I do my best thinking while driving. I drive a Fiat Panda.

Archive for the tag “Africa”

Scenery to fall in love with

I always thought I wanted to live at the coast one day, instead of in land-locked Joburg. Now, I think I was made to breathe near mountains.

At first, though, I wanted to be in the rolling green hills of Kwa-Zulu Natal, somewhere close to Durban and the prettiness of the midlands, although I hadn’t decided exactly where I would plant my feet and declare “This is it! This is home.” I pictured my (not yet born or even on the horizon at the time) children going to the sun-drenched beaches at weekends and becoming lean brown water-borne creatures, comfortable slipping in and out of the blue-green ocean as they snorkelled, surfed and dived.

Then I realised that although KZN tends to have great winters most of the time (warm in comparison to the inland temperatures), the coastline is extremely humid in summer and you spend your life dripping with sweat and battling to keep your bedding crisp and fresh. And I also embarked on a once-off scuba-diving course, when I then remembered about all the big sharks that toothily inhabit the sea, so I decided the (still not born) children didn’t have to become water-borne creatures after all and that perhaps the KZN coastline, as beautiful as it is, wasn’t quite my ideal part of the world – at least not for permanent residence.

Still in pursuit of a dream (“When I grow up I’m going to live in X part of the country”) I have now turned my attentions to the western Cape. This part of the world enticed me after I’d fallen in love with Frank and we’d become an item. For our first Christmas holiday together, we went to the beautiful Paarl, where some of his family live.

The name Paarl comes from the Dutch name for a pearl (‘parel’) and like a pearl, the town and its surrounds are really beautiful. Legend has it that a Dutch explorer in the 17th century arrived in the area during stormy weather. As the sun came out, it glistened on three huge granite outcrops on the mountain looming over the valley below, reminding the Dutchman of diamonds and pearls, and so he admiringly named it ‘The Diamond and Pearl Mountain’. In the fullness of time the diamond part got dropped and the pearl prevailed and so from beneath the ‘Paarl Rock’ grew the town of Paarl.

The pearls of Paarl Rock

Frank unconsciously translates from Afrikaans when he calls it, in English, ‘The Paarl’, adding the definite article in front of it the way that Afrikaners call it ‘Die Paarl’. I think it deserves the honour of having the definite article in front of it in English too.

And so, the beautiful town of the Paarl is about an hour’s drive from Cape Town in the long shadows of the surrounding mountains, nestling in the enfolding wine lands that are around it, above it and even in it. You can’t drive in the vicinity of  the town without passing wine farm after wine farm after wine farm: some rich and resplendent with money and glamour; others smaller and cuter and dripping with character. And characters too, of course: human, canine, equine, bovine and, um, sheep. (What are sheep again?)

I fell in love with all of it – instantly. Frank and I drove from Joburg to Paarl that holiday, a distance across the country of about 1 400 kilometres. We therefore came to the Paarl having first negotiated the long dry flatness of the huge Karoo semi-desert area for more hours than I care to remember. My eyes were sore with the sameness of the Karoo: miles upon miles of (to me) visual boredom that the car just couldn’t quite shake, no matter how fast Frank drove to eat up the flat, dreary landscape.

I am aware that the Karoo has its own admirers who love the place and feel their souls are quenched there in its dryness and its unique semi-desert features, which bloom beautifully and surreally in the spring. Although I would admittedly like to visit in the spring one year, I am not a desert person, and so I felt my own soul start to perk up considerably when the scenery finally, bit by bit, started to change again.

Slowly, imperceptibly, the land morphed into something once more appealing.

Slowly the horizon grew a significant hill or two.

Slowly you saw signs of water that had arrived and then stayed to nurture the plants and coax the earth out of its dull palette of browns and greys.

By the time we drove through the Hex River Valley I was overwhelmed with the sensation that the world had exploded back to life. Ponds, dams, fruit farms and vineyards: all made bright patchworks of colour in the valley and up the enclosing mountain slopes before the gradient got too steep and the vegetation gave way to purple distance.

A valley exploding with life

I felt that I was home. I felt I was breathing air that had been waiting for me, ready to nurture my body and my spirit. We stayed for three blissful, soul-renewing weeks and everywhere we went in this amazing part of South Africa, we seemed to drive through beauty.

Then reality beckoned us back home and back to work.

Today, Frank and I live with our two boys in Johannesburg, one of the main economic hubs of South Africa. For now our jobs keep us here and we live in ‘the house that sang to me’ as I drove past it one day.

We love our house. We are really lucky with its unique vista, overlooking as it does one of the two Melville ‘koppies’ (hills), which are essentially unchanged since the days of iron age man. The east Melville koppie is a closed-off nature reserve and the west Melville koppie, which forms part of our view – the children call it ‘our mountain’ – is home on Sundays to a religious sect, who arrive in their blue, green and white robes and set the mini-mountain alive with their open air singing and the throbbing of distant drums.

'Our mountain'

To maximise the view of ‘our mountain’ and our exposure to the sky, Frank has built a deck in the back garden, above our storeroom (yes, he really did build it himself, plank by laborious plank). Here we like to sit for sundowners at weekends and on public holidays when the weather is kind. To our north lies the beautiful park surrounding Emmarentia Dam, where we walk sometimes with the boys and the dog, and to our west lies the Westdene Dam, where we also visit occasionally, although we usually find a bigger attraction en route in the glasses of good wine waiting for us at the cosy restaurant of ‘Tosca del Sol’.

In front of ‘our mountain’, flanking it as it runs west to east, is a long, thin valley and riding the thermals of the valley air we sometimes see the white flocks of sacred ibis on their travels. At other times, if we are lucky, they actually fly over our heads as we sit on our deck, astonishing us with the utter silence of their wings, which in flight are almost as quiet as an owl’s. At these moments, just sitting on our deck between earth and sky is like a benediction.

Flying soundlessly overhead like a blessing

My parents live just on the other side of ‘our mountain’, about five kilometres as the crow flies. My mom (sometimes aided by my dad, and sometimes apparently hindered) looks after the children in the afternoons until I fetch them once I’ve finished work. Most days, I’m happy to report, my parents are smiling when I fetch the boys and I hear tales of the funny things that were said and done. Sometimes I see my dad walking in the area with his neighbour, Sam, as I’m en route to work in the mornings. I always stop for a brief chat and a laugh, and revel in the quiet comfort of this unexpected domestic encounter. It is another piece of the puzzle that is my charming green neighbourhood and my home.

And yet sometimes, as we sit on the deck with a gracious bottle of dry white wine, I may inspect the label and see that it comes from the Paarl area, and it brings a little pang. While ever-conscious of counting my blessings, I look over then at ‘our mountain’ and wish, somewhat ungratefully, that it was a little bigger.

Or maybe even a lot bigger, with a long purple shadow and three glistening outsize pearls on its summit. Oh to have my cake and eat it too, and simply transplant the house. I’m sure I could persuade my parents to relocate.

Hmmmm…. maybe not!

I saw a really interesting documentary recently on six-gilled sharks. Apparently they are quite a primitive form of shark compared to the more common five-gilled sharks of all sizes and shapes that generally populate the oceans. Using the term ‘primitive’ means that most of their closest relatives are found in the fossil record, as opposed to swimming alongside. It doesn’t mean that the six gills are deficient in any way – these sharks are, in fact, perfectly functional and beautifully streamlined, like most sharks. You could argue that they must be perfectly functional if they haven’t needed to change their body shape for millions of years and have in fact outlived the dinosaurs, right?

So I googled primitive shark types and did some happy reading for a short while. I next discovered that there’s another type of primitive shark which goes one better than the six-gilled sharks: the seven gill shark, which also means an ancient lineage. Hah! How interesting. Five- plus six- plus seven-gilled sharks, all separately roaming the oceans from time immemorial. Who knew? (Well, I’m sure many scientists and marine biologists are completely aware but it was all new to me, the layperson.)

Then I came across a page that really interested me – the opportunity to swim freely with a type of seven gill shark off South African waters. The page invites the reader to experience the thrill of scuba diving (no cage) with these ancient seven-gilled sharks just off Simonstown, in the western Cape. Wow, locally! That’s just down the road from me in global terms. And although my licence has long expired, I once completed a scuba diving course, qualifying in the open waters of Sodwana Bay, off the Kwazulu-Natal coastline.

I am actually terrified of big water and not the world’s best swimmer, but back then, something made me decide to stretch myself. I was immensely proud once I’d completed my five qualifying dives in the sea, hyperventilating incident notwithstanding (another story, another time). I even had a dolphin briefly and companionably swimming with me when we went snorkelling for a short while on the boat ride out to the final dive. It was one of those amazing, awe-inspiring life experiences that is beautifully and fondly etched in my memory. Maybe, I thought, this would be a great reason to think about doing the course again and taking up scuba diving? My husband swims like a fish – oops, no pun intended! He’d absolutely love it and I knew I’d feel so much safer underwater if he was my dive-buddy. So I started daydreaming – you can see why below, where this snippet from the actual site mentions that even novice divers can swim with these prehistoric creatures.

‘Seven Gill Cow Sharks – Diving -South Africa- Sharktraveler

Set a few kilometres outside of Simonstown you can experience the thrill of scuba diving with this very unique species of Shark. Experience this prehistoric animal in its natural environment without a cage, and see why they are so popular. These animals are one of the oldest known species of shark and also a very deep water species, they can be found in all oceans but what happens here is very unique, this is the only known place in the world where anybody from a novice to an advanced diver can dive with them.’

So I was almost, haha, hooked. It sounded amazing. But just when I was thinking, “Hmmm. Interesting!” I scrolled further down the page, where it also invites the reader to ‘Take a look at the Great White Sharks also in the same area’ (also presumably with no protective cage on the dive). With a nice up close and personal photo of a large great white smiling its extremely toothy grin straight into the camera from zero feet away.

So then I thought, “Hmmmmmmm. Perhaps not!”

The give-away, for me, was the picture of the Cape fur seal – the reader is also invited to ‘Take a look at the Cape fur seals also in the same area’ – beside the pic of the great white. Great white sharks love Cape fur seals. And not romantically either.

So no. No diving with seven gill sharks, thanks very much. Instead, I’ll continue to get my shark-watching kicks from television documentaries and the safety of an aquarium. And while I give complete respect to those who do swim with sharks, I find I’m just not that brave.

But it was a happy daydream for a while.

(Here’s the full link to the page for those who are braver than me.)

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