Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Road


As we drove north on the N10 from Addo to Mokala, Eastern Cape to Northern Cape, rain came down. In terms of biomes we were leaving coastal thicket for grassland and thornveld, with the Great Karoo inbetween, and all three needed rain. In early October, we were on the cusp of the summer rainfall season. 


The N10 is a beautiful road that cuts almost precisely north.


For Vince and me, this is the time and space we would like to preserve. Driving, alone, an endless view, a Thermos of espresso at our feet, promise ahead.


I had back issues (too much heavy lifting + genes) so every couple of hours we stopped so that I could walk, jump around and stretch. This allowed us to smell the rain bursting in pockets on the horizon.


We drove through an area of what I call aloes, but I don't actually know what these succulents are. Flowers like cotyledons. As far as the eye could see. The fields were red. So was the mud. My driving shoes were my bright pink Rothy's, bad for slick mud walking, but I can now attest to their washability. Brand as new.


We made a much anticipated stop (always a dangerous thing). Years ago, traveling in the opposite direction from the Mountain Zebra National Park we had chanced upon the Daggaboer Farmstall and had ventured in, finding warmth, welcome, and some delicious roosterkoek (yeasted rolls that are cooked over the hot coals of a fire) being baked in the warm place). I had been thinking about the roosterkoek for days. After our early start it was time for breakfast.


The mysterious succulent grew at the door and I planned to ask what it was.


Inside, black nightshade jam - a South African thing at farmstalls. But the place was very cold, the door to the warm kitchen shut and everything reeked of cigarette smoke. We wandered around the shelves. Three women were working there, an owner in an office, where the smoke was thickest, and a mother and daughter, moving about. No one glanced up at us. In the middle of nowhere. In friendly South Africa. No other customers.

I greeted the daughter, who was unable to crack a smile in return. I asked if they still had roosterkoek, and she shoved a menu at me. I asked whether it had rained, yet, a dry country question. She replied nonsensically that fillings cost extra. My heart hardened in disappointment. This is not how you run a business. Things had changed.

We bought things. Fancy wool slippers, from allegedly local sheep, for Tipsi, back home. Droewors for the road. Preserved figs. We waited for our roosterkoek to come from the cloistered kitchen.


The only warm thing in the frigid place was this little cat, who wanted to come with us.


Back in Mogashgasha we poured the last of the coffee and ate our roosterkoek as we drove. Mine was stuffed with grated biltong, the Frenchman's with cheese. We swapped halfway. They were not bad. Not the sainted roosterkoek of memory and possibly microwaved. But enough to fill the hole that memory had made. But if we ever pass that way again, we will drive on.


It was a long day's drive, about eight hours, with our stops.


The weather played with us all the way.


We drove into that black storm, through sheets of water and lighting bolts being thrown down at the Karoo plains around us. I closed my eyes, glad the Frenchie was driving. Lightning makes me jump.


At the tail end of the dry season up here every view was still brittle and brown, with white highlights. The last time we had driven through this part of the country, in the middle of summer, it had been green. There is never much rain, here, but when there is the veld responds, fast.


Near every roadside cellphone tower I indulged in roaming data (free with our cellphone plan) and enjoyed my Instagram feed before it blinked out into the vast disconnect, again.


We both like roads, because we both like driving. And roads to me are a sign, too, of a country's health. They are tax money at work, they are civic engagement, they are an expression of a functioning governing body. This beautiful N10 filled me with optimism.

As we entered each town, this optimism was replaced by despair. For non South Africans, a small, dark backstory: During apartheid black and brown South Africans were not allowed to live in their own homes within white towns and cities. And so on the edge of every ostensibly white town grew its mirror image, minus the trimmings of a comfortable life - a brown or black town, referred to simply as a "location." Where does she live? She lives in the location.

Apartheid ended formally in 1994. But because the infrastructure existed, and because there was no material change in most people's lives, these two side-by-side towns continued to coexist, even as the locations were recognized, given names, and appeared on maps. They remain historically brown or black, and their size often dwarfs the size of the old official town. While each mirror town has its upwardly mobile or comfortable section, the towns on the edge are usually disproportionately impoverished. From houses with many rooms they shrink to basic, boxy "Mandela Houses"- a promise by the government to provide houses, partly delivered, to scanty corrugated iron and plastic shacks.

Why the poverty? Simple. There is not enough employment. There are too few jobs and opportunities, and education for most South Africans still lags very, very far behind its ideal. And so as we entered every municipal area from the open countryside we were met first with the smell of woodsmoke, as many informal dwellings rely only on fire or spirit stoves for cooking, then by restless seas of plastic bags blowing in the wind, and then by the view of people living their lives. Many toilets are outdoors, and informal settlements share outdoor communal taps to supply water for all their needs. It was cold. And we would drive through and slowly past the outside town and into the inside town, with its dead streets on a weekday, its burglar bars and walls and few businesses (the exodus from the platteland to the big city is ongoing, even as there is a small, wealthy immigration to some dorps by monied city dwellers who relish a country life and possess an enterprising spirit). The contrast was like a wall, every time, and the questions it raised are close to insurmountable. How do you solve this?

This is the legacy of apartheid. One of many. But it is the thing that tips scales.


Within spitting distance of Mokala we became clogged in one of the infamous Stop-Go's, roadworks that close a lane of road, requiring one stream of traffic to stop while the opposite stream goes. A large section of the N12, onto which we had recently turned to head northeast, was being repaired - jobs, engineering efficiency, smooth road, optimism - but it took us a long time to clear. So somewhere just beyond our sixth hour my camera readiness deserted me.

Then we turned off onto a subsidiary road, following my plotted course (I disagreed with Google maps) and onto a relatively short section of dirt road, with some of the most violent corrugations we have experienced (sorry, Google). So we slowed to a decent crawl. But as we rattled and rolled the landscape changed dramatically, and I began to think that my cousin Andrea's suggestion to visit Mokala might have been a very good one. The tired Frenchman at the wheel had pricked up his ears and had begun to smile.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Addo - place of elephants


The Frenchman and I headed towards Addo Elephant Park after leaving Storms River. I had never visited - the park is very close to Port Elizabeth and I was worried that it might be overrun with people. Friends had warned me that because of the dense nature of the coastal thicket vegetation, we might not see many animals. But within an hour of entering near the south end we were surprised by the wide vista above. There is a little knot of elephants to the right, near the curve of the road. We drove right through that section of the park, south to north, meandering at the required 40km/hour, to reach the main camp and reception where we were required to check in.

After a disinterested welcome - if you can call it that - at reception (unusual for a SAN Park), we got back into the Landcruiser and headed for our camp, Nyathi. I had chosen it based purely on its relative remoteness on the maps I had studied and the fact that it seemed to have a good view from the cottages, and our fingers were crossed. What would it be like?


First, we had to leave the main park area, through an electrified fence and gate that was unlocked for us, across a railway crossing, across a national road, through a new gate, another electrified fence, and into the next section, Nyathi. We saw a male lion almost at once, lazing behind a tree, upside down, indolent cat fashion, and then this herd of peaceful elephants browsing. We felt happy with our choice of stomping ground for the next few days.


This was the view from the curving wooden balcony of our luxurious rondawel - hills and thicket and every day a slow, large herd, 60 - 80 strong, of elephants moving back and forth, eating, rumbling, communicating with each other in a way we could not understand. Every night and morning a chorus of unfamiliar birds, with the exception of the haunting fiery necked night jar, not just one, but four, calling from every corner of twilight. It was shiveringly beautiful. Never the sound of a human.

I took remarkably few pictures, here. I think we were still in some translocation shock, the remoteness, all of a sudden, the desire to absorb this kind of silence.


These sweet, unfraid little swallows lived in a neat mud nest above the front door.


From the balconies, which curved along the tips of the trees below us, I could do some fascinated botanizing. The vine above was strongly scented and we saw sunbirds feasting on the flowers. It reminds me of the greenbrier family Smilacaceae.


And its host, the supporting tree, excited and surprised me even more. Like seeing a friend in a very unexpected place. A dead ringer for prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) but in South Africa! The East Asian prickly ash species is Z. piperatum - otherwise known as Sichuan, as in peppercorn. Why not an African species? My impatience had nothing to do but to cool its heels. No Googling for us: thanks to our desire to be Alone we were well beyond cell range, had no data, and no Internet. But I nibbled and tasted and had no doubt. How exciting. My submission to iSpot once we were back in Cape Town has met with no response. Could it be the species capense? Prickly ash fruit and leaves zing with citrus and pepper, and that curious tingling sensation that makes Sichuan so well known. The trees belong to the large and fragrant Rutaceae family, like the aromatic fynbos herbs I love, as well as well known citrus fruits like lemons and oranges.


We took daily drives, with a Thermos of coffee and a trove of rusks, and made friends along the way. And every afternoon we came  home to our rondawel, lit a fire and ate dinner to the sound of those night birds.

As lovely as Nyathi was - and I recommend it highly - Addo in general suffers from what I assume must be poor leadership. Nowhere was there a genuinely friendly person* to direct or welcome us, and after an entrance boom was dropped on our car's roof at a gate the indifference and lack of professionalism could not have been louder. We were deeply unimpressed. I have still not heard back from the person who should have contacted us and frankly apologized for the damage. So that left an abiding impression which flavors the whole experience.

* An exception - a very helpful mechanic at the main camp lent Vince some tools to tighten the connections of the batteries in the Landcruiser, which had rattled loose on very bumpy roads. He should be front and center in the welcoming committee.

But if you do not require a smile when checking in, are wary of falling booms, rely on yourselves for catering, stay away from the tourist mecca of the main camp, and book a spot at that beautiful, quiet spot in the hills, you will be happy.

You might even forget to take pictures.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Memorabilia


The things one brings back from the mother country. Not shown are the 24 bottles of wine the Frenchman and I carried to Brooklyn across two hemispheres. And US customs officers have never minded. Asked if I had brought anything in with me this time, I replied, "A case of wine." The customs officer looked at me sternly and said, "Don't drink and drive. Welcome home, Red!" Stamp.

Other than that welcome, arriving at JFK is complete pandemonium and I feel very sorry for bright eyed and bushy tailed tourists who are familiar with other, civilized airports. You are barked at, herded, ignored and then have to pay for your luggage cart. It's brutal.

But here we are. With, from left: in the tube, two beautiful prints from my friend, artist Willemien de Villers, whose embroidery I call subversive. She will be teaching another course in New Mexico next year. Above that, Cape Town-made bottarga, salt-cured roe from sustainable hake, under the Leipoldt and Langa label, from my Instagram friend Kurt Ackerman. I traded a bottle of vermouth for it. To its right two South African made rugs for our kitchen door, which leads outside. And 72, yes, 72 mini ice cream cones from Woolworths. Because they really are that good and I think they might be fun for wild ice cream tastings. Peri-peri cashews, because, why not? Top right, cream of tartar for home made rusks, and a bottle of amber Inverroche gin, made in Stilbaai.

Middle row: a cotton blanket, also South African, and beautifully soft. Mampoer to its right, a clear peach liquor with a mule-ish kick, for the neighbor who watered our plants. Then a bottle each of my October Vermouth and its bitters, bottled on my birthday. There are more, off stage. Soap! I know, but it's wonderful and has no Bad Stuff in it, by South African brand Earth Sap (whose marketing presence is nil). And a cherished bottle of wine made by aforementioned Willemien's husband, Etienne de Villiers. They live below their small vineyard on an idyllic spot above False Bay and Etienne was kind enough to give me one of very few bottles. Fortunately, when my wine box came hurtling down the JFK luggage shoot, smashing into someone's suitcase, this was not the bottle that died on impact. First time I have ever suffered a casualty.

Bottom left: a fresh batch of kikois (Tanzania), a first aid box I could not resist, an old China plate and a Woodstock glass tumbler, found on an after-lunch walk through Kalk Bay's antique shops.

Such is memory and nostalgia, to be eaten, drunk, slept under, walked on and looked at.

And now it's a deep dive straight back into my new book - Forage, Harvest, Feast, as the editing phase begins.

See you on the other side.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Indigenous Plant Palettes - a South African book giveaway


If you would like a chance to win a copy of the very handsome and hefty Indigenous Plant Palettes (R495.00), by Marijke Honig, please head over to my Instagram account @66squarefeet and tell us where in South Africa you garden.

The giveaway is very generously sponsored by Quiver Tree Publications, publishers of exceptional South African books. A copy will be posted to the lucky winner.

Deadline is 12am (midnight), October 26th.

The beautifully illustrated plant palettes detailed in the book cover all kinds of local garden scenarios, from plants for hedging and security, to edibles and fragrance.


Marijke (above, with her book) is a friend of mine, and a well known landscape designer. In Cape Town you can see her work at the Biodiversity Showcase Garden in Green Point, whose plantings she designed. We went for a hike the other day on Table Mountain, a real privilege, both for the beauty of the fynbos and for Marijke's botanical knowledge. It's like walking with Google, with the best search result available at once.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Storm's River - place of waves


After seven long hours on the road from Cape Town to Storm's River, it was a relief to reach our roomy wooden chalet perched at the highest spot above the crashing waves of the spectacular Tsitsikamma National Park. We had been checked into the park by a very efficient and friendly SAN Parks staff employee, who dealt with a long line of tired and impatient Dutch and German guests (we were the only South Africans at that time) as we all poured in from various corners of South Africa, stiff from driving, hungry for showers, clean beds and the views we knew were around the corner.

Below the chalets were the campers and their tents, right on the shoreline (where we had stayed, before), with a very high tide sending waves roaring over the rocks. In the blue valleys between the waves we spotted pods of dolphins, who stayed and played in the huge breakers for hours, with more elusive whales blowing in the background.


The Frenchman was in heaven. Seeing him unfettered and trigger happy made me smile.


All around the campsite fires were lit, with embers sparking as people began their supper preparations. We lit our braai on the incongruous set up - an iron grid and ash box attached directly to the wooden railing of our high wooden balcony, and rather wobbly. It would take only one very heavy person to lean against it and go whoops right over the side - I cannot imagine this in America, but in South Africa perhaps the need to braai wins. It is like an inalienable right. (There was a second braai on the private patio below, reached by steps.) What did we cook? Chops, I recall, and boerewors, with a salad of cucumber and tomatoes. Red wine. Basic, happy food.

It was cold, and we sat outside well wrapped, later sliding between crisp white sheets beneath layers of comforters and blankets, falling into a sound sleep to the boom of the surf.


Early the next morning our blue view brought a lump to my throat. I know these creamy seas. I swam in this water and these waves every childhood summer until I was an elderly teenager. Not right here, but a few dozen miles further west, at Plettenberg Bay. A strong swimmer, I lived in this sea. Hearing and smelling and seeing the powerful surf - quite different from Cape Town's colder water - brought back physical memories and longings I can barely articulate.


In the morning on a short walk (we had to check out by 10am and drive on to Addo) I spotted pokeweed, a species I had never seen. My friend Don offers Phytolacca octandra for identification. Even though it was still spring, and the night had been very cold, the plant was at the maturity stage I would expect in late summer, Stateside (from Phytolacca americana). I'd love to see its earliest shoots and test how succulent (or not) they might be.


We had time for a walk across the little beach and onto a long and sinuous boardwalk that snaked towards the river mouth in the forest before heading back to pack the car again.

But Storm's River has been discovered and can be a busy spot - very beautiful, but now too trafficked for my taste. I noticed with some amusement (because I loathe racism), a rising xenophobia and antagonism in myself as European and Asian visitors brushed past us without greeting, talking loudly, behaving like tourists anywhere, oblivious of the birds in the canopy, the possible Cape clawless otters on the rocks below.  Most South Africans will look you in the eye and greet you, just a smile or a nod, or an actual hello - I find it charming, and I felt cross and resentful that Foreigners had not adopted this etiquette.

I needed to get further away from people.

Fortunately, we were headed in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

First, pack your box


Before you can go on a self catering roadtrip you have to pack. That's the fun part.

The Frenchman and I did not have much time to prepare, so it's fair to say I winged it, with food. But we know our habits well, by now, and knew we had seven days' meals to organize. We knew that we really only eat dinner, that breakfast is good espresso with hot milk and rusks to dunk, that lunch is opportunistic - a lucky dip into a large snack bag that contains an assortment of dried fruit, biltong and droewors (dried South African sausage), that wine every night is imperative and that I will die if I do not have fresh fruit and Green Things.

Into our big plastic container went two smaller ones: one stuffed with fruit that could travel well or ripen en route: kiwis that began rock hard but which were tender and sweet on Day 5, tamarillos, perfuming the whole box, a small papaya, passionfruit from the vine at home, a pineapple. Lemons. Because who can travel without lemons? In the other small container went potatoes - sweet, and regular; a huge head of garlic, onions, avocadoes and tomatoes.

In the loose part of the large box went the dry goods: long life milk and Illy coffee for breakfast, flour and yeast for the bread rolls that I made en route (with foraged sweet white clover) and cooked over coals, a small bottle of olive oil, ditto white wine vinegar, a small jar of salt, a larger one of sugar (we used the very last spoonful on the very last day), a baby pepper mill, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, crackers, custard for the Frenchman and tonic for our sundowners.

And nothing could rattle while we drove over rough roads. I hate rattling.

In a small coolbag with some dry ice went the fresh lettuce - an iceberg hybrid that looks like romaine, an excellent traveller. Rosemary and marjoram from the garden in a ziplock bag with a damp paper towel, red cabbage (indestructible), tiny cucumbers, hearty brown bread, butter and cheese.

One serious cooler held our main course supplies, frozen, with dry ice - and kept frozen overnight at every stop (we stayed in SANParks - South African National Parks - bungalows all the way, except for our last night). Lamb, lamb, and lamb. In various forms.

Almost every meal was cooked over the red coals of a fire, to the tune of a thundering Indian Ocean surf, rumbling, browsing elephants, the evening song of fiery necked nightjars in Eastern Cape thickets, and the caterwauling of jackals, high in the dryness and red dust of the Northern Cape.

South Africa is a country of magnificent landscapes and wild geographical and climactic contrasts, and we packed a kaleidoscope into a week and just under 3,000 kilometers.

I no longer take the ability to remember anything for granted. But while we have them, these memories will be sustenance. Ballast for bad times where the noise from upstairs makes Brooklyn nights impossible to sleep through. Antidotes for days when barking dogs and blaring horns and entitled white folk (at least where we live) believe their world is the only one.

Something to savor when we talk about what life can really be like.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A late African spring


Sparaxis elegans, an indigenous spring flower, is blooming in drifts near my parents' house in the greenbelt - a green and public right of way - that shoulders their property. For the most part, exotic and invasive plants are making life difficult for the native flora that should thrive, here, but the sparaxis plants are toughing it out, dogs and foot traffic notwithstanding. The tree is the background is a pear in blossom, a possible relic of old farmland.


The Frenchman and I went for a walk here soon after landing. I spent my days in this pretty green place in my early teenage-hood, stalking tadpoles and watercress, walking with our own dogs, sometimes followed by a cat (Garfunkle, black and white, who often shouted for me to slow down).


It is late spring in Cape Town. The equivalent of early May in New York City. Leaves are new, grasses are beginning to flower.



We met a group of American tourists being guided along the path. We saw two Cape chameleons having a fight, and a third on the tree where we often see many. Small girls rode horses, and our own corgis overtook us even though we had not invited them along: they went out walking with my dad, who sits on a bench here for a long time and looks at things. He was surprised but happy to see us. He forgets most newly acquired facts. The surprises of vascular dementia.


Roses ramble up the outside of the living wall that hedges my parents' garden. They were planted decades ago and fend for themselves.


My friend Don identified this tree - Diospyros whyteana, a South African species of persimmon, commonly called bladder nut. I had never seen it in bloom, before. My mom has three in front of the house, looser limbed, and I still did not recognize it.


And higher up, where very few humans and dogs walk, statuesque Wachendorfia thyrsiflora. 

Soon, we leave on a little roadtrip, following the south coast to the Eastern Cape, and then straight up north through the Karoo and into the Northern Cape, before doubling back to Cape Town.

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