21 Things I learnt in Tulbagh

  1. Churches were well built in the 1740’s

    So much so that they still stand, looking calm and pretty, watching the comings and goings on Church Street with their thatched roof and holding all sorts of wonderful old things in their (now museum) tummies. Laurencia, who works there, is fabulous, with lots of stories to tell.

  2. There are sighs and swirls in old churches

    Even when old churches are turned into museums, the echoes of whispered prayers, wails of funeral goers, love-filled sighs of newly marrieds and enthusiastic cries of babies being baptized still swirl around the eaves.

  3. Danie Theron used to live outdoors

    It used to be possible to nick his (huge, heavy) bust off the lawns. In fact, somebody did. He was missing for around 15 years before the museum got a call from a farmer in a nearby town saying he’d ‘found it on his farm’ and asking if they’d like to buy it back. A gentle conversation about contacting the police, as it was a stolen item, resulted in the potential for an exchange of money flitting away. Danie was found one morning, back on the lawns. No note or explanation. Now he lives indoors.

  4. There’s a green oasis at the The Olive Terrace

    Situated at the Tulbagh Hotel, in the main drag, it’s the perfect spot for a cool drink after exploring town. Their staff are friendly and welcoming.

  5. Both Tulbagh and its people are lovely

    In fact, every person we met, or even passed in the street, in Tulbagh was just lovely. As is the town itself. Being surrounded by beauty, wonderful people, delicious food and wine and fresh air will do that I guess.

  6. Sicilian reminiscing is entirely possible at 1699

    I’d put money on it that Tulbagh is the only place on earth that has Arancini, a delicious Sicilian rice ball, on the menu, just above bobotie. A fabulous throwback to our Sicilian adventure. Delight at 1699.

  7. Dusk is a magical time in Church Street

    Church Street, as dusk turns into night and the sky turns that deep blue and the full moon rises on one side and the sun sets behind the gum-treed hill on the other, is magic.

  8. Nightswimming deserves a quiet night*

    Or a noisy one. The pool at Manley Wine Lodge is gorgeous in the moonlight and the song of frogs accompanies all swimming. But not the frogs. They hang out at the dam and in the river.
    *Apologies, REM, for the swiping of your lyrics.

  9. Manley Wine Lodge has very good breakfasts

    Manley Wine Lodge breakfasts: Yum. Very. Very. Yum. Manley Lodge views: Also yum.

  10. Twee Jonge Gezellen and Krone deserve a crown

    James, the new guy at Twee Jonge Gezellen is fabulous. As is the Krone. The setting is the cherry on the top.

  11. Wildebeest and hounds can be best friends

    It is entirely possible for a wildebeest to be friends with a small, highly-unpedigreed dog. The best friend hound may even be called Bubbles. This is not in Tulbagh, but on the farm of the lovely Patty’s (of Tulbagh Wine and Tourism) family further North. Tulbagh is full of surprises, though, so I can’t be sure such things don’t exist there too.

  12. Waverley Hills has salmon that tastes like heaven

    The people at Waverley Hills are also lovely. Even when you’re late because the Krone was so delicious, and the company there so good, you didn’t want to leave. The view across the valley is spectacular. The salmon is even more spectacular.

  13. Tulbagh has views and more views

    Tulbagh is encircled by the most beautiful mountains. The air is clear and the sky is blue-blue and the clouds look like kid’s drawings. The vines in early summer are vividly green.

  14. Rijk’s also has views. And gin

    The view from Rijk’s (do you see a Tulbagh trend here?) is superb. Especially at sunset on a day when the golden setting sun rays break through dark voluminous clouds. The gorgeousness of their berry-and-mint-filled Gin o’ Clock is almost too beautiful to drink in this light. But only almost.

  15. Food, food, glorious food is made at Rijk’s

    The food on the fine dining menu at Rijk’s is also beautiful. So beautiful you almost don’t want to eat it. Its deliciousness, however, makes you unable not to eat it.

  16. Picnics from Readers are spectacular

    Carol from Readers Restaurant loves cats. She is also wonderful and makes picnic baskets bursting with delightful things.

  17. A naked man welcomes you to Saronsberg

    You are welcomed into Saronsberg by a naked man with rocks on his head. He is just one of the incredible art pieces on the farm. He looks particularly imposing with rain clouds puffing up behind him.

  18. Picnics and wine are very well matched

    Saronsberg wines are sublime, and the picnic basket from Readers is so well matched to them, that they could marry. Saronsberg would be the perfect venue for the occasion too with a lawn (and indoor venue for if it rains) made for celebration and vine-covered stoep for ceremonies. And so much art!

  19. Pigs love having their backs scratched

    The pigs at Fynbos Guest Farm will fall over in a blissful trance if you brush their backs. Guido, one of the llamas there, loves the ladies. He will come running – at speed – when he sees you but then gets shy just before he gets to you. Guido may be an alpaca.

  20. Google is very clever

    It will allow you to learn the difference between a llama and an alpaca. In theory. The real-life classification is slightly more difficult. It’s better to just call them by their names. Like Guido.

  21. Always take the dust road

    Taking a wrong turn is always good. It’s one of my favourite things, really. It may lead to perfectly beautiful dust roads through farmland under a spectacular sky.

    *We were hosted in Tulbagh by Tulbagh Wine and Tourism

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Twenty One. Twenty. One.

Public Service Announcement: the navel-gazing is real in this one. 

Twenty one. Coming of age and all that. But what if it’s, like, 21 x 2, but with a catch? 

It was a perfect day, like the Lou Reed song that had made its comeback that year, 1996, in Trainspotting. We all loved it, for its blatant attack on 90’s society, and for the beauty of Ewan Mcgregor playing Renton. Forgive us, we were 21 and he was beautiful in his heroin chic. 

And it was. A perfect day. Until our car rolled under a vast blue Eastern Cape sky and I crushed my sixth vertebra into my seventh. Then it wasn’t quite as perfect. I didn’t know in that moment, when the sounds of twisting metal and crashing glass stopped, leaving in their wake only the hot silence of the Karoo, that my neck was broken, irreparably  

I didn’t know for days after, really, while I got shuttled from that spot under the hot sun in the Karoo that I love so much, to Cradock and on to PE in a variety of ambulances. I still thought I’d broken my arms and legs and that was why I couldn’t move. The X-rays blew that theory out of the water. 

Still more days and a flight to Cape Town, a move from one hospital to another, screws drilled into the sides of my skull to put me in traction, plenty of morphine (thanks heavens for morphine) and then, finally, a week later, an hours-and-hours long op to fuse my spine and to allow the doctors to have a good squiz at my spinal cord. 

When I emerged from my morphine haze, I knew things did not look good. I knew because they told me. 

“Mush”, they said. “Your spinal cord is mush.” They said I’d done a very good job of it. I have always been a fan of doing whatever I do properly but I wouldn’t have minded doing a hash job of that. 

But I didn’t, and now that’s half my life ago, today. From tomorrow, I will officially have spent more of my life in a wheelchair than out. I was 21. I am now 42. 

I am finding this hard to believe. 

But there it is. There’s no stopping time and all that. In those 21 years I have, as in the 21 years before them, lived, travelled, fallen in love, and out of love, been ecstatically happy and tragically heartbroken and all the other emotions in-between. Hell’s Bells, I even saw Eddie Vedder this year. In Sicily. Twice.

I’ve worked and loved it and worked and hated it. I’ve learnt lots of things and taught a few. I’ve written and read and listened to music. I’ve eaten and drunk and tasted deliciousness, and yukkiness. 

Basically, I’ve just carried on carrying on, just like everybody else, because I’m the luckiest girl in the world to have the most supportive and wonderful family and friends. Family and friends who have helped me get anywhere and do anything my heart desires. Family and friends who rock.

I’m not going to lie, there are times – lots of times – that leave me wanting to throw myself on the floor and kick my legs about while screaming but, well, that’s impractical. I’m paralysed. I can’t kick my legs, and the screaming on its own just seems a bit under-dramatic. 

So, today I’ll be going to add some birds to my tattoo and then heading out, away from the city lights, for a weekend surrounded by mountains and fresh air, with some bubbles to celebrate life. 

It is a 21st of sorts, after all. 

Continue reading

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Donkey Noses and Vrolijkheid-ness

Can there be anything better than donkey’s noses? Well, I mean, there’s chocolate cake, and sticking your finger in the little tornado thing the water makes when it goes down the plughole, and Dwayne head butts and conversations with the Delicious Nephews and, and … Okay, there are lots of particularly lovely things in the world (and boy, is it important to focus on them with the state of the world) and donkey’s velvet noses are right up there.

A couple of weekends ago we packed our bags, climbed into the Silver Unicorn, and headed for the hills, in the direction of McGregor, to hang out at Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve. Cape Nature are wanting to assess the accessibility of their reserves – big up to them! – and get input, so we joined up with some other fabulous people to do just that.

It was perfect timing, as a break away from the city was becoming a necessity after a particularly busy three weeks and some serious city claustrophobia making it hard to breathe.

Down the rabbit hole we went. That’s what I call driving through the Huguenot Tunnel, in an attempt to allay my fears while driving through there. I hate going through it, petrified that we’ll get stuck mid-tunnel, in that foul, oppressive air. Perhaps it’s because I’m a geologist’s child, and grew up on the gold mines, where thousands of miners spent hours in the hot dark maze of tunnels seamed with gold, underneath us. I went down once, not very far down. It was not a nice place.

People snigger at my fear of getting stuck in that there tunnel but it really happened once to G, when a truck broke down. She was stuck in there for an hour. An HOUR. Eek. Anyway, let me get back to happier things. Things on the other side of the tunnel, where the air is clearer and the sky is bigger. And on toward McGregor after making a quick stop in Robertson for supplies.

To Eseltjiesrus, one of my favourite places. It’s a donkey sanctuary and you can ‘adopt a donkey’. Kitkat, with his stripy legs – I’m convinced his great-great-grandpa was a zebra – was adopted for me for my birthday by my friends some years ago. Last visit, he singled me out and rushed over to say hello. This time, he snuck up behind me while I stroked the nose of one of his friends. They are too lovely and the sanctuary is a fabulous place, run by wonderful people. (The chicken pie at the restaurant is pretty spectacular too!)

Vrolijkheid is a nature reserve just before you reach McGregor and has five spacious self-catering cottages on the opposite side of the road to the reserve. It’s a good place to go if you want to explore McGregor, but not stay in the village. Verandas with views across to the mountains and braai places are a perfect place to sit and just be.

It’s one of those places that’d be great to go with lots of families with kids – clubs and balls for the putt-putt course are in each house and there’s loads of space to run, explore and play. I kind of expected to find a woman teaching people to do the cha cha – a’la Dirty Dancing – on the huge lawn opposite the cottage. I cold almost see the ghost of Patrick Swayze dancing, as we made our way back from a braai with the lovely neighbours on our second night there.

There’s nothing better, really, than a weekend away from the city, some exploring of the countryside and good sleeps after days in the fresh air. Add to that, a spectacular lunch at the Lady Grey restaurant at Lord’s Guest Lodge – the place is kind of storybook guesthouse with ducklings, a chapel (when my prince finally asks for directions and rides in on a white horse, this’ll be where I marry) and stone cottages with breath-taking views – and you’ve got a good recipe for a weekend away.

Wheelchair Accessibility

McGregor‘s main road is flat and smooth with lots of little shops and restaurants to explore. Some have a step or two, but it’s a small town, people are helpful. There are plenty of pretty buildings to look at and friendly people to chat to and some pretty impressive looking restaurant menus. Next time we’ll have to stay longer to try them all.

Vrolijkheid‘s cottages are huge and old school. The one we stayed in was relatively accessible, with a fabulous big bedroom on the ground floor (others have upstairs bedrooms too), but inaccessible bathroom. That’s why we were there, though, to give Cape Nature feedback, as they’re wanting to sort out the universal accessibility of all there places, which is amazing!

The nature reserve itself offers lots of pretty hikes. We attempted a short one, but had to turn back – too many rocks and stones. On the other side of the dam there is a wonderful, completely accessible bird hide, with wooden walkways leading to it. Take the Steenboksvlakte turning to get to it.


Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary has ramps to the restaurant, a wheelchair-friendly bathroom and a (fairly steep) ramp down and across a gravel road to the donkey enclosure. Doable, with a little help.


Lord’s Guest Lodge apparently has an accessible cottage. We didn’t see it, so I’m not sure of its specifics. The whole place is balanced on a steep slope with dust roads, so I think the lowest cottage, with easy access to the pool, pub and restaurant would be best. The restaurant is accessible (bathroom small, tucked under the stairs, so not accessible, but lovely staff who, I’m sure with some notice, could make a plan).

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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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