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.

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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The Meaning of Life

Half of September was in South Africa and half in Norwich. I travelled from Norwich to Cape Town via Amsterdam on the 1st September. This visit was to oversee the scientific writing course we held in Stellenbosch. The KLM flight takes over 11 hours and seemed very long, especially since these days I usually travel in economy. I am very grateful for my ‘Life Time Platinum Elite’ frequent flyer status as it gives me seating choices and lounge access. This practically means I usually get a bulkhead seat with more leg room, and that really makes a difference over long flight.

The 2nd (Sunday) was a free day and on Monday the participants started arriving. The programme is mainly taught by my friend and colleague, Tim Quinlan, whom I have known for close to 30 years. He came to Durban to teach at the University of Durban-Westville, which in those apartheid days was the ‘Asian’ higher education establishment. He subsequently joined HEARD as the first Research Director. This is the second year that he has run this programme with me. I am very lucky to also have as the main recruiter and administrator Nick Zebryk, who did a degree at the Balsillie School, and was my first (and last) full time research assistant in Waterloo. He managed the application process, and travelled to South Africa to troubleshoot. Thanks to his hard work there was no trouble to shoot!

We had 16 people from across Africa. On this occasion the largest number were from Malawi (four). I had taken some flack last year as six people were from Swaziland and this was seen favouritism. Everyone came with work in progress, and both Tim and I met with individuals to go through their manuscripts. We finished on Friday morning and on Saturday I went to Cape Town and spent a night in the City Lodge at the Waterfront. Firstly I wanted time by myself and the hotel is ideal for that; second I had a lunch meeting with the acting editor of the Global Fund Observer. This is run by a Kenyan-based NGO AIDSpan and I am on the board. As with all donor funded organisations, there is the constant need to raise funding and this means being relevant and supportable. Fortunately, so far, this has not been an issue for us.

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Driving and relaxing

I finished teaching in Konstanz on Friday 3rd November. Rowan arrived on the Wednesday before this. The cancellation of a train from Zurich Airport meant she got in sometime later than we hoped. As predicted by the family, she got the bedroom and I took over the sofa bed in the apartment’s lounge. This made sense since I get up frequently during the night. She had only two full days in the town and we went to Friedrichshafen and the Spa, both second visits for me, but no less enjoyable. She came to class on the Friday, my last session. All students produced blog posts, those who wanted, have them posted with this blog.

On Saturday 4th November we flew from Zurich to Amsterdam and stayed in an Ibis Budget hotel not far from the airport. The actual hotel was very basic but entirely fine, the rooms sleep three people with a bunk bed arrangement over the double bed. There should, perhaps, be a warning “Beware of falling children”.

It seemed a very remote spot and I was not confident of our ability to get into the city. The receptionist said confidently that there was a bus stop across the road, and the bus, a number 193, went punctually every 15 minutes. I expected a lonely pole on the banks of a drainage ditch, but instead it was a busy barn sized structure with numerous buses. All we had to do was cross four lanes of traffic. We went to Leidseplein near the centre of Amsterdam, found a decent restaurant, enjoyed a good meal, and got the bus back with no difficulty at all.

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Writer’s Block

I wish I knew a more productive way of writing than my current style. At the moment it seems that I allow deadlines to creep up on me, and then there is a period of frenetic activity before the article, blog, book or whatever is submitted. I never feel completely satisfied. This is hypocritical, given that the advice I give my students is: “done is good enough”. One thing that became clear over the last few weeks is that I do my best work with other people. I was very fortunate last month in that Gemma Oberth, whose Ph.D. I examined some years ago, and who now lives and works in Cape Town, asked if she could come and spend a period of time writing with me. She was visiting her parents in Toronto and so it was a simple matter for her to travel up to Waterloo. (Having said that though, travelling from Toronto to Waterloo is never a simple matter, the traffic can be horrendous.) This was absolutely great. We were able to settle down, plan out an article, do the research, and actually get close to a final draft. We then exchanged versions over email and submitted it to a journal within a week of her departure. It now goes out to peer review and I will be interested to see what the reviewers think of it. Personally I found this method of writing to be easier than most.

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Spring in Durban and Cape Town and Autumn in Norwich

Spring in Durban and Cape Town and Autumn in Norwich

This is the second posting to go up in a short time. The management of my website has moved to John Price. I want to say a big thank you to Shela McCullough and Linda Mtambo of HEARD for all that they did to keep my posts flowing! By early next year we will have looked at the design of the site and changed it. I hope to make it somewhat interactive.

I was in the UK and South Africa in late September and early October. The first part of the trip was covered in my last posting. This one is about Durban, Cape Town and Norwich. After 24 hours in Durban (a silly side trip because I was not paying attention to my travel plans), I flew to Cape Town for a Health Systems Symposium. These meetings are held every two years, this was the third, the first I had been to. As all my South African family lives in Cape Town and the environs I was able to see them. My visits to the South Africa will become less frequent in the years ahead, so this is important to me.

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The Final Post of the Year and ‘last post’ from Durban

This is the last posting to be written in my incarnation of Director of HEARD. It is a time of change, and the passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has really shaken the country and me. It is taking time for this to sink in, but I will try to write about it.

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July: America, Americans and wonderful Durban winter

July: America, Americans and wonderful Durban winter

I flew from the United Kingdom to Durban on Monday, 11 June. It was the long daylight flight from Amsterdam so as well as working I saw the film  Warhorse. After an overnight stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in Johannesburg and I flew to Durban on Tuesday. I went straight to the office and got a lift home at the end of the day. The next morning was an early start, I went back to Johannesburg, met up with colleagues from the British Department for International Development’s (DFID) office in Pretoria. We drove down to Swaziland where we spend 24 hours in meetings talking about a possible regional HIV and AIDS program. This included a dinner with members of Swazi civil society.

I had less than a week in Durban and then headed for Florence for a UNICEF meeting. On the Wednesday I flew out on the Air France A380, the biggest plane in the world (and it is quite fantastic), to Paris and changed for the flight to Italy. I was rather exhausted when I got in and so slept for part of the day before going out and wandering around the city. The weather was perfect, and it is without doubt one of the most spectacular cities I know. The two day meeting on child well-being was deeply interesting. We finished at about three o’clock on Saturday and I headed for the airport to get back to Paris, Johannesburg and Durban. The EUFA cup game between France and Italy was being broadcast in the lounge. I was the only one who cheered when Italy scored – and they won. I had one night in Durban and then flew to Cape Town to visit the Children’s Institute.

In Cape Town I managed to both deliver a birthday present to my niece in Hout Bay and meet up with my uncle, aunt, cousins and second cousins for dinner. Uncle Fred was one of those people who was an absolute role model for me. He and June live in a retirement home in Pinelands just outside Cape Town. They originally bought two units expecting to be allocated ones adjacent to each other so they could create a decent living space. The elderly lady who owned the one changed her mind about moving. They spent at least a year living in two separate apartments on two floors. When the lady died they were finally able to consolidate. I knew the whole story and happened to be visiting on the day that they got the news of the woman’s death. I am afraid that my reaction was:

“Oh good now you can settle in properly”, which is exactly what they have done.

The University of Cape Town put me up in a nearby guest house. After checking in and having a shower I went back to the reception and took a manager to my room to point out all the things that were wrong with it. These ranged from the steps into the room without a guard railing, actually quite dangerous; through to blankets on the bed – good establishments have duvets which can be washed between every guest, that doesn’t happen with blankets; a faulty shower and a number of other minor issues that were annoying. It was a rather twee establishment and they had a blackboard in the reception area with a quote on it, something like “happiness is a state of mind” and as I walked past it with the manager I pointed out that happiness only has only one ‘p’. Afterwards I thought ‘and so does pedantic’.

I then had less than two weeks in Durban before heading back to the United Kingdom and on to Washington for the international AIDS conference. It was very busy. The buzz in the office, as people prepare for the conference: writing papers, making posters, planning the stand, sending material  and generally getting ready, is exciting and rewarding. HEARD will have a significant contingent and it will be great to see how they do. Probably the best part of my job is seeing people grow and develop.

I was invited to the United States Consulate General’s home, along with several hundred other people to mark the 4th July. He, sensibly, arranged parking at a primary school down the hill and had a shuttle bus taking people to the house. There was a significant police presence as the guests included the provincial premier, various members of his cabinet, the American ambassador, King Zwelithini and other dignitaries. I decided to walk back to my car. Two Metro Police driving past saw me strolling down the hill. They knew where I had been, and asked if I wanted a lift. I have not yet been in the back of a police car and did not feel this was an appropriate time to start so thanked them very much and walked on. I slightly regret this now.

I was planning to return to Norwich on Tuesday. Our university decided to migrate our e-mail system to Microsoft outlook over the weekend. On Monday and Tuesday there were to be teams going around our campus ensuring that the changeover went smoothly. It did not! My PA spent most of Monday at the walk-in center with my laptop trying to get it set up to work on the new system. On Tuesday I went down with her and we kidnapped one of the technical people and brought him back up to the offices to try and sort things out. It took nearly all day. The level of stress was considerable and I correctly made a call that it would be better to delay travel by a day and ensure that I had all the technology that I would need for the next month. It does seem to be working now.

Coming through Amsterdam I had a really pleasant surprise. I used the business class lounge shower, and emerged wearing nice fresh clothes and feeling clean to bump into Father Michael Kelly, a Jesuit priest from Lusaka. He was a really critical part of our AIDS and education work 12 years ago. Apart from being a fantastically nice and thoughtful person he is an individual who I admire and who has mentored me over the years. He is now 83 so these encounters are extremely valuable and need to be savored. We had about 45 minutes to talk before he went off to catch his plane. He is one of the unsung heroes of the fight against AIDS, a most compassionate sensible man.

 The next posting will be after the Washington conference. There will be a great deal of activity on the HEARD website though – so you can follow events there.

 Films and books

Warhorse. The story of a horse Joey, requisitioned at the beginning of the First World War from a farm in Devon. The son of the farm, Albert, joins up. Towards the end of the war Joey, after being captured and ‘serving’ the German forces, gets caught up in the wire in no-man’s land. He is released by a German and British soldier in moment of armistice. He is to be put down but is reunited with Albert. The children’s book is by Michael Morpurgo was first published in 1982. The film was directed by Steven Spielberg. It is a moving story and is beautifully made. It is also complex and sometimes there seemed too many subplots for me to entirely follow. The message is war is hell!

A Thousand Words.  This was billed as a comedy drama starring Eddy Murphy. It is a simple tale of an literary agent who is cursed by words. It was badly reviewed, and deservedly so. However on the 23.20 flight from Johannesburg it was watchable and I saw the last 30 minutes over breakfast so did not feel it was wasted time. There are other films on the KLM flights I am looking forward to seeing.

Random Violence by Jassy MacKenzie, Umuzi, Houghton, 2008 238 pages. This is a novel set in and around Johannesburg that has been on my selves for some time. I found it, initially, very difficult to get into. However I persisted and was pleased I did. I hope that she writes more. She has the potential to develop into another good South African crime writer. The end is a bit too much ‘and with one bound he was free’ but in general it was believable, well observed and well plotted. It is set in the period leading up to the World Cup and MacKenzie catches the nation’s mood very well. The heroine is a private detective named Jade de Jong, the daughter of murdered white senior policeman, who returns to SA after 10 years away and gets caught up in a complex plot involving property development and crime.



I think Durban is one of the nicest cities in the world. I have lived there for nearly 30 years. Ailsa and I bought our first house there and it is the place the children were born. The university has been, for me, a good work environment. At the beginning of my career I was well mentored and then given space and support to start my own unit. HEARD is going well with an amazingly good research output, high staff morale, adequate funding and a throughput of talented young researchers. All this is in our annual report, which will be on the website very soon.

In the middle of April I was in Nairobi, Kenya for a meeting on Efficiency, Effectiveness and Sustainability which the International AIDS Society organised. I am an elected Governing Council member and the Treasurer up to the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July (see It was a quick trip, flying up on Wednesday evening and returning to Durban on Saturday – I flew on the late flight from Nairobi to Johannesburg on Friday evening, slept at the City Lodge at OR Tambo airport and caught a flight down to Durban at a sensible time.  I used air miles to upgrade the ticket so it was relatively painless. I had a colleague travelling at the same time as me so we chatted and went to the airport together. He will remain nameless given the story I am about to tell.

A while ago I noticed that my Yellow Fever vaccination was about to expire and so went and was re-immunised. Just as well, my companion had forgotten the card. The check-in staff would not let him on the plane without one, and they were quite adamant about this. He had to go across the airport to the clinic and get the shot, paying above the odds for it. Of course it takes time to become effective but this is generally overlooked. Indeed we were not even asked for the certificates! However the South African authorities can be very fierce about this!

I had two nights in Durban and on Monday the HEARD team flew to Johannesburg for the biannual donor and board meetings held at the aforementioned City Lodge. These went very well, with an excellent turnout for both, only one board member was not able to make it. From there I flew, in economy class, to Cape Town, a long two hour flight on a packed plane. This was for a Council on Health Research for Development meeting on the theme of Beyond Aid… Research and Innovation as key drivers for Health, Equity and Development, all the details are the websites at and This was most interesting.

There is no doubt Cape Town is stunning. I think it is the most beautiful city in the world. Driving in from the airport at about 6 pm the evening light was an amazing rosy shade. Coming round the side of the mountain on de Waal drive and seeing the centre of the city, the harbour with the huge gantries like a row of storks silhouetted against the south Atlantic, and in the distance, Robben Island, was breathtaking. I feel I have a champagne lifestyle on a soda water salary. I get to travel, stay in great hotels, see new and interesting places and meet all sorts of people.

The conference started on the Tuesday, so unfortunately I missed the first day. I was staying at one of my favourite hotels, The Cullinan, they describe themselves as ‘stylishly grand and perfectly majestic’ and I think this is fair. It is just a few minutes’ walk from the international convention centre. The relative merits of Durban and Cape Town are very different. I must admit to being tempted by Cape Town, as one of my friends said it has “the mountain factor”. This must have been the magnet that has drawn my extended family there. Friday was a public holiday, Freedom Day, marking the end of apartheid and the new democratic government. I spent most of it visiting family.

My brother Derek Whiteside was away on business and so I took Lynn, my sister-in-law and my three nieces Emily, Sarah and Katie out for lunch in Hout Bay – to a restaurant called Dunes. It is a stunning setting looking out over the bay with a band of ultra blue water just beyond the breaking waves. In the last while the euphonious dunes have blown away and now the view is straight on to the beach. We were at the restaurant joined by distant cousin Neil Hodgson and his daughter Lisa. He is a captain with South African Airways. As I am silly about aircraft and flying it is always great to talk to him and I (a minority perhaps) find discussing airline routes and types of planes to be deeply interesting. From there I went to visit my Uncle Fred and Aunt June (also Hodgsons) who live in a retirement home in Pinelands. This is on the way to the airport which makes dropping on them very easy. We were joined by my cousin Linda and her daughter Hayley (who has nearly completed her PhD at the University of Cape Town) and her sister, my cousin Sandra who was visiting from Uitenhage. The most family I have seen in a very long time.

Perhaps this posting is not just about relativity but also about reflection. Fred was very senior in de Beers Diamond Company and I have always looked up to him as a role model. Nearly 20 years ago he had a hip replacement operation that went wrong. As a result now finds it difficult to get around. He has a mobility scooter for inside the flat and a more robust one for going out. I still see him as a role model because of his attitude and stoicism.

They moved into the home two years ago expecting to get a large apartment. That arrangement fell through and they ended up with two apartments on different floors. They lived a schizoid life until the space next to theirs became available. Now they have been able to consolidate and expand at the same time, and actually have a very nice warm set of rooms.

Part of the conference ‘package’ was an evening out at Groot Constania, the original wine estate in South Africa, the vines being planted by the first governor of the Dutch settlement of Cape Simon van der Stel. We were taken there by bus, the scenic winding route round the coast, which left me feeling quite ill! However I soon recovered. The food and wine were fantastic and the entertainment was provided by South African diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka. This is what I mean by a champagne lifestyle. Of course one of the questions is who pays, because at the end of the day someone has to. We were told that it was the World Bank, and yet they were hardly represented which was a great pity. Fortunately, after the copious quantities of alcohol and excellent food, we went back on the short straight route.

I learnt, at the meeting, that health is underfunded, but more worryingly the health people do not understand how to advocate for more funding. They think that the fact that their cause is noble, it’s sufficient and this, sadly, is not the case! We know from our work that ‘crowding-out’ is a real issue. If foreign money is given to health then governments will tend to reallocate domestic resources. This is good, basic and responsible public administration. It is not what donors intend! I shall have to reflect on the meeting and write up some notes, since I was there in an official capacity as a person from the Department for International Development, although I would not presume to speak for the organisation. What was interesting was to meet people from a different circle from the one I normally operate in.



There has been a lot of music in Durban recently. I went to the University Jazz Centre to listen to a folky duo from Cape Town Andrew James and the Steady Tiger, I was so impressed that I went to hear them again at St Clements, a cafe on Musgrave Road. Their style is great; both are excellent guitarists with mellow voices. I thought they spent far too much time tuning the instruments though and exchanged emails with them about this. Some of their music is on their website. On the Friday evening The Collective, a new venue in Durban, hosted The South Jersey Pom-Poms, which is lead by a colleague from the University.


The suburb of Manor Gardens, which was beautifully and evocatively written about by Barbara Trapido in her book Frankie and Stankie (Bloomsbury 2003), is where we bought our second house. It was let to chaotic tenants for about four years and they left a month ago. When I first went to look at it my heart absolutely sank. There has been work going on and I went to check on progress on Saturday and then went to lunch at a new cafe in the neighbourhood. Exhibit owned by Eunice van der Vloet is a house with an art gallery, table chairs and a limited menu. It is an encouraging addition to the neighbourhood and I hope it prospers. Sadly the estate agents tell me Manor Gardens is a leafy green quirky suburb, and that is not what people want.

I have finally finished reading Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, (Allen Lane 2011, 384 pages). I found it a thought provoking book. The two key points were: What is erotic capital and the idea of a male sexual deficit. It makes a number of rather challenging statements, but will certainly be of use in understanding behaviours and responding to AIDS.

My Australian Experience: October 2010

I have been invited to speak at the Australasian AIDS conference on a number of occasions. This year, the invitation came early, there were no clashes in my diary, and I was able to plan a trip. As a way of reflecting on and sharing the experience, I have written this ‘blog’, the formal trip report is extremely tedious. I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights. This posting cannot hope to capture all that went on, but let me give it a try. There are three broad themes: people, places, and miscellaneous snippets.

Australia is a long way from anywhere. I decided if I were going such a great distance, then I’d at least plan a week in Melbourne so that I could take in more than just the conference venue in Sydney. The jet lag was appalling (both ways). I did the right thing by spending the Monday after I arrived just walking around the city: across the Darling Harbour Bridge; to the Sydney Opera House; through the magnificent Botanic Gardens to Kings Cross (the red light area according the novels I have read, in particular those of Jon Cleary who died in July this year; and back to the hotel. I could feel blisters starting to develop, so I took the monorail for the last couple of kilometres: bitter experience is this is not a good way to start a trip. People are right when they say that Sydney is beautiful. This was definitely one of the times when I regretted not carrying a camera! It is a spectacular, clean, liveable city. Interestingly, the tap water in both cities was incredibly tasty and lacked the chlorine that we get in most of Africa.

I packed as though I was going to a Durban climate, so found myself unprepared for the cool weather. In Melbourne, it was downright chilly in the evening! The lightweight African shirt had only one outing, as I was determined to wear it for my keynote speech. I was generally surprised by the number of men wearing ties and suits, even at the conference. There seems to be an innate conservatism in Australian businessmen and professionals, although my evidence is not up to ‘Randomised Control Trial’ standard.

Everyone living in Australia will inevitably face the distance issue. This challenge is related to not only the physical demands of getting anywhere, but also to the major time difference for overseas family and colleagues. People in Europe, South Africa and the USA are asleep when you want to talk to them! When I was contemplating a position in Melbourne, one of the people on the interview panel gave me some sound advice: “If you come here, you need to commit to Australia.” I also heard the professional scene described not as ‘big fish in a small pond’ but as ‘minnows in a tear’-a delightful metaphor. One Australianism which amused me was ‘fair suck of the saveloy.’ Saveloy is a type of sausage and the phrase itself meaning equity or possibly redistribution.

I stayed in three hotels and no less than five rooms over the two weeks. The conference hotel in Sydney was at Darling Harbour, a touristy part of the city with restaurants and gift shops. Think Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town and you will have the picture. I ate there a number of times and the meals varied from outstanding to quite ghastly. The hotel was a reasonable Novotel, but, and this was my experience across the country, the window did not open. What is it with modern hotels and their objection to fresh air?

In Melbourne I stayed in the north of the city and opposite the Royal Melbourne Children’s hospital, just up the road from the Women’s and General Hospitals. This was a really bad hotel. The design was Soviet-a soul-less block of a building with purple patterned carpet. I stayed in three rooms during my six nights there. The first had a faint odour of talcum powder and faeces, but the window opened a bit so I thought it would be ok. The next morning I had to tell the staff that it was too noisy. It overlooked a major road which had a tram track down the middle! The combination of the rattle of trams, numerous ambulances (hardly surprising given the location), and boy racers in souped up cars and motorbikes made it impossible to sleep. They moved me to a room facing the inside of the gulag. I gave up my bath in exchange for a shower that produced a trickle of water, which changed temperature whenever anyone flushed a toilet in the building – or perhaps even in the neighbourhood.

The talcum powder smell persisted and indeed seemed to permeate the pillows. I understood the reason for this on the Monday when, I saw for the first time, the coach. This hotel was the destination for coach tours for elderly people, and of course women predominate in the cohort. They tottered along the corridors and down the stairs in clouds of powder. Each day a different group, but the same odours, halos of permed hair, and frailty.

I was ok with the hotel, it was convenient for most of the meetings I was attending and just ten minutes away from a nice little gym in a vibrant neighbourhood. I managed to train a good few times, and really enjoyed the jog to the gym. The houses were typical for Melbourne, row or terraced houses with wonderful wrought iron on the porches; very similar to parts of Pietermaritzburg, which makes sense since it was the same era. What is different though, from the colonial periods, is the scale. Durban is just one city; Melbourne and Sydney were many municipalities, each with its own town hall, post office and centre. There is far more variety.

It was great to know so many people in another otherwise foreign city. On the Saturday evening Kate Taylor and her fiancé, Rod, took me out for a Thai dinner and then to a jazz club. Sadly we ended before the music did. They also invited me to dinner in their house (with her mother and father), so I got to see the inside of a typical central Melbourne house. It does smack of South African colonial architecture. The space (and probably building material) allowed them to build single story brick terraced homes, but the need to get to work restricted the sprawl and meant that the old suburbs radiate out along the tram tracks. The new suburbs are typical of any city in the (warm) western world, they sprawl for kilometres along the freeways and lack charm, although the good rains made it verdantly green.

On my last day I got back to the hotel to discover they had, unilaterally, without telling me, changed my room. I was furious because I had unpacked everything, and my sweaty gym kit had been festering on the floor for the previous two days. This had been put, with all my clean clothes, into my case, which was then zipped shut and left in the room. Of course, it meant everything smelt faintly of ammonia. Fortunately the hotel had a do-it-yourself washing machine. The receptionist on duty did not like confrontation so we had to escalate up to the duty manager. I pointed out that they had seen me every day and that I was willing to move, but would have wanted to pack my suitcase myself. The proposed new room was facing the road and the trams, so we negotiated yet another one, even smaller, and still no bath, but the shower actually worked really well! In the end they did not charge for one night’s accommodation, which is why I have not named them (but if you read this you know who you are).

I went to Sydney on Friday to avoid a really early start on Saturday. This stay was in an ‘apartment’ hotel, which meant no food. They sold ‘breakfast packs,’ two chocolate biscuits, cartons of long life milk, cereal, and fruit salad. However to get a bite to eat I had to walk up to a little row of shops. The area was Bantry Bay municipality and it was clearly a working class area. There were food outlets: pizza, Chinese and Thai take-aways and kebab shops.

The worst meal I had was so-called Lebanese, but it owed more to grease than any other national cuisine. This was when Zahed and Shamim Cachalia, who had been a year below me at Waterford School in Swaziland and I arranged to meet for a drink and then decided on the spur of the moment to get supper. Zahed works for ABC TV, for which I had a four minute and thirty two second spot (on ABC news 24). Looking at it again I find myself asking am I really that fat? But the powder really made me look good; yes powder has its place! I also did a radio show with other guests for Late Night Live with an amazing presenter called Phillip Adams-he really had done his homework and asked a series of very sensible questions. I also mentioned I like the sea and surfing and had to clarify in the discussion that I did not mean ‘standing-up-on-a-board’ surfing but ‘lying-on-a-body-board’ surfing.

A week later in Melbourne, I encountered another old friend, Alan Herman, from Swaziland days. He was a paramedic for many years, and now runs his own business and is a pastor. It was really good (and astonishing) to catch up with people I said goodbye to 35 years ago. Would I have recognised them? Probably, and we certainly did not run short of conversation.

It was clear that Waterford was a defining moment in our lives. I was sent there because it was our local school. The Herman family fled Cape Town and washed up in Mbabane where the dad was taken on to teach music, while the mum worked as a cook at the school. They were political exiles without papers. Shamim had been sent to Waterford by her Moslem parents as one of the very few girls to be admitted. She was hundreds of miles from home.

There are so many stories that need to be told about the circumstances under which students attended at Waterford. I was not really aware of the backgrounds of many of the kids and their parents. Mind you it emerged as we talked this lack of awareness was not unique to me. With few exceptions, most of us were insulated and isolated as students. All of it rings as drastically different from today’s world of instant communications.

Overall, the travel was quite exhausting, but I was in business class – using airmiles! I would hate to have to do it in economy. I voyeuristically walked to the back of the plane and there were quite a few empty seats. It would really annoy me if I had paid for a premium economy seat and then discovered that in the back I could lie across three seats. On the flight back to Johannesburg there was a fair amount of turbulence on the way out of Sydney and the purser made a unique announcement:
“Would all passengers please make sure their seatbelts are on, and their children are safely stowed”… [a pause and an embarrassed giggle], “I mean secured.”

The trip was, from my point of view, very successful. I gave five talks and took part in a number of other events, including a really fun debate at the main conference. The debate centered on whether testing and treating was a viable option for ‘our region’. I went first for our team, which meant defining some of the positions. I think we won with a convincing swing because we had actually talked it through and prepared our presentations. I visited four universities in the two cities and walked mile and miles.

Would I, could I live in Australia? It is a hugely attractive country and it works. The informality grates a bit. I was surprised to have the hotel receptionist to glance at my booking and say: “Hello Alan, how are you doing?” I will be thinking about it for some time to come. The next posting will try to capture some more of my processed thought about the country. Because I was spending so much time travelling I have quite a number of books and films to review as I have done below.


I decided to watch this on the way to Sydney because I rather like Ben Stiller. It is the story of a carpenter who moves into his brother’s home on the west coast of the USA to look after the house while the family are on holiday. I think it is set in Los Angeles. Stiller’s character has had a mental breakdown and this story is about him falling in love. I watched it most of the way through and was not impressed. So as with books, I skipped to the end and still did not find it appealing.


I chose this film because it had Nicholas Cage as one of the leads. It is the story of a teenager who decides to become a super hero but with no special powers. It was a great action comedy and I really enjoyed it. Good escapism.


Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, Penguin, 2002, Harmondsworth, 302 pages. 

The story is set in a Southern state in 1964 at the time of the beginning of the civil rights movement. It tells of a young girl who runs away from her father with her African American nanny. They find the women who took in her mother a generation previously. The household comprises August the matriarch, and her sisters, June and May. May is somewhat disturbed, and commits suicide in the course of the story. The title of the book is based on the women’s jobs as bee keepers and honey makers. The theme of bees and how they operate carries throughout. It is a wonderfully observed book about powerful women and is well worth reading. I was quite surprised to discover that the book was first published in 2002, as it only really hit airport bookshops recently, and I became aware of it. I bought it from a second-hand bookshop.

Dave Warner, Exxxpresso, Picador, 2000, Sydney 376 pages. 

In the same a second-hand bookshop I asked for any good Australian crime writing and this was recommended to me by the owner. It is the story of a man who is released from prison and decides to go in to the cafe business, making and selling coffee. The storyline is extremely complicated but it is a rollicking good book. It is set in western Australia between Perth and Kalgoorie; the characters spend a considerable amount of time driving the highway between the two cities. A good read and I shall look for other books by the same author.

T. C. Boyle, The Women, Penguin, New York, 2009, 451 pages. 

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the best architects of the 20th century. Many years ago I was brought to look at some of the buildings he designed in Chicago and was very taken with them. Of course, as with many people of his time, he designed more than buildings. This is a work of fiction but is based on facts surrounding the three main women who shared his life and were his muses. He seems to have lived a completely chaotic life with rocky finances and a series of lovers, one of whom was quite clearly deranged. The book purports to be written by one of his Japanese pupils/apprentices who observes the scene. The only minor failing of the novel is that it does not take us into Lloyd Wright’s head as well as it portrays the women’s perceptions. It is quite hard to read, but well worth persisting.

Gill Schierhout, The Shape of Him, Vintage Books, London, 2009, 210 pages.
As is often the case with reading a book written by someone you know, it was a pleasure to read Gill’s work. It was not however what I expected. The story is of a middle-aged woman, Sarah, who is making a living in South Africa by managing a boarding house. She spends most of her time reflecting on the past including her love affair with a diamond digger. He has what seems like Huntington’s disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder, and is hospitalised during the book. It seems as though he has a daughter and that this child is sent to Sarah who proceeds to look after her. A twist in the tale is when Sarah has an affair with an Indian textile factory manager called Hafferjee. The book is set in Cape Town, some of the small mining towns of the Transvaal, and the diamond diggings. It is beautifully observed both from the point of view of scenery and characters, and was quite thought provoking.

Imran Coovadia, High Low In-between, Umuzi, Roggebaai, 2009, 268 pages. 

There are a small number of Durban novels that I consider to be excellent for capturing the nuances of the city. There are others which don’t – I found it impossible to read Sally Anne Clarkes ‘Small Moving Parts’ even though it is set in Umbilo, a neighbourhood I know well. I have really enjoyed Barbara Trapido’s books – Frankie and Stankie and Sex and Stravinsky. Coovadia tells the story from the point of view of an Indian photographer who has lived outside the country for many years. He returns for his father’s funeral. It is initially believed that his father committed suicide but transpires that he was murdered by a colleague. Set against the Indian background and in the medical school and hospital of Durban, this is partly based on the real events of kidneys being sold and transplanted in the city (from poor Brazilians to rich Israelis). It is gripping. Most characters are believable and his writing about AIDS and race relations in South Africa is accurate and perceptive. I savoured the last few chapters, and did not want it to end.

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, Harper Perennial, New York, 2010, 349 pages. 

This book is of a similar genre to those of Malcolm Gladwell and Nicolas Taleb. It is thought provoking but easily readable. The author has two Ph.Ds-one in cognitive psychology and the other in business administration. In this book he looks at how and why we make decisions which so often seem irrational. Examples of chapters include: ‘The cost of social norms: why we are happy to do things but not when we are paid to do them’; ‘The cycle of distrust: why we don’t believe what marketers tell us’, and ‘The effect of expectations: why the mind gets what it expects’. It is worth reading, probably best with a pen in one’s hand to pick up the key points.