Travel

Eco great white diving… is it a myth?

Who's the bastard in the boat?See this boat in this first picture… they are bastards. But more to come on why.

Yesterday we had an early early start to Gansbaai, about 100km down the coast from Cape Town. Due to a number of ecological factors, mainly an island where seals bread which is one of their favourite foods, it’s known as the Great White Shark capital of the world and the passage between the seal island and an adjacent one is called Shark Alley.

Sometime in the early 90s, when great white hunting was banned here, the hunters turned conservationists overnight and turned their hand to offering tourist trips to see these magnificent creatures that got such a bad rap from the Jaws films. What started out as a niche industry with maybe 20 cage diving trips a week now sees eight licensed operators offering two or three dives a day with up to 30 people on each dive.

Calling it a dive is a bit of a misnomer. The cage is strapped to the side of the boat and when a shark comes, five people in wetsuits and masks climb in with no snorkels or scuba gear and simply dunk their heads underwater holding their breath for as long as possible to see the shark.

Some people here claim the industry disturbs the eco system as the sharks get used to people and truth be told there have been a couple of extra shark attacks over the past years in the waters here. The operators claim the sharks are just passing through, they seldom see the same one for more than a couple of days and that they are now so heavily regulated – no feeding is allowed –  they have no affect at all.

Despite all this and mindful of the argument, we decided to go with the one most people seem to think is the most eco – though that could possibly be because of their name – White Shark Ecoventures.

For the first hour or so, 25 of us lounged around the boat, literally waiting for something to happen. The only thing the company could do to attract the sharks was mash up some oily fish in water and throw it into the water to create a pungent lure and drop a couple of huge fish heads on a rope  in that would then be pulled away when a shark came to attack.

When one shark did finally come by, we had to wait ten minutes until ‘she was calm’ and then a first lot were allowed in the water. Laura and I didn’t need asking twice before we were in the cage and managed about three or four dunks as she passed serenely by. The next lot of five then replaced us and had a couple of dunks before the third lot got in the water and waited for about half an hour before she passed again. The fourth and fifth lots didn’t even get to see her as she soon buggered off.

I’m really glad I got to see her under the water – she was incredible and serene as she glided past – and I do feel  bad for the other guys who missed out. But that other boat at the top of the page was using less ‘eco’ methods to lure sharks to their boat. They had some help from local fishermen who seemed to be unaware of the fact they were not supposed to throw food in so close to the cage boat and they were also using a fake seal as a lure which had the sharks around their boat thrashing like mad.

I’m sure we got the more eco trip – but I can’t help but feel just a tad jealous the people on the other boat got a more prolonged and more active sighting.


Race still an issue in South Africa

Dumisani Mwandal in Robben Island's notorious B Block

Yesterday, the winds dropped enough for us to take the tour of Robben Island – the offshore prison that was home to South Africa’s political dissenters, including its most famous resident Nelson Mandella, during the apartheid years.

The tour of the prison itself was mainly conducted by Dumisani Mwandal, a former inmate who was held on Robben Island for six years of a 30 year sentence before being freed in the early 90s. It’s a moving experience – I doubt I’ve ever been on a tour where people hang on every word of the guide – and an absolute must if you are visiting Cape Town.

On of the amazing things about being here is seeing how people, including Dumisani and our tour guide Saleigh, can now be so light hearted when it comes to talking about the old regime yet it’s obvious that while they can now look back and smile, there is still deep hurt at how non-whites were treated.

On the streets, things are seemingly better in the post independence years yet there is still inequality. You can only marvel at the size of the shanty towns on the way in from the airport and Saleigh, a former teacher in the townships, told us how he turned to tourism when he could no longer handle class sizes of 70 kids.

Also, on my morning runs, I see people pouring into work in the posh Waterfront area – almost exclusively cars are driven by whites with taxis and buses the exception. And at night, in the restaurants we frequent, the clientele is also mainly white while the servers are black.

The good news is that things are changing, albeit slowly. At least those people are in work and you would hope that, as conditions in the townships improve as more and more running water, sanitation and electricity is available, people will eventually be able to move out and give their children a better education.

The World Cup is also providing a catalyst of hope for people who are determined to show that South Africa is not the crime ridden hole that some people have as an image.

Saleigh did strike one note of caution however. He said: ‘In the Mandella presidency, it was a case of politicians looking at what they could do for the country, the ANC heirarchy now looks at what the country can do for them.’

It would be a crying shame if this beautiful country that has done so much to prove the yoke of history can be removed slipped into the ways of some of its neighbours where politicians get fatter as conditions for the people deteriorate.

Cape Town's other World Cup battle

The One & Only - except there's a few around

There’s no doubt South Africa is going World Cup crazy… Whether it’s the giant footballs on the way into Cape Town’s Waterfront district or posters for real estate that claim to ‘help you reach your goal’, there’s a FIFA 2010 flavour everywhere you go and I’ve lost count of the number of questions we’ve been asked about Team England in the 36 hours we’ve been here.

‘How many fans will you bring?’ ‘Do you think they will stay in Cape Town?’ ‘Will David Beckham like so and so?’ have all been put to us, as though we’re members of the FA’s organising committee.

Along Cape Town’s Waterfront an off-pitch battle is raging… which luxury hotel is going to come up trumps during the tournament…

The Table Bay

The newly opened One & Only managed to put in a couple of early strikes given it’s where most of the FIFA delegation stayed earlier this month for the official draw … but many locals have dubbed it the ‘One & Lonely’ as occupancy has not been as expected. The hotel’s home to some signature restaurants like Gordon Ramsey and Nobu but having London prices in a city where dining out on great food at cheap as chips prices is always going to be a risky strategy.

Our hotel, the Table Bay pulled a result out of the bag at the draw as it’s where Charlize Theron stayed. The South African stunner who did such as magnificent job of appearing interested as the balls where pulled from the bag is the face of Sun International, the group that owns the hotel.

The Cape Grace

The waterfront’s grand dame The Cape Grace has refreshed it’s ‘squad’ in anticipation of the World Cup, having undergone a complete makeover lasting for more than six months. She might not have pulled in the big names during the draw but expect her to make a late surge for the title come kick off next June.

Hola from Cape Town and some words on customer service

Well, the new Mrs Ellis and I have just arrived in Cape Town and checked in at the very grand Table Bay Hotel after a somewhat testing flight…

Not because Virgin Atlantic are not good at what they do but because Laura seems to have picked up the 24 hour bug that is going around and spent about six hours of the flight in the loo being sick.

Her absence gave me the chance to have a think about the cost cutting Virgin Atlantic is undergoing and how that affects the travel experience but to also compare their crew with those on our EasyJet flights to the wedding last week (see my previous post here).

While the two obviously differ in terms of what they offer in terms of service, they are both cutting costs and cabin crew on both airlines are still the customer facing side of the business

From Virgin’s perspective, the onboard masseuse seems to long be a thing of the past, but I never used them anyway so it has absolutely no affect on my flight experience

You also no longer get a printed menu in Upper Class, rather the dishes are announced over the PA and then you choose when the cabin crew takes your order.

On previous flights, everyone I saw read the menu always asked the crew to ‘remind them what was on offer’ when they came to order anyway so again, not a great loss.

The type of food on offer has also been ‘downgraded’ – think sausage and mash rather than steak – but the quality is still pretty high.

It’s the kind of cost cutting that would seem prudent at a time like this. Downgrade slightly and make up for it with superior customer service. And its’ where the crew on our South Africa flight really made the difference; they could not do enough for Laura to try and make her more comfortable and likewise the rest of the passengers around us.

It was all such a far cry from the grumps on EasyJet last week where there idea of cost cutting is to halve the size of the onboard Snack Pack but charge the same price and where customer service came with a snarl rather than a smile.

Travelling… it's not child's play

So mine and Laura’s wedding is now out of the way and thanks for bearing with me while I’ve been away.

I’m currently in the final stages of planning our honeymoon to South Africa and, after much to-ing and fro-ing it looks like it is coming together.

We fly out tomorrow night to Cape Town, have four nights there – including one day where we go diving with great white sharks – followed by three days in the wine region.

When we come back, we plan to walk off some of the good life with a three-day hike from Cape Town to Cape Point on a new hiking trail that has just opened, the Hoerikwaggo Trail. The trail is built on ancient paths taken by the Khoisan and is already being compared to Peru’s Inca Trail.

We’ll be following this with a trip from Cape Town to Jo’burg on the Premier Classe train, the cheaper alternative to the super-luxury Blue Train and three days in Kruger over Christmas.

Ahead of New Year, we plan to drive back through Swaziland and on to the Dolphin Coast for some beach time just north of Durban. I’ll be doing my best to do daily updates of the trip both here and on my running blog 1095miles.com.

Over the last few days Laura and I have had to travel quite a bit with my sister, her husband and their four kids up to the wedding venue in Inverness and back and, for the first time ever, I got to feel for parents on flights.

Some of you may remember a guest post by Michael Green on here about the troubles he had the first time he took his progeny abroad and I have to admit, I thought he was playing the whinging parent a little.

In fact, until now, I’ve always been one of those people who shudder when I see kids getting onboard a flight and sitting anywhere within my immediate vicinity.

Having seen the way my sister and her brood where treated by both fellow passengers and the airline, I have to now say, travelling parents have my empathy.

On our first flight up to the Highlands with EasyJet, we were delayed for boarding by one of her boys who suffers from autism needing the loo and arrived past our Special Assistance boarding time (for those who don’t know, EasyJet board in order of Speedy Boarding, Special Assistance for the disabled and those with kids under five, boarding group A and boarding group B).

When we got onboard, you would have thought we were a bunch of lepers… One woman in the middle of a row of three refused to move to either the window or aisle so my sister’s four-year-old could sit with his dad, meaning the child had to sit alone until take off.

Then when her 25-month-old was freaked out by take off and landing, the cabin crew refused a belt extension so he could sit on my sister’s lap. The reason? He was one month older than what is ‘allowed’ – despite parents of older kids clearly lying about the children’s ages so they could sit on mum’s lap.

On the return flight, my sister was given grief by the cabin crew for taking a dirty nappy (only ones, not twos) she had changed BEFORE boarding but had found no bin to dispose from her seat to the plane.

‘That’s disgusting’ bemoaned the crew member.

So next time you’re on a flight next to a whingy kid or parent, have a little patience, it might not be all their fault.

An apology from WoJ

Okay, okay… I know I’ve been a bit rubbish updating the blog for the last week or so but I am caught up in wedding fever in anticipation of our tying the knot this weekend.

I’ll be shutting down now until next week when I’ll be back with three weeks of almost daily destination updates from the honeymoon… wish me luck!

James

Strictly Come Polluting

Hey Bruno, look at my airmiles

With the climate change conference starting in Copenhagen next week, my mind’s been turning to the green issue of travel again.

Earlier this week fellow Leeds fan Darren Cronian of Travelrants touched on the issue on his blog www.travel-rants.com it’s a wide and complex one that still has the industry flummoxed.

One way to cut down though could be to ban Strictly Come Dancing. Our version of the ballroom show runs concurrently with the US’s Dancing With The Stars and two of the judges, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli appear on both.

By my calculations, they to and fro across the Atlantic from London to LA (Dancing With The Stars is filmed at CBS Television City), passing judgment on the efforts of C-listers for 12 weeks.

Given it’s a 10,800 mile round trip, that’s 120,800 miles each per season – the equivalent of flying round the globe five times each.

I’m sure it’s doing their air mile accounts the world of good, but as I’m told they travel Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic, they’re taking up more space and increasing their footprint even further.

While travelling is essential for most people, doing so needlessly for the sake of a couple of TV shows seems reckless. Can’t the Americans find their own judges? Or even better – have the shows at different times so Len and Bruno can just up foxtrot oscar over to LA for a while?

A round up on the free hotel wi-fi campaign

Nice to see things seem to keep moving with the free hotel wi-fi campaign but I thought it was high time for a little round up of where we are and some tips for seeking out that all-important free connection.

If you are on Twitter, you can search for wi-fi hotspots by using the hashtag #freewifi. People are constantly updating and Tweeting about hotels, airports and even McDonalds that offer free wi-fi.

The fact that even McDonalds can see the worth of offering connectivity to guests dissolves most of the arguments hotels have against offering the service. A PR spokesperson for one of the major hotel groups admitted off the record they are now pushing for it to become standard across all their brands saying: ‘McDonalds offering it and us not is just embarrassing.’

If you want a list of hotels in London that offer free wi-fi, then check out the website London Hotels Insight’s list here

Sign up to www.iprefer.com to get free internet in all Preferred Hotel Group’s 700+ hotels. Give them your business if you can.

Indigo and Staybridge Suites from the IHG portfolio offer free wi-fi as brand standard.

Some comments on hotels that offer free wi-fi can be seen on my campaign page here

All Shangri La hotels offer free wi-fi. Give them your business if you can.

Best Western Hotels offer free wi-fi as brand standard. Give them your business if you can.

Despite constant requests from me for information, the Accor Group of hotels, they have yet to get back to me on which of their properties offer free wi-fi and which don’t. It’s outrageous that a company can just ignore a journalist’s requests.

You can also find free hotspots through this site www.free-hotspot.com

IF A HOTEL DOES NOT OFFER WI-FI FOR FREE OR AT MINIMAL COST, DO NOT GIVE THEM YOUR BUSINESS

The world's largest sprig of mistletoe?

Nice little publicity stunt from my friends over at Heathrow’s T5 where they’ve put what they claim to be the world’s largest piece of mistletoe.

Unfortunately, it’s not real though: the ten foot by eight foot structure weighs 43kg and includes more than 50 feet of steel tubing and 25 stainless steel balls… Probably just as well though, in ancient times people believed mistletoe grew from bird droppings.