Sunday, September 25, 2016

DC doing the decent thing, finally

I see the Smithsonian is opening its new branch on the National Mall in DC: the - you might well think - long overdue National Museum of African-American Culture and History. Never mind, they've done it now; and it's not as though it's a subject the city has completely ignored, as I discovered in 2014 at the Library of Congress. That Civil Rights exhibition (which displayed the above arrest warrant for Rosa Parks) has now ended, though, so it's good to see the subject properly addressed with what looks like typical Smithsonian thoroughness and respect. I'm already planning to give it plenty of time when I'm back there next year.
Having just been in South Africa, and earlier this year in Louisiana, it's a topic that feels very relevant - the photo above was taken in the fascinatingly eclectic Village Museum in Matjiesfontein ('bracelet', though?) - and I'm already prepared for a different take on the concept of museum guilt, which I felt, if only by proxy, in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Certainly, it seems that the struggle for universal civil rights and equality is as current and urgent as it has ever been, all around the world, even here in relatively inoffensive New Zealand. Rosa and Nelson would be so disappointed in us.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

So many spots!

Game drives are so yesterday! Today I tried different ways to experience the African bush. Up (again) at 5am – yes, it’s a holiday, but no, at game reserve lodges no-one sleeps in, that’s what afternoons are for – I went out with super-guide Chris for a nature walk. It sounds very tame, but please note that we were accompanied by Maybin, a camou-clad guard armed with a rifle, and there were serious instructions about keeping safe in case of a confrontation.

The big animals were not our focus this morning and, apart from being trumpeted at by a stroppy elephant we drove past, we saw none on our walk, fortunately – Maybin’s instruction is to shoot to kill if an aggressive animal approaches within 5 metres (which seems pretty close to me). The closest encounter we had, as it happens, was with an antlion which, despite the name, is the small larvae of a kind of fly. Having done a lifetime’s preparation for Africa courtesy of David Attenborough, I was able to score points with Chris for being able to identify the antlion, the hippo skull we came across and the calcium-white hyaena droppings – but I still learned a lot too.

Elephant dung infusions as a cure for asthma, for example, doves using ant-sprayed formic acid to rid themselves of fleas, leopards at risk of attack by baboons during the day, but vice versa at night… Chris knows so much, and is keen to share. So it wasn’t an eventful outing, but it was fascinating.
Once back at the lodge, though, things got exciting. Wandering along from our suite towards the main building for lunch, we had to take a side entrance because there was an elephant and her calf in the way. The resort is unfenced, and this sort of thing is not unusual. Today the eles took their time poking about right outside the building – at one stage it looked possible they might enter – feeding on grass and leaves. The mother even stepped very delicately over the railings to stand on the path, the better to reach seedpods in the tree over it. This was a bitter inconvenience: she was blocking the way to the bar where we’d planned to have a beer. Tch!
But a waiter went the long way round to fetch the drinks for us, and we settled down to our lunch on the deck as the elephants began to move off. Then, a shout and a clatter of breaking crockery: we rushed to see, and it was an unsuspecting waiter, bringing a tray of desserts from the kitchen, being surprised by the eles at close quarters and not unnaturally taking fright. The real tragedy was the waste of the pudding portions – it was quite the best lemon meringue pie I’ve ever tasted.

Returning to my table, I was advised that an opportunistic vervet monkey had just laid hands on my meatball, and that I should start again with a fresh plate. Talk about novelty hazards. Though, of course, here it’s just par for the course.

In the afternoon, after watching the elephants right up close from our suite deck and the pool, we tried something a bit different: a canoe trip along the river. Being Royal Zambezi, that turned out to be a lot less effort than it sounded. After a quick buzz down the river in a motorboat, we transferred to the Canadian canoes to sit in padded comfort while Chris paddled us gently downstream. We passed crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank, mouths agape; hippos in and out of the water; elephant families coming down to drink and bathe; monkeys and baboons leaping about in and under the trees; a suspicious buffalo staring at us; five skittish zebra; lots of beautiful brightly-coloured birds; and yesterday’s two lions again, lying in the grass studying the baby elephants with deep interest. Add to that peaceful quiet, lapping water, birdsong… glorious.

And then, believe it or not, it got even better. We left the canoe and got into the Landcruiser that met us, and Chris took us bumping and swaying along rough tracks through the bush to find something special for our last game drive here. Elephants got in the way of the best spots for our sundowner, but thanks to having to drive on – and, of course, Chris’s tracking skills and the sharp eyes of spotter Jimmy – we suddenly found ourselves just a few metres from a magnificent leopard lying beside a log in all his spotted glory.


Of course I had the wrong lens on my camera, the wrong settings dialled and my hands covered in mosquito repellent – but I saw him perfectly as he rose and unhurriedly crossed in front of us to disappear into the bushes, and I did grab an ok photo for proof. And after him there were genets and civet cats, a final dinner on the lantern-lit deck with frogs and hippos providing the soundtrack, and chocolate mousse for dessert. What a great day.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Goodbye - eventually - to Rovos Rail

It was a noisy night. Squealing wheels, vibrations, rattling doors in the suite requiring folded-tissue inventiveness in the dark, the sudden loud pre-dawn descent of a metal window shutter… but we made up lost time and in the morning were on track for our scheduled 6pm arrival in Cape Town. Our only official stop of the day was at Matjiesfontein, a quaint little Victorian folly of a town, the work of an enthusiast who created not much more than a single street with hotels, post office, cafĂ©, museums, the railway station and very little else, other than stillness and silence.
It was very odd, to look at well-maintained cars including a Mini and a Rolls Royce in such a place, feeling so far from anywhere. Even stranger was the Village Museum, a wonderfully eclectic collection of things from a stainless steel speculum to a slave shackle, by way of, well, just about anything you could imagine, all roughly organised and packed into an entertaining series of rooms and cellars.
I walked to the front of the train, past aloes and cactus (the one real reason for the establishment of the town in 1884 is the dry climate, prized by those suffering from TB and similar) to photograph the engines, which I was disappointed to find were ugly modern orange diesel-electric jobs, nothing like the splendid Shaun on Day 1. Even more disappointing was their failure that afternoon. Joe, the train manager, looks a little like the sainted Mandela and shares the great man’s intolerance of the nonsensical regulations imposed on him. “We’re required to have two State-supplied engines on the train, but one wasn’t working and now the other has failed. Meanwhile, Rovos Rail has 10 shining, beautifully-maintained locomotives in the sheds that we’re not allowed to use in South Africa,” he said, exasperated.
So, we sat, and sat some more, drinking gin and tonics on the open observation deck at the back of the train and gazing out over the vineyards and occasional locals towards the spectacular mountain ranges getting more richly coloured as the sun dropped. No-one had a plane to catch, fortunately, and there was much laid-back jollity and wide-ranging conversation, from sea-horse breeding in northern Tasmania to English curry houses to the toilet arrangements on Canberra’s golf course to Oprah Winfrey’s unreasonable requirement for special water in the tanks under her suite’s carriage on the train (Phil Collins was apparently a much more amenable guest). 
There was presumably some behind the scenes agitation by the staff - especially since the big boss himself, Rohan Vos, had come aboard at one stop to greet us all - but all we guests were completely laid-back about the delay. “After all,” shrugged the Tim Robbins lookalike, “it’s only a broken-down engine. It’s not as if they’ve run out of booze.”

There was telephoning and radioing ahead to waiting transfers, a very acceptable extra meal of smoked chicken, salad and icecream magicked out of the kitchen, more drinking and, eventually, two and a half hours late, arrival into Cape Town, its famous views hidden by darkness, our Father’s Day dinner at La Colombe now a non-event. TIA, guys: this is Africa.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Beautiful Bloemfontein - said no-one, ever

We awoke in Bloemfontein, an alternative to the usual Kimberley stop occasioned by track issues. So instead of drooling over diamonds, we concentrated on concentration camps. Did you know the British invented the concept? And exercised it enthusiastically during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902? With the consequent deaths of 26,000 women and children? No, me neither.

I learned quite a lot from guide Dr Johan today (understandably proud of receiving his PhD yesterday). Like, le Creuset originally made siege guns, Mausers had the advantage of not producing smoke when fired, and when digging a trench you should put the spoil behind you, not in front, so your head isn’t silhouetted when you’re trying to fire your gun. Handy to know…

Apart from the Women’s National Memorial with its sad statues, and the historical background, Bloemfontein isn’t much of a tourist destination. There’s an avenue of stately governmental buildings, a game reserve in the centre complete with ostriches and antelope, and it’s the birthplace of JRR Tolkien – but otherwise, it’s the usual (so far) agglomeration of unattractive commercial enterprises liberally littered and full of poor people. It’s making me wonder if the much-vaunted beauty of Cape Town will turn out to be purely a comparative thing. [Spoiler alert: not!]

And then we were back on the train, trundling steadily across open pastureland dotted with sheep and cattle, first evoking Outback orange, and then Otago gold, with added termite mounds. There were conical hills and flat mesas, a road alongside periodically marked with ‘Beware Potholes’ signs, and not much else to distract us from the moist and tender ostrich at lunch.


The afternoon passed in a pleasant blur of reading (the on-board library included Wuthering Heights, Candide and Macbeth), napping in the suite, and drinks on the button-backed leather sofas in the lounge car before a dinner of lobster tails. Joe the train manager encouraged us to go to the bar afterwards: “We need to get rid of this sub-standard alcohol so we can restock with the good stuff for the A-class passengers on the next run.” Some did their best, we learned later, well into the wee small hours.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Doing it rough on Rovos Rail

Shaun the steam engine was just for show – but seeing him (should be her?) puff into the station, all shiny brass and red and green paint, was a splendid sight and well worth the effort, even though the driver was so sad that he was travelling only a few hundred metres. Rovos Rail is required to rent state-owned electric engines these days, probably a lot more efficient and reliable [spoiler alert: uh, not] but nothing like as romantic.
Mind, they work hard at maintaining the ambience of hundred year-old train travel, the waiting room all chandeliers and clubby buttoned sofas, the luggage porters in gold braid and white gloves, morning tea served on tiered cake-stands. And then there’s the train!
It’s gorgeous. All varnished mahogany, plush furnishings, brass and leather, shutters and glass lamps. And surprisingly spacious, in our Deluxe suite where the bed fills the entire width and there is storage everywhere. It’s cosy and comfortable and full of thoughtful touches, like the goggles for eye protection when leaning out of an open window. The amenities kit even includes a couple of Rennies tablets in case of over-indulgence in the dining car.
That, it appeared almost at once, will be a theme. Lunch was four courses, wine-matched, and took almost two leisurely hours to consume, the crystal glassware tinkling as we trundled along. When we were moving, that was: we were stuck, stationary, in a station in Johannesburg for a quite unconscionable time, watched impassively by commuters and vendors on the platform outside as we indulged ourselves in olde-world splendour. Awkward.

The pattern appears to be eat, relax, repeat. So there was afternoon tea in the lounge car then drinks then dinner then bed. There’s a dress code for dinner: jacket and tie, and smart dress, which everyone stuck to. Bit of a nuisance, packing fancy outfits for just two nights of a whole holiday, but it certainly did add to the ambience in the dining car, everything, and everyone, sparkling and gleaming in the lamplight. And the food was excellent: scallops and lamb shanks. So we hardly needed the soothing rocking and rolling to send us to sleep in the artistically-arranged bed that our hostess Lebo had magicked for us while we ate.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Capital crime

There’s nothing quite like being picked up in a BMW with leather seats and being chauffeured to a Tuscan mansion. Slightly dislocating for this all to be happening between Johannesburg and Pretoria, but I’m not arguing, even if the contrast between yesterday’s brutal and horrifying Soweto tour and today’s high-end luxury is somewhat guilt-inducing.

It’s actually a pretty typical South African vibe, as our driver was describing, same as our guide did yesterday. Extremes of rich and poor, it’s the African way, so far, it seems – and Zuma has done nothing but perpetuate it for his own benefit. I realise Nelson Mandela is a hard act to follow, but still…
Taking a private tour with Johan, politics were unavoidable. They are in any capital city, of course, but even more so here, where they impact so much on everyday life. To begin with, though, there were beautiful, if razor-wired, leafy mansions; an unseasonably dry nature reserve complete with blue wildebeest, zebra and a mongoose; and long views over the even leafier city with its universities, government buildings and monuments. The Voortrekker Monument is pre-eminent on its hill, literally (for a long time, no building was allowed to be higher) and tells an exhausting story of effort, struggle and battle. The Great Trek it commemorates, of the Dutch away from British colonisation, is aptly named.
The downtown area is full of lovely Victorian stately buildings heavy on the turrets and pillars, but also of loiterers who make wandering around with cameras a bit of a dodgy undertaking, so we didn’t. We drove instead up to the Presidential offices on their hill, surrounded by neat gardens and overlooking the 9m high Nelson Mandela statue, arms widespread and friendly grin on his face. It seemed a shame that the conversation with Johan begun at his feet was all about how difficult life is in South Africa, especially from the downtrodden white person’s angle. The pendulum has swung too far, and the country truly is the worse for it. It’s such a shame.

And then we drove away, past black men pushing a trolley full of spinach, and awkwardly carrying three wooden ironing boards, back to Waterkloof Ridge with its elegant high-walled mansions, to the Castello di Monte’s echoing halls and antique furniture. South Africa is full of ironies.

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