Holidays! San Fran, Yosemite and Sequoia

It’s the end of the year, and although I don’t have holidays per se, I took a break to have some fun while my wife is on holiday. Her and a friend attended a conference in San Francisco, so at the end of the week I joined up to form our touring group of four. With a new set of second-hand wheels, our trip was planned and ready to go.

San Francisco Bay, with Alcatraz in the background

I took the PCH1 all the way up from LA to San Fran to meet them there. I overnighted in Monterey at the HI hostel located near the aquarium. It was a beautiful drive, although it rained the entire way, including a few manoeuvres to dodge the fallen rocks. Definitely on the list to do again in the summer, with a number of national parks and other places to stay along the way.

Monterey also looked like a stunning town, and the Aquarium is highly renowned, also on the list for next time. I donned my rain jacket and made a few loops of the former fishing town, before withdrawing to the warmth of the hostel.

Down Lombard Street

The next two nights were spent at the HI hostel in Fisherman’s Wharf (north SF). Located on the grounds of a former naval base, this is a very popular hostel, located in a beautiful section of LA with great views over the bay, Alcatraz (not Azkaban) and the Golden Gate Bridge.

We did a lot of walking, but this let’s you see a lot. From the hostel we walked down to pier 45 to see an old submarine, from there we carried on to the top of telegraph hill to view the Coit Tower. All the way down Lombard Street, we climbed to the top of the Crookedest Street. From there we found a bus that took us to the Golden Gate bridge, which we promptly walked in both directions. From there we followed the coast all the way back to Fort Mason and our hostel.

Not particularly Golden, red yes.

We didn’t have much time in SF, and have left a lot to return to. We had wanted to visit Alcatraz, but this apparently requires advanced booking as demand is quite high. After the initial rain, the weather cleared up, and although it was cold, the sun shone all day. This weather persisted for the rest of our trip.

From San Fran we took a direct route to Yosemite National Park, and camped three nights at the Upper Pines camp-ground, in the Yosemite Valley. The campsite was probably about a third full and very cold, dropping to about -5C most nights, and not getting much above 5 during the day, being mostly in the shade.

Our new wheels in Yosemite and Sequoia

It wasn’t our first camping foray in negative temperatures, but the low daily average was something to contend with. On our first full day in Yosemite we did the short trail out and around Mirror Lake. At the base of the Half Dome, it was a cold dark hike, although flat, with a brief sunny respite for lunch. Stunning scenery and breathtaking landscapes were to be the order of the next several days.

The next day we decided to get out of the valley and into the sunlight and chose the steep and switchback full route to the top of the Yosemite Falls. Climbing about 800m, the route takes you up the western part of the falls offering some amazing views of the Upper Yosemite Fall and placing you up top with a view down.

Views atop Yosemite Falls

You follow the same route down, and as the sun set we were greeted with an array of new colours, lighting up the mountains around us. On our way out the following day we headed south towards Fresno. This gave us new views looking back over the valley with a view of El Capitan, Yosemite Fall, Bridalveil Fall and Glacier Point, truly a magnificent sight.

Shortly thereafter we had our first run-in with the law as our newly registered vehicle did not yet have number plates (perfectly legal for 60 days), and after a very orderly interaction with the po-po we were free to continue our journey to Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park.

Yosemite Valley and Mirror Lake

Another beauty in it’s own way. Yosemite’s glacial basin made way for rolling hills, an increase in altitude and massive trees. Having visited in the summer, it was nice to visit again in the winter. We had expected colder than Yosemite temperatures, and thus booked into a cabin. Temperatures however increased between the storms, but our enjoyment of the cabin’s heating was no less diminished.

As we arrived we swung past the General Grant tree. Although snow-chain laws had been in place, and we were suitably equipped, the weather had improved to an extent that they were not required. While the General Grant is not as big as the General Sherman tree we had seen previously, it is suitably impressive. Later that evening while prepping supper, we were visited by a swarm of raccoons who proceeded to tear apart a nearby pine tree but seemed to mostly leave us alone.

Yosemite Upper Fall and view of the valley

After much debate on what to do the following day, we opted for a shorter hike to allow us time to drive through King’s Canyon. We chose and enjoyed the Big Baldy route. Taking you up to 2500m, this gentle route offers outstanding panoramas. With the snow-capped Sierras close on your one side, your view stretches out over the Central Valley with the peaks of the Coastal Ranges just sticking out in the West.

After a brief lunch break we headed back and on towards King’s Canyon, intending to drive to the Roads End, we were instead greeted with ‘Road Closed’ signs, and our map confirmed that the road closes in winter. As such we took a detour back past the Hume Lake (which is actually a dam) back towards Grant Grove village where our cabin was located.

Big trees in Sequoia

With a storm headed our direction, we decided to make an early escape via the General’s Highway, past the Sherman Tree, and out the Ash Mountain entrance. The CHP and park rangers had other plans for us though, and decided to close the road in anticipation of the storm, thus our nice long drive out was summarily curtailed within minutes of leaving camp. Understandable, but disappointing. We did at least experience a few light flurries of the impending snow as we dropped our altitude.

Although we really wanted snow on our trip so we could do some skiing, the warm and dry weather we were greeted with did make several aspects of the trip (like camping and driving) much easier and more pleasant (and drier). That being said, regardless of the weather you receive any of these places are a great place to take a holiday, and all of them remain on our list of places we want to visit (again).

Views of Sequoia

We were also amazed at the large portions of the parks which are not accessible from roads, but open to hikers to camp out in the wilds (best done in the warmer months).

Swiss/Italian border

Earlier this year my wife and I had the opportunity to do a bit of travelling in the Simplon area of southern Switerzland under the pretence of academic research. I say under the pretence, it was pretty much all research with me just tagging along for moral support.

Zwischenbergtal - so freaking green

Zwischenbergtal – so freaking green

We flew into Milan, hired a car and drove up to Domodossola, just south of the Swiss/Italian border. We spent one night there before driving on to Simplon. We spent 6 nights at the Simplon Pass Hospiz before continuing on to two nights in Brig. At the end we spent our last 3 nights back in Domodossola.

Domodossola (you should hear the GPS pronounce it) is a small, sprawling city nestled in the foothills of the Italian Alps. It’s a beautiful city with a small town feeling, especially in the central areas where the architecture is all stone and has an old feeling to it.

Domodossola at night

Domodossola at night

Not much English is spoken, but you don’t need to communicate a heck of a lot to get by. We stayed just off the main square, and there was a big festival on our first night there, that continued long after we went to bed. Everyone was out in the streets with kids playing everywhere, really great experience.

Simplon Hospiz Way bigger in person

Simplon Hospiz
Way bigger in person

We travelled up to the Simplon Hospiz, located at the peak of the Simplon Pass just over 2,000m. It’s a massive stone building, with walls almost a metre thick. It’s not the prettiest building, but fits well in the surrounding splendour of the mountains. Accomodation included breakfast and dinner which we shared in a hostel like fashion at mixed tables with the other guests. Few of whom spoke English, and yet they were some of the friendliest and nicest people I’ve met. Mostly locals (within 100km), all taking a break at the Hospiz.switzerland-24

We spent six nights there, followed by two nights in Brig where we stayed at the Schloss Hotel. The Schloss Hotel employs an ATM type machine for check-in. And I love it. Put in your booking reference, swipe your credit card, and voilà you have your room key. It was everything I could hope for for the future of check-in procedures.

Butterflies were everywhere, and not shy

Butterflies were everywhere, and not shy

Brig was beautiful, another old European town, stretched out along the Rhine. Our last three nights were spent back in Domodossola before returning to Milan. On our very last day our co-travellers were flying out at 10h00, but we only flew at 22h00. As such we took the train into town, and spent a few hours in the central area of Milan, before heading home.

Appropriately named Chaltwassergletscher

Appropriately named Chaltwassergletscher

Every day we spent driving around the countryside, up tiny little streets to the tops of mountains, or hiking up along the cattle trails. The scenery was absolutely beautiful. We were there end of July so the weather had warmed up nicely, most of the snow had melted and we were left with beautiful green sceneries.

These sheep were adorable.

These sheep were adorable.

We were amazed by the extent of the hiking trails through the mountains. Anywhere you want to go you can find a small marked path taking you there. Town to town, or even just up to a peak. You might even find a little hut with a fire and baked goods for sale.

No Touchy

No Touchy

Switzerland was (it still surprises me) expensive, but if you’re interested in the border areas you can legitimately stay in Italy and do some day trips. It was a wonderful trip through beautiful scenery. I’ve spent time in the Alps in winter on two occasions, but seeing them in the summer was something else entirely.

DTLA (Downtown Los Angeles)

I had some free time recently and heard you could go up to the observation deck of City Hall. While not the highest building downtown, the 27th floor observation deck gives a nice view over the city.

LA City Hall

LA City Hall

It’s free to the public, you just need to show some ID at security and go through a metal detector. But they sign you in, give you a visitor sticker and some quick directions up to the top. You have to switch elevators near the top, and climb one flight of stairs.

pressroom

Press Room in LA City Hall

At the top you are met by a dark room which looks like it is used for press conferences, but all around it is a balcony which overlooks LA. On each side is a small summary board, naming the buildings and other sites you can see. I giggled a bit when I noticed the optimistically marked Catalina Island. With LA smog, and a distance of 35km to the island, it is a special day when one can see it.

catalina

Optimistic marking of Catalina Island (2)

visitorI took a bus from University Park to downtown, and then walked the streets to get to the city hall. Walking down a random street (Broadway), my attention was drawn to a girl taking a photo of a door mat. Reading the doormat I read “Bradbury Building”. This name was familiar to me, but from the outside the building doesn’t look like much, so I carried on to city hall while taking out my phone to investigate.

dtla

View of Downtown

And yes, it was the Bradbury Building, a famous(y) building used in a number of films. I heard about it from a 99PI episode about the building. And while not being much to look at from the outside, inside has some interesting architecture. One is free to walk around the lower landing during office hours.

bradbury

Bradbury Building – inside and out

On my way back to catch the bus, I came across an unexpected funicular. I had actually read about it recently on Reddit, where it was the focus of a recent vandalism attempt, but hadn’t taken note of where it was.

funicular

Angels Flight funicular

But there’s still so much to see downtown, and I’ll definitely research a bit more before my next trip.

St Lucia and Kruger

Photos are a combination of mine and my wife’s.

When you’re leaving South Africa for a couple years, what is the last thing one should do? That’s right, undertake a two week safari. So that’s what my new wife and I did. We flew up to Durban and kicked off our trip with a week in St Lucia.

We started off with a 3 night package from Heritage Safaris. This included a cruise on the St Lucia Estuary, a day trip to through the Isimangaliso Wetlands to Cape Vidal, a night drive through the wetland park and a day trip to Hluhluwe Umfolozi. Accommodation and meals are included, so it was a nice relaxing start to our trip.

Hippos in St Lucia

Hippos in St Lucia

Although the area is in the middle of a massive drought, the wetland still has a decent amount of water in it. Enough to support the hippopotami (my spellcheck accepts it as well as hippopotamuses) and other wildlife. The boat cruise is a great way to get up close to the hippos which carry on as if you weren’t. A few birds, some antelope and the opportunity to see a croc or two is also possible.

White rhino, samango monkey and giraffe in Isimangaliso

White rhino, samango monkey and giraffe in Isimangaliso

The wetland park had a lot more to give than what we had expected. On driving in we immediately came across a number of wildebeest and zebra. A bit further on we were spoilt by several white rhino. We continued to see a number of birds and various antelope. Apparently leopards can be relatively common, although we didn’t see any. During season, whales can often be seen from the coastal regions. Cape Vidal was also a bit of a surprise. A lovely beach in the park allowing one to swim, fish or snorkel the nearby reef if the tides are right.

Warning sign and crocodiles on beach in St Lucia. Hippos on walk in Kruger

Warning sign and crocodiles on beach in St Lucia. Hippo on walk in Kruger

As with any kind of safari, they can be hit or miss. You can go 10 times and not see anything, then get an amazing sighting on your last day, or you can pitch up and get something new every day. It’s luck of the draw. Our night drive was a little bland, although we still saw several antelope, zebra and giraffe.

Our trip to Hluhluwe was a great trip though. It starts with a 5AM pickup and a freezing trip in the back of a land cruiser to the park. We spent the day in the Umfolozi section of the park. We saw almost everything we could have wanted, elephants by the tens, several white rhino, a cheetah sighting followed by a wild dog. Antelope of all sizes and kinds. The only surprise for us was the lack of birdlife. This is apparently not abnormal though.

Our beat up rental, getting close to zebra in St Lucia, petting cheetah cubs at Emdoneni

Our beat up rental, getting close to zebra in St Lucia, petting cheetah cubs at Emdoneni

We spent a further two nights self-catering in St Lucia (at the Safari Lodge). We spent a day exploring the town, and did a return visit to Hluhluwe. The town itself has its own beaches and several paths one can wander and still manage to encounter some wildlife, sometimes more than one would want. On our way out of St Lucia we also stopped at the Emdoneni Cheetah Project where you are taken on a tour of the project. You get shown serval, wild-cat, karakal and cheetah. You are taken into the cages of each, and may be able to approach the cheetah and serval.

Hornbill, giraffe and zebra, all in Kruger

Hornbill, giraffe and zebra, all in Kruger

St Lucia is a lovely little tourist town, well worth a visit. They have a fuel station, grocery shop, plenty of accommodation and ample restaurants. After a week there, we took a meandering drive up to Kruger National Park. While in St Lucia, it was suggested that instead of skirting the Swazi border the whole way up, that we actually cut through Swaziland to get to Kruger. For a number of reasons we couldn’t do this, but it is a highly recommended route.

Baby hyena are surprisingly adorable

Baby hyena are surprisingly adorable

We spent the night just outside Nelspruit at the recommended Bee-Eaters Farm. Although we mainly saw kingfisher, we did spot a bee-eater as we were leaving, just managing to live up to its name.

We had two nights booked at the Sabie-River Bush Lodge, just outside the Kruger Gate, and then three nights within the park at the Olifants rest camp. We drove up on the first day from Nelspruit through the Malelani Gate, taking some back roads through the park, past Skukuza and out Kruger Gate. It is was towards the end of the school holidays and we had been warned to pre-book a day pass which we had, but found it wasn’t necessary on arrival.

A nice bee-eater sighting, complemented by lilac-breasted rollers

A nice bee-eater sighting, complemented by lilac-breasted rollers

We did fairly long drives each day, weaving up and down through all the roads. We twice went to Lake Panic, a hide just outside Skukuza. We got there an hour before gate closing each day, and had some amazing bird sightings. We had a number of other great sightings including a pair of hyena cubs right next to the car, a civet on a night drive and a honey badger on our last day. Although we lacked for cheetah and leopard, we had a distant lion sighting. This was all complemented by numerous birds of prey, sightings of rhino, giraffe, elephant and various antelope.

Two giant kingfisher sightings, and a fish eagle

Two giant kingfisher sightings, and a fish eagle

It’s amazing how big Kruger really is, and we were constantly impressed by the running of the park, and the amazing placement of restaurants (specifically the ones we visited at Olifants and Lower Sabie). We additionally did a morning walk. You get taken out into the bush by two rangers. Although you may not see much, it’s a really cool experience to be out in the wild, and a nice escape from the daily confines of your car.

Civet we saw on night drive and a honey badger

Civet we saw on night drive and a honey badger

We had a great trip. Going to the two parks were completely different experiences. Kruger obviously caters for the masses and has many comforts to support that. Hluhluwe was amazingly quiet, and apparently never gets too busy. It’s perhaps a bit more out of the way, but definitely worth the visit.