Tuesday, 25 February 2014

More cave paintings

Who says no to a cup of tea at half past six in the morning when this is the view from bed? 

A bird resembling a jackdaw in its behaviour, a starling in its size and with a curious piping whistle has just scavenged the balcony. Pigeons here are lighter in colour but nuzzle up to each other just as ours do. European swallows are plentiful and must soon migrate: what a thought that these just might be the birds that will fly over our houses and fields in a few short weeks. But the weaver birds with their extraordinary inverted nests are like nothing we see at home, which also goes   for the red bishop and the long tailed widow, the latter lolloping through the air with an extraordinary undulating flight. A mix of the familiar and the exotic. 

Another trip today to an example of San rock/cave painting. 

The owner of the farm on whose land the cave lies described these as 'bushmen paintings'. This is not PC. The San people lived here for most of the last 30,000 years, but they lived so lightly on the land – leaving so little physical impact that we can see today – that these paintings 'cannot be dated directly but are probably between 200 and more than 6000 years old', according to the notice fixed to the fence designed to protect them from vandals. The San were hunter gatherers here for all that time until they were out competed for land use by farming tribes moving south through Africa, and murderous white settlers from the south who merely stole their land and shot them. Neither the descendants of those black people, nor those of the whites, appear to show a great deal of interest in the work of their ancestors. The reason these paintings are 'more than 200 years old' is that most of the San had been eradicated by then. 

I make no excuse for repeating some of what I have said before. It is a wounding experience to see the remains of a civilisation wiped out so recently after surviving from before biblical times. 

It is such a pity that history here is such a wicked tale of greed and murder, when one's experience in the present is of welcome, kindness and generosity on all sides. You might say that I can write this from the privileged and rather unusual position of a white man who is not sheltering behind barbed wire fences, dogs and security gates, but it remains true that South Africa comes across as a country of extremely friendly and warm hearted people. 

Mind you, could I not say that of almost any country in the world? 

Yesterday we spent the day exploring the Golden Gate national park, partly on foot, partly by car. It is not a park for big game, tho we did see zebra and black wildebeest, but rather for spectacular sandstone rocks and cliffs and massive overhangs that look unbelievably precarious. No elephants here! 

Today I read that poachers kill three elephants an hour in this country…

Is this the real South Africa?

Arrive in Clarens and you are in a different world. We've got used to a South African experience which includes sometimes sullen, dispirited and resentful black faces, high spiked metal fences, fierce dogs… and the third of the population that is unemployed loitering and clustering outside the cheaper shops and by the minibus ranks. You get used to it and, from what I see, eventually inured to it. 

Though I have to say it is very difficult to 'read' the attitudes and faces of people with a very different cultural background from one's own, and there are white people living in the 'black townships' just as there are blacks in the posh and mainly white areas. Also, seeing crowds of black kids coming out of school bright, cheerful and immaculately turned out in their school uniforms, you do feel there has to be hope for the future if this spirit can be be carried forward into their adulthood. I hope so anyway.  

But this is different. You drive through the black township to get to the town proper (it was a black resident of the 'black township' at Ladybrand who used that precise term when we talked) and the houses are much as we have seen elsewhere, despite the fact thay we are 6000 feet up here and winter temperatures can fall to -17°C, at which point some of the literally tumbledown wattle and daub and stone dwellings on the unsheltered hillside would appear to be barely habitable, not to mention morally indefensible in a country of such extremes of wealth. (The lovely houses in the 'white' quarter are surrounded by trees and beautiful gardens that are a delight to the eye and nourishment to the spirit.)

But setting all that aside, if you can comfortably do so, Clarens proves to be a leafy and comfortable and relaxed village (pop. 4500) where we walked the kilometre home from the restaurant in total peace, framed by the constant buzzing of countless crickets. Most of the houses have only token - if any - fences and not a single dog barked at us. Not one!! You suddenly realise that here is a place where the (white) population does not live in a state of perpetual fear, behind a defensive palisade and (usually several) dogs. Read up on what it's like to stay in, say, Cape Town or travel the so-called Garden Route and you realise that Clarens is almost certainly not the real South Africa in anyone's book, but perhaps for that very reason it's an extremely nice and warm and pleasant place to stay. Fear is not endemic. 

Here is the view from our B&B this morning:

For the record, supper in one of very few restaurants open here on a Monday night comprised two really scrummy vegetarian platters including spinach, mushrooms, carrots, a baked potato with sour cream, grilled halloumi and more worked into some lovely tasty dishes, plus two generous glasses of house wine — and came to a total of about £7 each including tip. A pint of local beer earlier had cost a little over £1. 

When we asked what were the herbs chopped onto the carrots, the owner said she would check with 'the kitchen'. How different from the average English pub where the honest answer would be "I'll ask the person in the kitchen who snips the corners off the boil-in-the-bag/microwaveable carrots to check the ingredients for you." (The answer, by the way, was oregano. A recommended addition to your next bowl of carrots.)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

From one extreme to the next

Well, we didn't go to Lesotho as expected, except to hire a car from Avis at the airport. And how pleased I was to see an extensive solar photovoltaic array in front of the airport buildings. Lesotho sets an example! I also noted the gigantic Chinese-owned clothing factories on the way. 

We had planned to begin a circular tour that would take in the kingdom of Lesotho as well as a couple of South African mountain villages. But a beer festival had booked out the accommodation in Clarens for the first weekend, so we began the tour in the reverse direction. It was a pity to have missed the beer festival though!

Many of the main roads round here have potholes of a size I have not seen before. Signs saying "Potholes 40km" give an indication of what to expect, but you can cover perhaps 10km without incident at the permitted 120km/h only to encounter a further succession of kilometres with giant potholes spread liberally across the road with no further warnings. Wow. It makes driving incredibly stressful. One blink and you could write your car off. 

But the last 50km or so to the mountain village of Rhodes is on a dirt road. Guides and other information sources all reassured us that the road was fine for a 2WD. Which is what we had hired. Well, in wet conditions or after a storm, like when we tackled the two-hour drive along (or up) it, it wasn't. At times I wondered how we made it. You don't believe it will get worse but it does. 

The idea of driving back down in similar conditions was plainly rather frightening. When the following morning dawned bright and sunny and the muddy, gravel-spread 'road' began to dry, we decided to cut our losses and depart. Rain forecast for Sunday would have been the last straw. As a matter of fact the dry day that the forecast promised for Saturday was soon in doubt as giant black storm clouds surrounded the peaks above us. Were we pleased to be off!?

The drive back to Ladybrand was a solid seven hours, two of them on the dirt track and the rest spotting and dodging potholes on the main roads. With a thirty-minute break in Lady Grey for a toasted sandwich and coffee. 

Our memories of Rhodes. The Brit-owned Walkabout Inn is a lovely place run by extremely considerate and friendly people. We spent our one night in one of their self-catering cottages and ate in the inn itself, a delicious meal cooked by a young Afrikaner chef who just loves living there and for whom vegetarians present no problem. It's a trout fly-fishing area of some repute: we said yes to fish and were served two of the most wonderful trout imaginable. His milk pudding (a secret recipe!) was a real pleasure. And the mushroom omelettes for breakfast the next morning were a delight. 

And we met some delightful people (Afrikaners with fluent English) both here and in Lady Grey who offered generous help and advice on our journey. 

The village of Rhodes is a cluster of attractive cottages and houses with minimal signs of 'security', reached after passing the usual scatter of shacks for the blacks. There is a cafe cum gift shop, a petrol station, a library… Three weeks before we arrived a family of four became a family of two after being attacked when out for a walk by two black wildebeest. It is certainly a wonderful area to explore but the open area round Rhodes is quite limited: beyond that you are on private land, there are no public paths unless you walk along the road, and while in theory you can approach a farmer for permission to walk on his land, it could be quite a drive to locate a given farmer. 

By the way, I should mention that farmers tend to house their own black labour. Some farmers are more generous in their provision than others. Some of the houses are of a relatively reasonable size (I say relatively, note), well presented and shaded by trees. Others are plainly squalid. I imagine that these come with all the problems that tied cottages used to involve in the UK. I took some photos, but that's an acutely embarrassing process, the more so when conducted through the window of a shiny 3-litre 4WD. You think you are looking across the fields at a row of cattle sheds but then you see the washing hung over the fences to dry. 

It is easy to make the glib assumption that these people need very little and do not have our appetite for acquisition. Remember though that all who can afford it have satellite TV so know perfectly well how you and I live, as well as how the lucky minority in their own country lives. We think we live in a country of extremes of polarity of wealth. Take 80% or more of the population of Charlbury, give them each a pound a day, knock a couple of brieze block garages together to house each family in a sprawling settlement of 1000 homes beside the road beyond the station, lay on electricity and water, give them minimum land (less than we expect for a garden), and leave the other 20% living as they are presently accustomed, supported by an endless pool of ludicrously cheap labour, and you have the picture. The planners would be pleased: hardly any of them will have a car and they will walk to any job available between Witney and Chippy. And home that night. 

Don't worry though, it wouldn't be that many houses. Lots from the same families will share, I'm sure. 

And do we meet hostility and resentment as descendants of one of the colonial powers that stole their land and impoverished their recent ancestors? Surprisingly seldom. A couple of hundred yards from where I write is a street named Vorster Street. STILL! The country's last apartheid prime minister commemorated in a street name. Other streets celebrate Piet Retief and the Voortrekkers, the very people who swept through this country with their guns and coopted the land one and two hundred years ago. Why do the local blacks not paint out these signs?

A country of extremes and extraordinary contradictions. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

In a different minority

It's interesting to be in a tiny cultural minority for a change. Ladybrand is about 80% Sotho speaking, 8% Afrikaans and 5% English. That's by first language. In the town everyone appears to speak English as well. The Afrikaans speakers all appear to speak English too: the converse is definitely not true. 

The 2011 census for Ladybrand shows 88% black African, 3% coloured and 8% white. Overwhelmingly the blacks live in the expanding township on the edge of town on the other side of a main road. Homes there are typically of concrete blocks with galvanised iron roofs, a door in the middle of one side with a window on either side of it. The garden is used in various ways just as at home: for some families it's a fertile food source, for others it's a rubbish tip. 

But then again, rubbish may not be what it appears! Waste is not segregated by households, but is apparently 'sorted' by people who rummage through the tip and pick out what they can sell on. It's hard to think of a more wretched use of the term recycling. Ladybrand boasts on large notices as you approach that it is an Ecotown. 

One of the first things to catch my eye when walking around is the virtually complete absence of solar energy generation. Here we are sweltering under the powerful African sun and 80% of the country's electricity is generated by coal. The government has announced a new nuke but no houses heat their water with the sun and I've seen just one photovoltaic unit and that on a derelict building in the country. 

For the record between 25% and 35% of people are unemployed, and 25% of people live on less than $1.25 a day. You can get a gardener or a cleaner for well under £5 for about 6-7 hours. Food in the shops is a little cheaper than at home because of the exchange rate which favours the tourist at present. Living in a town with no tourist business the reality of daily life is not hidden from you. We are told that 'security' issues are increasingly visible with most houses and public buildings surrounding by metal palisades and various security devices. There is an abundance of firms that watch your property. Dogs do the job too and walking down the street is a less appealing experience than it might be as a succession of fierce dogs test the efficacy of the fence that keeps them from you. 

> > >

Yesterday included a trip to some San rock paintings. I'll put some photos here or on Facebook when I can. The San originally populated the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and how they were removed from their land by invasion (by other black tribes from the north, and by white 'settlers' from the south) is a bitter read. Talking to an educated member of one of those black invading tribes who populate part of the area today, I found no interest or curiosity at all in the San history or the previous inhabitants of the land. I hope this is not typical. I'd like to see what black school kids are taught today about their history. They certainly wear very smart uniforms to school. I wonder where a parent on a dollar a day finds the money for that. 

We shall go to Lesotho tomorrow. It's an independent democratic mountain kingdom landlocked by South Africa. There is a growing American presence there in an effort to stem Chinese influence. The Chinese presence was described to us as 'a rash all over Africa' and the fact that they will work 12 hours a day 7 days a week makes them uneven competition for most people here including the Americans. They have seemingless limitless money and use prison labour from home to work on Chinese-funded projects here. Brilliant really. Commit a crime back in China and next thing you are building the new government offices in Lesotho. 

According to the UN Lesotho is also the world's rape capital (more rapes per capita than anywhere else) and 16% of men said in a survey that a man was entitled to use violence to make his wife have sex with him. It also has one of the world's highest incidences of HIV/AIDS. In urban areas half of women under 40 are infected. The population is 40% Roman Catholic. Relevant?

Brand Africa

It's so hot here in Ladybrand that it's difficult to focus on what is around you. I've come somewhere completely new and yet I've been oddly confused as to what is exactly different and why.

Several people told me that I should take a deep breath on leaving the plane, because inhaling the African air is an experience unlike any I would have had before. Well, the smell of hot concrete, jet fumes and aircraft fuel is pretty much the same wherever you land. That much I knew already and now know with greater certainty.

Johannesburg airport is in Africa. But you could not be blamed for not realising that. The same brands surround the retail concourse there as at Heathrow. The real difference is that whereas at Heathrow assistance is relatively hard to come by, in Joburg assistance is quite impossible to avoid. 

The onward flight to Bloemfontein was a surprise in one big respect. The plane had propellers! I found myself trying to remember whether this meant that in the event of engine failure we could glide safely to the ground and land in a field. But the plane was nearly empty and completed its journey in ten minutes less than the hour timetabled, so I guess we weighed a bit less than expected and perhaps would have been that much easier to land. Provided of course that a passenger didn't take the wrong door at the front of the plane and stumble into the cockpit instead of the toilet, causing possible mayhem. Imagination runs riot on these occasions. Once at Bloemfontein you find you are at Bloemfontein International Airport. 'International' is another figment of someone's imagination. As a bus station it would be quite impressive. 

The drive onwards to Ladybrand was rather boring. One of those journeys where nothing kept happening. Still, I tell myself that I was so tired by now that nothing was going to happen anyway. 

I was a zombie for the next couple of days. The heat was excessive and still is, even by local standards. By 10am it's too hot to sit anywhere but by a fan. But today we are going on an explore by car and I hope to get more of a feel for what ordinary Africa is like. Back soon!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Disappointing wine

Ha! The Coop has only knocked 50p off the Mourvèdre and its nothing like as nice as the previous year. I shan't be buying any more. On the other hand they have the Muriel Rioja going for £6.66. That's more like it.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

More wine bargains at the Co-op

I really know next to nothing about wine, but I know what I like. Here are two wines from the local Co-op. Les Crouzes is made from the Carignan grape, an old grape of the western Mediterranean less widely grown than it was, being rooted up in the 1990s after being held responsible for the French wine lake. It's a really quaffable vin ordinaire of the best kind, easy on the brain and stomach, headache-free and agreeaby alcoholic. Bought singly, it's only just over a fiver a bottle in the Co-op. You can't go wrong.

The Les Jamelles Mourvèdre is superior in the ratings, though not really in price. It's OK at £6.99 a bottle at the moment, but I'm mentioning it because it looks likely to be on special offer very shortly. Probably more tannin and a stronger flavour altogether. This 2012 bottle is distinguished by winning a bronze medal in the Decanter world wine awards 2013 (as do lots of wines). They described it as 'spicy, plum and marzipan nose. Deep dark fruit flavours with a gentle floral note finish.' Bright, fun. Well, there you are! Sample it and see if it grabs you, and if it does and it goes down to £4.99…

Wines from decidedly little-known grapes often seem to be better value than the more famous grapes. Anyone can sell a Rioja to someone, however bad it is. Put a bit of gold thread round it and thousands of people will take it to parties. Buy a Sicilian wine from a grape you've never heard of and it's probably half the price of the Rioja and twice as enjoyable.

I hope you didn't miss out on the Co-op's pre-Christmas offer of Wither Hills NZ Sauvignon Blanc for £4.99. Its regular price in Waitrose is £9.99 and a wine pundit friend called the offer embarrassing. An absolutely lovely wine: I've still a few in the garage! It just shows that the offers at the Co-op can be outstanding if you pick the right ones.