Ambling Along The Liesbeek

I have driven along the Liesbeek River most week mornings for the past 19-or-so years. The most recent year, I did it less, having left the world of ‘9 to 5’ behind me. I’m back in the Ivory Tower, though, momentarily, to cover a friend’s maternity leave, so once again I’m being led through the ‘burbs each morning by the Liesbeek, leaving it to turn left up Station Street, down where I’ve seen it burst its banks so often during Winter storms.

It flows gently through suburbia, locked within its concrete confines, like the high walls of the houses around it. Contained. It’s not naturally like that – of course – and where it starts, way up on the back of Table Mountain, somewhere near Skeleton Gorge, I’m pretty sure it gurgles and dances around moss-covered rocks, winding this way and that, wherever its heart pleases. But here, in suburbia, it gets funnelled, neatly and uniformly.

Once it reaches Obz, though, the concrete ends, and again its free to flow as it pleases, creating channels and islands on which pelicans prance and seagulls shout. A neat brick path/cycle track was built along it some years back. I watched as, each morning on my way to work, it stretched further, the not-so-Yellow Brick Road.

Last week after leaving the Ivory Tower and meeting GM for a drink at The River Club, we decided it was time to finally amble along the path. What a treat. It’s a road that is so familiar to me, Liesbeek Parkway, yet here, just metres away from it, was another world, unseen by the rushing cars and their harried drivers.

It was a bit of a blustery day and the clouds were fussing about over the mountain, the sun dropping out of the sky, turning them silver above the desolate big top with its ghostly acrobats  flitting about inside it, vaguely abandoned.

Here was the sweet sound of water flowing (even at this drought-ravaged time), birds celebrating the beginning of Spring, dancing around each other and splashing in the shallows. The trees, blooming, their leaves that newborn green, and the grass filled with tiny flowers. A swing hangs from one of the trees on the bank, a daring over-water ride that would need some serious skills to disembark without falling into the river, but maybe that’s just it … the exhilaration of a daring swing.

We walked all the way into Mowbray, under the N2’s legs with its noisy rush hour traffic, through a bit of dense plant growth where it feels like you’re out of the city completely, and out the other side, the old water tower standing up straight, as if it’s just been told off by the principal of the school next door, the coral blossoms giggling across the road as the cold wind blew them about.

It was time for refried bean burritos in the warmth of The Fat Cactus.

Wheelchair Accessbility

The pathway is made for bicycles, so is completely smooth and flat. Crossing over under the N2 bridge is a little hairy at rush hour, but there are robots.

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A White Dove Dies

A perfect white pigeon-dove (I can never remember which is which) died this morning, deep red blood spattering its pristine feathers.

We were alerted to its presence by the gathering of all three animals, arranged in an orderly black-cat-gold-dog-black-and-white-cat semi-circle in the corner of the garden, all looking up, occasional fluttering, accompanied by a shower of tiny twigs emitting from the hedge in front of them.

The hedge is in the throes of Spring: thick, bright green leaves filling up any and all of the spaces, unfurling, unruly, vivid. As a result, we could only just make out small patches of white between the green, below a painfully blue sky.

Like 18th century jungle explorers we moved them all aside to reveal the terrified bird, its right eye out of its socket, blood running down its neck, like something out of a horror movie. David Attenborough meets Stephen King. Extracting him from the hedge, he became calm, collected, gently sitting, held by human hands, as my animals jostled and yowled, wanting to see, to sniff, to catch.

It only took a minute, held gently in those hands, warm scarlet blood dripping on the floor below. The minute it took for us to work out what to do next to help this little white bird. Its heart simply stopped beating and it closed its other eye and floated off into whatever is next, leaving only a cool beautiful feathered shell and some blood spatters on the stoep.

It all seemed terribly symbolic in my state of Saturday morning contemplation of the world that’s happening around us. The white dove flapping off into the ether, blood splattered on concrete watching it go.

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Touristing at Home: Greenmarket Square

In June, I spent a good amount of time sitting in ancient Sicilian squares watching people and staring, awe-struck by the age of the enormous, intricately carved buildings surrounding the squares, the hot Mediterranean air swirling with stories from a thousand years ago and yesterday. I’m a lucky fish.

Last Saturday I sat doing the same thing, but this time on Greenmarket Square in central Cape Town, down on the tip of Africa, and I felt just as lucky. It was completely different … loud and busy … echoing African drum beats swirling and bouncing off the not-quite-as-old buildings around the square and the jangling of the dancer’s leg bracelets from street performers. A cacophony of sound as different performers sang at opposite corners, combining into the heart-swelling beat of home.

We were supposed to have gone to Canal Walk to do admin-type stuff, the stuff that fills Saturday mornings and makes everybody slightly grumpy at having to spend weekend time traipsing through the soulless passages of shopping malls where nobody sees anybody, a mass of faceless people. It was a beautiful Spring day, though, so we trashed the mall idea (it doesn’t take much for us to do that!) and headed into town instead, watched by a grinning Table Mountain putting on a Spring flower show bar none.

Parking off Greenmarket Square, we ambled down to the Golden Acre (with its Louvre-like roof, above) to do the Absolutely Necessary admin (the non-essential having been left on my desk at home, fluttering restlessly to no audience). I love Golden Acre, with its tangled chaos of humanity, all of us Getting Stuff Done, but with slightly less of an edge than on weekdays. It’s Saturday, after all, and the kids are here too and Spring is upon us and a vanilla cone is R4.50 at The Hungry Lion.

It’s GM’s niece’s 12th birthday and her only desire is a watch with a white strap. At Under The Clock we find the white strap, and meet the owner bringing parcels of slap tjips in for his staff, their vinegary scent filling the tiny shop and making mouths water. It’s Saturday after all. He’s second generation watchmaker and turns 70 next year and stops to chat. He sees his staff, he sees us.

Down in the bowels of this modern glass and steel shopping centre the history of the city sits quietly behind glass. You can see it from above, the Wagenaar’s Reservoir display … part of the brick tunnel built in 1663 to carry fresh water from the reservoir to the harbour. 1663. Ancient bricks clustered together watching shoppers file in and out of PEP stores.

Admin done, we trundle back along St George’s Mall, the trees showing off their new leaves, unfurling them slowly, thousands of tiny green ballerinas pirouetting (sorry, Spring gets me all poetical). Hawkers from all the way up Africa sell their wares, some carefully handcrafted, others imported and plasticky, but everyone is talking to each other, exchanging greetings, discussing what happened last night, humanity.

And that’s just it. It’s alive with humanity and it is home.

Wheelchair Accessibility

Golden Acre shopping centre is completely accessible (and chaotic), as is St George’s Mall (mostly), which runs up from Riebeek Street in the Foreshore to Wale Street, near the entrance to the Companys Garden. St George’s Mall is probably the most accessible route through the CBD.

Cape Town’s CBD is tricky, with some streets ramped, others not. Even crossing Adderley Street to get into the Golden Acre one side is ramped, the other side not. With a little planning and strength (or if one step isn’t an issue), it’s doable.

Greenmarket Square is tricky, with small, difficult-to-manouevre cobbles. A number of cafes around its perimeter are, however, accessible.

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Floating Up the Sundays River

There’s little that beats floating down (or up) a river on a sunny afternoon, especially an Eastern Cape one, with its singing-beetle bush, so familiar from my childhood holidays in Port Alfred and varsity days in Grahamstown.

Floating on a river does something to one physiologically, I’m sure of it. It’s almost like your body realises it’s no longer on level ground and your blood moves more languidly (in a good way, not a medical emergency way), a bit like the river below, filled with scaly creatures, flapping fish and other secret rivery things with whiskers that lurk down in the muddy bottom.

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve been on a boat. Wheelchairs and boats are not, generally, best friends. The Sundays River ferry, ably captained by Les looking suave in his captain’s hat, is, however, a friend of the wheelchair, having been designed thus (and the jetty adapted). This is because Les’s wife, Maggie, had a brother in a wheelchair.

And that’s how I found myself gently puttering first up, then down, the Sundays River on a sunny afternoon during our recent visit to PE. And it was the beautiful and gentle and quiet that I remembered … that one that only being on water can offer.

Les has been running the Sundays River ferry for over ten years. Moored on a jetty in Cannonville (next door to Colchester which, as a child seeing the turn-off as we headed to Port Alfred, I thought was the cheese capital of South Africa, imagining the whole place built of Colchester cheese … I stray) across the road from the guesthouse they run, the ferry is a big, flat boat with a canopy and seats on both the lower and upper levels.

The Sundays River source is way up in Graaff Reinet, in my beloved Karoo, and it grows and widens as its winds its way down to the coast, finally passing through Addo National Park and then on to the Indian Ocean where it pours itself into the sea.

From Cannonville, it’s navigable for 15 km upstream (from where you can see Addo) and 7 km down. We headed up first, turning the bend with the Cannonville houses watching us pass, going under the huge bridge with the N2 above our heads and out beyond civilisation. Here, we were watched by a plethora of birds, a sandbank on the right – about 10 foot-or-more high, aquiver with gorgeous bee-eaters. Their sand-coloured homes in the bank reminded me of the higgledy-piggledy stone houses balancing precariously on the hillsides in Sicily.

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Beyond civilastion we came across a legevaan – colloquially known as the ‘Sundays River Crocodile’, who had – somehow – snagged himself a ray and was trying, rather toothlessly, to eat it. Les switched off the boat and we sat for fifteen minutes watching as he finally managed to flip it over and get some of its intestines out. Fascinatingly gory.

Heading back we floated downstream for a bit, a bend in the river revealing dunefields shimmering in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun. It’s on these dunes that Les also offers sandsledding, an activity that we adored on the steep sand dunes of East Beach in Port Alfred as kids.

And that’s, really, what it was like, being on a boat again after so long. It was like being a kid again: buoyant, carefree, the river below, the breeze blowing, the smells and sounds of nature and the gentle puttering of the engine accompanying that familiar bush and a Fish Eagle on a dead tree, to end off a magical afternoon.

 Wheelchair Accessibility

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The boat itself is completely accessible (the bottom bit). It’s large and flat, with plenty of room to manoeuvre and sit.

Getting to the boat: Les has keys to the gate, so you can drive the car over the large grassed field between the river and the road and park right next to the jetty.

The jetty is a normal, wooden-slatted jetty, with two small steps. At low tide, the gradient is quite steep, but Les helps, and has devised a ramp that removes one of the stairs. It’s totally doable but if you’re a nervous traveller, might be a little nerve-wracking getting on. It’s worth it, though. The river is just beautiful.

*We went on the cruise as guests of the wonderful Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism and Addo Cruises.

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Public Art Wins on Route 67, Port Elizabeth

Nelson Mandela, our beloved Madiba, spent 67 years dedicated to the freedom of South Africa, 27 of those were spent in jail. The fact that after his release he continued to fight for South Africa is both astounding and wonderful. And Port Elizabeth’s Route 67, too, is astounding and wonderful. The route, starting down at the Campanile, includes 67 steps, 67 artworks by different artists and 67 quotes from the man himself.

Being in a wheelchair, the steps were out-of-bounds for me, but we took a drive through St Mary’s Terrace and stopped to admire the steps – 76 Youth, the history of the ’76 youth uprising – down; and the gorgeous mosaiced steps – from darkness to the new dawn of the democratic South Africa – leading up to the Donkin Reserve; before heading up and parking on Athol Fugard Terrace. From there one can easily see a number of the artworks – and the fabulous enormous flag – on gently-sloped brick pathways. The amount of public art included is incredible and PE deserves (a whole bunch) of gold star(s) for this project. It’s not often you see so much accessible art in a city, especially a small city like this. And it’s attracting people into the city, as art should.

Anthony Harris and Konrad Geel’s Voting Lineconsisting of laser-cut figures representing the queue for the first democratic elections, led by Mandela, is possibly the most beautiful piece of public art I’ve ever seen. Wrapped around the wall on which the huge flag flaps – making the most powerful noise in the wind – their shadows change throughout the day making them seem almost real. Next time I’m in PE, I plan to spend a day sitting, watching.

From there, we ambled along to the Athenaeum. It was Women’s Day, so things were quiet, but the whispers of art being made and productions presented at the Little Theatre, could be heard on the still air. The 67 beaded squares, one for each year – again, each by a different local crafter – on the wall are beautiful. A colourful pictorial history of Mandela’s 67 years of service. There’s a gorgeous coffee table book of them, which our incredibly knowledgeable guide, Tony, gave us. And here, Tony of Gecko Tours needs a special mention. He showed us around PE with an enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, PE that is just fabulous.

We only managed to fit in some of Route 67 – we’ll be back for more – and it’s hard not to gush too much. It is the most gorgeous and varied display of the incredible creative talents of South Africans, all completely accessible to the public. A colourful celebration of Madiba, and of PE: thought-provoking, with moments of sadness, fun, sombreness and ingenuity, just like Mandela himself.

Wheelchair Accessibility

As mentioned above, the route is from down near the bay up the hill – which is steep! – so some parts of the route are difficult in a wheelchair. In saying that, at almost all of the artworks and places included in the route, one can get out and see things (except the stairs) and then get back in the car and move to the next. It’s wonderful, so worth the effort.

*We visited NMB as guests of the wonderful Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.

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The View From The Balcony of Port Elizabeth

Standing in the Donkin Reserve gazing over Port Elizabeth, the CBD below looking as if it may tumble into the bay, I realised that my perception of this city had been entirely wrong, and it was a wonderful thing.

Port Elizabeth’s CBD is like one of those inspiring and miraculous stories of a recovering junkie. She’s been through the mill, hung out with dodgy characters, looked like a lost cause and then she went to rehab. After years of grimy decay, she’s back – plumper, livelier, wiser, more determined and creative and with the colour back in her cheeks.

While I realise that’s a fairly weird analogy, it is apt for this inner city that found itself falling into disrepair and decrepitude at the end of the last century (sheesh, I sound old). In 2004, the Mandela Bay Development Agency started its first project to  regenerate the area and it’s just been getting better and better.

I have to admit I was somewhat mean about PE in the past. My experience of the city consisted of fleeting visits as a child to get groceries to stock our beach shack in Port Alfred in December. Memories of Christmas-crazy, Boney M-filled, Checkers-trolley-into-your-ankles trips calmed slightly by a visit to the magical old library and gelato (with real bits of chocolate) from the hole-in-the-wall ice cream shop as a reward for surviving.

Some years later, as a student at Rhodes,  PE to me was the occasional trip to Greenacres – a real shopping mall, which Grahamstown-of-yore didn’t have … What bliss, I’m not really a mall fan – and a long, dark, laser-infused night in the docks at one the first raves there. Youthfully oblivious of our own mortality, we drove that treacherous road between Grahamstown and PE on the back of a bakkie, hot-pantsed and silvery-topped. After dancing the night away, we returned as the sun rose over the bay. We didn’t even stay to look around.

So, yes, my impression was that of shopping malls and dark dockside warehouses, interspersed with cars with CB number plates. Standing up there in the Donkin Reserve, I had to to admit that I was wrong. Certainly about 2017 PE, interspersed by the more inclusive EC number plates. As an aside – I miss the town-specific plates. They satisfied (some of) my curiosity about where people were from.


I stray. Back to the point that PE’s CBD has (and still is) undergoing an incredible rejuvenation. The stately old buildings with their gorgeous architecture are being renovated and upgraded back to their former graciousness and the whole area is becoming people-friendly. Public spaces dotted with art, coffee shops and breweries, old churches and statues, restaurants and performance spaces and, right up there in the Donkin Reserve (both literally and metaphorically), a pervading sense of the history of this – in South African terms – ancient city.

There’s plenty of history in this city, but that of its namesake and her husband is the most beautifully tragic and is the source of the somewhat unlikely pyramid up in the Donkin Reserve, slap-bang in the middle of the city.

Elizabeth Donkin died of ‘The Fever’ in India in August 1818 at the age of 27. She left behind her heartbroken husband, Rufus, and tiny 7-month old son. Their son was sent back to the family in the UK and the devastated Rufus went to not-yet-called-PE to act as governor. In August 1820, he erected the pyramid in honour of her. It is inscribed:

‘To the memory of the most perfect of human beings who has given her name to the Town below.’

See? Tragic. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be loved like that? Without The Fever and dying bit, of course. Urban legend has it that he placed her head inside the pyramid. I like that. It’s macabre and beautiful. A new addition is a gorgeous, swirling mosaic – part of the 67 Steps, which I’ll write about in my next blog, this is getting too long! – that leads up to the pyramid, the lighthouse beaming behind it and the whole bay laid out in front.

It is, without doubt, ‘The Balcony of Port Elizabeth’!

Wheelchair Accessibility

Port Elizabeth balances on a hill. The Donkin Reserve, however, is on top of the hill and if you park on Athol Fugard Terrace, there are bricked pathways with a gentle slope to see all the cool things at Donkin Reserve.*We visited NMB as guests of the wonderful Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.

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Penguin Love in PE, Cape Recife

It’s hard to believe that you’re ten minutes away from Port Elizabeth city when you enter the Cape Recife Nature Reserve. 366 hectares of unspoilt coastal bush, stretches of beautiful beach and fantastic rock pools are there with a number of hiking trails. If you’re lucky, you see otters.

At the point – the southern tip of the over 90 km-wide bay – the lighthouse stands looking glorious in its stripy onesie and red cap. It’s one of the oldest lighthouses in South Africa, established in 1851 off the aptly-named Thunderbolt Reef. This is a prickly coastline if you’re a sailor … it’s wrecked over 400 ships.

Down the road from the lighthouse, an odd-looking building lurks amongst the fragrant bush that smells like my childhood seaside holidays in Port Alfred. It’s one of five observation posts around PE that were built in World War II to look out for German U-boats. They were staffed by women. In 1942, a radar was built (by men) and legend has it that a fence had to be built between the two because the women were partial to raucous parties! Tsk, tsk.

Plum in the midst of Cape Recife Nature Reserve is the SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre, now SANCCOB PE. Here, mainly volunteers rehabilitate injured birds and have an amazing education centre because those cute – but bitey! – li’l tuxedoed birds are in trouble.

Over the last 50 years, a time during which we’ve known better, the African penguin population has declined by 91%. That’s left the world with an estimated total population of 45 000 penguins. By 2025, it is predicted that there will be none left in the wild. None. Why? Humans. We are, to put it simply, starving them into extinction. Overfishing has led to not enough fish; climate change has made the penguins need to swim further to find the cold current fish resulting in them not being able to feed their chicks and then … pollution: oil leaks. It’s heart-breaking.

But, the guys at SANCCOB are passionate about turning this around and they deserve all the support they can get. Keith, who took us around, was fabulous and funny and, well, a perfect penguin ambassador. Also, they’re cool at naming the penguins (who are, if they’re well, returned to the wild as soon as possible). Verona. Barbie. Turtle.

Penguins will return to their home from wherever you release them. Remember Peter, Pamela and Percy? They were living happily on Robben Island when Treasure, a bulk carrier ship, sank off Cape Town, spilling oil into the sea that threatened 76 000 penguins. 20 000 clean penguins were taken to PE and released in the hope that the spill would’ve cleared by the time they made it home. It did, with Peter arriving home – 470 miles away – first. Now that’s called homing instinct.

Note: if you find a penguin in trouble, don’t move it and don’t leave it. Get hold of SANCCOB on 041 583 1830 (business hours) or 064 019 8936 (after hours).

Wheelchair Accessibility

The centre is completely accessible, including the courtyard in which you can watch the li’l guys being fed.

*We visited NMB as guests of the wonderful Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.

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