Friday, 30 November 2012

Watching the sun set on London 2012

A selection of photos taken from the Stratford Westfield shopping centre "London 2012" viewing gallery.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The classic dream wardrobe

Now I'm the first to admit, fashion is not my strong point, not by a long way, but that hasn't stopped me creating, developing and perfecting my perfect wardrobe over the years. I say "perfect", I mean "dream" - the prices are enough to ensure that this wardrobe will never be a real option for me. Still, a girl can dream

First up is the classic Burberry trench - elegant, sophisticated, timeless. Looks great dressed up with office wear (particular if you happen to have the fortune to work in Vogue House) or casual with skinny jeans and a classy jumper or shapely shirt. My one reservation is the length - unless you've got lengthy pins, there is the potential to give the drowning-in-Burberry vibe.

Next up is the bag, the ultimate accessory for every look. Personally I have two all time favourites - a day option and an evening option. The Mulberry Bayswater is a classic must have, and although my hypothetical choice of colour fluctuates on a daily basis, depending on mood, season and general whim,   I've whittled it down to browns and reds (at least until I can afford one in each colour!)

For evening wear, the Mulberry goes and the classic Chanel quilted bag takes over - in black, naturally.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Joneses (Borte, 2009)

***Contains spoilers***

Like a blend of Stepford Wives meets Desperate Housewives meets the OC, The Joneses is a somewhat bizarre mix that doesn't really work.

The idea is thus; An elegant, aspirational new family move into an already elegant and aspirational neighbourhood, as sort of Wisteria Lane for golfers. The family go about introducing themselves to their eclectic group of neighbours until, not too far into the film, the twist is revealed; the family are not actually a family, they are a group of salespeople thrown together with the intent of imitating the perfect family, selling the perfect lifestyle to their neighbours.

For me, the revelation of the twist came far too soon; a lot more suspense could have been created if the reason for the strange behaviour was not revealed until later.

The cast (Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth), although neither unattractive nor untalented, lack a certain je ne sais quoi as an ensemble; the chemistry between the "parents" of the family is lacking, despite their supposed extra-curricular attraction. The romantic thread of the plotline is somewhat predictable, and even the death of The Joneses' neighbour, an apparently poignant and guilt-evoking moment in the film, raises little emotion.

Overall, this film has the makings of a good idea, but is not executed in a way to fulfill the potential.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Review: "Thanks for the memories" by Cecelia Ahern

The name "Cecelia Ahern" has always floated around my literary consciousness, been there in the foreground, but for some reason I've always overlooked her books in favour of other popular authors. What a mistake to make.
I recently picked up a copy of "Thanks for the memories" and I'm so glad I did. Whilst this book does have elements of the "chick-lit" genre (the love story, the near misses, the happy ending), ithere is more to it than this. 

Ahern uses elements of the supernatural to grip the reader, and whilst this is something I usually shy away from (I struggled with Harry Potter for this reason), Ahern keeps the plot simple, easy to follow, even for the most imagination-starved reader such as myself.

The basic concept is this; Justin, a recently relocated divorcee is persuaded into giving blood in exchange for a date. Joyce, a soon-to-be-divorced estate agent with a troubled personal life, receives his blood donation, and with it receives memories, skills and knowledge that she did not possess before. Throughout the novel, their paths cross several times, sometimes intentionally, sometimes chaotically. I won't give too much away, but the plot is gripping until the very end.

Several times I found myself howling with laughter due to Ahern's brilliant ability to bring a scene to life; the scene of Joyce's dad attempting to collect his suitcase from the airport conveyor belt particularly  sticks in my mind. Ahern also has a talent at crafting believable, realistic characters; again, Joyce's dad is the prime example. Through clever dialogue and wonderful description, he comes alive as somebody that any reader can identify in part, and, quite frankly, the novel would fall apart without him. Sadly, the character of Joyce is not quite as developed as I would have liked - despite her troubles, I found little reason to sympathise with her.

Suffice to say that I will be skipping over Ahern's books no more!

Monday, 26 November 2012

The best Christmas jumpers of 2012

The traditional Christmas jumper. Previously an annual joke akin to lewd photocopies at the office Christmas party, it's come into it's own in recent years as a staple fashion item for the festive season. There seem to be more than ever available on the high street this year, from stylish knits to absolute clangers.

Peacocks seems to be ruling the budget end of the roost, with everything from the classic red Rudolph (£16), perfect for Bridget Jones style family gatherings, to the more stylish patterned jumper dress (£18), suitable for work as well as play. For a more feminine twist on the all-out-party jumper, try this red and white snowflake special (£16), which will look great with indigo jeans, or for more sparkle, pair this Ho ho ho jumper dress (£20 -bargain!) with skinny jeans and a chunky scarf.

Topshop seem to have based their designs largely on black this year; pick from  a slightly off-colour robin (£50), a candy cane (£50),  or the slightly more lively polar bear snow scene (£50) - that's one thoughtful looking bear. Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel with this cream, holly-patterned jumper (£50), just be careful where you throw your Christmas day gravy!

If girly kitsch is more up your street this sequin Christmas tree design (£27.99, New Look) is a great way to show your fun side. For a soft yet edgy look, this charcoal snow scene (£27.99, New Look)

Snuggle up at home with this aztec style jumper dress  (Dorothy Perkins, £28), perfect for snowy afternoons in front of the fire.

If you want a motif jumper that will last all year, this slouch-style hanging cats jumper or this Alice in Wonderland style heart print jumper are both great for casual wear, and the latter is great for office wear too.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Book review: "Stealing Water" by Tim Ecott

It has always been an ambition of mine to read a travel book about a place whilst I am in that place; travel and books are two of my favourite things, so it makes sense to combine the two and enrich my enjoyment of them both. I managed to achieve this on my trip to South Africa, when I read Stealing Water by Tim Ecott. Like many things, reading the book was something I planned to do before I left home, but it never happened.  This turned out for the best, as it lead to me being able to absorb Ecott's affectionate descriptions of the buildings of Johannesburg whilst sitting in the South African bush with a panoramic view of the distant sprawling Jozi metropolis, the perfect travel literature experience.

Undoubtedly Johannesburg has changed since the days Ecott reminisces about; for one thing, the modern day Johannesburg seems to cover a vast area similar to London. The skyscrapers seem to centre around two areas, with a lesser horizon of other buildings linking the two. Secondly, from what I have heard, Johannesburg is much more dangerous now than in the past. En-route to the Lion Park on my first day, I was warned of the dangers of central Johannesburg, specifically the Nigerian drug rings which operate in the city centre.

The autobiographical Stealing Water serves as a memoir of Ecott's youth, split between Johannesburg and Northern Ireland. Both locations were undergoing periods of political divide at this time, although Apartheid is rarely mentioned in the book, excepting a couple of passing references to the black maids of white families and the racially segregated living areas.

Instead, the book offers a refreshingly honest account of life for the average immigrant family in Johannesburg. Whilst the drama level varies throughout the book, with some pages being quite slow, it is the detail of everyday mundanities which build up to provide a fascinating collective insight.

Not what you would describe a "unputdownable" (largely because that probably isn't a word), the pace is slow, but this serves to echo the African lifestyle. I stuck with it because of my current interest in all things South African, but sadly I don't think I would have done so otherwise, which is a shame because it turned out to be an insightful and rewarding read.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Leaving the Lion Park

Today was my final day at the Lion Park. I got up as normal and helped the other volunteers to clean the enclosures, before spending most of the morning playing with the cubs, feeding the giraffes, taking lots of photos and generally enjoying my last few hours of African sunshine before returning to the British winter.

By the time my taxi arrived at 4pm, I was overwhelmed with sadness at leaving behind the friends I have made over the past two weeks, both animal and human. I can't believe that I have known the other volunteers for only two weeks, nor did I believe it possible to get as close to complete strangers as we all have during this time. I have made some friends for life, and will be definitely be keeping in contact with them all.

A few of my amazing memories...

As my two weeks drew to a close, it dawned on me that it had felt far longer. As sad as it was to say goodbye to everyone, I was definitely ready to pack up and head home!

Previous entry: My final day
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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

My final day - escaping lions, stubborn giraffes, and everyone gets fed.

Today was my final day working at the Lion Park, and although I carried on with my volunteer duties as usual, I also took the opportunity to take many photos and videos to remember the experience by.

First thing in the morning, we were greeted with the news that five of the lions had escaped during the night and were found roaming the park. When we all simultaneously looked towards the cub enclosures on hearing this news, Marian provided clarification by saying "the big ones". Immediately we all had mental images of the fully grown, semi-wild lions from the lion camps stalking our campsite throughout the night. Imagine our relief when she provided further clarification that she meant the biggest of the cubs - cue relief all round! They had managed to dig under the fence of their enclosure and burrow out that way!

This afternoon, the cubs were fed meat instead of their usual bowl meals. Like their larger counterparts in the lion camps, they get excited the second they see the meat truck coming. The meat is tossed over the fence and into the enclosure, one piece per cub, and they are left to fight amongst themselves. Needless to say, when we go to collect the bones from the enclosure the next morning, there is not a crumb of meat left on them!

Following the excitement of feeding the cubs, Mara, the six month old giraffe, had to have her evening meal and be put to bed in her house.

Like any petulent child, Mara did not want to be in bed.
 Even more excitement followed when the volunteers went on a night game drive. Although the camp lions are given their main meal of the week on Sunday, they receive a "snack" of meat on Wednesday evenings.  Watching them fight over meat by the light of a flashlight was more more intimidating than anything seen in daylight; their warning growls echoed around us in the darkness, giving a rather spooky, voyeuristic feel.
Volunteers ready for a game drive

Night-time feeding

Returning to the camp, we decided to go to Montecasino, my all time favourite place in South Africa, for a few well-earned cocktails and to celebrate my last night before returning home.
One last night in Montecasino

A well-earned strawberry daquiri!

Previous entry ("Restaurant review: Lekgotla")

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Restaurant review: Lekgotla, Nelson Mandela Square

Every fortnight, the volunteers are taken out for a meal to a traditional African restaurant, Lekgotla (translating as "meeting place"). By "traditional African", I don't mean the sort of place that Africans go on a regular night out. Rather, it's the sort of place that tourists deem to be traditionally African, offering foods which are unique to Africa, and it therefore plays up to this stereotype, offering traditional entertainment and beautiful decor.

Lekgotla is situated in Sandton, a 30-minute drive from the Lion Park. Although the buildings of Sandton -skyscrapers by African standards - are visible from the Lion Park, their true beauty cannot be appreciated until you are right below them. The main building, Sandton City, stands guard over the famous Nelson Mandela square, its roof glittering in the darkness, its' silhouette like a miniature Canary Wharf.
Nelson Mandela Square itself is very chic, full of classy restaurants and, when we visited, already lit up for Christmas. On leaving the restaurant, we had the opportunity to take photos of the larger-than-life Mandela statue, the focal point of the square.

I'm getting ahead of myself.  Walking into the restaurant, the African ambience hits immediately. Dimly light, the woven wooden ceiling gave a homely feel, combining with the delicious aromas of various meats cooking to ensure customers felt right at home.

We were given the choice of the buffet or choices from the menu. Being walked though the buffet and having everything explained to us, I was beginning to panic a little. Not being the most open-minded of diners at the best of times, and already aware that South African food tends to be a little spicier that that which I am accustomed to, I found little at the buffet to tempt me. Returning to the table and reading through the menu - seafood, spicy meats, curries- nothing was really appealing to me, and I thought I was going to disappoint my inner wild-child (she's in there somewhere, buried really deep) by having something boring like pasta. Then, something caught my eye.

Nile crocodile curry.

Crocodile is something I know I haven't tried before. It's very African. The curry was described as creamy, and I have been known to partake in a korma at home. What could possibly go wrong? Given a choice of sides, I went for rice- boring, perhaps, but crocodile was enough excitement for one night.

After ordering, a bowl of water was brought to each of us at the table, allowing us to wash our hands, and we were each given a towel to dry them. Further entertainment was given in the form of traditional African face painting. For a small tip,we each got our faces painted with trailing patterns and flowers.

Face painting

Liza and Daneka with their faces painted.
 When the food arrived, I was excited just by looking at mine. It was beautifully presented, the curry being served in a traditional African pot called a potjie, resembling a cauldron to my untrained English eye. The rice was served in a perfect ball on a separate plate.

The curry was delicious. Very creamy, with barely an afterkick, it was perfect for fussy eater numero uno (although I kept expecting a yellow pair of eyes and a sharp set of teeth to surface from the sizzling mix. Normally I have no problem separating my animals from my meats, but as I was eating, I remember feeling relieved that the crocodile farm trip is taking place after I leave Africa - I just wouldn't have been able to look the little guys in the eye).

Completely full from my curry, I was tempted by the dessert menu, but couldn't have done it justice. Whilst waiting for other people's desserts to arrive, the entertainment cranked up a notch, with a spontaneous African dancing and drumming performance, just metres from the end of our table. Various male diners were called up to join in the dancing, including Igor, one of our volunteers! Everyone involved in the performance looked like they were having such a good time, it became infectious, until everyone in the restaurant was joining in, even those still halfway through their meals.

Once the dancing was complete, I took the opportunity to explore the restaurant further, and realised that what we had seen barely scratched the surface. Other dining rooms went off at various tangents, each sticking with the African theme, yet also individually styled. In short, the place blew me away.

 Leaving the restaurant, I still could not believe how delicious the meal had been. A quick mental calculation led me to realise that it came to roughly £10  for the main. An absolute bargain when you consider how few restaurants in England serve mains for £10, let alone good quality meals consisting of something as rare as crocodile meat.

Previous entry ("A chaotic meal time")
Next entry ("My final day: escaping lions, stubborn giraffes, and everyone gets fed")

A chaotic meal time

Today was our final day in the nursery, but also our first chance to feed the 3-6 month old cubs; as they had eaten meat on Sunday, they did not get fed yesterday.

With 11 hungry cubs spread across the two enclosures, feeding time is never simple. One bowl is allocated per lion, and as soon as they see the bowls coming down the path towards the enclosure, they get excited, making it difficult to get into the enclosure.

Once inside the enclosure, the trick is to distribute the bowls as quickly and as far apart as possible, and then get out before the squabbles begin.

A few minutes later, we have to go back into the enclosures to retrieve the bowls. It sounds straightforward but they do insist on licking every morsel out of the bowls, and if you try to take the bowl before they're finished, you're in trouble.

Previous entry ("Fresh volunteer meat")
Next entry ("Restaurant review: Lekgotla")

Monday, 12 November 2012

Fresh volunteer meat

Today was a very quiet day at the park, with very few visitors, but we were still kept busy as the new volunteers didn't arrive until the afternoon.

It was my second day of working in the nursery, but it was made quite uncomfortable by the knowledge that the snake which had dropped by the other day has not yet been caught. Fortunately I did not see the snake - you certainly would have known it if I had - although three mice (not blind, to the best of my knowledge) come into the nursery every morning via a hole in the floor to play with the young cubs.

The youngest cubs at the park

Throughout the day, three new volunteers arrived, from France, Peru and Brazil.

We also had our weekly supermarket trip. Although I didn't need much in the way of food as I only have three days left (sob), I went along to browse, and end up armed with a plethora of confectionery which is not available in England.

South Africa is already well into the swing of Christmas; visiting a shopping centre in Johannesburg last week was a bizarre experience for me. Strolling in wearing shorts, a vest top and flip flops to be greeted by a lifesize Santa model and oodles of tinsel is not something I am accustomed to. Naturally, the Brazilian and Australian volunteers did not understand why I could not equate hot weather to Christmas. IT'S NOT CHRISTMAS UNTIL YOU CAN SEE YOUR OWN BREATH. Today in the supermarket, the Christmas mood continued, as the display at the front of the store was set up with all manner of Christmas biscuits. Thanks to the proximity of the chiller cabinet, it was slightly more acceptable, temperature-wise, and I was very tempted to buy some adorable Christmas biscuits, beautifully wrapped and looking as if they were held together by love, but they would not have survived the journey home in my suitcase.

The evening was a very pleasant one; all of the volunteers gathered in the kitchen and we spent the evening drinking wine, playing Monopoly and chatting, something which we had not done before, as the group of volunteers was so large previously.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Feeding drive

Today was the first day I spent in the nursery, helping to prepare the food for the meerkats and the baby hyena (3 weeks old) and the two younger sets of cubs (4 weeks old and 8 weeks old). As well as the nursery, we had our usual shifts, and were extra busy as 9 volunteers left today, leaving the rest of us to do the work.
Baby hyena in the nursery
I still found time to go on a feeding drive; every Sunday at 11.30am, the larger lions in the camps get fed meat, dead livestock donated by local farmers. Visitors are able to drive through the camps whilst the lions are being fed, making it the busiest time of the week for game drives.

I went on one of the park's safari trucks, which is the best way to see the feed, as the drivers know the best places to park. The first camp we drove into was the white lion camp, where Letsatsi, star of the film White Lion, lives.

As we entered, Alex Larenty was combing Letsatsi's hair - a fully grown lion, the largest at the park, allowing a human to comb his mane, and apparently quite enjoying it. Alex was also spraying him with what I assumed to be water (to help with styling the hair, dahling), but what I later found out was insect repellent.

The lions, especially those without their own beautician, were already pacing hungrily at the entrance to the camp, knowing that it was their feeding time. Customers driving open backed trucks are always warned when entering the game drive that the lions may mistake it for the meat truck and try to jump on.

The feeding truck arrives
On this occasion, when the meat truck arrived at the camp, the lions ran alongside it to the far end where the spectators were waiting. I was surprised that individual portions of meat, for example one horse leg, complete with hoof, were thrown out for each animal, as I had expected them to be given a whole carcass as in the wild. However, this method ensures that everyone gets fed, as lions further down the hierarchy such as cubs and females often go without in the wild.

A lioness proudly munches her meal
Once each lion had a piece of meat, they went off to separate areas of the camp to eat in solitude. Despite the numerous warnings, it was shocking to see people holding hands and cameras out of car windows with a prowling lioness less than two feet away. Although she had just been fed, these animals are still at their most dangerous immediately after eating.

In total, we drove through three lion camps, as well as the cheetah and wild dog camps before heading back to base.

Later in the day, it was sad to see nine of the volunteers leave, as they had all been there since before I had arrived, and some of them had stayed for four weeks. The camp area was very quiet tonight with only 6 of us left, but more volunteers are arriving tomorrow.

Don't mess with this dude.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

What do you get if you cross a cub and a jumper?

Today was a relatively normal day at the Lion Park, the first time in five days that we did not leave the park. One volunteer left today, the first to do so since I arrived, with many more packing to leave tomorrow.

When the 3-6 month old cubs were fed in the evening, one volunteer left her jumper and bag in the enclosure, which interested the lions once they had finished their meals. Although Marian managed to get the bag back, the jumper was a bit more difficult as two of the larger cubs had started fighting over it. Marian had to call Princess, one of the other staff members, to help her. With a bit of wrestling, a lot of distraction and a tiny amount of pepper spray, the jumper was retrieved - more holes than a sponge but still in one piece.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Montecasino: an Italian masterpiece

The exterior
Following my traumatic experience on the school game drive, the group of volunteers decided to head to Montecasino, a luxury entertainment complex about 15 minutes away from where we were staying.
Even pulling into the drive, Montecasino oozes glamour and sophistication to all who go near; the avenue of fairy light bedecked trees is reminiscent of a Parisian Boulevard, and circling a fountain before pulling up at the main entrance lends an air of Monte Carlo.

The exterior is grand, with echoes of an Italian castle, but once inside, past the stringent security checks, the decor is breathtaking. Set up like an Italian village, the shopfronts and street cafes are quaint, right down to the flowers trailing from the ornamental balconies, bedecked with Tuscan-style window shutters, and the washing lines crossing the street way above visitors heads. The ceiling resembles the sky very realistically, so that once you are ensconced in the hubbub, you can forget that you are inside. We requested an outside table at the restaurant, before realising that even "outside" was inside.

Good food
We enjoyed a lovely Italian meal and a few cocktails overlooking a cobbled square centred around an elaborate fountain, overshadowed by a weeping willow and fringed by a river which flows around the whole complex, criss-crossed by Venetian style humped bridges. Personally, I would have loved there to have been a boat ride taking guests around the "village", but I think that says more about my obsession with DisneyWorld than it does about any shortcomings on the part of Montecasino.

In short, it's the sort of place a girl could easily imagine being whisked off her feet. Briefly I wished there was somewhere similar in England, but it's a one-of-a-kind place that would lose it's ample charm if replicated worldwide.

After our meal, we continued exploring the endless maze of enchanting streets and ventured into the Casino before taking a taxi back to the Lion Park like real life Cinderellas.

We ate overlooking this Piazza

Previous entry ("Teacher for a morning")
Next entry ("What do you get when you cross a cub and a jumper?")

Teacher for a morning

Being halfway through my stay at the Lion Park, my volunteer duties shifted up a notch today when I had to help with a school group. Not being the biggest fan of children (they don't like me, either) OR of speaking in front of large groups of people, it was the shift I had been dreading. Fortunately Heather, another volunteer who had done it before was on hand to help out.

Our task, on the face of it was simple; meet the school from their coaches, take them to the toilets, to the touch-a-cub enclosure, to the picnic area and then on a game drive. With 2 volunteers and 4 teachers to round up 110 excited 7-9 year olds (it seems that the adult:child ratios that apply to British school trips do not exist over here) it was quite a task.

Having successfully herded them through the cub enclosures and giraffe feeding station, the toughest challenge being to keep them quiet around the animals, it was time to set off on the game drive. This meant one hour of me, standing at the front of a bumpy safari truck, telling 30 odd kids about the animals, which I had known very little about myself until the previous week.

Fortunately they were very interested in the animals and engaged well with what I was telling them, asking questions (most of which I could answer!) and proudly telling me facts that they already knew.

The thing which struck me most was the way in which the schoolchildren addressed their elders with such respect; even when talking to me, they addressed me as "Maam", pronouncing it with a questioning intonation as a way to request permission to speak, and peppering the rest of  their speech with "maam" the way a British teenager punctuates her speech with "like".

Further into the drive, chaos descended, with even the teacher struggling to control the over-excited class; for me it was a nightmare come true, having 20 little people shouting and vying for my attention at once. Couple with that the fact that we were amongst a pride of white lions, some of the most dangerous animals in the world, and it suffices to say I was feeling a little uncomfortable.

As we drove through one of the lion camps, the third of four safari trucks in convoy, two fully grown lionesses paced the side of our truck, looking as if they were about to hitch a ride; the staff had told me that lions often jump onto the side of trucks, but only now did it occur to me that they had not told me how to deal with such incidents. As I turned my back on the snarling teeth and looked at the 30 faces staring back at me, some having the time of their lives and no doubt silently imploring the lions to jump, others fearing for their lives, I just asked them to keep quiet and make sure all fingers were inside the truck.

Although I knew for certain that the lions couldn't get to us, as the trucks had cages on for this purpose, there was a split second when I truly believed I was going to die then and there in South Africa, at the hands of a lion, with 30 kids watching.

You're reading this, so obviously I survived. Fortunately the lionesses didn't jump, but when we got back to base, we found that they had jumped onto the truck after ours. Nobody was hurt, and as soon as the driver drove away, the lions jumped off.

I was relieved when the whole school experience was over, as it was mentally draining, but I was also proud of myself, not only for surviving the lions, but also for surviving the children, and I spent the rest of the day feeling like I could do anything I put my mind to.

Whilst I'm in teacher mode, a quick lesson*...

THESE are fully grown, scary, wild lions, who will pace up and down next to safari trucks scaring children:

Not to be confused with THESE little cuties, the cubs, who will have a nibble on your shoelace, or lick your hand.

*Not really a lesson, more an excuse to post these adorable pictures.