My Travels

Hit the Road, Jack. But Slowly
Portolio Blog February 2018

South Africans are big Road Trippers. After all, ours is a big country and it can often be quite a distance to get from where we are to where we want to be. From home to the game reserve, for example. From the mountains to the sea. From the big city to the open Karoo.

So, out of necessity, we have turned road journeys into an art form. A real-life high-quality art form, that is, not the 57% that the Rotten Tomatoes website awarded to the questionable American movie Road Trip, from the year 2000, or worse still, its sequel, Road Trip – Beer Pong, which mercifully never made it into theatres.

So how can a long journey be an art form? Well, here are some of the ingredients for a successful Road Trip:

  • Food and drink. We call it padkos, which translates literally from the Afrikaans as ‘road food’. It must be healthy stuff, especially if you are travelling with children. Take biltong, nuts, dried fruit, juices. Definitely not fizzers, unless you want to turn yourselves and any children accompanying you into fizzers themselves. Then there will be no peace. There will be shouting and clouting.
  • A stash of cash – to buy goodies on the roadside. Petrol stations might offer fuel and food top-ups (although probably not much healthy food) but South Africa is littered with superb roadside stalls, often signposted as a Padstal (road stall) or a Padstalletjie (small roadside stall). Afrikaans is good at that. It has a diminutive for everything. Imagine an English word ‘road-shoplet’ and that is what we are looking at. Anyway, they sell everything from from smoked fish to honeycombs, frech springbok fillet to Granny’s lace doilies, sliced pickled carrots called koperpennies (you got it – copper pennies) to home-made catapults, replica baby windmills to artisanal flip-flops. I know. Some things that you probably wouldn’t even touch with someone else’s bargepole, but you are getting the picture. If all else fails, you can just top up your biltong and nuts.
  • A good map. Yes, you can take your GPS but it will get lost. They always do. Give your GPS a name, like Eric or Mavis or Jehoshaphat, so that you can belly-laugh when it tries to send you down farm track D345 to Putsonderwater when you know full well that the N1 Cape Town is straight on. “Ha, ha, ha. Eric’s lost the plot again; he thinks we turn right here. Ho ho.” Endless fun.
  • A book of South African place-names so that you know that Putsonderwater means ‘well without water’. We have fascinating place names. There are many settlements named Onverwacht (meaning ‘unexpected’), for example, and Allesverloren (‘all is lost’), which leaves you wondering what whoever-named-it found in each place when they first got there. There is a Hotazel in the Northern Cape, which is, well, exceptionally warm. And there’s even a Collywobbles in the the Transkei, which is enough to make you shake with wonder. And did you know that Ladysmith (in KwaZulu-Natal) and Ladismith (in the Eastern Cape) were both named after Lady Juana Smith, the wife of Sir Harry Smith (the military man after whom Harrismith is named)? Juana was Spanish and she introduced the Cantaloupe melon to South Africa as a breakfast dish, which is why, here, it is called a Spanspek, or ‘Spanish bacon’ in Afrikaans.
  • You will need entertainment for the STOP/GO controls. We are (quite rightly) not trusted to use contraflows sensibly in South Africa, so wherever there are substantial road works under way, a STOP sign goes up and you can wait for as long as 20 minutes, while the traffic from the other end comes through, then the GO sign goes up, they wait, and it is your turn. So play I-Spy, then the Number-Plate Game, then the Farm-Name Game but when you have tired of those (or if you don’t know them) always have a pack of cards ready for Gin Rummy or, if you want to get highfalutin, take Travel Scrabble. And don’t abuse the people with the STOP/GO signs – they are only doing their jobs. In fact, wave and thank them for looking after you.
  • Finally, as above, bring your manners. You will meet many people. Fascinating fellow-travellers, many of them also on road trips. You can compare notes. And weather. And recommendations. “We had 47 degrees in Montagu two days ago, so today’s 37 degrees is bliss”. Or “Don’t miss the art museum in Graaff-Reinet – it is filled with South African masters”. Or “There’s a little padstalletjie just this side of Magoebaskloof that sells the most delicious skilpadjies.” A skilpadjie is a baby tortoise, except of course it is not really. These are chunks of liver wrapped in bacon and held together with cocktail sticks. They only look like tortoises and they are excellent on the braai.

So, talking of tortoises, obviously we all know the story of The Tortoise and the Hare, the moral of which, above all, applies to the good old South African Road Trip. If you go haring around, you will miss out, so Think Tortoise. Go slowly. Stop and go – not only when the signs say so, but whenever you feel the urge to take an ompad – a detour – because that is what a Road Trip is all about. Following the backroads.

Maybe Eric (or Mavis or Jehoshaphat…) is sometimes right, after all.

Born Again Zimbabwe
Portfolio Blog January 2018

This is serious. Well, fairly serious. It is serious in a happy sort of way.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog piece about borders in Africa and particularly about Beit Bridge, the infamously inefficient and awful border-crossing over the Limpopo from South Africa into Zimbabwe. And I wrote about Lovemore, my least-favourite Zimbabwean border-fixer and his equally appalling and corrupt co-conspirators Playmore, Trymore and Givemore.

Well, I am happy to report that it seems that soon we may be required to Give No More, as the new Zimbabwean era dawns with a massive crackdown on corruption by border officials and police. The Beit Bridge clean-up is still only a promise, but plans are in-hand to create a One-stop Border, rather like that boon of the obese, the KFC Drive-Thru. Finally, it seems that we may have found a constructive use for such a horribly lazy concept!

On the streets of Zimbabwe though, everything has already changed. And very quickly.

In June last year on the 760-kilometre, eight-hour drive from Victoria Falls to Beit Bridge, we went through 47 road blocks. That is one every 16 kilometres. Or looked-at differently, one every ten minutes. Naturally the ride was also much longer than eight hours – more like ten – due to the numerous delays caused by Temporary Importation Permit and Third Party Insurance checks, licence inspections, random vehicle searches and unproven illegal speeding fines. We even received a fine for having a fire extinguisher which was too small and a further long delay while the car was searched – almost dismantled – in a search for our non-existent cyanide supplies, with which we were accused of having been involved in some recent elephant poisonings in Hwange National Park.

The story had it – and this may have been, at least to some extent, a conspiracy theory – that the Zimbabwean Police had been posted to the roadsides by the old regime and told to raise their own salaries in fines due to a lack of cash to pay them. They were also posted at the toll plazas to ensure that everyone paid their $2 without arguing, and this payment was said to go straight into the pockets of the minister. Being thorough and efficient Zimbabweans, though – and however corrupt – they did at least have the decency to add a veneer of legitimacy to their activities by handing out receipts for everything.

Either way, I am happy to report that it is all over now. Just before Christmas, on the 300-kilometre drive from Harare to the Bvumba Mountains, near Mutare in Eastern Zimbabwe, we went through only two roadblocks and we were not pulled over at either of them. This is evidently the ‘new normal’ with the regulation being that there must be at least a 100-kilometre stretch between roadblocks. What a change and what a relief. Apparently 70 per cent of the police are to be laid off.

The road trip around Zimbabwe has therefore once again become a realistic option and it will be even better once Beit Bridge has been reborn in a new format. For now – with border crossings for private vehicles still taking up to three hours and with trucks taking as long as four days – road trippers should consider using the Plumtree border from Botswana for access or going via Pafuri or Giryondo into Mozambique. It is that bad.
Roll on, the New Zimbabwe, though. The people seem to believe in it. The Zimbabweans are inherently polite and composed people but December was one huge countrywide party with ubiquitous shouts of “Happy Freedom Christmas” and “Happy Second Independence”. It was as if we had flown into a national celebration, all the more palatable once were over the shock that the Airport Immigration desks were sponsored, with huge hoardings, by who-else (?) but KFC. I am sure this is unique to Zimbabwe. I certainly hope so.

Soon I genuinely believe that the police will be gone from the roadsides altogether and that the road borders will all be straightforward. Then Workmore and Stealmore should all be finally consigned to the dustbin of the past forever – maybe they should go and work at KFC and sell the Corruption Chuck-it Bucket dinner at the Drive-Thru instead – and we shall all be able to go to Zimbabwe and, not Pay More, but Play More.

How Green is my Vellie*
Portfolio Blog 28 Feb 2017

* a vellie (pronounced ‘felly’ and short for veldskoen) is a suede bush boot popular with bush-walking types

Our regular blogger, Chris Harvie, takes an uncharacteristically almost-serious look at the importance of going green.

There is an old joke about a call centre operator who is told to make up a sentence including four colours and he says:

“The phone goes green-green, green-green and I pink it up and I say yellow, blue am I speaking to?”

Colour is everywhere and all the colours are significant for different reasons, most of them bad. You can be red with embarrassment, purple with rage, feeling blue, green with envy, yellow from cowardice, white with fright, grey from illness, orange from too much fake tan …

All of them are negative and all are exaggerated – I mean did you ever actually see anyone go purple with anger, except in a cartoon show? – but there is a good green, a positive green, a green that saves the world. It is the green of environmentalism, the green of recycling, the green of clean air and a pollution-free environment. The Green Lobby. And it is the only such metaphorical colour to which the colour actually applies. You look at a picture of a leaf and you think green. (Or maybe you think toothpaste, but you know what I mean).

And its importance is such that it has a verb. You can’t red something, or blue it, but whole areas of the world are being greened, and there is no industry that is taking this greening more seriously than tourism. Only this morning, I was explaining to a guest in my little spot in Hazyview, Mpumalanga, that, like many game reserves in South Africa, I had planted spekboom in my garden to offset the carbon imprint of getting our visitors to South Africa by plane. It is a ‘wonderplant’ in that it removes more than 100 times as much carbon from the air than does a pine tree of the same size.

You see? We can all take this stuff seriously. Only a few years ago, we were worrying about CFCs in our fridges and our deodorants. Now we are gardening with carbon-eaters. And they really work. Like the blueberry superfruit or the macadamia health-nut, of which South Africa is now the largest producer.

Of course, there are the cynics, and the greenies who take it too far, but who are we to decide what is too far? Well, we are allowed a view. A banana and kale smoothie, which is very green, but also obviously disgusting, is taking it too far in my view. So is cucumber, which is also green. I also can’t think why nobody else seems to have worked out, as I have, that cucumber is poisonous. Otherwise why would it give you such bad wind?

But then again, there was a time when smoking and even drinking and driving were not frowned upon. Nowadays, both are more and more unacceptable, as is a failure to recycle. Even in the third world and in countries with huge social challenges such as ours, much has been done to mitigate the effects of pollution and bad living. We were one of the first countries in the world to introduce a levy on plastic bags, for example, and the first to propose a sugar tax.

South Africa may not be a great example when it comes to recycling, but we are doing our best. And as an industry, tourism is blazing a trail for others to follow. So, pink with shame, white with shock and feeling blue from the criticism, we saw red and went green and long may we remain that way, recycling, promoting sustainability and planting spekboom around every corner to offset all that jet damage.  We are all coming to the realisation that, unlike all those emotional reds, yellows and greys that paint such gloomy pictures, green is not a colour.

Green is, literally, a way of life, so make sure you go green right down to your boots, or you will really be putting your foot in it.

Spring has Sprung

July 2017

There are, of course, four seasons, as Vivaldi confirms – with his proof being most frequently heard in lifts and as holding music when reporting a fault to a parastatal – but almost everyone’s favourite is Spring. In Europe, there is the gambolling of the lambs and the sprouting of the daffodils, there’s Easter and the forwarding of the clocks in preparation for summer.

In April, it is what Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, called “his shoures soote”, or sweet showers, that herald Europe’s spring, although naturally in the southern hemisphere, everything is the opposite and we celebrate Spring Day at the other end of the year, which is now. Our Vernal Equinox falls on 22 September and it is an easy downhill run to the holidays from there.

Am I getting too high-brow? OK. Let’s keep it simple. Here’s another old piece of doggerel, often attributed (probably incorrectly) to Ogden Nash, about the coming of Spring. One version – there are many variations – goes like this:

“Spring has sprung, the grass is riz,
I wonder where de boidies is.
Some say de boid is on de wing, but that’s absoid,
De wing is on de boid.”

This one sums up more succinctly (although less idiomatically) what is exciting about our spring; the migratory birds return. The swallows, the barbets, the flycatchers and the cuckoos pour in from ever-chillier faraway climes, with all number of other species including some of the eagles and falcons, rollers and bee-eaters. We measure how close to full summer we are by the birdsong, the mating calls and the nest-building as the migrants return to re-join their cousins who stayed behind. Love is in the air – and the dawn chorus is positively deafening.

In addition, while the bush is still parched brown in northern parts of the region, many if of its trees and shrubs are in flower. The indigenous species, like the coral trees and the kudu lilies are ready to seed and the exotics like the jacarandas and the flamboyants celebrate the oncoming subtropical rains.

As far as the wildlife is concerned, it is time for a release from that collective knee-crossing as hundreds of thousands of antelope and many other species drop their young in anticipation of imminent green shoots of grass.

In the Cape, with the rain coming to an end, the warm summer of the region’s Mediterranean climate starts to take hold and the flowers come out in full splendour. On a more prosaic human level, the healthy (and the vain) head back to the gym to trim off the winter flab and prepare their physiques for the beach in a couple of months’ time.

Of course, going mediaeval again, the Chaucer quote is from the Prologue of “The Canterbury Tales”, the first part of which ends with the words: thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

What better time of the year to make a Pilgrimage to any part of southern Africa than when Spring has sprung?

Or, in the words of the late great Robin Williams: “Spring is nature’s way of saying ‘Let’s Party!’…”

It’s not called Spring Fever for nothing.

Bored by Borders

July 2017

I have always said that each of Africa’s former colonial powers, for better or for worse, has left behind a legacy that reflects its own national characteristics. You can experience the finest croissants in the former French colonies, for example, but maybe not the best lavatories. Namibia offers German sausage and some of the world’s best beers. Ethiopia’s national dish, apart from injera and wot, perversely, is macaroni cheese, resulting from a brief Italian occupation in the 1930s.
Unfortunately for us South Africans, most of our near neighbours were, like us, British possessions at some point, so we are left, not with good food, but with a complicated and unworkable bureaucracy that requires myriad lengthy forms to be completed with carbon paper in quadruplicate. Remember carbon paper? Yes, you thought it was redundant nowadays didn’t you? Wrong. It is alive and well and living in Africa. When available. Otherwise, we simply have to fill in the forms four times.
Beit Bridge Border Post. A Sunday morning in late July. Zimbabwean side, heading back into South Africa. “It is very busy today. I can help you!” Torn jeans. Holed T-shirt. Smart-looking badge around his neck, which on closer inspection, bears a photograph of the wearer and the word OFFICIAL. Nothing else. Clearly home-made. Good try, but no thanks.
There was no queue, we needed no help and the entire process of clearing both sides of the border, with a variety of different nationalities of passport, required less than half an hour. Had we agreed to have a ‘helper’, it would undoubtedly have taken much longer.
Contrast this with the inward journey to Zimbabwe a month earlier, which took more than two hours, also on a Sunday, and with unnecessary payments made to speed up the process. It had started badly, when we easily negotiated the need for Unabridged Birth Certificates and Affidavits for them, only to have two of our children arrested, aged 12, for exporting a stolen car to Zimbabwe. The official had misread my handwriting and the system had flagged up our incorrectly-entered number-plate as belonging to a stolen car. Alarms sounded. Processing ground to a halt. Everyone stared.
Luckily, the said official wanted lunch and was in a rush, but still it took several visits to the police station to get the arrest reversed. Our German fellow-travellers were then sent back to obtain a customs stamp on their gate pass. Luckily, as former East Germans, they could drive a HiLux through a fence and a wall without being noticed.
“Don’t speak to anyone else. If anyone approaches you, tell them you are dealing with Lovemore.” That is the thing about Zimbabwe. There’s always a Lovemore. Or a Praymore, a Talkmore or a Workmore.
I don’t know why I engaged Lovemore in the first place. I have crossed at Beit Bridge many times without help, but with two vehicles, including the Germans’ hire car, it seemed practical. And he looked very official. There was the Bridge Toll to pay, Immigration to negotiate, then Third Party Insurance and Carbon Tax to pay with the Temporary Importation Permit, a Customs Inspection to undergo and Police Clearance to obtain; all of which I could have done perfectly easily instead of being royally ripped off by Lovemore and his buddies, who then finally set about trying to sell us redundant reflective tape.
I was thus determined not to be taken for a mug again on the return journey, and when one of Lovemore’s alter egos on the exit side tried to persuade me that I owed him $20 for helping me to avoid a full vehicle inspection, I was ready. Instead of paying him, I willingly submitted to the search, albeit amongst much foot-stamping, only to be told that it didn’t apply to me. Sharks!
During the month between our visits to Beit Bridge, we crossed from Zimbabwe to Mozambique then into Malawi, then into Zambia, back into Zimbabwe and then home. Six borders in 28 days – and all of them took less than an hour and offered helpful signage and free assistance from officials.
There is much advice to be given on dealing with African land borders but primarily, remember that a border is made up of humans. Be polite, don’t rush them, stay calm, avoid major trade routes and and try to cross on a Sunday, when they are under less pressure, and at lunchtime, when the humans want to go eat and might rush you through. And don’t allow yourself to be taken in.
Had we not crossed at Beit Bridge at midday on a Sunday, I genuinely fear that we might well still be there, waiting for a Police Clearance Stamp, Lovemore or no Lovemore. And eventually, I would simply have had to break it to Lovemore that I simply didn’t love him anymore. In fact, I couldn’t have loved him less. Sorry.

Does Everybody Hate Winter?

June 2017

Winter. Hectic cold. Squalling rain. Short days. Soggy roads. Foggy commutes. Muddy carpets. Snotty noses. Gasping coughs. Boring television. Miserable adults. Grumpy children. Smelly dogs.
The WORST time of the year. The only good thing about winter is skiing – but apart from that, it is the one season that everybody dreads, right?
Wrong.
We South Africans love winter. We look forward to it and we embrace it, as one of our outdoor-wear stores likes to tell us in its advertisements, every year. Especially in the northern parts of the country, where it fits us perfectly, like a warm slipper.
So let’s go back to ad-speak (employ voice; maybe Liam Neeson or Morgan Freeman …)
“Imagine a place … where the sun shines reliably; every single day. Imagine … endless warm days and clear blue skies without a cloud; for months on end; walking, wildlife, long uninterrupted views. Imagine giant deeply-defined dark mountain ranges backed by dusty ochre and red sunsets. Imagine warming soups, fine steaks and a hearty glass of Shiraz in front of a warming fire in an open hearth. Imagine star-studded nights and cool, silent sleeps.
Then imagine that every day is like this, from autumn right through to spring. You are imagining … winter in subtropical South Africa.”
Thanks Liam. Or Morgan. Everything you say is true. This is not wild and exotic ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’. It is not Delhi-belly-bearing ‘Incredible India’. It is good old, just-like-home-only-much-much-better, friendly South Africa in the sunshine.
You can plan a hike, or a game drive any day. You can go camping, head out for a picnic, light a braai (a barbecue) and KNOW that the weather will be perfect. You can even plan a wedding and be sure that it won’t rain. In the daytime, it will maybe reach 25 degrees or more, then perhaps drop to 12 or 15 degrees in the middle of the night.
Winter is also the best time for wildlife-watching – probably July and August, when the bush is dry and the grass is low, forcing the game to gather at the rivers and waterholes.
And yes, in July, there is even skiing, in the Eastern Cape and Lesotho. Alpine chalets and carefully manicured pistes. Even mulled wine and après-ski. South Africa really does have everything. Picture postcard scenery and proper picture postcards to send to those foolish enough to stay at home, and show them what they are missing.
So put away the sou’westers, the umbrellas, the Barbours and the Benylin. Dig out the hiking boots, the sunglasses and the binoculars and head for winter in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo Province …
OK. So there is one fly in the ointment, even if there are no wasps at the picnic because we don’t have insects in the winter. In all honesty, the sunshine story does not apply to the Western Cape, which calls winter the Green Season for good reason. It rains there – but not every day, and when the sun comes out, which it frequently does even in winter, Cape Town is probably still the most beautifully-situated city in the world. Ask Liam. Or Morgan. They are both regulars.
So come on. Pull on some shorts and a T-shirt and let’s braai! It is wintertime in South Africa.

Whatever the Weather

May 2017

Capetonians know that one man’s mild is another man’s warm. Capetonians also know to escape northwards in winter. And what Capetonians know is worth knowing.
The whole world watches Sky News nowadays – Capetonians included – because the whole world is transfixed by the ups and downs of the British political system, by the seemingly endless numbers of royal events and by Britain’s fractious relationship with Europe. But of course we are all really only watching for the weather …
There is a downturn to the presenter’s face. He or she has just reeled off another tiresome report on an Underground strike or fracking in Yorkshire or football hooliganism or some other disaster, but then … the worst is yet to come:
“And now for the weather…”
It is without doubt the worst news of the day, despite its understatements and gently therapeutic reassurances:
“Starting with some drizzle but becoming heavier during the day. So far no flood warnings have been issued though …”
And even in the summer. “Starting off somewhat cool but cheering up a little later.”
And then, joy of joys. “The mercury will climb to a whopping 25 degrees Celsius in parts of the south-east today. Anyone venturing outside is advised to wear protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat and to carry extra water as there is a severe risk of dehydration and of allergy-causing seeds. Those working in offices should keep the air-conditioning on and drink lots of tea. Please keep an eye on elderly and infirm neighbours. Schools are advised to keep children inside during break…”
In the northern parts of South Africa, we also become quite excited at the prospect of 25 degrees, because it means it is not going to be 35 degrees. In the current climate, we have been through week upon week of temperatures in the mid-30s with regular forays, in Skukuza, into the 40s.
Mercifully, the upside of the lack of rain is that the heat has been a dry heat, and not humid. But – as the Aussies say – we have had to Slip Slap Slop Seek Slide. Slip on a shirt, slap on the suncream, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on the ‘sunnies’.
For the visitor, though, the South African sub-tropical winter in the northern part of the country offers some of the best weather anywhere in the world. Cool nights, going down to about 15 degrees, even sometimes as low as 10 degrees, and beautiful warm days in the mid 20s, where slipping, slapping and slopping are barely necessary. Twelve hours of sunshine, from 6am dawn to 6pm dusk. The perfectly balanced day.
So the South African weather forecast says, by contrast: “It will be a cool, sunny day in the Lowveld but becoming cold at night. Minimum 15 degrees. Maximum 27 degrees.”
One man’s blisteringly hot, is another man’s cool, as every Capetonian knows. So follow the Capetonians to Limpopo and Mpumalanga this winter!

The Mother of all Celebrations

April 2017

Of course, Mother’s Day is very important. I mean, where would we be without our mothers? Nowhere. Obviously. Scientifically. Literally. After all, everybody has a mother – and in these enlightened days, some people have two. Ask Bruce (sorry Caitlyn) Jenner’s kids, if you can get hold them. I think they are something to do with the Kardashians, so they are on TV all the time, but I forget the details. They have loads of mothers, including Bruce (sorry, Caitlyn) among them.
So, for all the mothers (and former-fathers) out there, it is very important that we mark the day properly and that we take the time to do something that mothers love. Like fishing. Or 4×4-ing. Or braai-ing and drinking brandy and Coke by the pool. Oh, no, sorry. That’s Father’s Day. Father’s Day is FUN. In the case of Caitlyn (when she was Bruce) his kids could have done a Decathlon with him. That, a few years back when he was an Olympian, would have been his idea of good bonding.
On Mother’s Day we tend, perversely, to torture our mothers by pretending to be them for a whole day and doing it really badly. We give them breakfast in bed, but the fruit juice is warm and the eggs and the tea are cold. The toast is not only similarly cold, but also hard and slightly burnt and when they try to apply the butter, it breaks into seven pieces and the crumbs go all over the bed and their night-dresses (Oopsy-daisy, Bruce).
We shower our mothers with Clicks Chocolate Selection Boxes and those Body Shop frilly baskets full of soap and smelly powders and cocoa-flavoured body butter. I mean, what on earth is body butter? (Not you Bruce …)
We then wash the dishes for Mom, but we do it so badly that she has to do them again …. and so the day goes on until the evening, when her best bet is to take back control and to cook supper herself, so that we don’t ruin that too. And to stop us from ordering in pizza. Mothers hate pizza – it represents everything that they think is evil about the modern world, along with socks on the floor and leaving the loo seat up.
So Mother’s Day is about being nice to Moms until they squeal to us to stop. Father’s Day is about doing cool things with Dad and buying him boy’s toys from Cape Union Mart, like knives and everlasting torches and those little screwdriver sets with all the tiny bits that go missing.
Children’s Day is not quite such a laugh, being all about the abolition of child labour – harder labour, that is, than making breakfast in bed or washing the dishes once a year. And there is even a Pet’s Day, when we can show our pets how much we adore them (proof of the old adage that every dog has his day) with a bone, or some catnip or a new chunk of cuttlefish.
Pet’s Day is 11th April. Every year and around the same time of Mother’s Day.
So don’t get confused, or the next thing you will be giving your Dad dry toast smeared, along with the duvet, with cocoa butter, while the dog plays with his new Leatherman and slurps Brandy and Coke at the poolside. Mom will meanwhile be sitting alone on the kitchen floor, sharpening her nails on the cupboard doors and chewing on a cow’s hoof by torchlight.
It really doesn’t pay to get confused about the importance of mothers, does it Bruce – sorry, Caitlin – unless you can get millions for appearing in a TV reality show? Then it pays.
Happy Mother’s Day.

Valentinophobia

14 February 2017

For an event that is all about ‘love’, it is extraordinary that the words ‘Valentine’s Day’ should create so little enthusiasm in the hearts of so many. In a large number of cases, in fact, the fourteenth of February doesn’t celebrate love, it strikes terror.
What am I going to do to show my ‘significant other’ how much I love him or her? Breakfast in bed? Flowers? Lingerie? If so, how lewd should it be? A card? Signed or unsigned? What if mine is not the only card that he or she receives? Should I send two, just to test the reaction? And just plain old Ferrero Rocher? Or heart-shaped Beacon chocolates? Oh dear. The stress.
And should the card be humorous, or more traditional, with blobby little fresh-faced cherubs flying around firing tiny arrows into aortas and ventricles?
Few are more wary of The Feast of St Valentine, though, than restaurateurs and hoteliers, on whom the pressure falls to make the day ‘extra special’ not just for one guest celebrating a birthday, or for one couple on honeymoon or marking an anniversary, but for every person in the restaurant or hotel. All at the same time. Private romantic moments in a thronging public place. Tricky.
So it is red roses all around, on the tables. One presented to each lady. But then what about the men? Some men love flowers, but how do you know? Give a flower to the wrong bloke and he might thump you.
It is mushy music. But what? Love is in the Air (too corny) or The Greatest Love of All (too loud) or Air on a G-String (too much double-entendre)? Anything by Michael Bublé will have the ladies swooning, but then the men might feel a little nauseous.
So we draw little cream hearts in the soup, but what if it spreads and looks more like a tadpole? And worse still, when we try to cut cherry tomatoes into heart shapes, why do they always end up looking like little bottoms?
Then there is that horrific hotel room concept of the romantic turn-down. Petals, poetry and scented candles, all of which have to be cleared up the next morning.
So while you are worrying about what you are going to do with your partner for Valentine’s Day, spare a thought for the hospitality people, who have to come up with the right vibe for everyone, aged from 17 to 97, all out on a date and almost all, at best, a little nervous and beset with over-inflated expectations.
After all, who was this Saint with all this hype attached to him? Evidently the original Saint Valentine of Rome was a priest who performed hundreds of marriages in his lifetime, many of them secretly, for persecuted Christians and for Roman legionnaires who were forbidden from marrying.
And what are we left with now? Relics of Valentine himself, scattered across the world as seems to be the way with saints – a few bones in Rome, a few more in Dublin – and one day of the year which results, in the UK alone, in the exchanging of more than 25 million cards and the spending of £1.3 billion on flowers and chocolates. In the US, 190 million cards are sent and the average spend per person is over $150.
In South Africa, with our disastrous postal system, 25 million cards are probably sent but none of them will arrive before Christmas. “Darling, I sent you a card, I promise! It will be in the Randfontein sorting office.” Ugly scenes might ensue.
And don’t forget the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. What was that again? The husband who bought Ferrero Rocher, when he should have known that his wife didn’t like hazelnuts …

Christmas in Africa

December 2016

It’s a common question – and a bit of a strange one: “Do you have Christmas in Africa?”
Well, yes, we do and it is huge. Like God. Really very, very popular. Which is why it is a strange question. After all, just over 80% of South Africans are apparently church-going Christians, compared, for example, with 11.4% of British people! God bless Africa.
Christmas is therefore clearly not a purely European or American celebration, for many reasons, not least of them being the fact that the major events to which it relates occurred two thousand years ago in a sophisticated Levantine culture, 800 years before Alfred burnt the cakes, a thousand years before the Norman Invasion and 1500 years before Christopher Columbus stumbled across America and ‘discovered’ it.
Yes. We do have Christmas trees, but they are decorated with Ndebele-patterned money-oranges. And we have wrapped presents and lots of food. We also have the Queen’s Speech on television – we are in the Commonwealth after all.
Somewhat more illogically, we also have Christmas cards with snowmen on them. And robins – but European robins sitting on snowy holly bushes, and not, as you might expect, our own white-browed scrub robins sitting in dry acacia thorn trees.
But that is where the similarity ends. The rest we have adapted to our own conditions. For example, I have always persuaded my children that Santa’s sleigh is pulled by Keith, a leaf-browsing kudu, not Rudolph, a sugar-lump-chomping, red-nosed reindeer, because who the heck in Africa knows what a reindeer is?
The main key difference is that it doesn’t snow. Ever. So we spend the day outside by the swimming pool and we braai – or barbecue – anything we can get our hands on, including the turkey.
The African tradition of giving presents is a little simpler than the European version too, in that South Africans celebrate by buying things that they wouldn’t always buy in great quantities throughout the year. Most of us mark Christmas as a renewal and in African culture everyone wears new clothes on Christmas Day. We also dispose of whatever is left of our Christmas bonuses by buying a lot of beer to go with the meat, or, in the case of the ruling classes, a lot of Johnnie Walker Blue to go with the KFC.
Of course, Christmas falls in the middle of our summer holidays so the most marked indication that we are about to celebrate the birth of Christ is the moment when most of inland South Africa heads for the toll roads at a rate of over a thousand cars per road per hour and decants, a long drive later, onto the beach in Durban or Cape Town where it spreads its ill-gotten gains and expanding physiques.
Perversely, this also makes it the perfect time to visit the province of Gauteng (where Johannesburg and Pretoria are situated) for Christmas in the non-snow, Christmas pantomimes, Christmas carol services, Christmas with the Lipizzaners, Christmas shows like Annie and Joseph, and all manner of festivities in celebration of empty roads and malls.
In fact, from early December, the entire country closes down, just like France and Italy in August. Nobody, but nobody, achieves anything at all for about four weeks, with the honourable exception, of course, of the hospitality industry. (So be kind to us – and bear in mind that we are toiling away, alone, in a world full of holidaymakers. Our suppliers are all either on leave or drunk. The shops are empty of food. Our out-sourced laundry is on a half-staffed go-slow. Our electrician is on the beach. Our plumber is on safari in Namibia…)
This period of limbo persists until about 6th January, when the collective hangover (known locally as a babalas or babalazi) starts to clear and everyone drifts home to reconnect with their old clothes, their old jobs, their old lives – renewed, refreshed and a good few kilograms heavier – and all the restaurateurs and hoteliers can take down the tree and get some well-earned shut-eye.
In the meantime, we are ready and we look forward to seeing you soon. Bring your swimming gear, sun tan lotion and a large hat. We will do the rest. Merry African Christmas. It is just like Christmas at home, only better.

Walking it Off

April 2016

Walking it off …
“If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” So said Charles Dickens, long before fast food began to cause people truly to explode and perish.
The Escarpment towns of Sabie and Graskop may be wholesome junk-food-free little places but they have pancakes for sale in every doorway and these must be walked off, just as much as dogmeat-burgers and fried rat, to avert self-detonation.
The most effective way to lose weight nowadays is to sign up for a ‘Survivor’-style reality show and to be nourished only with grubs, berries and the hatred of one’s fellow participants. The Australian version of ‘I am a Celebrity …’ was filmed right here although, far from being without manna in the wilderness, the participants were truly never more than 500 metres from a Harrie’s Chicken Liver Pancake.
So let’s take a walk …
1) Jock of the Bushveld Walk, Graskop
This gentle grassland route passes through Paradise Camp, which features strongly in Jock’s eponymous book. Of course, everything around here is a Jock-Something and the dog has many graves. Unsubstantiated rumour has it that one of his toenails is buried along this trail, but if you can’t find it, ogle the proteas instead.
2) Belvedere Trail, Bourke’s Luck
In rugged country, from Bourke’s Luck Potholes down to the Blyde River, the name is ironic. Tom Bourke predicted gold but found none himself, settling instead for rare samango monkeys. This is a great workout, terminating at the ancient and defunct Belvedere hydro-electric plant, one of three which powered the Pilgrim’s Rest Gold Rush and provided the town with electric street lights before even London had them.
3) Loerie Trail
The red wing-feather of a loerie (now Turaco) is the sign of a Swazi Chieftain. You too will feel like a king, as you set off past the caravan site, the memory of your plush Portfolio-accredited accommodation still fresh in your mind. Cool plantations are spattered with chunks of wildlife-rich indigenous forest, watered by the cooling Bridal Veil Falls. Feel as light as feather …
4) Forest Falls Walk and 5) Graskop Day Trail
The Mac-Mac River is best-known for the falls of the same name, its twin chute resulting from a real-life explosion caused by two careless Irishmen experimenting with dynamite. The Forest Falls are known for being the only falls in Mpumalanga to be wider than they are high. Like someone in need of a good hike, maybe? Waterfalls can be famous for just about anything, it seems, but this is great for a dip and to break out the jelly babies. The Graskop Day Trail is similar but goes twice the distance.
6) Matumi Trail
A shady meander along the Mac Mac River, from the Sabie Valley restaurant opposite Induna Adventures. Cool off in the forest, chase butterflies, find a rare Narina Trogon and then undo it all by getting stuck into a quiche. Nobody will know and surely you have hiked enough by now …
7) Lone Creek Falls, Sabie
A lone creak of the knees – this one’s for everyone. It is all of about 200 metres long but at least you got out of the car.
OK. Anyone for a pancake?!

Driving us Mad

October 2015

Often people have said to me – although admittedly not so often recently – that South African drivers are both polite and disciplined and that our roads are fantastic. However, they can occasionally be fraught with danger for the uninitiated, so here, in a service to our readers, is a string of tips for drivers unfamiliar with South Africa driving conditions:
• You will initially be baffled by our ‘Stop Streets’, although it is essential to understand them very quickly as you will encounter them immediately, even in the Parkades and on the precincts of the airports (where you will almost certainly be harassed by a traffic officer hell-bent on annoying you before you even get out onto the public roads). At a Stop Street, you are obliged to come to a complete and utter stop. The order of departure from the ‘Stop’ position is dictated by the order of arrival – first come, first leave – although in reality, it is simply a game of Chicken with potentially expensive consequences for any player who makes a wrong judgement. Note that drivers from Gauteng Province (with GP at the end of their number plates) are of the belief that Stop Streets do not apply to them.
• When you see the word ROBOT painted on the road, do not slow down in the belief that R2D2 is about to cross. Robots are traffic lights, so yes, do slow down and prepare to stop if the light is red, unless you are driving a GP-registered car (see above) in which case, as above, you might get away with believing that stopping at red robots is optional – and maybe die. A flashing red robot is out of synch and must, perversely, be treated as a Stop Street.
• Similarly, the solid white line in the centre of the road which, in the whole of the rest of the world, indicates that there should be ‘No Overtaking’, is generally (and often lethally) taken, in South Africa, to indicate that overtaking is perfectly OK even (maybe especially) if you can’t see around the blind corner. Another frequent cause of accidents, this doesn’t seem to put anyone off. In fact, the U-turn just over a blind rise is also now becoming increasingly popular.
• The area to the left of the yellow line – the hard shoulder – is also strictly out-of-bounds to all vehicles unless they have broken down, but it is nevertheless always used to allow overtaking and, especially by vehicles bearing a sticker with the words THIS VEHICLE DOES NOT DRIVE IN THE YELLOW LINE, to allow triple overtaking, which is tantamount to treating a single-lane road as a three-lane highway.
• Undertaking, as everywhere in the sane world, is strictly illegal and therefore extremely popular here, so check ALL your mirrors regularly. It is absolutely not sufficient to assume that no-one is coming past you on the left. They probably are (see GP-plates above).
• Circles are roundabouts. Be aware that South Africans are relatively new to the concept of roundabouts and are really not very good at them. Roundabouts are indicated by a hollow black broken ring on a triangular road sign and, often but not always, rumble strips with the intention of slowing down those who have ignored the hollow ring. The said ring should not be confused with a large (sometimes very large) rectangular signboard with a huge solid red spot and the words HIGH ACCIDENT ZONE. These signs mean what they say, but it would be a foolish person who assumed that the lack of a red spot sign meant, in any way, that you were entering a LOW ACCIDENT ZONE. We do not have any such zones.
• Dicing and speedsters are high among the reasons for the road accident rate, although, mercifully visitors are rarely involved as they tend to be a little bit more grown-up than South Africans when it comes to racing off traffic lights, stop streets and circles and zig-zagging in and out of fast moving lines of vehicles. It is fun though.
• Contrary to what you might think you are seeing, driverless cars have not yet hit South African roads. The car you are looking at – and which appears to be driverless – does actually have a driver, but he is lying down while he drives. He may be asleep. He may not. Either way, he can’t see very much, any more than you can see him.
• Similarly, you will often see an apparently empty Traffic Police vehicle parked on a verge or along the side of the road. In fact, sometimes they are actually in the road. The car is, however, not empty. There is at least one traffic officer in the car – sometimes two, three or even four of them – horizontally digesting a large portion of fried chicken and chips and a full-fat fizzy drink. The prevalent belief that all traffic officers are a) corrupt and, b) are living in very large houses, is untrue. It does not apply to all of them. But it does apply to some of them and you should (seriously) NEVER pay them cash, even when they are awake.
• Car guards, on the other hand, never sleep. They are always there. Sometimes uniformed and sober, sometimes in a borrowed, torn high-vis vest and looking a little the worse for wear. “I look after your car for you, Boss/Ma’am” signifies a contract to pay on your return for leaving your vehicle in his or her care. “Everything still fine, Boss/Ma’am” signifies that the contract has been completed and it is time to pay up. The going rate is about R5 – and it is worth keeping them on your side.
• Another sleepless group consists of the interesting people at the robots, who are out to sell you licence disc holders, wiper blades, mobile phone chargers, ‘genuine’ Police sunglasses, selfie sticks, car-branded keyrings and coat hangers. All the things you can’t get anywhere else or, in the case of the selfie-sticks, live without. Be nice to them. They have probably come all the way from the Ivory Coast to sell you a pack of dustbin bags.
• And of course, in case you are not scared yet, night-time, when the traffic cops are asleep in their beds (as opposed to in their cars) is the time when all the unroadworthy cars come out, held together with duct tape, chewing gum and bailer twine and with limited numbers of functioning lights. In fact, frequently they have no real lights at all and drive with just their hazards on for a suicidal game of “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t”.
• Finally – and talking of “Now You Don’t See Me” – no piece of South African road would be complete without a sprinkling of SLAGGATE signs. A SLAGGATE sign does not, however, indicate the Exit for a Person of Easy Virtue. Slaggate is the Afrikaans for ‘Potholes’ and such a warning should be taken seriously. For anyone struggling to ascertain whether we drive on the left or the right side of the road, we have a sophisticated system, especially when faced with a rash of potholes, of driving on the best side of the road. If you see a pair of ears sticking out of a looming pothole, it might not be a rabbit but a giraffe.
Of course, what I really mean to say is that South Africa is a fantastic destination for a self-drive holiday and the drivers are both polite and disciplined – with one or two exceptions, by no means all of them with GP number plates – and our roads are, for the most part, in fantastic condition, dead straight and blissfully low on traffic. Just mind you don’t fall asleep!

Graaff-Reinet, The Karoo – February 2010

2 May 2010

Nieu Bethesda, my bugbear and potential nemesis, is growing on me slowly. Perhaps it looks better after rain. André’s Brewery still offers the only acceptable lunch, even if there is only one choice on the menu (which, as I keep trying to tell him, means there isn’t a choice).

An Invitation to Grahamstown

13 April 2010

I have been invited to speak at the Grahamstown Festival as part of the Think!Fest 2010 initiative. My talk will be at 2pm on 2 July at The Monument restaurant and there will be a “Conversations with Authors” evening later in the afternoon. I hope there’s an audience …

Nairobi, Mombasa and Lamu – January 2010

12 March 2010

In January, I took a ten day trip to Kenya on Air Miles, sparing the pick-up/bakkie for a change. With so many lengthier African journeys under my belt, it was potentially confusing to be away for such a short time. It felt like taking a quick dunk instead of a proper swim.

I got around this by reading Sihle Khumalo’s ‘Heart of Africa’ on the plane. By the time I reached Mombasa I felt as if I had been in and out of as many minibus taxis as he had and was well into travelling mode. I was interested to see that Sihle was born in Nqutu, in KwaZulu-Natal and just down the road from Fugitives’ Drift Lodge, my alma mater. I must now read his first book to complete the picture.

This short stay in Kenya included a couple of days in sultry Mombasa, 4 nights on Lamu and the spectacular train from Mombasa to Nairobi. The best experience of all was a visit to an orphanage outside Nairobi and the infectious enthusiasm of its occupants. I think I was hard on Kenya in my book and I look forward to exploring it in more detail soon.

Along the Coast from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth – December 2009

11 February 2010

A quick spin to Cape Town (for a meeting to discuss converting a forward control Land Rover into a safari vehicle) led to some auspicious discoveries and the launch of my EAT RIGHT EN ROUTE campaign for fresh fruit and healthy food in petrol station shops:

1) The Vineyard Hotel in Newlands offers some of the best vegetarian food I have ever eaten (no, I am not a vegetarian).

2) Whale-watching is not as boring as it sounds and The Marine Hotel, on a Hermanus cliff-top, is proof, if it were needed, that a South African 5* hotel is up there with the finest in the world.

3) Mossel Bay’s scruffy under-reconstruction “waterfront” hides one of the best seafood options in the land – Gypsey Cove. Plump oysters and lekker chokka.

4) Knysna’s traffic problem is no closer to being solved, even now that the causeway over the lagoon is finished.

5) Port Elizabeth’s Courtyard Hotel is further evidence that this chain has it spot-on. The only complaint in the visitor’s book (predictably from a government employee) was that the TV wasn’t plasma screen. Strange priorities, indeed.

Final Conclusion: The Garden Route will (probably) be wonderful when it is finished.

Namibia – October and November 2009

24 November 2009

Recently my travels took me, with some friends, to two of South Africa’s dry National Parks, Augrabies NP and the Kgalagadi TP on the way to and from Namibia. A South African traveller’s life is a journey incomplete without visiting and absorbing these two Kalahari national parks, while Namibia offers the ultimate unique camping destination.

We stayed in The Fish River Canyon, The Richtersveld National Park, Luderitz, Helmeringhausen, Sossusvlei, The Namib Naukluft National Park, Swakopmund and Windhoek. With bicycles and climbing boots aboard the Jeep, our journey was an endless feast of exploration and discovery. You can see photographs of the expedition on the website of Anton du Toit, my photographer colleague. See www.antondutoit.com

Over the next few months I shall post itineraries on this page and discuss plans for future trips

Author and Freelance Travel Writer