-of-town guests staying in our pretty cottage we have on AirBnB. It describes the route from the cottage to the Apartheid Museum. I thought I'd share it here, for those interested in some of the lesser known history of Joburg.


If you intend driving or taking a taxi from the cottage to the Apartheid Museum, there are a number of interesting things on the route to see, both historically and present-day. The route runs through some of the oldest suburbs of Johannesburg and places where gold was first discovered during the 1870s.

It’s hardly a ’tourist route’ but nonetheless interesting and quite scenic in its own way.

We recommend you drive this route slowly to get the most out of what you’ll see along the way. It’ll take about 30 minutes or so at a leisurely speed.

When leaving the cottage, turn right in Indra street at the first four way crossing. Drive down Indra street, past two four way stops to a T-junction. Turn left, and immediately enter a roundabout. Leave the roundabout on the opposite side and onto the railway bridge. On top of the railway bridge turn right, and at the traffic light right again.

Follow this street (Albertina Sisulu Road) up to a traffic light where you’ll turn left. At the traffic light, look to your right - this is the Langlaagte rail station, and the exact spot where a famous Afrikaner military leader during the Anglo Boer War, General De la Rey, was mistakenly shot dead in his car at a road block set up to catch the Foster Gang, a notorious group of robbers, in 1914. The incident is the stuff of legends, and conspiracy theories that he was set up by the government of the day because of his rebellious behaviour. You'll notice a grey marble plaque on the wall commemorating the tragic event.

After you’ve turned left carry on for a few hundred meters, following the road where it veers to the right. Turn left where the road intersects, into a street lined with poplar trees on both sides. Careful here, there are speedbumps in the road!

On the right you’ll see an old Dutch Reformed (Protestant) church which is one of the oldest in Johannesburg.

The cornerstone of this historic church was laid in March 1889, but the Boer War delayed completion and it was only inaugurated on 12 December 1902. The founder of the Abraham Kriel Orphanage on the opposite side of the street, Rev. Abraham Kriel, was the first minister at the church and served from 1902-1917, he is buried with his wife in the grounds of the church.

Soon you’ll get to a set of traffic lights. If you look to your right, diagonally across you'll notice a fairly plain entrance gate.

This marks the spot where gold was discovered for the first time in Johannesburg in 1886, changing the fate of South Africa forever.

Cross over and onto another rail bridge - through some bluegum trees ahead you’ll the autumn-coloured calabash shape of FNB Stadium (also known as Soccer City), built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. As you drive along prepare to pass underneath another rail bridge, and keep an eye on the top right part of the bridge. You’ll notice a piece of graffiti that reads: "Comrade Hani, our nation weeps”. "Comrade Hani" refers to Chris Hani, a revered ANC leader during Apartheid that was assassinated in 1993 by rightwing activists.

After going underneath the bridge, you’ll notice on the right one of Johannesburg’s characteristic but disappearing landmarks - a yellow sand mining dump. There used to be dozens of these dotting much of Gauteng province, but most have been recycled and the sand used for various purposes.

Soon afterwards you’ll pass underneath a bridge and see the 90 000 seater stadium in front of you. If you have time you can pause and visit the stadium, or turn right at the traffic light just after the bridge. The stadium is used mainly for football matches but also for music concerts - early in 2014 we watched Bruce Springsteen perform here!

After you've turned right at the traffic light, the road does a full circle onto the top of the bridge. Follow the road for two or three kilometers. You’re now passing through land still owned by mining companies. Almost all of the mines here have closed down - look out for the ruins of one such mine on the left.

At the next set of traffic lights turn right. You’ll now pass the offices of De Beers Diamond Company and the research facilities of the gold mining conglomerate Anglo American, again signs of the history of mining in this area. About a kilometer on keep an eye out for the road sign showing where you’ll turn left for the Apartheid Museum and Gold Reef City. Turn left into a slipway and follow the road past a set of traffic lights. After that you’ll see the large entrance for Gold Reef City on the left, and again to the left, after passing through it, the parking lot of the Museum.

We hope you enjoyed the drive!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

New arrival in the garden....

A few days ago I went to my local camera shop, took out the family jewels, and exchanged them for a Sigma 120-300mm 2.8 lens. For about three weeks I'd read up reviews, enlisted opinions from photographer friends, looked at hundreds of photos taken with this beast of a lens, and it the general opinion was that it was the next best thing to forking out six figures (in Rands) for a Canon of the same range and quality. But most of all, I asked Adeline what she thought. And when she said, just go and buy the damn thing, well, that's what I did.

It's a monster of a camera lens. I haven't weighed it, but it's not the sort of lens you take on the Camino de Santiago (read what I took with on that little 46-day excursion here) unless you're looking to develop serious back-aches. Nope, I didn't get it with a view to traveling far; I got it for birding and wildlife photography, which in South Africa means anywhere from my back garden to the Kruger National Park, which is only a six hour drive a way, plus at least a dozen wildlife reserves inbetween.

My timing for acquiring the lens was good - our resident garden Cape Robin had given birth to a youngster just a few days prior, and soon the little one was driving us insane with its incessant, high-pitched tweeting for food. The parents were constantly flying back and forth with morsels of insects and worms, and dropping it into a seemingly bottomless gullet that could never get enough to eat.So I set up my Manfrotto tripod on the verandah, mounted my new lens onto the Canon 5D MkIII and waited to see if I could catch Cape Robin feeding time on camera.

For the first try I added in the Sigma 2x extender, but at 5pm the light was simply not enough to ensure a sharp photo. For the next try, two days later, I took off the extender and stuck with the lens only, which was more successful. The resulting photo was a mix of luck and preparedness. There was literally a half-second window opportunity between Mrs Cape Robin arriving with lunch, Junior opening wide, and mum dropping in a yummy piece of earthworm.

I didn't do much to the snapshot in Lightroom afterwards, just the usual bit of cropping and sharpening. And there you have it. My investment has started paying for itself, perhaps not in Rands and cents, but certainly in photographic satisfaction.

But most of all, we're happy that the Cape Robin lineage is continuing in the garden - the Robins have a more of less permanent spot in the hedge where they return to breed every year. And now I can start a family album of photographs!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Stories from the Camino de Santiago: The Carrefour Town

'The next town,' says Adeline while studying her iPad screen without breaking her five kilometer-an-hour stride, 'is a Carrefour town.'

'What's the town called?'

'I don't know, but it's a Carrefour town. It says so on the map. There's a little icon here.'

It's five in the afternoon, and I'm famished. We still have four kilometers to go along a brilliantly white and perfectly flat strip of gravel road that runs through the fading green wheat fields west of Burgos, ending at the next little pinpoint of civilisation, where we'll bivouac for the night. Since the last town, the paced crunch of our trail runners on the gravel path we're on has been slowly diminishing, like two steam locomotives nearing a station.

For the past five days our evening meal choices have been limited to that old culinary Camino standard, the peregrino menu. I'm amazed to think back now, after 800 kilometers, how absolutely standardised, ritualistic and exceptionally bland  the peregrino menus are all along the road. Order the ensalada mixta, the staple first course on the menu at Pamplona, you get lettuce, tomato, onion, and with slight variations boiled eggs and asparagus. Order it in Estella, you get ditto. And more of the same in Hontanas, Astorga, right down to Santiago. Little or no dressing, no condiments. I dare say that even the author of the Codex Calixtinus, bless his pilgrim soul, probably ate the same tired recipe on his pilgrimage tour, eight hundred years ago.

Which is why we're looking forward to the Carrefour town where, before we shower, wash clothes, or even take our trusty trail runners,  we'll drop our packs at the entrance of the Carrefour and stock up on dinner goodies. Sure, its over-lit, ample shelves are filled mostly with pre-packaged, radiated food prepared by a faceless international conglomerate who probably buys hot-house grown lettuce by the metric ton from corporate-owned farms, but we don't care. Why?

It's simple. Because Carrefour's gazpacho is the smoothest, richest, yummiest gazpacho you'll ever taste this side of the Pyrenees. Throw in a generous slice of goat's cheese (we're happy if it's local, but we'll settle for something imported from Italy) and a chunk of freshly baked pan and you'll see us kicking back on Adeline's sky-blue sarong on a lawn in a scenic park, or on a park bench next to a romanesque church, contently slurping from our green plastic mugs in-between mouths-full of tangy cheese and bread.

The rumour that, on the Camino, the pilgrim's journey is a fruitless search for culinary delight may be largely true, but there are notable exceptions, such as those you'll find in Carrefour towns. Go on, be a devil. Be different. Succumb.

Follow the first fifteen days of our Camino trip, starting here.

Camino de Santiago Day Fifteen: Monreal to Puente la Reina: Goodbye, Aragones

We left Monreal chirpy and well rested. It's our final day on the Camino Aragones before we join the pilgrim river at Puente La Reina. Up to now the road has been wonderfully quiet, serene and remote in large parts. It'll be a new, rather more social experience from tomorrow, and we'll just go with the flow.

We'd not had a particularly early start and soon the sun was burning down on us from a cloudless sky. In one village we walked through a digital sign laconically announced that we're walking in 31 degree heat. Our hydration packs worked overtime. Long stretches of the farm roads we we're on were shadeless. It was taxing.

At one point we were glad to see the pillared hulk of the must-see Eunate church appear ahead of us, with the promise of its dark, cool inside to rest in and escape the sun.

Except that it was Monday, and we found the church locked and deserted. (Note to Spanish authorities, Pilgrims want to see churches on Mondays too, you know). So we were left to huddle for a few minutes under a sparse olive tree before continuing our hot trek to Puenta La Reina.

Along a particularly long and scorching stretch close to Puenta La Reina we were surrounded by bare, ploughed fields both sides of the dusty track we were on. 'What we need right now,' I said to Adeline between wiping beads of sweat from my face, 'Is someone to turn a watering hose on us to cool down.' Suddenly, out of the blue, the irrigating system start shooting long arms of water into the air on the field next to us. We didn't need an invitation - we both ran onto the field like kids and within two minutes we were soaked to the skin. I'm not making this up. This is the stuff that happens on the Camino.

I'd be lying if I said entering Puenta La Reina after a long trek of 35 kilometers wasn't somewhat of a shock. Every second building seems to be an albergue, with socks, towels and garments dangling from window sills. Petite pilgrim girls in sarongs, their pristine feet removed from their leather sandals daintily sat on the lawns, nibbling on goat's cheese and bread while reading well-thumbed copies of Brierleys. Almost everone we saw was a pilgrim. Moreover, they all looked fresh-faced and pink-cheeked. Our sun-burnt, sweat-stained and dusty demeanours stood out. We'd been on the road more than twice as long as most, and judging by the stares it must've showed.

I'm glad we'd opted to start in Lourdes and complete the Aragones route before tackling the long, well-trodden path to Santiago de Compostela. It had given us the chance to get a head start and savour the culture and history of the old pilgrim routes while being gently introduced into the mores, ethics and quirks of daily life as modern pilgrims.

Later we settled at a bar on one of Puenta La Reina's lively streets and drank a toast to the Camino Aragones. It had been tough going, but very, very rewarding. We felt ready for the next chapter. It's on we go.


We carried on yes, right through to Santiago. And even by bus to Kilometer Zero, Finisterre. But I stopped blogging once we got to Puente la Reina. I wanted to just take in the rest of the road without having to think about writing. I made some notes from which a story or two may still flow, but this is it for now. Now, get online and book an air ticket, go walk the Camino. Now.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Camino de Santiago Day Fourteen: Sanguesa to Monreal: We Get A Raw Deal

After last night's ten-in-a-room albergue accommodation complete with dysfunctional shower and dodgy kitchen we were in the mood for something a little more comfortable, so before we left Sanguesa in the morning we went past the friendly tourism office and booked ourselves a room at a casa rural in our next stopover, Monreal. Accommodation on the Camino is generally a gamble so we wanted to make sure we are assured of a good night's sleep. Little did we know about the added benefits we were tying down, but I'm getting ahead of myself.


We started the day's walk by going over the bridge crossing the Aragon river and pausing on the opposite side to look for the Roman funerary stone built into the bridge pillar. And sure enough, there it was, a weather-worn, grey square of granite with the inscription: 'Carolina built this tomb for herself and her two sons, Felix and Firma'. It always sends me on an imaginary journey when I see things like this. Two thousand years, not close from here, a woman named Carolina went into a stonemason's workshop and ordered a gravestone that is now cemented into a bridge pillar, where it will probably remain for another two thousand years. Isn't that an amazing thought?

On the theme of things Roman, the first village we passed through, the scenic Rocaforte, was founded by the Romans during their reign here. I could see why - location, location, location. Rocaforte is set high against the ridge of a prominent hill with a view over the valley to die for. Well, it had a great view back then, but now most of the snazzily rebuilt village faced the smoking chimneys of the smelly paper factory on the outskirts of Sanguesa. What would the Roman aristocrats saybout that?

Then it was a long stretch of walking through the countryside with two or three quiet villages serving as distance markers and water replenishing points. All was going swimmingly when I suddenly had my rainbow-coloured Camino bubble popped.

We were a kilometer or two out of the vollage of Ibargoiti when we saw a pop-up cafe next to the path - two of three umbrellas with chairs and tables, and a guy in a mobile kiosk selling everything from blister plasters to fizzy drinks and cigarettes.


Though we're not due for a stop, I'm thinking, we should support the local struggling Spanish economy, it's just the right Camino thing to do. So I go through the complex ritual of removing my backpack, fish out a five Euro note, walk over to the kiosk and order two tiny paper cups of orange juice. And I mean t.i.n.y. He takes the fiver, pops it into a box, hands me two cups, and turns his attention to the next customer. I meekly make a gesture showing I'm waiting for my change, but he off-handedly points to an equally tiny sign saying I've just paid five Euros for two sips of juice. He then shoots me a cocky 'do your worst amigo' look and that was that.

I'd just been handed a raw deal on the Camino.

I let it go. I believe in karma. You lose some, you win some. We won in Jaca, where we were blessed with nice, free croissants at that cute little coffee shop. Anyway, word will soon get out on social media about this smooth operator, and then he'll be torn to bits by the cyber-wolves and left wondering why no-one is ordering orange juice anymore. Facebook and Twitter can be horribly wrathful.

Soon after continuing we bumped into the two pilgrims we met at Ruesta. They're phenomenal walkers and set a blistering pace, and with the wheels oiled by with the stimulating conversation time flew by and we arrived in Monreal earlier than we anticipated.

Our bed for the night turned out to be a chic little place in the middle of town, decorated straight from a country living magazine. The owner is clearly a cultured city boy made good, living his dream in this corner of rural Spain.

Which made us happy too, especially during dinner. Imagine a three star Michelin chef preparing that old Camino favourite, the peregrino menu. We started with the smoothest leek and potato soup I had ever tasted, followed by the most delicious tofu in tomato for me, and Adeline had an equally tasty black squid. Then followed something truly remarkable: Chocolate tart with complementing anice seed tea. I stood up from dinner, went back to our room and wrote the most glowing culinary review Tripadvisor has ever seen. I hope every foodie pilgrim that passes through Monreal stays at Etxartenea. The place is a pilgrimage in itself.



Friday, August 7, 2015

Camino de Santiago Day Thirteen: Ruesta to Sanguesa: We Are Tempted

Today we submitted to sin.

We stole. Well, that's what my mother would say. But it was just a little steal, and we couldn't resist.

We'd left Ruesta quite early via a pretty forest path that first became a very steep pine plantation road, and then finally led onto open grassland. After two hours or so we started down an old Roman road descending steeply downhill just outside Undues de Lerda, lined on both sides by small orchards. At one such orchard that included a few scrawny almond trees we noticed among the newly formed spring leaves a few clutches of dry almonds from the previous season.

Next moment I was feverishly smashing almond husks with a moss-covered rock until we held about twelve lovely silky brown almonds in the palms of our hands. We skulked away from the scene of the crime, chewing and savouring fresh nuts that tasted as delicious as only illicitly picked almonds can.

There, I've confessed. I know, if every pilgrim pinched a handful of almonds or other produce the poor farmers would be left destitute. But not having tasted the buttery, aromatic taste of freshly picked almonds since I was about seven it was just to much of a temptation to resist. I'm sorry. I promise to go on pilgrimage in penance.

Once in Undues de Lerda we rested our feet under a clutch of trees after the stiff climb and quenched our thirsts with beers from the only bar in town. In the end we spent the best part of an hour watching life in the sleepy village go by - it seems everyone knew everyone else, as they all stopped and chatted when passing each other. We speculated on what they talked about. With only about fifty or so people living in here, news must be fairly limited. Perhaps they discuss the pilgrims passing through, comment on their huge backpacks, all the paraphenalia they were carrying, or their spending habits. Before we took off the bar owner asked us how many pilgrims had stayed in Ruesta the previous night. When we replied four, she looked dejected. Business will be slow today. I felt sorry we weren't staying over in this quaint town, even just for the sake of boosting the economy.

In sharp contrast to the last few picturesque villages we've walked through, Sanguesa, our target for the day is a very unassuming town on the face of it, even though it was a significant pilgrim town back in the day. We looked up the four major churches in town, all of them sadly in rather delapidated state. Many of the town's stately homes lining the main street were, it seemed, beyond repair and will probably be demolished soon. Perhaps there's a mayor or other bigwig that needs to be fired here...

At the church of Santiago we waited for mass to finish before slipping inside, but could only spend about thirty seconds there before the church caretaker started jingling her keys and switching off the lights. I felt deprived.

Feeling a bit dejected (or rather, ejected) we took our Carrefour gaspacchio and natillas and parked on a bench close to the church for dinner. It hadn't been a particularly rich day culturally speaking, but we had lots of fun being scoundrels on the way. After all, what's being on The Way without fun?