It’s not easy going back, but coming home again was nice

Sorry again for the long silences. Life has been hectic and then last week we went back to South Africa for half term.

And boy that was surreal!

It was lovely to see everyone again and nice to enjoy some sunshine (sadly, not enough: the weather was NOT on our side). But returning to our old house where my husband is still living just felt….wrong. Because it wasn’t my house anymore, nor was it my life.

For a start, none of our stuff is in the house anymore. So it felt like a shell. In some ways, it was like the early days when we first arrived – bare walls, borrowed bed clothes and crockery, none of our books or games or other distractions. But this time I knew my way around and wasn’t so worried about things like security.

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Luckily our zebras were still on the otherwise bare walls

Then even when I met up with friends (which was lovely), I knew I didn’t belong there anymore. So when they were making plans for the weeks ahead and I (of course) wasn’t included, it really hit me that this was no longer my life.

It was hard, but I also think it was a good thing. Because when we got on the plane to come home, apart from the obvious sadness of saying goodbye to everyone – not least, my husband – I was looking forward to getting back here. Back to my warm house, with all our stuff. Back to what has become my life. And it really made me realise how far we had come. On Monday morning there was swim training and school and picking up the dog and shopping for food and basically just getting on with things. It felt normal. It felt good.

I know we have a way to go yet, I’m not out of the woods. Things are still hard, loneliness in particular is still very real (to be expected when you have been away for two years – both me and the children need to re-make our lives and friendships here). But three months into repatriation and I am perhaps in a better place than I feared I would be.

I will always have a place for South Africa in my heart and I will definitely go back – there is still so much of the country to explore. But for now I feel better about leaving and happier about being here.

At least I would be if it were just a little bit warmer. And sunnier….

And so, the time has come….

Here we are then. The last day. I am trying to look forward and not back but it’s hard. Everywhere you go it’s like “the last time we….” walk the dog in the dog park, shop in Woolworths, take the kids to Bounce, visit the school….

But forward I must look because that is where we are heading. It has been a fantastic two years – although I have to remind myself that I didn’t always love it. When I visited our dentist the other day (the last time we visit that dentist!) he asked whether I was happy here now. I must have looked a little confused because he then admitted he had made a note from my first appointment that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my time in South Africa.

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It’s hard to pick a favourite photo of South Africa because I have so many but this one is so beautiful……

To me now, that sounds very strange but then other memories come back: getting a rush of home-sickness at the supermarket check out one day; sitting alone having an ice cream to cheer myself up because I didn’t have any friends; crying into my pillow at night because I was missing my old life so much and this new life was so different and disorientating. It is only memories of feeling unhappy that I have left rather than the unhappiness itself but I know it existed.

Time. That is all it takes. Time, some friends and a bit of routine. And a little dog called Cooper.

South Africa, Pretoria, friends that I have met here – I will miss you all. The sunshine, the wine, the braai’s, the dog walks, the lions and leopards and cheetahs, the penguins, whales and turtles, the hadedas, mouse birds and go-away birds, the mountains of the Drakensbergs, the sea of the Cape,  my helper, the school, even the bloody pizzas (there were a LOT of pizzas!).

It’s been good. See you on the other side.

x

Back to the Kruger

There is something very special about the Kruger National Park, something that keeps pulling us back,  constantly wanting more. Whether it’s the stillness of the early morning savannah as the huge orange sun rises through the mist or the excitement of spotting a pair of cheetahs by the roadside when you are the only car in sight, there really is nothing like the Kruger.

We returned for our fourth (and joint longest) trip to the park a couple of weeks ago. Having spent all our previous trips in the south and central parts of the park, this time we decided to see what the far north was like. But knowing that the south was where the most wildlife tend to be found we knew – for the sake of the children at least – we would need to spread ourselves out. Hence our trip started right in the south in a tranquil bushcamp called Biyamiti (no restaurant or shop, only a small number of guest cottages) and ended in the far north at Punda Maria. Along the way we also stayed at Satara, Olifants and Lataba.

Arriving at the park after a long drive from Pretoria we did what all Krugerholics do the moment they are through those gates – pick up a camera, get the binoculars handy, open the windows and breathe! Even though it was getting late, we still managed a few good sightings on our drive to our first night’s accommodation – including our first ever (fleeting) honey badger.

Then as we arrived close to Biyamiti this happened. Elephant jam!

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As you can see from the photo, it was getting dark and the camp gates would be closed in ten minutes or so…..the gentle giants even looked like they were going to settle down to sleep in the middle of the road at one point. But after a bit of polite revving by the car in front they eventually moved and we were able to get to the camp in time.

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Early morning coffee in Biyamiti

Those elephants set the scene for the rest of the holiday. I am not sure if it was the time of year or whether we spent more time in the centre and north of the park than usual, but we have never seen so many elephants! This included one of my favourite ever Kruger experiences when we came across a huge herd of them playing in a dam near Satara – all the youngsters literally jumping on each other in the water, the mums with their babies keeping watch from the edge. It was a magical site – I could have sat there all day and watched as they chased off a small group of buffaloes minding their own business, helped one of the baby’s out of some mud, and generally larked about like typical teenagers the world over.

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Elephant fun!

The next day though we had what has to be one of our top three wildlife sightings since we have lived in South Africa. We rose early to give ourselves the best chance of seeing something good. We were staying in Satara which is close to the S100 – a road that many consider the best road in the park for lions. At first we had one of those mornings of nothing…nothing…nothing….why did we get up so darned early….nothing….

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Sunrise in Kruger

…and then roud a bend a few cars clustered in a stop, always a sign of something good, usually a cat…

Someone in one of the other cars pointed up an embankment into the distance. “There’s a lion coming,” they told us. It was hard to make out but yes there were two ears bobbing along behind some bushes. It wasn’t that exciting at this stage and at least one of the other cars drove off. But she (we finally worked out it was a lioness) came closer and closer and then suddenly there was another. And behind it, another. And they just kept on coming and coming and walked down the embankment literally right past our car. And in the middle of the cats was a white lion – one of the rarest sites in the park (I am assured by those that know that this is the only one that is known of in the main part of the park; there is apparently another in Greater Kruger which includes the concessions at the edge).

 

We sat as they passed one by one and then we went round the corner and watched them all settle in the shade of a couple of trees. The white one seemed to be just one of the pack which was nice to see – I am guessing he had no idea he was any different from any of his brothers!

Following that sighting we didn’t think the Kruger would have anything better to offer on this trip but we would be wrong!

The next day started out as one of those quiet but perfectly pleasant mornings when you really don’t see much to write home about but still lots for your own personal amusement – like these buffaloes using a branch to scratch an itch.

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When suddenly down a long, quiet road we spotted two cars pulled up by the road. We drove up next to them but couldn’t see anything. I shrugged at the man in one of the cars, indicating that I was confused and he pointed down right in front of where they were parked. Cheetahs!

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And there they were, two of the most beautiful animals you will see in your life, just lying ther by the roadside totally unaware that they were being watched. The other cars drew off but we sat with them for about half an hour, watching as they stood up, sniffed and quivered at some impala up the road, willing them on to start a hunt so we would get the chance to see these magnificent creatures in full flight….

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They didn’t though and in the end we left them to it – passing just two cars on our way on to the main road, but enjoying watching the faces in the cars light up when we told them what was waiting for them just up the road.

The day had a couple more treats for us – a hyena eating a leopard’s lunch by the side of a river (the leopard only just in sight but the cheeky hyena in clear view)

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But then just around the corner, something in the road – a snake! I realise for some people this isn’t what they want to see but from the safety of our car I am always happy to see one, especially when it is later confirmed to be a deadly puff adder!

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We eventually arrived at my favourite camp in the park, Olifants with its fantastic view out over the Olifants river. But it was the antics of the baboons that occupied us more than the view this time – the cheeky monkeys had already broken into our neighbour’s cottage just as we arrived and were running around with rusks and oranges in their hands. Then, the next morning two of them made a raid on our breakfast table, using my eldest daughter as a spring board in their bold attempt (failed) to steal our packet of muesli! The baboons are quite a pest as they have learned to open bins, windows, fridges, car doors…but they are very amusing to watch!

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Cheeky baboon eating someone’s leftover braai

From Olifants it was on to Lataba which is proper elephant country – there is even an elephant museum here, chronicling the lives of the “great tuskers” – a number of giant males with huge tusks who earned fame back in Ye Olden Days (they have recently agreed on some new tuskers to take over the mantle from their reverent ancestors ). Everywhere we went – elephants! Not that I minded, I love elephants!

 

After Lataba we only had one more night in the park at Punda Maria in the north. It was a long drive up there and wildlife became scarcer but there was still much to see, including some of these huge baobab trees:

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And at some point on the road we crossed the tropic of Capricorn and found ourselves officially in the tropics – it did get noticably warmer as we went further north although it still cooled down at night to a pleasant sleeping temperature.

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And although we didn’t see any more of the predators (bar a lone hyena running down a dry river bed) there were still plenty of things to keep us amused:

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And so we came to the end of our epic trip. We wanted to do the last bit of Kruger right up into the corner where the three countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) meet. But in the end we simply ran out of time, and had had enough time sitting in the car. So we didn’t quite make it – but this means one thing is for sure: there’s a very real resaon to come back. Not that I think I will need much pursuading!

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Winter in South Africa

It feels weird seeing all the posts from my home in the northern hemisphere about their summer. Apparently there has been a heat wave – cue multiple pictures of kids in paddling pools and moany posts about not being able to sleep at night. I gather they even cancelled sports day at our old primary school due to the heat!

But here in South Africa it is, of course, mid-winter.

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But what does winter actually mean on this part of the continent? Well, it means that we are shivering at night but still enjoying the bountiful sunshine in the day. It means no rain, dry air,  but a temperature cool enough to walik, run, cycle, play tennis or whatever other exercise takes your fancy at any time of the day rather than just in the early mornings.  If only the houses were better insulated and heated this would be a near perfect weather!

Outside, the trees are bare against the sky, which makes it all the easier to see the noisy mousebirds that seem to gather at this time of the year – maybe they feel a need to huddle together as the temperatures drop. But although lack of rain means the grass is mostly brown and there are more leaves on the ground than on the trees, flowers miraculaously still bloom.

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As I walk my dog in the mornings, I notice workers on their way to their daily jobs bundled up against the weather. My own children – hardened by living through northern European winters – might still be wearing t-shirts and shorts, but most of the locals have resorted to hats and gloves. I also notice the occasional blanket accessory – one of the quirks of local culture that I love.

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As the sun drops the air immediately chills and even we Brits retreat indoors to build a fire and wrap outselves in blankets on the sofa. It’s a beautiful time of the year but I am grateful it only lasts for a couple of months.

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I learned something new the other day – there are hand signals used by people here in South Africa who want to catch a taxi on the road side. I got this from my helper, Sannah, who comes in to clean our house twice a week. I can’t even remember how or why we got on to the subject but apparently if you whirl your hand in a circle it means you want to go to Mamelodi (one of the main residential areas in the city), pointing upwards means “town” and downwards means you are asking them to stop so you can find out where they are going.

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It was like a secret that I had been let in on, like a code that only some people in this country understood. I was fascinated – but also a little embarassed that I didn’t know this already. Taking a minibus-taxi is something that the vast majority of people in this country have to do if they want to get anywhere and many spend long periods  (including waiting by the side of the road at certain times of the day) simply getting to work or home.

But the reason I didn’t know about the hand signals is because I will never use one of these taxis. I have a car and on those occasions when I don’t want to drive we can use Uber. For most people however both a car and Uber are simply out of their price range and instead they have to rely on the packed, hot, uncomfortable and often pretty dangerous minibusses that are used as taxis here. And if you want to know how dangerous, just don’t ever try and get ahead of one at a red-light. These guys mean business.

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Anyway all of this got me thinking – that although we often talk about living in our expat bubbles, how hard we find it to make friends with local people and to integrate, the two worlds here aren’t really between “us” (expats) and “them” (South Africans). Really, it is between us with money and jobs and cars and warm homes and security – and everyone else. We aren’t South African but in so many ways we have more in common with those locals who drive cars, send their kids to private schools, shop in the same supermarkets we do, go on holiday and basically live in “our world” than we – or they – do with everyone else.

It isn’t just South Africa of course but globally there are two completely separate worlds and I suspect few of us really ever gets to see the “other”. Sure, we go on tours and peak into homes and eat meals in downtown restaurants or sit and chat with the people who clean our homes and cut our grass. We listen to the radio and talk about politics with anyone who will listen and try and understand what it means to feel so hopeless about the state of your country that you haven’t voted in more than 20 years.

But we can’t understand it, not really, because we haven’t lived it. I don’t know what it feels like to live hand to mouth with no back up. To not know how long your job will last and if you lose it whether you will ever get another one. To fear that your children won’t ever get a job when they grow up or, worse, that they won’t survive long enough to grow up. To never have seen the sea in your own country or an elephant in the wild when you live in Africa.

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So when we talk about “understanding” a country I don’t think many of us will ever really understand what life is like for (in the case of South Africa, at least) the majority of the people who live there. We can scratch the surface, we can do our best and we can keep trying but in the end the two worlds are so far apart I suspect we will never be anything but brief visitors to the other side.

To finish, another short tale. I started a discussion on a local expat Facebook page the other day about how much we should tip the people who help carry our shopping and guard our cars. Most people agreed roughly what we tip, which amounted to between 5 and 20 Rand depending what they had done for you (for perspective that is around 30p – £1). I don’t know what the local South Africans tip but hopefully if enough of us give a little each day then some of these people can at least afford to buy food.

But as well as discussing the amount we give we talked about how it made us feel. Yes I don’t particularly like following someone to my car as he (it is almost always a he here) pushes my trolley (“Princess syndrome”) and the guards that stand behind you and “guide” you out of your parking spot – often into the path of an oncoming car – drive me nuts. However, it isn’t about us and it isn’t about our feelings. Ultimately we are paying people to do a job and I can be pretty sure that most people would rather get paid for doing SOMETHING than to beg or steal.

So even though we can’t ever really know what it feels like to live on the “other side”, I think most of us can guess how hard it probably is. If all you do to help is pay as many people as possible to work for you in one way or another then you are doing something at least.

Two worlds – I wonder if there will ever be one?

 

Photo credits: Hand Signals – John Karwoski, Taxi ride – Rafiq Sarlie

Driving the Garden Route – from shining sea to shining sea

It’s that quintissential South African holiday – the one everyone wants to do, on everyone’s bucket list. Not just us expats but tourists too, judging by the number of coachs and British pensioners we met along the way. But there is a reason for it being so popular and hopefully this photo-blog can convey some of that reason. For this is one of the more beautiful parts of the country with sea on one side, mountain on the other. And along the way beaches and baboons, wineries and waves. Welcome to the Garden Route.

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Our first stop was Jeffrey’s Bay after flying in to Port Elizabeth and picking up a car. Jeffrey’s Bay is best known as a top surfing destination. I would love to have spent more time there and watched the surfing – it certainly looked pretty spectacular. As it was we were there for an afternoon and enjoyed the beach as well as relaxing in our hotel with our wonderful friends we travelled with – a Swedish family who also live in Pretoria.

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The next morning we headed westwards towards Kynsna, stopping on the way at Storms River Mouth were we hiked up to the bridges spanning the inlet. It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for a walk – which we made sure was child-friendly (eg not too long). On the return back to the car we bumped into the children’s school counsellor and her family – you never go far in South Africa without seeing someone you know!

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The views in the Storms River area were stunning. I thought this photo was a bit reminiscent of Thailand or China.

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There’s nothing like being by the sea for relaxation and rejuvenation – especially when you live like we do so far from the coast, in Pretoria!

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Later the same day we stopped at another beach in the magnificent Tsitsikamma national park. This one was just endless sand and blue sea and sky…..

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….the sea was a little cold to swim in though, but luckily there was also a lagoon which was warm enough for the braver members of our group to get wet in.

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We spent three nights in Kynsna in this fabulous house on Thesen Island – pefect for two families to share. We had four bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a large sitting/dining area, a brai area outside with tables and chairs and even a pool.

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The views from the house were also stunning – especially in the evening when the sun went down.

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Ever since moving to South Africa in 2015 I have been looking for one of these fellas. Turns out they are a seciality of Kynsna so we were particularly pleased to find one on our garden path one afternoon! (in case you weren’t sure, it’s a chameleon!).

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Our only dud of the whole holiday was an elephant walking experience. We had booked it online and thought it would be a lot more interactive and educational than it was. It turned out we shared three elephants with a large group of pensioners and got to hold the trunk of one elephant for about 30 seconds each. It was not a great experience and was quite costly.

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We did enjoy feeding them at the end though.

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After our disappointing elephant experience we headed to Plettenberg Bay for lunch and more beach/sea fun. For those who can cope with the cold sea water (note: not me).

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Ah those sunsets!

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We left Kynsna and turned inland, heading towards the Swartberg Pass. On the way we stopped at one of the many wineries found in the area and enjoyed a wee tipple and some nice lunch. There was no end of delicious food on this holiday.

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The pass was quite a drive taking us up high on zig-zag roads with fabulous views our across the Klein Karoo.

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The requisite brown notice.

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The views coming down into the Karoo were if anything even more beautiful.

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We spent that night in Prince Albert, a stunning location with amazing light where I feasted on the local spciality of Karoo lamb. But the heat was high while we were there and it felt like a bit of an oven until the rain broke in the night. I would love to go back and experience the town and region on a cooler day.

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Leaving Prince Albert we headed to Mossel Bay where we were staying with my second cousin and family. One of the things that amused us in Mossel Bay was these little dassies (also known as rock hydraxes) which were so friendly you could almost stroke them. I say almost – I tried and got a nibble on my finger from one of the babies for my efforts!

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The next morning we headed to a site just outside Mossel Bay to try out dune boarding! This is apparently one of the best places to do this in South Africa – not only is the big dune there (Dragon Dune) apparently the highest in the country, it is also apparently the “right” sort of sand because it comes from the river not the sea. Which apparently makes it faster. Which is a good thing!

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What was great about the experience is that everyone could join in, from the youngest member in our group (aged 7) to the oldest (me! – my husband decided against it due to a dodgy ankle and together with my cousin was main photographer).

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Having never snow-boarded I had no idea what to expect but apparently it wasn’t exactly the same as doing it on snow. Nevertheless I think those who had boarded before got the hang of it slightly faster than those who hadn’t.

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The second part of the morning saw us flying down the taller dunes on our bellies. Which was great fun – until you had to walk up again. Which was like a month’s worth of work-outs in one go! Totally worth it though.

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After two nights in Mossel Bay, which ended with a fun night out at a local fish restaurant where Afrikaaners danced to country and western songs, it was time for the last leg of our journey and our last night – in Cape Town.

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This was our little house over on the eastern edge of the city near to yet more of my relatives, who we spent another excellent evening with. I got my daughter to pose in the window to make it look a bit spooky and ghosty…..

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Sadly it was time to say goodbye and after a final breakfast and walk in Kalk Bay we were off to the airport and back to Pretoria. I’m not sure yet if we will make it back to Cape Town before we leave South Africa for good but one thing’s for sure – we will return one day.

So that was our trip – a lot of fun and I only wish we had had more time. How about you – any good trips recently? Have you driven the Garden Route? Does it tempt you?

 

 

A Graffiti walking tour in Johannesburg

Next time you are out and about somewhere gritty and urban and spot what looks like a messy mark spray-painted on a wall stop and look at it again. It might just look like petty vandalism but actually what you are looking at is called a tag and is an important and integral part of the very hip and happening art of graffiti. Get me!

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I had no idea about this. Or that a wall covered in different squiggles and pictures was known as a guest book. Or that graffiti artists “speak” to each other using tags and signatures sprayed over the top of each others work. Or that there is quite a difference between graffiti and street art. I had no idea about it – but I do now, thanks to a wondefully informative walking tour of the Newtown area of Johannesburg that I went on with three friends last week. Okay I am never going to be the world expert on spray painting walls but I do at least know now what a tag is. And that it isn’t just a senseless squiggle on a wall.

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Ostrich by Fin

Johannesburg, as anyone who follows my South African-themed posts knows, is very much an up-and-coming city. Having once been known more for its lawlessness and crime than its markets and coffee shops, our tour showed us that things are definitely swinging the right way. But what was interesting was that graffiti – regarded by some as part of the problem of lawlessness – is actually very much a part of that positive change. I guess just the fact that these very popular walking tours exist proves that this is the sort of thing that people want to learn about.

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Dr Foods and Wu

Our guide for the day was Jo, a font of knowledge on all things graffiti. Jo is an academic who lectures on the art as well as guides tours. But she is also someone who seems completed invested in the area and the people of Newtown. Even as we walked around, she exhanged greetings with street sellers and taxi drivers, coffee shop owners and passing security people. In addition, Jo is personal friends with some of the artists and was able to add some proper “colour” to the ongoing discussions as she took us round the various painted walls of the area including not telling us who the well-known but anonymous “Tapz” is.

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Rat by Tapz

As a bit of history and background that I picked up from the walk, graffiti in South Africa originated in Cape Town post-Apartheid when artists gained the freedom to express themselves and moved up to Johannesburg more recently. Most of the artists are male (although apparently the biggest artist in South Africa is a woman) and I understood the more well known ones are white but that younger black artists are now coming through the ranks. Although most of the art we saw was “home grown”, Johannesburg does now attract international talent and one of the pieces we saw was by famous American street artist Shephard Fairey. The locals living and working in the graffiti-heavy area we were shown around mostly seemed non-plussed by the art they were surrounded by; but apparently locals are taken on tours too to help them understand why all these foreigners keep coming to take pictures of their walls. We also learned that the graffiti was under threat from the new mayor who was making noises about “cleaning up the city” (something that has apparently already happened in Cape Town). I fear they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they do this as street art is something of a draw for tourists these days.

I won’t go on too much about the graffiti as actually I think it is something you really need to see for yourself to understand. Whilst some of it does look untidy and could be called common vandalism, it’s only when you see graffiti in it’s true urban home that you start to get an appreciation for what it is and why it is there. I can’t say I loved all of it but that’s not what matters – it isn’t about liking what you see (although I did like some of it), it’s more that you react to it. Certainly this is the sort of tour that helps you understand a city and see it from a completely unique angle and I would urge anyone visiting South Africa to try and go on it. Jo even runs special child-friendly versions so there is no excuse to not bring the kids – if you are worried about safety she said she had never had an incident in all her seven years of guiding (although did warn us to look out for the potholes!) and if you are worried about walking in the heat much of the art is contained in a small area and often under the shade of flyovers.

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At the end of our tour, the four of us bade farewell to Jo and set off back to Pretoria in my car. Along the way we pointed out “Tapz” paintings – he has evidently started to move along the motorway towards the capital. Funnily enough, Pretoria is so far virtually graffiti-free – although maybe not that suprising given the character of this rather staid city (it is like naughty Joahnnesburg’s older and far more sensible sister). But watch out Pretoria – there are four young (at heart) expat mums who have recently got the graffiti bug and are limbering up with their spray cans at the ready. If anyone sees any blank walls please let me know!

We used PAST Experiences for our tour: highly recommended.

South Africa travels: The Wine Tram!

One of the best things about living in South Africa is being able to drink the country’s wine freely and cheaply (within reason – we try and limit our imbibement to weekends!). But of course, one problem is that children don’t tend to be very into wine – and when you have an 8yr old and a 10yr old like we do that does somewhat limit your ability to explore the wondeful wine regions.

However where there is a will there’s a way and last week I was able to get away with a girlfriend, my Swedish friend Karin (hi Karin!) to Cape Town and go a bit wild. Well, okay, slightly wild – we are two mothers with young children after all and one of the best things about the whole long weekend was lounging in bed reading books!

But we made sure to make the best of our time in one of the most well-known wine regions of the world, a spectacularly beautiful area with never-ending photo opportunities. Specifically as far as the wine was concerned, we spent a day visiting wineries by way of the Wine Tram tour – and what a wondeful experience it was!

We were first picked up from our hotel and shuttled the hour inland to the very attractive town of Franschhoek. Full of pavement cafes and boutique hotels, this town is a must-stop for any grown-ups visiting this part of South Africa. It is the sort of place you could just kick back and enjoy for days at a time, contemplating life through a fine wine haze.

However, we were only there for the day – a day which started on this bus:

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The idea is that you take one of the four pre-organised routes between eight different wineries, choosing the five or six you are most keen to visit and simply jump off, stay for an hour, drink some wine, and then hop back on again. Simple! We did worry that after a few tastings we would lose the plot track a bit but the staff both on the bus/trams and at the wineries were obviously well used to slightly inebriated guests and kept us in line. We actually only saw two women who looked like they had probably gone over their limit, as they ran screaming to catch the bus from one stop….

Anyway our first stop was Le Lude where we started the day with three tastings of bubbly – two local and one imported champagne:

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It was a wonderful way to begin the tour and we both agreed that in fact the local stuff (at about a third of the price) was every way as good as the imported French Champagne. Definitely on my list for future purchase!

After a pleasant hour at La Lude we made our way back onto the bus along with a large bunch of jolly South African women who we bumped into on and off throughout the day as they chose different wineries to us for their tastings.

Our next stop was Holden Manz, where we decided to have a bit of food as it was now midday and we didn’t want to keep drinking on empty(ish – breakfast had been big….) stomachs. So we sat with this fabulous view and tucked in to some nibbles while sampling some of the house specials:

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As well as the wine, the views are the star of the tour – although I can imagine it would be even more stunning during the wetter months (everything was a bit brown and bare at this time of year – but on the plus side, we had beautiful sun and clear blue skies and it wasn’t too stifingly hot).

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After a bit of food and three more tasters of wine, it was on to the next stop: La Bourgogne. Everything was getting slightly hazy now but this one was memorable for a sweet garden and a couple of friendly dogs who joined us as we took some coffee and cake along with – yes – more wine. Well, it was part of the deal, why wouldn’t you (the tour included two free tastings, plus some at half price and another tasting was free because we bought wine).

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By this time the weather had started to really heat up so it was quite a relief that the next stop was inside the relative cool interior of the La Couronne winery where we partook of our second free tasting. My main memory here is that our host was a man called Budha – and yes, apparently that was his birth name and not a nickname!

At this point we were finally able to get on the actual tram! In the end we weren’t on it for very long and I seem to recall there was a tractor involved at some point as well but it was a fun experience so sit in this vehicle for the short trip to our next destination: Rickety Bridge.

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This being our fifth and final tasting of the day we decided we needed a bit more food and ordered a platter of cheese and meat to go with the wine. It might have been the paring (or the fact that we had been drinking all day!), but I think this was one of the best wines of the day and we ended up ordering several bottles to take home with us. Incidentally for any South Africans reading this, or anyone travelling internally in the country, you are allowed to take wine as hand luggage on the flights. Not sure how that squares with security procedure but we were happy 🙂

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And so the say ended and it was back to base at Franshoek where we ended up having rather a long wait for our taxi home due to hold ups on the road from Cape Town – which at least gave us a chance to have a look round:

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All in all it was a great day out and a really wonderful way to try several different types of wine without having to worry about driving. We also really liked the fact that we were basically independent and didn’t feel too herded around as you are on some tours – and could chose which wineries we wanted to get off at.

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Five things South Africa gets right

South Africans, for some reason, have a habit of putting their country down. Not all of them, for sure – many are fiercely proud of their nation. But before we arrived here almost everyone had a story of a South African they knew from work or through their children’s school or just some bloke down the pub who warned them about the crime or the violence or the soaring costs or…..

Of course we ignored them all and came anyway and – as regular readers of this blog well know – are very glad we did. And what we have found here is quite a mixed bag: a beautiful country with mansions and shopping malls that could come straight out of the States or Europe, surrounded by some of the worst slums you will see anywhere. Busy restaurants with patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk, but beggars at every streetlight. A nation of many races where outright racism still happens blatantly and openly but is then called out from every corner. It’s definitely a paradox – and not like anywhere I have ever lived before.

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Soweto wash day

Of course I realise South Africa has a lot of problems. A lot – massive unemployment, poverty, some of the worse rape statistics in the world, HIV, corruption…..And yet there is plenty of things that this country does right, very right. But it isn’t always easy when you are in the thick of things to take a step back and look at your country objectively. And sometimes you need the perspective of someone who has lived in many places and therefore has a few yardsticks to measure by. So, from an outsider living inside at the moment, here is my list of five things that South Africa gets right:

Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semanya, and other Olympians

It’s not just about the medals – all you need to do is read some of the back stories to realise what an incredible achievement the SA team is. Remember, they only rejoined the Olympic movement in 1990. Two games ago (Bejing) they only got one medal. This time they got 10, including two golds, and van Niekerk’s 400m world record. Plus, you only have to look at the names of the atheletes over the years to realise how times have changed. It really is a rainbow nation team – with the medalists reflecting this perfectly.

National Parks

It’s not just what’s in the parks – wildlife, mountains, waterfalls, scenery etc – but how accessible they are, what good value they are, what fantastic accommodation at incredibly reasonable prices they have. It means that even if you are feeling a bit broke you can still afford a few days away somewhere without necessarily having to break out the tent (although that’s always an option too). The only downside for me is how many there are – we could live here for years and still not make it to more than a handful. Maybe one day, when we’ve retired, we’ll return sans kids and really “do” South Africa properly. Park by park.

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Kruger National Park at dawn

Water from the taps

I have lived in and travelled to a lot of places where you can’t just turn on the taps and drink. In Pakistan we couldn’t even use the water for washing vegetables – it all had to either come out of a bottle or be rigourously boiled first. But here in SA you can. I don’t know if this is country-wide and have no idea what it is like in the townships but certainly  the fact that clean water comes out of the taps is indicative that something is being done right.

Toilets

And in the same vein, roadside toilet stops are not the nightmare they can be in some countries. I have encountered toilets so bad, peeing in the bushes was definitely preferable. Here though they are almost always clean and usually have plenty of paper. We’re travelling to Mozambique in a couple of months – I am already nervous about what we will find there…

Radio

Okay, specifically one radio station: Five FM. Back home in the UK I have pretty well given up on radio. Sometimes I will listen to it for the news or current affairs shows but for music, there isn’t really anything that floats my boat. Either it’s trying so hard to be hip and trendy and down with the kidz that I’ve never heard of any of the songs (and the presenters jar appallingly with their attempts at cooldom) or it’s full of the sort of awful music from about 15 years ago that they think we’re interested in. And not much in between. Here, 5FM is fresh, funny, and plays fantastic music – with no ads! I don’t know how they do it but I have heard more good music on 5FM in the year since we arrived than I have in about the previous ten years in the UK. I suspect this is one I will be streaming over the internet when we leave for good.

So those are just a few things I think South Africa gets right – I can think of many, many more but now it’s over to you: please tell me in the comments section below some of the things that YOU love about this country. Or if you are not South African, do not live in South Africa or have never even visited South Africa, I would love to hear what your general impressions are of it. Good or bad…

 

 

A year in South Africa – my highlights

This time exactly a year ago we were perched  on the sofa in our garden, nibbling at sandwiches made with the sort of peanut butter I have since learned never to buy, wondering at the cold air but hot sun, listening to the strange sounds of the screeching hadedas and trying to contemplate our new life in this huge and hugely exciting country.  I can’t believe it has been a year. Fresh off the overnight flight, we felt like pale, strange animals found under stones – defenceless and pathetic, entirely reliant on others to keep us safe.

But here we are, 365 days on (or rather, 366 as it’s a leap year) and we’ve toughened up. Learnt our way around. Found out where to source the food we want, the clothes and shoes we need, and the books we desire. Bought a dog. Completed a year of schooling (the children) and a year in a new office (husband). Found friends, and sadly lost some of them to repatriation. Travelled far and wide but at the same time realised how much more there still is to see.

It hasn’t always been an easy year but overall we have loved our life in South Africa. I could drone on for hours about what we have been up to since we got here but really, that would get pretty dull. So here, instead, are just a few highlights:

Best trip

A hard one this as we have had so many great holidays since we arrived. Namibia, Cape Town, Mauritius are all up there. But for sheer excitement and for memories that will last with us forever, I think it was our six day safari in Kruger National Park with my parents in December/January that wins this one.

Best meal out

Again, so many to choose from. Eating out in South Africa is  genuinely.one of the best things about this country – possibly because to us, it is so much more affordable than at home but also because the food is great quality and very innovative. So there have been many, many good meals and quite a few great ones. But probably the one I enjoyed most overall was a wine-tasting meal at Zest Bistro in Pretoria where we sat at a long table with other guests and were given different wines to taste with each course. The food was fantastic (I have been back and enjoyed it even without gallons of wine to wash it down!), the wine was world class and the mixed company of friends and strangers was perfect.

Best tour

When my mother came to stay I decided it was time to dig a bit deeper into South Africa’s recent history. I had yet to venture deep into Soweto so when a friend recommended a tour by a lady called Snowy Mattera we decided to book it. I am so glad we did: Snowy’s father was Don Mattera, a poet and activist during the apartheid years. Snowy grew up in Soweto and was part of the student protests in the 1970’s. Learning about the history of the area through the eyes of someone who was actually there gave a unnique experience and really helped understand the actions of the people of that era. Highly recommended!

Best view

Oh so hard! The views in Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain were incredible. Ditto the unique panorama from the top of the sand dunes in Namibia. But in the end I think I have to choose the Drakensbergs where around every corner was another stunner!

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Best memory

I am going to cheat a little with this one and choose two – albeit it of doing the same thing, just in different countries. When you have had a year like we have, there are so many good memories, it’s hard to single it down to just one (or, in this case, two). However, sometimes it is the simplist activities which are the best and I am going to chose star-gazing as one of the things that I will remember for ever. Sitting at the back of our cabin in Namibia in the middle of a meteorite shower, watching shooting star after shooting star fall from the sky. And lying on our backs at our lodge in the Drakensbergs with the huge, huge night sky above is. It makes you feel so small and insignificant but at the same time so glad to be alive.

Best wildlife

So there have been zebras and whales and penguins and dolphins and octopusses (octopi?) and a lots of antelopey things and rhinos and elephants and giraffes and dung beatles and bats and warthogs with their hoglets and wild dogs and….how can I chose just one? Our entire year has been one wildlife-bonanza. So I will just have to chose the one that gave me the best picture:

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Best non-wildlife experience

Way back not long after we arrived I was invited to the local footy derby in Soweto – the Orlando Pirates vs the Kaiser Chiefs. Two of the biggest teams in the world, each with some of the most loyal supporters on the planet. This was, apparently, one of the biggest derbys it was possible to watch but I don’t think I quite appreciated the enormity of it until we walked into the stadium. I have been to big matches before, including watching Arsenal play and England vs Germany in Munich. But this was on a different scale altogether – whether it was the numbers, the sheer passion or just the noise I don’t know but it was certainly an experience never to be forgotten.

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Best luck

What started off as terrible luck in the end worked out for us in a way we could never have predicted. I had booked a balloon flight for my husband’s birthday shortly after we moved to Pretoria. Unfortunately due to an unseasonal rain storm, the original flight was cancelled and then rescheduled to a few weeks later. So here we were, up at dawn and floating across the landscape – lovely! It was so early that after we had landed and eaten breakfast, it was still not yet 9am. So we decided to hot-foot it across to the nearby Maropeng museum where the recently discovered fossilised remaines of Homo Naledi were on display for a limited period before being moved away to tour the world/be studied properly (whatever they do with bones and things). Anyway, we arrived so early we were the first people in and, having visited the museum previously, bypassed all the normal exhibits and made our way straight to the main attraction. Where, again, we were first in and thus had the exhibit totally to ourselves for a brief few moments. It isn’t often you get so see such an amazing discovery so close up and in such privacy – it felt like a private viewing and we definitely felt very lucky.

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Best discovery

I’m not sure if I can really call it a discovery as so many others seem to know about it, but a little cafe called the Moroccan House has become a favourite place to meet people for morning coffee or lunch. Great food and drinks, a lovely, cool, secluded terrace and fantastic service makes it a stand-out in a place of stand-outs. And did I mention the price? Definitely worth a visit if you are ever in town.

Most photogenic place

I think this one has to be won by Namibia. I have never seen so many photo opportunities in such a short space of time. Around every corner there was something else I wanted to take a picture of – helped by the most amazing light and bright blue skies. Here is a taster:

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And finally (because I could go on forever) – most relaxing holiday

This one is easy – hands down, it’s Mauritius. It helps that we stayed in an all-inclusive but the sea, the beach, the pools, the diving, the bars, the staff, the service….When you really need somewhere to unwind, what more could you ask for?

Well, that’s just some of my highlights from the last year. I notice I haven’t even included Cape Town in this post which just goes to show how much great stuff we have done! Maybe I will have to do another one at the end of this year – I wonder what will make the grade this time?

Have you been to South or Southern Africa? What have been your highlights?