Spotting the great wail

Chris Harvie takes a worthwhile detour to the Samora Machel Monument near Komatipoort in Mpumalanga and finds that all is not what it seems.

I don’t know what we had been expecting but it wasn’t this. We had driven eighty kilometres further than we had planned, only to be assailed, when we finally stepped out of the car, by a dreadful howling. We were initially alarmed, then puzzled and finally moved. Very, very moved.

The road signs leading to the Samora Machel Monument from Malalane and Komatipoort had given no indication of distance, which is probably a good thing because, had we known how far it was, we would never have made the long detour. And that would have been a mistake.

Samora Machel’s Tupolev Tu-134 crashed into the Lebombo Mountains at Mbuzini, where South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland meet, on 19th October 1986. The plane had been a gift from the Russians and was carrying the President and his entourage home from a meeting in Zambia to Maputo. Had it come down 500 metres to the east, Machel would have died in his own country not in ours, but that was not the will of whoever was controlling the mysterious events of that day.

Heading southwards, twenty three years after the event, and following the increasingly infrequent signs, the Lebombo range appeared to be retreating further and further from us into the eastern haze but, just before the border post with Swaziland, a board directed us to the left across the plains and into the foothills. Up hill and down donga, we passed through numerous colourful villages of smiling, waving children and the endless under-construction buildings of rural South Africa, so cheering to passers-by in a financially suffocating world.

We were on the point of giving up and turning back when, deep in the distance, a skyline-puncturing shape like a wire brush rose out of the mountaintop and, as we closed in on it, a square, brick building emerged alongside it in the encircling dusk. The smile that greeted us belonged to Bonginkosi Shekwa, a departmental employee of Arts and Culture and, later, a courteous and helpful tour guide, but nothing had prepared us for the sounds that surrounded us as we opened the car doors.

First, the air thrummed with the drone of a descending aeroplane, then the wind changed and instead we heard the tragic wailing of the bereaved, suddenly rising into grief-stricken howls and finally slowing to a miserable sob.

We looked around us. It was just Bonginkosi and us. Our eyes followed his. Alongside us stood the focus of the monument, where, from the hillside, protruded several lines of pipes. Jose Forjaz, the Portuguese designer of the monument, cut splits and drilled holes in their tops so that the call of the pipes changes pitch as the wind rises and falls. It is eerie and very powerful.

The thirty-five steel tubes push some six metres skywards, representing the thirty-five dead on this scar on the montane landscape. Bonginkosi led us in amongst them and slowly and poignantly read off the names and roles of the dead. Pieces of wreckage from the fuselage lay around us where it had fallen. We had travelled far to see this extraordinary memorial but how much more remote this place must have seemed, we thought, to the two Cuban doctors and the Russian flight crew, even than for the President, several of his cabinet ministers, various officials and an ambassador, all of whom died here.

The pipes are untreated. The rust that runs down them after rain represents the blood of the dead. I felt as I do at Ncome Blood River’s equally powerful monument, moved by something far more stirring than the sadness of the events. Something primordial or pre-ordained. Machel was a clairvoyant, we were told, and had predicted his own death at a dinner party with twelve close friends, a few days before he died.

The museum alongside houses a number of friezes and models made from aircraft wreckage, an interesting history, a collection of Machel memorabilia and a frank summary of the various attempts by the four enquiries set up by the respective governments and the numerous other less formal attempts to establish the cause of the disaster. The display maintains balance and avoids prurience. Ask Bonginkosi and he will say that he doesn’t believe it was an accident, but he will go no further than that.

All we know for certain is that, on that fateful day, for some inexplicable reason, Machel’s plane made a sudden 37 degree turn and, instead of heading for Maputo, it crashed into this isolated mountainside. And the rest of the story is told in the wailing of the pipes.

FACT BOX
The Samora Machel Monument is at Mbuzini, approx 60km south-east of Komatipoort off the R571 to the Mananga borderpost with Swaziland. Open every day until at least 4pm. Admission free. Besides the monument and museum, facilities include ample parking, a helipad and an amphitheatre to seat 200 people. The road to the monument is tarred and only mildly potholed.
There are no telephones. You can contact the monument’s curator through the Barberton Museum on 013 712 4208 for more information.

Waiting for the Windmill wines

Chris Harvie discovers that, although Hazyview has yet to produce its own wine, the winegrowers are already serving the menu that will accompany the first bottle.

If wine can be produced from grapes grown in Zimbabwe and Tanzania (although the latter’s production from the wine estates around Dodoma leaves much to be desired), why shouldn’t suitable vines grow in the hills of the escarpment between Hazyview and Sabie? After all, wine-making is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Western Cape. Everybody’s doing it, and this will be Mpumalanga’s first foray into the high-falutine world of viticulture.

Truth be told, though, the northernmost vineyard in South Africa, near Hazyview, has yet to bear any wine but the future wine-growers, Thomas and Jacqui Bohm, are already serving tastebud-tantalising lunches with spectacular views over the lines of vines, dozens of ‘other people’s’ wines and the insights of two of the most knowledgeable foodies (and wine-fundis) in the region. And, if wine’s not your bag, there’s beer from the local Hop’s Hollow Brewery on the Long Tom Pass.

Thomas is a scion of the well-respected Bohm family, Lowveld hoteliers of distinction, and Jacqui is an expert chef with experience reaching back into the early boom days of Lowveld tourism. They combined their skills as long ago as 1993 and ran several very popular hostelries together, not least among them the iconic Scrumpy Tom’s Pizza Pub, before climbing a few kilometres up the hill towards Sabie and putting down roots for themselves (and for their vines) on the hillside which will one day doubtless make them famous.

We were feeling somewhat under the weather the day we went, too much wine and not enough sushi after watching Slumdog Millionaire in the rarefied atmosphere of White River’s Casterbridge Cinema the day before, and found the ideal antidote immediately. A bottle of Groote Post Old Man’s Blend, a Thai Pizza and a Windmill Platter to share between four of us. And then another bottle of Groote Post. And then another.

Thomas’s wood-fired pizzas are justifiably renowned. In addition to his spruced-up version of the old Margherita and 4 Seasons favourites, he has a repertoire of interesting Bohm originals. Our Thai Pizza had just the right zing from its chillis and coriander and was the perfect pick-me-up. And how about Sabie Smoked Trout Pizza with capers, cream cheese and chopped chives, for example? Or the deliciously simple Supreme Pizza with brie cheese and green figs.

Jacqui’s Tapas platters are made up of scoops, snips and slices of delicious deli creations, you can create your own or stick to one of the recommended ensembles. Our Windmill Platter was served with home-made bread and listed home-glazed gammon, a gorgeous chunky chicken liver pate, a couple of perfectly-matured cheeses and some local trout. We could equally have supplemented this with peppered beef, pickled fish or any number of other pickles and cheeses.

And still we found space for Jacqui’s malva pudding, I defy anybody to find a better one, served with thick fresh cream, a cup of the local Sabie Valley Coffee and a potstill brandy to wash it all down.

So all we have to do, when the vines finally come up with the goods, is move permanently into one of the Windmill Cottages behind the restaurant and live off Chateau Mpumalanga, chunky chicken liver pate, classy pizza and malva pudding for evermore. I can’t wait.

Contact :
The Windmill Wine Shop – 15km from Hazyview, Mpumalanga, on the R536 to Sabie
Telephone 013 737 8175 Fax 013 737 8966
Email scrumpys@mweb.co.za Website www.thewindmill.co.za
Wine shop open 9am to 5pm Mondays to Saturdays
Restaurant open 11.30am to 4pm Mondays to Saturdays
Cottages from R390 per person bed and breakfast

Trees too, prawns seventeen

I had been chased away from the sealed Lebombo border-post by the military, tyres screaming and weapons blazing in the dusty inky dusk on my first visit, more than twenty-five years ago. Nowadays, thanks to the burgeoning tourist numbers on their way to Maputo through the unimaginably slow bureaucratics of the Lebombo border, it’s all happening, in a far more upbeat way, out there in the sticks.

Of course, Komatipoort is at its stickiest in the height of summer when the Onderberg’s temperatures can melt a Highvelder to a mush but for most of the year the climate is warm and balmy. The people are also generally warm and only a select few are barmy.

It’s not a pretty town. The centre is the usual unaccustomed bundu blend of spares shops, general dealers and fast food outlets but head into the palm-strewn backstreets and you enter another world of broad avenues, lined with many magnificent mansions, even some without cement wagon-wheel walls, and a number of them are fine bed and breakfast establishments.

Amongst them, first amongst them maybe, is Trees Too. And I don’t mean are Trees Too, as in ‘I are carrying a T-shirt’. Amongst them is Trees Too Guest Lodge, a bed and breakfast in the back of the backstreets. Why the strange name? Because huge royal palms wave loudly in the night above the rooms with that swaying whoosh that sounds like rain, or maybe wind, or could just be huge palm trees swaying loudly in the night without rain or wind. Think of it as a lullaby and you’re asleep in seconds.

Trees Too is worthily unpretentious. Comfortable air-conditioned rooms, monster breakfasts, slap-up suppers, an honesty bar, friendly hosts, a good-sized pool with shady umbrellas and, yes, shade from the trees too.

Martyn and Sue Steele own and run Trees Too. They also love the place with the enduring passion and pride that only a truly dedicated B&B-owner can muster and, although their business sources are very diverse, their low tariffs reflect the importance they specifically attach to looking after the South African market (despite the fact that they come from somewhere near Manchester).

There’s plenty to do. The surrounding mountains of the eastern and western Lebombo ranges offer magnificent hikes with views over Lake Matsamo; there’s the Samora Machel Monument, crafted from the wreckage of the late President’s plane, and Jesus’ Footprint, evidence that the son of God Himself supposedly paid a visit to the region.

No doubt He stopped over while He waited for a lesser authority to finalise His Mozambiquan visa, but I am sure He was thrilled with what He found. He would have liked Trees Too. The waving palm fronds would have made Him feel right at home.

IF YOU GO:

Where it is: Trees Too Guest Lodge is just over four hours from Johannesburg, an hour from Maputo on a good day and ten minutes from the Crocodile Bridge Gate of the Kruger National Park.
Why go there: If game-viewing is not your bundle, there’s also horse-riding, microlighting, golf, quad-biking, tiger-fishing, hiking and cultural tours.
What it has: A very complicated array of rooms and different bed configurations to suit even the most disjointed family.
Rates: From R305 per person sharing, but the price goes down even further if more than two share a room
Getting there: Take the N4 until the last turning on the left before the Lebombo borderpost, following the signs to Komatipoort. If you are stopped for a passport check, you’ve missed the turning.
Contact: Trees Too Guest Lodge, 9-11 Furley Street, Komatipoort. Tel 013 793 8262 Emailinfo@treestoo.com Web www.treestoo.com

LOCAL ATTRACTION:

Tambarina

Our high-speed hurtle away from the border all those years ago was prompted by a prawn feast and too much Portuguese wine. Indeed, twenty-five years ago, the only convincing reason to visit Komatipoort was for LM prawns. Particularly those served by the LM Cafe which was little more than a small roadside bar in regular trouble with the law for its lack of licences, a problem the owner handled by changing the restaurant’s name almost every week.

Whatever the name might have been, the quality and, in those days, the spectacular length and girth of the prawns, never faltered. And neither did the Vinho Verde.

In 2009, this prime role in Komatipoort Society is filled, very amply, by the more exotically- and permanently-named Tambarina and, while its plain bush-pastel paint and its timberlog furniture are not overwhelming, what the place lacks in interior design it more than makes up for in fare with flair.

The menu churns out,  with a surfeit of apostrophes, all the usual solid steakhouse stuff but it is the seafood that is fabulous beyond the keenest expectation. The platter and, in particular, the prawns are absorbingly indulgent, so much so that one in our midst, an eleven-year-old, managed seventeen Queen prawns through a series of cunning raids on the plates of sated and defeated adults.

This feat should not be seen as a poor reflection on the size of the crustaceans but rather as a recommendation to discerning shellfish fans of their extreme edibility. Wash it all down with a good bottle of white and Tambarina is the Onderberg’s greatest treat. No visa required.

Tambarina, 77 Rissik Street, Komatipoort
Tel 013 793 7057 Fax 086 620 6218 tambarina@vodamail.co.za
Open Monday to Saturday. Lunch 11.00 to 14.30. Dinner 18.00 to 21.00.
Children’s menu and takeaways also available.

Tree-spotting in Tuscany

Chris Harvie finds that all in Tuscany is not as it seems

It is wonderful to be back in Tuscany and to wander under a star-speckled sky through streets unchanged in hundreds of years. Scattered on the pavements in front of arched wooden doorways are dozens of chequered tables where revelling diners, blissfully unconcerned for their safety, are enjoying traditional pasta dishes, pizza and Thai food?

Here, a sign, in Italian obviously, warns against swimming in a fountain strewn with coins, there above our heads, strung from ancient window to ancient window above the narrow alley, is a line of rugby jerseys and antipodean flags? We turn into the main piazza with its attractive street lamps and cobbles, more restaurants and face-painting and slot machines? Rounding the corner to the Teatro, it suddenly starts to rain.

There is an incongruous wailing of sirens on the night air. I am jerked back to reality. For where is our clear-skied tranquil scene? Inside Monte Casino. Where are we now in the rain? Outside Monte Casino.

But Johannesburg is only apparently Tuscan on selected street corners in the Northern Suburbs. And I don’t think Tuscany has those funny crow-like bent chimney vents that turn in the Highveld breeze either. Or quite the same level of security fencing. But then nor does it have the spectacular Highveld sunset over Midrand, as seen from the N1 South when you are not counting how many chevrons lie between you and the massive Cadillac SRX in front.

A message flashes up overhead, apparently in Bulgarian. FLOWNG TRAFC ON N1 BTWN OLFTSFTN & BUCCLCH INTCHG. The fact that the traffic was actually flowing is so surprising that we need to be warned in case we brake, out of habit, for a bottleneck that isn’t happening.

Another sign. FREEWAY UNDER CAMERA SURVEILLANCE. Are we in a special edition of Big Brother on Wheels?

I am suffering from sign fatigue. THE NEW NISSAN QASHQAI. TAKE TO THE STREETS. How the heck do you pronounce Qashqai? Do you need to be able to speak Xhosa? And how many different types of Nissan can there be? I am driving a hired Nissan Tiida in slime-green, complete with the handy little triangles they stick onto hire cars to identify your status as an easy hijack victim.

I have successfully negotiated the Long Tom Pass; I have made it through Dallistrumio, the new Tuscan metropolis that has sprung up where the sleepy settlement of Dullstroom used to be. Now I am going around Pretoria and heading for Rivonia, both of which, luckily, already have Italian names.

I rarely visit Johannesburg and I am impressed. There are so many trees compared with wind-swept Cape Town and sultry Durban, and there are walls everywhere in Johannesburg to prevent tree-jacking. I see a wall so high in Sandhurst, it would take rope ladders and grappling hooks just to get up and see what was arborial and worth pinching on the other side.

Rather like America, everything seems to be bigger and better in Gauteng. The province exudes a confidence that is contagious. Recession, what recession? New buildings are going up everywhere you look. New hotels and restaurants. New houses and roads. New gardens and flowerbeds, palm trees and groundcover.

I am sure the developers know what they are doing and that this extra capacity is needed. And I am sure we will not end up with a network of empty decaying roads, abandoned hotels, hollow Tuscan villages, forgotten trees and a serious financial crisis.

Let me get out of this confusing city and back to the veld before I lose myself entirely. Perhaps, though, before I head off, a few reflective moments of star-gazing, back amongst the indoor trees of Tuscany, might help me to find my way.