Month: August 2015

Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” – Ernest Hemingway. 

It got me. Finally. Just like so many others, my husband and parents included. It happened a bit faster for them, and I’m sure that for each person the ultimate contributing factors and speed of effect are quite unique. Whatever it is, it seems to happen to people. And as I sit on my Qantas 747 looking out of the window at the yellow lights of Johannesburg shrinking slowly below, I am hit with the realisation. Africa. You’ve captured me.

I sit here now trying desperately to hold onto every single moment and memory of the last three weeks, dreading that with every kilometre we get further away the memories will grow dimmer. Already it feels like our days in Johannesburg and the national parks are a long time ago. We’ve seen and done so much in between…

Well. It seems I’m getting a little mellow and nostalgic.

Ain’t nobody got time for that! I haven’t filled you in yet on our last week – the gourmet end – of our South Africa anniversary adventure: our time in the Stellenbosch wine region and Cape Town, and our experiences at three of South Africa’s top restaurants.

Our first stop was the Frog Lodge, a small, simple cottage on a wine farm at the base of the Franschhoek mountains. Driving into Franschhoek, South Africa’s renowned food and wine capital, Tyson and I agreed that we had never seen a town set in such a magnificent location. We came through the mountains, having just driven through the smaller Robertson Wine Valley, and even there we were stopping constantly to take photos of the beautiful scenery. When we turned the corner and got our first glimpse of Franschhoek, a small town of white houses and vineyards surrounded by high, rocky mountains on each side, all we could say was wow. Clouds touched the top of the mountains as though placed there carefully, not daring the journey across the sky to cast shadows upon the beauty of the valley below.

At night, the wind howled through the trees outside our cottage, and in the mornings a completely blue sky was slowly touched with dabs of white as clouds crept in through the gaps in the surrounding moutains.

Franschhoek, the smallest and most spectacularly set town in the Stellenbosch wine region, is one of South Africa’s oldest settlements. It’s a charming town, though locals call it a village, and its main street is lined with cafes, gift shops and galleries. Family-run wine estates surround the town, some of which date back to the late 17th Century when French Huguenot refugees were given the land to settle in by the Dutch government.

Today, the whole region is well set up for tourists, and on our second day (we spent our first exploring the nearby city of Stellenbosch), we took part in a full day wine tasting tour featuring a small wine tram, six wineries (many still built in and around the original farm houses) and about 20 glasses of wine (each). We met some nice people, tried pairing different Biltongs and olive oils with wine, and attempted to locate bits of our palette which were able to deduce the difference between ‘intelligent vanilla flavours’, ‘red berry and tobacco notes’ and ‘subtle oak tannins.’ I am sad to say that despite this full day intensive workshop I do not consider myself any higher on the wine IQ ladder .  I admit this could also be due to the amount of wine consumed and that by the end we were happy to still be distinguishing between red and white.

Consumption of wine in excess of our usual amounts had also been a feature of our previous evening in Franshhoek, as we were lucky enough to get a table at The Tasting Room, an exciting and innovative multi award-winning restaurant spearheaded by Africa’s first Grand Chef, Margot Janse.

Because of the relativity of price and value compared to the same thing at home (a factor which has delighted us this whole trip), we decided to splash out and get the 10 course African-inspired surprise menu with matching wines. Dishes featured crazy creations like pure white ‘black pepper snow’ that disappeared on your tongue leaving a hint of pepper, tomato ice-cream, oyster mousse and a cocktail made with popcorn; and for each course the waiters explained the history and method of the dish and why the matching wine was paired perfectly. It was an incredible culinary adventure.

Although we would have loved to stay in Franschhoek for longer, it was soon time to head to Cape Town – the last stop on our amazing journey.

In Cape Town we were accommodated in Frances’ Air B&B apartment – a cool designer loft in the middle of a trendy but rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood. Woodstock, a fairly mixed race part of town, has lots of hip antique and design shops lined up beside great cafes and lots of colourful street art. The area is going through an urban transformation stage, though you could tell that there were still a few issues when the police showed up two nights in a row at the house opposite us in the middle of the night.

Just a short distance from Frances’ apartment lies the Old Biscuit Mill, home of a vibrant Saturday food and craft market and the famous South African restaurants The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club.

The Test Kitchen was listed 28th in the 2015 Top 50 restaurants in the world and Best Restaurant in Africa in 2015

. The Pot Luck Club, its newer sister restaurant, is just meters away, and while the food was tasty, it seemed that in every other way it was the ugly step sister to The Test Kitchen, as the service and other features simply did not compare. Tyson and I joked that it was the reject restaurant for everyone who wanted to get into The Test Kitchen but couldn’t – after all, when we tried to book a dinner in May for August, the place was booked through to November. We were lucky to get in for lunch. At The Test Kitchen, the food was beautiful and considered but less experimental than The Tasting Room. Tyson preferred this but I was more excited by  the abstract nature and creativity at The Tasting Room.

By the end of all of this (affordable!) fanciness (AUD 55 each for a 7-course degustation at Africa’s best restaurant) we were ready for some normal food again, and finished our last day in Cape Town with some seafood at the V&A Waterfront with Gareth, the friend who had taken us for dinner in Johannesburg on our very first night in the country.

Last but not least, we retraced our footsteps of 2006 (the first time both Tyson and I came to Cape Town) and visited Rick’s Cafe, the same place we randomly discovered on our first ever night  in the city.

And there it was. A full circle. A circle of food, roads, laughter, locals, animals, towns, beautiful scenery and memories so many they get lost in the vacuum.

It has been, without a doubt, and only in competition with my 7-month solo Europe trip at age 18, the best holiday of my life and my heart is full of thankfulness for every moment and every day that I got to experience this adventure with my best friend.

Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. – 1 Chronicles 29:13

The Garden of Plenty

“It’s like we’re actually driving through someone’s garden,” said Tyson from the driver’s seat on our first day on the Garden Route. The scenery outside was a combination of natural, sometimes flowering shrubbery surrounded by lovely mowed grass – as if someone with great love and respect of the natural beauty of the land had decided to make it just that little bit more inviting by making it ‘neat.’

The Garden Route, arguably South Africa’s premier attraction after Kruger National Park, is a roughly 300km stretch of road from Storms River in the Eastern Cape to Mossel Bay in the west. Incredibly diverse in its topography, scenery and vegetation, you could easily spend weeks just driving from one small ocean hamlet to the next and from one national park to another.

For us, it turned out to be a garden full of surprises – a playground perhaps, full of things to discover and experience.

In Jeffreys Bay, the seaside town famous for being one of the world’s best surfing spots (and more recently famous for being the place where, as locals say, “that Aussie surfer of yours tried to bash up our shark”), we sat and watched wetsuit-clad wave addicts attempt to conquer the super tubes. Our B&B, run by an elderly couple with retirement dreams of Malaysia, had a view of the ocean. The town itself was sleepy and almost a bit dodgy, not helped by the fact that we were there on a dreary, grey public holiday and that many houses were up for sale.

That being said, we did have our first amazing seafood encounter in Jeffreys Bay – an $80 seafood platter for two including lobster, prawns, mussels, fish, calamari, rice, chips, salad and a bottle of wine. It was so much food that after eating all we could, we were happy to pass on our leftovers to the township boy who had been minding our car for us – Bokonya, a fifteen year old boy in grade six with dreams of becoming a pilot. I made a note to pray for him and his future. It’s not easy for these kids to break out of the economic status they’re born into, as even though they mostly all get a basic education, there are no public universities. The only way for someone from a township to get a tertiary education is to be awarded a lucrative scholarship, and these are usually only offered to those wanting to study science and become doctors.

Our next stop on the Garden Route was Tulani – an amazing eco house set amongst the Crags (a small area of indigenous forest 12km from popular beachside hub, Plettenberg Bay). An absolute stellar Air B&B find, this house had a fireplace, high wooden ceilings and a curved roof made out of grass. From the upstairs bedroom you could see the mountains, and in the mornings the sun streamed in through the floor to ceiling windows.

In Plettenberg Bay (nicknamed “Plett”) we took a guided township tour, visited a local market, hiked 9km to the spectacular Robberg Peninsula and ate dinner at Emily Moon – a creative restaurant decked out in rustic wooden candle holders, African animal furs and hunting-inspired decor. Needless to say, our time in Plett was a highlight of this week!

The morning we left Tulani was sad and exciting at the same time – sad because we didn’t want to leave, and exciting because we were about to undertake a full day South African cooking class! Run by Albin and Jenny Kilzer, an Austrian / Croatian-Scottish-South African couple famous in the area (Knysna) for their longtable and ‘cook and look’ dinners, this class was an absolute joy. Starting the morning with coffee and soon progressing to wine, five of us (Albin & Jenny, both qualified chefs and one a qualified butcher, a German lady named Erika and the two of us) prepared no less than 5 dishes in 6 hours and tried a few more. At the end of the day, we sat together around the dining table to enjoy our creations, until Jenny realised she’d forgotten her daughter at school (again) (quote: “I always lose track of time in the kitchen!”) and it was time to leave with full stomachs, a few more eye wrinkles from laughing, and a whole folder of recipes to re-try at home.

After the cooking class, Tyson and I discovered our next home – a tent among the treetops with a kitchen, balcony perfect for bird watching (amazing, the new hobbies you discover…!) and an outdoor hot tub big enough for two. What a perfect spot! Our tent, and a small handful more of them, were scattered throughout the treetops of a farm in the hinterland of Knysna, and soon became another key spot on our list of favourite accommodations.

Unfortunately, our last stop along the Garden Route, Botlierskop Private Game Reserve (our most expensive lodging) left us a little less enthused after we discovered that our luxury tented suite had no running water. Nevertheless, the attentive staff, good food, lovely spa treatments and a wonderful afternoon organised by Tyson meant that I enjoyed a great birthday here before we hit the road again to embark on the last week – the gourmet end! – of our trip. To the wine region we go…

More soon!

The Road and the Rhino

We’ve driven over 1800km in the last 6 days. Some of those kilometres were through timber plantations, many through mountains and a few along the beautiful Panorama Route in Mpumalanga Province, which boasts some of South Africa’s most breathtaking views of the Blyde River Canyon, one of the biggest canyons in the world.

The kilometres have taken us through villages – some small and poor, others busy and vibrant; past shops with funny names (“Flamboyant Supermarket” and “God is Able Hair Salon”); past ladies selling oranges, pineapples and wooden bowls in ramshackle stalls along the roadside and past mums carrying babies on their back and everything from firewood to souvenirs on their heads.

We’ve learnt the art and etiquette of passing other motorists on single lane roads and discovered that the South African version of abiding by road rules is to not follow them at all (when in Africa…).

We’ve seen hundreds of people hitchhiking to work and slowed down for cows, goats, donkeys and people on the road.

Two nights each we spent at Ngama Tented Safari Lodge near Kruger National Park and Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, which were both exceptional in their own right.

Ngama is a honeymooners’ parardise – six luxury tents (think early 1900s colonial style decor with maps, canvas and beige/sage coloured fabrics) nestled around a small waterhole in the middle of a private reserve, joined by wooden walkways and secluded for absolute privacy. Dinner at Ngama is served in a boma, a traditional circular enclosure without a roof, made from thin sticks of wood and with a fire in the middle for cooking and warmth. Candles and lanterns lead the way to the boma along a sand path and hang on the walls of the boma to provide light for the tables.

Dinner at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi’s Hilltop Camp is a different story. The park’s most developed lodge, Hilltop, is situated – as the name may have given away – on top of  a mountain overlooking the rolling savannah hills below. This setting, spectacular as it is, is enjoyed by a vastly greater amount of tourists, many with children, meaning that dinner is a much less romantic occasion. Adding to this is the fact that the menu consists of a self-serve buffet and wine by the glass that tastes like it’s been watered down with bitter sparkling water. (Ironically, this is where we celebrated our first wedding anniversary dinner!)

That being said, Hilltop’s accommodation – our own rondavel cabin with a bedroom, bathroom, lounge room, kitchen and balcony visited occasionally by baboons – was clean and had everything we needed.

Though Kruger, South Africa’s biggest (it stretches 414km from top to bottom) and most famous national park was great, Tyson and I both agreed that the less visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (pronounced Shooshlooweh-Imfolozi) was our new favourite – not least because we had the great privilege of seeing 51 (!) white rhinos – Tyson’s favourite animal and one which was once teetering on the verge of extinction due to illegal poaching.

Poaching for rhino horn remains a major problem in Africa, driven mainly by demand from Asian countries which believe that the horn contains healing properties for anything from headaches to cancer. The value of rhino horn is said to be higher than the value of gold, and despite stringent security checks of everyone entering the park, it is estimated that one rhino a day is killed for its horn in South Africa alone. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, known for its large rhino population, is famous for being the park that brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

On all of our (self-drive) safari game drives, we were lucky to see herds of elephant, zebra, buffalo, giraffe and antelope, as well as rhino, monkey, lion and warthog families, a leopard and amazing varieties of birds.

It has been a truly African experience, and we have absolutely loved being on the wide open road and surrounded by nature.

Now off we go to the Garden Route…!

Expect the Unexpected

Well, Johannesburg, I was not at all prepared for this. High electric fences around houses, yes. Carjackings, yes. Not being able to just walk around wherever you like because of petty crime, rape, shootings – sure.

But no one told me about this.

I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. They have seemingly started popping up everywhere you least expect them to. Even in Johannesburg.

Yes, lo and behold, there they were, unmissable in their felt hats and second-hand clothing, sipping lattes and ordering superfoods in the middle of downtown Johannesburg’s new ‘safe zone,’ Maboneng. Hipsters!

Set up in 2009, Maboneng started out as an initiative by property developer Jonathan Liebmann to bring professionals and creatives back into the city. After the end of apartheid in 1994 and the country’s first democratic elections (won by Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress party), the city of Johannesburg had been plunged into uncertainty and transition, bringing with it a crime wave that swept through the city. Businesses relocated to the northern suburbs and left the downtown area to become a place of squatters, crime and violence – a no-go zone with a fearsome reputation.

Now permanently guarded by a host of private security guards, Maboneng is a thriving and fascinating oasis in which tourists and locals alike can shop, dine and drink coffee only streets away from the rough and crime-ridden streets of the downtown.

Effectively built around a large indoor international food market and a beer garden beneath trees, Maboneng is full of entrepreneurial pop ups (including ‘I was shot in Joburg‘, a photographic initiative giving former street kids professional photography training to get them out of poverty), quirky shops and alternative cafes.

Supportive locals hope that the zone will be broadened to make more of the city safe for the general population, and new apartments planned for the area are already for sale.

For us Maboneng, as well as the suburbs of Braamfontein and Melville, opened our eyes to a safe, creative and vibrant side of this city not commonly known and rarely mentioned.

From day one of our three-week wedding anniversary trip around South Africa, I have been forced to reevaluate my preconceptions. In a land so characterised by contrast, so moulded by history and so enriched by diversity, I can’t wait to see what other lessons I am yet to learn here.