Glamping in Rwanda and my first visit to Africa

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Last month I went to Rwanda for my work. Not bad, I know. We were in Kigali to host a business plan competition and event for entrepreneurs and investors from all over Africa. Not only was this my first visit to Rwanda, it was my first trip to Africa as well. And although I was only there for a week, it was an unforgettable experience.

The event was a huge success and we worked our butts off. That’s why we planned a nice short getaway with the team afterwards. We rented a jeep and took off to Akagera National Park where we spent the weekend at Ruzizi Tented Lodge. In other words: we went glamping in the wild! This was something I’ve wanted to do for a while so I couldn’t be happier. Ruzizi Tented Lodge is an eco-camp that has about eight luxury safari tents and a cozy main area for eating and relaxing. But the best thing is probably the location: the lodge and the tents are all located next to Lake Ihema. We went up early to catch the sunrise over the lake, explored the park all day and spotted all sorts of animals, had lovely meals over at the lodge (while monkeys were pooping on our heads) and closed the day off with beers and games around the campfire and under a sky full of stars.

However, the best thing happened on our last night at the lodge; when we took off to our tents we saw something big moving in the bush. A hippo! During the night, they come out of the lake and start grazing next to the tents. I already heard one the night before, grunting like an angry pig next to my tent. Kind of scary. But now we saw one! With a big flashlight and one of the guards on our side, we were able to follow mr. hippo for a while. Luckily the hippos can’t harm you as the entire lodge is built on boardwalks. Important detail.

The event and meeting so many inspiring entrepreneurs from all over Africa, the weekend getaway with my colleagues, my first visit to Rwanda and Africa: it all made it a trip to never forget. I really hope to return to Rwanda sometime to see more of this beautiful country, also called ‘land of a thousand hills’, and to visit other regions in Africa as well.

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Wendy’s Secret Garden

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The centre of Sydney can be extremely busy and at times it was just a bit too much for me while staying there. Luckily the city has many places to escape the hustle and bustle, some of which are more known than others. Close to the city centre and next to the busy Luna Park, in an area where you wouldn’t expect it, there’s a small hidden getaway called Wendy’s Secret Garden. It’s not really a place you would end up accidentally after wandering around a bit and probably not many tourists know about it, which is actually the best part. So I feel kind of bad for spoiling the secret right now. But. Someone has to. It’s just too good not to share!

So what’s the story behind this secret place? The garden is created by a lady called Wendy Whiteley. She became known as the wife of the well-known Australian artist Brett Whiteley, who died in 1992 of a drugs overdose. After his death, she found a unique outlet for her creativity by cleaning up and landscaping a patch of land next to her home in Lavender Bay. Wendy’s daughter Arkie helped her mother in this project but sadly she died of cancer in 2001. Both Brett and Arkie Whiteley’s ashes are buried by Wendy in the secret garden. Once a derelict terrain, the place now holds a magic garden with picnic tables and benches in quiet spots, hidden works of art, secluded paths and a spectacular view to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The place is just lovely to wander around and explore. We had a picnic there while looking out over the garden, the bay and the famous Harbour Bridge. I suppose you can see some pretty amazing sunsets as well from this spot. It’s definitively worth a visit if you’re ever in Sydney and want to have a relaxing day in between all the touristy stuff.

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Reasons to look forward to going back home

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My travels in Australia are coming to an end soon and I have not realllly been looking forward to that moment. So to help myself getting prepared a bit I’ve been making this list with things to look toward to for when I get back home.

– my friends and family. Without a doubt the number one reason. They have been such a big support while I was away and everyone has been so sweet as things were not always easy during my time here. I can’t wait to see them all again and to give them some big big hugs. Each and everyone of them.

– my MacBook. This has to be second most important reason. Yes, I consider my MacBook a good friend and I’m sure we have lots of catching up to do. My iPad is friendly too but it’s just not ideal for blogging (among other things).

– watching series. I mean, the new season of Game of Thrones has started. Do I need to say more?

– clothes! Lots of them! There’s only so much you can take with you while travelling and after living out of a backpack for so long I really look forward to my wardrobe back home. And I know I should have been on a strict backpackers budget but… sometimes I just couldn’t resist. So over the time I have bought some new things. Shopping is just so good here. It makes me happy. But for every item that goes in, another has to go out and that means my options were always limited. Not anymore soon!

– space. A good bed. A good shower. No more bunk beds, no more living out of the backpack. Although I don’t have a place to live back home at the moment, so I will have to stay with friends and family for a while. But it will be sharing with the people I love, not with the weird/snorring/smelly backpackers from the dorms.

– my bike. It will be good cycling along the canals of Amsterdam again. I missed doing everything by bike.

– summer in Amsterdam. Even though the weather is not always good (and that will be quite a change for me) there’s always a lot going on in summer in Amsterdam. Festivals, markets, sunny days in the parks and long evenings with beers. Bring it on!

– a stable Internet connection and fast wifi everywhere. Australia really needs to step up its wifi game. For one, fast connections seem non-existing here. Or what they call fast is average speed in the Netherlands. Two, it’s expensive in the hostels. And three, surprisingly few cafés offer wifi. And when they do the connection is often bad. In Amsterdam almost every cafe has good wifi!

– affordable groceries and especially affordable alcohol. Australia is so expensive. A beer is at least around 6 or 7 dollar! Going back to good old Heineken soon, for a normal price.

– related to that: a good kitchen. An oven. Baking! I want to make some Dutch wentelteefjes, apple pie and I want to try making my own banana bread. I want to cook nice things and try new recipes. No longer pasta pesto and noodles every night.

– cheese. I good friend told me there’s always Dutch cheese to look forward to and I guess that’s true.

– saving for next my travels. Yes, I realise I’m looking ahead right now like waaay too much, but I just can’t wait to plan my next trip and to come back to Australia.

See you soon, Holland!

A week with Sylvia

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Last week I went slightly off the backpackers track and stayed for a week with this lovely older lady I’ve met during my travels. She had told me that if I ever would get stuck or needed a place to stay I should get in touch with her. And so when I gave her a call to tell her I was about to make my way back up north, and would more or less cross her place, she immediately arranged things and insisted to pick me up from the station.

Sylvia has a cozy and interesting house in the bush and close to the beach, where you wake up to the sounds of the birds in the trees and where the kangaroos hop around in the backyard. Just amazing. It has been a week full of sunny days with mornings runs on the deserted beach, relaxed afternoons in the backyard, chilly evenings in the hot tub and interesting conversations and laughs with Sylvia. And lots of tea and crumpets. She was so sweet and caring and didn’t want me to do anything around the house (which made me really uncomfortable at times). I was not used anymore to be taken care of after being on my own for so long. When I woke up breakfast was all set up for me and when I went to sleep she had made my bed and put on the electric blanket. I can’t tell how happy I was when she finally let me help her in the kitchen with preparing meatballs (and I made sure each and every meatball was perfect). Today I left and she had made me a banana cake to take with me in the train. It has just been a wonderful week and I will miss her loving, caring and curious character. Another experience during my travels to never forget.

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1, 2 & 3 – Sylvia’s house
4 – the front porch that Sylvia painted with leftover paint, she has written down quotes that inspire her
5 – Sylvia gardening
6 – the kangaroos in the backyard
7 – no one on the beach
8 – a morning run with a dip into the sea afterwards
9 – we went for a bike ride along the beach

5 reasons to love Newcastle

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There’s something I need to confess: I only stopped in Newcastle because it was on my way to Sydney and I needed another stop. And because I wanted to visit Port Stephens (more on that in another blogpost!), which can be reached by bus from Newcastle. I really didn’t expect anything of Newcastle because, let’s be honest, how interesting could a city this close to Sydney be? Well, I was wrong! Newcastle turned out to be the surprise of my travels in Australia so far. Many other backpackers told me that Newcastle is boring. I learned not to listen to what anyone else says, because in the end everyone is looking for something different, and to just go and experience for myself. I found that Newcastle is such a relaxed, creative and vibrant city that has a lot to offer. Although it is the second largest city of New South Wales after Sydney, it is actually kind of small but still big enough to be interesting. Here’s why:

1. It’s a student city
And that means there’s a lot going on. Newcastle has a creative and alternative young scene with a lot of cool shops and cafés. In one of the main shopping streets, Hunter Street, you won’t find the typical shops you would expect here. It has some smaller shops that are more interesting and there are loads of nice (vegan) places to have a good coffee or a bite. One of the highlights in this street is The Emporium. Located in a beautiful old building, The Emporium houses several small boutiques and galleries of Newcastle creative talent. This is the place to find locally made art, fashion, furniture and design. The Emporium is a project of Renew Newcastle, an organisation that tries to find artists, cultural projects and community groups to use and generate activity in some of the (old) buildings in Newcastle CBD that are currently disused or awaiting redevelopment.

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On Friday night there’s a night market around Hunter Street where you can get some yummy food, and on Sunday there is a small but nice vintage market in the Pacific Park with live music. Darby Street is another area where you can find creative spots, nice shops and plenty of good places to eat.

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2. It is one of Australia’s older cities
And therefore it has some pretty fine architecture. Like Sydney, Newcastle was one of the first European settlements in Australia. It is where the most dangerous convicts (many from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, hence its name) were sent to dig in the coal mines as harsh punishment for their crimes and therefore the place gained the nickname “hellhole.” Today, Newcastle has the largest coal exporting harbour in the world and it is nothing like a hell or a hole anymore. Its building are obviously not as old as what we are used to in Europe, but the architecture, often with Victorian or Art Deco influences, is still a pleasant surprise.

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3. There’s the beach
And it doesn’t take you an hour to get there (like in Sydney). The beaches in Newcastle are not too big but they are known to have some pretty good waves; Newcastle has a reputation for being one of the best surfing locations in Australia and some big surfing events take place here throughout the year. If you don’t feel like hitting the waves you can also go for a swim in the beautiful Art Deco Newcastle Ocean Baths.

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4. Free Wi-Fi in the city centre
Hurray! Thumbs up for Newcastle and its (for Australian standards) pretty progressive internet culture. Like everywhere else in Australia it’s not the fastest connection, but offering it for free is definitely a step in the right direction. Go and sit in the park or in one the many nice cafés and get connected.

5. Free public transport in the city centre
More free things! I love that the city made the public transport free within its centre. From the hostel where I stayed it was a bit too far to walk to the big supermarkets, but that wasn’t a problem thanks to the many free busses that go there. It also encourages you to explore a greater area of the city and not just the parts that are close to the place you’re staying at.

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Instead of just a short stop on my way to Sydney I ended up staying almost 1,5 week in Newcastle! If you like to explore a relaxed city with a great mix of creativity and activity that has more to offer than just the standard shops and cafés, I can really recommend spending some days in Newcastle.