The promotional material billed the 2009 convention in Cape Town as “The
Entire World in One Country”. The Global Speakers Federation had accepted my
proposal to present at this event, as well as conduct the fundraising auction for
their foundation. I decided to add a couple of extra days to the trip and see a bit of
the country. The publicity over-delivered on the promise.
Due to the limited time, I hired a guide. I have found a local to be a good
investment for the type of experience I want. If you have read this far you know I
am not necessarily focusing on what tourist information provides; I’m looking at
the real life.
The Internet provided me with a guide who knew the country, had a car and
a boyfriend who was a chef—a bonus. She picked me up from the airport in her
car that could have used a cleaning—first hint I had just hired an unemployed
student. Professional guides seldom have more than three days of fast food
wrappers spread around their car when picking up a customer. The litter left
behind in this one did lead to an interesting discussion about the impact of
American fast food restaurants. She told me that KFC offered one-piece chicken
dinners in South Africa because people were so eager for the food at a price point
they could afford: mashed potatoes, gravy, a thigh in the bag, and they called it
There were commercial tours through the townships surrounding the city, in
particular District Six, which once housed the poorest of the poor. Fearing an
uprising because of the high number of homes in close proximity, these had been
dislocated and cleaned up by the government and the people moved to other
shacks. A museum here marked this event, acknowledging what had been done to
the people. I have never felt poverty to be a tourist attraction and while it may be
an important part of the country’s history I was content with a drive-through
version and did not need to visit a typical home (as the bus tours offered). I saw
quite enough from the window of my newfound guide’s car.
The fact that nearly every fence around a property was topped with broken
glass stuck into concrete made me more aware of security issues. This was not a
one-off but seemed to be a common practice throughout the city. The height of the
fence was not an issue since they all had broken glass embedded in concrete and
many had a coil of razor wire on top of that. The message was clear. When I asked
about a trip to Johannesburg I was told I was better off not to go because it was
A trip to the island prison that housed Nelson Mandela was a must along
the lines of “You went to Rome and did not see the pope?” I spent an afternoon on
a cruise and visiting Robben Island. While it was an obligatory trip in the
beginning, to say it did not have an impact on me would be a lie. To not feel the
presence and the outcome, one would have to be as hard as stone in the walls that
held the great man.
My second tip (and the clincher) that I might have hired a guide who had
been in some other profession the previous week, came when I asked about
touring farms. Her response was “of course” but when we got to a farm she asked
me to wait in the car while she had the initial conversation with the farmer. I had
been down this road before in Mexico. She pulled onto any farm that looked
interesting and asked the farmer if he would spend some time talking to me. (If I
needed further confirmation, it was that she took pictures of most places we visited
and was seemingly in greater awe of most stops than I was.) At least this time I
was not expected to tip the farmer for the tour and his time. The trip did not
provide the best overview of the county’s agriculture industry but it did get me
face to face with individual farmers. There are pros and cons to either system and I
have worked in both.
One of the farms we visited, owned by a fellow of Dutch descent,
illustrated my belief that stereotypes exist for a reason—they save time. My
impression of Dutch people in agriculture is they work hard and reinvest in the
farm in new technology—and work hard and reinvest in the farm and work hard,
then suddenly people around them are amazed that the Dutch are so well-to-do.
That was the case here. I was at least moderately aware of the potato industry in
our country and was able to engage in a good conversation with the farm owner.
He had access to the latest in technology from his homeland and all of Europe,
was blessed with a large acreage of land new to potato production, and had cheap
local labour. He was doing all right and had plans for expansion and rotation of
land before disease became a problem in his fields. His storage facilities were as
modern as any I had seen, with automatic temperature and humidity controls built
in (more on electronic technology later).
We stopped at an ostrich farm, which enclosed a good number of the huge
rarities behind fences; for a pricey sum you were allowed to sit on a gigantic bird
and have your picture taken. The gift shop featured an assortment of eggs with
various portraits painted on them. I was most surprised by the one of Derek Jeter,
but I suppose some New York Yankees fans find their way to this gift shop.
As we continued our drive through the countryside I could not help but
notice and question the warning signs on fence posts: Trespassers Will Be Shot.
My guide informed me that indeed they were deadly serious, with emphasis on
deadly. Gates on farms and wiring around yards in the city were not to be trifled
with. On my trip to New Zealand I had learned that many advancements in electric
fences were geared for South Africa’s security market, and the cattle industry was
a beneficiary. William Gallagher of New Zealand, a name I knew as being the
developer of electric fencing in the cattle industry, did a lot of work in the security
business in this country.
The South African wine industry was just getting back on its feet in the
international markets after the disastrous ethylene glycol affair. Glycol is added to
some wines to increase the sweetness and South Africa was not the first country to
be caught with the practice. The fact that the governing body of the country blew
the whistle on the culprits helped the industry to recover on the international stage.
I felt an obligation to try some of the country’s wine and selected two wineries
quite by chance, perhaps on their proximate or availability to my hotel, and toured
The first was known for its whites. The tour and meal amounted to a walk
through an arbour of grapes on the way to a white tablecloth restaurant, and a noon
buffet that would compete with any I had ever seen.
I was disappointed in the lack of information about grape production,
besides having no real opportunity to talk to a vintner about the soils and climate
of the region and what made this area special. I could find that information in the
material put out by the South African Wine and Spirit Board but personally, I
enjoy the discussion with someone involved with the production of grapes and a
bit of back and forth about the choice of a particular variety, disease problems
faced, and other agronomic issues.
It became obvious that most of the people on the tour were happy with the
walk through the grape garden, a quick visit to the aging cellar and then getting
down to the business of lunch. For several of them it was not their first trip to the
winery and they viewed the package as the price of Sunday Brunch.
The meal was outstanding and again, inexpensive labour went a long way
to covering any mistakes they made. The serving staff was dressed in the crispest
whitest uniforms I have ever seen. Though their serving skills lacked the finer
points, they made it up in enthusiasm and sheer numbers of staff.
I finished my brunch and headed off to the second stop of the day, a winery
that billed itself as the home of some of the finest red wines produced in the area.
Its flagship was a very acceptable port-like vintage. The name Port is like Tequila
or Champagne; the name can legally only be used on a product that is produced in
the country where the name originated, nevertheless a few wineries in the area
were establishing a name for their port-like production.
This one provided more time for an afternoon stroll among the grapes and
someone to answer my questions on agronomy before moving inside and the
evening meal. The specialty was roast lamb done on a spit over an open fire in the
dining room. Again service was adequate but the enthusiasm and show of the
cooking made up for any shortcomings.
A day well spent.
During my time in Cape Town and several trips to the local market, I had
begun the bargaining process with one of the vendors on a two-foot-high carved
“Hand carved,” he informed me. “That is ironwood, very hard very heavy.
Try to lift it.” Just what I did not need for the flight home, but I had brought an
extra suitcase for just such a purchase. Yes, I had an empty suitcase that would
accommodate the beast.
We played the game—I saying it was too expensive and the airfare would
cost too much—he recognizing I wanted it. My repeated visits had tipped my
hand, and on the final day he won. I brought it home, and it still stands behind my
favourite chair in the sunroom.
I had arrived at the end of an election campaign. It was the fourth election
since the end of apartheid and still a relatively new and exciting process for the
people of the country. There were 23 million registered voters and judging by the
enthusiasm in the streets most planned to vote.
Jacob Zuma had taken over leadership of the ANC (African National
Congress) largely on the basis of his support of the youth wing and the communist
segment of the party. He was expected to win, but with 400 seats up for grabs and
proportional representation, the ballot was a lengthy one, including a candidate’s
name, party affiliation, and a coloured photo to accommodate illiterate voters.
In the lead up to the election, what I saw seemed to be a mix of
campaigning and a day out. Buses and trucks crowded with young people wearing
ANC t-shirts and using any type of noisemaker—from trashcans to marching
bands—made their way down the streets—any street, any time. Part of me wanted
to stay, and part of me was glad to be leaving early on Election Day.
I was just about done packing when the phone in my room rang. It was my
“We’ll take the truck to the airport,” she said.
“That’s fine, I am just about done pack . . . ”
“That way we can take the dogs.”
“The dogs?” I am not necessarily an animal person and wondered why we
would be taking dogs to the airport.
“ We should not have any trouble,” she said, “But it is Election Day, and
you never know. I just don’t want us to have any trouble on the road to the airport.
I will just feel more comfortable if we have the dogs with us.”
The dogs were not the kind a stranger pets, and we did not have any trouble
on the way to the airport, but some conversations just stay with you long after you
get home. This was one of those.