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?

 

 

Learning to live with the New Normal.

Phew! What a week. I don’t know about you but I feel like I’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson over these past few days, with news coming at me from every direction. There was the travel ban in America, the huge protests against Trump being invited on a state visit in the UK, and then there was the Brexit debates and vote in London. It just seems like every time I check the news something else has happened….

But somehow, with all this going on, we have to learn to carry on.

In all honesty, I am finding it inceasingly difficult to focus on anything. I have plenty of work and am in the middle of an essay-writing course with a view to increasing the amount of freelance work I do. I also have this blog to keep up! Never mind all the normal, daily routine work like shopping and dog-walking that you can’t just forget about. But on the other hand there is Facebook and Twitter and another check of the latest news and before I know it half the day has gone. I also find my mood swings all over the place with the increasingly worrying information we are getting on a daily, nay hourly, basis.

But I know it’s just going to keep on coming so somehow we have to find a way to live with this new normal. And one of the ways I have been doing it is talking to people who have been surviving for years, decades even, in the sort of uncertain political environment that we in the UK and the US (and other stable democracies) perhaps haven’t ever had to contemplate. In particular, I spent last weekend in Harare visiting with relatives.

For those that don’t know (which hopefully is few of you!), Zimbabwe has been living under Robert Mugabe for more than 35 years. I am not about to go into a plotted history of the country and its politics – especially as, to my shame, I am actually pretty ignorant as to exactly what is happening in that country despite living righ next door and having relatives there. But if you are interested to learn more, here is a link.

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Trying not to get crushed in Zimbabwe

However, what is true is that life in Zimbabwe has become increasingly difficult for many of its nationals and change still seems elusive. It is that lack of WHEN things will improve that I think is the hardest to deal with – many people can cope with difficulties if they know it is for a limited time. If nothing else, contigency planning is easier when you have an idea how many months, years or even decades you are planning for.

It obviously isn’t easy and there aren’t any simple rules but it certainly seems that trying to get involved, in one way or another, in any opposition to the ruling government can make you feel a lot more positive. Just to feel like you are DOING something can certainly lift your spirits. How much you are actually able to do will of course depend on where you are and your particular situation – but in the UK and the US we are still in a position to be able to petition, march, write, donate and share information pretty widely. Hopefully all of those things will continue.

Otherwise, distraction is a great way to deal wth whatever is going on around you – epecially when you feel so helpless to change it. Change does and will come – we only have to look at history to know that we won’t stagnate in this situation forever. But it may be slow, a lot slower than we would want – so in the meantime we need to find ways to cope with the wait. Whether that be writing or crafting or sewing or baking or even burying yourself in work, it is always going to be healthy to take your minds off things for periods of times.

Getting together with like-minded friends is another thing that can really help when you are feeling despondent. As an expat I do sometimes feel quite isolated from everything going on in my home country, especially as I am surrounded by American expats so the news of Trump does tend to dominate. But every so often I get together with another sympathetic British friend who reassures me that no, I am not alone in feeling like this (I know the internet and Facebook in particular is another way to bring people together but there is nothing like a proper, face-to-face get together).

Finally the other thing that really helps me is what this blog is really all about – which is that many people, in many countries have been living with these uncertainties for years and whatever happens we will still almost certainly remain some of the most privileged people in the world just by dint of our passports. Although I speak about Zimbabwe, South Africa also has been going through interesting political times with a difficult and unpopular government, student riots, allegations of corruption right to the top of government…..

But I look around me and people are getting on with their lives. They are shopping and cooking and drinking wine and selling mobile phone cases at traffic lights and sweeping leaves and walking dogs and going to business meetings….in other words, life goes on. It is frustrating, incredibly frustrating, when you feel that you can’t do anything to bring about the immediate change that you crave but actually what you do need to be doing is living.

Now I am going to take my own advice and go and make a cup of tea. Please let me know your thoughts – these are interesting times.

Happy New Year and a Monkey in a Toilet

I realise things have been a bit quiet around here….but what with Christmas, travelling and now trying to catch up on all the work that has been sadly neglected for the past few weeks I have been pretty busy. I hope to get back to the blog asap and have some nice interviews and ideas brewing but in the meantime I wanted to do two things. First wish you a

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And secondly just share a little taster of our travels over the holiday period – one of those unexpected moments that will hopefully make you smile as much as it did me:

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Yes – that is a monkey with his head stuck in a toilet!

I hope you all enjoyed your breaks (if you got one….) and see you soon x

 

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 šŸ™‚

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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 certainlyĀ  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…

 

 

Stories from Blogging Africa #3

We’re back!

After a wintersummer (it’s winter here in the southern hemisphere but Frances, my Africa linky partner, is up in Kenya so summer for her) of fun and indulgence it’s time to roll up our sleeves, spit on our hands and get back to work. And this means another Stories from Blogging Africa link-up!

In case you’ve missed our first two linkys, this is a chance for anyone, anywhere in Africa who blogs to share their work. We don’t care what your blog is about, whether it’s travel or literature or expat life or politics or even sport – all we ask is that you either in Africa or write about Africa. In fact, the more diverse the better – see this as a great way to discover things about this great continent that are as yet totally unknown to you.

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What can be more African than an African elephant?

If you want to know what a link-up is and how it works first of all take a look at our earlier linkys – HERE and HERE. You will be taken to a page where you can click on a variety of blogs. Have a read and please, please if possible leave a comment, give it a like, let people know you have visited. This only works if people visit each others blogs.

So if you want to join in all you have to do is write a new blog post or pick one that is already published, grab the badge below and add it to your post with a link to this site , click on the frog link below and then simply follow the instructions to add your post. Happy posting – I look forward to reading your Stories from Blogging Africa and, please, don’t forget to check out the other posts in the link-up.

Watch out for mini-culture shock

We’ve been back in Pretoria for a couple of weeks now and I am starting to feel back on top of things. Starting. By that I don’t mean I feel settled back in at all – in fact, I really feel like I could do with about three weeks holiday to get over my holiday, now that the children are back at school…

Because, apart from all the extra work there is to catch up on, the friends I want to see, the chores that have laid abandoned since the day term broke up back in mid-June, there is also that strange feeling of disorientation which we all have to go through on returning from a long trip overseas – especially when it is to your home country.

We all know about culture shock and, to come extent, we all expect it when we first move somewhere new. Most people at least have some understanding of the sort of rollercoaster of emotions they are likely to go through as a new expat – even if many of us don’t realise how hard or how long it may hit for. However, what I hadn’t expected was to go through a sort of mini version of this when we first returned from our long break in the UK.

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Expat life can be a bit of a roller coaster at times…..

I was looking forward to coming back. We’d had a good holiday and seen a lot of people we were missing. But it’s always hard when you have to keep packing and unpacking, moving between different places, never sleeping in the same place for more than a few nights at a time. I also missed my own bed, my own shower and my own space. And yes I missed my dog!

So it wasn’t that I didn’t want to return. We had had long enough away and even the children agreed nearly nine weeks out of school is way too much. They positively hopped onto the school bus the first morning back! We also returned to glorious weather (hot, sunny days, cool nights…) and lots to look forward to including various trips and holidays. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be home in Pretoria – it was more just that when I got here it took a bit of time to settle.

For the first few days I felt a bit down, grumpy and even various degrees of anger. Usually exercise and sun helps with these things but I couldn’t shake the feelings. I also felt disorientated, to the extent that once or twice I woke up and couldn’t work out where I was. I don’t think my feelings were helped by the bad memories of the first few days of “Brexit” which were also my last few days in Pretoria before the holiday – sitting in the car park at our local supermarket I suddenly had a flash-back to checking on my phone and discovering our prime minister had resigned while I was doing the weekly shop.

These feelings didn’t last long and gradually I started to “re-adapt” to my surroundings, getting back into the rythm of a life that mostly revolves around working, writing, dog walking, food shopping and organising holidays. But these feelings threw me as they weren’t expected at all and it made me realise that, as expats, we have to continue to be aware that life isn’t linear and the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride will continue throughout our time away from home. It also reminded me that I needed to be kind to myself – it isn’t realistic that I would be able to jump straight back where I left off nine weeks ago; and that the guilt I felt about not making arrangements to see people or starting a new project within a week of returning should be parked straight away in the unrealistic car park.

So hereĀ  I am on day 13 and I do feel like I am getting there. I have managed to write a few new blog posts, caught up with most friends, met some of the newcomers (who so far all seem lovely), sorted out the last details for our coming trips to Cape Town and Mozambique and more or less got up to date with work. I realise there is still a long way to go and my to-do list is as long as ever (although sometimes I think that is just what life in the 21st century is like for everyone). But at least now I know what to expect next time I return from a long trip home. Buckle up those seat belts!

A year in South Africa – my highlights

This time exactly a year ago we were perchedĀ  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.Ā  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 isĀ  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.

Soweto derby

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?

A trip home: what did I learn?

So I’ve just returned to South Africa after five weeks home in the UK – my first trip back since we arrived in Pretoria a year ago. I am very happy to see the sun again (ok, we saw it a bit at home but there weren’t that many of the cloudless days you get in the African winter), and to swap Brexit politics for South African politics. The former is as depressing as it comes; the latter is quite exciting and in an entirely selfish way won’t affect me or my family as much as what is happening back in the UK.

Everyone who is an expat knows what it feels like to go home after a spell away from it. Always slightly surreal, like nothing has changed but everything has. You know that people will be less interested in you and your adventures than you hoped they would be. You also know you will not be able to see everyone you would like to – and will feel guilty for half the holiday about this fact. And then get over it: by the time you have driven 3,000 miles between eight different places, unpacked and repacked 28 times and slept in about 13 different beds, you will stop fretting about those people you couldn’t catch up with. After all, they can always come to you!

But apart from the obvious, what else did I learn? Following our visit, here are a few of my observations:

  • The United Kingdom has become obsessed with Prosecco. This obsession had started before I left and it was already the drink of choice when I went to the pub with friends. But now the price of a bottle seems to have come down to lower than a decent bottle of red and it’s everywhere! There were even Prosecco bars at shopping malls – as if the proleteriat wanted to mimick the “ruling classes” with their champagne and oyster bars at Harvey Nicks……

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  • I think we can now safely say there will never be a proper summer in England again. We have been going to the same place in Devon for the end of July/beginning of August period for 10 years now and without fail it always rains non-stop for at least two days. My childhood memories of endless sunny days are just that – memories.
  • After you have been away for a year, you will be that fumbly person at supermarket check outs with their new-fangled card machines and paying 5p for bags and not having someone to pack those bags for you and trying to remember you enter the card into the machine yourself rather than simply hand it over…..ditto petrol stations – what do you mean you have to fill it up yourself?!
  • Politics is the new soap opera. It is the main topic of conversation with pretty much anyone you meet. If you don’t get on to the subject of Brexit within 5 minutes of meeting someone there can be only one reason: you suspect they voted differently from you. In which case talk about the weather, last night’s tv, sport….anything but the EU!

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  • Have we reached tipping point with social media? I have never seen so many people spend so long staring at their phones as I did this last month. Surely something has to give soon?
  • For the first time ever on a return from a period of living overseas I didn’t go mad in a supermarket – which proves the quality of food here in South Africa. I did, however, go fairly mad in all other shops including clothes and book shops.
  • The Brits love their dogs. But luckily they do not love their dog poo. It was very refreshing to be able to walk around without watching where you were stepping, especially in parks. I wish South Africans would learn to use their doggy poop bags…..
  • I still love London more than any other city in the world. Yes the crowds do my head in, yes it’s flipping expensive. But it still feels to me like the centre of the universe – there is always something going on, and something new happening. Bath and Bristol run it a close second though.
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Bath – my joint favourite UK city after London.

  • It was also nice to be able to walk out of the house, including at night, and feel safe. I started off always locking my car door as soon as we were in but got more relaxed as the holiday went on. I am now doing the opposite and have to keep remembering to lock doors, keep windows up etc. It hasn’t helped that my domestic helper’s son was kidnapped, tied up and badly beaten for his card and pin nuber last weekend. A timely reminder that we are “not in Kansas anymore”.

I’m sure there are many other things I could say about my trip and my feelings about being home but this post has gone on long enough already so I will leave it there. But let me know if you’ve just been back to your home country after a spell abroad and if so, what were your observations? Did you find it just as you left it – or did everything feel a bit off-kilter? Did it live up to expectations – or were you happy to leave it all behind again?

Photos: glass of bubbly – Meg, EU umbrellas – Jeremy Segrott