Category Archives: Holiday Trips

Kruger unplanned – The Journey

It was a different Kruger trip in several ways …….  

(Yep, here come the bullets – I can’t help it, I’m a QS, we like things to be ordered) –

  • The booking was a last-minute one instead of the usual micro-planned, 6 to 12 months ahead booking we have always stuck to – I suddenly had this desire to wake up in Kruger on my birthday and scanned the availability of the camps, ending up with 5 nights in Olifants and a further 2 in Skukuza, starting in the last week of August this year
  • It was just Gerda and myself – the first time we have been on our own in Kruger, going back to our first visit with Gerda’s parents as newly weds in 1972. Since then we have made umpteen visits with our kids, with friends, with birding groups, even with clients and latterly with our grandkids adding to the delight.
  • We had no fixed plans other than to enjoy ourselves and take it at a relaxed pace
  • Ummmm that’s it with the bullet points……..

So what is it about a visit to Kruger National Park that makes it so special to ordinary South Africans like us, who keep going back for more, year after year, literally for decades?

With time to think about it during our week in Kruger, I can put it down to the several parts that make up the quintessential Kruger trip, starting with –

Getting There

For us, any holiday starts with the road trip which, if you tackle it in the way that we prefer, becomes an integral part of the holiday. We could have travelled to our Kruger destination, Olifants camp, in one day, but including an overnight stop at Phalaborwa, close to the entrance gate, meant we had a full day to get organised and travel at a relaxed pace.

It also means there is time to stop for coffee and lunch and to slowly ease into holiday mode. At our first stop at Kranskop on the road north, Gerda’s enthusiasm in identifying the weavers we spotted there helped to shift the focus from the “must do’s” that dominate life to the ” do what you feel like’s”. They were Village Weavers and for the next half hour on the road Gerda grilled me on the main differences between the most common genus Ploceus  Weavers, covering Southern Masked, Village, Lesser Masked and Cape Weavers.

There is also enough time to take in the character of the surroundings and the road being travelled on, which changed as we progressed –

N1 highway all the way to Polokwane – predictably smooth and comfortable, not requiring much effort beyond maintaining concentration

Polokwane east to Moria and beyond – busy double road through end to end built up area, the road requiring utmost concentration even at low speeds with a stream of pedestrians crossing, taxis stopping unexpectedly (although we have long learnt to expect it), wandering dogs and goats. Beyond Moria, which accommodates an estimated 1 million people during the Easter pilgrimage, the road enters rolling countryside for some relief

Through Magoebaskloof and down to the lowveld, the road twists and turns and drops all at the same time for perhaps half an hour until it flattens out as you approach Tzaneen

Suddenly it is fruit and veg growing area with roadside stalls offering produce at prices way below the city supermarkets – avos galore (bag for R50 / $3.50 ), sack of potatoes (R30 / $2 ), tray of tangerines (R30 / $2 )

The last stretch to Phalaborwa gradually changes to game farms and bushveld, the road down to a single lane with no shoulders.

The overnight stop in Phalaborwa was at La Lechere guest house in the suburbs – a good choice with neat, comfortable rooms and a full English breakfast to set us on our way the next morning.

La Lechere guest house Phalaborwa
The cosy room

Entering Kruger

We entered Kruger before 11 am and made our way slowly to Letaba camp, where we planned to lunch.

Phalaborwa gate

The route from Phalaborwa to Olifants camp

Kruger route

I tried to think what entering Kruger means to me and the only comparison I could come up with was that of entering one of the great cathedrals of Europe – the sudden calmness that spreads over you, the splendid surroundings that seem to envelope you, the happy thought that it’s been like this for a long time and is not likely to change.

We explored the side roads around Masorini on the way, stopping for a while at Sable Dam, which has a bird hide that can be booked for overnight stays.

Sable Dam, Kruger Park

On the way back we could not resist a “short cut” road signposted Track for high clearance vehicles only, low maintenance , which was true to its word – a unique experience, not having driven on a proper 4 x 4 track in Kruger before, except with rangers in their vehicles.

4×4 Track near Sable Dam

The track ran for 5 km and took us through an area dotted with exceptionally large termite mounds, some as tall as a double-storey house, with a pointy top giving them the appearance of rondawel roofs from a distance. I suspected the large size of these mounds – certainly larger than I have ever encountered – had something to do with the type of soil – white/grey in colour and very sandy.

Termite mound along 4×4 track, Kruger Park
Another termite mound, this time with a Kudu to provide some scale

Our route did not produce much in the way of special animal sightings, but as usual the bird life made up for it with several interesting encounters –

  • African Hawk-Eagle spotted by Gerda in a far-off tree
  • Yellow-fronted Canaries in a group, flitting from tree to tree
  • Various Swallows in one spot – Lesser-striped, Red-breasted and White-throated Swallows
  • Crested Francolin scurrying off when we stopped nearby
  • Groundscraper Thrush rather unexpectedly in the middle of the bush (you get used to seeing them on lawns in Suburbia so it comes as a surprise when they choose a more barren natural habitat)
  • A soaring African Fish-Eagle patrolling a dam
African Fish Eagle

Elephants made an appearance as we crossed a bridge near Letaba, heading to small pools of water for a refreshing drink. They have a way of looking like they are enjoying every sip of water.

Elephants near Letaba, Kruger Park
Elephant drinking

Lunch at Letaba was fish and chips (there goes our credibility) and ahead lay the last stretch before Olifants, which went quite quickly.

The state of the Letaba River was a bit of a shock as we could not recall having seen it so dry, even after the normal dry winter months – another sign of the severe drought that most of Kruger has experienced for the last few years.

Letaba River – end of winter, Kruger Park

The Accommodation

By 5 pm we were settled in our pleasant rondawel – we were prepared for the lack of kitchen facilities in the rondawel, knowing there would be a communal kitchen nearby, however we had not thought of bringing a kettle, so resorted to buying a cheap stove-top model that worked well, albeit slowly, on the communal hot plate.

We enjoyed tea while taking in the incomparable view from our small stoep – I patted myself on the back for choosing a perimeter rondawel which looks over the Olifants river far below.

Tea with a view, Olifants, Kruger Park

The rondawel is typical of the accommodation in many Kruger camps – hardly luxurious, in fact the kindest description would be basic, but I had already decided that this was part of the charm of Kruger, almost like camping but with solid walls around you, comfortable beds and a small bathroom at hand.

With no kitchen (I probably would have booked a rondawel with a kitchen if one had been available) cooking happens on the braai, washing up is done in the communal kitchen and the simple task of making tea and coffee becomes a drawn-out ritual of sorts, all at a much slower pace than home and in the pleasant surroundings of a well looked after camp.

Even the view as you lie down to sleep is quite soothing (before the lights are off of course) …

Bungalow roof

Still to come in “Kruger Unplanned” – more about the drives, the wildlife encounters, the birding highlights and just chilling

 

 

 

Annasrust Farm – A River Outing

One of the highlights of our visits to Annasrust Farm, near Hoopstad in the Free State, is the river cruise that Pieter likes to lay on for us.  During our April 2018 weekend visit to their beautiful farm, Pieter and Marietjie once again arranged to take us out on a late afternoon cruise and we duly set off around 4.30 pm from the riverside landing spot and headed out onto the smooth waters of the Vaal River on their purpose-built raft – basically a large platform on pontoons with a roof over, driven by a large outboard motor.

The Vaal River forms part of the Bloemhof dam at this point – Wikipedia has the following to say on the dam : The dam was commissioned in 1970, has a capacity of 1,269,000,000 cubic metres and has an area of 223 square kilometres, the wall is 33 metres high. It is fed with the outflow from the Vaal Dam (located upstream in Gauteng) as well as rain collected in the Vaal, Vet, Vals and Sand River catchment areas.

Gerda and I sat right in front with glorious views of the river, the slowly setting sun and the varied bird life already into their end of day activities – flying about restlessly, perhaps watching the other birds to see where they’re heading, possibly even wondering what this bunch of humans on the raft are up to… that sort of thing.

Sundowner cruise – enjoying the view
Doing it in style

Some of this activity was along the shoreline – Cormorants aplenty, groups of Spur-winged Geese and solitary Goliath Herons standing sentry at regular intervals as we cruised smoothly along. The setting sun made for picture-perfect scenes as the rays created multi-coloured patterns from behind the clouds lining the horizon.

Sundown approaching as we glide out onto the mighty river

Several birds passed the boat in graceful flight

Great Egret
White-breasted Cormorant skimming the water
White-winged Tern (Transitional plumage)

Passing a mid-river island, we saw signs of large colonies of various roosting and breeding bird species along its length. Approaching the colonies, the numbers of birds present were amazing – Darters, Cormorants, Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Yellow-billed Storks and, almost more than all the rest, Great Egrets.

Approaching a part of the massive mixed roost
Mixed roost
Mixed roost

I have seen individual colonies of most of these species at one time or another in the past, but never this variety in one place. The trees that made up the roosts were stained white from the bird’s presence and every available perch seemed to be occupied while numbers wheeled overhead, then dove down and pushed and shoved their way in with flailing wings and legs. Quite a sight to behold!

These photos give an idea of the extent of the colonies – just imagine the racket generated by all these birds to get an inkling of the full experience.

White-breasted Cormorants

At roost
White-breasted Cormorant With young at nest
Youngster at nest
White-breasted Cormorant

African Spoonbills

African Spoonbill
African Spoonbill (Juvenile)

African Darters

African Darter (with young)

Great Egrets

Mixed roost
Great Egrets
Great Egret

By now the sun was heading inexorably to its meeting with the horizon and Pieter took us back along the river to the spot where we had departed from (ooh, there I’ve done it again – the worst of english grammar crimes, ending a sentence with a preposition – but then, I love living on the edge)

Sundowner cruise

Close to the berth I spotted a Common Sandpiper at the water’s edge………

Common Sandpiper

Just to round off a magnificent outing, Pieter took a detour on the way back to the farm-house to show us the deep orange sunset against a backdrop of some picturesque trees. Only in Africa ……

Sunset, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Now, if only I can get a job as game ranger on the farm……….

 

Annasrust Farm – A Walk or Two

The north-eastern part of Free State Province is known as one of the major maize, sunflower and wheat farming areas with its deep sandy soils and seemingly endless vistas across the flat landscape.

By kind invitation of Pieter and Marietjie, part of Gerda’s extended family, we spent a glorious weekend on their farm Annasrust near Hoopstad in April this year, together with our son Stephan and family – pretty much the perfect venue for a relaxing yet stimulating stay, raised to an even higher level by the company, it has to be said.

Annasrust farm is not your average Free State farm, lying as it does on the southern shores of the Vaal River (which forms part of the Bloemhof dam at that point) and stocked with a variety of game which enjoy the largely undisturbed plains, making it more of a mini Game Reserve than a farm.

Morning walk, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

With its varied habitats, the farm presents plenty of exciting birding opportunities, which started as we drove from the entrance gate to the farmstead through grasslands interspersed with patches of woodland. Once we had greeted our hosts Pieter and Marietjie and had settled in our house – did I mention we had a house to ourselves? – I recorded the species seen on the way in –

  • several Northern Black Korhaan rising up out of the long grass and flying off in a wide circle, croaking their objection to being disturbed
Northern Black Korhaan
  • Ant-eating Chat perched on a termite mound
  • Sociable Weavers at their enormous communal nest (more fully described in my earlier post Sociable Weaver)
Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm
  • the usual doves and Helmeted Guineafowl and a Spotted Thick-knee which seemed to be awaiting our arrival in the middle of the road, only giving way at the last moment

My plan was to do some early morning birding over the two-day stay, leaving the rest of the day for family activities and any ad hoc birding opportunities that may arise. The only decision needed was whether to head out on foot, limiting the area I could cover, or to take the Prado and explore further and wider. In the end I chose the walking option, one of my favourite forms of exercise and one that trumps any other way of getting close to nature in such beautiful surroundings

Saturday morning

Early morning at the farm house
Heading out for a morning walk

Sunrise was at 6.30 am and I was on my way a few minutes later – almost immediately I heard a soft piping call – vaguely familiar and I scanned the tall blue gum trees near the house. I soon found the responsible bird – a Gabar Goshawk which was seemingly agitated by a group of cackling Green Woodhoopoes who had dared to trespass in his territory.

The more familiar call of Rufous-naped Lark – a clear, plaintive “tswee – twooo” – accompanied me as I walked along the sandy track lined with long grass both sides, wet with morning dew.

Rufous-naped Lark

A bushy tree some way ahead drew my attention – the whitish blob did not fit the pattern of the rest of the tree and through my binos it turned almost magically into none other than a Pearl-spotted Owlet – I had scarcely begun my walk and already had a highlight of the morning. I cursed the fact that I hadn’t taken my camera and turned to go and get it, just as the Owlet disappeared.

This tiny member of the Owl family has to rate as one of the cutest birds around – all fluffy and round with those penetrating yellow eyes and if you’re lucky it will perform its party trick of turning its head 180 degrees to show you the back of its head, complete with false “eyes”.

I found these photos in my archive from 2007 which show the front and back “eyes”

Pearl-spotted Owl
Pearl-spotted Owl

The walk continued with regular sightings of some less common arid bushveld species –

  • Kalahari Scrub-Robins calling, but difficult to spot amongst the foliage
  • Barred Wren-Warbler emitting its trilling call that can be heard at a distance despite its small size
  • Groundscraper Thrush perched high up in a tree and calling melodically for minutes on end
  • Pririt Batis with its descending, drawn out series of short whistles, heard initially then seen later

An isolated outbuilding which seemed not to be in use, had attracted a pair of Ashy Tits, not seen by me in a few years, while Scaly-feathered Finches occupied a nearby tree along with an excited pair of Neddickys.

Morning walk, Annasrust farm

And being a game farm there were other sightings of a few of the animals that roam the grasslands ………….

Giraffe, Annasrust farm
Springbok, Annasrust farm
Nyala, Annasrust farm

By now I had been walking for an hour and a half and could feel breakfast and coffee beckoning so turned back and headed for the farmstead, where I took off my shoes which were wet through from the dew and caked with the sand from the tracks and left them in the sun to dry out.

Breakfast was duly enjoyed with the family – a feast of fruit platters conjured up by Gerda and Liesl, followed by a baked egg and bacon dish which really hit the spot. The rest of the day was given over to long chats, a midday snooze and a stunning late afternoon river cruise (more about that in the next post)

Sunday morning

I was up early and out again for another extended walk, this time my plan was to do a circular route past the old house, down to the river and back along the riverside fence where I would look for the most direct route homewards.

Morning walk, Annasrust farm Hoopstad
Camelthorns – they make good toothpicks
Spot the butterfly!

Initially the birds I encountered were mostly the same as the previous morning, then Zitting Cisticola showed, fluttering over the long grass and Cape Penduline Tit made a welcome appearance, moving restlessly among the bushes.

Zitting Cisticola, Annasrust farm

Before reaching the river I added White-browed Sparrow-Weavers to the list and at the river the shallow flats were a moving feast of birds with Yellow-billed and Little Egrets and Cape Teals prominent amongst many others and White-winged Terns flying in elegant fashion just above the water, turning and retracing their path every 50 metres or so.

The river, Annasrust farm
Dragonfly, Annasrust farm

Walking along the fence, two grazing horses followed me on the other side – hoping for a treat perhaps? I don’t usually have an affinity for horses, so tried to ignore them but they followed me all the way to where I turned for home.

Reluctant Horse whisperer!

Two hours of walking had left me quite weary and caffeine deprived, so I took the shortest route back to the house where the family were slowly emerging and I was in good time to join them for much-needed coffee.

Later that day we reluctantly left this bit of paradise and headed back to Pretoria – the slow drive out of the farm and along the first stretch of road past Hoopstad was good for a few interesting species  to round out a memorable weekend –

  • Shaft-tailed Whydah
  • Long-tailed Paradise Whydah
  • Lesser Kestrels in numbers on the overhead wires
  • Namaqua Doves
  • A lone White Stork

I can recall reading an article many years ago on a visit to the Free State in which the writer suggested a weekend in the Free State is like a week in the country – I would tend to agree.

 

 

Central Drakensberg – Revisited

Following on our visit to Champagne Valley in February this year, we found ourselves heading back to the same area scarcely a month later – reason being my brother Andrew came to visit from Devon in the UK where he has been for some 20 years. This time we had traded in some timeshare points for a midweek at Drakensberg Sun, a resort we last visited some 19 years ago, so what memories we had were vague to say the least. How nice to re-visit a place that we enjoyed so long ago and find it well-kept and just as attractive after so many years!

Monday

On the Monday morning that Andrew was due to arrive from London, we were up early to do some last packing and head through the morning traffic to OR Tambo to meet him just after 8 am. All went according to schedule and by 9 am we were on the N3 heading south towards Heidelberg, where we decided to stop for a coffee and pain au chocolat “filler” at the Mugg and Bean – Andrew declared it the best cappuccino he had enjoyed in a long time. So easy to please some people!

On to Harrismith in surprisingly light traffic with fewer lorries than we have become accustomed to – mental note to travel this route on a Monday in future. We broke the journey once more at Harrismith for brunch and by mid afternoon had reached our destination.

Chalet 213 was our allocated home for the next few days – it turned out to be in the “back row” of two rows of chalets a short distance from the hotel, separated by extensive gardens and with a large pool and a dam as the main features. Getting our luggage and self-catering provisions down the awkward steps outside the chalet and then down and up to the different levels inside proved to be quite strenuous for us semi-pensioners (another mental note to book the front chalets if ever we return) and once done we made haste to the pool for a refreshing swim in the humid weather.

The steps to the chalet

Tea revived us enough to take a walk around the gardens –

Dark-capped Bulbul
Southern Fiscal
Speckled Mousebird
A river runs through it
Andrew out walking

Later we enjoyed a delicious bobotie and salads which we had bought freshly cooked at our local Super Spar the previous day and which was the perfect way to end the day with the minimum amount of cooking effort. We had thought of watching the Oscars on TV that evening but a heavy thunderstorm passed through the area and put paid to that idea as it temporarily disrupted the power and affected TV reception for the rest of the evening. This was a blessing in fact as we were all quite weary and happy to get an early night.

Tuesday

Still in “take it easy” mode, we slept later than usual and even Andrew, early riser most times, slept in to catch up on lost sleep on the flight over. After a fruit brekkie we set off on a drive without any fixed plans other than a stop at the Valley Bakery nearby, set hidden away behind plantations but well worth finding, as we had on a previous visit. Relaxed surroundings and a really good roast chicken wrap, followed by cappuccino and pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tart) made for the ideal way to catch up on news with Andrew and just enjoy the ambiance for a couple of hours.

The road took us further to Winterton for some stocking up and on the way back we popped into The Hand Woven Rug Co for a look at their attractive products, including some interesting colourful rugs woven from leather off-cuts. The quirky signage outside and in added to the interest.

The Handwoven Rug Co

Back at our chalet it was time for a walk down to the dam and surrounds – wide lawns leading to the water’s edge in places and to reed beds in others. A variety of birds were doing their thing –

Yellow-billed Ducks in the shallows looking rather aloof and scudding away at my approach;

Yellow-billed Duck, Drakensberg Sun

Common Moorhens dipping at unseen organisms in the water;

Common Moorhen, Drakensberg Sun

Thick-billed Weavers by the dozen busily moving up and down, out and back, never far from their perfectly woven nests strung between sturdy reeds.

Thick-billed Weaver, Drakensberg Sun

It made me realise that the human weavers we had seen earlier, good as they were, are amateurs by comparison with these little brown experts!

We closed out the day with a braai of chops and wors and chatted well into the night – so nice to catch up with family after a couple of years.

Wednesday

I set off early to the hotel reception to enquire about walking the Forest trail – the hotel insists that anyone wanting to walk the trails check-in first and pay a small deposit, presumably to give them some record and control of hikers. My aim was to do a portion of the trail or possibly the whole one, with the objective of looking for a bird that has eluded me until now, the Bush Blackcap, a bird of the forests in these elevated parts. It was not to be as the staff had decided the trail was too slippery and dangerous after the night’s heavy rain – a wise precaution but disappointing.

Having set out to do some birding I walked the gardens and along the dam edge, then took a short drive along the road back to the R600, adding to my growing pentad list with the likes of Cape Grassbird, Lesser-striped Swallow, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Jackal Buzzard.

The gardens
A coulourful splash amongst the grasses
Locust – colourful but in a blend-in fashion

A substantial breakfast awaited back at the chalet, after which we headed off on an exploratory drive towards Monk’s Cowl, branching off at side roads that looked interesting.

One such road took us past an interesting looking building where we decided to have a closer look. We were the only visitors and a small fee of R20 allowed entry to the inside of the old Trading Store, which we were told was transported lock, stock and barrel from Lesotho some 12 years ago by the owner of the farm. The inside was filled with old-fashioned provisions, as if waiting for the next customer to come in and order from the assistant behind the counter – fascinating and absolutely unique. What a gem and another example of the quirky attractions that lie hidden in South Africa’s countryside.

Trading store ex Lesotho
Trading store
The packed interior
Old provisions on the shelves – now does that take you back or what?
Old display cabinets – I feel like asking for a tickey’s worth of sweets!

Thursday

Another rainy morning meant no chance to try for the Blackcap along the forest walk so we enjoyed a fruit brekkie in between packing. Not wanting to exhaust ourselves lugging everything back up the long flight of steps to the road above, I approached one of the security guards to assist – he was more than willing and had all our luggage and provision crates at the car in no time. Quite a relief for all of us!

We had planned a few stops, the first one being Scrumpy Jacks for their delectable cheesecake accompanied by good coffee. It was the same one we had tried for the first time a month ago but this time it was drizzled with a dark berry dressing – oh so good!

Cheesecake delight!

Once again we took the “old” road via Winterton and Bergville to Harrismith where we joined the N3 highway back to Gauteng and we were back home by late afternoon.

The road home

After not visiting the Drakensberg area for close on 20 years we have ” re-discovered”  this beautiful part of our country during  3 visits in the last 12 months or so – and we’ll be going back next year I’m sure.

 

Czech it out – Prague : Hills and a Palace

The further story of our 4 day stay in Prague, Czech Republic, prior to our “bucket list” Danube River Cruise in April 2016 ……

Into the (Petrin) Hills

We slept a little later this morning, recharging our batteries after a busy couple of days of traveling and touring. Our plan, as recommended by friends who had done a similar trip, was to take the funicular to the top of Petrin Hill, walk through the parkland to the Palace and from there make our way back down to the Charles Street Bridge. Well, it didn’t quite work out fully as planned, but we certainly walked a lot and saw many sights. After all, travel tends to be more interesting when it doesn’t go entirely according to plan – and that’s coming from someone who plans things to the last detail!

The day began in earnest, after a relaxed breakfast brought to our room by the ever-friendly staff at our hotel, at around 11 am with a walk to the nearest tram stop, which I had located on a map during a swot up of the commuting options. Two tram rides later we found ourselves, somewhat miraculously as we were guessing where to get off the tram, at the lower funicular station. The short ride to the top of Petrin Hill was through forested slopes with brief glimpses of the city beyond.

Prague – the view from the funicular

I have been fascinated by all things mechanical since childhood, especially those involving transport of some sort, and I’m always on the lookout for the chance to take a ride on unusual forms of transport, so the combination of trams and funicular was right up my street … or track in this case, and anyone observing me would probably have seen the boyish joy in my expression as we ascended the hill.

No, not the one we rode on – ours was a bit more modern. This is the 1891 version

Petrin Park

At the top we emerged from the station into an extensive park with wide lawns, gardens, many trees and shrubs and a curious mixture of structures here and there – an old Observatory, a House of Mirrors, a small church and a steel observation tower in the style of the Eiffel tower but on a much smaller scale.

Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill – the Observatory
Petrin Hill

A restaurant beckoned us for a hot chocolate and feeling suitably refreshed by this injection of goodness we set off to find the Palace. Pathways through the park were pleasantly shady and birdsong accompanied us as we meandered along, creating such a relaxed feeling that we may not have fully concentrated on where we were heading (mistake!).

Branches in the pathway required a quick decision as to which would be the shortest route to the Palace, but without signposts we knew we were guessing, but were nevertheless confident that we would find the right path eventually.

Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill

Downhill all the way

It soon became obvious we were on the wrong route, but by this time it was already too late to turn back as we had descended part of the hill and we found ourselves having to negotiate ever steepening downward paths and hundreds of steps – not good news for our rather aged knees. Realising that we would have to see it through, we negotiated one set of steps after another and just to prove there’s no stopping a birder or his intrepid wife, we stopped every now and then to view the few birds that caught our eye.

Great Tit, Prague
Great Tit
Common Chiffchaff, Prague
Common Chiffchaff
Common Chaffinch, Prague
Common Chaffinch
Wood Pigeon, Prague
Wood Pigeon

In the depths of one wooded area a cute squirrel with furry ears was an equally pleasant surprise.

Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill – Eurasian Red Squirrel (in winter coat)

By the time we got to the bottom we were virtually back at the lower station of the funicular, still in good spirits but decidedly weary. Not knowing how to get to the castle, we headed in the direction we thought it was – fortune guided us past a small restaurant called U Svatého Václava where we took sustenance in the form of Goulash soup, which perked us up no end and off we went again. Just around the next corner we asked directions of a friendly Prague-ite and were glad to hear the palace was “oh, about 7 minutes walk up that hill”, pointing to an ominously steep-looking, winding, narrow street with no visible end.

The long walk to the castle

And up again

Well, Bruce Fordyce (famous South African marathon athlete) in his prime would have done it in that time, but for us it was a long trek on our already tired legs and uphill all the way. We only just made it to the top with very little left in our tanks.

What we found after this strenuous walk was a large complex of various buildings rather than one identifiable “Palace”. The complex was handsomely designed, enclosing halls, offices, stables, a lane of residences, extensive gardens and the impressive St Vitus cathedral. However the combination of tired legs and a rather exorbitant entry fee put us off going inside the cathedral and instead we were content with a slow amble around the palace precinct.

Prague Castle – St George’s Square
Prague Castle – St George’s Basilica
Prague Castle – the Courtyard
Prague view from the Castle

The curious thing I find about some ancient cathedrals, as with St Vitus, is the gargoyles (rainwater spouts) at all the corners featuring some strange figures often with really grotesque forms – they just seem so out-of-place on a building supposedly designed to bring inner peace……. here are some examples of those found on St Vitus.

St Vitus Cathedral has an interesting history – the foundation stone was laid on the Hradčany Hill in 1344 at the behest of Charles IV, the future king of Bohemia and Holy Roman emperor. The architect Petr Parléř gave the cathedral its late Gothic style, but construction was not completed until 1929.The martyred Prince Wenceslas I (the “Good King Wenceslas” of the Christmas carol) was interred in 932 in the Church of St. Vitus, predecessor to the cathedral dedicated to the same saint

Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral
Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral
Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral
Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral

Eventually, after treating ourselves to a take-away coffee which we enjoyed on a nearby bench like true tourists, we found our way to the tram stop where we soon caught the right trams to within a short walking distance of the Old Town Square and the comfort of our hotel for a welcome rest.

So what happened to the Charles Street bridge visit, I hear you ask? Well, we saw it from the tram, lined on both sides with tourists, and having seen and experienced so much else we weren’t too fussed about not actually standing on it and taking a selfie like a zillion other people.

Taking to the streets

Dinner was a street affair, at one of the many food stalls along one side of the square – a Czech sausage (klobása – much like a frankfurter) with a side of a potato and sauerkraut mixture.

The latter was far too much for us, mainly due to not understanding what quantity we were ordering, but we noticed a “gentleman of the road” standing nearby with his dog and he was more than happy to take our leftovers. Funny how sometimes you feel things happen for a reason, even something as simple as ordering too much food – end result was we fed a hungry soul.

Our visit to Prague was over and the Danube trip lay ahead – we were happy that we had decided to spend the time to experience this handsome and interesting city.

Map of Prague

Central Drakensberg – Champagne Valley

For no other reason than to utilise our expiring RCI points, we booked a long weekend getaway from 9th to 12 th February this year at Champagne Valley Resort near Winterton in the area known as the Central Drakensberg.

Friday

We departed from home in Pretoria at around 9.30 am, late enough to avoid the peak hour traffic as we made our way through Johannesburg’s eastern side and headed south on the N3 towards Harrismith, where we had arranged to meet up with Koos and Rianda for a “padkos” brunch of hard-boiled eggs, frikadels (courtesy of Woolies) and jam sandwiches. Padkos is long-standing South African tradition, translating literally to “food for the road” and tastes even better when you stop at one of the large roadside service centres where there are umpteen choices of take-away and sit-down fast food restaurants – a nose-thumbing at conventional practices. (Just to show we’re flexible we stopped at the same spot for a Wimpy breakfast on the way back)

We reached Champagne Valley by 3.30 pm after a fairly relaxed drive from Harrismith, the scenery progressively becoming greener and prettier as we got closer to the central Berg area. On checking in we were allocated a chalet overlooking the dam with pleasing views of the Drakensberg range in the background and we quickly settled in. I had a refreshing swim in the crystal clear pool then joined the others on the stoep for beverages as we all spotted a few birds to get our list going in true keen birder/atlaser fashion.

Champagne Valley chalet

By sundown there were 18 species on my list including a Black-headed Oriole calling sweetly, Cape and Village Weavers busying themselves on the lawns, as well as Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot and White-faced Duck on the dam.

Village Weaver (Male)
Cape Turtle-Dove

Saturday

After a late rise (after all we were there to relax and are of the age where a crack of dawn start is not always first choice) we were back on the stoep in pleasant but humid weather to savour our first coffee along with Gerda’s health rusks. Before long we were entertained by no less than 3 different raptors – Cape Vulture at high altitude soaring majestically in wide circles, a Yellow-billed Kite cruising just above the tree tops delicately adjusting its flight path with twists of its distinctive broad V-shaped tail and a Bearded Vulture so high that I could only ID it from a magnified photo. They were joined by a group of White-necked Ravens calling from aloft in their croaky fashion.

Cape Vulture

Yellow-billed Kites were a feature of the weekend as we came across them several times in different localities. What struck me when looking at the photos I had taken of one individual was its rather un-fierce look which I deduced was because of its dark eyes and fluffy feathers on the head, creating a look unlike most large raptors with their piercing eyes.

Yellow-billed Kite
Close-up of the Yellow-billed Kite – a less than fierce look unlike most raptors

Mid-morning Koos and I braved the humid weather for a walk around the resort, starting with a walk through the grassland area along a mown path then wading through knee-high grass pods down the gentle slope until we found another path to take us back to the resort proper.

Champagne Valley grassland

Grassland species such as Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, Zitting Cisticola and Streaky-headed Seedeater were active and visible, while an unusual “chip-chu” call had us puzzled until we discovered an Amethyst Sunbird calling from a tree – not the call we are used to, so something new added to our birding knowledge.

Fan-tailed Widowbird
Amethyst Sunbird

A passing Martin caught my eye and the white rump said Common House-Martin – one of those birds seen infrequently, although we came across a few more in flocks of Swallows during the weekend.

By the time we got back to the chalet I was drenched in sweat from the humidity and mild exertion – a cold drink was most welcome and stoep-based birding became the order of the day.

Late afternoon we drove to Monk’s Cowl camp, stopping  on the way to see if we could coax a Bush Blackcap to show itself, but to no avail. Nevertheless we had good sightings of Steppe Buzzards and Yellow-billed Kites, a Dusky Indigobird and a Black-backed Puffback with a Juvenile in tow.

Dusky Indigobird
Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile)

Sunday

Another relaxed morning for me starting with a quiet walk along the edge of the dam where odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) were almost more numerous than the avifauna so I spent a pleasant hour or so chasing them down and taking a few photos.

Dragonfly
Dragonfly

Late morning we set off on a drive along the R600 towards Winterton with the main purpose of popping into Scrumpy Jacks for coffee and a taste of their recommended cheesecake. On the way Koos pointed out the Long-crested Eagle he had seen on his earlier walk, perched in the open for all to see.

Long-crested Eagle

Soon after we arrived at the small farmstall with a few tables outside, a parking area fairly muddy from earlier rains and a notice on the flimsy gate to “please close the gate to protect the dog”. The only visible animal in the garden was a large pig with an even larger pot belly dragging on the ground – presumably the “dog” referred to in the notice. It seemed a strange pet to allow near guests – such as us – coming for coffee and honey-baked cheesecake, however we did not let it detract from the treat.

Said coffee and cheesecake did the trick of turning on the switch in the brain that says “I am contented with life” and we ventured further down the R600 with the intent of doing a “bit of birding”. At the signpost indicating “Bell Park Dam 8 km ” we turned left – this was a route Koos and I had explored a year ago and it turned out to be a good choice again as we were soon into rolling grasslands and farms planted with tall green mielies (corn). Amur Falcons were numerous, perched at regular intervals on the roadside wires, sometimes in small groups, scanning the fields for their next grasshopper or termite alate meal.

The attractive farm dam where we had seen Grey-crowned Cranes landing the year before, was occupied by various waterfowl including SA Shelduck, Spur-winged Goose and a complement of the usual Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots plus a lone Grey Heron.

Farm dam in the distance

We continued in the same slow fashion past the Bell Park dam wall with cascading overflow creating a nice picture, then turned off onto the road leading to the dam’s entrance gate. After a brief leg-stretch accompanied by yet another Yellow-billed Kite eyeing us from his perch on top of a pole, we decided to turn back and head for the resort.

Farmlands with mountains in the background
The road to Bell Park dam

On the way back Koos spotted a flock of Geese and was elated when he found two Grey-crowned Cranes amongst them. A small Cisticola like bird in the top of a tree had us puzzled for a while with its grey breast and white belly, until we decided it was a form of Neddicky – later reference to Roberts showed that there are no less than 7 subspecies of Neddicky in southern Africa so I deduced that a wide variance in appearance can be expected. (another snippet of added knowledge).

Neddicky

Amazingly our “bit of birding” had been so absorbing that we found we had spent the required 2 hours in the pentad for a “Full protocol” card – and we all had an enjoyable afternoon of birding in a beautiful environment along a quiet road – what more can one ask for?

Monday

Time to return to Pretoria – Arrow-marked Babblers visited the chalet while packing and I couldn’t resist a quick photo…..

Arrow-marked Babbler

By 9 am we were on our way, this time choosing the scenic route via Winterton and Bergville then via the spectacular Oliviershoek pass to Harrismith. What a good choice it turned out to be – the scenery was quite stunning for most of the way, certainly the greenest we have ever seen this part of our country, both cornfields and grasslands alike, stretching into the distance in checkered patterns.

We’ll be back! Sooner than you can imagine – in a couple of weeks we return to the same area but a different resort when my brother visits from the UK.

My Photo Picks for 2017 – Part 2

Here’s a further selection of my favourite photos taken during 2017 – from our travels, holidays and birding trips 

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Birds (Continued)

Southern Ground Hornbill, Chobe Game Reserve, Botswana
Kelp Gull, Vleesbaai, Western Cape
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof in Mpumulanga
White-fronted Bee-eater, Verlorenkloof
Capped Wheatear, Chobe Riverfront
Yellow-billed Stork, Phinda Game Reserve in North Kwazulu-Natal
Pied Kingfisher, Phinda
Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley Durban
Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Chobe Riverfront
Malachite Kingfisher, Chobe River
Reed Cormorant, Chobe River
Little Egret, Chobe River
African Spoonbill, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe River
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River
Pied Starling, Vlaklaagte near Bronkhorstspruit, Gauteng
Mountain Wheatear (female), near Oudtshoorn
Hottentot Teal, Marievale Gauteng
Booted Eagle, Mossel Bay
Fork-tailed Drongo, north of Herbertsdale, Western Cape

The Reptiles

Mole snake, Delmas area
Boomslang, Bushfellows Game Lodge near Marble Hall
Skaapsteker (?) near Mossel Bay
African Crocodile, Chobe River

The Butterflies

Guineafowl (Hamanumida daedalus), Mabusa Nature Reserve in Mpumulanga
Poplar leopard butterfly (Phalanta phalanta aethiopica), Vic Falls NationalPark
Butterfly, Mossel Bay (No ID yet – can’t find it in the book)

Mauritius

Air Mauritius sunset
Snorkeling – Geraldine
Snorkeling – Moorish idol
Snorkeling
Snorkeling – the view from the sea
Sunset, Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius -early morning

Flock at sea cruise

Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Cape Town harbour early morning

Other stuff

Snail, Boschkop Dam near Potchefstroom
Fine flowers, Verlorenkloof
Sea shell, Mossel Bay

Wishing all who may read this a 2018 that meets all of your expectations!

My Photo Picks for 2017 – Part 1

Here’s a selection of my favourite photos taken during 2017 – from our travels, holidays and birding trips – chosen from my collection of over 2500 photos for the year. Each one has a story attached which I have tried to capture in a few words………..

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Places

Kasane Forest Reserve – lush after good summer rains
Early morning, Delmas area – on my way to do some bird atalsing
Champagne Valley – a weekend in the Drakensberg
Drakensberg grassland
Bourkes Luck Potholes – on tour with our Canadian family
Thaba Tsweni lodge – near Sabie, Mpumulanga
Victoria Falls National Park – more touring with the canadians
The bridge at Vic Falls National Park
Kingdom Hotel Vic Falls
Chobe sunset, Kasane – incomparable
Flock at Sea Cruise – back in Cape Town Harbour early morning
Sandbaai near Hermanus
Victoria Bay surfer action
Top dam, Verlorenkloof – our favourite breakaway spot
Kasane, Sundowner spot
Bronkhorstspruit area – another early morning of bird atlasing
Spring Day in Mossel Bay
Kuilfontein near Colesberg
Atlasing north of Herbertsdale, near Mossel Bay
Mossel Bay golf estate – our home for part of the year
Gamkakloof near Calitzdorp – Klein Karoo
North of  Herbertsdale

The Wildlife

Klipspringer, Prince Albert
Chacma Baboons, Chobe Game Reserve
Zebra, Chobe Game Reserve
Hippo, Chobe Game Reserve
Lions, Phabeni area, Kruger National Park
Hippo, Zambezi Cruise
Impala, Chobe game drive – M for McDonalds
Chacma Baboon (Juvenile), Chobe game drive
African Elephant greeting, Game cruise Chobe
Lion, Chobe Riverfront
Chobe Riverfront
Black-backed Jackal, Chobe Riverfront
Hippo, Chobe River
Cape Buffalo, Chobe River
African Elephant, Chobe River
African Elephant, Chobe River
African Elephant, Chobe River

The Birds

Familiar Chat, Prince Albert
Amur Falcon, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein
Long-tailed Widow, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Double-banded Sandgrouse, Chobe Game Reserve
Common Sandpiper, Delmas area
European Roller, Satara-Nwanetsi
White-fronted Bee-eater, Zambezi Cruise
African Fish-Eagle, Game cruise Chobe
Bronze-winged Courser, Kasane Airport perimeter
Lilac breasted Roller, Chobe Game Reserve
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe Game Reserve

Part Two includes more birds, the reptiles, butterflies and other stuff

 

Wishing all who may read this a 2018 that meets all of your expectations!

Kuilfontein near Colesberg – Long-legged Tortoises and Doctor No

After a long day’s driving, there is nothing I look forward to more than going walkabout and doing some birding. When travelling from Pretoria to our “other home town” of Mossel Bay, we like to make at least one overnight stop, and during our recent trip we decided to try a new (for us – it’s been there a long time) guest farm near Colesberg called Kuilfontein, just 11 kms beyond the town and close to the N1 national road.

Our route included a slight detour to allow for a mid-morning stop at son Stephan’s house in Potchefstroom in the North West Province. He was at work but Liesl was on hand to refresh us with coffee and banana bread before we pressed on. This part of the trip left me with mixed emotions as we passed through several small towns along the R30 route, which traverses the farmlands and goldfields at the heart of South Africa. The summer rains had not yet come and the wind was whipping up the fallow farmlands creating small dust storms, while the mining areas were equally dusty but from the mine dumps being scoured by those same winds.

This is not unusual after the winter and before the rains come (which they did subsequently) so one accepts that the landscape is not particularly attractive at this time of year. What really got to me was when we approached the towns along the way and on the way out again – the plastic bag litter strewn across the fields seems to be the norm nowadays (not just confined to these parts but more noticeable here) – very disheartening  and with a bit of effort so simple to rectify you can’t help wondering why nothing seems to be done about it.

Anyway enough complaining and back to the pleasant part of the day.

We reached Kuilfontein farm at 5.30 pm after driving some 760 kms and by 6 pm we were settled in our charming cottage room.

Entrance to Kuilfontein – an encouraging sign
Our cottage room for the night
Comfortable room

With the prospect of a good one and a half hours of daylight available, I set off with a spring in my step to explore the farm, wondering what I would find.

Starting around the main house, I followed the entrance road which is like a long verdant tunnel with trees both sides almost meeting overhead. There were Sparrows and Doves aplenty, joined by Starlings (Pied, Cape Glossy and Red-winged) and several Cape Robin-Chats to make the walk interesting.

Kuilfontein – the manor house
Kuilfontein – entrance road

A group of three Korhaans caught my eye in the fields and turned out to be Blue Korhaans – they have a curious way of walking, crouching so that when they are in longish grass, just their rounded backs and the top of their heads are visible, giving them the appearance of fast-moving tortoises as they move about.

Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan (photo taken not far from Kuilfontein on a previous trip)

By dinner time I had recorded 25 species and called it a day – can’t be late for the Lamb pie!

After an early night and a good rest I was up before 6 am the next morning and was soon out for part two of my Kuilfontein birding, this time covering some new ground which soon delivered with Bokmakierie, Pied Barbet and Cape Clapper Lark amongst others.

Bokmakierie

From a vantage point on the top of the earth dam wall (bone dry) I could see far across the Karoo scrub – in the background the distant hills were washed blue / pink by the early morning rays. Two elegant Blue Cranes were just discernible in a distant field and as I scanned the horizon three Korhaans flushed about a 100 m away and flew off while calling what sounded to my ears like a very guttural “doctor no, doctor no, doctor no”. I couldn’t help chuckling at the thoughts that my interpretation of their call brought to my head.

It turned out That they were Karoo Korhaans and replaced the Blue Korhaans from the previous evening as my favourite sighting of the short stay.

Kuilfontein farm

Soon after, near the entrance gate at the end of the long entrance driveway, another call drew my attention and looking upwards I saw three Namaqua Sandgrouse flying by while calling “kelkiewyn” (pronounced “kelkyvane”) which is also their Afrikaans name. As I watched them they turned in a wide circle in the sky, almost as if acknowledging my presence, then carried on flying into the distance.

Namaqua Sandgrouse, (this photo is also from a nearby farm on a previous trip)

Time had also flown by and I headed back for breakfast, adding White-throated Swallow, Wattled Starling, Red-winged Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher on the way back. At the cottage a Malachite Sunbird was moving about amongst the Aloes lining the pathway, the emerald sheen of its feathers glinting in the sun. The garden sprinklers were on so the aloes had drops of water

Aloe
Malachite Sunbird enjoying the Aloes

After breakfast we greeted host Penny, who has the knack of making you feel like part of the family, and headed off on the next leg of our trip, but not before adding Steppe (Common) Buzzard and Red Bishop on the way to the N1.

As always I was atlasing (recording the bird species for submission to the database at the University of Cape Town)  and was surprised and very pleased when I discovered that my “full protocol card” (minimum two hours of atlasing) was only the fourth one for the pentad, “turning it green” in atlasing parlance – this is a way of tracking how many times a pentad has been atlased, green indicating that at least four cards have been submitted to provide a statistical base.

Atlasing Statistics

Pentad : 3045_2455

Full protocol cards : fourth for the pentad.

Total species recorded : 45 – out of 86 for the pentad to date which equates to a coverage of 53% of the species recorded to date

Pentad location :

New species recorded for the first time in the pentad :

Greater striped Swallow; Karoo Thrush; African Hoopoe; Cape Wagtail; Black-shouldered Kite; Cape Clapper Lark; House Sparrow; Karoo Scrub-Robin; Common Starling; Egyptian Goose; White-throated Swallow; Wattled Starling; Fiscal Flycatcher: Malachite Sunbird; Steppe (Common) Buzzard

Czech it out – Prague : the Old Town

We had heard good things about Prague and wanted to go and see for ourselves, so when planning a Danube river cruise in April 2016 (read about it in my earlier post Danube River Cruise – A Taster), we decided to precede it with a visit to this city and to make it worthwhile we thought a 4 night stay would give us enough time to explore at a relaxed pace and have time for a day tour out of Prague.

On the advice of a friend who had visited Prague a couple of times, we chose the Old Town Square Hotel right in the centre of the historic part of town, which is also the focus of most visitors to the city. This turned out to be an excellent choice as many of Prague’s attractions were within walking distance, while others could be reached after a short ride on the city’s user-friendly tram system. A bonus was being upgraded to a suite with a view of the square, the room being so spacious we could have swung a cat if we had brought one with us, with room to spare.

Prague - Old Town Square - north side
Prague – Old Town Square – north side as seen from our hotel room

Our first full day in Prague was the chance to explore the Old Town, so after a lazy in-room breakfast we set off on an extended walk.  By this time the Old Town Square was filled with visitors and buskers, as it was for the rest of our stay, and proved to be a constant source of entertainment.

Prague - bubble makers on Square
Prague – bubble makers on Square

A swing band was playing from early on in great style, elsewhere jugglers, fire-eaters and “living statues” were doing their thing, the latter rather comically taking a regular smoke break, while Segway riders and tour groups with pennant-waving leaders weaved their way through the throngs.

Prague - Dancing in the Square
Dancing in the Square to the swing band
Prague - Living statues
Prague – “Living statue” checking the takings during a break from posing (note the cigarette in hand)
Prague - Old Town Square
Prague – Old Town Square crowds
Prague - Old Town Square
Carriages are the only vehicles allowed in the square

The Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) dates back to the tenth century, when it served as the market place for the thriving town, is traffic free except for horse drawn carriages and is ringed with historic buildings. It is one of the finest public spaces of any city we’ve seen and has a constant buzz of activity starting early morning and extending deep into the night.

Prague Old Town-2
Rococo stucco work on Kinsky Palace now used by National Gallery for art exhibitions
Prague Old Town-3
Kinsky Palace window detail
Prague Old Town-4
Old Town Square  – Art Nouveau building from 1898 now houses a ministry
prague - Old Town Square : Church of St Nicholas
Old Town Square : Church of St Nicholas dominates one corner
Prague - Old Town Square - facade dates from 1696
Old Town Square – facade dates from 1696

Most famous of the buildings is the Old Town Hall with its impressive astronomical clock which draws a crowd every hour, when the mechanical figures representing the twelve apostles become animated and “walk past” two small windows in a fascinating mini performance.

prague - Old Town Square with Town Hall
Old Town Square with Town Hall
Prague - Astronomical Clock
Prague – Astronomical Clock
Prague - Astronomical Clock
Prague – Astronomical Clock

We started our walking tour by making our way slowly along the Old Town route shown in our guide book, but ended up following our nose, drawn into side streets by interesting buildings and features.

Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes
Prague - street scenes
Flowers on the sidewalk
Prague - street scenes
An interesting facade
Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes

The older streets of Prague have rows of intensely handsome buildings, the like of which we have never before encountered in our many travels, aligned for uniformity of line and height but each one adorned with mouldings and decorative elements to make them unique.  We wondered if there is another city in the world with such beautiful classical architecture. No wonder Prague is known as the “Paris of the East”.

Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes
Prague - street scenes
Prague – a handsome building
Prague - street scenes
Unusual decoration on this building

Every now and then a noteworthy building caught our eye – religious buildings in particular such as cathedrals and churches. Particularly interesting was the Jewish Quarter with several synagogues which seemed to be drawing groups of tourists who were clearly of Jewish origin.

Prague - Maisel Synagogue
 Maisel Synagogue
Prague - old Synagogue
The old Synagogue

The old Jewish cemetery was crowded with tombstones, commemorating individuals buried in layers of up to 12 deep over the centuries past, apparently due to severe restrictions on the area that was allowed for burial in the Quarter.

Prague - old Jewish cemetery
The old Jewish cemetery

Shops along the way varied from tourist kitsch to exclusive and expensive – Gucci, Burberry, Prada and the like – no prices on display, probably based on the old adage that says “if you need to ask, you can’t afford it”.

Prague
Upmarket shopping street

Cars outside these shops were equally exclusive – Bentley (ooh, I want one), Lamborghini and the like.

Prague - Bentley coupe
Bentley coupe

Come lunchtime we were in need of something light to eat – Gerda had spotted an interesting restaurant, U Gomela, so we retraced our steps for a couple of blocks and popped inside. We decided to try their potato soup (Plolevka nabidka den) accompanied by a pilsner and finished off with the coffee and apfelstrudel special (Jablecny zavin) we had seen advertised on the board outside – a very tasty choice as it turned out.

Refreshed, we continued our meander, coming across all manner of interesting sights.

Prague - shop windows
Puppets in a shop window
Prague - Spring blossoms
Spring blossoms
Prague - making the local speciality
Making the local speciality pastry which gets filled with your choice of ice cream or whatever
Prague - Church of the Holy Spirit
Church of the Holy Spirit
Prague - street scenes
Old gent on a bike

There was even an opportunity for some birding – Chaffinch, European Jay and Blackbird all drew attention to themselves with their song and we were able to track them down in the trees lining some of the avenues – signs of approaching Spring.

By mid afternoon we felt we had done enough walking and found our way back to the hotel, having been out and about for the best part of the day, stopping only to check out the food stall offerings around the Square and settling for a giant pancake (palacinka)  which was so large we shared one.

Later, after a good rest, we decided to dine in the restaurant attached to our hotel – called the White Horse and located on an enclosed “outside area” with views of the square and all its activities and heated by large gas heaters to ward off the evening chill. The food was good without being special, but rather expensive, probably due to the prime location.

Prague - White Horse Restaurant
White Horse Restaurant on the Square

With day one in this glorious city behind us we looked forward to discovering more of it – day two turned into a mild adventure of sorts, but more of that in the follow up post.