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