Songs of the Road

If time is a river, and the river a road, then the long road winding 1400km from Joburg to Cape Town is both distance and time, surface and depth, ripple and bend, present and past.

All journeys begin with a parting, with a saying of goodbyes: goodbye to our grand-daughter, Olivia, just three days old; goodbye to Tom, aged four; goodbye to my daughter and son-in-law and his parents, who have flown up from the coast to help with the newborn; goodbye to their house in Greenside, where we have stayed since we said goodbye to the house in Parkmore that we rented for more than four years – goodbye, goodbye!

Silence, as you drive through the Sunday suburbs; silence as the distance sinks in, and the river murmurs.

The highway that leads out of the city is a highway leading out of any city, anywhere – a flickering newsreel of bridges and flyovers, rusted rooftops and vibracrete walls, low-cost housing, signs and billboards, traffic crawling like bugs in the brown morning smog.

And then the city vanishes, just like that. The road opens and clears, the river rushes forward, time dips in its oar and away you go. I am alone with my memories and thoughts and my mind wanders, a free flow of recollections, associations, things forgotten and found. All the while I am watching the road, watching the countryside glide by, the car humming pleasantly along in the rhythm of the river. I turn on the music – because I am driving alone, I can turn up the volume as much as I like, and soon the sound fills the car and I am singing lustily along, The Beatles, the Stones, The Police, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Elton John, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, The Eagles, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Oliver Mtukudzi, Freshly Ground, Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg, the soundtrack of my life.

Over the Vaal River and out of Gauteng, on through the colours, khaki, blue, orange and green of the Free State’s big skies and fertile farmlands, koppies and hills, pushing on and on into the Northern Cape, stony and dry. My first stop is Tzamenkomst, a stone-built lodge on the Orange River, six-and-a-half hour’s drive from the City of Gold, not too long a day but far enough to be well on my way. A green oasis given life by the river, and time for a beer.

Before dinner I take a short walk down to the bank of the river to take a few photographs, and on my way back to the lodge I am diffidently stopped by a middle-aged couple: you look like you’re a professional photographer, the man says, can I ask your advice about what lenses I should buy? I am absolutely not a professional, I tell him, but I am a keen photographer – what kind of photography do you do? Just a beginner, he says, still learning the ropes – but wildlife, birds – he has a new pair of Leica Ultravids round his neck. So we fall into a conversation about lenses and photography and before I know it it is time for dinner and drinks and a whiskey and bed.

The next day is another six hour’s drive, the bands of my youth bouncing off the landscape, the freedom of the road that is time and a river roaring loud in my ears. My lungs are full of fresh air, my heart sings with the tyres and the tarmac and the land sliding by. I’m in Matjiesfontein by two, checking in to the Lord Milner, a grand old colonial dame of a Karoo hotel. There is load-shedding that night, which means the power has gone out, and the hotel’s generator has gone on strike, so I sit outside on the verandah in the gathering dark, alone in the candelight, listening to a tableful of loud brash engineers who are constructing a wind farm somewhere between here and Sutherland, or so I gather, full of bullshit and hot air. I am mildly irritated but at the same time it’s okay – I’ve been there, I know the drill, I was that young man once. I am up the next morning before sunrise to take a few photographs, and the engineers are there already, drifting out of the hotel, climbing into their bakkies, headlights on, heading out to the day’s work.

I make a more leisurely start, knowing I have an easy three-and-a-half hour’s drive, dropping down from the dry stark plateau into the sudden green of the Hex River Valley, through the high magical kloofs that descend into Wellington, climbing again to the Du Toits Kloof tunnel, before the final descent and the waves upon waves of vine-clad hills that fall through the outlying suburbs into the city of Cape Town.

Soon I will turn around again, this time by air, and cover the 1400km back to Johannesburg in just on two hours, leaving my car parked at my mother’s, our goodbyes a foretaste of a longer goodbye, as I prepare for the long flight via Paris in just a few more days to my home in Canada. But first I will take her for lunches and drives, we will chat and remember, and I will remind her when she grows sad that yes, I will be back – Rob and I will both be back – for her 90th birthday, on December 3rd. Just six weeks away – but she knows, and I know, that returning in December is just a pause in the flood, before the river takes us away again, to our lives in Toronto.

Hello Goodbye Madikwe

Madikwe is my happy place, my daughter likes to say. And indeed, when we arrived at our lodge at Mooifontein, the week before last, all the cares in the world seemed to just fall away. The four hour cruise up the N4 from Johannesburg, the half hour drive along dirt roads through the reserve, the welcoming committee of elephants at the waterhole, not to mention the fact that we were footloose and fancy-free and away from it all in the midst of a working week all combined to make the air seem sweeter, the daylight sparkle, the space seem endless. That the rain had stopped and the rain clouds lifted seemed a benediction and promise.

Within an hour of our arrival we were off on our first game drive, heading into the evening light, the wind in our hair and the tyres thrumming, laughter in the air, our cameras and binoculars at the ready. A clearing in the bush revealed a white rhino with her calf trotting alongside; as the light faded we came upon a pair of lions with their cubs. We followed them through the bush, crashing over stones and branches, until a pair of males, black-maned and massive, walked out in front of us. They passed within metres of the open Land Cruiser, impervious and silent, paying us as little attention as if we had been a rock or a stone ourselves. It grew darker, and the first stars appeared, and all around us were lions, the cubs playing in the gullies, the adults on all sides lifting their heads to emit that deep, thrilling chest-shattering hoarse rumbling that is utterly unmistakeable and utterly African, their warm breath lingering for a time after the sound had faded.

Victor, our guide, told us that the game viewing recently had not been as good as usual, and it is probably true that we saw less game than on previous visits, and less variety – but who was counting? You don’t go on a game drive – or a safari, as our overseas friends like to call it, with some hyperbole – to check boxes on a checklist, you go for the experience, for the element of surprise – you go to be totally taken up in the moment, taken outside of your everyday, urban, busy-making consciousness, out of the modern noise and into something larger, more spacious, impersonal and timeless.

And what we did see – lions and cheetahs with their cubs, a rhino and her calf, giraffe and antelope, elephants and birds and even a serval, leaping and pouncing over the scrub and grasses – stopped time in its tracks, and filled the moment.

And then there are the views, and the moments when you climb down from the vehicle for biltong and snacks, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee….

The number of cheetahs in Madikwe is in the single digits. There are two cheetah brothers, whose territory is in the north of the reserve – we have met them on previous visits; the south-west corner, where we were based now, was the domain of a mother cheetah and her three cubs. There had been four cubs originally, but one must have died or been killed, no-one was sure.

Over the four days we were there, we must have seen the mother and her cubs three or four times. They were hungry, looking for a kill, and one marvellous morning we saw the mother suddenly take off, flying full length into the dense bush after an impala – the cubs waited by the roadside, mewling softly, and we waited too, but she did not return. Victor thought she must have made the kill, and would call the cubs to her when she was sure it was dead, so we decided to leave her in peace and drive a way on to have our coffee and snacks, hoping to return in a while and watch her feeding with her cubs.

But it was not to be. Madikwe has very sensible and civil protocols in place, which ensure that there is no crowding of the animals and that everyone takes their turn when there is a particularly exciting sighting – but somehow, on this occasion, we were bumped from the queue, and lost our position. Victor was mad, and disappointed for us, though he hid it very well. And then – as these things do – it all turned suddenly around. The cheetah had not made her kill, after all, the impala had escaped – and one of the other guides had found a serval close by, and called us in to look.

If seeing a cheetah is rare, seeing a serval is a miracle – I have caught only one or two glimpses before, over many many years, but never a good sighting. And here it is.

We were all concerned that the cheetahs were still hungry, and there was much discussion in our group about whether our presence had disturbed them, and the ethics of following them while they hunted. Then on the final day, as we were preparing to leave, we heard that the mother had killed an impala that morning – we were all pleased, and relieved, though we hadn’t answered our question. Something to think about, and I would love to hear what the conservationists have to say about it.

We did, however, get a beautiful evening sighting, before we left – the light was perfect and the images, to my eye at least, are quite wonderful, too.

And then, as if in a final farewell, knowing that we might never be back, as Rob and I turn to preparing for the long journey home to Canada, the entire cheetah family showed up, five hundred metres short of the Abjaterskop Gate and our exit from the reserve, in plain view, by the side of the road. Not that they paid us any attention, but that wasn’t the point, was it?

Fall

We don’t call it Fall, here in South Africa. We do it the English way. We call it autumn.

Barn Quilt Trail, Prince Edward County

Be that as it may, fall has arrived, including this morning an unseasonal thunderstorm and rain. It’s not just the weather that is changing, folks, it’s the climate, as you know of course, unless you’ve had your head in the sand, or in Fox News’s ass. In Teilfingen, in Germany, our friends Lisa and Klaus have had snow, no less out of place at this time of the year, except that our expectations about what to expect weather-wise at any given time of the year now need to change.

This is not just an inconvenience, it’s a global emergency. But let me not go on about that now. It’s the weekend, right, and we just want to relax.

Not that we can go anywhere relaxing, what with the lockdown and the rising threat of a third wave of Covid. Here, too, one could rattle one’s chains and mutter something foreboding about the encroachment of farming and human settlements on wild spaces and wildlife, the inevitable risks of animal to human transmission of viruses and disease – but again, let me not spoil your lunch.

Which comes, I guess, from a farm somewhere, or many farms, some of them close by and others in far, exotic lands, flown in by air, trailing not clouds of glory as in William Blake’s poem but carbon emissions and … oh, dear, there I go again. Must be something in the water, though in this water scarce country, not to mention incompetence and misgovernment, even a reliable water supply can’t be taken for granted. Ask Cape Town.

Barn, Prince Edward County

Fall, it seems, is not just about autumn, it’s about Man’s Fall – oh blast. Not Man’s Fall, people’s fall, their fall, they being both singular and plural and extremely awkward these days.

(The thing to do, I’ve been slow to learn, but am learning slowly, is that when you’re digging yourself a hole, it’s time to stop digging.)

That goes for you, too, humanity. Stop digging us all a hole!

Ahem. So here, to soothe your shattered nerves, and to make up if I can for my lack of consideration, my disturbance of the peace, calm and tranquility we expect as our due as members of the middle class, are four images of fall – of farms, and barns, and autumn light. The time, October. The place: Prince Edward County.

Rob and I live in hope that one day soon, armed with our jabs and our vaccination certificates, we will climb on board a plane, and fly all the way back home, across the warming oceans, to our little heated house in Toronto, and then drive up some time to revisit the county.

Perhaps we should purchase some carbon offsets.

The Slow Road Back

Traveling at Sixty was the topic of my last post – a post about slow travel, about taking the time to observe and relax, think and reflect. Now, a week later, we are on our way back, after nearly two-and-a-half weeks on the road and over 2000 km (so far) on the clock, with a quiet stopover in Prince Albert yesterday and today and the road to Bloemfontein calling us tomorrow.

It has been a good trip. Seeing my mom, alone, would have made it worthwhile, after more than a year since the last time we saw her, and the days ticking by as we start gearing up for our return to Canada and her 90th birthday drawing slowly closer.

It has been good to travel again, too, to see the country, knowing we might not be this way again, taking the time to take it in before it passes.

The rest has done me good, too, the break from work, before the next few busy and intense months land with a bang on Wednesday.

And, it has been good for the two of us, for Rob and me, doing this together, finding connection in the shared experience and the shared memory of previous journeys.

So, we are lucky – more so, in this time of Covid.

We have been careful, and diligent in our sanitizing and social distancing and avoidance of too-crowded places, and hope to remain safe as we head back to Jo’burg, both on the road and off it.

And because we have been able to travel, while so many haven’t, we have been glad to share these stories and images from our travels with those of our friends and family who have followed us.

Thanks to you all, and stay safe also.

Here is a round-up of some of the iPhone photos from our trip.

Big Easter Road Trip

BERT – the Big Easter Road Trip – is at last under way (Bert was my paternal grandfather’s real name, by the by – we called him Pooch).

We have mapped out the trip in easy four-to-five hour driving segments, starting this morning from Johannesburg, heading south on the N1 to Bloemfontein, to spend our first night at Clover Cottage. Lambs chops on the braai tonight, a glass of red, and then happily off to bed we’ll go.

Clover Cottage, in Bloemfontein (iPhone photo)

From Bloemfontein our journey tomorrow takes us south and then east, to Graaff-Reinet. From Graaff-Reinet we continue south-east on Monday, a public holiday, to the Wilderness, on the Garden Route, where we will spend two nights in a little cottage by the sea, before continuing further south to McGregor for two more nights. Thence to Greyton, also two nights, and finally on to Cape Town, where we will spend the next few days until the Easter Weekend.

Easter Saturday we begin the long journey back, stopping over for two nights in Prince Albert in the Karoo, then on to Bloemfontein and Clover Cottage again, before arriving back home on April 6th. All in all, by the time we get back, we will have covered probably in the region of 3000 kilometres. So that’s the ‘B’ in BERT.

I could play word games here, and say the ‘B’ is also for ‘bye,’ as in, bye-bye South Africa – this is our last big road trip, after all, before we fly back to Canada in September – if we fly back, seeing that nobody really knows how the pandemic will affect flights, or lockdowns, or quarantine regulations.

But that is in the future and we are in the now.

I have opened the wine, and poured ourselves a glass – a warming Rustenberg Shiraz. The afternoon rain has stopped. Soon I will light a fire.

A Food Tour in Istanbul – The Best Introduction to the City!

A food tour, on foot, proved to be the best introduction to the vast, over-crowded, overwhelming metropolis that is Istanbul that Rob and I could imagine.

Especially as we had just come straight from an idyllic week in rural Aveyron, in the south of France – the contrast could hardly have been greater.

[Click on images to enlarge]

There are many such tours on offer, but the tour we chose online, ahead of our arrival in Istanbul, was with Taste of Two Continents. We were not disappointed. Our guide, Ibrahim, met us outside the Legacy Ottoman Hotel in the old city, a stone’s throw from the Spice Market and the Galata Bridge, at the beginning of a five-hour walkabout that took in both the European and Asian halves of the city, on either side of the busy Bosphorus straits – Sultanahmet, to the west, and Kadikoy, to the east.

The Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

We began by the Spice Bazaar, exploring the stalls in the warren of small streets alongside, tasting as we went, before entering the bazaar itself, for an introduction to the real Turkish Delight (needless to say, we were back the next morning, to load up on sweets and spices).

Then, down to the Galata Bridge, and out to the ferries, for the short trip across the water to the Asian side of the city. The rain clouds were gathering as we crossed, and the rain fell intermittently – sometimes a few drops, a drizzle, sometimes a downpour – throughout the rest of the day, but on we went, our small group kept entertained and informed by the ever-lively and engaging Ibrahim.

A rainy street in Kadikoy….

The food, I have to say, was for the most part absolutely fantastic – colourful, flavourful, infinitely varied. This was not a tour for sissies, however – Ibrahim made sure that we sampled some of the local specialties which were, in some cases, pretty awful, at least to a Western palate.

Pickle juice, for example, and minced offal confections that were frankly too off-putting in the description to allow for even the smallest of nibbles. But we were pleased to be given the information, and the opportunity to experiment – willing to give the pickle juice a try (it’s as bad as it sounds) and happy to pass on the offal, with no offence taken.

Along with the food, in all its glorious abundance and variety and profusion of flavours, what strikes you too is the sheer industry of the people. Everywhere you turn there is someone turning meat on a grill, carving up cheese in a tin, pushing a rickety, overloaded cart down the colourful, cobbled streets, doing the hard sell with a customer.

If the food isn’t for sissies, neither are the people. Blunt and down to earth, to the point of rudeness at times, people work hard for a living, and are not ashamed of it.

After five hours of walking, talking, listening to Ibrahim’s jokes and stories, absorbing as much as we could of the history of the city all spiced up with the history of the food – stopping here, crossing over there, trying this or that specialty or delicacy – we were happy but exhausted. And just when we thought we were done, Ibrahim sprung his surprise – a much needed sit-down for a few plates at the famed Ciya Sofrasi, featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

Rob at Ciya Sofrasi

Somewhere towards the end of the day, we stopped at a stall selling one of Istanbul’s signature street food dishes – mussels on the shell. We’d been warned to be careful – the mussels aren’t always fresh, and can cause some serious tummy ructions – but Ibrahim, of course, knew where to take us.

The mussels were so darned good that after we had finished eating at Ciya, stuffed as we were (stuffed like the mussels, no pun intended), back we went to the mussel stall, to be met with a huge grin and another round of mussels.

Did I say that this was a good way to be introduced to the city? Let me correct that – it’s the best way!

66, Cape Vidal

No, 66 Cape Vidal is not an address. 66 is the age I turned yesterday; Cape Vidal, or somewhere like it – open skies, wide open spaces, carefree and at ease like the geezer with his fishing rod – is where I should have been on my birthday. Needless to say, I wasn’t. Just another day down the salt mine.

But we did go out for dinner, Rob and I, and if we were not at the sea, exactly, we did dine on crustaceans, and talk about our upcoming trip to France, which starts next weekend, and where we should go to eat when we stopover in Lyon, and what we should do during our four days in Istanbul. Not a bad problem to have, actually, and one of the things that the salt mine pays for.

Which is to give notice, I guess, that there will be a break in this blog from now until late August, when a new series of photographs will start finding its way onto these pages.

Meanwhile, picture yourself, as I do, poised between beach and sky, at the edge of the ocean, with time itself stretched out to the horizon.

[As always, click on the image to enlarge.]

Dusk, Kalk Bay

Interviewer: Dusk at Kalk Bay – tell me about this image. (PS click on the image to enlarge).

Me: No. Not right now, anyway. Rob and I are getting packed and heading out shortly to spend the long weekend – it’s the Youth Day weekend, here in South Africa – in the Magaliesberg.

Interviewer: Ah! That means birdwatching, landscapes!

Me: You bet.

Interviewer: So what’s in the bag?

Me: Well, the binoculars, of course. I’m lucky enough to have a pair of Leica Trinovid 8x40s, which I love. They’re so bright and sharp. The Nikon D500. A 200-500mm lens, with 1.4x teleconverter. And my new (used, actually) 105mm macro lens, which I hope to try out for the first time. Not to mention the ever-reliable, versatile 17-55mm (24-70mm equivalent). And of course a tripod.

Interviewer: Travelling Light, I see?!

Me: What can I say?

Zurich Altstadt – Signs and Figures

Photograph of Heidi the cow, in Zurich's Altstadt

Zurich Altstadt: Signs & Figures.

I suppose you can’t really ‘get’ the soul of a city, a spirit of place, from a (literally) flying visit, a one-day random perambulation through streets and squares, along the river and over its bridges, beside its churches and fountains – and yet, as I mentioned in my first post on Zurich, there is a tone, a mood, a coloration of stone and air that is quite specific.

I felt it in the signs and emblems, from the sacred to the quotidian and downright silly, and saw it even in the people, who themselves in my imagining became signs of Zurich.

Here are some images.

Zurich fountains – three more images

As promised in yesterday’s post, here are three more images of fountains in Zurich’s Altstadt.

You will see that I have done one more in black and white, but with a harder edge to it than yesterday’s more ethereal image.

The other images insisted on being done in colour – in the one case, as befits the flowers, with a vivid palette, in the other with more muted tones, the tones of the fountain – a swooping, very modern sculpture – echoing the tones of the Fraumuenster in the background.