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Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you

Part 1 of a 2008 South African travelogue

by Thor Iverson

[Cape Town from Table Mountain]

Cape & town
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless
Longing for some solitary company

These lyrics don’t make any sense. “Solitary company”? And yet, I can’t seem to get them out of my head. They’ve been in there for the better part of a year, ever since it became clear that the big trip of 2008 was going to be to the southern tip of Africa. Just as 2005’s New Zealand jaunt was an opportunity for endless off-pitch renditions of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, so too has this trip been fraught with its own melodies (“long-forgotten” or “ancient,” I can’t say). Unfortunately, this is the one that’s stuck. Couldn’t it have been something by, say, Ladysmith Black Mambazo?

As with so many other journeys, the last few days before departure are fraught with a lack of sleep and a desperate rush to complete long-delayed but crucial tasks. And so, as a 4:30 a.m. alarm wrests me from a surprisingly deep half-hour of sleep, I throw a few last items in a dangerously overweight duffel and, sleepily, head outside to meet my taxi. It’s a warm, humid November night, and the ground is a blanket of wet leaves ripe with the aromas of autumn. Where I’m going, it’s transitioning from late spring to a summer full of lush, green vegetation and escalating heat. And when I come back, it’ll be winter, chill and stark, trees stripped to their skeletons and ice in the air.

Travel’s neat.

…and one pill makes you small

Moonlit wings reflect the stars
That guide me towards salvation

How can they reflect stars if they’re moonlit? Doesn’t anyone in this band know a good editor?

For those who can’t sleep on planes, the day flight from Boston to London is a godsend. For me, who can sleep through takeoff and landing if necessary, it’s just another flight, albeit a blessedly underbooked one. Everyone around me works, reads, or chats, and the windows are never closed, so sleep seems unlikely. But sleep I do, from the moment my breakfast tray’s removed to the moment that dinner’s served, and by the end of it – though it’s not a particularly long flight – I actually feel slightly rested. That won’t last long, though.

I also feel full of adventure, flush with the exotic lure of the impending unknown. Then I chat with my seatmate, who’s headed to the West Bank for a humanitarian fact-finding mission.

OK, so that’s a little deflating.

After landing at Heathrow – an airport frequent travelers justifiably loathe – lingering fatigue causes me to completely misunderstand the (somewhat misleading) signs for the inter-terminal train. A quarter of a frigid hour later, I’m at Paddington, pleading with a conductor to let me transfer back to the airport for free. Thankfully, he agrees…but it’s cold here in London, and I’m wearing short sleeves. Another 15 minutes pass, and then there’s a walk, and a wait, and another train, and a longer walk…God, I hate Heathrow…and then, finally, I’m at Terminal 4.

Ugh. What a pit.

I’m not here for the scenery, though. I’m here for a Yotel, a small but growing chain of Japanese-style pod hotels somewhat modified for western tastes, and unquestionably the only bargain accommodation to be found in the UK. The claustrophobic may want to beware, but for everyone else, it’s great: a comfortable bed that can be dark at any hour of the day or night, a clean bathroom and ready shower, 24-hour food service, and a surprising number of features cleverly worked into the room’s compact design. There’s a little more hall noise than one might like, especially during the daylight hours, and the wakeup “call” (really a function of the in-bed multimedia center) could work a little better, but it’s an excellent resource for the long-haul commuter.

The next morning, rested and showered, I work the in-room internet for a while, then walk across the hall to Wetherspoons, which seems to be some sort of chain pub concept, for morning comestibles. My traditional English breakfast (pumped up to “farmhouse” size…I’m starving) is decent in its lead-lined way. But soon, full of meat, eggs, and beans, I’m freshly exhausted. And so, it’s back to the Yotel for another highly restorative nap. One that I’ll come to regret, after a fashion.

Barbed queue

Finally wrested from slumber with a mere half-hour left on my Yotel reservation, I leap into the shower, change, pack, and move briskly trainward. As I approach the lifts, a cubic-foot chunk of concrete – the entire terminal is under reconstruction – falls a few scant feet away, shattering on the floor and sending shards clattering over people’s shoes and skittering into neighboring stores.

And here I was, worried about safety in South Africa. As it turns out, the nearest I’ll come to harm on this trip is in Heathrow’s Terminal 4.

I don’t have time to think about lawsuits, though I see one woman – who was mere inches from the potential deathblow – somewhat shakily considering her options. I’ve got a plane to catch. A long walk, an epic wait, a train, a long walk, a really long walk, a wait at check-in, a long line at security, another long walk – have I mentioned how much I hate Heathrow? – and I’m in Terminal 1, meeting Theresa, who’s just arrived from Rome. She’s refreshed and adjusted to local time. I’m hungry and over-rested. But thanks to my lateness, I only have time for an (admittedly tasty) crayfish sandwich, washed down with dandelion soda from Pret A Manger, and then it’s time to board the plane.

Except, of course, this is Heathrow, which means a queue, another queue, a bus, yet another queue, and only then the plane. $#%&!# Heathrow. Have I mentioned…?

What the hex?

Gonna take some time to do the things we never had

(Like basic grammar lessons?)

I don’t think much of my initial voyage on South African Airways. The seats are profoundly uncomfortable (and seem ancient, judging by the collapsed padding below me), our reading lights don’t work, and there’s no individual video screen. The food is a nightmare: stringy lamb casserole or flavorless chicken “curry” (I fear to ask what the vegetarian option might be…stewed cabbage?). And our flight attendant has moved beyond bored indifference to outright hostility against everyone in our section of the plane. It’s charming. At least there’s drinkable wine. Right? Um, right?

[Cape Town CBD & Lion’s Head]

The Lion rears its Head
Overhex “Soulo” 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Western Cape) – Green pepper juice, yet bisque-textured. How does that work, exactly? How does one pick a month too early and yet abandon any hint of acidity?

Overhex “Balance” 2006 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Western Cape) – Some green, some red, some black. Boring.

Okay, so…thus far, the best experience of the trip has been a submarine bunk-sized cabin in the visually wretched killing zone of Terminal 4. To say I’m trepidatious would be an understatement. Thankfully, my luck’s about to change. And then, change back.

Everyone knows she’s windy

Thanks to my double-length snooze, I can’t sleep as much as I’d like on the long flight from London to Cape Town, so I’m already wide awake as the sun lifts over the horizon and blazes through the windows like a laser pointed right at my eyes, and as the warming drawers come alive to fill the cabin with their aromas of stale bread, egg-colored plastic, and boiled bacon, and as the ultra-friendly flight attendant comes back to fling and slam comestibles on our wobbly trays (thankfully, she avoids me on her way to slopping coffee and tea on most of the people in our cabin).

Uh, welcome to South Africa?

The Cape Town airport is tiny. And in fact, a rather large part of it is, at the moment, a big white tent. Like so much else here, it’s undergoing a major expansion/facelift in preparation for the 2010 World Cup. It looks more than a year and a half from completion to me, but hopefully they’re on some semblance of a schedule.

Just on the other side of customs, our bags are grabbed by vested porters. Isn’t this the sort of thing we’ve been warned about? But no, they’re actually semi-official, the taxi’s from the one legit company we’ve been told to look for, and everything seems in order. Besides, what’s the harm in a few extra gratuities? At an exchange rate of ten-plus rand to the U.S. dollar, even an extravagant tip feels like pocket change.

After a landing that felt like a feather falling gently upon a fluffy down blanket, I’m surprised to find myself in the midst of gale-force winds (apparently, the wind is the “right direction” for air traffic) that buffet the car and occasionally send rather large objects flying across the road. When the sea’s visible, it’s a teeming mass of towering whitecaps. Iconic Table Mountain is shrouded in a seething veil of clouds. And stepping outside the car means a million tiny lacerations from a blizzard of blinding sand and dust. Oh, this is gonna be fun

For the duration of our stay in Cape Town, we’re ensconced in a lovely multi-room suite at the Westin Grand, paid for with a healthy dollop of Starwood points (God bless business travel). The room features views over the waterfront, the central business district, and, if one cranes one’s neck a bit, a portion of Table Mountain, but it’s the dramatic promontory of Lion’s Head that dominates the view, rising over the towers of the city.

Man, cave

And yet, we’re hungry again…which couldn’t possibly have anything to do with that wonderful SAA breakfast we almost ate, could it? I’ve got a list of restaurants but no real handle on locations, so after a quick shower and clean-up, we head out into the gale in search of food, barely making progress with each trudging step. Nearby flagpoles are bent nearly double, trees are being stripped of their limbs, and what few pedestrians are willing to brave the onslaught slog along at a 45-degree angle to the ground. Well, at least we’re getting our exercise.

The first thing we notice about the streets of Cape Town is that, in comparison to other major cities, there’s a serious dearth of restaurants. Even along pedestrian-only byways, there seem to be more places to grab a new pair of shoes than to grab a bite. Is this a function of the economy? Likely so, because there are quite a few lower-cost cart vendors.

Thankfully, one recommended address is close at hand, and despite the punishing winds we manage to make it inside the door of Caveau, a hip, yet comfortable and casual, wine bar that would be a regular hangout if I lived here. The menu, changed daily, comes on three giant chalkboards that are brought to the table…one for the raw bar, one for cooked dishes, and a third for dessert…while the wine list comes both in a long, somewhat confusing tome and also on a board of daily specials that’s attached to one wall. The list has terrific breadth and not inconsiderable depth, but though the categories (“time out wines,” “rich and robust”) are obviously designed for the wine novice, they’re frustrating for someone like me, who might be looking for a chenin blanc but has to page through three differently-located categories to find and compare the options. Many are available by the glass, however, and the list is considered enough that it’s hard to go too far wrong, even with haphazard ordering.

The food is ingredient-based rather than fussy, and though it’s a little under-seasoned (a trend that persists throughout South Africa), the largely local produce is shown to great effect. In any case, the wines are unquestionably highlighted by the restraint in the food. We start with a plate of meaty Saldanha Bay oysters, then move on to competing salmon and tuna tartares (the former is much better; the tuna lacks flavor), followed by very rare veal loin with actual vegetables, that modern restaurant rarity: grilled asparagus, salad greens, and an assortment of decoratives, all flavorful and (when applicable) precisely cooked.

[strange statue]

Do the Bartman?
Signal Hill “La Siesta” 2005 Grenache Blanc (Western Cape) – When first conceived (not that long ago), this was the only grenache blanc in all of South Africa, though that may not be true any longer. I’ve ordered it because it’s “local” – the winery is, at least ostensibly, located in Cape Town – and it’s certainly an adventurous introduction to the local wine scene. Oxidative but complex…less Scholium Project or Gravner than Kalin…showing old apricot, brown soil, and an old-leaf, mulchy texture. Dry, white and peppery is how it finishes. Points for effort, and it’s quite drinkable (though a bit of a crank with food), but I think this could be a little better.

Bouchard Finlayson 2003 “Hannibal” (Walker Bay) – A very strange blend: 52% sangiovese, 24% pinot noir, 11% nebbiolo, 9% mourvčdre, and 4% barbera. Only in the New World, eh? I suppose all those grapes contribute something, and with enough study their contributions do become individually apparent, but the problem isn’t so much that the whole is less than the sum of its parts (though I think it is), but rather that the mathematics haven’t been left to their own devices, and instead have been forced into a high-volume attempt at showstopping that deafens rather than seduces. There’s a heavy, heated, porty character that characterizes the wine…overly-intense dark black, blue, and purple fruit with a thick-browed texture…and despite the varietal hodgepodge it tastes very much like some of California’s most extravagantly syrah-like pinots. That’s not a compliment, in my book, but those with contrasting tastes may want to take note.

Simonsig 2001 “Redhill” Pinotage (Stellenbosch) – This is one of South Africa’s most decorated pinotages, but I can’t countenance the path it’s taken to get there. Oaky, with chocolate and slight volatility, followed by an intense explosion of synthetic berries. It probably needs even more years than it has already been given, but I just don’t think the balance is there; I believe the wood will always gloss over whatever qualities this wine might have had, and those qualities are already a little too shiny for my taste. In its style it’s well made, I suppose, but I don’t enjoy it very much.

Signal Hill 2005 “Vin de l’Empereur” (Paarl) – Sweet muscat d’Alexandrie, and already very dark brown, with moderate floral notes and an exotic, botrytis-laden aroma. However, all the reward’s in the nose, because the hollow and rather light palate doesn’t follow through on any of the former’s promises. Good, but only just.

The price for all this midday decadence? A mere $66 for three courses each, plus four glasses of higher-end wine, a few large bottles of water, and rooibos tea. I feel like I’m robbing the place. It’s a feeling that will be repeated, time and time again, over the next three weeks.

Winds of change

I bless the rains down in Africa

Yes, OK, but how about we curse the breeze while we’re at it?

Well-stuffed and liberally liquored, we feel ready to brave the winds and head back to the hotel. Or so we think. Just a few blocks from our destination, it feels like a hurricane has arrived. Theresa thinks she sees something blow out of a woman’s bag, and turns to tell her.

“Hurry! Catch it!” The woman is pointing across the road. The abrasion on my eyes is profound, and I can’t quite see what she’s looking at.

Suddenly, Theresa pipes up. “My glasses!”

And there in the middle of a busy street, describing a ten-foot diameter circle in a constantly-swirling cyclone of wind, are her glasses. They skip and glide across the ground, a mere wisp of color against the asphalt. Cars pass over them, uncaring, and still they blow. Seeing a brief break in traffic, I leap out to try and stop them with my foot, but they lift and hurtle skyward…then plummet back to the earth. A truck approaches, honking.




Copyright © Thor Iverson