The Labia Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary with Roodeberg Wine and the First International Screening of Rocketman

Most modern movie cinema experiences are tailored to blow you away with their deafening surround sound, base levels that vibrate your bone marrow, and visuals that sear both your retina and the thrill centres of your brain. This is washed down with copious amounts of overpriced soda and popcorn in a chrome and fake velvet environment managed by nameless staff. It’s impressive and it’s impersonal, and, most of the time, it takes walking out of the cinema (or at best a night’s sleep) for the experience’s to fade from your memory.

The Labia Cinema is the antithesis of this.

This independent film theatre salutes and pays homage to a bygone era when going to the movies was a thing of beauty, grandeur, and culture. The movies screened here are carefully selected to permeate one’s skin, moving one to tears, to smile, to think, and certainly to want to come back for more. After 70 years of delighting audiences with quality alternative cinema, the city’s original and last surviving independent movie theatre is throwing on its glad rags to celebrate a very happy birthday anniversary.

Labia-70th-Anniversary

From Italian ballroom to independent film theatre

Tucked into its corner on Orange Street, the Labia has long been the venue to which movie buffs and lovers of cinema have come to satiate their hunger for art house movies, documentaries, foreign films, historical cinema, and even big-ticket blockbusters. But the Labia didn’t start out life as a movie theatre. In 1949, Princess Ida Labia (nee Robinson), officially opened the doors of what was then the ballroom venue of the Italian Embassy, located right next door.

In 1989, soon-to-be owner and manager Ludi Krause took a leap of faith by giving up a career in law, purchasing the Labia, and transforming it into an independent film cinema.

“It was an inspired move and one that has brought much joy to Capetonians and visitors alike,” said actress Roberta Fox during her emotive welcome speech at the 70th anniversary celebrations.

Birthday Celebrations

Labia Cinema Cape Town
Jon Meinking, Ondela Mlandu, The Labia owners Ludi Kraus and Biata Walsh, and Roodeberg Brand Manager Carli Jordaan

Guests to the exuberant 70th anniversary celebrations were welcomed with the kind of red-carpet entrance one would expect from a movie premiere, which it really was, but we didn’t know that at the time – more on that later. The entrance led up to a covered terrace crammed wall-to-wall and elbow-to-elbow with guests. Drowning in the crowd was a table groaning with canapés and another with wine, and not just any wine but a true stalwart of the South African wine industry: the KWV Roodeberg, which also turns 70 this year (no coincidence).

KWV-Roodeberg-Wine

KWV Roodeberg: An ageless recipe that has stood the test of time; inspired by the undeniable pairing between the master’s original blend and modern evolution; serving only the fullest flavour for today’s ever-evolved taste palates; time after time.

Making our way to the KWV table required snorkelling through a soupy bend of perfume, body heat, and gay laughter but we eventually got our hands on a delicious glass of Roodeberg and even managed to scoff a few pastries before seeking refuge from the crowds in the cinema’s lobby, where eTV was filming an interview with Ludi Krause and the beloved, characterful staff of the Labia.

At 19:30, we were ushered into the cinema for a surprise screening of “Rocketman”, an intoxicatingly fun yet confronting film about Elton John’s rise to fame, fall from grace, and returning triumph. This, just three days after it was launched at the Cannes Film Festival in France! It took us by complete surprise and felt even more like a treat knowing that we were watching the film several days before it was scheduled to open in the UK and USA.

A little about the Labia Cinema

The Labia Cinema

The Labia has four screens, the largest accommodating 176 people and the smallest and most intimate, only 51. Accompanying the cinema experience is a snack stand for popcorn, slush puppies, and sodas, a cosy coffee bar selling home-made sweets and treats, and an outside terrace serviced by a fully licensed bar. Wonderful: good wine and good movies were made for each other (and you can take your wine into the cinema with you!)

“The Labia is an oasis of culture. Its movies lift your spirits and make you think that much harder about who you are; they can make you profoundly sad or deliriously happy but mostly, the Labia is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Inside, the décor and interior design have remained pretty much untouched and its art deco, wood-panelled lobby and ticket booth give it a tangible feel of history, nostalgia, and charm. Of course, the projection technology has had to keep up with the times and it was with the fundraising and networking support of its patrons that all four screens at the Labia were able to go digital.

Labia-70th-Anniversary

The Labia family and future

Over the years, many performers and directors have experienced career milestone “firsts” at the Labia. And while this independent film cinema has served as a launch pad for many an artist, it also functions like a home. And like any home, it has a family, at the heart of which is the staff, most of who have worked here for decades. It was lovely to see them as honoured and celebrated by the festivities as the Grand Dame of Cinema herself.

The Labia’s art deco charm, sense of nostalgia, and intelligent, compelling films comprise the formula that has kept loyal patrons coming back year-after-year. But what of its future?

“Our audience is becoming younger as millennials are looking for more ‘cool’ retro places to hang out than the glitzy spaces of the mainstream cinemas,” explains Ludi Krause. Excellent to hear.

To conclude, I couldn’t think of a better, more beautifully phrased ode to the Labia than Roberta Fox’s words: “The Labia is an oasis of culture. Its movies lift your spirits and make you think that much harder about who you are; they can make you profoundly sad or deliriously happy but mostly, the Labia is the gift that keeps on giving.”

The Labia Cinema

The Labia Movie Theatre is situated at 68 Orange Street. Online bookings can be made through Webtickets. For more information visit http://www.thelabia.co.za or call +27 (0) 21 424 5927 for more information.

This blog was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/06/06/the-labia-celebrates-its-70th-anniversary-with-roodeberg-wine-and-the-first-international-screening-of-rocketman/

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For an Education in Authentic Japanese Cuisine, Head to Kyoto Garden Sushi This Winter

Japanese cuisine sushi, Kyoto restaurant
Claire Gunn Photography

In Cape Town, where rain is enthusiastically welcomed, winter is no excuse for staying indoors. In fact, most restaurants in the Mother City celebrate the wet season with fabulous winter specials and Kyoto Garden Sushi is no different. And so, on a crisp winter’s Friday evening, we found ourselves in the tranquil embrace of this small, intimate, and incredibly unique restaurant to experience its five-course tasting menu.

You’ll find Kyoto Garden Sushi tucked discretely into an elbow in Kloof Nek road, where the surrounding bars’ clientele bursts out onto the sidewalks on a weekend evening. Leaving the rowdy noise of this popular nightspot behind you, you cross the threshold into a peaceful, low-lit, and superbly romantic oasis.

Japanese cuisine sushi, Kyoto restaurant
Claire Gunn Photography

A five-course exploration of Japanese cuisine

Kyoto Garden Sushi is a bit of a digression from the standard sushi eateries Cape Town has to offer but because of this, it would seem to deliver a far more authentic experience for adventurous diners. Forget store-bought wasabi in a tube, complex sushi creations featuring biltong and cream cheese, and fashionable photographic artwork of young, smiling westerners. The décor here is minimalist yet beguiling, the menu reflects the ocean delicacies coveted in Japan, from sea urchin to squid (with ink), and the beverage menu is an ode to the country’s booze-making traditions and trends, offering guests a vast selection of Japanese gins, whiskies, cocktails, and sake.

We began our meal with a trio of ocean ingredients – eel, sea urchin or “uni”, and scallop – prepared simply with the natural flavours and textures of the meats taking centre stage. To be perfectly honest, we both anticipated this first course with much trepidation but, bite after bite, we were both astounded by how delicious these exotic delicacies were. The eel was rich, fatty and perfectly complimented by a sweet barbeque-type marinade, the scallop was tender, soft, and sweet, and the sea urchin a pure blast of fresh ocean… like being smacked in the face by an Atlantic Ocean wave.

Japanese cuisine sushi, Kyoto restaurant
Claire Gunn Photography

Actually, to describe the latter, a new paragraph is necessary. Sea urchin outside of its pretty green shell is not the most attractive meat: “orange and gooey” accurately describes it. Its flavour, however, is one of pure nostalgia for anyone who has grown up next to the ocean, bringing to mind childhood memories of playing in the tidal rock pools alongside Fish Hoek beach. The flavour was neither salty nor fishy, but if ever there were a flavour analogy for the ocean – the living, breathing ocean – sea urchin would be it. What a treat.

Japanese cuisine sushi, Kyoto restaurant
Claire Gunn Photography

We accompanied our first course with chilled sake, a traditional sweet Japanese beverage made from fermented rice.

Next up was a whole squid from Port Elizabeth, sliced and served on a bed of rich, salty squid ink followed by spinach leaves and oysters served tempura style with a delicious ginger sauce. Three courses in – and with sake glasses drained of their delicious contents – we decided to explore Kyoto Garden Sushi’s fabulous Japanese inspired cocktail menu. With names like Japanese Apple Tree, Dirty Ninja Saketini, Geisha, and Green Tea Destiny, how could we resist?

Our fourth course was a refreshing, palate-cleansing bowl of chilled broth laced with lime and served with thick noodles and chopped spring onions. Then there was the Maine lobster with brown butter; a meat so rich and naturally sweet that I actually preferred it without the butter (but that’s just a matter of personal taste – my plus one looked like he’d won the lottery when I told him he could have it all to himself).

Finally, dessert: three dollops of dense, creamy ice cream, each of which incorporated different, unorthodox (for us here in South Africa) flavours: salty-sweet miso, refreshing lime, and citrusy yuzu. Our final course was washed down with French Chardonnay because… well, when does one ever need an excuse to drink French Chardonnay?

Japanese cuisine sushi, Kyoto restaurant
Claire Gunn Photography

Japanese whisky tasting

With all five courses demolished and cheeks rosy from the sake, cocktails, and wine, we were contemplating our next move when the restaurant proprietor, Scott Wood, approached us with a bottle of Japanese whisky. Apparently, this is something he does quite frequently with guests who show a real interest in the cuisine and the authentic experience. Thus began a most fascinating journey through Japanese whisky of which we tried about four and while I have never been very fond of whisky, the Japanese craft it in a way that I find wholly palatable – sweet, nutty, and smoky.

Japanese cuisine sushi, Kyoto restaurant
Claire Gunn Photography

Our new go-to sushi spot

We had an extraordinary time at Kyoto Garden Sushi. The whole experience felt authentic, wholesome, and unpretentious. Scott is a very hands-on owner, who is as happy to clear away plates and wipe down tables as he is to take you on a tipsy tour of Japanese booze. The service was top notch, the waitrons a real pleasure to interact with, the food simple, yet spectacular, and the ambiance romantic with a real air of Eastern enchantment.

Japanese cuisine sushi, Kyoto restaurant
Claire Gunn Photography

If you’re looking for a go-to sushi restaurant or just an escape from whatever it is that ails you, try Kyoto Garden Sushi in Cape Town. And if you plan on endearing yourself to the proprietor for a whisky tasting, prepare to Uber home!

Phone: 021 422 2001
Address: 11 Kloof Nek Road, Gardens, Cape Town
Web: www.kyotogardensushict.com

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2018/05/29/for-an-education-in-authentic-japanese-cuisine-head-to-kyoto-garden-sushi-this-winter/

One-of-a-kind Wine Tasting Experience at Esona Boutique Winery

Esona wine Robertson South Africa

When one speaks of the internationally-renown Cape Winelands, the leafy, winemaking towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek tend to dominate the limelight. Yet, two-hours outside of the city lies a pristine valley, where winemaking tradition, history, culture, and talent is as strong as it is in its celebrity counterparts: the Robertson Wine Valley. Here, a constellation of wineries contributes tirelessly to the wine culture of our country and a shining star among them all is Esona Boutique Winery.

“The very one”: single vineyard, limited release wines

Esona, which means “the very one” in Xhosa, lies sandwiched between the towns of Robertson and Bonnievale in the heart of the Robertson Wine Valley, with the Langeberg to the north and the Riviersonderend Mountains to the south. From the second floor of its pretty winery, one gets a sense of orientation and views of vineyards that extend all the way down to the Breede River, the valley’s central artery that supplies all the farms with life-giving water.

Robertson Wine Valley South Africa

Floating like a stalwart ship in an ocean of green vineyards, Esona’s winery and underground cellar is a compact building that caters to every expectation: stylish interior with charming historic elements, delicious food platters, a lovely selection of wines, friendly staff, absolutely gorgeous views, and a unique underground cellar tasting experience. In order to get there, one is required to walk through a short section of vineyards, which is testament to the boutique status of the estate because if they had hoards of visitors, the plants would likely suffer.

Girl power at Esona Boutique Winery

The assistant winemaker at Esona Boutique Winery is Charmaine, who, in addition to obliterating the male winemaker gender stereotype, worked her way up from farm labourer to her current position. If anyone has an intimate understanding of the grapes and the vineyards, it’ll be the person who once tended to them with their very own hands.

In this way, the family behind Esona are dedicated to empowering their staff and the people in their community, not only by hiring them, but by training, mentoring, and allowing them to realise their full potential irrespective of where they started out in life. Wine tasting assistants are able to become managers, and farm labourers are able to become wine makers. These individuals have the talent and the team at Esona gave them the necessary education, skills, and techniques.

Esona Wine, Robertson South Africa
Photograph credit: http://www.esona.co.za

A candlelit, Riedel glass wine-tasting in the “Kuip”

Upon arriving at Esona Boutique Winery and after a welcome glass of their fresh “Frankly My Dear” Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir, our party of four descended into the quiet, dimly-lit, and intimate space of the “kuip”, the underground cellar. Decades ago, in the era prior to the adoption of sophisticated climate control technology, winemakers would build great cement cisterns underground where temperatures were cool and protected from the daily fluctuations. Within these great subterranean cisterns, the juice from the grapes would be allowed to ferment in peace, producing quality, delicious wine. The old cellar at Esona has since been reconstructed to accommodate guests such as us and for one of the Cape’s most unique wine tasting experiences.

Esona underground cellar wine tasting
Photograph credit: http://www.esona.co.za

And so we sat down to an absolute must-do of an activity for any visitor to the Robertson Wine Valley: a “vertical” wine tasting (and food and music pairing) from Riedel glassware. On the table were two vintages of three different wines from Esona’s collection – a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. The idea is to taste the difference between the two vintages of the same wines and how an extra year or two plays out beautifully in the character and depth of the wine. The tastings were also done using famous glassware known as Riedel glasses, which have been specifically crafted to draw out the subtlest of flavours and most nuanced of aromas in specific cultivars.

Esona wine Robertson

The Chardonnay glass, for example, was elegant, long-stemmed, and had a round, almost fish bowl-shaped (not sized, unfortunately) vestibule. This shape is said to complement the voluptuous character of Esona’s Chardonnay and to allow its rich buttery, caramel notes to sing. The effects of the shape of the glassware on the flavours and aromas of the wine were highlighted by sniffing and sipping the same wine out of low-end restaurant wine glasses. For someone with an education rooted in the sciences, I was at first sceptical, but the difference was not just perceptible but significantly so!

Riedel glassware is the creative collaboration of talented and experienced glassblowers and winemakers, the product of which is the perfect vestibule from which to enjoy your Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc.

Riedle Glassware wine tasting
Photo credit: http://www.riedel.com

Wine, food, and music pairing

In addition to the vertical tasting and the use of Riedel glasses, there was a third and a fourth element: a pairing with Lindt chocolate and fruit preserves and music to match the wine. Our round of Sauvignon Blanc was enjoyed with light, classical music, while the Shiraz had country music as its soundtrack.

Every element of our visit to Esona Boutique Winery – the tasting, glassware, sweet accompaniments, music, views, food, walk through the vineyards, and of course Esona’s limited release single vineyard wines – was lovely and came together to create a (highly recommendable) symphonic experience.

Esona Robertson Wine Valley South Africa

Contact Esona Boutique Winery:
Phone: 076 343 5833
Website: www.esona.co.za

This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2018/01/15/one-kind-wine-tasting-experience-esona-boutique-winery/

Tokara Wine and Olive Farm: All in a Day’s Easy Itinerary

Tokara Olive and Wine Farm, Stellenbosch, South Africa It’s all too easy to spend a full day in the Cape Winelands. With hundreds of wine estates, restaurants, and activities to explore within a fairly short distance of each other, spending a full day hopping and skipping from one wine estate to the next is a pleasure for any wine, food, and nature lover. On the other hand, Stellenbosch’s exquisite Tokara Wine and Olive Farm demands and deserves a full day’s exploration on its own.

Here’s why…

Olive Oil Tastings

Extra virgin olive oil, Tokara
Fresh off the press, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil. The most beautiful aromas of fresh, zingy cut grass here in Tokara Olive Shed

Tokara’s Olive Shed upholds the traditional union that is a vineyard and olive grove, and, every year, produces tens of thousands of litres of premium extra virgin olive oil. The fertile soils here support three different olive varieties – mission, leccino, and fantoio – and it’s from the fruits of these groves that Tokara produces five lusciously creamy and zesty olive oils. These are available for tasting at Tokara’s Delicatessen, which affords visitors absolutely beautiful views of the vineyards, olive groves, and Simonsberg Mountain.

Tokara Delicatessen

Tokara wine and olive farm, Stellenbosch

And while you’re sampling Tokara’s exquisite selection of olive oils, you might consider pairing the experience with a crisp glass of the estate’s Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2017 and perhaps a nibble from the Deli. Tokara’s Delicatessen serves up a handsome variety of breakfasts, lunches, light meals, and snacks in a gorgeous indoor and outdoor setting, making it a lovely destination for all seasons.

If, however, you’ve decided to save your appetite for Tokara’s restaurant, you can enjoy your olive oil tasting, a glass of wine, a small snack, and a quick perusal of the Deli Shop’s offerings of olive pastes, pesto’s, and oils, as well as whole olives, handmade Belgian chocolate truffles, South African cheeses, real Canadian maple syrup, freshly baked bread, and local and imported cold meats.

Tel: 021 808 5950
E-mail: deli@tokara.com

A Walk in the Olive Groves

With appetites whet and a little purchase under your arm, the next stop on your Tokara itinerary has got to be a leisurely walk through the farm’s shady olive groves. Follow the pathway as it winds through the groves, ultimately (and conveniently) leading you to Tokara’s main restaurant, which is housed in a separate building on the other side of the grove. Make sure you keep a look out for the handsome peacocks and peahens that like to hang out in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees.

Lunch at Tokara Restaurant

Saving the best for last, which is saying a lot considering the incredible calibre delivered by all aspects of Tokara Wine and Olive Farm, you simply have to pay Tokara’s restaurant a visit. Considered one of South Africa’s very best fine dining restaurants, Tokara delivers the farm’s outstanding repertoire of wines and a dynamic, seasonal menu crafted by super talented chef, Carolize Coetzee. The venue itself is beautiful, adeptly reflecting the Cape’s natural heritage, and offers spectacular views over False Bay and the Stellenbosch wine growing region.

Tokara wine & olive farm, restaurant

Tokara Restaurant Contact: 021 885 2550, reservations@tokara.com

A full day out at Tokara Wine and Olive Farm should make an appearance on your itinerary soon. It’s a full day of delight, and welcomes the entire family!

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: www.southernvines.co.za/2017/09/28/tokara-wine-olive-farm-days-easy-itinerary-one-capes-beautiful-gifted-wine-estates/

Tokara wine and olive farm, Stellenbosch

Brains on Toast at La Tête Restaurant

Yes, brains on toast.

It’s the very first thing that catches your eye as you peruse La Tête Restaurant’s menu and it’s absolutely no joke. Chef Giles Edwards doesn’t just stray off the proverbial beaten path at La Tête, he turns around and gives it the finger with his unorthodox menu.

Brains La Tete Restaurant, Cape Town
Lambs brains on toast

The nose-to-tail dining revolution

The concept is simple and, moreover, a desperately needed paradigm shift in the way society views food. It’s called “nose-to-tail” dining and it means that the entire animal, literally from nose to tail, makes it to our plate; not just the popular cuts of meat we’ve become comfortable and familiar with. To illustrate, La Tête’s menu features such intriguing dishes as brains on toast, crispy pig’s tails, baked trotter (pig’s feet), and grilled ox heart.

Chef Giles La Tete Restaurant
Chef Giles (left) in his natural habitat (picture from La Tete’s Instagram account)

Aside from the fact that these meats – organs – bear serious merit as food (and are exquisitely prepared at La Tête), the philosophy underlining nose-to-tail dining is that nothing goes to waste. It’s an environmentally conscious philosophy and one that Chef Giles aims to drive home with his unconventional menu.

Let’s face it: popular media and societal influences have convinced us that nobody eats brains, perhaps with the exception of zombies. And you’d have to be barbaric to eat an animal’s heart. Even liver is, to many people, “totally gross”. Yet we heartily tuck into beef steak, lamb chops, pork belly, and chicken breasts, legs, and wings.

La Tete Restaurant, Cape Town
Probably the most “normal” thing we ate that evening: roast quail and chips

It’s environmentally unconscious to waste meat that is more than just edible but actually delicious and healthy. I for one think that the heart is a beautiful meat and boasts a flavour that few other cuts of meat can rival. Among my favourite snacks of all time is lightly seasoned, barbecued chicken hearts, which we used to order on skewers from the food carts that stationed themselves outside of our regular watering holes in Thailand. How I miss Thailand.

Having said all of this, La Tête Restaurant’s menu isn’t only an ode to entrails; it also features a plethora of other, slightly less controversial dishes, such as fish soup, roast quail, crispy pig cheek, and gurnard, as well as dishes even the fussiest of eaters would happily order, including hake, roast lamb rack, and several delectable vegetarian options.

Holding hands with local farmers and the Harvest of Hope

Harvest of Hope sustainable farming Cape Town
Harvest of Hope (image from website)

La Tête’s menu changes every single day depending on what local ingredients are available and in season. Chef Giles maintains fantastic relationships with local farmers and fishermen who will personally call him up should they, for example, have a fresh batch of brains, a catch of gurnard, or a harvest of celeriac. Using whatever’s fresh and available, Chef Giles concocts delicious dishes to add to that evening’s menu.

La Tête also supports an agricultural initiative called the Harvest of Hope, a community garden located in the Cape Flats. This initiative aims to facilitate the direct and personal delivery of fresh, locally grown produce to Cape Town’s restaurants, which, in so many ways, is better than ordering expensive ingredients from overseas. Why buy from foreign farms when we have such a bounty of local agricultural projects and farms that could use our support?

Blazing new trails

I’ve never tried brains before and, truth be told, even I suffered from a serious spell of prejudice-driven doubt prior to tucking into La Tête’s signature dish of lamb’s brains on toast. However, I found it tender and tasty, along with all the other oddities we tried that night. La Tête, without a doubt, offers diners an incredible experience and a totally fresh, much-needed perspective on food. All praise goes to Chef Giles Edwards and his team for having the guts, balls, and brains to blaze this new trail in Cape Town’s culinary scene and for having made such a roaring success of it!

La Tête Phone: 021 418 1299
Address: 17 Bree Street, Cape Town
Website: www.latete.co.za

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2017/10/03/brains-toast-la-tete-restaurant

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 5

Hout Bay Cape Town South Africa
Located on the Cape peninsula, Hout Bay was named by the first settlers for the thick forests of valuable wood found there – “hout” means wood in Afrikaans. This breathtaking valley is where I grew up.

Although my family had a beautiful home in Hout Bay (my father is an architect), we weren’t what you’d consider a wealthy family. Our travel philosophies were a testament to this: we’d rarely fly anywhere, we’d almost always stay in our caravan, and lunch was taken on the road and more often than not consisted of soggy jam sandwiches, floury apples, and sweet coffee. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for these early thrifty travels, though, because they defined my perception of luxury.

To me, as a kid, luxury was a hunk of biltong to chew on for hours during our long, tiresome road trips around the country. It was getting to sit down and eat at a restaurant, even though my concept of haute cuisineat the time was a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. But the very pinnacle of luxury, the Mount Olympus of all treats, was getting to stay in a hotelroomwhere my parents’ snores could be shut out by a door, rather than bundled into our tiny cots in our tiny caravan.

Living large

old hotel room
Maybe a slightly embellished representation of the kind of old hotels we’d stay in…

On the odd occasion we did overnight in hotels, they were ancient budget establishments, usually named something like “The Standard Hotel” or “The [insert one horse town’s name] Inn.” These were places with creaky wooden floorboards, ancient paintings of forgotten people, furniture that would belch out decade-old, musty air when you sat in them, and cracked porcelain bathroom basins.

In other words, they were in desperate need of an accidental electrical fire so that they could be burned to the ground, completely redesigned, rebuilt, and refurnished.

To me, however, they were luxurious and the excitement of sleeping in a hotel superseded any kind of miserable reality that might entail. In other words, I was taught to be happy with what I needed rather than what I wanted.

My parents were and are not misers. My father is one of the most generous human beings I know and will never, ever turn down the opportunity to buy you a chocolate bar whether you want one or not (or a cheeky shot of tequila on a trip to Hollywood, Los Angeles).

Tequila! Hollywood, Los Angeles

But to my parents, traveling is about spending 14 hours a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through foreign cities. It’s about feelingthe climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine…but also its struggles.

There’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – to be sure, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?

Disaster

On a caravan trip up the Garden Route – so called because of the region’s lush, verdant forests – along the east coast of South Africa, disaster befell us. Cresting a particularly hilly hill a few tens of kilometres from the epitome of one-horse towns, Heidelberg, our caravan caught a tail wind and began to fishtail violently from side-to-side. It felt as though my mother, who happened to be driving, was yanking the wheel from left to right, which she was but out of sheer desperation to counteract the forces of the fishtailing caravan on our little red Toyota corolla.

Totally out of control, the car lurched sickeningly from one side of the highway to the other before the caravan swept right around in a massive arc, ending up at right angles to the car and forcing us into a deep ditch on the far side of the road. I remember my mother’s hysterical concern over her precious cargo on the back seat juxtaposed by my dad’s eerie calm, who immediately set to work rationalising what had just happened to us.

To my mother: “We must have caught a tail wind. You should have hit the accelerator instead of the brakes – that would have pulled the caravan back into a straight line behind the car.”

I don’t recall my mom’s precise words but they were probably something along the lines of “gaan kak”, the Afrikaans equivalent of “get fucked!”

Sitting there on the back seat, emotionally rattled but physically unharmed, the strangest thing happened. Our high drama on the highway began attracting an audience but not of people – we were in the middle of nowhere after all. From far and wide and seemingly out of the crackling white horizons, tall, comical-looking birds materialized and began loping over to the fence to ogle unashamedly at our appalling situation. Ostriches! Before long, we had drawn a crowd of the world’s largest birds.

Ostrich birds South Africa

Silver Linings

Our caravan, which was bent at a torturous angle to the car, was quite simply and totally fucked. There was no way we were going to make it to our holiday destination. To make matters even more uncomfortable than having just been in a potentially fatal car accident – not to mention blatantly stared at by a gaggle of stupid-looking birds – we found ourselves stranded under the blistering countenance of the African sun. Oh, and being sometime in the 1990’s, none of us had a cell phone to call for help.

I don’t recall precisely how we got out of that mess but I believe that another car arrived soon after our accident and kindly offered to drive my father to Heidelberg, where he could hire the services of a tow truck. Thereafter, we found ourselves in this tiny Karoo town with nothing other to do than languish, for three days and three nights, in a hotel room. My parents were in hell – the trauma, the expense, the boredom.

I was in heaven.

Rags to riches

I unpacked my entire suitcase into the closet as a way of claiming my new space, had a greasy cheeseburger and undercooked fries in the nearly deserted hotel restaurant for dinner, and drifted off to sleep trying in vain to read the Old Testament bible (the ones that were always nested in the bedside drawers of hotels).

To this day, staying in hotels excites me, although my perception of luxury has changed somewhat. I’ve had the privilege of landing a job that sends me to wonderful places in and around Cape Town to stay in luxurious hotels and guesthouses, all of which are four stars and higher. One such assignment sent me to a five-star luxury resort in the Welgevonden Nature Reserve in the Limpopo Province (northeast South Africa). Another to a five-star guesthouse in Paarl, one of South Africa’s oldest towns, where I drowned in expensive sheets and delicious local Méthode Cap Classique (our equivalent of Champagne).

Wander Woman Thea Beckman
Yours truly opening a bottle of MCC, a South African sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir grapes in precisely the fashion as Champagne.

In spite of this unbridled, exquisite assault upon my senses, I remember how excited I was as a kid to be able to stay in a hotel for three nights, even if it was a terrible car accident that landed us there in the first place. I have, however, given up on trying to read the Old Testament since then, or any bible for that matter.

Unless I’m in need of a sleeping aid, that is.

 

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Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 4

Orange River Rafting

When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.

On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.

Daytime on the Orange River

Orange River rafting South Africa

As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.

The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.

Orange River rafting South Africa

With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.

This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be alone with themselves, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?

Don’t date those people.

Nighttime on the river

Orange River rafting South Africa

African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.

With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.

Earning your experience

Orange River South Africa

We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.

The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.

Oh, and I earned a distinction in astronomy.