Tuesday, January 27, 2009

South Africa or bust - Part Three

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, January 21, 2007)

Nov. 15 – We were up at 4:30 AM since this was the day we were swimming with the sharks. We were supposed to meet our shuttle at 5 and we showered, dressed and were downstairs in the hotel lobby just in time. But there was no shuttle in sight. After about half an hour, the night manager at the hotel desk suddenly remembered he was supposed to tell us that the shark encounter had been cancelled due to a big storm off the coast that was making the water too choppy for swimming or diving. Big disappointment and I was pissed off enough that I had gotten up so early and hung around that I called the shark diving company only to be told that she had called at 4, but the dope at the front desk wouldn't let her disturb us. So it was back downstairs, where I let the dope know how displeased I was and then it was back to bed.

We were up again at 7:30 and after looking at the rest of our schedule, we decided that we wouldn't be able to reschedule the shark thing for any other day. So we had to cancel for good. Skip was truly bummed. I was a bit as well, but was also secretly sighing a big sigh of relief. It would have been fun though…I guess…

So after a quick breakfast at the hotel, we decided to use the day to explore some more of the wine regions. We wanted to go to Franschoek and Paarl, both areas close to the already visited Stellenbosch.

The first area we hit was Franschoek and it turned out to be an area as beautiful as Stellenbosch, with huge, craggy mountains surrounded by the green vineyards:


The first winery we ran into was a place called Rupert & Rothschild. We had tried a glass of wine from the place at Balthazar Wine Bar and loved it, so we decided to visit and try some of their other varietals. We pulled up to the front gate only to find that it was a reservation-only place, but the gatekeeper called ahead and we were told to come on in. After a short drive through some beautiful grounds, we arrived at the tasting room to find a nice lady waiting for us out in front. She introduced herself as Chantel and then she immediately had us sitting at a table with several empty glasses in front of us and literature about their wines stacked to the side. Before she could start, we went into our song-and-dance about not being able to buy wines due to living in Los Angeles and she knew exactly what we were talking about and told us not to worry. What then followed was one of the most pleasant and fun wine tastings we've ever been to anywhere. She poured several of their wines and all were excellent. When we told her about our friend Rui and discovering South African wines a decade before, she called the wine maker out, Schalk-Willem Joubert, who talked with us for awhile and then gave us a bottle of his newest vintage Bordeaux blend (cabernet, sauvignon and merlot), which won't even be available to the public for three more years! And then after all that, Chantel asked us where we were eating lunch and dinner. When we told her that we hadn't made plans yet, she said that we had to have reservations and then got on the phone and called several places, securing us reservations for lunch and dinner. And on top of that, when we tried to pay for the wine tasting (it was supposed to be about $5 a person), she refused and sent us on our way. Now that's customer service!

We had some time before lunch, so we stopped at another place called Plasir De Merle. The wines were very good and we were off to lunch.

Chantel had tried to book us into a restaurant called Le Quartier Francais. This is not only considered one of the best restaurants in South Africa, but also one of the best in the world. Its also usually booked up months in advance and this was the case today as well. But there was a little café attached that was run by the same chef and owner called Isi and that's where we were booked for lunch. Here's a view from our table:


I started with a goat cheese soufflé and then went on to the lamb burger. I later read that the lamb burger is legendary in those parts and I have to say it was one of the best, if not THE best, hamburger I've ever eaten, easily rivaling the buffalo/foie gras burger at Josie's in Santa Monica. Skip had fried sweetbreads and then feasted on the impala ribs and we ended the meal with coffee and a great pineapple carpaccio.

And then it was off to Paarl to see what we could. Unfortunately, Paarl turned out to be a quite dull and unremarkable little town with a bunch of wineries spread out around it. It wasn't particularly beautiful or anything either. So while there are certainly some great wineries there, we still decided to high-tail it back to Franschoek. But on the way, we saw a winery that we did know and stopped to have a taste. This is a place called Fairview, who do a fairly good wine called Goats-Do-Roam, a funny take on the French wine, Cotes-du-Rhone. You can find this wine at Trader Joe's here in the USA.

Arriving at the winery, we found that they were rather obsessed with goats:


And they were offering a goat cheese tasting along with their wine tasting. We tasted about 10 wines, including a very nice dessert wine, and about a half dozen different, excellent cheeses.

And then we were back in Franschoek, where we tasted wines at two more places, La Motte, where we enjoyed an exceptional sauvignon blanc, and Mont Rochelle, which was built at the foot of a mountain and had beautiful views of the Franschoek Valley:


We still had some time before dinner and so we decided to take a stroll around the city of Franschoek. It's a very nice, tourist-oriented Dutch Colonial town:


At 7, Chantel had booked us into a restaurant called Hate Cabriere. We were excited because a friend-of-a-friend had told us this was her favorite place to go due to excellent food and even better views. It turned out to be a ways out of town and up a winding road. We arrived to find a winery and restaurant built into the side of a mountain:


It was a very romantic setting and the meal we were served was excellent. We split an order of smoked salmon trout and I went on to an appetizer of mussels while Skip enjoyed quail with foie gras. And for our main courses, Skip had the veal medallions and I had a great Kingklip, another of the local South African fishes I had never heard of before arriving in the country. We closed with dessert and then it was back on the road and home to the hotel after another excellent day.

Nov. 16 – Today was the day we had planned to drive down to the Cape Of Good Hope. We started with our usual hotel breakfast. It was a big one this time as we weren't planning on stopping for lunch. At 10 AM, we headed off through Camp's Bay and out of town along the coastal route. The Cape isn't really that far away, maybe an hour, but we knew that we would be stopping and seeing sights and taking pictures everywhere along the way.

And there was a lot of remarkable scenery and warnings of wildlife along the way. We hadn't seen any sign of wildlife on this trip so far. We knew that we were too far south for lions and elephants and the like, but Cape Town was supposed to have baboons, zebras and a whole slew of different kinds of antelopes and we were getting frustrated that we hadn't caught sight of any. So we were hoping that this trip would finally allow us to see some of these wild critters.

We made it all the way down to the Cape without seeing even a bird, although we did see the big, white, beautiful beach that was used in the film "Ryan's Hope". So we paid our toll to get into the national park and headed off to the visitor's center with hopes they could point us in the direction of animals. On the way to the visitor's center, I finally saw a group of wild antelope, but they were so far away, I couldn't make out what kind they were. But the ranger gave us some pointers (and warnings) about wildlife and we were off on our own little safari to find wild baboons. We drove down to a beach that she had said that baboons loved to hang out on, but there was not an ape in sight. So we decided to just drive to the end of the cape and see what we could see. And just as we were leaving the beach area, we ran into a whole pack of baboons, making me yell with delight. They were magnificent animals, not anything like the bored creatures I've seen in zoos picking their butts and yawning.


We were told that we should keep all windows up and lock our doors because the baboons had figured out how to open car doors. So we watched them from our car for about 10 minutes and then they wandered off to other parts and we headed off to the Cape.

First, we went to Cape Point. This is where the lighthouse sits and we took a funicular up the mountain to visit the old lighthouse:


It turned out that the old lighthouse was too far up on the mountain and would get lost in the fog so the ships couldn't see its beam. So a new lighthouse had to be built lower and closer to the water. We walked down a path that took us to a place just above the new lighthouse,



But since it is a working lighthouse, we couldn't visit that. This is a view of the old lighthouse from the new one:


Then it was back up to the old lighthouse and a quick bite and glass of wine at the gift shop. We walked back to our car to make the short drive from Cape Point to the Cape Of Good Hope. Along that drive we saw our next wild animal, a pair of wild ostriches. This is the female:


Here I am at the Cape:


And here's the Cape itself:


We spent a few more hours driving around. We saw more baboons and some lizards and turtles, but we never saw any of the zebras that were supposed to be all over the place. And we never saw any more antelopes. Oh well. But we had heard there were some warm water penguins up the east coast and we left the Cape area and headed to Boulders Beach, where the penguins lived.

It was a nice drive up the east coast. There was lots of stunning scenery and nice little beach towns along the way. We arrived at Boulders and easily found the penguin park. I had seen some penguins at Robben Island, but only from far away, so this was exciting for me to see wild penguins so close:



By this time, it was 5 PM and we decided to head back to Cape Town and try to find a place to have dinner. By 6, we were downtown and I found a place to park near Long Street. There were several African restaurants on Long Street and we were jonesing for true African food, which we really hadn't had yet. The first place we went to was booked up solid, so we walked down the road to a place called Mama Africa. They were also booked solid, but told us that we could sit at the bar and eat there. That was acceptable and we enjoyed a great meal of grilled crocodile skewers with peanut sauce, bushman's carpaccio (warthog, ostrich and kudu), bobotie (sort of an Cape Malay version of shepherds pie), potjie (an African game stew, this one with kudu and ostrich) and the always-wonderful malva pudding, all washed down with some great wines.

Walking back to the car, I made a big mistake. A street kid, about 9 years old, stopped and asked me for money. I make it a habit to never give beggars money, but for some reason this kid struck me. With his hands cupped in front of him and his constant pleas of "Please Sir, some money", it all reminded me of a Charles Dickens scene and I reached into my pocket and gave him the change I had there. Not good. He immediately got aggressive and started following us yelling and demanding more money. We were trying to figure out a way to try to lose him and suddenly a cop was there, holding the kid by the scruff of his neck. And without a word, he turned and dragged the kid off to his car. I felt really bad and you can bet I'll remember to never do that again.

(We saw the kid again the next day. He recognized us and stuck out his tongue, but he took off the other way and didn't bother us.)

Nov. 17 - Today was the day we had booked a tour of the townships. Several people at the hotel had tried to talk us out of this tour. They couldn't understand why we would want to expose ourselves to something so depressing. Skip had his reservations about it as well, but I was determined to see every side of Cape Town and considering their recent history, I felt that skipping this part of the trip just wouldn't be right.

At 8 AM Crosby, who would be our tour guide for the morning, met us at the hotel. He lived in the townships and shared a shack with his wife and two children.

The shacks look like these:



Not everyone lives in places as bad as these. There are also blocks of dreary apartments and small, spare houses. Here's a picture of Crosby at one of the townships:


Crosby picked up a few more people along the way and we were off for our first stop at the District Six Museum. District Six was the pre-apartheid area that most of the black and colored poor people lived in in Cape Town. But in 1966, the government announced that District Six would now be a whites-only area and all the people who lived there were forced into the townships. People lost their family homes and businesses and were forced into poverty. District Six is now mostly just a large empty lot, although there are plans to rebuild it and allow the families that lived there to move back in again.

At the museum, I met Noor Ebrahim, a Muslim who lived and grew up in District Six and now is the education officer at the museum. He has a book out called "Noor's Story: My Life In District Six", and I bought a copy which he signed for me.

From there, we headed out to one of the townships. There are four major townships in Cape Town and we were supposed to visit them all, although due to time, we only made it to three of them. On the way, Crosby asked us not to give money to the kids who would approach us. I mentioned the street urchin from the night before and he said that the reason they don't want tourists giving the kids money was because there was a bad enough unemployment problem in the country and they wanted kids to grow up and get jobs. If tourists gave them money, they would get used to that and wouldn't work and improve their lot as they got older.

The townships were amazing for me. Sure, it was depressing seeing people live the way they were forced to. But the people we're all outgoing and friendly. They encouraged picture taking and wanted people to hear their stories and spread the word about the conditions they had to live their lives in. I found almost every person I met and talked to there to be proud and inspirational.


We first visited a local tavern. It basically consisted of a shack with a bunch of men sitting around on benches while a woman made a big vat of some liquid. We joined them and it turned out to be a corn beer. The first person would take a drink of the beer and then pass it on down the line. The beer was actually pretty good, with a nice bitter bite to it. Here's the woman who mixed the beer:


The men hung around because they knew the tourists would be coming and would buy the beer that they could continue drinking.

From there, we visited with an old man who told us of his life and showed us his one room apartment that he shared with three other men:


Next was a visit with the local witch doctor:


Not everyone was allowed to take pictures of him, but he allowed me to do so. Skip had been talking to him and I think he liked the questions Skip was asking.

And then it was on to a visit at Vicky's:



I had seen Miss Vicky on TV a few months before we left, so I was already aware of her and her business. She had opened a bed and breakfast in the township. You could spend the night there. She would cook dinner and breakfast for you and at night, she would walk you across the street to the local bar, where you could join the locals in a drink and a game of pool. The whole experience sounded great and we were sorry we couldn't do it this time around. But we will definitely be staying with her on our next trip.

And then time was up and we were on our way back to the hotel. I'll have more to say about the townships and our talks with Crosby when I sum all this up next week.

We got back to the hotel just in time to meet Gene, Arthur Quinton's assistant. You'll recall that she was going to give us a tour of the home we had seen in TV in the States. She arrived to pick us up and we told her that we had already met her boyfriend Phillip at De Meye only to have her tell us that she had broken up with him. They were still friends, but she was too much of a city girl and he was into wine making out in the country and it just didn't work out. For some reason, I was very sad about that.

So she drove us up the house and it was a beauty:




Maybe someday…

Afterwards, we had her drop us off at the V&A Waterfront. We wanted to check on a book we were looking for at the bookstore there. And since we had dinner reservations above Long Street, we thought it would be nice to walk up through Bo-Kapp since we hadn't been in that part of town yet.

The book we were hoping for hadn't been released yet and so we headed up through Green Point and up to the Nose Bar, where we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and more talk. Then we left and headed to Bo-Kapp. Bo-Kapp is the Muslim area of town. It supposedly has some of the best African/Cape Malay restaurants in town, although we never made it there for food, and is one of the most colorful areas in the city:




I really wish we had spent more time there now. Another reason for another vacation.

Then we walked up Long Street and finally made it to our restaurant, The Cape Malay. The restaurant was in a beautiful and elegant hotel called the Mount Nelson, housed in an old Dutch Colonial building. The restaurant reminded me of the old Brown Derby here in LA and I felt horribly underdressed. But once we entered, most people were dressed very casual and we were okay after all, although I still would have preferred wearing suit and tie to the place:


Skip started with a Caesar salad, while I enjoyed the house-cured gravlax with langoustine and apple and bean salad. We then moved on to a grilled fillet of beef with foie gras sauce for Skip and I treated myself to the rack of lamb with lamb kidneys and pinotage sauce. Vanilla bean crème Brule was the dessert of choice. This was an elegant, amazing meal. The service was among the best I've ever had anywhere. We left the restaurant just in time to run into our hotel shuttle and be delivered back to our hotel in a full and happy mood.

Nov. 18 – This was our last day in Cape Town and we wanted to make the most of it. We were going to spend it driving around another wine region. This time it was Constantia. Constantia is the oldest wine region in Cape Town. It's also the closest. In fact, it's actually within the city limits. Like the other regions, it was absolutely beautiful:




This area was different in that instead of a whole lot of small wineries, it was made up of only 6 very large wineries. Five of them are open to the public. We visited Buitenverwachting first and then moved on to Klein Constantia. Both were beautiful, with some world class, amazing wines.

We arrived at Constantia Uitsig just in time for lunch, but found that the restaurant there was fully booked. But after a small talk with the manager, we were led to a room off the main room for lunch. They apologized to us for seating us in this "undesirable" area, but we found the room pleasant and comfortable. It was just lacking the view of the main room.


There we split an order of oysters and I had scallops in puff pastry for my main course. Skip ordered quail and chicken liver pasta. It was all excellent, of course. For dessert we saw a '76 Nederburg listed and couldn't believe it. This is a rare wine in the States and we've never seen a dessert wine this old listed anywhere. (It came to about $5 for the glass.) The wine had turned black with age and tasted of prunes. It was absolutely delicious and we felt very lucky to have been able to try it.

We then moved on to wine tasting at Uitsig and then drove to Grout Constantia for the same. Six hours later we were at our final stop, Steenburg, where we were having dinner at Catharina's, yet another restaurant considered one of the best in the area:


This was an incredible meal and was fitting for our final South African dinner. We had Chef Garth's tasting menu, which was 12 courses and three glasses of wine. We had:

Lobster bisque with crawfish ravioli and poached crawfish tail, crispy fried prawn in vanilla bean sauce, Salmon tartar and a poached summer tomato salad. That was followed with char grilled ostrich fillet with shitake mushroom gratin, porcini crusted beef fillet, char grilled kudu fillet with goats cheese ravioli and foie gras and a pan fried rack of lamb with salsa verde. (This was the best lamb dish I've ever eaten.) And to finish it all off was Amarula crème Brule, bitter chocolate terrine, chocolate truffle ravioli with peanut butter ice cream and a summer berry parfait. (By the way, Amarula is a local liqueur that is made with a wild African fruit. Its very similar to Bailey's.) Incredible! This meal was the most expensive we had during our trip. It came to about $80 each. We would have spent $200 each for a dinner like this in LA.

And with that, we were off to our hotel and our final night.

Nov. 19 – We were up at 4 AM and off to the airport after giving our thanks to those at the hotel we could find at that early hour. We had to turn in our rental car and get through security. But security turned out to be no problem. We were allowed to bring on water and there seemed to be no worries, which was quite a contrast to leaving the States and what we would go through when we left London a few days from now.

But the British Air flight to London was one of the worst I've ever taken. There wasn't enough room for a man of normal height to sit and I joined several other taller gentlemen walking around the plane during most of the flight. The stewardesses were also surly and unhelpful. I have heard so much about how great British Air was, but I have vowed to never fly them again after this horrible experience.

But after twelve hours of torture, we arrived at Heathrow and our friend, Andy Bean, met us. We took the subway and a cab to his house in Hackney, where we met up with his wife, Jo, and had a nice dinner at a strange pub.

We spent two days in London and had a blast as always. I love London. It's full of great friends and plenty to do. During our two days we rode the slides at the Tate:


As well as spent a day looking at the great modern art the museum contained. We went record and book shopping and met Andy's friend Don, who is in a great band called The Real Tuesday Weld. We ate some amazing Indian food at Rasa and had one of the best meals I've ever had in London at the OXO Towers Restaurant. Despite its reputation, London has become one of the best restaurant towns in the world. I got to see a friend I haven't seen or talked to in years, Duncan, although it still wasn't enough time. And I got to meet and see one of my rock gods, Malcolm Ross, play a live show at a sparsely attended pub show:


London was horribly expensive though and the shock of it was even worse after our visit to Cape Town. But we were back at the airport and boarding a plane home to LA after two days and I found myself wishing I had booked more time to spend there.

We headed back to Los Angeles on the 22nd and had a remarkably good flight on American Airlines, where the stewardesses told us we were their favorite passengers of the day and they treated us to many free drinks. So it was a very happy ending to a very happy trip.

I'll be back next week (probably Wednesday) to give you all some final thoughts on South Africa. Thanks for putting up with me during all this. I hope to be on to other topics by next Sunday. I'm already trying to decide which of my many road stories I want to tell.

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