Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Postings from Pretoria #39

31 August 2010

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Bonus Photo Update Alert: http://picasaweb.google.com/rodger.french

“ZA Flora 2”

Since we’re outta here in two days, I daresay it’s appropriate to comment on some things I will miss about South Africa and some things I will not. No deep contemplation and/or meaningful sociological revelations here; just a few quotidian items for your consideration.

YES – Pretoria Weather

Pretty perfect all year round, seldom too hot, cold, or humid. Just lovely. And the thunderstorms are wicked awesome.

NO – Home Security

Six keys to get in the front entrance, four to get in the back (not counting the garage door), and don’t even get me started on the psychotic electronic alarm system. Plus, ten additional interior locks, multiple panic buttons, and a safe haven. Enough already!

YES – Lynnwood Housewives Market

A ten minute walk up the road, this is a classic green grocer chock full of fresh produce, fruits, and other goodies. And it’s adjacent to the Groenkloof Slaghuis (butcher shop), the source of a perfect Saturday morning breakfast: A large boerwors (spiced beef sausage) cooked on the braai (BBQ) and served on a soft roll with grilled onions, mustard, and chilli sauce. Pure culinary ecstasy for R16.

NO – Minibus Taxis

Whenever I drive, I automatically assume that any taxi I see is going to pull some crazy shit, like, stopping for no apparent reason, hanging a U-turn at a busy intersection, or passing on the sidewalk. Taxis are also regularly involved in horrendous accidents resulting in multiple fatalities. Taxi driving is a tough gig; I respect that, but WTF. And it doesn’t help their reputation when some drivers in Joburg take potshots at the new Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) vehicles, which they view as unfair competition.

YES – Locally Employed Staff (LES)

As a member of the Embassy Temp Pool, I spent a month filling in as Mailroom Supervisor and developed a very friendly relationship with the South Africans employed there. We made a good team and I will miss working with them. This applies to other LES as well; having worked six different Embassy jobs, I can testify that they keep the place going.

NO – Julius Malema

President of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL): A corrupt, thuggish, adolescent (at 29 years of age) Robert Mugabe wannabe. Sometimes called the “Sarah Palin of South Africa,” he too has vociferous, often vitriolic, followers, makes demagogic pronouncements, and is catnip to the media. Unlike Palin, however, this bozo could conceivably become president of his country.

YES – Madam & Eve (www.madamandeve.co.za)

A syndicated comic strip about a white madam and her black maid, “Madam & Eve” is topical, goodhearted, and very funny. I have gleaned quite a bit about life and race relations in South Africa from it and now rank it among my favourite strips along with “Bloom County,” “The Boondocks,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Dilbert,” “Doonesbury,” and “The K Chronicles.”

NO – Strikes

I am all in favor of unions and have no doubt that most South African workers should be getting a better deal. In addition, worker actions had a decisive role in the dismantling of apartheid and are rightly considered an honoured part of South African history.

That said, the number of strikes we’ve witnessed since arriving in September 2008 is simply amazing. They include: Public service workers (shutting down schools and hospitals), transport workers (affecting all rail and port operations), trade union workers (ditto, World Cup construction projects), municipal workers (including rubbish collectors - who also ripped off our rubbish bin), bus drivers, taxi drivers, auto workers, communications workers, metalworkers, mineworkers, doctors, police, and even soldiers.

YES – The Southern Cross

As seen from Cape Town… and Montusi, and Oudtshoorn, and Namib-Naukluft… and our front yard. We’re a long way from where we started.

Anne and I have had a memorable tour in South Africa and are keen to return someday. For now, thank you for your kind attention and stay tuned for “Dispatches from DC,” coming sooner or later. Be well.



Friday, August 13, 2010

Postings from Pretoria #38

13 August 2010

Hello there... Rodger French here. Still.

Photo Update Alert: http://picasaweb.google.com/rodger.french

“Cape Town/Table Mountain” “Garden Route” “Garden Route 2” “Klein Karoo”

Longish Posting Alert: Our excellent Western Cape adventure continues.

Day 5 – About that fog… geographically, the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountains separate the verdant Garden Route from the arid semi-desert Klein (“Little”) Karoo. So, depending on temperature and prevailing winds… Voila! Le fog. But we persevered and so made our way to Mossel Bay, which was first “discovered” by Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese explorer, in 1488. A museum dedicated to this momentous event includes an actual full-size and seaworthy replica of the caravel Dias arrived in. (It’s amazing how small those vessels actually were.)

Making our way through a twilight zone of fog and roadwork, we arrived at Wilderness, where Anne had booked yet another fabu beachfront accommodation. A walk on the beach, some Italian food, and surf sounds for sleeping. Nice.

Day 6 – Since we were staying two nights in Wilderness, we had a day to tool around, starting with a drive to Plettenberg Bay, an upscale vacation/retirement haven for people with boatloads of loot. Then we went to Knysna (“nize-nah”), a former timber port and shipbuilding center. To enter the harbour, one must navigate a narrow passage at “The Heads,” an extremely dangerous proposition for any sizable vessel. The views, however, are splendid. After lunch (including some of the famous and very tasty Knysna oysters), we hung around the waterfront until it was time to head into the woods.

The Wilderness National Park is not far, and we had our choice of easy or ridiculous hikes into an old growth forest. It being late in the day, easy seemed appropriate. The highlight of our stroll was “The Big Tree,” a majestic yellowwood estimated to be 800-900 years old. We paid our respects and made our way back to the beach in time for sunset.

Day 7 – Up, breakfast, and off to the Klein Karoo, with a brief stop to visit the Outeniqua Transport/Railway Museum in the town of George. (I love these places.) Then it was off to Oudtshoorn (roughly, “oot-shoorn) – “The Ostrich Capital of the World.” But first… a brief side trip to Cango Caves, some 30km up the road, where we had a choice of the “standard tour” (one hour, user friendly) or the “adventure tour” (three hours, lots of crawling and clambering about). One hour later, we emerged.

[Sidebar – For thirty years, concerts were held regularly in the large chamber, but had to be discontinued due to audience members vandalizing the caves in search of souvenirs. That’s just sad.]

Back in Oudtshoorn, we sought out Lugro Ostrich, a specialty leather shoppe, where we expressed curiosity as to why ostrich leather goods are so damned expensive. Our answer came in the form of a factory tour led by the proprietor, who offered technical explanations concerning the breeding, harvesting, and processing of these odd creatures and their hides. Our query satisfactorily answered, A.J. and I, not wanting to appear rude, purchased a couple of modest items.

Continuing the theme, we spent the evening at De Denne Guesthouse, located on a working ostrich farm owned by Louise and Johan Keller, a 4th generation ostrich rancher. Our dinner featured ostrich steaks grilled on the braai accompanied by a zillion stars and the calls of male ostriches making romantic overtures; a sound very much like a roaring lion. What a great night.

Day 8 – We awoke to a clear, cold, and perfect dawn. After a short walk around the ranch, accompanied by Bruno the dog, we had breakfast and set off west on Route 62 Scenic Highway through the heart of the Klein Karoo and molto spettacolare scenario. At Montagu, a pleasant village on the edge of the Karoo, we happened upon a weekly community sale at the local church, where I encountered possibly the best sandwich ever: Grilled lamb, crusty bread, and spicy sauce, all homemade.

We continued on to the Jan Harmsgat Guesthouse, a 1723 vintage spread ensconced in the foothills of the mighty Langeberg mountains, where we were treated to a “sundowner” drive and tour of the new plantings (including 32,000 pomegranate trees) followed by a 5-course “slow food” banquet that lasted three and a half hours. Great food, great conversation, molto Italiana.

Day Last – The drive back to Cape Town started off quietly enough, but the unpredictable Cape weather soon engulfed us in showers and often torrential rain. We took heart, however, in seeing four complete rainbows along the way… or maybe it was the same rainbow encouraging us on… yeah, let’s go with that. Obviously, we made it back OK, returning to Pretoria to continue preparations for our move Stateside in September.

Anne and I have been most fortunate to be able to take advantage of this and the other touristic opportunities afforded us over the past two years. (We have already started compiling our “when we return to southern Africa” list.) But, well intentioned though these Postings are, they can offer but a superficial overview of these amazing journeys. A tasting, if you will.

When we meet again, I’ll tell you more, perhaps over a bottle of South African wine.



Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Postings from Pretoria #37

10 August 2010

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert: http://picasaweb.google.com/rodger.french

“Cape Town/Table Mountain” “Garden Route” “Garden Route 2” “Klein Karoo”

Regular readers of these postings are doubtless aware that Anne and I will be leaving South Africa on 02 September to serve the next two years in the greater Washington, DC environs. I am shocked (and stunned) to realize that our two years in ZA have passed so quickly and that there are so many places we wanted to see but could not schedule time for.

Fortunately, A.J. was on the case, and organized (with a fair degree of assistance from moi) a final, stupendous, and awesomely grand 8-day tour of Cape Town, the Garden Route, and the Klein Karoo. Photoz are available, natch.

Day 1 – Flew to Cape Town in a fully booked 737 (“Cattle Car of the Sky”) and arrived to cool, foggy, and windy weather, typical for this time of year. We rented a car, checked into a nice apartment in the City Bowl neighborhood and set out on foot for the Natural History Museum, where we took in a fascinating exhibit about South African dinosaurs. Then we went to dinner and discussed plans for what to do in Cape Town in the fog.

Day 2 – Naturally, we awoke to no fog and calm winds. Only one thing to do: Cruise up to Table Mountain for a tram ride to the summit - along with busloads of Chinese monks, Indian families, and other assorted fellow foreigners, including Halle Berry. Really. (She’s very petite and gorgeous in person, by the way.) Anyway, the views from Table Mountain are even more magnificent than Ms. Berry, and Anne and I were thrilled that we finally made it to the top. It would have been a great regret to miss out on that.

Afterwards, we went to the waterfront, had an overpriced, but excellent sushi lunch, and visited the National Sea Rescue Institute shoppe one last time. Then off we went to the South African National Gallery to take in some art. All in all, a very full, very fine last day in Cape Town. And, at the risk of repeating myself: If you ever have a chance to visit Cape Town, GO.

Day 3 – The fog was back as we made our way up the eastern coast to Hermanus, the epicenter for watching migrating Southern Right Whales. A.J. arranged accommodation on the water near the Cliff Walk, which was ideal for whale spotting. It being the off-season, there were far fewer whales (and attendant tourists) about, but we still observed several during our walk into town, including a female and her five day-old calf. Kind of wondrous. That evening we ate supper in and slept to the sounds of the surf.

Day 4 – Up early for breakfast and another cliff walk (and another mother-calf sighting) before heading to Cape Agulhas, “The Southernmost Tip of Africa.” Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope are more spectacular (and almost as far south), but it was very pleasant to spend time in what is still basically an undiscovered place.

[Sidebar - The lighthouse at Cape Agulhas was built in 1848. According to official records, there are 124 shipwrecks within an 80 km radius, dating from 1672-1990.]

Being conscientious tourists, we toured the lighthouse museum, climbed to the top, and ate a fine seafood lunch in the tea room. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place. But we had to get up the road, so it was onward past yellow fields of canola and several long stoppages for road repair to Swellendam, where we passed an altogether uneventful night in the fog.

More soon.