Category: Africa

Wine, Weddings and Wind

First of all, I want to clarify that the word ‘wind’ in the above title does not refer to the embarrassing bodily function (despite the 24-hour virus and resulting gassiness Tyson and I have somehow picked up over the past two days) but rather the perceptible, weather-related movement of air. I will explain this later – this story, like all, must start from the beginning.

To be honest, I don’t exactly know what the beginning of this particular story – blog entry #5 of South Africa 2018 – is. It’s been the most alcohol-intensive end of our journey (as was to be expected) and thus I believe the beginning must have been somewhere between a rosé and a pinotage. Let’s just say that by the time I read ‘…Intense flavours of fynbos, mint, and in particular, blueberry welcome you on the nose, followed by aromas of cinnamon, lead pencil and dark chocolate…’ I knew I was back in one of my favourite places in the world: Franschhoek.

A place whose character seems to be at odds with itself – one part pretentious Noosa (think white linen clothes, boat shoes and loosely draped jumpers over men’s shoulders), one part African gallery walk (showcasing local and national artists in painting, sculpture, clothing and leatherwork), one part French revival (think al fresco cafes with checkered tablecloths and confit on the menu) and one part wine-loving tourists (lots of South Africans, but otherwise mostly European) and that’s pretty much Franschhoek in a nutshell. We fell in love with this place three years ago when we first set eyes on its mountain caldera city walls, beautiful Cape Dutch buildings and incredible restaurants. And I haven’t even mentioned the wine tram!

It was this wine tram – which has, since we were last here, expanded its reach to include 26 wineries in the Stellenbosch wine region – which we found ourselves on again this sunny Wednesday morning at no later than 9:30am, and before you tell me we’re alcoholics I should remind you that when you’re trying to cover 6+ wineries of an hour’s visit each (you know, to taste wine, wander around the grounds, browse their farm shops…just kidding – just to taste wine), you need to start EARLY. It’s just about maximising the experience, people.

So anyway – there we were, just before 10am, at Allée Bleue winery (which is a weird name to me, as whichever way I look at it, it’s either a pompous way of saying Ally Blue or a description of the noise you make after tasting certain wines), learning that sometimes wine can taste of lead pencils and wondering if – now in our 30s and with somewhat of a less indulgent diet than our younger selves – we would still be able to stomach a whole day’s worth of wine jumbling. Luckily, the pompous bleurgh winery served toasted bread with its cab merlot and so I made sure my little handbag took a few extra pieces with it when we left to cover us for the next couple of wineries.

On our ramble down the winery’s tree-lined driveway, our long-haired, bright-faced wine tram guide told us that this was “the best ever place to take selfies because at night, the blue lights (told you they were all about the blue!) illuminate the trees.” Initially not sure if he was joking, I’m glad he wasn’t looking at me when I said it, because my half-frown, half-right-eyebrow-raising reaction showed that clearly there ARE differences between generations of millennials because there was no way that I was seeing the attraction of taking a selfie under a dark tree illuminated by blue light. Or maybe that idea becomes more appealing the more lead pencil you’ve consumed?

Anyway – I digress. We’re back on the wine tram. Fast forward a few more wineries and Tyson and I are sitting on the deck of another winery – Zorgvliet – this time the only people who decided to get off the tram. We’re tasting some fine drops and talking about the world and South Africa and its issues and its beauty, but I won’t bore you with that now because I’ve ranted about it enough during the last couple of blog entries. Instead, let’s fast forward again – now we’re starving, full of wine but lacking more substantial stomach-filling solids like food, because we were too busy tasting wine and discussing life’s big issues that we missed lunch. In Franschhoek, on the wine tram, that leaves you with two options: cheese platters, or unusual pairings. Resisting the urge to try fudge pairing (if it had been biltong, we could have had a deal), we decided on the former, and because that one wasn’t enough, we had another cheese platter at the next winery too. In the end, we had so much cheese and lavosh and pear chutney that we filled in most of the gaps between the wine in our belly and ended up after the last winery just wanting to sleep… and then missing the tram home. In summary, it was a day to be remembered. And yes – most likely repeated upon our next return visit.

Apart from drinking lots of delightful (and lots of not-so-delightful) wine, we also ate amazing food in Franschhoek, bought a few souvenirs a lot of things that we now have to try to fit into our suitcase, (like two pairs of shoes from this amazing South African brand that make you feel like you’re walking on clouds!) and played with the cute grunting dogs at the farm on which we stayed. As always, we were sad to leave this gem of a place and vowed to be back as soon as we could.

From Franschhoek, it was off to the Fynbos (pronounced more like the traffic infringement and less like the forward-moving-propeller of a fish) Cabin, situated on a private nature estate just 15 minutes from the seaside hamlet of Gordon’s Bay and an hour outside of Cape Town. What a stunning place this was, and so peaceful!

Well, that was until the wind started.

My friends, I have never heard such a wind as this. We felt like what people in a cyclone must experience – howling gusts through gaps between trees, branches smacking on everything, windows shuddering. We thought it was going to come inside and take all of our loosely placed belongings with it into its rage. This wind howled for most of the night, meaning we barely got any sleep (I think Tyson was more worried about a branch falling on the car than the loosely scattered belongings in the house – and to be fair, his was probably a more valid fear). Of course, this had to be the Friday night before the wedding of Beth and Ross, which ended up going until the early hours of Sunday morning. Nothing like a dance-off on no sleep and lots of wedding wine (and coffee)!

Luckily, the wind died down somewhat for the wedding – though sadly not enough for anyone to touch the lonely ping pong table that was perfectly positioned on the green lawn beside the ceremony. My hair – still recovering from the last wedding, at which it not only got covered in bird poo but also turned into a bigger-than-80s-afro mess from the wind – was pinned down strictly with bobby pins and lots of hairspray, and I’m proud to report that whilst umbrella was in hand in case of any sighting of overhead flying birds, no poo landed on my scalp on this occasion.

The wedding was fun – lots of laughter and kind words and beautiful food, and the lovely Beth, our friend, the bride, reminded me a little of myself on my wedding day – full of insatiable joy, looking relaxed, clearly in the perfect place at the perfect time, marrying her perfect guy. It was a delight to witness, and an honour to be able to share this special occasion.

After the wedding, the wind and the wine, it was time to wine down our trip (couldn’t help myself), though on the way back to Cape Town airport I managed to squeeze in a fabric jewellery making class with the incredibly talented Thandie Dowery, designer and owner of Nomi Handmade. Her use of the colourful, iconic and tradition-rich shweshwe fabric to make jewellery that screams nothing but style was another sign to me that this country – with its diversity and richness of entrepreneurs, fashion, design and creativity – is just now coming into its own.

You know, I’m not usually one to be on top of trends, but if you ask me, South Africa is a place to watch. And yes – you heard that here first.


Kuyasa nangomso.

(It shall dawn again tomorrow.)

 

 – Isixhosa proverb

 

An Ode to South Africa

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.’

These were the words of the Afrikaans pastor at the Shofar church we decided to visit on Sunday, and it’s funny, in a way, how relevant they became for us over the coming days.

Whilst you could tell from the pastor’s emotion that he was talking about much deeper issues than those that plagued us (more on that in a moment), this petition to find joy among trials became somewhat of an ironic mantra as we spent three nights in our Tulbagh log cabin, accommodation #4 of this South African adventure.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when you have two plastic bags full of dirty washing and can’t access the sole laundry you will have on this trip because the door’s welded shut from the rain. Consider it pure joy when this trial means that the local farmer has to come over two days later and cut the entire lock out of the door so that you can get in.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when you’re at the end of a heatwave-induced 35°C day, have spent all day outdoors and have looked forward to a dip in the pool, only to find that the pin code on the gate has been changed and there’s no way you can access the inviting lagoon inside.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when the water goes ice cold mid-shower because you haven’t been told you had to turn the geyser on, or when a cute little dog follows you all the way home from the pool gate and ends up peeing all over the outdoor furniture.

These issues are trivial, no doubt – there will always be things that go wrong when you travel and indeed, I could write a book on that topic by now. But to hear these words – consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds – in a country that is plagued with a host of (sometimes well-documented, sometimes more underlying) issues meant that this imploration took on a new meaning for us this week.

For many who have never visited this diverse, indisputably beautiful and fascinating country, South Africa remains somewhat of an enigma. Most of what we hear at home (at least in Australia) is that the country is one of danger and crime, poverty and corruption. And it’s true – some places are dangerous, and you do need to be vigilant. There is a large gap between the haves and the have-nots and the variances in people’s living standards are clearly visible, particularly when you drive past the townships which adjoin most urban areas.

But what we don’t often hear about is the steadfastness of the South African people: their intense, deep-seated love for their country and its people and the hope they hold onto for change, despite facing what truly could be described as trials of many kinds.

Tyson and I have spent time – both on this trip and previous ones – with people from both ends of the spectrum. We’ve been in townships with locals – like when Tyson attended a housewarming party in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township a few years ago – and we’ve enjoyed absolute five-star tranquillity in luxury private game reserves. On this trip, as on previous visits, we’ve stayed in locally-run bed and breakfasts; something we believe gives you a priceless opportunity to interact with the ‘true’ South Africa, not to mention ensuring that the bulk of your money actually stays within the community.

All the while, we’ve spoken to local South Africans as much as we could about the trials this country continues to face: racial issues, crime, poverty, corruption. Some people have said that they’re fearful of what the future holds for the country, and many understand why their friends and family have emigrated to other parts of the world. But they have also said that they see hope for South Africa, and that something inside of them refuses to give up on this country – the rainbow nation, as so eloquently described by Former President Nelson Mandela when he took office after the end of Apartheid in 1994:

“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld […] – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Our prayer for this country – one that we love, mostly for its natural and cultural assets but also, probably, for its vulnerability to being misunderstood, is that light will triumph over darkness; that the future will bring great change for its inhabitants, regardless of their skin colour, and that the people who are the lifeblood of this nation will have the strength and resilience to consider it pure joy when they face trials of many kinds, because, as the scripture goes on, they know that the testing of their faith produces perseverance and that perseverance, when it has finished its work, will mean they are mature and complete, not lacking anything.

 

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

James 1:2-4 (New International Version)

 

 

What I learned about fear from a hike through leopard territory

I’m not brave.

That’s what my head told me as I walked across the wide-open plateau of fynbos, rocky mountains stretched up to my right and to my left like some kind of life-sized version of a monkey enclosure. There was a troop of baboons that inhabited those stony enclaves, we were told. Baboons, snakes like puff adders that don’t move when you step on them (they just bite and sit there gleefully while your leg inflates to match their namesake). Oh, and a leopard.

Yes, my friends. A leopard.

Now, you’d think growing up in Australia – with 8 of the world’s 10 most venomous snakes, sharks, crazy insects and all sorts of weird-but-not-wonderful creepy crawlies – I would be immune to the fauna-related frightfulness induced upon many less regularly exposed human beings. And indeed, when I’m at home, I’m pretty chilled. I know they’re there, but unless we’re talking about cockroaches and toads (apologies in advance – my weaknesses are all coming out today), I don’t usually lose my cool.

Well, hiking in Africa is a different story, as I realised through my more-rapid-than-usual heartbeat and cacophony of negative thoughts that went something like this:

There is a leopard in these mountains. A leopard! That’s the second biggest African cat! Oh my gosh. Who the heck goes for a walk through leopard territory? This is a suicide mission! We haven’t even packed band-aids, let alone done any feline self-defence training. If I see the leopard, I will freeze. I will not know what to do, and since I’m walking at the back and I’m the smallest, it’s definitely going to be me that gets taken. If it’s not the leopard, it will be a snake – we’re walking through long grass – I was always told NEVER to walk through long grass. And these snakes don’t even move! Oh no and now I’m looking at the ground because I’m sure there are heaps of snakes but really I should be looking at the mountains because somewhere in there is a troop of baboons and I guarantee one of them is going to steal my water bottle. Why on earth did I agree to this?!?

In retrospect, these thoughts were ludicrous. Of course it was extremely unlikely that we would come face to face with the leopard, the snakes or even the baboons. Yes, the chance was there, but my fears were massively out of proportion with reality.

All of this got me thinking about fear: what it does to us, and perhaps more importantly – what it stops us from. Here’s what I realised:

  1. Fear stops you from seeing the full picture / the big perspective.

When I was hiking through the fynbos, head down, looking for snakes, I wasn’t looking straight ahead. All I was thinking about was what could go wrong – I wasn’t looking at the beauty that lay ahead – in my case, an extraordinary view over the valley.

Isn’t it sad that when we’re afraid of something, our vision somehow becomes minimised? What do we miss, by focusing on the problem at hand? And what’s the greater purpose to our current struggle? Does fire not strengthen the clay; do valleys of trial not magnify life’s peaks?

2. Fear steals your joy

Being afraid of leopards, snakes and baboons occupied so much of my brain space that morning; there was little room left for anything else. Along our hike, there were spectacular wildflowers all around us, there was beautiful, moon-like mountain scenery and a clear blue sky. I didn’t notice any of this until I consciously began to work on drowning out my negative thoughts.

How often do we let negative thinking control our brain when we’re faced with a fear, or confronted with a challenge we don’t know how to deal with? It seems easier, somehow, to focus on the bad than to turn our minds to what can bring us joy. We let ourselves get caught up in these negative thoughts and we miss out on the things that could lift us up. Are you letting fear steal your joy?

3. Fear stops you from being aware of the things that can help you.

As I marched through the long grass, my eyes barely wandered from the path ahead. If I hadn’t looked up and around occasionally, I would have missed the little stripes of blue paint on the rocks, guiding the way to our final destination. I wouldn’t have seen the little piles of rocks that others had left where the path was almost invisible, helping us to find our way back to the trail.

When we face difficulties in life, chances are, there’s someone else who’s been there. If you don’t know them, maybe they’ve written a book, or a blog post, or sung a song about it. Who is around you that could help you through the situation you’re in now? What resources are you not taking advantage of in this season of life, that could push you forward to a place where fear no longer has a place in your inner world?

Guys, I know you’ll be thinking that this blog is getting deeper every time you read it. I apologise, but I don’t. I like words – funny ones and kind ones, mainly – but also deep ones. If you know me at all you’ll know that I’d much rather a conversation about something that’s on your heart than a conversation about work or the weather (though my job and clouds both bring me significant happiness as well).

This blog was always designed as a way for me to share my reflections about the world around me – a way to open a door, if you will, to intrigue your senses so much that you’d want to come in and experience what I’m sharing with you for yourself. But it was also designed to be a conversation about important things, heart things. Things I don’t think we talk about often enough. So, thanks for sticking it out with me today.

To lighten the mood a little, I thought I’d share one of my favourite captures of our 3 days in the Southern Cederberg Mountains – the place where we went on the beautiful hike mentioned above. We had an incredible time there, actually. Once I got over my fears I completely relaxed, and by the end of our time at the Rooibosch Cottage I didn’t want to ever be anywhere else ever again. Nature’s silence – which is not very silent – was a magnificent alternative to the city hustle and bustle and the view of mountains will just never get old. I’m so thankful to have these opportunities to travel. But about that picture – and I apologise if it’s a crude way to end – here are, for your African animal photo collection, two dassies mating! You may not appreciate it, but appreciate the timing – these animals are SKITTISH, so to capture them at all is a feat. To get this intimate moment, well, we’re getting pretty close to safari-quality. And since Tyson and I aren’t doing any safaris on this trip, this is going to be as good as it gets. 😉

Speak to you soon!

Of flowers, flamingos and arriving

It always takes me a little while to feel like I’ve arrived somewhere when I travel.

It amazes me constantly, this weird duplicity that exists between home and away, between your normal and someone else’s – even when there are thousands of kilometres in between. When I’m at home, everything feels normal to me – life has its usual rhythm, that’s my everyday world. Yet when I arrive in a destination, be it a 10-hour flight or a 20-hour flight away from my little patch of the planet, life is normal there too – it has its usual rhythm, and it’s someone else’s everyday world.

Whilst I’m not really part of it, I’m suddenly plonked into this other world and can stay there for as long as I like (or can afford). In some ways, I’m an observer of this ‘other normal,’ watching with keen fascination the intricacies of a life so different to my own; but in many ways, really, I am a partaker in this other normal, living and breathing in the same way that all those around me are, going about my business as if nothing has changed.

It makes me realise that the world is small, and that although we are all uniquely different in our backgrounds and in our sense of what ‘normal’ looks like, existentially we are all the same – we are all humans, living on the same planet, spinning around the same sun, created (at least according to my belief) by the same master creator.

I know what you’re thinking: Gee, Lina, this is a little deep for a Thursday afternoon. You’re right, and you might be surprised to learn that no delectable South African wine has yet contributed to this second instalment of my 2018 Africa narrative.

But be rest assured – there is a point to my pondering.

As mentioned, it takes me a while to feel like I’ve arrived when I go somewhere. I know it sounds weird, but there’s no other way I can think to explain the feeling. It may be jetlag, lack of sleep, the number of Bloody Marys consumed since departing BNE International or an aggregate of the above, but whatever it is, I need time for it all to sink in.

Well, my friends. Let me tell you what helps with that:

FLAMINGOS.

Yes, you read that right. And don’t worry – I too thought that flamingos only existed in zoos and in the 1992 Disney classic, Aladdin. But they don’t! In fact, in South Africa’s Western Cape, flamingos exist on the side of the road.

Yes, I know. That’s not normal. But alas – here it is! In this particular instance of sighting the long-legged, pink-feathered, red-eyed wading birds, they were smack bang beside a normal residential road with houses on the other side of them, casually shuf-shuf-shuffling through the water, feeding on algae and shrimp like it was the most un-phasing thing in the world. And to be fair, to them it likely was. To me, on the other hand, it meant only one thing: welcome to Africa – I have arrived!

Ironically, it wasn’t the first time we’d caught sight of flamingos on this trip. We’d just spent two nights in Langebaan, a small seaside village about 120km north of Cape Town, and on our one-day drive through the adjoining West Coast National Park (in search of zebras frolicking in wildflowers – which we didn’t find – though we found LOTS of wildflowers), we had seen flamingos from far away. We got very excited then too, mind you – they were flamingos in the wild, no less – but it’s always going to be a bit more expected that you see weird and wonderful animals when you’re in a protected area, like a national park.

Anyway. We saw flamingos in the park and we saw flamingos by the road. In between these exciting and bucket-list ticking life moments, we ate copious amounts of seafood, discovered that ostriches also like wildflowers, realised that not all towns in South Africa are crazy about security and stuck our toes in the Atlantic Ocean. Oh, and I was told by a lady I had never met that I have such a cute face – like a doll! But those are all stories for another day, perhaps – or likely not. Mostly I’m just summarising because I know that since I mentioned wine, you’ve been dying to have a glass yourself.

I think I might join you, actually.

Cheers (to the wine, and for finishing this post) – and until my next ramble!

Why you should definitely go for a walk through Johannesburg’s dodgiest neighbourhoods.

‘Are you sure you trust me?’

It’s the first question he asks us, and while there’s a twinkle in his eye, there is some depth to our guide, Gil’s question. We are, after all, about to walk into Johannesburg’s most notorious building – the 54 storey Ponte City Tower.

The round, hollow tower is infamous for lots of things – its nickname of ‘suicide central’ for all of the people who have ended their lives through its windows high above the Johannesburg skyline; its status as a hijacked building, run by gangsters, and the 14 storey high pile of rubbish that once filled its hollow core, created by the 10,000 people who once lived in the tower with no access to water, electricity or waste removal.

It’s a part of Johannesburg that has, until 2012, been totally off-limits to visitors, and many locals would still never dream of going inside. Surrounded by some of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods – Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea – it’s a place that bears almost no resemblance to its former glory: in the 1970s it was Johannesburg’s most exclusive apartment building.

We learn all about its history from the 52nd floor – a three-bedroom apartment repurposed as an event venue for the local organisation, Dlala Nje (meaning just play in Zulu). Our guide, Gil, is a Congolese born South African, who moved to Johannesburg with his aunt when he was nine and spent much of his life living in the tower. Now he runs walking tours through Ponte and its surrounding neighbourhoods, the proceeds of which fund the Dlala Nje’s community centre on the ground floor, which aims to provide a safe learning and socialising environment for local children and youth.

“I am here to break down your preconceptions,” Gil says purposefully. He wants to know what we’ve heard about the Ponte tower, and then tell us the full story – from a local’s perspective.

It’s a trend that’s becoming more and more popular in tourism – real experiences, led by locals. To me, it’s a great example of responsible tourism*, and since this is both my passion and profession, it’s fantastic to experience it first-hand right here, in South Africa’s economic epicentre and melting pot of the continent’s cultures.

After being given the full Ponte rundown by Gil in the 52nd floor room with a view, we take a rather dark staircase to the rocky core of the building to get some perspective of how high the famed 14-storey rubbish dump really was. It’s repugnant to think that people living on the 12th and 13th floor had to go upstairs to dump their rubbish, as the space outside their windows would have already been blocked with waste. Even more revolting is our newfound knowledge that amongst the 14 storeys of rubbish were at least 23 human bodies, all of which were pulled out by hand – together with their decomposing surroundings – when the building was cleaned up to be liveable again in the early part of this decade.

Minds full of this knowledge and phones full of upward-facing selfies (the view to the top of the building from the inside is dizzying), we make our way back up to ground level through the underground carpark, where residents busy washing their cars greet Gil with friendly hellos.

Once outside of Ponte, Gil advises us to keep an eye on our belongings, as our walk from here will take us past many people who ‘work hard at being pickpockets.’ We walk through busy streets – Berea first, and then into Hillbrow, all the while being mostly ignored, but sometimes eyed off, by the suburbs’ many residents. It feels like rural Africa here, or a city less developed. Buildings are mostly intact but the streets are dirty; women walk by with their babies strapped to their backs and others stride past in uniforms, heading home from churches and from workplaces.

We feel safe with Gil and another Dlala Nje team member who has come along to keep an eye on things, and it actually feels like a privilege to be in this part of a city which often carries such a dire reputation. We’re taken through a local market and encouraged (but never pushed) to purchase some of the freshly washed and laid out vegetables, not because of any backward deals but because it will help the local community.

At the end of the tour we are taken to a local shebeen (pub), where we are sat down at a long table full of locals drinking beers and watching the rugby. We’re given beer bottles the size of which would make any German proud and a lunch pack wrapped in Styrofoam: it’s filled with delicious fried chicken, kale, slaw and a whole lot of other delicacies – the kind of food which tastes amazing and so foreign, you know you could never fully duplicate the flavour if you tried to ever recreate it elsewhere. As we leave, the owner of the shebeen hugs us all individually – the grin on his face, and the photos he asks us to take with him in them, speak volumes more than his words probably could. You can tell it means a lot to him to have visitors from ‘the outside’ coming to enjoy his generous hospitality.

As always in this continent, Africa’s heart beat is most clearly felt through the warmth of its people.

I love this continent’s energy, its contrasts and its vibrance. I am so excited to be back in South Africa – one of my favourite places in the world – and can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us in these next 3 weeks.

 

*Responsible tourism is based on the idea of making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit. More info here.

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.