Category Archives: Getaway

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.

The smell of the wild

The rigours of camping teach us to appreciate all the more the comfort of the daily lives we leave behind.

Like so many South Africans, I actively seek uncomfortable journeys. I camp therefore I smell.

The more mundane aspects of our lives define us where the extremes provide the tests and there is no more trying challenge than the vain and hopeless pursuit of luxury whilst camping. I was a child in England when I acquired my particular predilection for discomfort and, perhaps specifically, for ablutionary complications. I have now carried it with me for almost thirty years in Africa.

The 1970s. Five of us in a Volvo. Two eager parents. Three recalcitrant children. Behind the car, a trailer-tent. Expel from your mind the modern pop-up rooftop tent. Forget, too, today’s designer 4×4 trailers, for this was no quasi-caravan. It was little more than a flimsy plywood prostrate cupboard on wheels. Each side of the lid flipped over to form a precarious bed and supported a squashed, pram-like awning on a fold-out frame that caught me at neck level every time I climbed in. And I was a small eight-year old.

We moored this ridiculous contraption, annually, in a Dorset field just outside the Purbeck village of Langton Matravers. For a week.

England was a first world country, even then, and the reason for these journeys of deprivation was a parentally-guarded mystery. On other holidays we were allowed to stay in real hotels, even as far away as exotic foreign France, so it wasn’t a budgetary consideration, and lovely Langton Matravers consisted of a series of gorgeous thatched cottages dangling brimming flower baskets from their window boxes, so it wasn’t a regional lack of cultivation. The houses had electricity and water-borne sewerage.

Not us, though. Our field was on a steep slope; we camped at a jaunty angle at the top where it was drier. Meals were cooked on a primus stove. Perched on the lumpy mattresses, we ate baked beans and fried corned beef off yellow melamine plates around a dilapidated folding table, the top convex from the damp. The canopy leaked like a doily where each dismantling had differently caught, pinched and punctured the canvas. It always rained. Endlessly.

At the bottom of the hill was a small hut and behind it was a screened-off mildewed shower. The leaking tap on the outside of the hut was our nearest water supply while inside stood a basic thunderbox, an almost onomatopoeically-named lavatory similar in its refinement to a long-drop.

The damp from the sodden grass in the field would seep into our shoes from the ceaseless journeys up and down the hill to fetch a pail of water, if not to pass one,  each expedition fraught with the risk of going foot-first into what the English quaintly call a cowpat, of which there were many. Occasionally we would loose our footing in the slime, picking up speed and undesirably muddy backsides. Laundry was unthinkable and we spent days in the same damp crud-caked clothes. Fun it wasn’t, but it seems to have proved compulsive.

Nowadays, in Africa, the predisposition to seek hardship follows me still. On roadside camping expeditions in Mozambique, for example, the water supply might be a stream or, on a good day, a village standpipe; the thunderbox is a thornbush and the cowpat-risk has been superseded by the danger of landmines. It doesn’t rain as frequently but, when it does, it hurls it down with a power exceeding a hundredfold the constant drizzle of Langton Matravers. Tents don’t leak through small gashes; they wash away in flash floods.

There are no windowboxes here. No quaint country cottages. Just the raw, yet thrilling privations of Africa and the secure knowledge that somewhere, eventually, we will get to clean up with hot water and a close-couple lavatory.

The principle is the same, however, whether we be in the Isle of Purbeck or on Ilha de Mozambique. Although we travel to escape our humdrum existence, we rarely dread our ultimate return to it. We travel to be able to go home. Because home is where the bathroom is.