E.D. Corner: May 2024

Good Day,

I am typing this on my cell phone on my way home from an amazing three-week adventure.  Each of the three weeks brought their own incredible experiences and insights all of which made me appreciate what I have and what I do for a living.  Upon reflecting on my time away (during the first flight on the way home), I was able to bucket some of the key things I learned on my travels.

  • The world is a big place
  • The visitor economy is important everywhere, and a lifeline for many
  • People love to share their stories; the good, the bad and the ugly
  • There is authenticity even in the “touristy” areas
  • Canadian traffic rules are not the norm

Our three weeks away was more like three one-week trips.  But, since we were travelling so far away, it made more sense to put them all together.  The catalyst for the trip was a pact made by a group of our friends to take a vacation together sometime between the oldest and youngest people’s birthdays.  Then, in 2022, one of our friends was hosting a gala fundraising event where a one-week trip to a game preserve was up for auction. The winning bid was for far less than retail and the sponsor company offered the trip to anyone else at the gala for the same price.  By the end of the week, 14 of us had committed to six nights at Zulu Nyala Heritage Safari Lodge in Hluhluwe, South Africa starting May 13, 2024.

The next discussion Trish and I had was about the total length of the trip.  Both of us agreed that if we were going to fly that far, we should take some additional time to explore other places and landed on three weeks, with the safari being sandwiched between two other locations.  I then started searching for the routes to Durban, South Africa (the nearest airport) that were the most direct.  I have missed a connection or two in my life and am not a fan of relying on perfect scheduling to get me to where I want to be.

Turkish Air had the perfect route with one plane flying Toronto to Istanbul and a second flying from Istanbul to Durban.  Istanbul is a city steeped in history and we decided to spend the first week there.  Determining our third week location was a bit more difficult as there were so many other places to explore in and around Africa.  The original plan was to go to Zanzibar and relax on the beaches after two hectic weeks, but it turns out that May is their rainy season and the resorts were closed.  We batted around more safari options, a visit to Victoria Falls, Marrakesh Morocco and even Mauritius, but each of those options required three or four separate flights, taking up almost another full day to get there.  So, we settled on spending our last week in Cape Town, South Africa – a quick, direct two-and-a-half-hour flight from Durban.

Planning a trip with 14 people can be cumbersome and, if you aren’t careful, you can miss half of your vacation waiting for people in the group.  Ten of the 14 of us have travelled together quite a bit, especially when the kids were young, and we all agreed that it would be a bit of a nightmare coordinating the before and after trips for all of us.  I let the group know of our plans. Tom & Tracy and Peter & Kate (four of our closest friends) opted to join us on the first leg of the journey.  For the last week, Trish and I let everyone know that we wanted it to just be the two of us as it had been a long time since we got to travel alone.

 

Istanbul

I really didn’t do much research into Istanbul before picking it as a destination.  For me, the main reason for the choice was flying convenience.  However, in the year leading up to the trip, whenever someone who had been to Istanbul knew that I was heading there, they raved about how incredible the city was and how much they were looking forward to going back. I can say with total certainty that I am now one of those people.

It is difficult to capture in words or even images, just how busy Istanbul is.  Our drive from the airport to our hotel in the “touristy” Eminonu area was a white-knuckle ride of dodging other vehicles and pedestrians, on roads that changed from fairly modern to ones that have been in existence for more than a thousand years.  Officially, Istanbul is home to around 16 million people (2020), but the people we met and spoke with all agree that with the influx of refugees from nearby countries, that number has grown to close to 20 million people.  That is more than half the population of Canada living in a city three quarters the size of the GTA.

For all of those people, I didn’t see any tell-tale signs of homelessness or overt poverty.  On one of our walking tours, I asked our guide about it and she said that the majority of the people share what they have so that no one goes hungry.  The restaurants, often filled with tourists, ensure that all unsold/uneaten food is distributed rather than being thrown out.  There were people all through the busy streets pulling carts full of cardboard and other recyclables from the shops and restaurants which they were able to sell at recycling centres.  This helped keep the streets clean and provided a little bit of money to some of the refugees and others that were less fortunate.  There may be a bigger underlying story about the struggles people are having in Turkiye, but from a visitor perspective, it wasn’t visible at all.  We felt safe the entire time we were there and never once felt harassed – except by some of the more aggressive merchants.

With a city of this size, I didn’t think that tourism would be too high on their priorities.  Like any major city like Toronto, New York or London, Istanbul is home to big business and a financial hub for Turkiye.  Over our week there, we walked up all seven hills (and man are some of them steep) that make up the city, traveling outside of the “tourist” areas and into places frequented more often by locals.  Yet, even in these areas, it was evident that the visitor economy was important to the people of Istanbul.  On the first day, I noticed that they had vehicles labelled “tourist police”.  Our guide that day explained that they have a division of the police that is set up to assist tourists with directions, help direct traffic, and manage some crowd control.  They all speak English and some also speak other languages.  What I found surprising on our walks through the non-touristy areas is that we would often see the tourism police set up at monuments or busy intersections, just in case people like us needed some help.

I then looked into visitation stats for Istanbul and learned that in 2023, they welcomed more than 20M visitors.  So, although tourism is not their top industry, it is still very important to the city and its residents’ employment.  And we felt welcomed everywhere we went.

There is a heck of a lot of history in Istanbul.  The “new buildings” were often 200-300 years old and some of the mosques and other sites were over 1,400 years old and still standing.  Istanbul has been a pivotal and strategic location for over 2,500 years and has the story and physical evidence of its existence on display everywhere.  The people we met are fiercely proud of their city and country.  The one common regret was that their ability to travel is very limited because of Visa requirements that make the cost to travel near impossible.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons why so many were just as interested in learning our story as we were learning theirs.

Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Basilica Sistern in Istanbul

people waking through the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

several ships near a suspension bridge in the Bosphorus Strait (in Istanbul)

 

Zulu Nyala

In stark contrast to the chaotic vibrancy of Istanbul, the northern part of South Africa is a sparsely populated, agriculture-rich, expanse.  Durban itself is a beach town that reminded me of Myrtle Beach.  It is also home to the largest port in Africa, making it a mecca of import/export.  As our van made its way on the three-hour trek north to Zulu Nyala, I was struck by the vastness of agriculture taking place.  It started with endless fields of sugarcane dancing in the morning breeze.  Next came acres and acres of pineapples, followed by macadamia nut trees.  But to me, the most impressive were the incredibly massive eucalyptus tree forests that stretched the entire width of the valleys we were passing through.  As it turns out, it only takes nine years for a gum tree (what the locals call eucalyptus) to mature and they are used mostly for their pulp and paper industries.  If you have ever driven past a planted forest in Ontario, I am sure you have been taken by the uniformity of the rows whizzing by.  Imagine that amplified a thousand-fold and you can get a sense of the vastness of these planted spaces.  I had never really equated South Africa to agriculture and our driver was more than happy to teach us about just how much of the country is devoted to it.

Driving here was also a bit interesting, with a two lane, non-divided highway making up the majority of the drive.  The speed limit was 120 and the road was full of coal trucks and vans that frequently stopped on the paved shoulders to pick up passengers.  These same paved shoulders were also used by slower moving vehicle when people wanted to pass – which seemed to be all of the time.  Sometimes we would have to pull into the paved shoulder to avoid a head-on with a vehicle passing another in the oncoming lanes.  But the driver took it all in stride.  Add to all of this, cattle, goats and sheep grazing all along the roadside (which I thought was a great way to keep the berm grass trimmed) and thousands of makeshift roadside stands, and we had ourselves another hair-raising ride.

Zulu Nyala is a private game preserve set on 1,500 hectares.  It is one of many private and national parks dedicated to the preservation of native wildlife.  During our time in the region, we got to visit another large (96,000 hectares) private park and Tembe National Park (30,000 hectares).  Our small park had everything but the large carnivores and provided amazing opportunities to see all of the animals fairly close up.  Because there aren’t any predators in the park (aside from the odd leopard or cheetah that makes their way in), the animals are very relaxed.  And, because it is a small, manageable space, they haven’t had to dehorn their rhinos.  We also spent a day in St. Lucia, heading down the river that leads to the Indian Ocean to see hippos and crocodiles before playing in the waves on the beach.  The warning signs on the beach included sharks, crocodiles and hippos!

The excursions were everything I expected them to be and one day I will put all of my photos into a slide show and share with you all.  What I hadn’t expected were the amazing people that call this part of the world home.  Our guide, Siya, was an incredible wealth of knowledge and an amazing tracker.  We talked about how the work schedules at the resort worked and he said that everyone worked three weeks on and one week off.  Many of the staff stayed in staff housing at the resort, although he rented a place about 20 minutes away.  Most people lived further away and only got to see their families once a month or so.  He said that he felt lucky to have the job he did, because many guides were still off work because the region hadn’t yet recovered from COVID.  Not near as many visitors are coming to the region as they did prior to 2020 and the people in the area were suffering.  The visitor economy is a key component for the livelihood of many in the area. On our travels to and from the other game preserves, you could see the impact from COVID everywhere. Unfinished houses. Encampments. Unemployment.

After a visit to a traditional Zulu village, I asked him if the government recognized and or protected the traditions of the indigenous peoples of South Africa. He said both yes and no.  They recognize the language and have no problem with having a village King, although that King no longer has any power like they once wielded. They recognize that a man can have multiple wives. The one big difference is that the Zulu people were hunters and they are no longer permitted to hunt for their food, which has caused a big shift in their culture. He also let me know that there are very few Zulu’s that follow the traditional ways of villages ruled by Kings.

The sights, tastes and sounds of this part of the world were incredible. All of the staff were friendly and open, making us feel genuinely welcome and at home.  From an operations perspective they had some moments of brilliance and a few things that could use a little bit of work. One of the things that blew my socks off was the fact that every other person that we met at the resort had purchased or won their experience at a charity event in North America or Europe. What an incredible marketing plan!  Find a broker in each country, set a minimum bid amount, and then let all of the charities do the work for them. Then, offer the same package to everyone else at the event to fill even more rooms. I can’t even explain how impressed I was.

The only downfall from an operations perspective is that they grouped people with their own guide and each vehicle only fit 10 people. That meant that four of us out of the 14 that went to the park together were separated from the rest of the group almost all of the time. We were in different vehicles, at different tables for meals, and were generally away from them most of the time.  I love meeting new people, but even I found it a little odd that I didn’t get to hang out with the people that I came with.  From a financial perspective I get it.  Each of the guides got to keep the cash tips we provided them so they didn’t want to mix us up.  However, what I think the resort should have done is provide two guides for the 14 of us, let us mix it up during the safaris and meals, and then split the total tips provided.  That would have made an amazing experience awesome.

The other thing was that you couldn’t tip individuals by card payment when paying the bill. The tips had to be in cash, BUT they didn’t have an ATM on site. And they didn’t tell us this prior to check-out. Luckily, I had some cash and was able to tip our servers, chefs, bartenders and housekeeping a bit, but when I went to specify who I wanted the additional tips I was putting on my bill to, they said they couldn’t do that and the money would go to a general tip fund for all of the staff.  In an environment where every dollar means so much to the people providing superior service each and every day, I wanted there to be a better method for us to thank them for making our stay so special.

elephants at an African game preserve

Rhinecerous at an African game preserve

roaring lion at an African game preserve

sunset view from a lush green african hillside

 

Cape Town

I should have probably paid more attention in school when it came to world events taking place in the 80s and 90s.  I knew who Nelson Mandela was and vaguely understood the importance of his plight and sacrifice to affect change in South Africa. It isn’t until you leave Canada that you can truly appreciate just how lucky we all are. Cape Town has some of the most picturesque backdrops of any city I have ever been in.  We were also told by our hotel staff that it is one of the most dangerous cities to be in, although most of the tourist areas were okay. South Africa is suffering from an unemployment rate of more than 30%, thanks in part to the lingering effects of COVID. The guides that we were with all talked about barely surviving the pandemic because there were no tourists and no government supports in place. All of the people that were making money servicing the visitor economy, now had none to spend at their local grocery stores and restaurants. The population of the already massive townships swelled to numbers surpassing what we would consider large towns in Ontario. 80,000+ people living in shacks without running water or their own bathroom. Power is free, except the usage fee you have to pay the gang who has claimed the pole you are pulling it from.

The government is working on providing free housing to the people but the waiting list is long. Also, several of our guides said that people will rent out their free houses for income while continuing to live either in the townships or in a shack they build attached to their free government house. The unemployment rate in the townships is sometimes as high as 70%. I found it difficult to comprehend the vast gap between the haves and the have nots. However, the people we met took it all in stride and many were hopeful that the upcoming election would be the catalyst for further change for the better.

I didn’t realize how rich a history Cape Town has.  I guess I could have figured it out once you actually look at where it is positioned globally.  Cape Town was the major rest point for Europeans (starting with the Dutch) looking to find new routes to India.  The bays made for safe harbouring and the town was born. The mountains rising from the waters around Cape Town rival those of Vancouver while driving around the Cape of Good Hope, I was reminded of the scenery from our Hawaiian vacation last year. Being a resupply depot, farming was an important part of the early infrastructure and Trish and I spent our last two days up in hills to the northeast of town visiting wineries that had been in operation since the late 1600s. The sights were breathtaking, and the wines, exquisite.

colorful building in Cape Town

Scenic view of Sentinel Peak across Hout Bay in Cape Town, South Africa

Driver's view of a winding stretch of road in Cape Town, South Africa

Scenic farmland view in Cape Town, South Africa with mountain ridge in background

Black and white penguin in Cape Town, South Africa

Now I am in the airplane on the final leg back to Toronto. We flew Cape Town to Frankfurt and are now Frankfurt to Toronto. I took thousands of photos during the journey. For me, each one is going to be associated to a story told by our guide or an interaction I had with a local. While it sometimes drove Trish nuts when I would constantly talk tourism with people, it was refreshing to know that no matter where we were, people recognized the importance of the visitor economy for their communities and, in many cases, their own well being. I was also very impressed with how open people were to talk about their own experiences living where they do. It wasn’t always pretty, but no matter what their circumstance, their pride of place always shone through.

Have a great day!

Chuck

 

 

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Chuck Thibeault

Executive Director, Chuck Thibeault