31 December 2013

25. - 31 Dec.: Kruger through Swaziland to S. Lucia

Again wake up at dawn and the adrenaline starts pumping. Breakfast is devoured faster than usual as we try and get back on to our vehicles and out to the lions. They probably have not moved much since last night and it might still be busy with their mating procedure. It usually goes on for a few days, 20 to 25 times a day. So the chances of seeing them in action again are reasonably high.



But first we need to check out, as we'll be leaving Kruget today. I take my packed bags out of the room and onto the balcony on stilts that overlooks a thick bush, and go back into the room to double check I did not leave behind any chargers, razors, slippers, hats etc. As I come out again and definitively close my room's door behind me, there come my three ladies of two days ago: they must have been waiting in the bush for me to appear and of course they make it clear that they are going to take my bags down to the waiting van. They hardly speak a word, and I don't either, but we all know what we have to do. OK fair enough, the sevice is worth twenty Rand. Once in the parking lot, we all leave our bags in the van and head out with the safari vehicles for one last tour of Kruger.

After the usual check-in procedure at the park's gate we tell the driver to head straight for the location where we saw the lions the previous evening and sure enough there they are, they have just moved across the road, a few meters, not more. However, unlike last night, when we were alone, there are lots of cars now. The word about "ngoni fagapagati" spread quickly. Not so the news about the British car being overturned I guess. No one seems to be in the least apprehensive when we later drive by a couple of elephants.

There are rules of the road in national parks, one of them being to keep a safe distance from the animals and not to get in between the anumals and a car who got there first, But not everyone respects the rules and there is not much the rangers can do: they have to power of enforcement. Too bad, they should. After a while it gets crowded. We are lucky to have gotten near the lions first, and keep a safe distance of a good twenty meters or so but soon a big white SUV drives in front of us. All it takes is one rude driver to spoil the sighting for everyone else. Most drivers are polite and line up behind the first to arrive at the scene of a sighting, but some must think that if they don't get ahead first, someone else will. Anyway, after a few minutes the lions move on and some thirty cars turn on the engines and disperse around the park. The magic of last night was not to be again today.

It's clear that the lions are not afraid of people but still: why not just move out some and get away from noise, polluted air and large obstructive vehicles? Apparently they enjoy the warmth of the tarmac as compared to the cool grass.

At about nine o'clock we must give up and head back to the camp. It's time to bid farewell to our rangers, get on our van and head South: we have to hit the coast at Saint Lucia by tonight.
Borderland

Swazi beauties
At around noon we go abroad. Yes, we do, as we drive into Swaziland, a small landlocked independent kingdom wedged between South Africa and Mozambique.

Our T.O. somehow was reluctant to get us here, they said we needed a special permit, then they said we would waste hours at the border, then they said it was not worth it. None of which is true as it turns out.

The country is famous for its polygamous king, who won't be among the friendly people we met along the way, and for lush green mountains, which we'll see a lot of during our five-hour crossing of the country.

Much of these mountains are covered in thick woods grown to make for timber, a major export and source of revenue for the country.

At a gas station I strike a conversation with a few youths who are loitering around, with seemingly nothing much to do. It is a holiday of course, and schools are closed. They speak good English, seem educated and are eager to strike a conversation with foreigners, of whom they must not see too many if one excludes South Africans.

Swazi timber makes good export
Arrive in Saint Lucia at sunset. It's a pretty posh vacation retreat for wealthy (and therefore white) South Africans, and there are many expensive cars with blond Afrikaans and English speakers to be seen. However we do see a lot of blacks with less fancy clothes and much less fancy cars around. Apparently they sleep and dine in the nearby townships, and only come to town for an evening stroll and a drink.

I would like to go and have dinner in one of these townships, but our driver steadfastly refuses to take us there. Too dangerous for us and for the van, and he would be in deep trouble with the agency's boss if anything should happen to either. Disappointing, I will have to try and find a way around this. Most South African live in townships, it would not make any sense to spend over a month here and not see one. I mean a black township. Of course even the exclusive pockets of white wealth that we have seen are strictly speaking "townships", that's just a name for an administrative division of the country's cities. But in the common jargon "township" has come to mean "black township" and also implies poor, dirty, unsafe. Or does it? Some South Africans even told me that Soweto is "no longer a township" because, unlike during the times of apartheid, it is now developed, reasonably safe, home to a growing middle class and a "must do" tourist destination. The borders of the meaning of township are changing. I'd like to find out. But not tonight.

We finally have dinner is at the "Ocean Basket", a chain of fish restaurants that is very popular across South Africa: good quality fish, informal but usually effective service, inexpensive. This restaurant is very busy tonight, this is a holiday town and the Christmas break is in full swing, but in ten minutes a table for twelve is available on the terrace and we can sit down with our driver. Most patrons are white but there are a few blacks.

Ocean Basket immodestly prides on being "the sole provider". Well... a bit ambitious perhaps, but I decide to take their word for it and order their "famed cape sole". It is perhaps not the sole sole around but is indeed quite tasty. The happy new year's eve dinner is made merrier by a few bottles of Sauvignon blanc from the Cape region. Maybe they are not the "sole" provider of good fish, but their formula is a successful one and they have opened shop in several other African countries as well as, for some reason which is not immediately obvious to me, Cyprus.

Back at the hotel we get a couple of bottles of bubbles and pop them at midnight. It's 2014!

30 December 2013

24. - 30 Dec.: Alarms and mating lions at the Kruger National Park


I wake up just five minutes before 5:30, which is when my alarm was set to go off. I hear this happens to a lot of people. I am always amazed at how our body clocks can know when to wake up so as to save its owner the trauma of an alarm. Ever since I adopted my smart phone to perform this thankless function, I set the ringtone to a gentle Buddhist bells chime, so as to minimiza the pain. Still, when it goes off, it makes for the worst moment of the day. I suppose our body knows that it is not good to start the day at its most unpleasant, so it tries to avoid it by preempting the alarm. Well, one could argue it might actually be a good thing, as things would only improve after that.

But waking up to an alarm is always a traumatic experience, bound to cast a negative shadow on the waking hours to follow. On the other hand, waking up just a few minutes early provides the immense pleasure of waiting in bed, yawning and stretching, aware there is still time before one has to get up. And I derive a sense of accomplishment in killing the alarm before it has a chance to go off at all. I hate the big snooze button, it is cruel torture, I much prefer the smaller "dismiss" option. So I am profoundly grateful to mother nature for having made us evolve over the last few million years to anticipate our own alarms. I can't explain how, also because we evolved over countless thousand generations while even the most ancient alarms are only a few decades old.

Two game drives today: the first starting just after sunrise at 6 am and the second ending at sunset, at 6.30pm. With a one hour break for lunch. It's going to be a full day. We set off to a good start with a very full breakfast: sweet, savory, hot, cold, juices, you name it, it's there. Great, we'll need the energy to face rain and wind in our open vehicles.

It's not the best safari day of my life really. At least until we start driving back toward the camp. Then it becomes the single most exciting one, ever!

We are driving along a straight road, a bit sad and despirited as the weather has not given us a break and our sightings have been rather few and far between. OK well it'a part of the game, these are wild animals after all and Kruger is not a zoo, not even one of those super-managed parks where "wild" animale are more or less programmed to appear at artificial water holes.

It could be worse: today an English couple did have a close sighting with an elephant, but one which they wish they never met. They were on a self-drive tour just a few kilometers from us and met a single bull with a limited sense of humor. As they approached, it turned around and flapped its ears a few times. Elephant flap their ears when they are not happy with you being in their way, and it is usually not a good idea to try and argue with them. The Brits decided to stick around a bit longer and the next thing they saw was an elephant tusk piercing through their wind shield, while the trunk flipped the small car over as if it was a pancake.

I am a bit disconsolate and I try to protect my cameras from the sharp bullets of rain that are flying across our seats, pushed by the wind. Then all of a sudden Henry, our driver/guide today, a towering but boyish Xhosa in his early thirties, slams on the breaks and points to the right: a male lion on the grass, only a few meters away from the road. OK not a bad way to end the day, I think. But then Valentina sees a lioness, almost completely hidden in a bush. Ah ha! They are obviously a couple, says Henry, and turns off the engine. The other 4x4 with our travel mates arrives after a few minutes and stops just behind us. We wait. When lions mate, they do it many times every day, so we have a good chance.

Fifteen minutes or so go by and nothing happens. It's getting dark, we have perhaps another hour of sunlight. The other car decides it's not worth waiting longer and moves on. We stay put. Another ten minutes pass and the lion gets up. Now Henry is visibly excited and warns us to be quiet: they are likely going to mate.

And sure they do: the male jumps on the female who got up and is walking around. He gently pushes her to the ground with his big paws and mounts her from behind. The actual penetration is quick, maybe fifteen seconds in all. No prelims, really. But then again they will have done it twenty times of more by night fall, so it's not bad. During the intercourse the female is crouching on the grass, and look straight into my camera, as if to say: "What, you have never seen a lion mating?" No, I have not, in fact!

Ngoni fagapagati!



Can't believe the lions keep going at it in front of everyone. Actually, come to think of it, all animals seem to be perfectly happy to do it in front of any other animal, except for humans. I'll have to do some research and find out why.

"Ngoni fagapagati!, Ngoni fagapagati!! Hahahaaaaaa" Henry can't hold back his enthusiasm as he explains in xhosa. "Ngoni" means lion and fagapagati is the F word which Henry translates by hitting repeatedly and violently his clenched left fist with the palm of his right hand...

The evening is a happy time. At first we don't tell anything to the others who left early, but when the time comes for everyone to show the day's pictures there are a few screams at the sight of the big cats embracing in amorous activity!

29 December 2013

23. - 29 Dec.: Mbahoko Ndebele village to Kruger National Park

Breakfast and good byes to our Ndebele hosts. Even though this has been a brief and obvously superficial encounter, I will miss the casual smile of these ladies as they prepare breakfast for us. They are all by the door of the communal hall to wave us away.

We slowly make our way to the Kruger National Park. Our driver is Paul, a chubby white Afrikaans speaker who tries, really hard, to be funny and crack a new joke every five minutes. I can sense from his talk he really yearns for the days old South Africa, he rarely misses a chance to complain about the post-Apartheid system.

When we arrive at the camp we are welcomed by a row of colorfully attired black ladies who line up next to our parked bus. They don't really speak any English so it's not clear what they are there for and whether it's got anything to do with us. It did: they want to carry our bags to the rooms. In my case, my rooms is a good 300 meters away, a comfortable wooden construction on stilts. To get there, there is an easy paved path and I try to just grab my trolley and roll it to destination by myself. No way: they stop me and gesticulate profusely to make clear they are carrying my bag. Well OK they want to earn a tip, it's not really necessary as I could easily do it myself but I appreciate the effort and agree to let one of them carry my bag. yes, carry, on her head, as whe refuses to just grab the handle and roll it. I try several times to explain it's heavy and there is really no need to put all those 25 kilos or so on her spine but to no avail. Then as I grab my camera backpack another lady comes forward and very politely takes it from me and puts that, too, on her head. Allright, so we just move together to the room, where I give them a good tip, they smile and walk back to the parking lot to way for the next arrivals.

In the afternoon we go for a game drive from 4 to 7 pm. Cold rain is whipped against us by the relative wind as we are in open vehicles. We use special open safari vehicles. Our driver is Tommy, a friendly big guy who enjoys explaining all he knows about the park. It is cold and windy and before sunset we decide to head back without any major sighting under our belt.

Kruger camaleon


Dinner is at the huge buffet of our camp, lots of meat and veggies and of course South African wines. It's been a long day and the cold, rain and wind have taken their toll, so we all decide to hit the sack rather early tonight.

28 December 2013

22. - 28 Dec.: Models and billiard at Mabhoko Ndebele village

Today we start with a walking tour of the village. One of the very few men in the village (where are all the others?) takes us around and explains a bit of the history and culture. The village is made of typical Ndebele whitewashed houses painted in lively colors in geometric patterns.

After lunch I stop and talk to a few teen-agers who are wiling the afternoon away by a house, seemingly a bit bored. They are all busy chatting away with their mobile phones. Sunny is 17 years-old and he tells me about school in Johannesburg. He enjoys the city but loves to come home for the holidays. He would like to come back and make a contribution to the village one day. He is going to be a nurse and there is a need for nurses here, he says. Yes, for sure, I think, and, if not a hospital, at least a first-aid facility.

After a while bid them farewell and take a walk around the village. At the bar it's quiet but a few elder ladies are having a good time. One is actually pretty drunk and starts a dance to the tune of the two huge loudspeakers that keep pumping hard rock into the air. Soon the Italian photographer girls join her (in dancing, not drinking, not as much drinking anyway) and it is a party!


Three teenagers catch my attention as they are busy with their cell phones, chatting away. As I get closer I realize they are on Facebook! Quite happy to meet me and take pictures together, only this time the older girl (maybe 20 years-old) asks my Facebook friendship so we can share pictures! I am honestly taken aback to be asked this question here, but maybe I should not be: the mobile network has gone a long way connecting people in Africa where land lines were too expensive.

As the afternoon moves on we ask a few ladies to wear their traditional dresses for us. They seem willing to do anything within reason for some extra Rand. Maybe even something not within reason. These dresses are simple and thick blankets with wide stripes of bright colors: red, yellow and blue. Some of them also show some jewels of various kinds. Some are simple ornaments, while others are clearly more elaborate and rich ones: perhaps those that every girl gets as a gift with her coming of age.

I am highly hesitant but in the end I get myself together and ask one lady with whom I have made acquaintance about finding a model to take some pictures with ahem ...only the blanket. And nothing else. She is a big woman and immediately offers herself as my model. She asks for 300 rand. How about 200? Ok 200.

She walks me to her house. It's a brick contruction with wooden door that displays some simple artwork cut in the top panel. She is a bit shy, or pretends to be, but smiles and clearly enjoys the unexpected attention. I try to explain how I want her to pose, so as to take advantage of available sunlight and compose her body against the door decorations with the interior of the house as background. She does not understand me, so I gently use my hands to move her body until I am satisfied. She is having a great time and clearly has to make an effort not to laugh! An elderly lady (her mother?) looks on from the porch.

Model for a day
I take a few pictures and just when I am done her niece comes forward and I ask whether I can photograph her as well. No problem. It seems the aunt model was waiting for me to ask her. 150 rand? OK. The young girl is much more at ease than her auntie. She quickly undresses and moves to pose. Her complexion is fairer and her skin smooth as silk. She wears some simple necklaces and understands enough English to pose exactly as I ask her to. She seems to have done this before, but I don't think of asking her. She has a rather serious expression hen we start, but switches quickly to a benevolent smile when I ask her.

Two other elderly ladies see all of this and do not wait for me to ask. They offer to pose for me. I thank them but politely decline: it's enough for the day! I am quite happy at having taken my first ever photographs of nude models and head to the bar for a beer. here I find most of my travel mates and several Ndebele ladies (but no men: where are they?) who are sharing snack and beer. One old auntie is particularly happy and drags several Italian ladies to the yard in front of the bar for a ...let's say freestyle dancing session.

But my day is far from over. After our usual buffet dinner in the communal house, we head back to the bar for an international pool match Italy vs. South Africa. Or maybe Italy vs. Ndebele? Or just Italy vs. Mabhoko? Well, no point discussing identities. Pasquale, Gianluca and I represent the green, red and white tricolor, though Valentina will come in and help at various crucial times in the match. The African team is made of various players who alternate at the cue and I can't honestly remember any of their names. We'll play American pool, solid vs striped balls and the black number 8 ball last.

We get started in earnest and Italy wins, just, the first set, while our hosts win the second. We are interrupted by dinner, but as soon as we are done we rush back to the bar for the play-off. It is a tight game, and in the end each team pockets all its balls and it's down to the black number 8. It's Gianluca who puts it into a corner pocket for an Italian victory which our friends acknowledge with powerful hand shakes and big smiles.

After which we all head outside and I order some beers which easily find their way around. We all celebrate together, it's been a fun game and a great couple of days here. My lady mama model is here and has no qualms asking me to buy her a beer. And then another. After I buy her third beer I decide it is time to wave goodbye to all and hit the sack.

27 December 2013

21. - 27 Dec.: Soweto and drive to Mabhoko Ndebele village

Easy wake-up and breakfast in the business lounge to which I have been upgraded for no apparent reason. At check-in, on Christmas day, I had asked to what I owed this gift and the response from the charming lady at the reception was: "It's Christmas, so we thought we'd give you a gift!": Well thanks Madam, no point trying to understand any further. I am all by myself at 8 o'clock. Great cold and hot breakfast. Mostly English style but it's a true rainbow buffet, with lots of African fruits and some Chinese spring rolls

Then on to the airport with the hotel shuttle where I meet my fellow photographers from Italy. We'll be spending the next two weeks together trying to capture the beauties of this country.Their flight via Istanbul is ontime, we are met by our driver Peeter, a tall, blond and blue-eyed Dutch African, and after a few quick purchases of local sim cards we are off.

From the airport we drive straight to Soweto where we meet Jessica, our local guide, and stop for lunch. Actually I don't have lunch at all and instead use the time to walk around and mingle with the local patrons.

It's an easy and welcoming atmosphere on Vilakazi street, where both Mandela and archbishop Tutu had their homes. "The only street in the world where two Nobel peace prize winners had their home" boasts Jessica, our local guide. I suppose Marie and Pierre Curie, who got the prize in 1903, don't count because they were a married couple. Other than that, it sounds like a credible claim, though I confess I have not taken the time to verify it.

Mandela's home is a small construction but of course it carries huge symbolic significance for it is from here that he waged his struggle with Winnie in the 1950s and early 1960s, and it is here that he returned when released from prison in 1990. Tutu's house is nearby but can't be visited as they still live in it.

In one large restaurant full of patrons lunching and drinking in the rodside terrace, I fail by a split second to raise my camera in time to take the picture of a young waitress opening the metal cap of a bottle of Coke with her big white teeth, apparently that's how you do it here. I start snapping at families enjoying their lunch. Patrons are all blacks, except for obvious tourists, and by and large they are smartly dressed for the occasion.

Two big guys are having a chat and a
few beers at one of the tables. I ask to sit down with them and after our mutual introductions they start to talk about Italian soccer, which of course they know more about than I ever will or care. We then turn to politics.

They miss Mandela of course and are highly critical of the current president Zuma.They chuckle when recalling how the president was booed at the stadium during the recent commemoration of Madiba.

At about 3:00 pm everyone is done eating and we walk down the street and toward the monument to the rioters of 1976. Along the way we meet some Church officials intent on preparing for the Sunday mass, and stop for chat on the beauties of Soweto. It's one of the many churches that make for the kaleidoscopic panorama of South Africa's Christian religions.

Moving along the street, we head to the unmissable Hector Pieterson monument, celebrating the person whose death contributed to change the history of South Africa like few others. His sister was with him when he died and tells her story in this video.The monument has now become a place of remembrance like few others, with eveeryone taking their picture next to the large photograph from that fateful day.

On the way, we run into a group of locals, in their early twenties, who are having a few drinks at an improvised pic-nic on a patch of lawn. Their car is their bar and the booze moves around but they are perfectly sober and warmly welcome us to join for a sip or two.

Drive on to Mapoch (Mabholo in the local language) Ndebele village. Driver uneasy when we stop at a small village shopping mall to buy some South African adaptors. (This country has a unique ans bulky plug size that is incompatible with anything from anywhere else in the world). He urges us to hurry up and move on, especially, he says, as it's getting dark.

Orlando power station is now a playground
On the way out of Soweto we drive by the decommissioned towers of the old Orlando power station. Colorful graffiti mask the history of this obsolete and very polluting coal-fired plant, now transformed in an amusement park. South Africa is growing rapidly and needs more and more energy. This plant was shut down in the late 1990s however after fifty years of honorable service. The white government flirted with nuclear power (and even build half a dozen nuclear weapons, only to dismantle them before surrendering power) and one plant is still in operation near Cape Town.

Our village is hard to find, navigator goes crazy. It tells us to drive into the bush , then straight then it starts babbling away as if it had had a beer too many. We finally get to a small gate: our Ndebele village. We are home for the night.We are the only guests and it seems we might be the only tourists to have come this far for a long time.

At dinner, we are seated in what seem like a communal hall, just next to the large kitchen. After a while a few women come along and prepare a simple buffet of rice, potatoes and chicken, but there are no drinks. They must go and fetch those at a nearby "bar", a place that we will get to know rather well in the coming days.

After dinner in the kitchen
After dinner we ask for directions to the bar, which is actually unmissable even in the pitch dark dirt roads of the village: its huge loudspeakers make themselves heard a long distance away. The bar, a few rooms of bricks and mortar with neon lights hanging in a rather haphazard fashion, serves beer and a few soft drinks but no water. The beer is nice and cold, coming out of large refrigeratos powered by a diesel generator. There is a choice of two South African beers.

The main point of interest however is a red cloth covered pool table next door, which seems to be a magnet for most youths in the village. We are too tired today but we'll be here tomorrow!

26 December 2013

20. - 26 Dec.: Johannesburg

Full day tour of the city with Lesley, an independent local guide I found online. We have had extensive correspondence before my arrival and I have detailed my priorities to her, though today being the 26th of December many of my points of interest are closed. I am disappointed to learn that the Museum Africa, the most important in Johannesburg, is closed. So is the Apartheid Museum, which acquires a special relevance now that Mandela has passed away. Oh well...

Leslie comes with her minivan at 8:30 and we are off to town. We proceed first to Rosebank Mall for the African Craft Market, a much ancitipated stop of my tour. My 4.25 meter high wooden Namibian giraffe, which I bought in Okahandjia in 1997, has long been waiting for company in my Brussels home's foyer. Here I was expecting to find her a mate - I mean not necessarily another giraffe, but perhaps a fellow savannah inhabitant to mark some continuity in the tangible memories of my African adventures. It was not to be. The market is very closed. Lesley is visibly upset because she had called them in advance. Well, so it goes.

Oldest gold mine in Joburg
It's drizzling a bit, which does not help uplift our morale in the wake of this useless trip to Rosebank. We then move to the first mine, not much more than a hole in the ground really today. What could be a green garden to spend time and remember the founders of this city is actually a haven for squatters. Rubbish and ash are everywhere, and a stench of urine does not encourage us to prolong our visit.

As we drive along Lesley points out various neighbohoods to me, some newer and visibly more affluent, some dirtier, poorer, sad really. The rich areas are mostly dotted with low lying contruction, pretty villas, lush gardens. Most of these are fenced and many are walled off with CCTV cameras and very unfriendly signs that warn of no trespassing and "armed response". Not many people are to be seen in the clean and well paved streets.

The poorer areas are mostly made up of large apartment buildings, criss crossed by dirty roads full of people moving about or just sitting lazily on the pavement, doing nothing in particular. Maybe because it is a holiday and there is not much to do in their small dwellings, just being together in the open seems the thing to do.

Mural art in Joburg



Mary Fitzgerald Square and Museum Africa, unfortunately closed. We walk around the square a bit, it is pretty desolate today. Some lively murals spice up the dreary concrete pillars of a road overpass. A few people move about aimlessly and after twenty minutes or so we decide it is probably safer to move on.

We then move to Main street a the pulsating commercial and financial center of Johannesburg. It is not pulsating very much today actually, yes, you guessed right, because of the Christmas holiday. But it is interesting to see the historical plates that dot the sidewalk, with pictures and text documenting the birth and growth of the city around the gold mining industry.





Lesley is especially fond of pointing out to me the few remaining mining machines that are now exhibited in public gardens and sidewalks. An old stamp battery figures prominently among them. It is an old machine that was used to extract gold by heavy pounding instead of grinding.

Mine shaft under the Bank
At the headquarters of Standard Bank, on Simmonds Street, we visit the mining museum. While digging for the contruction of this impressive building in the mid-1980s the earth moving machines uncovered a shaft of the gold mines of one hundred years earlier. It had been a certain colonel Ignatius Phillip Ferreira (1840-1921) who had first struck gold here in 1886, thouch he later lost all his money. Standard Bank which, coincidentally, also began operations in Johannesburg in 1886, decided to name this museum after the colonel.

Despite the holiday there is quite a bit of life at the Carlton Centre, a fifty-floor skyscraper we visit next. At 223 meters this has been the tallest building in Africa for almost forty years.

All offices are of course closed today but there is nonetheless a lively crowd in the large shopping mall that occupies the lower floors. The 360 degree view over the city is not to be missed and Leslie elaborates profusely on the history of the city as we walk around a full circle on the top floor, pointing at the various landmarks through the large windows.

We then go for lunch downstairs in a large shopping mall. Nando's chicken offers half a tasty bird and a pile of potato wedges for a very reasonable price. It is a local chain that's been very successful and is now expanding abroad. I'd like to do some window shopping, just to see what's on offere here but our stroll is cut short by a tall guy who starts folloing us mumbling some unintelligible nonsense. As we hurriedly make for the elevator and back to the garage, a security guards approaches us and asks if everything is OK. Unfortunately it seems that this sort of harassment is not rare in this once posh building.


One other venue that is open today, surprisingly, is the Constitutional Court! Lesley wants to take me there because of the significance of the adjacent women's prison. A somber place, but one that inspires hope: the grim facilities that once deprived women of their freedom, in some cases because of political reasons, are now closed and the Constitutional Court, supposedly, is the guarantor of the rights of all in the new South Africa.


It's been a long day and I spend te evening resting and reading in my room, not before another walk through the incredible casinos next door. It's a surreal view from my window: glittering lights from the casino contrast markedly with the black nught sky.

Next to the hotel, a large parking lot is full with the gamblers' cars. Every few hundred meters a parking guard looks after the vehicles: they are dressed in smart uniforms and gesticulate profusely to attract the drivers' attention every time a new car approaces. Smack in the middle there is a huge fountain with a larger-than-life statue of a Roman centurion and four horses galloping wildly into a ring of water jets...

25 December 2013

19. - 25 Dec.: From wineland to Johannesburg

After yet another rich breakfast with Italian music in the background I spend an easy morning at the Auberge Clermont, reading, smoking a Toscanello and taking a few pictures around the vineyard. At about noon I am politely asked to vacate the room as they have to clean up for the lucky guests who will take my room in the afternoon. Oh well. Time to drive to Cape Town anyway, I have to fill up my tank, return the car and check-in for my flight to Johannesburg.

Easy drive to the Cape Town airport. I stop at a filling station just before the rental car return. A plump black attendant comes forward with a big smile flashing from his white teeth. (There is virtually no self serve station in South Africa because the fuel price, by law, must be the same as full serve.) "Hello sir how are you? Have you had a good trip? It's an honor for me to serve you today." He is extremely welcoming and works with alacrity and gusto. Well maybe it's for the tip, but no can't do that all that just for the tip. It's a sign of a positive attitude, of someone who is aware of being there to do something useful. He is in a talkative mood: after he inquires about my home city, he starts commenting on the latest Serie A exploits of A.S. Roma. (I always wonder why foreigners always refer to "la Roma" with its official company name.) He knows much more than me about Italian soccer. I can nod a few times when he mentions Totti but am totally impotent when he asks specific questions about defensive tactics of Italian players and the like.

He fills up my tank, meticulously cleans the windshield, checks my oil as well as the level of my wipers' water as if it were his own car. It's been a long long long time since something like this happened to me in Europe. I would like to give him a tip but I am extremely embarrassed to find out that I have no coins or small notes on me. I openly tell him so, thanking him profusely for his work. He keeps smiling and tells me not to worry, to drive safe and have a good trip.

After returning my car to Avis I make my way to the check-in counters to catch my flight to Johannesburg, the next stage of my trip, where I will meet my photographer friends for a couple of weeks of intensive digital shooting.
 
My flight is uneventful and by early evening I will check in at my hotel just around the corner from the airport of South Africa's economic powerhouse city. During the flight, which takes place around lunch time, which would normally be a huge Christmas feed, again I have the opportunity to reflect on the fact that this year I am free of Christmas celebrations. Not only of eating too much but also of giving and receiving unwanted gifts and putting up with crazy traffic.

In the last few years I have celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti with my friend Massimiliano, with whom I share a healthy agnosticism and a romantic nostalgia for all things (ancient) Roman. This year I will miss that as well, maybe we can make up next time I am in Rome. It must have been a fun time in Rome the, this year-end period, to indulge almost without limit to celebrate the rebirth of the invincible Sun, when the days once again start getting longer.

After a light buffet dinner, during which I share the excitement of a cricket match between South Africa and Sri Lanka with a couple of tall black guys, I decide to take a walk in the lukewarm evening. My hotel is close to a large casino complex and I am curious to take a peak. There is a sort of outer ring to the complex, with kids and families, all kinds of restaurants and no smoking signs. As one approaches the inner rooms the first gambling tables appear. There are even electronic automatic roulette robots, where the wheel is encased in a glass cube and players place their bets through various buttons on the four sides. Weird...

Then one can go through some heavy glass doors doors, each bearing a sign to keep it closed at all times, into an inner ring where smoking is allowed and the most addicted players crowd around roulette and black jack tables. A sort of sancta sanctorum of gambling, with very serious faces and people (mostly men) often dressed in bizarre attires, jewels and hats. The croupiers, mostly women, are smartly dressed though they could do with a bit less make up in my view. A pub-style bar at the very core of all this is very busy providing cool beer and various sorts of alcohol to the patrons in between bets. there would be plenty of opportunities for interesting photographs, but somehow I get a feeling this would not be appreciated and I don't think I want to get into an argument with anyone in this crowd.

24 December 2013

18. - 24 Dec.: Paarl wine tasting for Christmas eve

Lance with his pearls
Another sunny day in the wine lands. After a further breakfast with soft opera music in the background I head off to Paarl to visit Black Pearl, a small producer. The owner is actually American, and she has had ad adventurous life doing many things around the world before she settled in South Africa to make wine. I am welcomed by her father, Lance, who leads us though a selection of their cabernet/shiraz products. Quite good if a bit aggressive for my taste, especially since both are over 20% Shiraz, which is supposed to be a smooth, velvet-on-your-tongue varietal.

I then drive around a bit but most vineyards are not open for tastings because of the Christmas holiday. Black Pearl I suppose does not count, you are welcomed in the home of the owners, it's not really a commercial tasting operation.

But I find one that is open for business: Backsberg. Maybe because the founder is Jewish? I drive in with two young Frenchmen and we are welcomed by two ladies at the tasting counter. One of the ladies, very thin, her skin of a lovely hazelnut color, in her mid twenties, serves the wines for our tasting while the other is quieter and sits at the cashier. The two Frenchmen are a bit high and one of them makes repeated comments, in French, on the aesthetic characteristics of the serving girl and on how he'd like to take her out in the evening. Rather poor, well, taste on his part. Besides, she looks at him with raised eyebrows: maybe she speaks French and understood what was supposed to be a macho comment to his buddy? I hope so.


We go through the usual procedure: dry whites (sauvignon) more full bodied whites (chardonnay) lighter red pinotage and heavy caliber reds. Pretty good stuff, and I fall for the temptation of ordering some. These are easy wines: their philosophy is to make wines that are a pleasure to drink even for the uncomplicated taster, and I think they largely hit their target.

On the way home I pass by some slums, oddly located between lush vineyards. Metal and plastic corrugated sheets covered with plastic and held up, moreor less, with creatively positioned strings and wooden poles. No electricity, no running water, no paved streets. A sign on a shack, under a coat of arms with three big capital letters SFW, very improbably reads Die Stellenbosch-Boerewynmekerye (the Boer wine maker?).

A bit beyond, more poor housing, but this time small houses made of brics with electricity poles all around. Even cars parked by the road.

Die Stellenbosch- Boerewynmekerye


Easy evening in my room. I munch on some spicy Hunan food I received as a gift from Yan. Hunan food is supposed to be the spiciest in China and Yan assures me what she has brought over this time is nothing compared to what you can get at home. I of course believe her, and then again, I can boast Southern Italian descent so I am no chicken when it comes to hot chili!

I thoroughly enjoy this Christmas eve alone, and not just because of the Hunan food. It's the first time in many years I have no obligations. With dad's passing last June I can just consider this a normal day. I do remember, with a tiny bit of nostalgia, when I was a kid, believed in Father Christmas and waited for midnight so that we could open our gifts. I was often disappointed because my birthday is only one week before today, and thus I would often get only one gift. But still, it was a night to look forward to for the rest of the year. Ever since that ended, it became more an obligation than anything else. Maybe things will revert to the ancient tradition if I ever have kids. Let's see what happens...

23 December 2013

17. - 23 Dec.: Wine tasting in Stellenbosch and Paarl

It was a Belgian friend of mine who strongly recommended I visit Beyerkloof when in Stellenbosch for a tasting of their great pinotage. This is a typically South African cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage, and Ivo told me Beyerkloof was famous for it. Ivo is Flemish, Bruxellois, Belgian, European and, when it comes to wine, a real citizen of the world. I guess you have to be if you are Belgian and love good wines. There are maybe a dozen or os good vineyward in Belgium but not enough to satisfy a lifetime of oenological tastings. After learning the three official languages of his home country, as well as English, which is a sine qua non in the financial world where he works, he decided to pick up Italian, just for fun. He lives in Brussels and so we meet often to discuss the oenological merits of fermented grape juices from around the planet. He is one of the relatively few Flemish who still lives in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and of Europe that has progressively become almost completely francophone.

After the disappointment of two days ago, when Yan and I were bounced at the door because it was end of business, this time I make sure I get there during regular business hours, and after parking in the scorching sun I walk through the gate to the tasting room. It is a dark room, made even darker by a slick black counter on top of which an endless succession of glasses is filled with wines.  It is a bit noisy, which does disturb me as I try to concentrate on the aromas of the first whites that are served to me, but after all this is where wine lovers from all over the world come to have fun, and we should not take ourselves too seriously.

Prices are really attractive, but unfortunately local prices have little to do with what I would pay for the same bottles in Europe. It's not so much trasportation costs that weigh in here, as freight charges by sea are quite reasonable, it is tax. Excise tax and Value Added Tax to be precise. So an excellent quality/price ratio in South Africa (say 8 to 10 euro for an upmaket vintage red) becomes a think-about-it 25-30 euro per bottle when delivered to Europe. Nevertheless I request more information about having a few bottles sent to my address in Europe.

And by the way while I did like their Pinotage I thought their cabs were better: powerful yet velvet soft on the palate. Perhaps not the best to age for decades but easily enjoyable a few years after harvest. "Cabs" is South African short hand for "Cabernet Sauvignon", perhaps the most successful varietal in the world, originally from France but now universally used either alone or in the classical combination with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The name? It was, they say, by chance that sometime in the XVII century some southern French vintner accidentally crossed Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc and realize the outcome was going to be a hit.

A most kind lady shows me a chart with final consumer prices for all European destinations, each taking into account trasnportation and tax. I can see that Switzerland is the best country to live in if you are going to import wine from South Africa to Europe. Belgium is not on the chart at all, and the lady can't really tell me why. I am very curious now and she goes and calls the manager, a blond very Dutch looking thirty-something that is more than happy to explain.

I am startled to learn that they do export directly to all of Europe except Belgium, because the local importer objects. I can't believe that of all European countries only the distributor to Belgium holds such blocking power but that's exactly it.

Well so much for sending Beyerkloof wines to Belgium. I shall have to buy it from the importer. Or maybe not, I don't like the fact that residents from all other European countries can order their wine from the producer except Belgians. As I think through my options for retaliatory action I continue to sip away and notice that most staff and patrons are white but there are a few blacks and colored in bith sides of the counter. I ask the lady who is serving me and she says rhe schools for sommelier and university agronomy are now completely mixed.

Ryno tells the Fairview story
My next stop is the Fairview estate, in the nearby Paarls region, just a few km away, where I enjoy wonderful tasting of wines as well as excellent olive oil.  Ryno is the somelier guiding me through the range. He explains that the olive oil is done in the Italian tradition and that is why it gets Italian names. I get my very own table in a spacious and airy room with high ceilings and mirrors. One by one Ryno proposes half a dozen wines which I have selected from the house's production.

Here they can and do export direct to Belgium though at a price, because of the notorious VAT and excise tax, of course. Final price is about double what I'd pay here but prices are so convenient that I can't resist ordering a couple of cases. And why should I resist anyway: part of the pleasure when I drink this wine in Europe will be recalling this wonderful time at the vineyard.

I then move on just a few hundred meters to another property by the same owner. It's called the Spice Route and here it's chocolate and wine matches that are on offer. It's a serene hillside with a farmhouse sitting on top. You can park and walk up a few steps to a huge terrace where the friendly staff will bring you the chocs and the wines.


The odd couple: wine and chocolate
It's almost closing time and the sun is gently dropping lower over the horizon but there is still plenty of time. I always found it difficult to match any wine with chocolate. In Europe my favorite combination is dark chocolate with Banyuls. A couple of times I tried a young Barolo, a combination I learned from Pierre Marcolini in Brussels at one of his tastings. Here I find that it is Syrah that is the best match for the intense flavor of Fairview's chocolates.

It's the end of the day, I am sorry it's over but it's been a satisfying experience. I have hardly eaten all day but the wines and the bits and pieces of bread have filled me for the day and I look forward to a quite evening in my Clermont attic with warm decaffeinated coffee and a good book.



22 December 2013

16. - 22 Dec.: Franschhoek

I decide to take an easy day of rest at the B and B. Good breakfast in the yard next to my room. Again Italian music is playing softly in the background, though this time it's more opera and less 1950s.

Around noon I take a long walk with a coffee flavored toscanello cigar around the vineyards. It is sunny and 26 °C. An ideal day for meditation, rest, reading, backing up hard drives full of pictures and uploading some stuff online to share news with friends and family. Unfortunately there is no wifi in my room (I've become accustomed to take it for granted, just as hot water) but my MTN data plan works like a charm and I am connected to the world.

A plaque outside my room informs that Auberge Clermont was inaugurated in 1997, 140 years after founding of the current farm in 1857. But the roots of the Auberge go back at least another century and a half before that.

It was in 1694 that Abraham de Villiers received title to the land from the Dutch authorities and founded the farm he called "Champagne". Like many other properties in the region it has a French name, so chosen by nostalgic Huguenots to remind themselves of faraway France, their homeland they were never to see again. The farm morphed repeatedly over the following decades until it reached the current mix of vineyard and upmarket B and B.

21 December 2013

15. - 21 Dec.: Cape Town to Franschhoek

In the morning we visit Cape Town's famous Aquarium. It's a kids' attraction, with colorful boards and touch pools, but it is most interesting for adults as well. We are most kindly invited for a guided tour by Kevin Spiby, whom I don't really know but whose father Geoff I met a few years ago while diving in the Maldives. Kevin has an innate passion for nature in general and the ocean in particular, has worked here for a few years and thinks this is the best job in the world. Geoff and I were on the same liveaboard then and shared a passion for underwater photography. We then kept in touch via Facebook, and when I messaged him that I was on my way to the Cape he put me in touch with his son. Magic of modern technology.

As we walk in the Aquarium Yan and I are painted with magic ink mark on our wrist so we can go in and out all day. Unfortunately that won't be possible as Yan has to catch a flight home to China in the afternoon.

Of the many tanks and pools we saw, ranging from the cute to the impressive to the most bizarre, the huge tank with turtles and sharks is what I enjoyed the most. There is an elaborate weekly feeding schedule for the fish and turtles here and we happend to be there when Kevin is scheduled to drop bit and pieces of fish to feed the pelagic animals who circle around the thick glass (really thick, as is 25 centimeters!) in anticipation.

There are a few microphone problems so that the master of ceremonies down with the public can't talk to Kevin who is ready on top but in the end it is all sorted out and we can witness some voracious fish dart around to grab their food. Kids seem to enjoy the touch pools, where they can stroke rays, more than anything else.

Final walk through the waterfront. Yan buys me another pair of shorts with countless pockets, the kind of Indiana Jones style clothes I have grown to love most. South Africa is a paradise for outdoor gear and clothing: good quality stuff and very very reasonable prices.

For our final lunch together in Cape Town we head to the Food Market, which is just steps away from the shops and the aquarium.There is so much variety of food from all over the world it is hard to choose. "Ho fame!", says Yan with impeccable pronunciation, it's her second favorite Italian phrase. (Her favorite one is "Ho molta fame!") She has some Chinese noodle served bya smiling Taiwanese lady while I grab a refreshing frozen yoghurt with walnut topping.

But the main feature of our lunch will be fresh oysters which we buy from the "Oyster Lady", a small stand run by a lovely superblack lady that sells only oysters, excellent fresh South African oysters for what is to us a cheap price.

No drinks, no bread, nothing: just oyesters and oh yes some lemon. Not to be missed in the Waterfront Food Market if you like oysters.


Oyster lady
Well time to go to the airport. It's the end of our trip to South Africa, though I will continue on my own for a few days and then join a bunch of Italian photographers for a further tour of more sides of this multifaceted ountry. The airport is small but comfortable. There is a huge parking lot adjacent to the terminal, but it is almost completely emtpy and has an almost uneasy feeling to it even though it is still broad daylight.

I drop Yan off and, after waiting a bit for her delayed flight to take off, I sadly drive all by myself to Franschhoek in the late afternoon. Check-in at the Auberge Clermont was supposed to by at 7:00pm. I honestly had overlooked that detail on the reservation form but they gently remind me at 7:15 that check-in time is past but they will extend me the courtesy of waiting until 7:30. Because of the delay there is no way I am going to make even that deadline, so I am told that I am welcome to come later if I don't mind that the reception will be closed and only the night watchman will be there to see me to my room.  No choice, I am on the road by 8:00 pm.

It's a bit eery to drive at night in the countryside. The roads are good but there is very little lighting and virtually no one around. Well, almost no one: as soon as I leave the city I witness a nasty brawl by the roadside among half a dozen big black guys who scream and yell and throw punches at each other.

I hope my night watchman is there when I arrive and have to get off the car to ring the bell. Night watchman, in Dutch speaking country, I instinctively think of Rembrandt's masterpiece. Well it won't be nearly as grand but the very black and unDutch watchman will be there for me and do his job and then some.

When I finally make it to the hotel, all the lights are off and the gate is shut. I am not really at ease as I get off the car in the dark and start ringing the bell a few times. After about ten minutes I am welcomed by the night watchman who kindly shows me to the parking lot and helps carry my bags to the room in the second floor attic where I will spend the next few days.

Time to go to sleep, but not before reading the traveler's poem which I find on my pillow, written in a delicate almost translucent rollof paper and tied with a straw string.

20 December 2013

14. - 20 Dec.: Cape Town tour and music

Tour of the city with Teddy, a big colored man in his mid-thirties who is passionate about his country and especially his city. He takes us around in his van, the two of us together with two Indian couples in their sixties from Delhi.

As he drives along he fills time with his personal anecdotes. A predictable but nonetheless moving one is his memory of the day Mandela was freed in 1990 and spoke to the crowd. It could have been the beginning of the end for the country. Blacks and coloreds were waiting for their day of revenge, or at least of payback. Teddy tells with still vibrant emotions that they were all waiting for a signal to go and get them... But Mandela spoke of peace and reconciliation, and South Africa lived.

He drops us off at the bottom of the cable car that will take us to the Table Top, the landmark mountain of Cape Town and  Natural World Heritage Site of UNESCO. We are lucky today: not only is the weather great: sunny and just slightly breezy. But, most importantly, there is very little wind, and wind is the main reason why the service is shut down on most days. Now however the cable car runs with hurried alacrity, ferrying hundreds of people up and down the mountain.

Not only that: at the bottom station of the cable car, a huge bill board proudly announces that Table Top has been declared a wonder of the world. Well...


The view from the top is indeed stunning. Lots of people but enough space for everyone to enjoy his personal corner with Cape Town, Robben Island and the ocean as background.



As we continue our tour, a more interesting and unusual story we hear from Teddy as we drive by the city court house. It is that of his brother, whose skin is very fair. While they sahre the same parents, Teddy came out much darker. It happens. because of his whitish skin, his brother Henry was taken away from his family and sent to white orphanage. It was not considered acceptable for a "white" kid to be brought up in a colored family. Henry spent some time in the white orphanage, while their mother tried all possible legal recourse to have him back home. It took some years, but in the end she prevailed. That a mother had to go through all that ordeal to prove a kid was her own son highlights once more, if needed, the absurdity of the foundation upon which the apartheid regime was built.

Evening of jazz with Sobelo, of Flipsidetrails. He is a dynamic jolly good fellow who organizes special tours ...off the beaten track. We are going to spend the evening and the night with local jazz musicians.

Our first stop is at the home of Hilton Schilder, in a suburb of Cape Town that we reach after a 20-minute drive. Hilton and his wife welcome us at the door and we are led into their small but comfortable house. After we take our seats in the living room, in front of a grand piano, Hilton tells us a bit about his personal history.


Hilton grew up in a musical family: he is the son of famous jazz pianist and band leader Tony Schilder. He was around when his dad’s jazz band rehearsed and secretly climbed on drummer Monty Weber´s drum kit when rehearsals were over. At the age of three he was given his first very own drum. From an early age he began to play in many different kinds of groups. There were jazz bands, Carnival troupes, disco bands, hip-hop groups and he was part of all of these in one way or another.

He now plays several instruments, though the keyboard is his main choice. Today he is playing an electric keyboard for us because his piano is out of tune.

In the 1980s he founded with Mac McKenzie The Genuines, which specialized in the music of the Cape Province Goema. He introduced experimental concept bands like African Dream and Iconoclast (with Victor Ntoni and Vusi Khumalo) to combine traditional South African music with contemporary genres. In addition, he led his own groups, he has performed with Festival on the Cape Town International Jazz, and went on tour with John Enders.

This band also performed in Germany, Holland and Italy. He has also performed solo in France. He was the driving force behind the band, Iconoclast, and he is a regular member of Robbie Jansen's, Sons of Table Mountain as well as substantial contributor to these groups' repertoire as a composer.

His first album under his own name No Turning Back (2003) was nominated in the category 'Best Contemporary Jazz Album' for a South African Music Award (SAMA). It offers a range of music from Cape Jazz, through rock/pop to electro ambient sounds.  With Alex van Heerden, he founded the duo RockArt, the direction in acoustic and electronic jazz minimal moves and also appeared in Switzerland. With Mac McKenzie he has launched in recent years, projects such as Namakwa, the District Six band and The Goema Captains of Cape Town to life. In 2008 he was given the opportunity, his various activities as Artist in Residence in the Bird's Eye Jazz Club in Basel imagine

Hilton's cultural roots are ever evident in his work. He is intensely aware of his social and political surroundings. He describes himself as a "mind freedom fighter".He has also been a fighter against his liver cancer, which at one point seemed to have seriously threatened his life but from which he now seems to have recovered.

Finally, his eclectic personality spans over the visual arts as well. He like painting and has produced interesting etchings.

by Hilton Schilder



In the meantime his wife is putting the final touches on her meal. As many South Africans, they are of mixed blood and also mixed culinary heritage and tonight's fare blends some Malay flavors with more purely African meat and veggies.

A simple but delicious meal and when we are done it feels as if we'd been friends for ages. I am sure we'll meet again.


But the musical evening is not out: after leaving the Schilders at around 10:00pm, we head back to twon for the Mohogany room pub, where Shane Cooper and his famed double bass are playing with a small band of piano, sax and drums.

On the way, Sobelo slides a CD by Abdullah Ibrahim, another symbol of the country's music, into his car's player.

At the Mohogany Room we are welcomed by a pretty lady at the door. After paying our ticket we walk inside and take our seat a few rows away from the stage. After which we go and grab a drink. I go for my usual boring gin and tonic, but Yan is faithful to her Sex on the beach. As always, she is met by a giggle and a shaking of heads from the other side of the counter... The wooden chairs in the small room is packed with an audience of perhaps eighty, and quite a few more are standing by the walls. It is quite hot and stuffy but the rythms.

Shane Cooper

It is quite warm though a couple of A/C machines pour a cold avalanche of freezing air right on top of our heads. I love it despite the fact that my skull is no longer protected by hair, but Yan finds this artificial breeze annoying. I tell her that there is not much we can do, it is hot as it is and it would be unbearably stuffy if they turned it off, and plus can we ask the management to make everyone else sweat, including me, because she does not like A/C.  But, as always, she has her way: during intermission she politely asks the lady at the counter if anything can be done and while I bury my head in my hands and look the other was the lady simply stops the A/C's swinging blades so that the cool air is now directed to the ceiling and not down to our heads. Simple.

When all of this is sorted out we can start enjoying our music. Shane Cooper, as often with double bass players in jazz, is a bit overshadowed by the piano, the drums and especially the sax. He does stand out in a couple of solo improvisations though, and his natural talent as well as his precise technique immediately strike me as out of the ordinary.


It's been a long day in Cape Town, and one to remember for a long time.

19 December 2013

13. - 19 Dec.: Swellendam to Cape Town, through Stellenbosch

After another pantagruelic breakfast we head off for a walk in town. Swellendam is a quaint little place, but it is doaked in history as it is one of the very oldest towns in South Africa. The fourth oldest to be precise, and it retains its old charm even if modern shopping malls are popping up along the main street, which would otherwise very much look like a Western American desert town.

A little shopping and a few photographs to the beautiful orthensia that dot the streets and we drive to Stellenbosch. An easy drive, mostly downhill, heading straight for the Cape.

We reach Stellenbosch at about 4:00pm but again, like for the ostrich farm, the first vineyard we visit, ... is about to close down. A guard at the door comes walking towards us as we approach the gates of the tasting rooms after parking in the huge lot between the road and the vines. He is polite and smiling. In fact I get the feeling he is a bit bored and welcomes the chance to do something and talk to someone. No chance to taste anything here today, he says, they are closing down for the day. I'll be in the region for a few days but this is Yan's last chance for a good tasting of South African nectar before she heads back home. Time for Plan B.

I have a quick look at the various guidebooks in the car and we decide our best chance for a tasting of South African wine before dinner sits at the "L'avenir" ("the future" in French) farm. You can't really see L'avenir from the road unless you spot a board by their main gate. You then have to drive a small winding path seemingly in the middle of nowhere until you reach the farm.

Why "L'Avenir"? Why a French name in the middle of a country that boasts eleven official languages, of which nine are African and two (English and Afrikaans) are anglo-saxon? It's because of the immigration of French Huguenots escaping persecution by the Catholics in the 16th and 17th century France. The found refuge in many Protestant European and North American countries, and a few hundred families ended up in the Dutch Cape Colony. Here they were put to make wine. And today more than 90% of all South African wine is produced by the descendants of the Huguenots.

It is a purely bucholic setting, a small farmhouse in a gently sloping garden and, a few hunder meters away, the vines. We take a table outside and are attended to by Katie, a new girl in the farm, it's her first day on the job in fact.  Katie is a college student who makes some extra money for her studies. We taste a half dozen whites and red in the garden, in a idyllic setting but for a worker with a very loud lawn mower who is doing his thing just in front of us. Luckily after some 15 minutes he is done and moves on, leaving us with the tranquillity of a setting sun, blus sky, green rows of ripening grapes and our wines.

Grapes at l'Avenir are slowly maturing

With most of our senses sated we head out to drive to Cape Town, where we reach our hotel by the Waterfront. Dinner is at "The Greek Fishermen". Great fish soup, intense aroma and thick creamy texture, one of the best ever, and it would have been enough for a meal. But we are tempted by their seafood platter, expecting one of those imposing round trays with piles of shell fish and crustaceans on a think bed of ice. What we get, however is not much, is all cooked and not really exciting to the taste buds. Oh well.

Patrons here are mostly, though not exclusively, white, while waiting staff is mostly black or "colored", as they call mixed race people here. The Waterfront is the pulsating heart of international Cape Town, with upmarket restaurants, smart stores and an uninterrupted flow of tourists, both domestic and international.


18 December 2013

12. - 18 Dec.: Swellendam kayak and sherry

Great breakfast, one of those you remember, and I am picky with breakfast! Lots of freshly squeezed juices make for a great welcome.

Italian songs from a half a century ago or so gently fill the atmosphere in the background.  In particular, they keep playing "Tu vuoi fa l'americano", a song by Neopolitan Renato Carosone that was released in 1956. In fact, I will hear this song in several lounges and breakfast rooms during this trip. Not sure why, but it seems to have made a more long lasting impression here than in Italy, where it has long since forgotten and is hardly ever played in public spaces. If you've missed until now, you can listen to it here.

Trip to the dam for canoe. I asked the waitres of our hotel for directions to the Swellendam lake, but she kept referringto the "dam". That's how they call artificial lakes that are formed as a result Sunny and pleasant but a bit windy. Lots of tents around the artifical lake created by the dam.

So Yan drive off satiated by a and musically enriched by Renato Carosone and soon we find ourselves driving by what does indeed look like a fairly good size prison, with fences barbed wire and everything you would expect from a prison. Yet, somehow, a prison does not fit in this pristine and wild environment that is a celebration of freedom and wildlife.

We get lost, our navigator can't find the way, until we stop by a road block and ask a few friendly policewomen who ask a male colleague who apparently lives there and in no time we are on our (correct) way. As we get there it gets again a bit confusing as the camp is quite large and there is no indication where the canoes are, but with some persistent trial and error we get there! We are welcomed by Kelly, who tells us it's 100 rands for the canoe we can pay on our way out . She kindly gives us some sun screen when we ask and we are ready to paddle.

We choose a two seater kayak over two separate ones. In the water we start easy downwind, but soon we are at the other end of the lake, oops, of the dam, and working our way back upwind requires a fairly strenuous effort.



Some kids make merry on a floating platform moored in a crevice in the rock. We are about to ask them if we can join, but in the end we prefer to sit back and enjoy the sunshine in our face.

Dinner again in villa. Colonial feeling of luxury of old. Tonight we take and share the quail again and for contrast we gor for salmon. Both superbly prepared and served with delicate vegetables that fit the bill perfectly. Again a South African red wine helps wash it all down.

After dinner Yan and I decide to sit down in the living room, by the fire place. Sherry and port wines are available for a small charge and it's basically all you can drink, at least I did not see anyone check. Not that we wanted more than a small glass. David, a bubbly young black man who waited on us at the restaurant, comes to stoke the fire and ask if we need anything. This mellow experience we share with an elderly German couple who speak good English.  He is a retired Mercedes Benz manager, and they are driving pretty much the same road we are.

After the German couple politely excuse themselves to go to sleep, David comes again to stoke the fire. We strike a polite conversation but he gets very excited when I tell him I am a writer. Well not a household name of a writer exactly, I hasten to add, I used to write about international politics and nuclear weapons but now prefer to concentrate on travelogues. He seems overwhelmed.

"Do you mean I now know a real writer?" he says with his eyes wide open.  I am not sure what to make of it. He asks what my latest book is about and I tell him, it is on the Maldive islands. He'd like to see it and I offer to show it to him, but it's only in Italian. (Again, my mistake not to write it in English.) He says it does not matter, he's love to see it. So with immense pleasure I find myself almost blushing at someone asking to see my book. Not a friend, not a relative, but a perfect stranger who can't even read it. In the morning I'll present him with a signed copy and wait patiently for some feedback that will never come.





17 December 2013

11. - 17 Dec.: Knysna properties and drive through the mountains to Swellendam

Get up and breakfast in Mike's terrace. It has been too short, these four days in Knysna flew by so fast. The view in front of us here is spectacular, so is the house behind us. We don't want to leave but there is so much more to experience during the rest of our time in South Africa.

We talk about real estate, it would be fun to invest and spend some time here every year. Just for fun, we look at a house on sale. A newly renovated townhouse with two bedrooms, a good size living room and a huge kitcken with a dining area. Asking price is 1.2 mill rand, about 70k euro, negotiable. OK the Rand is weak this year but this won't buy you more than a parking spot in Rome.

We take some final pictures with Mike and his classy and nostalgic Merc SL convertible. He chose to have his name on the number plate to make it even more persona. Time to go.

Today we are heading west, toward Swellendam. Mike come with us part of the way, until Sedgefield, a small town on the coast about half-way between Knysna and George. We are going to have lunch with a friend of his who is building shopping malls all over Africa and wants to talk to Yan about Chinese business. As everywhere else in the world, the Chinese are pouring into South Africa, both to buy (raw materials mainly) and to sell (pretty much everything). They also want to invest the immense capital that they have accumulated over the last decades of break-neck export growth.

Easy drive to Swellendam. We don't take the shortest route toward Cape Town, but instead opt for climing up the mountain and enjoy the incontaminated landscapes of the interior. Several hours of infinite emptiness. Reminds me of Nevada, or Arizona.


We miss our chance for an ostrich ride by ten minutes at Oudtshoorn as they close at 4 in afternoon. This region is known for its ostrich and yan wanted to ride one. Oh well. I would not have been able to anyway as I just exceed the maximum allowed weight  (I won't say what that is).

By the evening we reach Schoone Oordt Countryhouse, a well appointed boutique hotel in an old  colonial house. Old style but classy property ran by a couple from Cape Town that bought a dilapidated manor about ten years ago and made it into their lifetime project. Big room, bed with posts and a fireplace which we actually enjoy in the evening before going to bed. Or while in bed for that matter. It is a bit of time travelling.

Dinner in the villa. Very few choices in their menu which does not change for the week, but they are all excellent. Quail for me and salmon for Yan. They politely suggest that, tomorrow, we may want to try another restaurant in town. They are not really a restaurant, not yet anyway, as they mostly cater to hotel guests. By the end of the dinner Yan and I agree we don't really need another restaurant tomorrow, we will come back here. A bottle of mellow and fruity Pinotage 2013 by African Java provides the necessary lubrication for all of the above.


And this is the official celebration of my birthday, for which we get complimentary dessert :)

16 December 2013

10. - 16 Dec.: Knysna golf and dining

Tour of downtown Knysna. It's a wonderful late Spring day and it is obvious that Summer is knocking at the door. Lots of people strolling about, eating in the numerious terraces, drinking and shopping. Inevitable in an upmarket area like this, most shoppers and diners are white while many of the workers are black.

As I walk aimlessly around I meet a painter of dogs. A man in his mid-sixties perhaps, kind of short (even by my own 1.69 cm standards) and sporting a long graying beard almost down to his chest. His thick mustache do not completely hide a sweet greagarious smile. A pair of rectangular glasses with a thin frame combine very appropriately with a black beret to produce a perfect blend between a carefree XIX century bohémienne and a modern alternative street artist.


Yes, Teddy is a painter of dogs. He has a dog with him, a small hairy dog called Jock. I know the dog's name because it carries a bright golden badge around its neck with the owner's phone number, in case it should get lost. Teddy paints Jock a lot, it is his main subject, but he also paints other dogs. Occasionally, he paints something else, mostly when he gets motivated by a commission for a specific subject, he told me. But dogs is what he likes to paint.

Just a few steps from his position a couple of sturdy guys are playing their guitars while singing country music. It is a rich mix of Southern country, with some occasional blue-grass overtones, and other local street music. They both wear black T-shirts, a thin necklace, dark sun glasses and a hat that reminds me of Indiana Jones.

Our walk continues to the local supermarket, where Yan and I fall in love with the most colorful baskets of tropical fruits. You can buy it as it comes from the tree, or for a small premium they will serve it nice and peeled in small trays. Prices are incredibly low, at least for our strong Euro, but Yan tells me these delicacies would be far more expensive even in Beijing.

Afternoon back to golf practice. Trying to the the ball into a more or less straight trajectory toward some flags planted at varying distances into a huge field. I aim at the 50 and 75 meters flags, with mixed results, but who cares? Mike, Yan and I have a fun and relaxing time while the sun gently sets behind us.



Dinner with local friends at Cafe Mario by the Waterfront. There are no black or colored patrons. My local friends say it's normal because blacks like different food and each of the peoples of South Africa keep to the company of their own kind. Just like Germans and Italians. Well, maybe. It is true, when I live abroad I tend to have more Italian friends than others. But here other considerations come into play: safety, a backlog of racial hatred that has not yet been completely overcome.

I ask them a question that I will ask a number of times when talking with white South Africans old enough to remember apartheid. The question is: All whites now say they are for racial equality, but what did you think then? (Actually not all whites would agree, there are yet some factions of overtly racist white South Africans, but they are marginal.)

The answer I get today is that they did not know much of what was going on during apartheid because no tv until 1980s and a strong censorship prevented news from spreading even within the country and even among rich whites. It is true that tere was no TV in South Africa until very late, 1976 to be precise, and then only one channel was available and it was strictly controlled by the government.

And yet I find it hard to believe they did not know, there was so much noise around the world, they certainly know of Archbishop Tutu winning the Nobel peace prize in 1984 for his anti-apartheid activities. I come out of this conversation with a belief that while most whites were, and are, honestly open and not racist, they acquiesced with apartheid at least, and feared change.

In a way this reminds me of Italy and Fascism: most of my compatriots supported it as long as it was successful and made them feel special, but after 1945 it was virtually impossible to find anyone who would admit to having been a Fascist. And of course many claimed a role in the Resistance, just like many South Africans now say they operated to end apartheid for what they could and were never racist to begin with.

Be that as it may, the restaurant serves very good, real Italian, ossobuco, the best I can remember having outside my beloved peninsula! Italy is well known here for the food, of course, but not for much else. My friends are an exception: they are highly sophisticated lovers of the arts and know Rome as well as any bona fide cives romanus.

No one however remembers another Italian who made South Africa known around the world in the 1970s: Marcello Fiasconaro who almost accidentally broke the world record for the 800 meters wearing the blue Italian shirt with a tricolor in the middle. The world record was gone three eyars later but the Italian record still stands forty years later and counting...

Back home, just after midnight, Mike pops a bottle of bubbles. It is now 17 December and it is officially the day of my 54th birthday.