Reconnecting with the country

Earlier this month I did a six-day road trip from Cape Town to Durban. My travelling companion was an old friend: a gaunt, chain smoking (when he had the chance and not in the car, hotels or restaurants), grey haired academic, who shall be called Sancho, after Don Quixote’ Sancho Panza, he was going to remain nameless, but that did not work. We have been friends for over 35 years, having originally met on the touch rugby field in Durban in the 1980s. The game took place, once a week, for well over 20 years. It was ‘the left’ at play, and some deep long-term friendships developed.

I am not going to make this a ‘traditional’ travelogue, so let me quickly get the description of the trip out of the way. I will put in the links throughout.

Sancho picked me up on Friday. We drove from Cape Town to his home in a small town some 180 kilometres away. We spent two nights there gathering ourselves for the trip. The brief description of the journey is: on the first day we drove to De Rust on the edge of the Karoo; on the second to Nieu-Bethesda; then on to Lady Gray on the Lesotho border; our final night on the road was spent in Clarens in the Free State; and finally, we drove down to Durban. It was a wonderful trip. We drove more than 2000 km, over six days, and were in the car for over 21 hours. Although we tried not to do too much car time on any one day, the road conditions operated against us.

The highlights were seeing old friends, excellent accommodation, spectacular sights and outstanding food and drink. The Cape wines are quite breathtaking. Before we set off on the main journey, we spent a day visiting two vineyards in the Stanford area. The Raka Wines were quite magnificent.

On day one we stopped in Swellendam to visit David and Felicity Schlapobersky at their pottery. We last saw each other in 1970 at Waterford School in Swaziland and they had no notice that we were going to stop by. Felicity saw us arrive and called David who walked out and said, “Alan Whiteside, how long has it been”. I think I too would have recognized him despite the years. It was amazing to simply catch-up as though it was yesterday, although we are now white beards.

Alan and David

Whiskers, Alan and David (Swellendam, June 2022)

A Dassie or Rock Hyrax

More whiskers: a Dassie or Rock Hyrax

Although the meeting with Mike Schraam in Lady Grey was supposedly for business, we had a great time. He is the managing editor and owner of the African Journal of AIDS Research and I am the editor-in-chief. We have worked together for many years, and it was great to connect with him. The reason we met in Lady Grey was he was on holiday in the area. He travelled over from his retreat in the little village of Rhodes. What would have taken weeks using email and the telephone was done and dusted in a one-hour business meeting hour. Mike then took us for a traditional boozy publisher’s lunch, except, of course, it was in the evening. The little bar had no customers for food apart from us, but there were many large white men in the bar. I felt the young woman behind the counter was just waiting to be discovered and whisked away to fame and fortune. Of note was the snow flurry as we sat at breakfast! That part of the country can be very cold. Fortunately, the rooms were relatively warm.

On the drive round the Lesotho border, my cell phone informed me that it was connected to the Lesotho network. In Clarens we stayed in the guest house run by a former colleague and his wife, they treated us to a tasty supper and plenty of wine. It was a most comfortable and luxurious place, built around the original farmhouse – the walls are huge sandstone blocks. It was delightful to catch-up with these old friends on the many events in their lives. We last met over 15 years ago.

There were numerous spectacular natural wonders on the drive. I will mention just three. The Tradouws pass from Suurbraak to Barrydale is a cavern in sandstone. The road winds along the bottom of the valley, beside a river. It is a gateway to the Little Karoo. Outside Graaf-Reinet we went up into Camdeboo National Park to gaze down on the Valley of Desolation, as someone who hates heights this was a stomach-turning sight. The spectacular mountains in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park are also sandstone, but a paler colour, and absolutely glowed in the sunshine, gold indeed.

Tradouws Pass

The incredible Tradouws Pass

Desolation Valley

Desolation Valley near Graaf-Reinet

We visited a museum in Graaf-Reinet with an extremely interesting exhibit. There were pieces of glass from the honeymoon suite windows of a now demolished hotel. It seems at the end of the 1800s the new brides would scratch their names into the glass with their rings, at least they did if the stones were diamonds. The consequences if they were not gems was not recorded, but we can speculate.

The village of Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape is at the foot of the Sneeuberge. The name is biblical and means “place of flowing water”. It has the Owl House, the home of artist Helen Martins (1897-1976). It is difficult to describe this. The Wikipedia entry says “she turned her house and the area around it into a visionary environment, elaborately decorated with ground glass and containing more than 300 statues including owls, camels, peacocks, pyramids, and people. She inherited the house from her parents and began its transformation after they died.” I include a few photographs. She was a tormented soul who committed suicide by drinking caustic soda!

The guest house hosts were generally unusual. In Nieu-Bethesda at The Ibis Barbara had spent 15 years in Tanzania where she met her husband, a South African conservationist. At the House Martin Guest Lodge in De Rust the hosts, Jan and Teresa, had spent years in Dubai, she in the corporate world and he, among other things, a rugby coach. The food in all the guest houses was exceptional, and as might be expected there was an emphasis on the dish of the district – lamb.

Decorations at The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Golden Gate National Park

The Golden Gate National Park

Parts of the trip were arduous. We drove into Nieu-Bethesda in the dark on a dirt road. It was not pleasant, but this paled into insignificance compared to the forced detour to get into Natal. In general, many of the roads were in an appalling condition. The drive through the Eastern Cape and Free State involved negotiating numerous bone jarring potholes. Those in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal were largely marginally better, but the detour was hell. South African truck drivers are protesting against the employment of foreign drivers by blockading various key roads and we fell victim to this action. Of course, this was familiar, various Canadian American border crossings have been blockaded by angry truckers in recent months.

The main route from Johannesburg to Durban is the N3 and we joined it, briefly, just above Van Reneen’s pass, where it drops over the escarpment in KwaZulu-Natal. The xenophobic drivers had blocked the pass and we were directed onto a dirt road. We set off with trepidation. The detour was just over 20 kilometres, but it took over an hour. There was a line of slow-moving traffic, and the dust was ghastly. A number of drivers, especially those driving expensive, low-slung vehicles – think Porsche – turned back, as it was too bad. Others, the ones in four-wheel drive vehicles, behaved atrociously, overtaking the line of drivers and throwing up stones, I feared for my windscreen. There was however no option for us, so we kept going. We eventually arrived in Durban just after dark, experiencing really bad and impatient driving on the motorway over the last 50 kilometres. It was a relief to get there.

Writing this blog, I am reminded that I thought of the journey as something of a farewell tour. My companion, Sancho, was easy going, we shared the driving and generally chilled out. All the people we met on the way were interesting and unusual, except of course for the old friends who were expected to be interesting and unusual and did not disappoint. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity.

I have been in Durban for a few days now, and have had the chance to wander around, indeed I have done two very long walks through the neighbourhood. It is a city with problems. The rioting and looting in July of 2021 scarred some areas. The shopping centre down the hill was ransacked. This is not very visible as most of the damage has been repaired. The same cannot be said for the effects of the flooding in April 2022. It was estimated 435 people were killed and devastation is very visible. Almost every manhole cover has been washed away. There has been a huge amount of soil deposited on the roads, visible as drifts of red sand on many corners. A number of people have told me how dreadful the situation is and how poor the city government response has been. I have to be fair and say that I think it is not as bad as everyone says. One of the signs of this is the city council workers busily cleaning up the mess. South Africans are good at talking themselves down!

Monkeys in Glenwood, Durban

In Glenwood, Durban

And finally, on the flight to Cape Town, I watched three films. Belfast written and directed by Kenneth Branagh is the story, clearly biographical, of a young protestant boy in 1969 Belfast, at the beginning of the troubles. It is described as a coming-of-age drama film. I found it both moving and informative, perhaps because I remember these times, although they hardly touched us in Swaziland. City of Angels was released in 1998 and stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan in a romantic fantasy film. Cage plays an angel who falls in love with a female surgeon and becomes human to be with her. I won’t say how it ends, suffice it to say it was a tearjerker. Richard Says Goodbye, also titled Professor, was an odd film. It was released in 2018 and may be one of the last films starring Johnny Depp. It tells of an English professor who learns he has stage 4 lung cancer, which is terminal. He might live six months without treatment, but 12–18 months with aggressive and painful cancer treatment. He decides against treatment. We follow him over the next few months, his interactions with family, students, colleagues and friends. I don’t think I would have gone to see any in a cinema, but they made the journey pass.

Covid-19 Watch: Back and Forth, Up and Down: A Deadly Dance

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

This year marked the first time since 1992 that I was not involved in the International AIDS Conference, organised by the Geneva-based International AIDS Society (IAS). It was scheduled to be held in Oakland, San Francisco, and would have attracted up to 25,000 delegates. I would have been amongst them. I was on the IAS Governing Council for 12 years, the last four as Treasurer, so my heart went out to the staff, executive and Governing Council. This will have been a blow. However, there was a swift pivot and the virtual meeting included a great deal of material on Covid. I watched online presentations and will refer to some. It is clunky, but will improve. One panel, highlighted below: “COVID beyond the health”.

This week it is time to reflect on the Covid-19 numbers and how they have changed over the past few months. There have been significant changes in the ‘hotspots’, however the global trend is, tragically, upwards. The two clear messages are: there needs to be constant vigilance against the introduction of new cases, which has been seen in New Zealand and Australia, as well as outbreaks in some European countries; the second is the rate of spread can be exceptionally rapid.
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Covid-19 Continues

For the past two months I have not written my usual personal blog for my website. There is a reason for this, the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 is the greatest global challenge I have seen. It could be outstripped by a climate catastrophe, but for now it is all consuming. Given the work I have done on HIV and AIDS I am supposed to know a bit about pandemic diseases. It is worth remembering that like AIDS, Covid-19 is a retrovirus that transferred across the species barrier into humans. AIDS was recognised as a new disease in 1981. There were scares with SARS, Ebola, Zika and MERS, but none developed into a major pandemic.

In four short months Covid-19 has claimed over 250,000 lives and infected more than 3,500,000 million people. I began posting a weekly communique on Covid-19 to share what we know and need to know. This replaced the personal monthly blog I have written for more than 10 years. You have, along with several other hundred people, signed up for the communique and now you are getting this additional piece, so please feel free to delete it.

I originally wrote the monthly offering because I had something to say and share. It was just two sides of an A4 sheet when printed, and the reason was to keep the price of postage down.

“Ah ha”, I hear, “But it is on the website and sent electronically, so what is this postage business?”

Well, several of my elderly relatives are either self-confessed luddites or just lack technological skills, and don’t have email, so it was printed and posted to them. Yes, in an envelope with stamps on.

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Frying in Norfolk

Anyone who denies climate change, and more specifically, global warming, is seriously wrong. At the end of August we had record temperatures in Norwich. Fortunately it cooled down in the evenings so sleeping has not been too difficult. However, this summer the rowan tree in the front garden died from a mixture of disease and heat stress. Ailsa has been using the water from the rain butts to keep some of her favourite plants alive, but it is an uphill battle. It presents a dismal picture and I really wonder what the next 10 to 20 years will hold. I am increasingly aware of my contribution to this crisis, particularly through flying, but I do not consider myself to be a flamboyant consumer of other things.

Having said that, I have to begin this blog by reflecting on my travelling over the past month. My final class in Waterloo was on 30th July. I had to complete the marking and submit the marks by 8th August. I was able to do this, and almost all of the students should have been pleased with the outcome. The temperatures and humidity gradually rose in Waterloo, and I was glad to be heading for Norwich. I did not realise how hot Norwich was going to be.

I travelled over on Sunday 11th August, flying via Amsterdam. Toronto to Amsterdam is not all that long, just 7½ hours. This is not long enough to take a sleeping pill, so I sat and watched the film ‘Red Joan’. This was about a British woman who became a Soviet spy in the 1940s and 50s. Oddly I was reading a book called ‘And Is There Honey Still For Tea?’, by Peter Murphy, set in the same time period and covering the same topics. It is hard to believe how much skullduggery there was going on then. I guess it is still happening, with electronic surveillance playing an ever-increasing role.

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Sunshine and students

There are three semesters at the Balsillie School, and across Canada. The Autumn term starts in September and ends just before Christmas; the Winter term is from January to April; and we are completing the Spring term which lasts from May to July. The terms are longer than in the UK and Europe at 12 weeks.

I taught two courses in the Spring and will teach two in the Autumn. Next calendar year (January 2020 to December 2020), I am on sabbatical and am very much looking forward to this. This is the first time I have been in Waterloo for the Spring term, and while it might have begun as spring it ended as summer – which is the one term we do not have. My word it was hot and humid for weeks at a time. Fortunately there were occasional thunderstorms that roiled across the region and brought some relief.

It has been very hot across much of Europe as well. We have a friend who has been in hospital in Norwich for some weeks now. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was opened in 2001. It was built on a greenfield site near the University, which means that UEA is able to offer medical degrees which was not the case when I was a student. It replaced a Victorian establishment in the centre of the city.

The new hospital is ‘state of the art’, except that there is no air-conditioning! This is OK for 10 months of the year. When there is a heatwave, as there was in July, it means that everyone from the consultants to the patients really suffers. It is miserable and sadly I don’t think there is any way that AC can be retrofitted into the building. The other major problem is that the hospital is not easy for the public to get to. It is an expensive and inconvenient bus journey, while those who drive have to pay car parking charges.

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Pollen and polling

In my blog, posted at the end of March, I described the surgery I underwent in Durban. I also talked about going out a couple of times, with friends, to a really delightful little bakery/pizza restaurant in the neighbourhood. It does not even have a liquor licence; and this does tend to mean the evening is cheaper as one takes one’s own wine. Among those friends was Jurgen Brauninger and his family. I wrote in that blog:

‘On a personal level it is interesting to see my cohort, friends and colleagues ageing into their 60s, for the most part with grace and dignity. It is however a shock to us all – but, as I said to one friend, ‘it is better than the alternative’.’

Within two weeks of these dinners we learned, out of the blue, that Jurgen was not well. He was suffering from pancreatic and liver cancer, and was having difficulty in eating. After various consultations he was scheduled for urgent surgery to ease pressure on his duodenum. While this was not a cure, it was expected to improve the quality of his life. The surgery was carried out on 26 April (by the same surgeon who did my hernia); Jurgen did not recover and died on 6 May.

I want to pay tribute to a dear friend and colleague, a talented musician, but above all a devoted family man. I know Tania, Hannah and Brigitte will be torn apart by grief. Sitting in Canada I have felt very distant, but no less sad. I wish I had deep and meaningful forethoughts about this but I don’t, I just know I will miss him enormously. Andrew Marvell’s lines “But at my back I always hear, Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near”, were not written about death; they do seem very apt though.

The Brauningers lived a few houses up the road from us in Manor Gardens. Their children were similar ages to Rowan and Douglas. We celebrated many milestones together; Brigitte did the most amazing Easter lunches for the university crowd and others. The families went away together for a number of short holidays in the province. Everyone enjoying each other’s company, even braaing under umbrellas during a heavy rainstorm. Their home was an original ‘wood and iron’ house, this is one of the first Durban houses and relatively few are left standing. Jurgen, I and Ullie, one of his friends, purchased the house next door when it came on the market, in order to preserve it and the jungle of a garden for a little bit longer. Jurgen and Brigitte had just moved a few kilometers to a more modern house and were planning their retirement when this devastating event occurred. This has been a deeply sad time.

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Autumn and Spring Showers

The month of April began in the Cape and ended in Canada via Norwich. In the first week we ran the scientific writing course in Stellenbosch in the Cape. There were 19 participants from across Africa. Tim Quinlan did most of the teaching and the event was excellent. We are beginning to see results in submitted and published manuscripts from earlier years. I hope the project will be renewed, but if it is not then we have achieved a great deal. As my travel was from the southern to the northern hemisphere, I experienced autumn one day and spring the next. In England the daffodils have bloomed and are past their best. In Canada, or at least in this part, they have yet to blossom and it is still decidedly chilly.

Of course visiting Cape Town is also a chance to see family. My brother and sister-in-law were away but I caught up with my aunt, various cousins and a niece for Sunday lunch. I felt that I had not talked properly to niece Sarah, and she was good enough to join me for lunch on the Monday before I flew back to the UK. We walked across from the City Lodge to a new restaurant right next door. It was good to have a decent conversation and catch up with family news. Because the flight from Cape Town is so late (after 11 pm), I only watched one film: The Great Buster, a biopic of filmmaker and comedian Buster Keaton. He was one of the few stars who transitioned successfully from silent films to sound. It was not demanding so was good to watch in the small hours.

I had a relatively short spell in England. My sister came up from London for Easter and her birthday. We went to a show at the Norwich Playhouse, where Rowan works. It was an amateur production of A Sound of Music. It was outstanding. There were a few wrong notes, but not many at all. The set was imaginative and the acting most impressive. I think amateur productions can be excellent because people really throw their hearts into the show.

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Surgery and Sunshine

I was offline for a few days in March, an interesting experience especially during the time of crisis in the UK. It was my birthday on the 18th and I celebrated by returning to South Africa on the 16th for a series of elective medical procedures. I took the 06h15 KLM flight from Norwich to Amsterdam where I connected on the 10h15 flight to Johannesburg. The journey takes nearly 11 hours. My case was one of the first to be unloaded and appear on the carousel, these little things matter.

There are no connecting flights to Durban that late. My standard operating procedure is to stay in a hotel at the airport and connect the next day. Normally the travel agent’s opening proposal for the connection is a plane at an absurdly early hour, 07h00 for example. On this trip I was sensible and got a flight a little after 13h00. It allowed me ample time to sort myself out, and have a leisurely breakfast.

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More Climate Change

February in England was mild and dry, in my view clear evidence of environmental change. It is five minutes to midnight on the Doomsday clock. It is not surprising the birds and insects are reacting to this warm spell (between 5 and 10°C above seasonal averages). There was a robin singing its little heart out, on a tree with bare branches, yesterday evening. Robins are not shy, but it was unique to see this bird so clearly silhouetted against the very blue sky. We are not taking the urgent and dramatic actions needed to address what we are doing to our natural world. I fluctuate between optimism and despair.

It was an interesting month from the productivity point of view. I managed to complete and submit two pieces of work: an article and a book chapter. More importantly I did something long overdue that will, hopefully, improve my efficiency. Sometimes as I write I think to myself ‘I have said this before, but where?’ Over a morning I made a list of everything I had published, or drafted, since the beginning of 2016. This included the table of contents, a list of figures, tables and maps, and an abstract. My memory may be bad, but at least now I know where to look. I also listed ideas I have had and not properly developed, these could be revisited and turned into articles.

The month began with a visit to the Robert Bosch United World College in Freiburg in southern Germany. The founding headmaster of the college was the head at Waterford for many years. Indeed, I was the first governor to interview him in 1998. This was at a time when we were desperately looking for a new head. What had happened is we had appointed a man who turned out to be a disaster and who, fortunately, served only one contract. He was probably a good educationalist, but he did not have a grasp of finances. Because the reporting was not adequate, by the time the Governing Council realised what was going on, the school was deep in the red. We were lucky to get a couple from the UK to come and act in the Principal’s role while we went head hunting. Then we were lucky to get Laurence!

Laurence Nodder and his wife Debbie took up the position in 1998 and stayed for close to 15 years. He was then invited to establish the new United World College in Freiburg. That meant supervising building work, some new and some conversions of existing buildings, as well as recruiting staff and students. This was challenging, even in efficient Germany. As I saw walking around the college, they have done a remarkable job. I felt very lucky that Laurence invited me to come and give a public lecture to the school and community.

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“January brings the snow: makes your feet and fingers glow”

(Title: Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather’)

The first half of January was exceptionally warm for winter. We are told not to ‘cherry pick’ weather events to argue global warming is real. When they come one after the other, however, the evidence seems to be stacking up. The weather maps showed high pressure over the UK and to the south, so the fronts seem to be further north than usual. Scotland got a battering. Sadly the potential advent of Scottish independence won’t help that situation – weather is bigger than politics.

The rest of the month saw a few hard frosts, grey days and wind and rain, as well as some gloriously sunny spells. Even in the depths of winter the sun shining through the window can be warm enough to warm the south facing rooms. We have wood / coal burning stoves in the living areas and I must admit to getting a great deal of pleasure in laying and lighting the fire: paper, kindling larger pieces of wood and the coal. If I do it right we use 10 kg of coal for four fires. It warms both the room and the house very nicely.

If January weather was not enough to keep us depressed, the all-consuming topic in the UK is Brexit. Theresa May presented her deal to Parliament in mid-January, and it was soundly defeated. In fact the margin was astonishing: MPs voted by 432 votes to 202 to reject the deal. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately tabled a vote of no confidence, which, unsurprisingly was not passed. If it had been it would have led to a general election.

The problem is both the Conservative and Labour parties are both deeply divided on leaving the EU and the deal, so there is no consensus. An election would not help, unless the smaller parties did really well, which is unlikely. It is all a terrible mess. There have been, in past few days, more votes in Parliament and the situation is even more uncertain at the end of January.

The papers, or at least the ones I read, are full of commentary on the rise of the right in global politics. This is clearly happening, but just as worrying is the growth of incompetence in leadership. The events of the past few months in the USA seem to epitomise this. When this is combined with the lack of vision I worry even more.

“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

I knew the quote and I was writing this letter I decided to see where it was from. The answer is James Freeman Clarke (April 4, 1810 – June 8, 1888) an American theologian and author. There do not seem to be any great works by him but lots of very good quotes.

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