Happy to Be Home

Having just returned from a wonderful trip to South Africa, I am struck, as ever, by how good it feels to be home again.

Our journey through that wonderful country constituted the trip of a lifetime, a celebration of our golden anniversary.  Readers of this blog have already shared in some of our adventures, although my scribblings are no substitute for being there.

Over the years, my family has always loved to go on trips.  Be it winter for skiing, or summer for camping, we really enjoyed going away.


My wife and I worked in the school system, so our holidays tended to come in regularly-spaced chunks, which was especially nice when our daughters still attended elementary school.  We were able to get away several times during the year, usually for short spans of four or five days.  That made us more fortunate than many folks, and we appreciated that—one reason, perhaps, why we enjoyed the opportunities so much.

Due a combination of lack of interest and financial realities, I suppose, we didn’t make elaborate journeys to glamorous vacation spots.  Our most expensive holidays were of the weekend-at-a-ski-lodge variety.  Mostly, we just visited with family members who lived out of town, stayed with friends at their summer cottages, or set up our own digs at one of the myriad provincial campgrounds.

Vagabond vacationers—that’s what we were.

In spite of our love for going away, however, and regardless of the type of trip we’d been on, there was one element common to all our family meanderings.  We loved to come home.  No matter how long we’d been gone, it was a real joy to come in the door, drop our gear, and explore through the house.

This lovely memory of bygone days washed over my wife and me once more, upon our most recent return.

Each of us seemed to have one special thing we liked to do when we arrived back, a self-appointed task that served to herald our homecoming.  Among the several necessary jobs—turning up the temperature in the water heater, plugging in the water-softener, or opening windows to dispel the stuffiness—our special tasks stood out in their importance to each of us, respectively, as our way of saying, I’m home!

My wife would spend fifteen or twenty minutes visiting her plants, watering them, talking to them, grooming them lovingly.  My youngest daughter would head to her bedroom to check on whether everything was just as she left it (though, sometimes, given the disarray, I wasn’t sure how she could tell).  My older daughter would take Cinnamon, our dog, on an inspection tour of the house, the sunroom, and the back yard, generally in that order.

For all of them, it was a renewing of acquaintance with home.

My task was to wind the five clocks.  The time on each face had to be adjusted, the chimes and gongs checked to be sure they were synchronized, and the pendulums re-started.  It wasn’t a difficult job, or a lengthy one, but it could be stretched into a half-hour of time alone, savouring the feeling of being back home again.  And, when the next full hour rolled around, and the clocks began to sound, everything seemed normal once more.


Perhaps you share my sentiment that, when I’m not in the place I love, I love the place I’m in.  My family certainly looked forward to every succeeding trip or vacation spot we planned to visit, and always seemed to enjoy ourselves wherever we happened to be.  But, when it came time to head for home, we were never unhappy with that prospect, either.

Our daughters have been gone for several years, of course, off raising families of their own.  But they’ve continued the tradition of holidays together as often as possible.

For my wife and me, however, holidays are different now—more sedate, more pampered, and to more exotic destinations than in our earlier years—places like South Africa.  Although we miss the girls, we still love to get away.

Way back when, we had a nice little routine we’d go through as each journey neared its end.  One of us would start by remarking on the terrific time we’d all had, how much fun it was to be on holiday.  Someone else would comment on the wonderful weather, or the exciting activities we had shared.  Another might mention some of the memorable highlights of the trip now ending.

“Yeah, it was a great holiday,” somebody would eventually conclude, “but it sure is nice to be coming home.”

Later, perhaps at the supper table, or maybe when the girls were getting off to bed, one of us would look up and re-affirm it.

“Y’know, it’s good to be home!”


So, most recently, when all the plants were tended to, and all the clocks were wound, my wife and I settled in with a glass of wine.  No words were spoken, yet we understood how each other was feeling.  And by the time the clocks chimed ten, we were both fast asleep, exhilarated and exhausted by our wonderful adventures.

And most of all, happy to be home.

What’s the Difference?

Readers of this blog will know that my wife and I, both Canadians, have been travelling in South Africa for almost six weeks.  During that time, family members and friends have been receiving pictures and short updates almost daily, chronicling our adventures.

The question I’ve been hearing from them most often is, “What’s the difference between the two countries?”

Well, there are obvious differences, of course, and some more subtle—none of them in any way threatening, but many quite interesting.

Take driving, for instance.  South Africans drive the opposite side of the road—the right-side, which we would call the wrong side, rather than the left-side, which for us is the right side.  They drive smaller vehicles than many of those found on North American highways, which is a good thing because most of the roads are narrower than we are accustomed to.

There are fewer traffic lights, except in the most urban areas, the preference being for roundabouts, many more than are found in Canada.  Entering and exiting those roundabouts is tricky at first, what with everyone coming at us the wrong way.


But South African drivers are remarkably polite, and forgive our mistakes with a cheery wave.  Honking horns are almost never heard.

Another difference is the language, or at least how it’s spoken.  English is the universally-accepted tongue, the lingua franca, but there are many others one overhears everywhere—Afrikaans, Dutch, and nine indigenous languages.  The most unique of these is Xhosa (pronounced klozsa in English), and known as the clicking language for its eighteen click-consonants produced at three different parts of the mouth.  It’s delightful to listen to, impossible for us to replicate.


English is spoken with a distinct South African dialect (although some of our hosts along the way have joked that it is we who speak with an accent).

“Eh?” we reply.

Terminology and phraseology differ, too; petrol for gas, braii for barbecue, lay-by for lookout, and takeaway for take-out are some examples of the former.  My favourite phrase is the usual South African response we hear when we thank someone for a service or favour rendered.  Unlike the ubiquitous reply in Canada, “No problem!” (which always seems rather impersonal, as if the person being thanked couldn’t care less), we hear the much more thoughtful term, “My pleasure!” (pronounced play-zhar).

It’s music to our ears.

Food, and the whole dining experience, are differences we’ve noted in our travels, as well.  Almost every restaurant, even the ‘white-linen tablecloth’ variety, accepts casual dress; not sloppy or scant attire, to be sure, but smart, summery ensembles.  In a country where summertime temperatures can soar into the mid-40’s, that makes eminent sense to me.

We can dine on many of our favourites from home—beefsteak, lamb, fish, and chicken, for example—but more exotic choices are available.  And delicious.  Springbok, kudu, and ostrich steaks are popular, as are varieties of fish not available in Canada, such as kingklip (my preference).  And the recipes, many of which are of Dutch and indigenous origin, are a delight to our palates.

The wines are superb (which is not to imply that all Canadian wines are inferior), and the favourable exchange-rate between the Rand and our dollar makes them quite inexpensive.  We’ve visited numerous wineries in the Worcester/Robertson/McGregor regions of the Western Cape for tastings, lunches, and dinners, and have yet to be disappointed.


It is a fact, however, that the best vintages are not exported to Canada, so it’s been a real pleasure to sample them here.  A recent host told us that one of the more commonly-stocked South African wines available to us at home is considered by locals to be “our plonk!

Perhaps the biggest difference we’ve noted on our journey is the contrast between what we expected to see, and what we’ve actually discovered.  The garden route region we’ve travelled is a magnificent montage of mountains, oceans, vineyards, and the vast majesty of the Klein Karoo (a semi-desert valley between two mountain ranges, home to many wineries and beautiful wilderness areas).  South Africa has been more spectacular, more beautiful, more dramatic—and therefore different—than anything we could have anticipated.


But it has been said in other quarters that all of us would be more profitably recompensed if we chose to focus, not so much on what makes us different, as on what makes us alike.  In that vein, we’ve found there is one significant similarity between this country and our own—the warmth and hospitality of the people we have encountered.

The lingering memory of our travels, lasting long after all the photographs of all the remarkable sights we’ve seen have been viewed and shared, will be of the South African people.  Were it not for the love of our own country, and for the family and friends who are there, I believe I could live here quite happily.

So, I suppose all the differences amount to not much difference at all.

The Big Five

On our odyssey through the southeastern territories of South Africa, we’ve heard a lot about the big five.  In many cases, those making such references assumed we knew who, or what, they are.

So as not to appear uninformed, I tried to figure the answer out for myself.  In Capetown, we had visited a public square populated by four statues, one each for three Nobel Peace Prize winners—Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela—and a Nobel Literature Prize winner, John Coetzee.   Much is known about these men, and I thought they would be worthy members of such a group.


Drawing on my distant study of history, I supposed the fifth member of the big five might be Jan Smuts, a Boer commando who fought the British before becoming prime minister of the country in 1919, and a staunch defender of the Commonwealth, serving in Churchill’s Imperial War Cabinet during WWII.

But I was wrong, not only about Smuts, but all of them.  Despite the reverence and admiration in which they are held, none is part of the big five.

Perhaps, then, I wondered if the reference might be to cities—Pretoria, the administrative capital; Capetown, the legislative capital, home to the nation’s parliament; and Bloemfontein, the judicial capital.  To that august list, I figured I could add Johannesburg and Durban, for example, to round out the group.

Wrong again.  Cities are not referred to as the big five, either.

Still determined to demonstrate my knowledge of the country, but somewhat anxious now about my misfires, I seized upon what I should have known from the start.  The country’s top tourist destinations must surely constitute the list.  There is no question about the plenitude of such attractions; the dilemma would be narrowing them down to only five from a list that includes, among others:

  • Table Mountain, looming high over Capetown;
  • the Cango Caves, stretching beneath the mountains near Oudtshoorn;
  • the Cape Point Nature Preserve, almost the southernmost tip of the country;
  • the Addo Elephant National Park;
  • the wild animal safaris of Kwandwe Nature Preserve;
  • Robben Island, a former penal colony where none other than Mandela was imprisoned, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site;
  • the Kwa-Zulu Natal battlefields, including Roarke’s Drift, a magnet for history buffs such as I;
  • Boulders Beach, with its colony of African penguins; or
  • the highest bungee jump in Africa, off the Bloukrans Bridge.


Once again, however, I was mistaken.  None of South Africa’s geographical or historical wonders are part of the big five.

Finally, I swallowed my pride and asked someone who would know, a friend and fellow-traveller who has visited the country on several occasions.  She was only too happy to solve the puzzle.

The phrase originally referred to wild animals native to Africa that are considered by big-game hunters the most difficult to hunt…on foot.  The term has been co-opted by tour operators who conduct wildlife safaris for eager tourists, although the danger is much less for us than for hunters.

In no particular order, the big five includes:  the African elephant, the Black rhinoceros, the Cape buffalo, the African leopard, and the African lion—none of which I would like to come upon while on foot.


In a safari truck, however?  Well, that’s a different matter, and it’s exactly what we’ll be doing as we enter the fourth week of our travels in this marvellous country.  And I’m hoping to shoot every one of them during our early-morning and early-evening game-drives over three days.  But I’ll be shooting with a camera, of course, not a gun.

I could never fathom the fascination for taxidermied heads, mounted on a hunter’s wall, as if to trumpet the bravery of a man or woman with a gun, up against an unarmed animal—even if one of the big five.

But I’ll be happy to show off any photographs I might get right here in this blog!


The Dark Continent

From early childhood I was fascinated by stories of Africa, peculiarly referred to as the dark continent.  As a young boy, I devoured the tales of Tarzan of the Apes, in both book and comic-book formats, and later through television and movies.  I fancied the entire continent covered in thick jungle, which I would effortlessly travel as Tarzan did, swinging on innumerable vines from tree to tree to tree.

The fact that I wasn’t strong enough to climb the rope-swing in my own backyard didn’t seem to intrude upon those dreams.

Later, as my interest in history grew, I moved on to stories of the intrepid, imperialistic adventurers who sought to colonize the continent for their respective European nations.  Men (they were always men) from Belgium, Britain, France, and Germany rushed to claim vast domains on behalf of king and country.  I imagined myself striding in the company of such worthies as Mungo Park, Richard Burton, John Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Cecil Rhodes, bringing glory and honour to the homeland.


In the space of little more than forty years, beginning in 1870, European control of Africa jumped from 10 percent of its landmass to 90 percent, a stunning demonstration of greed and expansionism.  The most avaricious nation was Britain, which controlled vast tracts, including the Nile valley and the Suez Canal after invading Egypt in 1882.

It didn’t occur to me back then that such heroic deeds resulted in enslavement of the indigenous peoples, and wholesale looting of the continent’s plentiful natural resources—gold, silver, diamonds, salt, petroleum, and cocoa beans among them.  In my callow innocence, I gave no thought to the consequences suffered by the conquered.

Eventually I graduated to a study of the more complex history of warfare in Africa, struggles between European empires fought on African soil.  The Dutch, French, and British, who fought initially against indigenous peoples to steal their land, found themselves inevitably clashing with each other over competing claims.  The most famous of such conflicts are, perhaps, the first and second Boer Wars fought by Dutch settlers against British imperialists in what is now South Africa, the tales of which captured my imagination completely.

No less a personage than Winston Churchill, then a young subaltern in the British army, first made a name for himself after a daring escape from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp.  In school, we learned to sing a stirring song, Marching to Pretoria, which was sung by British soldiers as they made their victorious way to the Boers’ capital city.  I think I was the only one of my classmates to have any inkling of its significance.

My understanding of Africa, therefore, was heavily influenced by a British bias; he who wins the wars writes the history, after all.

Never in my life, however, did I actually visit the dark continent.  Not until now, that is.  As I write this post, I’m sitting in a beautiful room in Aquavit, a delightful Bed & Breakfast overlooking the town of Plettenberg Bay in South Africa, with a view of the Indian Ocean to the left and smoky, blue mountains all around.  Our hosts, Linda and Ole, are not imperialistic plunderers from the past, but expat Americans who call this country home.


It is nothing like the Africa of my youthful ruminations.  The flora and fauna are different from what I’m familiar with, but they are different, too, from the jungle tangle I might have expected from my Tarzan reading.  On our journey by car along the byways of the southeastern coast, we have seen our share of animals not found in North America, of course—baboons, zebras, ostriches, an astonishing variety of antelope—and we shall see many more on an upcoming safari adventure.

Despite the warring history I once lapped up, we have found no enemies of any political persuasion or ethnic background; only a warm, hospitable people who wave and smile at every opportunity.  It has been easy during the three weeks we’ve been travelling here to learn to feel at home.

In the company of good friends, Evelyn and Larry, we have stood at the Cape of Good Hope with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at our feet, and climbed high up on Cape Point, almost the southernmost tip of the country.  We have swum in the Indian Ocean and walked the sandy beaches it pounds with its endless surf.  We have ventured into several off-road places—Table Mountain near Capetown, which we conquered via cable-car; the De Hoop Nature Reserve, where we encountered penguins unique to South Africa; a remote farmhouse where we were treated to a delicious luncheon of salads, cheeses, breads, and wine, all home-grown and produced.  And we have boldly gone under the ground, into the renowned Cango Caves, where we were amazed by the subterranean beauty of the eerie caverns.


The English words to the national anthem truly sum up my impressions of this marvellous country, now that I have seen even a part of it:

Ringing out from our blue heavens, /From the depths of our sea, /Over our everlasting mountains, /Where the echoing crags resound!

Sounds the call to come together, /And united we shall stand, /Let us live and strive for freedom /In South Africa our land!

It has been the trip of a lifetime, and we have three weeks still to go.