Reviews

ON 14

on14 With a wealth of experience in Sri Lanka’s music scene, Tim Claessen, events manager for Ozo Hotel, brings international and local DJs and bands to entertain the crowds from sunset onwards at Ozo’s rooftop bar, ON 14.

Sharing the stage with DJ Yazz, the night I played was a Cuban-Latin themed night. And somehow, my country-rock-blues-reggae stylin’ (what I like to call, Roc-blu-gae-try) fitted into the spins he was decking.

I’ve played over 150 gigs over three continents and by far the sound at Ozo has been the best. And I’m not just saying that cause it made me sound like Jarred Letho hitting the high notes. I don’t know much about sound systems (I don’t even know where to plug in the guitar jack most of the time) but I do know when the system is amazing.

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And what makes it better is the music that emits from it. Having arrived in the morning I was privy to listen to the collection put together by Tim, who DJ’s retro funk and disco on Friday nights on the rooftop (and happens to be my favourite music to dance to).

For the remainder of the day I was happy to just chill and enjoy the enigmatic chill-out session of a light funk-acid style to bring in the sunset as Yazz set up on the decks. 5

Employees of the US embassy was celebrating an occasion and a group of Aussies made up most of the crowd for the night along with a large table of Sri Lankans who were in the mood to party.

With cocktails being produced left-right-and-centre, the crowd was a buzz as January’s full moon rose up high. A light breeze tap-danced a rippling rhythm on the water of the infinity pool as the waves of the Indian Ocean below lapped at the beach, as though serenading like Romeo to Juliet, the roof-top people.

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A place can be of the highest regard or a shit-hole in the middle of a slum. It doesn’t matter its location. It’s the music and the crowd that is drawn to it. Something that Tim and his team have achieved to the highest possible standard as I witnessed that Thursday eve.

ON 14 is open to all, meaning you don’t have to be a patron of the hotel. Next time you’re in Sri Lanka’s capital city, even if you’re sorted for accommodation, come to Ozo’s rooftop bar. It’ll be a night you’ll forever remember, if not for the scene, then most definitely for the music.

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Reviews, Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

OZO HOTEL

ozoWhen I first stepped into the lobby of the Ozo Hotel, I looked up at the high ceiling and saw the pipes that seemed to be aiming down, like the belly of a spaceship coming down to land.

This was definitely a place that I generally avoid when it comes to accommodation; fancy, illustrious and a little overwhelming with its technology – for me at least. But get past all the fancy-shmancy aspect of it and you come down to the core of the place. img_0483

What really runs it isn’t its engineering department or it’s kitchen or even the rooftop bar with an infinity pool that looks out to the Indian Ocean.

And it’s not the spectacular sunset that accompanies the happy hour from six onwards or the fully stocked bar to complement it as you sip your favourite cocktail while watching the waves break below as the local train chugs by on the beach-side track.

img_0479It’s not the different themed nights that unfold on the rooftop bar where you can watch the moon rise as the sun sets to jazz, funk or Cuban Afrobeats played through the carefully designed sound system that the DJ and live bands use to convey their sounds to the mixed crowd of international and local folk.

 

It’s not even the incredibly diverse food choices of a full buffet spread (or order off the menu) fusing western dishes with local cuisine. Nor is it the décor of the rooms each with a large, flat screen TV, temperature-controlled AC or a bathroom that’s as big as the room itself.img_0481

It’s not the city-wide or ocean views that await you from any corner of the 14-storey building. And it’s not the welcoming lobby or rooftop with retractable roof to provide shade for those really hot days when the infinity pool just isn’t enough.

Because what is a place if not for its people?

The staff of Ozo Hotel Colombo (it’s a chain) are some of the most accommodating, friendly, smiling-faced folk I’ve ever come across. And they don’t have an inch of fake to them. They genuinely want you to enjoy your time so that you’re happy and relaxed, which is the whole point when you visit anywhere. Yet here, it seems to be the emphasis of Ozo’s staff.

From the moment I stepped into the lobby to the moment I stepped out 24 hours later, from the receptionist to the bar tenders, from hard-working chefs and kitchen hands to the bell hops and the guy doing the rounds asking if you have any laundry; everyone made me feel at home and beyond.

Cause even at home it’s rare that everyone smiles and worries over you. And although these kinds of hotels aren’t my general draw, the uplifting energy at Ozo Colombo was enough for me to tell you that if you really want to spoil yourself on your next visit to what just might be one of the most blessed islands in the Indian Ocean, visit Ozo in Sri Lanka. If not for your stay, then at least for a drink at the rooftop, so you get a sense of what your missing out on.

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HURGHADA’S RED SEA

AGA while back, while travelling through the desert of Egypt, I stopped in a vibrant little sea-side town, Hurghada, hosted by Mondi, the man to show the things you need to see. Including this snorkeling excursion to the reefs of the Red Sea, now live at Africa Geographic.

Thanks for the awesome experience, Mondi!

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JOLLY CAFE

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© Abdallah Sayed, 2016

Jolly Café sits on Hurghada’s most famous stרeet, Sheraton, so named as it was the first hotel to be built in the specifically-built resort town on Egypt’s Red Sea coast line.

It has  outdoor seating as well as plush indoor seating and carters to every need. They don’t serve alcohol but you don’t need to booze it up when they provide a great vibe, whether it’s through the nightly live music with a traditional Egyptian singer, the occasional belly-dancer and the once-in-awhile performance by yours truly.

The guys that run the place are incredibly friendly and just give off the nice-guy vibe. Almost everyone who comes to Jolly’s knows them and goes out of their way to greet them – the regulars and the newcomers.

The crowds are mainly locals and once in awhile you’ll get a few foreigners. They offer shisha pipes to smoke (water pipes), a Playstation area to kick your friend’s ass at football, serve the best milkshakes in town and great dishes like charcoal chicken on a bed of fresh dill – Egyptian style – with a side of rice. The pizza is also highly recommended as are the freshly squeezed juices.

The outdoor stage has lights and a mixer with the street right behind the performer to seduce potential patrons.

I played two nights in a row and left with new friendships and a feeling of an extended family.

 

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A DESERT OASIS

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© Oasis Hotel

The Oasis Hotel might not be the most luxurious place to put your head down but it’s friendly and really, when you’re in foreign lands, all you need is a shower and a place to sleep. You should be out and about (as the Canadians say).

Oasis is located in the heart of Luxor, walking distance from the Nile with Amenhotep’s peristyle court on its banks. The streets outside are lined with restaurants and it has a roof-top terrace.

They can provide bookings for tours and have a small restaurant. And almost everyone speaks English in Luxor.

Really, it’s a hostel with a few floors to climb but the communal showers are clean as are the rooms that have wifi and a powerful fan to cool off the heat.

It’s the oasis in the desert that every traveller needs to stop by if they want that true Egyptian-styled hospitality in Luxor.

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AG HOTEL

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The AG Hotel in Gondar’s main hub is a ten minute walk from the Fasilides castle which is right on the main road. You can also book and arrange your Siemens Mountain trek from this city.

My room was huge, with a giant bed, a mini-bar corner with a kettle and tea, a fan, a closet, a writing desk, a small balcony with a view across the valley and a bath tub.

I haven’t had a bath in years so it was definitely how I was going to end the evening. I washed up and headed down to the terraced restaurant and enjoyed a pizza dinner with a fresh mango juice and a great conversation with the head waiter.

After a dessert of banana pancake I sat in the tub and watched a movie on my laptop.

The following morning I headed down for breakfast, a buffet style with fresh juice before I thanked the staff and headed off for the border with Sudan.

I couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant stay in this city.

Categories: Africa, Ethiopia, Reviews | Leave a comment

CANAAN INTERNATIONAL HOTEL

Managed by Davis, a friendly, out-going young kid, the Canaan International Hotel is a warm and welcoming place in the heart of the small city of Adigrat, in Ethiopia’s Tigray state, just over a thousand kilometers from Addis Ababa.

I had arrived late in the evening and was desperate for a shower and a bed.The hotel is, I think, the largest building in Adigrat and has a large lobby\restaurant entrance. The outside is all glass.

Davis, the dreadlocked manager, instructed the bell-boy to take me to room 203 where I was presented with a large bed, a bathroom with hot water and a view of the main street of Adigrat. I was too tired to head back down for dinner but I took a shower and washed the long day on the road off of me and lay in the comfortable bed, dozing off watching a movie on my laptop.

In the morning I showered again and packed my gear, heading down for breakfast – an omelette with veggies and meat and four slices of bread with jam. I washed it down with some tea before I thanked the staff who gave me directions to reach the road to Axum and headed out with renewed energy for the long day ahead.

If you’re going to Adigrat, Canaan International Hotel is the place to stay.

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THE DISTANT RELATIVE

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When I first aimed for Kenya it was going to be an in ‘n’ out operation. Find information about visas to Ethiopia, South Sudan and North Sudan (at the time, the two Sudans were in a brief honeymoon period that lasted for about an hour before the civil war resumed) and then get out.

Kenya was in a bit of strife as well. The recent Garrisa University attacks had the Western world warn its population against travelling to the East African nation so I was a bit nervous.

But The Universe has ways to provide signs:

Kenya was country number 16 that I would visit.

The visa sticker was placed on page 16 of my passport.

I then recalled a conversation I had with Irish Dave whom I met in Livingstone, Zambia. “If you go to Kenya you gotta visit Distant Relatives,” he said in his mixed Irish-American-Kiwi accent (he’d been around). “It’s on the coast but be careful,” he warned. “You might get stuck there. I was only going to spend a few days. I stayed three weeks.”

It was the same warning Danny heeded when he had picked me up hitch hiking from Nakuru to Nairboi.

“You’ll love it there,” he said. “You’ll never want to leave.”

I had pffft at both men’s comments as I made my way to Mombasa, Kenya’s port city where I spent a week before continuing an hour and a half up the coast to the county of Kilifi and down to Kilifi Creek where Distant Relatives is located. I figured I’d stay for two weeks, volunteering on the boat-building project, Musafir and then continue to explore the coastline, mainly hunting my first wave in over a year.

It seemed fitting that I arrived on the eve of the day I set out on my travels two years ago (which also happened to be Irish Dave’s same travel date – May 13th, 2013. Yet, another universal sign).

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I walked through the herb gardens along the mulch paths, by the beach volleyball court and swimming pool and failed to realise that The Universe had cunningly disguised itself as Distant Relatives Backpackers and Eco Lodge.

It seduced me with the freshest free oysters on Friday’s pizza night, the amazing vibes and friendly locals, the 400-year-old Baobab tree with hanging light-bulbs, shaped as the very fruit the tree bears. At night, the lights are visible from the middle of Kilifi Creek, just a 3-minute walk down the hill.

The creek is home to the Musafir project and some local residents. At night the bio-luminescence comes out to play a light show that will blow your mind. The old jetty ready (though, not quite sure if its willing) to have you sit on its end for sundowners. Later on, after you’ve had dinner from the tasty kitchen or cooked your own in the communal, head back down and stare at the Milky Way while you wait for a shooting star to zip across.

 

 

Aside from the main building that houses the communal kitchen, restaurant\bar\indoor dancefloor and reception, the place is built almost out of everything recyclable including glass bottles and used tires. Cement makes up just 10% of the building materials used to create the bandas. The pigs in the sty take care of all the biodegradable rubbish. The chickens in the chicken coup provide fresh eggs, and grey water is recycled to water the lush gardens.

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But the gem of the place aside from the vibrant energy?

The compost toilets.

I’ve come across a few of these in my day but none as eloquently designed as here – complete with an informative booklet to keep you occupied while you occupy one of the three public stalls (each banda has its own private stall and shower).

 

 

Tucked away among giant green and yellow bamboo that speaks in windy creaks, two communal showers await to cleanse your mind and body. Refreshing your soul in the middle of the mini-bamboo forest, the swaying shoots add a soothing tone to the natural soundtrack.

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The same energy forces that suck you in also attracts yoga instructors that come to spend a few weeks teaching classes once a week out in nature. There’s a choice of either utilising the stage (built for live gigs) or a quiet corner where the wind whispers through the trees, gently floating the leaves as they swing around you while you engage in contorting poses.

Does it stop there? Oh, no. You cannot stay at Distant Relatives without visiting Bofa Beach. Picture white sandy beaches on which the Indian Ocean laps on too. Coconut palms swaying in the monsoon winds. If you dare, you can kayak or swim out to the reef channel and snorkel.

Too save you picturing, here’s a picture:

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Or book a boat to take you.

It had been ten months since Irish Dave first brought this area to my attention on the eve of my personal New Year, May 12th. Sitting by the bonfire on the beach, ripping out tunes on Ol’ Red with the Musafir crew, I could see why he struggled to leave this corner of the world.

And now, four months after I initially arrived, I’m still here, wondering how to extend my Kenyan visa.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Kenya, Reviews, The Indian Ocean | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

HOTEL HORIZON

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Photo courtesy of Hotel Horizon

“You will be safe there,” Kamau pointed to Hotel Comfy just off the main street of Eldoret. Thanking them for the slowest ride I’ve ever experienced, I went in to suss out my chances of bartering a bed and dinner for the night.

“I am not authorised,” said Nelson behind the reception desk after hanging up with the manager who had left. “But you can try at Hotel Horizon.”

He gave me directions and I walked back to the highway, took the first right then the first left and entered the seven storey building. I was greeted by Hilda, one of the friendliest and kindest people I’ve come across on this journey of mine.

“I have a great aunt called Hilda,” I grinned as I explained my ways and showed her and Godfrey my website and pages to prove that the numbers I was telling them were no lies.

“We will provide you with a room, dinner and if you can, play some music at the bar on the mizzen floor.”

I had a feeling she’d say yes. There was good energy in this hotel. I was escorted by Godfrey to the elevator and was dropped off the first floor, one floor above the bar. My room, 109, was opened by the bell boy and I walked into a double bedder and private shower.

The room had a small flat screen TV, ample cupboard space and a large window overlooking the hotel next door.

I headed to the bar with my guitar and set up in the corner. The bar was lit in a neon blue light. There were a few guests and I began to jam some tunes to the crowd’s pleasure (I hope. It was too dark to tell if anyone was disappointed).

After my set I headed down to the restaurant set on the ground floor with an open kitchen and a warm atmosphere. I was attended with pure warmth and friendliness by the staff and had a dinner of creamy mushroom soup followed by a lemon and mint roast chicken with a side of roasted potatoes (reason why there’s no photo was that I was too hungry after surviving on digestive biscuits and carrots on the truck to Eldoret). A massive and very satisfying serving.

I was introduced to Chris and Suzie, relatives by marriage of Hilda’s. Chris is an Australian so it was an obligation to have a beer with him at the bar. We conversed well past midnight when I retired to bed and had one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Kenya, Reviews | 1 Comment

NORTHRIDGE – YOUR TICKET TO THE OUTDOORS

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It’s been a year since I was lucky enough to get sponsored with a 65-litre backpack – the model aptly named ‘Nomad’ – by the South African company, Northridge. I’ve given it a year until this review so that I could experience the gear in every possible climate (aside snow and ice) and terrain.

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I’ve hitch hiked with it, throwing it in the back of trucks and pick-ups, placing it on tarred and dirt roads whilst hitching, climbed mountains with it, hiked down endless, empty highways in extreme heat and finger-freezing cold.

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I have no idea how much my pack weighs. It’s anywhere between a bit heavy to fuckin’ heavy, depending on how much sleep I’ve had the previous night or the heat of the day. But before I get into the technicalities of my home-on-the-road, allow me to reveal what I pack in my pack:

– 2 T-shirts
– 1 Long-sleeved shirt
– 1 African shirt
– 2 button-up shirts (gotta look good when giggin’)
– 1 vest (see above)
– 2 Shorts (one being me bathers)
– 1 Bell-bottom jeans (yeah, I rock the bell-bottoms)
– 1 cargo pants that zip off at the knees to create my third pair of shorts
– 1 Waterproof jacket
– 1 Neck-warmer
– 1 Chuyo beanie
– 1 pair of gloves
– Thermal underwear (top and longjohns)
– 1 Maasai blanket
– 1 Kikoi (African sarong)
– Technical bits ‘n’ bobs (adapters, charging cables, batteries, deck of cards)
– 1 First Aid pack
– 1 Ticket To The Moon travel hammock
– 1 Ticket To The Moon mosquito net for said travel hammock
– Ropes for tying up annoying drivers. Or a travel hammock
– 1 Sleeping bag
– 1 headlamp
– 3 Notepads (2 of which are full)
– 1 travel pillow (yet to find the hole where air is escaping from)
– 3-litre Source camel pack
– Snorkel mask, pipe and fins (yup, I carry my own fins)
– 1 pair of hiking boots
– 1 tent and blow-up travel mattress (strapped to the outside)

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But like with any product, there’s the good and the could-be-better: 

THE GOOD THE COULD-BE-BETTER
Lightweight with a sturdy steel frame to support the weight when it’s fully loaded An air vent between back and pack will save you from dehydration due to the amount of sweat you’ll drain out in intense heat or strenuous climbing
Thick and comfortable hip padding on the hip strap The side pockets stick out a little too far limiting access to the side net-pockets
Easily adjustable straps for the hip, shoulders and back There are only up-down straps. Side straps would be a great advantage
Zipper divider between main compartment and bottom compartment (but for squeezability needs, it’s always unzipped to create one main compartment) The splash guard rips too easily and wears out quite quickly. It’s still waterproof but I fear it won’t last for much longer
Separate zipper access to bottom compartment
Large side-pockets
Outter straps that lengthen to almost double the pack’s height
Stitching is made to last. Not a single stitch has come undone or is even showing signs of coming undone in the near future – and I’m not gentle with it.
The straps are tough, durable with large plastic connecters and, most importantly, comfortable without causing any chafing.
The overhead has two compartments: one on the inside and one on the outside.
The zippers are large and withstand the pressure of being fully packed without fear of destroying the zipline.

In general, it’s a great pack for either long term travel or an overnight camping trip. I’ve hiked two mountains with it (Mt Mulanji, Malawi and Mt Meru, Tanzania) and so far have travelled over 17,000 kilometers with it, only cursing it on extremely hot days when I’ve had to hike a few K’s to get a ride.

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Most of the time – and maybe it’s because I’m used to it – I don’t really feel it on my back when I hike the distance as most of the support is placed on my hips with the comfort of the padding.

Bottomline, this pack was made to last, made to endure lengthy, rugged, non-conventional travel and at a very affordable price.

And it makes a great leaning-post for my guitar.

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For more information and pricing, check out Northridge’s website at www.north-ridge.co.za

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Reviews | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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