For weeks we’d been preparing – we bought gear capable of withstanding sub-zero temperatures, attempted skiing on dry slopes so as not to look like rank amateurs and browsed dozens of travel catalogues that contained seemingly useless travel items. Then the day finally arrived – we left OR Tambo International Airport for a European winter holiday that culminated in a Winter Activity Week in the Dolomites in Italy.
I realised that South Africans are a naturally suspicious bunch. At local airports we all seem to wrap our luggage in travel plastic that supposedly helps reduce theft. We are also wary of people we don’t know. On a few occasions when we must have looked lost, strangers approached us and asked if we needed help. Before they’d spoken I assumed that they were muggers, conmen or trying to sell Dead Sea beauty products.
Our tour took us to Hotel Dolomiti in Dimaro where our host, Bruna, ensured that we remained well fed for our stay. So well fed that the thought of wearing lycra when I next go cycling is rather daunting, and I am quite certain that my cycle buddies will refuse to ride with someone who resembles a rolled ham.
I got the impression that people in the small Italian towns we visited are insanely supportive of local industry. They were proud when we sampled wine, grappa, cheese and apples that are produced in the region. I also tried another local delicacy – horse meat. Psychologically, it seemed uncomfortable as for the most part in South Africa, horses fall into “pet” rather than “food” category. I can’t honestly say the taste was off-putting and if I had not known upfront what I was eating (or if food manufacturers had lied about the ingredients of their products) I would probably try it again.
The tour gave us an opportunity to try both downhill and cross-country skiing. I stayed upright while downhill skiing though managed a spectacular face-plant getting out of a chair lift. To those of us from sunny South Africa, strapping slippery boards to your feet and flying down a mountain might seem frightening, but while I doddered along down the slopes, children younger than 10 came tearing past, followed by fathers encouraging them to go even faster.
Cross-country skiing and snowshoe walking were the activities I enjoyed the most. The ski tracks are quieter than the slopes and you are able to make your way through pristine forests at your own pace. Snowshoe walking allows you to access areas that are often difficult to get to once the snow is over one metre thick. Waist-high snow is not something you can easily picture while standing around a braai in 35 degree heat.
Our touring party, all from Britain, seemed rather amused that us South Africans had never before seen snow, an effect heightened by the fact that we took great delight in trying to catch snowflakes with our mouths and snapping photos of just about every snow-lined tree. We also fielded numerous questions about Madiba’s passing and were asked whether or not Johannesburg is such a dangerous city. This highlights the importance of travel – news agencies tend to focus on negative stories and its little wonder that foreigners might want to avoid South Africa. I can only hope that the people we met left feeling that Johannesburg is not such a bad place to tour, and that Dead Sea beauty product salespeople are a far greater threat to trip enjoyment.
The downside of travel is that you are always left wanting more. I am thinking of starting a “Send A Ginger Around The Globe” fund that you are welcome to donate to. In return, you’ll get a warm feeling inside knowing that I am enjoying white-water rafting and mountain biking in the Pyrenees.