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.

Of Birds and Viruses

I have officially been retired since Saturday 1st January, or perhaps, to be pedantic, since midnight on 31st December 2021. I must confess to feeling a little uncertain as to what the future holds. There needs to be a plan, budget, and cash flow projection, all but the first can be done quickly. The Covid crisis has made planning difficult. I really want to do some travelling, but it is hard to book tickets with any confidence. This is changing slowly though. It is hard to believe that the world began this seismic shift just two years ago. I became aware of this new disease in January 2020. I had no idea how rapidly and far it would spread, or the incredible disruption it would cause. More on this later.

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The clock ticks

I was shocked to see it has been over a month since I last posted. I have two countdowns going on in my life. The first, at the end of 2021 I will get my last salary cheque. Apart from a few short ‘student type’ jobs, since 1980 I have always had someone paying me a regular income. The short jobs in Swaziland included working for a school book supplier one holiday, and a week as a ‘hanger round’ at the Central News Agency in Mbabane. In the UK I spent a week packing bulbs (tulips and daffodils) etc. in a warehouse, ironically in the industrial site near where we live. I was fired for being too bolshy. I also spent three summer months as a warehouseman in Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. The second milestone is, in March 2022, on my 66th birthday, I become eligible for a British State pension.

Most young people, certainly those under 40, see people aged 50 to 80 here as an exceptionally fortunate generation. This is true for a high proportion of us. We had access to free university education, jobs, and many will get a state pension that, while not hugely generous, is significant. We were able to travel widely. We only became aware of the appalling damage we have wrought on the world, in terms of over exploitation and environmental damage, as we were doing it.

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Warning: mostly not about Covid-19, but On Operations and Lockdowns

This is not a Covid-19 communique but rather a standard blog post. Don’t feel you have to read on. The reason for the change in emphasis this week is that Covid-19 events simply passed me by. The explanation is that I was engaged with the National Health Service (NHS), finally having elective surgery for an umbilical hernia. It has been a long road to get here, I am relieved to have it sorted.

I have always considered myself fit (but overweight), playing squash, touch rugby and running. A few years ago, I noticed I was developing bulge in my belly button. It was confirmed as an umbilical hernia. All the sources of advice: doctors and the internet recommend these occurrences need to be dealt with, and that means surgery. Two years ago, I arranged to have the hernia operation in Durban. It could have been a day surgery but, stupidly, I decided to spend the night after the operation in the hospital. It was that or go back to the flat. The surgery was straightforward, the hospital experience was not great. Unbelievably the morning began, at 05h30 am, with inappropriately cheerful nurses. I was on a men’s ward where all had more serious conditions and concerns, and felt somewhat fraudulent.

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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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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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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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Farewells and Coincidences

In July 2018 I went to my last Governing Council meeting at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College (WK) where I have been a Governor for 24 years. I thought I would weep at the farewell cocktail party. To my surprise I did not. Perhaps this was because of the example of fellow Governor Derek Blackman retiring after nine years. Derek never tires of reminding me that, in the minutes of the meeting where he was nominated, a Governor (in fact me) remarked this was a mistake as he was based in the UK and would not travel to the meetings. He attended all 27 meetings during his tenure and made a great contribution. It was, however, an emotional evening. I posted my farewell remarks on my website, not because they were earth-shattering, but because I put thought into them and they are reflective.

I stayed at the Mountain Inn which has become my home in eSwatini. It is at the top of the Ezulwini Valley and has magnificent views. I was particularly glad to spend time with Quinton Reissmann, who was at St Mark’s primary school with me. He is currently a teacher at WK, having worked mainly in government schools in Swaziland. We are both grey (him more than me because he has hair). When I am with him I feel the years fall away.

The hotel has five new rooms. They were good enough to put me in the largest, not that I needed the space. The new rooms were not the biggest change, a couple of months ago it was announced that the country was changing its name from Swaziland to Eswatini. In this, and future writing I will refer to past events as having happened in Swaziland, but from now, if it is something new, I will talk about Eswatini. I had a very African experience, as I was walking down to the room one evening I felt a thump on my upper arm. I wondered what it was: a large moth? When I got to the room I glanced to down and to the left. There was a little gecko riding, contentedly, on my shoulder!

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A Dry Spell

It seems that the weather dominates the opening paragraphs of my monthly posts. At the end of June there was a very warm spell in Norwich, and no rain for over two weeks. More worrying is there is no rain in the forecast for at least 10 days. A stubborn area of high pressure has located itself over us. Of course East Anglia is the driest part of the British Isles, not widely known, but this has been quite exceptional. Some of the plants in the garden are given favoured treatment. They get water from the butts that drain off the roof of shed. The lawn, however, does not, and it is beginning to look rather the worse for wear.

My sister came up from London to visit for a weekend. Ailsa was away visiting her mother so Douglas and I were in charge. I think we acquitted ourselves well. We had thought of going to see a film, the choices at the local cinema were the ‘Happy Prince’ or ‘Oceans Eight’. In the end we did not. The weather was so pleasant that sitting inside a cinema would have seemed like heresy. What we did do was to go eat in Waterloo Park.

I have mentioned before that Norwich has some amazing municipal parks. In 1919 Captain Sandys-Winsch was appointed as the City Parks and Gardens Superintendent, and he stayed in the post until 1953. He is largely responsible for the fine public parks. There was government funding after World War I as part of a building and planting programme to provide unemployment relief, aimed mainly at ex-service men. Waterloo Park actually predated this, it began in 1904 as Catton Recreation Ground. A new design was drawn up in 1929, and in 1933 it reopened as Waterloo Park. It is 18 acres with a mixture of play areas and gardens, with lots of magnificent trees. There is, as in most of the parks, a pavilion which has a café.

There are many reasons to visit the park, but at the weekend we went for brunch. The café is run by Britannia Enterprises and most of the staff at this, and the two other sites, are serving or ex-offenders from Her Majesty’s Prison in Norwich. The project aims to offer mentoring, training, employment and rehabilitation to prisoners. They claim that just five percent of participants in the programme re-offend, compared to the national average of 46 percent. It is an excellent example of a social enterprise, and the food is good and reasonably priced. As it was such a beautiful, warm and sunny day, we were able to sit outside, and that meant we could take the dog.

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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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