Tag Archives: travel

CouchSurfing: new experiences for people and travelers

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COUCHSURFING: New experiences for travelers await

Cartoon backpackerWHEN the travel bug bites it can be contagious, I’ve heard people say. The thought of traveling to a foreign country can be daunting for some. However, many would agree that once you force yourself out of your comfort zone, discover new places, meet new people and have new experiences, the feeling is often one of great achievement as well as a newly acquired zest for life. I’ve heard the same thing said by people in their 50s and 60s.

A well-traveled Canadian once said to me, “Galen, there are two things in this world that you should never pass up: learning something new and traveling experiences.” How right he was. The two seem to go hand in hand.

Websites and services such as Skype and Facebook have made traveling to faraway countries far less daunting than times past. These allow us to stay connected to family and friends wherever we may be in the world.

The cost of travel, however, is a reasonable argument for us not traversing across more of our planet. They haven’t yet invented a commercial airplane that can fly on air or cheap biofuel — at least not one that we’re allowed to use yet. There’s also the cost of accommodation to consider, which seems to be higher according to higher levels of comfort. Enter CouchSurfing.

What is CouchSurfing?

CouchSurfing is simple. People volunteer to host a traveler from another country for an agreed-upon amount of time and travelers get free accommodation and the chance to meet and engage with local life. Couchsurfing.org has become an international, non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries worldwide. Millions have used CouchSurfing for cultural exchanges and to help them along their travels.

The response from travelers and locals alike has been hugely positive and there is a library of positive testimonials and experiences on the CouchSurfing website. It continues to show massive growth since its inception in 2004, with over three million successful couch-surfing or hosting experiences recorded to date.

“Our mission as an organisation is to create inspiring experiences: cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging, and illuminating. CouchSurfing’s initial focus was on hosting and ‘surfing’ [staying with a local as a guest in their home]. We have a vision of a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Each CouchSurfing experience shared by our members brings us closer to that vision.” — www.couchsurfing.org

How does CouchSurfing work?

Couchsurfing.org offers step-by-step instructions for getting started as a either a surfer or a CouchSurfing host. It basically uses profiles, by which each member is required to create and share as much information about themselves as possible. Many CouchSurfers tend to meet one another and offer to act as references. Reviews or comments are encouraged, which helps hosts and surfers shortlist their choices.

The service is free to use by both parties. However, upon signing up I discovered that they do ask for an initial donation of $3,24. It states that this is used to send you a postcard to verify your address. Apart from this there don’t seem to be any costs. They have even banned any commercial activity on the website and anyone who charges a CouchSurfer to stay is removed from the directory.

The benefit for those who offer to host travelers is often simply meeting and sharing experiences with interesting people. “Hosts have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world without leaving home. We also give more people the chance to become travelers, because surfing lowers the financial cost of exploration.”

If an enticing CouchSurfing profile isn’t enough to get you picked, users can also contact their local ambassadors, several of which have become CouchSurfing members. Couchsurfing.org offers an index of ambassadors worldwide. It also encourages users to become active members by meeting as many CouchSurfers as possible and building up contacts and references.

Is CouchSurfing safe?

CouchSurfing appeals to those rare human traits we all possess but so seldom exercise: self-education and trust. It’s fair to say that CouchSurfing should be used at your own discretion, and it is up to anyone who participates in CouchSurfing to help protect themselves and each other by educating themselves and sharing information about other people’s interests and perspectives. You can see who other members’ friends are and how they know them, and you have the ability to correspond with them as much as you want before you meet them. As an extra precaution, CouchSurfing.org offers a safety page for more information about the different types of information systems that help you make educated decisions while using CouchSurfing.

  • Visit www.couchsurfing.org if you would like to join this global phenomenon or if you would like to host a traveler from another country.

Bulungula Lodge: Green and Serene

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BULUNGULA LODGE: Green and eco-friendly

THERE are very few lodges in the world that can say they run on the same amount of power used by a toaster; a full 24-hour day on what a toaster uses in an hour, to be exact. Bulungula, situated just south of Coffee Bay on South Africa’s Wild Coast, is one such lodge.

Where hills and sea meetThe Wild Coast earns its name by being a watery graveyard to several shipwrecks. Whale bones dot the coastline and it is largely an unfenced area populated by pastoral communities. Bulungula was founded where hills meet sea and is in among a variety of flora and fauna. From the lodge one looks down onto a glorious beach and estuary. The backdrop is those lovely velvety hills with springy grass that spills down the dunes and kisses the rocks and sand below. Goats, cows, chickens, ducks, dogs, donkeys, pigs, sheep and horses all roam freely, and down by the river’s edge, mangroves flourish.

Bulungula, with its use of solar power, rocket showers and compost toilets, is a living example of how tourism can, in fact, be eco-friendly, clean and sustainable. Grey water from the sinks feeds the vegetable garden and the lodge has calculated its annual carbon footprint and plants trees to offset this. Cultural fusion is at its heart, and the realisation that there are many different ways to live your life is something that will have you hankering for more.

Accommodation at Bulungula Lodge

Bulungula Safari TentBulungula offers lodgings in either rondavels or safari tents. Four-bed dormitories are available for those on a budget­. The huts are more spacious and central, but the tents are more private­. I opted for the latter and although I often had to fight my way through the dune bush in pitch darkness, the double bed that awaited was cosy and the wooden deck perfect for star gazing.

(It says on the Bulungula website that if you don’t see a shooting star within half an hour during a clear night, you get that night’s accommodation free. I checked and saw three).

One is able to go to bed with the tent door left open with the roar of the ocean in your ears. In the mornings you can view the sunrise over the horizon without lifting your head from your pillow.

Bulungula Lodge: South Africa

Crime and safety at Bulungula Lodge

It’s hard for a South African to think of any place in the country as crime free. Because the Bulungula community owns 40% of the lodge, there is a vested interest, and since its establishment in 2004, there has been no recorded incident of even the most minor theft. Once you accept that crime is non-existent, it’s quite liberating not having to constantly worry about your belongings going walkabout.

Cellphones lie in a neat row on the kitchen windowsill while cameras and laptops lay about on tables and couches. Anything can be left quite safely in your unlocked hut or open tent. So long as an inquisitive goat doesn’t mistake your goods for lunch, everything can be left with peace of mind.

The Bulungula Lodge is the realisation of a dream dreamt during years of travels through the most remote parts of Africa, China and South America: to create an eco-friendly backpackers lodge in the most beautiful place in South Africa in partnership with a vibrant, traditional community.” – www.bulungula.com

The people you meet at Bulungula

A place like Bulungula attracts people of all ages from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe. During my four-day stay, I crossed paths with Sam — a video editor from north London, Matt — a surfer and ex-banker from New Zealand who sold all his possessions to spend a year travelling through South America; sweet, tattoo-clad Stephanie from Switzerland, Melissa, the 23-year-old Canadian who is bravely journeying from Cape to Cairo, Keegan from Cape Town, and a few American girls doing missionary work. It was a real treat to interact with such well-travelled, open and friendly people.

Things to do at Bulungula Lodge

BulungulaIf lying on the grass with a beer and good book or wallowing in a rock pool isn’t enough action for you, there are several things to do at Bulungula. The lodge and its activities have completely uplifted the surrounding villages and several community members have started their own small businesses. There is much to learn too if you immerse yourself within Xhosa culture.

I indulged in a two-hour horse ride which started along the beach and then headed inland and uphill. With the horses being as tame and well-disciplined as they are, no riding experience is required. Other options are to take a tour with the local herbalist, enjoy a full body massage, hike, fish, crayfish dive, glide down the Xora River in a canoe, or learn how to play the hypnotic bongos. Popular board games are available for rainy days.

I honestly can’t commend Bulungula enough. However, if luxury, comfort and privacy is your thing, it may not be your cup of tea, but I think it’s a must-do for any city dweller with a sense of adventure. The laid-back nature of the place, the hospitality, safety and friendliness may well change one’s outlook in pretty profound ways.

Just be warned that the ride is rough when driving there. It is unknown how solid your bones need to be in order to traverse a severely pot-holed road for 36 kilometres. But then again, isn’t being hard to get to one of the definitions of a paradise?

The Mauritius holiday experience

With times being so tough and people feeling increasingly crabby about life, you might like to know that affordable holidays do exist out there. Mauritius is one such destination that is the perfect place to get away from it all and is one superb and reasonably priced holiday experience.

TRAVEL: The Mauritius holiday experience

Air MauritiusMAURITIUS is a multicultural mix of people, places and melodies. The language is French, the cuisine Indian and Chinese, the massages Swedish and below the turquoise waters – something totally out of this world.

There is something very special about island life. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed and there is a sense that the surrounding waters protect one from the harshness of the rest of the world.

A brief history of Mauritius

Vasco De Gama checking out MauritiusMauritius has an interesting and unique history. Originally discovered by the Portuguese and visited by the Dutch in the 16th century, the island was eventually colonised by the French. They established Port Louis as an important rest-stop when travelling to the Indian spice lands.

The British soon realised the usefulness of having a colony at Mauritius, and after a few naval battles with the French, soon took the island for themselves. Labour came in the form of Indian and Chinese immigrants, which had a major influence on Mauritian culture.

Languages of Mauritius

EducationMauritian school boys and girls and educated in both English and French. However, one can also happen across a few Italian and Hindi speakers. Being addressed in an accent that can only be described as a thick mixture of an Indian and French accent, can be difficult to understand, but is entirely enchanting when spoken by the female persuasion.

The Le Palmiste Resort & Spa

BeachThe beaches of Mauritius are adorned with hotels and resorts with new construction underway 24/7 – even on Sundays. I was surprises to find the holiday destination largely under-developed. However, the locals appeared to feel apprehensive towards their natural beauty becoming more of a tourist island. According to a local taxi driver, tourism is booming – with three planes arriving from South Africa alone per day.

Le Palmiste Resort & SpaThe Le Palmiste Resort & Spa is a three star hotel that can be found on the north-western part of Mauritius. Having not experienced much hotel-life myself, I found the service, amenities and food to be far better than expected.

The hotel has three swimming pools, lounge chairs aplenty, table tennis, a volley ball area and hosted a bingo night and an evening of traditional song and dance known as Sega. The average age at the Le Palmiste was about 60, but you can spot the love-birds like an over-dressed penguin at a party.

Hotel roomI lazed in the biggest bed I’ve ever slept in – in an air-conditioned room with a balcony and a view. After being too fearful to touch the minibar on the first night, I was delighted to discover that everything in it was complimentary; and replenished every day! The room and on-suite bathroom were thoroughly cleaned once a day and there was a huge TV across from the bed if one wished to watch some French television. Perhaps the only thing lacking was a large bath.

Mauritian Food & Drink

St Aubin Mauritian RhumI wouldn’t say that Mauritius has any traditional cuisine. Their food is a mix and Indian and Chinese and seafood; so lots of spices, fried rice and noodles and seafood of every variety. They also like their chilies!

Food at the Le Palmiste is buffet style – so all you can eat at every meal. Breakfast was a real treat and came in the form of pancakes with chocolate sauce, croissants, hams, cheeses, fruit and filter coffee.

Mauritius has just about as much sugarcane as Kwa-Zulu natal, so the obvious bi-product is Mauritian rhum. There is vanilla rhum, coffee rhum, caramel rhum, orange or pineapple rhum and then of course the specialty – St Aubin Mauritian rhum. Every guest is offered a bottle upon arrival.
One glass resulted in a hangover.

Mauritius Ocean Life

SnorklingIf you are a diver, snorkeler, or just interested in marine life, you will be spoilt for choice in the waters of Mauritius. The ocean is wave-less due to a seemingly never-ending coral reef, and the water is crystal clear. Diving in just about anywhere will see you immediately immersed in a colourful underwater universe simply teaming with life!

There are options to go six feet under in a submarine, enjoy a glass-bottomed boat ride, be pulled behind a boat on tubes, parasail, windsurf, ski, just about anything a veteran beach-goer could wish for. A great experience is to take a catamaran trip to the smaller, northern islands for a full day. Food is served, the snorkling is fantastic and the complimentary cocktails go down really well.

One does need to be careful not to be taken for a financial ride however. I soon learnt to haggle prices down 50% or find another local who offered the same services for a better price. Everything for a tourist is negotiable.

The solo experience

solo travellerMauritius was my first time traveling overseas and I chose to go at it alone. There are pros and cons to the solo traveling experience, but I couldn’t have enjoyed my own company more. Being able to escape from your more real existence and do as you please, when you please, is just blissful. You certainly never feel alone with this holiday experience.

I did however meet an Afrikaans mother and daughter from Pretoria who had taken the same holiday package deal. They were more than welcoming and friendly and really made my whole experience that much more enjoyable.

Irene and Adri MalanIt is also quite difficult to take photos that include yourself or keep an eye on your stuff when you’re on your own. More importantly, it is really great to share these sorts of experiences with someone, and I am forever grateful for having met such accommodating travelers on my trip.

This holiday was booked through Pentravel and cost R10 480 on a half-board basis (breakfast and dinner daily). The price included a return air ticket ex Durban, transport to and from the airport and seven nights in the Le Palmiste hotel in a single occupancy superior room with comprehensive travel insurance. The Afrikaans mother and daughter I met booked the same package but with twin sharing accommodation ex Johannesburg through Computicket and paid R7 499 per person sharing.

If a relaxing holiday is what you’re looking for, Mauritius is certainly a great choice. Bon Voyage!

Make way for Shweebways

SHWEEBS: personal pedal-powered pods

TRAFFIC jams. Being stuck in traffic has got to be in the top five on the list of peoples’ most hated things in the world – right after Bob Mugabe, taxes, Telkom and getting toffee stuck on the roof of your mouth.

I have seen murder develop in the eyes of the calmest looking drivers when caught between throngs of cars. It’s hard not to get slightly ticked off and lose it – suddenly finding yourself bashing your way through the metallic queue, foot flat on the pedal, with a criminal reputation mounting up, and laughing hysterically.

No. We need to restrain ourselves from doing that. I find that the best self-therapy is to turn up the air-con (or heater), wind up the windows thus blocking out the sounds of hooting and swearing, and listen to Bob Marley.

The Shweeb monorail system consists of two 200 metre long overhead rail circuits that vary in height between two and four meters above the ground. Under the tracks hang high performance pedal powered vehicles. Between one and five vehicles can be loaded onto each track enabling teams to race each other or race against the clock.

The Shweeb monorail system consists of two 200 metre long overhead rail circuits that vary in height between two and four meters above the ground. Under the tracks hang high performance pedal powered vehicles. Between one and five vehicles can be loaded onto each track enabling teams to race each other or race against the clock.

However, our traffic nightmares may soon come to an end thanks to an invention known as the Shweeb. And this is not just some fancy new swearword, but the world’s first human-powered monorail.

“Shweeb” means “to float” in German, and is a self-enclosed, pedal-powered pod which is already in use at an amusement park in New Zealand. The team of designers who developed the Shweeb not only see the pod as a vehicle of amusement, but as an environmentally-friendly replacement for personal motor vehicles in traffic congested cities.

The idea was conceived by designer Geoffrey Barnett while on holiday in Tokyo – one of the world’s most heavily conjested cities. Barnett implemented the idea in his adventure park – Agroventures – in New Zealand, which is partially a proof-of-concept for an ingenious, high efficiency, no emission urban transport system.

How it works
The Shweeb uses a monorail system to guide users along a pre-determined path, with each pod being powered by the rider. According to the official Shweeb website, to travel in a Shweeb takes only half the energy required to ride a regular bicycle, and only 1/3 the energy of a mountain bike to pedal (since it is enclosed and there isn’t the rolling resistance of the tyres to compensate for). For even greater efficiency, Shweebs can be linked together for less air resistance and more pedal power.

The pods are far more aerodynamically efficient than a bicycle too. Most riders see speeds of around 45 km/h, but on a longer circuit with a much longer straight, the Shweeb can reach up to 70 km/h.

Shweeb insideSuch speeds are rather impressive when considering that the average speed of a car in London these days is a mere 13km/h (due to traffic). This is the same speed that cars could reach 100 years ago – before the demonic birth of rush-hour.

What’s more, when taking tight corners the pods can swing out as much as 60 degrees; but unlike a bike or motorcycle, there is no danger of losing traction and crashing.

Barnett has spent six years developing how to efficiently transfer pedal power to drive wheels enclosed within a monorail track while allowing the vehicle to swing freely underneath. The hard wheels on the steel rail mean that there is very little rolling resistance, and riders have shown that you do not have to be an Olympic athlete to power the pedals.

The future
Shweeb futureBarnett foresees the future use of his high efficiency, no emission urban transport system: “Here’s how it works. You get up in the morning; descend to the second level of your apartment building where there’s a Shweeb port and empty Shweebs waiting for you. You cruise over the top of the traffic jams. You don’t pay parking. You’ve produced no pollution. You arrive at work fit, healthy and ready to go!” says Barnett.

An exciting aspect of the Shweeb is how it could address problems of health and fitness relating to lack of exercise in certain nations. Of course you will always get lazy Shweebers who don’t pedal, hold up the traffic and simply get taken for a ride; but any ticked off, speeding Shweebers won’t be able to knock others off the rails.

“Shock absorbers between the vehicles ensure that vehicles come together smoothly. When a fit rider comes up behind a slower rider, the impact is cushioned and they act as a single unit. The rider at the rear is sitting in the slipstream of the leading rider and is able to put all their power into pushing the lead vehicle,” says Barnett.

So it appears that road rage would no longer be an issue in a Shweeb world. In fact, two Shweebs acting together will always travel faster than either rider separately. Even if the lead rider were to stop pedaling, the energy required to maintain a vehicle’s momentum on a flat track is minimal.

Make way for Shweebways
The logistics of getting Shweeb systems up and running in countries around the world is not as difficult as one might think. “The urban Shweebrail network is inexpensive, has a tiny footprint, and each Shweebway requires only a square meter of airspace,” says Barnett. “It’s safe, silent and sustainable.”

Not only are Shweebways inexpensive to build, but the pods come cheap too. In fact, you would never even need to buy one. “You don’t own the Shweeb,” says Barnett, “you use it like a shopping cart. Empty vehicles are restocked to wherever they are needed.”

Imagine it now: climbing into a slick Shweeb after a day’s work, laying back and sailing above congested traffic during rush hour, getting a daily workout with gentle pedaling, enjoying a great view of the city, all while listening to Bob Marley… Sign me up!