It’s not easy going back, but coming home again was nice

Sorry again for the long silences. Life has been hectic and then last week we went back to South Africa for half term.

And boy that was surreal!

It was lovely to see everyone again and nice to enjoy some sunshine (sadly, not enough: the weather was NOT on our side). But returning to our old house where my husband is still living just felt….wrong. Because it wasn’t my house anymore, nor was it my life.

For a start, none of our stuff is in the house anymore. So it felt like a shell. In some ways, it was like the early days when we first arrived – bare walls, borrowed bed clothes and crockery, none of our books or games or other distractions. But this time I knew my way around and wasn’t so worried about things like security.

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Luckily our zebras were still on the otherwise bare walls

Then even when I met up with friends (which was lovely), I knew I didn’t belong there anymore. So when they were making plans for the weeks ahead and I (of course) wasn’t included, it really hit me that this was no longer my life.

It was hard, but I also think it was a good thing. Because when we got on the plane to come home, apart from the obvious sadness of saying goodbye to everyone – not least, my husband – I was looking forward to getting back here. Back to my warm house, with all our stuff. Back to what has become my life. And it really made me realise how far we had come. On Monday morning there was swim training and school and picking up the dog and shopping for food and basically just getting on with things. It felt normal. It felt good.

I know we have a way to go yet, I’m not out of the woods. Things are still hard, loneliness in particular is still very real (to be expected when you have been away for two years – both me and the children need to re-make our lives and friendships here). But three months into repatriation and I am perhaps in a better place than I feared I would be.

I will always have a place for South Africa in my heart and I will definitely go back – there is still so much of the country to explore. But for now I feel better about leaving and happier about being here.

At least I would be if it were just a little bit warmer. And sunnier….

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And so, the time has come….

Here we are then. The last day. I am trying to look forward and not back but it’s hard. Everywhere you go it’s like “the last time we….” walk the dog in the dog park, shop in Woolworths, take the kids to Bounce, visit the school….

But forward I must look because that is where we are heading. It has been a fantastic two years – although I have to remind myself that I didn’t always love it. When I visited our dentist the other day (the last time we visit that dentist!) he asked whether I was happy here now. I must have looked a little confused because he then admitted he had made a note from my first appointment that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my time in South Africa.

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It’s hard to pick a favourite photo of South Africa because I have so many but this one is so beautiful……

To me now, that sounds very strange but then other memories come back: getting a rush of home-sickness at the supermarket check out one day; sitting alone having an ice cream to cheer myself up because I didn’t have any friends; crying into my pillow at night because I was missing my old life so much and this new life was so different and disorientating. It is only memories of feeling unhappy that I have left rather than the unhappiness itself but I know it existed.

Time. That is all it takes. Time, some friends and a bit of routine. And a little dog called Cooper.

South Africa, Pretoria, friends that I have met here – I will miss you all. The sunshine, the wine, the braai’s, the dog walks, the lions and leopards and cheetahs, the penguins, whales and turtles, the hadedas, mouse birds and go-away birds, the mountains of the Drakensbergs, the sea of the Cape,  my helper, the school, even the bloody pizzas (there were a LOT of pizzas!).

It’s been good. See you on the other side.

x

Leaving without (too many) tears: how to get it right?

When I wrote my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide I put a lot of thought into how to make an overseas move with the least amount of stress possible. I talked about sending your partner ahead without you, not moving at the start of the summer holidays and other ways to smooth your passage at a difficult time. I had learned the hard way and as we were preparing at the time for our move here to South Africa, it was all clear in my head how to do it.

Well now we are doing it in reverse and I am wondering if we are leaving in a way that I would recommend to others.

First of all, let me tell you how we planned it this time: Instead of moving soon after the school year ended in June, we decided to stick around for most of the summer. This way we could stay together as a family for as long as possible as well as make the most of our last days in the southern hemisphere sun. We have had to say a lot of separate goodbyes over the last few weeks as one-by-one friends have left for the summer or gone off on their holidays. I call this the death by one thousand cuts.

The alternative, which friends of ours chose as their preferred leaving method, was to get out of town as soon as school ended. One big emotional hurrah and poof! Gone. I call this the ripping off the band aid method.

So has our way worked? Well so far I would say on the whole yes. Although we have had a lot of goodbyes, it has meant we have been able to focus on each and every friend separately. We have had dinners and lunches and evening drinks and get-togethers for coffee – but spread out over the past few weeks so every occasion has been fun and personal.

With less going on I have also been able to sort the house out slowly, one room at a time, so when the packers arrived yesterday we were ready for them. It felt relatively calm compared to other moves.

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The down side to hanging around in Pretoria for so long is that with (almost) all our friends gone it has got a bit, well, boring. But even with this, there is a silver lining: as each slightly tedious day passes, we all look forward more and more to leaving and getting back to our UK home. It is definitely still going to be emotional but leaving a bare city as well as a bare house is a lot easier than leaving somewhere still full of your friends all having a good time without you.

On a practical side we have also managed to organise ourselves well this time. My husband will return to Pretoria later in the summer for a few months which means we don’t have to worry about things like selling the car or closing our bank account. That is an awful lot of additional stress taken away right there. I wouldn’t recommend splitting your family  up for this reason alone but if you are in this situation look at the positives!

And finally one last thing that we are trying this time: with my husband still being here until probably January, we are returning for a short holiday later in the year. This means that many of our goodbyes haven’t been final ones, that the girls know they will see their friends again and that we will all get to come back to South Africa one last time.

It will still be hard but hopefully by the time we come out here in October our lives back home will be a bit more sorted than they will be when we get home in a couple of weeks time, so returning after our holiday will be both physically and emotionally easier.

That’s the theory anyway. Let’s see how it goes.

Back to the Kruger

There is something very special about the Kruger National Park, something that keeps pulling us back,  constantly wanting more. Whether it’s the stillness of the early morning savannah as the huge orange sun rises through the mist or the excitement of spotting a pair of cheetahs by the roadside when you are the only car in sight, there really is nothing like the Kruger.

We returned for our fourth (and joint longest) trip to the park a couple of weeks ago. Having spent all our previous trips in the south and central parts of the park, this time we decided to see what the far north was like. But knowing that the south was where the most wildlife tend to be found we knew – for the sake of the children at least – we would need to spread ourselves out. Hence our trip started right in the south in a tranquil bushcamp called Biyamiti (no restaurant or shop, only a small number of guest cottages) and ended in the far north at Punda Maria. Along the way we also stayed at Satara, Olifants and Lataba.

Arriving at the park after a long drive from Pretoria we did what all Krugerholics do the moment they are through those gates – pick up a camera, get the binoculars handy, open the windows and breathe! Even though it was getting late, we still managed a few good sightings on our drive to our first night’s accommodation – including our first ever (fleeting) honey badger.

Then as we arrived close to Biyamiti this happened. Elephant jam!

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As you can see from the photo, it was getting dark and the camp gates would be closed in ten minutes or so…..the gentle giants even looked like they were going to settle down to sleep in the middle of the road at one point. But after a bit of polite revving by the car in front they eventually moved and we were able to get to the camp in time.

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Early morning coffee in Biyamiti

Those elephants set the scene for the rest of the holiday. I am not sure if it was the time of year or whether we spent more time in the centre and north of the park than usual, but we have never seen so many elephants! This included one of my favourite ever Kruger experiences when we came across a huge herd of them playing in a dam near Satara – all the youngsters literally jumping on each other in the water, the mums with their babies keeping watch from the edge. It was a magical site – I could have sat there all day and watched as they chased off a small group of buffaloes minding their own business, helped one of the baby’s out of some mud, and generally larked about like typical teenagers the world over.

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Elephant fun!

The next day though we had what has to be one of our top three wildlife sightings since we have lived in South Africa. We rose early to give ourselves the best chance of seeing something good. We were staying in Satara which is close to the S100 – a road that many consider the best road in the park for lions. At first we had one of those mornings of nothing…nothing…nothing….why did we get up so darned early….nothing….

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Sunrise in Kruger

…and then roud a bend a few cars clustered in a stop, always a sign of something good, usually a cat…

Someone in one of the other cars pointed up an embankment into the distance. “There’s a lion coming,” they told us. It was hard to make out but yes there were two ears bobbing along behind some bushes. It wasn’t that exciting at this stage and at least one of the other cars drove off. But she (we finally worked out it was a lioness) came closer and closer and then suddenly there was another. And behind it, another. And they just kept on coming and coming and walked down the embankment literally right past our car. And in the middle of the cats was a white lion – one of the rarest sites in the park (I am assured by those that know that this is the only one that is known of in the main part of the park; there is apparently another in Greater Kruger which includes the concessions at the edge).

 

We sat as they passed one by one and then we went round the corner and watched them all settle in the shade of a couple of trees. The white one seemed to be just one of the pack which was nice to see – I am guessing he had no idea he was any different from any of his brothers!

Following that sighting we didn’t think the Kruger would have anything better to offer on this trip but we would be wrong!

The next day started out as one of those quiet but perfectly pleasant mornings when you really don’t see much to write home about but still lots for your own personal amusement – like these buffaloes using a branch to scratch an itch.

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When suddenly down a long, quiet road we spotted two cars pulled up by the road. We drove up next to them but couldn’t see anything. I shrugged at the man in one of the cars, indicating that I was confused and he pointed down right in front of where they were parked. Cheetahs!

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And there they were, two of the most beautiful animals you will see in your life, just lying ther by the roadside totally unaware that they were being watched. The other cars drew off but we sat with them for about half an hour, watching as they stood up, sniffed and quivered at some impala up the road, willing them on to start a hunt so we would get the chance to see these magnificent creatures in full flight….

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They didn’t though and in the end we left them to it – passing just two cars on our way on to the main road, but enjoying watching the faces in the cars light up when we told them what was waiting for them just up the road.

The day had a couple more treats for us – a hyena eating a leopard’s lunch by the side of a river (the leopard only just in sight but the cheeky hyena in clear view)

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But then just around the corner, something in the road – a snake! I realise for some people this isn’t what they want to see but from the safety of our car I am always happy to see one, especially when it is later confirmed to be a deadly puff adder!

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We eventually arrived at my favourite camp in the park, Olifants with its fantastic view out over the Olifants river. But it was the antics of the baboons that occupied us more than the view this time – the cheeky monkeys had already broken into our neighbour’s cottage just as we arrived and were running around with rusks and oranges in their hands. Then, the next morning two of them made a raid on our breakfast table, using my eldest daughter as a spring board in their bold attempt (failed) to steal our packet of muesli! The baboons are quite a pest as they have learned to open bins, windows, fridges, car doors…but they are very amusing to watch!

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Cheeky baboon eating someone’s leftover braai

From Olifants it was on to Lataba which is proper elephant country – there is even an elephant museum here, chronicling the lives of the “great tuskers” – a number of giant males with huge tusks who earned fame back in Ye Olden Days (they have recently agreed on some new tuskers to take over the mantle from their reverent ancestors ). Everywhere we went – elephants! Not that I minded, I love elephants!

 

After Lataba we only had one more night in the park at Punda Maria in the north. It was a long drive up there and wildlife became scarcer but there was still much to see, including some of these huge baobab trees:

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And at some point on the road we crossed the tropic of Capricorn and found ourselves officially in the tropics – it did get noticably warmer as we went further north although it still cooled down at night to a pleasant sleeping temperature.

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And although we didn’t see any more of the predators (bar a lone hyena running down a dry river bed) there were still plenty of things to keep us amused:

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And so we came to the end of our epic trip. We wanted to do the last bit of Kruger right up into the corner where the three countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) meet. But in the end we simply ran out of time, and had had enough time sitting in the car. So we didn’t quite make it – but this means one thing is for sure: there’s a very real resaon to come back. Not that I think I will need much pursuading!

Monday-Escapes-2

Winter in South Africa

It feels weird seeing all the posts from my home in the northern hemisphere about their summer. Apparently there has been a heat wave – cue multiple pictures of kids in paddling pools and moany posts about not being able to sleep at night. I gather they even cancelled sports day at our old primary school due to the heat!

But here in South Africa it is, of course, mid-winter.

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But what does winter actually mean on this part of the continent? Well, it means that we are shivering at night but still enjoying the bountiful sunshine in the day. It means no rain, dry air,  but a temperature cool enough to walik, run, cycle, play tennis or whatever other exercise takes your fancy at any time of the day rather than just in the early mornings.  If only the houses were better insulated and heated this would be a near perfect weather!

Outside, the trees are bare against the sky, which makes it all the easier to see the noisy mousebirds that seem to gather at this time of the year – maybe they feel a need to huddle together as the temperatures drop. But although lack of rain means the grass is mostly brown and there are more leaves on the ground than on the trees, flowers miraculaously still bloom.

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As I walk my dog in the mornings, I notice workers on their way to their daily jobs bundled up against the weather. My own children – hardened by living through northern European winters – might still be wearing t-shirts and shorts, but most of the locals have resorted to hats and gloves. I also notice the occasional blanket accessory – one of the quirks of local culture that I love.

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As the sun drops the air immediately chills and even we Brits retreat indoors to build a fire and wrap outselves in blankets on the sofa. It’s a beautiful time of the year but I am grateful it only lasts for a couple of months.

Things I look forward to….

As the date fast approaches for our return to the UK I continue to put my head in the sand about us actually leaving. I love South Africa and our life here and if you follow this blog you know there are so many things I will miss (sunshine, wine, food, people, travel, wildlife, Channel 5 on the radio…)

But there is no point wallowing – we are leaving and I need to accept that. So in order to try and make things a little easier about the move home I have started to think not so much about all the things I will miss but the things I am looking forward to about being back in cold, damp, grey clean, safe, errrr, green Britain.

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So first and foremost yes I will appreciate being able to step outside my front door and simply walk. Walk whichever way I like, on my own, without thinking about whether my handbag is zipped up properly or if someone is following me. Even at night. Not only that but we won’t have to battle our way through a grill, double lock and security gates just to pop to the shops. Plus at night we can sleep without locking ourselves in a keep (which will be good for our dog, Cooper, in particular who resents being woken and dragged upstairs when we go to bed at night; I realise we could leave him downstairs and outside of the safe area but he is too precious to us to do that!).

Talking of dogs, and talking of popping to the shops, I am also looking forward to taking him with me. I am not yet sure if I will ever be confident enough to tie him up outside a shop like so many people do back home while they nip in for a pint of milk and a daily newspaper (ah yes! getting my news from a hard print copy rather than online, that will be a nice novelty too). But I like to think I will be able to take him out and about with me a lot more regularly than I can here. The Brits love dogs – they are even allowed in pubs. I will just have to remember that it’s an absolute no-no to leave any dog poo unbagged, even if he does it nice and neatly in a little bush out of the way where no-one can see it….

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And when I go to those shops I am looking forward to more choice. In all honesty, the food shopping in South Africa is fantastic and we really haven’t missed much. But there are some areas where they don’t do so well and where we in the UK seem to be world champions – like yoghurts and other desserts (so many types!), and bread. Ah, freshly baker bakers bread. And familiar brands that taste right rather than just slightly…wrong.

I am looking forward to seasons, to the smell of Autumn and the cold air of winter. To blackberries and apples off the trees. To watching our many excellent dramas or documentaries without having to download them first. Decent internet speeds. And lots more people to talk to about British politics.

There are of course many things I am not looking forward to (the rain, the lack of diversity, the expense of everything, the traffic….) but this isn’t what this post is all about so I will ignore all of those. In fact I will continue to put my head in the sand, my hands over my ears and say lalalalala for the next few months because otherwise I might just decide I’m not leaving.

And as nice as that would be for me, sadly for the reasons why we chose to go home in the first place it really isn’t an option.

Yup, the countdown is on – Blighty, here we come.

Photo credits: Green England – highlights6

Mini schnauzer – kawabata

A tale of travel, inspiration, and beautiful clothes.

I get contacted almost daily by people who want to write guest posts or sponsored posts for this site. In all honesty I am pretty picky – this blog isn’t a way for me to make money but to spread the message about expat life and to tell people about my book. But sometimes people contact me who I think would be a good fit and Kim was one such person. I love her inspiring story of travel and adventure, experience which eventually led her to setting up her own clothing line. It helps that I also love her clothes and can definitely see myself wearing a tunic such as the one pictured at the bottom of this blog. So please enjoy Kim’s tale of how she travelled the world, met her husband, sailed to the Caribbean and eventually set up a company called West Indies Resort Wear.

I left my home in Australia to travel the world at the ripe old age of 24.  I had graduated fashion school, and had a few years industry experience before I left, but my main goal was to work and see the world.  I didn’t want to do bar work, or fruit picking, or nannying, I wanted to find garment industry type jobs.

My first job was as a pattern maker in London, but after a few months, and with winter fast approaching that just didn’t seem interesting enough, so I started applying for jobs in the fashion industry in 3rd world countries.

It didn’t take long to land a job in Alexandria, Egypt, where I spent a year working for an enormous clothing manufacturer who was supplying cute ladies tee’s and knits to British high street stores like Top Shop.

This was my first experience of real “expat life” as the lifestyle in Egypt was so different to home, that the expat community really sought each other out for company.  There were suburbs where most of the expats lived, and there were stores, bars & restaurants targeted towards the expat community.  There was even a little supermarket in my neighborhood that catered to the expats.  I was so excited to occasionally find New Zealand cheddar cheese there.  The smallest tastes of home could get you through a whole week.

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Expat life in Egypt was great in terms of earning hard currency and having very little expenses, so I saved a lot of money for my future travels, but it was not an easy life.  As a young single woman, in a Muslim country harassment was a part of my daily life.  Even at work I was stared and jeered at.  After my year there, I was desperate to leave.  Looking back I think that I could have lasted longer, if I had have gone away more regularly to get my western world sanity back.

After Egypt I travelled for a while again, and then found myself as Head Designer at Billabong in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.  This was another world entirely, but way more similar to Australia.  As South Africa had been such a closed world for so many years of apartheid, the biggest initial adjustment was just trying to understand what people were saying.  I was not familiar with the South African accent at all, so for the first 2 weeks I barely understood what anyone was saying.  Yes, they were speaking English, but there were so many Afrikaans words and slang mixed in, that I really battled to understand.

I ended up meeting my future husband and living in South Africa for 5 years.  I loved my job at Billabong, which was so challenging, and gave me a lot of opportunities to travel.  Here I am in China, where they sent me to visit factories…

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After my husband & I met, we started to look for some sort of adventure to do together.  We were camping one weekend, and one of us had bought an adventure magazine with us.  In it was a story about a young couple who bought a boat and went sailing to the Caribbean.  As I had done a lot of sailing with my family as a child, and I read a lot of books about amazing solo sailors, I had always thought I would LOVE to go sailing but knew it wasn’t something I would do alone.  When my then boyfriend read the article, put the magazine down and said “lets buy a boat and go sailing to the Caribbean” my jaw hit the tent floor !  We hurriedly packed up our campsite and rushed back to “town” to see if we could find a boating magazine and see how much boats cost !

2 years later, we were halfway across the Atlantic Ocean.  We had saved our money, bought a boat, learnt how to sail, learnt how to navigate, done some boat deliveries with other people to get experience, provisioned our boat and set sail on the biggest adventure of our lives.  Here we are on our tiny boat mid-Atlantic…

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It took a total of 55 days at sea to get to the Caribbean, and when we finally dropped anchor off the island of Tobago we were exhausted.  We stayed put for 6 months!  Eventually the hurricane season ended and we headed north to the more developed islands, we got jobs, got married, saved money again and had dreams of sailing the Pacific.  However I got pregnant and we had our first daughter.  That changed everything.  I couldn’t go get a job, as I didn’t want to leave our child in Caribbean daycare so young, so I started looking for things to buy and sell.  I imported some beautiful baskets from Africa, and I started making beaded jewelry on the boat, which I sold to different resort boutiques as we sailed around.  Eventually my good friend who had been the Production manager at Billabong when I was there said, “when are you going to stop fiddling around making jewelry and start your own label?”.

That was an “aha” moment for me, and the beginning of West Indies Wear.  I flew to India where I found the most amazing pure cotton fabrics, and I designed the first collection on an overnight train to Delhi.  Once the samples arrived with me back in the Caribbean, my husband, daughter & I would dinghy all around the island looking for good places for the photo shoot.  Here we are in the dinghy….

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We sailed between the islands, visiting resorts and introducing the collection to the different buyers.  12 years on, and West Indies Wear is still going strong.  We have moved back home to Australia now, had 2 more babies, built our own little house with an adorable design studio and we are back to dreaming of our next boat, and next adventure.

West Indies Wear is inspired by tropical island travel, so we use vibrant Caribbean colors and feature beachy, on-trend prints like sea stars, coral, palm trees, pineapples and tropical flowers.  Here is a photo of my little sister Amy wearing our number one seller… the Starfish Tunic.

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Kim Van Loo is an Australian fashion designer, who started West Indies Resort Wear, whilst sailing the Caribbean islands. She currently lives at home in Australia with her husband and three children, but travels several times a year to USA to show her new collections at trade shows and catch up with all of her buyers.