The Trans-Karoo cross-hound

Sport turned 119 (7=17) on 5th November last year. Every dog has his day and this was Sport’s, but there were no fireworks. Not even a small bonfire. Sport is a low-key kind of Corgi-Staffie-cross. I, who turned 294 years old last birthday and am something of a Methuselah in dog terms, gave him an extra piece of biltong.

And thus it occurred to us, Sport and me, that maybe it was time for him to slow down a little. His old colleague, UmQombothi, a Labrador of much charm and little brain, had uttered his last woof in the middle of the year and being sole guardian of a 10-hectare plot was beginning to take its toll on Sport.

He had survived a number of leguaan skirmishes and a couple of rather more serious attacks by neighbouring boerboels. Each time he was perforated with pipes like a leaking porcupine and wore one of those rather fetching lampshades for a fortnight. He had been keeping various visitors in check with great dedication for all his adult life, as witnessed by the Mozambiquan spitting cobra that met its death in a swift Sporting attack to the neck and the Avis driver who lost a chunk of his calf after threatening Sport with a kick to the blunt end.

So I went to see B-B-B-Bennie and the Vets, that Lowveld institution, to take advice. They have been keeping Sport in more-or-less one piece all these years and now he was to spend his sunset years in the Karoo, I explained. He would need all the things a dog requires for a long journey and a happy retirement.

I had to wait (as one has to at every vet’s) while the vet’s assistant took a phone call from a previous patient’s owner to the effect that the previous patient (or its owner) thought it/she might have dropped R100 on the surgery floor. Had it been found? No, it hadn’t. Then there was another owner (without patient in tow) in front of me who needed a 20-minute explanation of the varying effectiveness of Top Spot, Bottom Spot, Front Line and Bottom Line (and luckily not Bikini Line).

When my turn finally came up, I allowed myself to be relieved of a large number of rands and walked out with two dead smart aluminium bowls, a collar and lead (for pit-stops on the journey), four tranquillisers (in the event that Sport should be overcome by a 119-year-old uncontrollable excitement somewhere in the depths of the Free State), the most expensive dog-food on the dog-planet (Pluto, I suppose) and a designer beanbag in olive green, scattered with pictures of giraffe, buffalo and lion and slogans, ‘African dawn, where the big five roams the land and the dust is rising from many hooves’. Ah, well. It would give him something to read on the way down.

We set off, pooch perched on the back seat, sometimes sleeping but sitting much of the time, watching the passing scenery and letting off bad smells (exactly like my 2-year-old foster-grandson on his journey down some weeks earlier). Sport did not complain about my music (who could complain about Genesis and Carmina Burana interspersed with Jon Perlman and Jeremy Maggs?) and he didn’t talk too much. The perfect travelling companion.

I made a misjudged stop to peel the clingwrap off my sandwiches, just before the Machado Toll Plaza, where Sport climbed out for a pee and a swift sip of bottled mineral water but was promptly assaulted by inch-long ants and forced to retreat to his beanbag. I then couldn’t get him out of the car for the next 500km. I stopped again at the Verkeerdevlei Plaza (Wrong Pond Plaza?) but he wasn’t budging.

Finally, at Colesberg, on a needs-must basis, he stepped gingerly off into the Ultra-City parking and was immediately buoyed to see a concrete bowl of water under a sign with the words ‘Wagter Water’ and a canine cartoon. Sport doesn’t read Afrikaans very well but, presuming this to be a misspelling of The Wagster and thus a reference to his magnificently helicoptering tail, he took it as his first sign of Karoo hospitality. This retirement thing was going to work.

Since then, we have walked the town. Sport, the farm-dog, is walking to heel (well, within a couple of feet of me and when it suits him) down the dusty streets, while, from behind every gate and fence, a huge ball of fluff and teeth throws itself at him, barking. He takes it in his stride. It feels like a prison visit. Our first game drive through the Camdeboo National Park was a rampant success. We saw six kudu, four hartebeest, a scrub hare, monkeys and six ostrich in about ten minutes. I think Sport thought that, as he was in a glass box, he must be on television and all the other animals were watching him, so he pricked up his ears and looked his best.

Eat your heart out, Jock. You can keep the Bushveld. This is Sport of the Semi-desert, resting much of the day but, no doubt, behind all the snoring of a sleeping dog left lying, is an active mind planning how we are going to celebrate my imminent birthday when I shall be turning 301.

A chokka shocker

Most South Africans have never actually been to Port Elizabeth. Frankly, like Australia, it seems an awfully long way away and possibly not very advanced. I’d driven through it on the freeway a couple of times but finally, in search of things that we just can’t get in Graaff-Reinet (like a toast-rack, for example, without which civilised living is not possible), I had to go there for a couple of days and looked forward with trepidation-tinged gusto to investigating a city with more sobriquets than Cape Town and the same number of unfinished flyovers.

So was it friendly or windy? And is it still the Detroit of Africa? Well, it is friendly. It really is. The occasional grumpy-drawers who cropped up inevitably turned out to be from out-of-town (usually Bloemfontein). The air, however, was still and, although I have never been to Detroit, PE seems to have shed the Detroit thing fairly conclusively and dumped it on Uitenhage up the road, leaving itself with a huge bay, loads of very presentable houses and shops, billions of restaurants and a non-stop friendly fairground atmosphere without the carousel. (There was actually a small one but it wasn’t turning).

So what do they do in Port Elizabeth? They don’t seem to work. Much of the time, they don’t seem to be there at all. The roads are empty. The shops have no queues. You can always get a table in a restaurant.

And what do they eat in Port Elizabeth? The same as the rest of us, I suppose, but we had heard much about chokka, South Africa’s own calamari, loligo vulgaris, the long-finned squid, and set out to find some and to see the boats bobbing about in the bay.

PE is like Utopia without the over-optimism. People smile without reason. They greet you as though they’ve known you all their lives and have been waiting with bated breath for your long-awaited arrival, which is now and even more exciting than they had dared to expect. And that was just the waitress at 34 South.

Actually just under just under 34 South and sister to the Knysna branch which is just over 34 South, this was our first PE restaurant, purveyors of finest Cape salmon and other good fishy things but, for some reason Patagonian calamari, so a chokka failure. Our table was perched on the edge of a pond in The Boardwalk, the Sun International entertainment complex on Humewood Beach, which just manages to evade the traditional synthetic-boulder tastelessness of such venues despite kilometres of fairy lights, a fake lighthouse with a laser in place of the Edison screw and the pale tilapia floating listlessly near the surface in the water features. There are countless shops and not one of them sells anything vaguely useful or even slightly tasteful. You can even watch the DJ currently hosting an Algoa FM show on a screen outside the studio (if you can’t find any drying paint to watch).

It’s all real though. That is what PE is like. A combination of youthful shoeless Billabong fashionistas and aging bats with racking coughs in Jettas, all living in friendly, fishy harmony amongst the seaport smells and guano-covered cranes. A pre-breakfast walk along the front is as uplifting as fresh bread and affords more ‘good mornings’ than a royal walkabout.

PE has a positive, non-racial ‘Up With the New South Africa’ feel to it. Cocktails at Primi Coastal, our next evening’s food venue, came in a huge jam jar and the serving staff were utterly on-the-ball and overexcited, their hair sticking out at impossible angles and their spiffy orange and grey overalls besloganed with thought-provoking comments including ‘work is love made visible’. There you are. Chew on that little piece of philoso-PE.

Chicken livers with bite and crunch, a Neopolitan pasta with bite and crunch, a very bright waiter and a very spunky waitress both with lots of friendly bite and crunch. Our only unsure moment was when Mandisi, temporarily overwrought, offered us coffee with black milk. Port Elizabeth non-racial chic we decided and, given the chap’s confusion, elected not to enter into a debate about the origins of the imported calamari. It seems odd, though, that there is a bay-full of squid, dotted with the fishermen’s lights every night, yet there is no chokka to be found on the menus. The conspiracy theory has it, though, that PE calamari is so good that we export it all and we have to import to make up for this.

So proud of our cephalopods were we, that we worked our way with gusto through the list of digestifs, under an umbrella that masked the towering impersonality of the Garden Court, with its cockroaches still quivering on their backs on the bathroom floor and its special deals hanging on the door-handles so you only see them when you’ve already paid full price. Primi’s offered us instead the warm and fuzzy belief that we really were in the Friendliness Capital of the World and that, if only a light breeze would get up and a Detroit-registered Dodge Viper would mosey down the seafront, the scene would be complete.

34 South 041 583 1085
Primi Coastal 041 586 1266

A nation of shopkeepers

Forget poached, scrambled or fried. Would you like homogenised, organic, Omega E or free-range eggs? Now please choose between Colombian Blacktail, Burford Brown, or Old Cotswold St Leger. And you can have Straw-bedded, Barn, Woodland or Economy. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer quails’ eggs or duck eggs, white eggs or double-yolkers?

To even the most seasoned and spiced South African shopper, the array of goods in an English supermarket can be totally baffling. Hours spent wandering around Waitrose and Sainsbury’s leave the free-range shopper marvelling, making notes and, in my case, much to the amazement of other buyers, taking photographs.

Meanwhile, the experts are whistling around with their trolleys, deftly manoeuvring them in and out of the aisles and studying, en passant, the carefully stacked special offers. Why not pick up 12 falafels at a bargain price? (For Oxfordshire’s no-doubt-burgeoning Syrian population). Char-grilled mushrooms? (You’ll never again have to go through the complicated procedure of cooking a mushroom). Or Pate Ardennes? (Buy 3 get 1 free, you’ve got to be keen on it to want four pates though).

You can buy countless ready-made sandwich fillings in pots. Just spread it on! It’s not that easy though. You still have to decide whether to go for the ordinary range (chicken, bacon and sweetcorn or egg and bacon) or the luxury range (chicken coronation or Moroccan chickpea). And then is it a megapot 410g job or will a 170g standard do the trick? Or maybe you should consider going for the Be Good to Yourself range to cut down on the fat content. But then you’ve still got to choose whether to have one 240g Cajun chicken sandwich filler for 1.55 or to pick up 2 for 2.50.

There’s a huge display dedicated to the Prince of Wales’s organic Duchy range and, nearby, I counted nine metres of olive oils, 30 flavours of fresh ready-made soups (Mushroom and Chestnut is recommended) and 75 different salad dressings. Instead of today’s offering from Fairview, there is an aisle 30 metres long, lined with different cheeses from all around the world, including Fairview. Surely if they can get Fairview to Henley-on-Thames, then we could get Pie d’Anglois to Witbank?

There are over 20 different species of bread, not including speciality breads, baked in-store, multi-grain, harvest grain, multi-seeded, malted grain and so on. How does a shopper choose? And more to the point, when all the names are so confusingly similar, how on earth do they remember what they had last time? “Darling do we have the one with the pumpkin seeds on the top or in the mixture and are the seeds toasted or not?”

And in addition to food there’s homeware, hardware, household and pet, stationery, flowers, and a huge acreage dedicated to drink. I am not sure whether I was more impressed to see a section with designer dog-clothes, four shelves of different kinds of candles (as opposed to our paltry ranges of Lighthouse Candles, clever name! in white, blue or green) or the in-store deli party range, where you can pick up a whole party and stick it in the back of the car (guests not included).

There were one or two South African items dotted about the store but obviously there was fruit and veg from all around the world. Everything is labelled by its country of origin and we are hitting serious competition from Israel and Brazil. There is a large amount of South African wine but they seem to get all our cheapest blends, with such ludicrous names as Bouquet Blanc du Cap and African Drumbeat Red.

To top it all off, the real fundis bill themselves for everything throughout the store. No more messing about with checkout. Who needs to provide employment? Just pick up a zapper as you enter the store, feed in your loyalty card, read the barcode on each item as you trolley it, and John Lewis is your uncle (NOT Joshua Doore), wheel it out to the car park. I bought the totally un-grand ingredients for a dinner for 4 (including, in a patriotic splurge, a couple of bottles of Springfield Sauvignon Blanc) and spent 75. That’s over R1000. It’s still cheaper than going to the pub for dinner, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?

Anyway let’s get to it. If they can have so many different kinds of egg, what can we find in our local supermarkets? Well, we have small, medium, large or extra-large eggs. We have shredded tuna or light meat tuna. There’s cheddar, gouda or blue cheese and we have red, white and rose wine. Oh and blanc de noir (which is different from rose but very hard to explain) and semi-sweet, the top seller. Thank goodness for Ina Paarman’s range of spices, shakes and sauces, where we save a little face.

I think we’ve got a bit of work to do, but, more importantly than that, can you imagine our being twusted, twolley for twolley, to take a zapper and self-charge? I don’t think so.