Slipping into Chocolat

 

A sea of patchwork fields; interspersed with meandering country lanes and accompanied by the distant roar of a tractor or perhaps a peal of church bells from the village below.

This is how I picture the area that I grew up in, which, for a long time, seemed impossibly boring. There wasn’t, as far as I can recall, a single event that even approached noteworthiness in all the time I lived there. Now, however, I can appreciate that this is no bad thing, and, on returning from London, my family home seemed like a bastion of unspoilt countryside rather than a monochromatic bore.

Several weeks previously, somebody had told me about a lake a few miles away at Fonthill where they had filmed part of the film ‘Chocolat’. I understand that this immediately contradicts my saying that nothing noteworthy ever happens in the area, however, I can assure you that this is completely out of character for my humble district and I met the news with disbelief. But, after some rudimentary research, it proved to be true. The river scenes from the film, for example when Johnny Depp’s character arrives in the village, were filmed there.

My journey began rather auspiciously. The fog was so thick that you couldn’t see from one end of a field to another, and, being a fairly cold morning, the normally bustling footpaths were deserted, which felt slightly eerie. I also quickly realised that the desert boots I had chosen, having left my walking boots in London, were deeply unsuitable for the muddy and uneven paths I was following and spent more of my time developing a rudimentary style of ice skating than I did actually walking.

Eventually, I made it to Fonthill Lake, and, after clumsily vaulting the stile, I followed the footpath that led around its edge.

My first thought was that I could see very little resemblance to the scene before me and the body of water depicted in the films. I quickly came to a fence that informed me that it was prohibited to continue any farther. Unperturbed, I turned and continued back the other way and was stunned. The view was spectacular, mist shrouded the trees around me, the lake stretched far off into the distance, and to my left a stream gurgled contentedly through perfectly green hillocks and sweeping trees. I am not in the least surprised that they chose to film here, as to me it looked like an ethereal paradise.

I couldn’t believe that such a beautiful spot could exist so close to where I had grown up, and what’s more it was completely deserted. Being totally alone is a luxury I had forgotten the value of until I moved to the city.

On my way back, I noticed what looked like an extremely oddly shaped bush on a hillside, which, upon closer inspection, happened to be a grotto upon which a tree was growing. I must admit it was quite a surreal sight, and I expected any moment to see a goblin poke his head out of the side, but, to my immense relief, it was deserted. After poking around inside, and smacking my head on a low hanging rock, I left with a considerably higher estimation of my local area.

 

 

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Le Beaujolais

In the sea of chain restaurants and gastropubs that central London is quickly becoming engulfed by, discovering a noteworthy independent establishment is like finding a hen’s tooth in a haystack. Thus, it was with no small amount of excitement that I discovered Le Beaujolais just off Charing Cross Road.

Le Beaujolais is a traditional French restaurant, serving authentic cuisine with a healthily varied wine list and a perfect array of aperitifs and digestifs. This place truly feels like a little slice of France in London, which, I suppose is relatively unsurprising as the proprietor and all of the bar and waiting staff are French.

I am fortunate enough to have a French partner, who amid an array of other talents, operates very well as a gastronomic barometer. I don’t know what it is about the French sense of taste, but they seem to possess powers far beyond those of the English, perhaps it’s a fringe benefit of early exposure to strong cheese. Whatever the case, my barometer was pointing with both hands at ‘delicious’, she pointed because she was preoccupied with a mouthful of their fantastic hachis parmentier.

If you find yourself around Charing Cross Road and yearn for something more than a Jamie’s Italian or a Pizza Express I highly recommend making your way to 25 Litchfield Street, which is a right just in front of Subway if you’re walking towards Shaftesbury Avenue.

Monday – Friday – 12:00-23:00

Saturday – 17:00 – 23:00

Sunday – Closed

Is the World Such a Big Place After All?

‘It’s a small world’ is a phrase that absolutely everyone will find themselves uttering at some point. Realistically it shouldn’t make sense, the world is the largest place that we’re ever likely to explore, but bizarre events that bring truth to this maxim do seem to be strangely common. I experienced a double helping of this peculiarity on a trip across Europe.

This strange series of events began in Nice, the sun drenched city on the French Riviera. Travelling alone and having little more meaningful conversation than an argument in broken French about the validity of my ticket rather whets the appetite for companionship, and when I saw a fellow solo traveler who seemed to be conducting a detailed study of our roommates, I struck up conversation. I asked him what he was doing and he explained that he was identifying those most likely to snore, apparently he had developed it into something of an art. As a snorer myself, I steered him away from this unusual pursuit and asked him whether he’d like to spend the day exploring Nice together. He agreed and we headed to the beach, where he was astounded by the similarity of my Sun deprived torso to that of a snowman’s, after this flattering remark I didn’t feel nearly as bad about snoring. We discussed onward travel plans, he was planning to head to Corsica where he had arranged for a free bed through Couchsurfing, after which he planned to fly back home to Argentina. I was heading to Marseilles before a week in Arles and we parted with the promise of staying in touch that we both knew was often made but seldom adhered to.

As reluctant as I was to leave the paradisiacal Nice, I was excited to reach the bustling port of Marseilles and spared little thought for my new friend. It was therefore something of a shock when we tripped over each other in a nondescript backstreet. I vividly remember the ill fitting lurid green vest that he was wearing, and, as a special display of my happiness and surprise at our unexpected reunion, I didn’t mention it at all. Our meeting was short lived as he was in somewhat of a hurry to catch a ferry and we said another jilted farewell and promised, more sincerely this time, to keep in touch

This meeting certainly stuck in my mind, the chances of us both to walking that exact same street at the exact same time was surely tangible proof that the world really wasn’t so big after all. However an expansive trip produces plenty of fodder that pushes even the most memorable of events from the forefront of your mind and by the time I reached Barcelona three weeks later I had almost forgotten my boomerang companion.

Thus, reveling in the beauty of Tibidabo and the unbelievable views that it afforded over the city of Barcelona, I did not immediately notice my friend who was hiding under the shade of a baseball cap that must have been at least two sizes too large for him. I did not even notice him when I saw a clumsy figure bound up to me with the grace of a sea lion, it was not until he tapped me on the shoulder that I noticed his beaming and familiar face.

At this point I began to ask questions, why was this man following me around Europe? Was I suffering from some disorder of the nervous system induced from an abundance of continental wine? And finally, was I the victim of some elaborate and opportunistic repeat robbery? As that would certainly explain where my clean socks kept disappearing to.

My friend had changed his travel plans and met his parents in Barcelona and we exchanged the predictable “I can’t believe it” and “This is so weird” and this time didn’t even mention keeping in touch, as fate had apparently already guaranteed this for us.

This strange event has led me to conclude that I will either one day stumble across a TV channel documenting my entire life, or there is an Argentinean man who was developed an elaborate and ingenious system to steal my socks.

Following in the Footsteps of Rocky Balboa

The steps themselves, although attractive, seemed undeservedly busy. It was the classic case of a tourist unknowingly stumbling across a landmark, and judging its worth by how busy it was.

I walked past them to gauge the scene, incorrectly assuming that it was what was at the top of these steps that drew the crowd, and what a diverse crowd it was. There were the spandex clad fitness fiends tirelessly running up and down, the young parents walking their children up slowly but surely and in much greater numbers the photo fanatics posing on every other step for that perfect photograph.

It was these photo fanatics that gave me the vital clue that I needed to piece together the picture. Their pose was as uniform and distinct as the pose in front of the Tower of Pisa, they stood with arms raised, defiantly celebrating their success, this is when it clicked. Such a pose on a set of stairs could mean only one thing, Rocky Balboa. Despite having never seen the film, the picture in my mind’s eye of Rocky Balboa celebrating at the top of these steps is very clear, why such a moment in such a film is so famous is beyond me, but nevertheless I felt a thrill of joy at being in such a monumental place.

I could not resist running up the stairs, feeling a sense of self gratification that I was able to make it to the top with only minimal trouble. Travelling alone, there was nobody to take the celebratory picture at the top, but I gave myself allowed myself a celebratory fist pump nonetheless.

I stood at the top feeling a little lost, I had squeezed every drop of enjoyment that I could out of the steps and all that seemed left for me was the descent, zigzagging to avoid being that stranger in the background of the photos that were flashing left right and centre.

As I dismounted the last step, I saw a rather conspicuous white stretched limousine pull up, out of which climbed a newly-wed bride and groom, followed by a procession of bridesmaids and grooms. They proceeded up the steps and adopted a dramatic formation, each one wholeheartedly jumping into the rocky pose. This was as much of a spectacle as the steps themselves and I walked away feeling as though I had been blessed by Rocky himself to have had such a great impression of his sacred steps.

After paying two dollars to them man loitering at the bottom of the bronze statue of Rocky to take a photo of me with the impressive effigy, I made a mental note to myself to finally watch the film when I got home as a kind of tribute to Rocky.

 

Belvedere Trail Trudge

Belvedere, a word most commonly associated with the opulence of the self proclaimed ‘luxury vodka’, which I must say is quite a contrast to the taxing descent and ascent of the Belvedere Trail in the Blyde River Canyon

The trail begins at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, I signed in at the reception under the scrupulous gaze of the lady behind the desk, I think to ensure that I was in decent enough shape to complete the walk so that she wouldn’t have to come down and stage a rescue mission.

The first leg of the walk led me through the potholes, where I strutted with my head held high like some crusader, venturing off into far off places where tourist’s feet dare not tread. This was of course ridiculous, as the trail is frequently walked and conveniently placed spraypainted directions make it nigh on impossible to get lost.

Once through the potholes, two short bridges take you across to a fairly level path that leads you to the edge of the canyon. The views on this section are magnificent and the walking is easygoing and very pleasant. As the saying goes, ‘nothing easy is worth having’ and just as you settle into a steady rhythm on the steady path, stopping of course to lay the obligatory rock on the cairn, the path enters into dappled shade and the descent begins.

Going downhill, in my opinion, is the perfect example of how you can have too much of a good thing. I have completed seemingly endlessly ascending walks where I prayed to the skies above for even a metre of decline, there is no such problem on the Belvedere Trail. The descent takes you down to the bottom of the canyon in a mix of sloping paths and small but frequent drops. Almost the entirety of this section is covered by trees and there are some good opportunities for spotting wildlife, I was fortunate enough to see a boomslang, and the birding is excellent too.

This descent will take you to Belvedere House, which has unfortunately fallen into a state of disrepair. I assume that the trail is named after this modest house that is secreted deep in the canyon, but the building is now little more than a shell and is completely abandoned. This is a crying shame as it would make a fantastic spot for a quiet retreat in the bush and could no doubt make a profitable enterprise selling drinks and possibly piggyback rides to desperate walkers. I’m sure it would be an extremely rewarding restoration project for those with a hermit-like disposition, but for now it stands simply as a decaying landmark. From here, it is a short ascent and subsequent descent into the bottom of the canyon where the fruits of your labor can be keenly seen.

You emerge onto a large rock plateua that sits adjacent to a waterfall, where stunning scenery surrounds you. You can get a clear idea of how far you have walked, and still have to walk and could spend countless hours watching the progress of the roaring water as it tumbles off the edge of the fall into oblivion.

Here I had company for the first time, in the form of an incredibly hairy Italian man and his wife. They were sunbathing on the rock, taking full advantage of the secluded and picturesque setting with little regard for the effect it may have on the appetite of other walkers.

On this trail, what goes down must come up, and I left the waterfall behind me as I heaved my legs back up the trail. The climb up actually took less time than the climb down and was thoroughly enjoyable. There are some great spots to take a quick breath while looking back into the canyon and I was sorry to reach the top. The path back to the potholes provides a nice winding down to the trail and by the time I reached this section, the sun was beginning to dim. My return through the flocks of tourists was slightly different to my departure as I scurried past them to try and reach the shop before it closed, which I can thankfully say I did.

The Belvedere Trail is by far my favorite walk in the area and promises some spectacular scenery and a challenging but enjoyable walk.

Where: The trail starts at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, sign in at reception and follow the spraypainted signs across the bridges.

Duration: The trail takes 4-5 hours at a comfortable pace.

What to bring: 100R for entrance to the Potholes and fee for the trail, hat, suncream and plenty of water and some snacks as the only place to buy refreshments is the shop at Bourke’s Luck this is also where you will find the only toilets.

A Bush Walk around Mopani

Spurts of dust and the syncopated thump of moving limbs are usually sure signs of approaching game in Kruger, but today, it was the product of a meandering line of park visitors following closely behind two guides.

Five of us left Mopani camp at around six AM and wound out way progressively deeper through the early morning mist and into the thick bush. As we jumped down from the vehicle the guides busied themselves loading their rifles, which prompted uneasy looks from some of the party, why the sight of something that is there simply as a safety net was the thing that prompted fear rather than the fact that we were setting out to walk among wild and dangerous animals I’m not sure, but there you have it.

After a quick briefing and some wardrobe adjustment from a chap who had come dressed in a colour scheme similar to the flag of China, we set off towards a thicket of trees.

A bush walk gives you a completely new appreciation of the nuances of the park which you just cannot fathom when speeding along the tracks, and it gives the guides an opportunity to display their bountiful knowledge of the fauna, flora and smaller wildlife that are either impossible to go into detail about or are irrelevant on a driven safari.

The walk itself was a perfect length and took us through varied terrain, we were taught some rudimentary tracking techniques and also some useful tips on identifying game through their droppings.

We were fortunate enough to run into a several buffalo very early on and we actually succeeded in getting a fair way towards them before they pounded their way into the bush. We pushed on and quickly stumbled upon a group of elephants that communicated their discontent at us being there with low moans. They loped off slowly and we managed to keep them within our sight for almost the entirety of the walk.

One of the guides was eagle eyed enough to spot a small tunnel in which a spider was living, something you would never see on the road. We were also introduced to the bulb of a lily that has been causing havoc with farmers in the Cape due to its toxicity, another detail that would otherwise be completely overlooked.

The walk ended on a wide expanse where we were surrounded by zebra, warthog and wildebeest, truly a fantastic finish to an already irreplaceable experience. I think everyone that walked climbed aboard the vehicle with a reinforced appreciation for the possibilities of the park and even the national park hipster who was singing the praises of small and obscure parks all over Africa seemed to be humbled by the indisputable splendor that Kruger Park possesses.

I would recommend a bush walk to anyone, even if you believe you have seen all Kruger has to offer, which is almost certainly impossible, it will give you a completely new and unique experience that cannot fail to make you fall in love with this fantastic park.

Morning and afternoon walks are available from Mopani and a number of other rest camps, there are also several wilderness trails and backpack trails available in Kruger in various locations, more information can be found at http://www.sanparks.org

Meander along the Matumi

I have been in Mpumalanga for a month now, and to my surprise it was the gentle trickle of the Mac Mac River that accompanied my first organic experience of what I consider the ‘real’ South Africa. I have previously taken two tours of Kruger park, but being ferried around in a landrover of behemoth proportions felt somewhat disingenuous, I think the sheer fact that you couldn’t hear the animals standing fifteen feet away over the roar of the engine made the whole thing seem contrived, as stunning as it was to see the wildlife, I didn’t feel as in touch with the country as I had hoped.

Even crossing well maintained bridge that signals the start of the Matumi trail, I felt as if I was entering into something real. I’m well aware that the trail I walked was hardly the heart of darkness, it was well signposted, frequently walked and began a stone’s throw from a busy road, but despite all of this, I had the impression I was discovering something new.

I set off from Hazyview on the morning of the local government elections and consequently, as a public holiday, I anticipated the trail to be fairly busy, but to my surprise, I didn’t see another soul for the entirety of the walk, the only confirmation of other human presence that I had was the wild yells of some crazy Californians who were zipping along a parallel track on quad bikes.

Despite the season, the sun beamed down relentlessly and managed an impressive twenty seven degrees, for this reason I was very happy that so much of the trail is sheltered by trees so no more than a dappling of sunlight fell on my ill suited English skin. Despite frequent climbs and descents, the path follows the edge of the river very closely, which not only provides magnificent views, but also creates the perfect platform for birding and I was overjoyed to get to see the indigenous wagtail.

Wildlife seems to be rife around the trail, as conveniently placed markers informed me of the different species and subspecies that could be spotted. Unfortunately, I saw very little, apart from the retreating form of a large snake no more than two feet away, which I was later unsettlingly informed was more than likely a black mamba.

I cooled myself in the river by the conveniently placed picnic spot, which had been relieved of all its wooden bench tops in a display of distinctly South African ingenuity. The return leg of the trail followed the opposite side of the river, providing a spectacular view of the section that I had just walked.

I was taken slightly unawares by the sharp and severe incline that made me question whether perhaps the trail didn’t take you on a detour by way of Mafadi, but once conquered the rest of the trail was either sloping or flat and provided a pleasant winding down of the hike. The last surprise was perhaps the final pedestrian bridge that made me feel somewhat like Indiana Jones sans the hat.

The Matumi trail has been one of the things I have done that has made me feel most in touch with the country since I have been here and it is well worth doing even if only to see the proud variety of scenery that makes this part of the world so beautiful.