The Hundred Year Old Man who climbed out of the window and disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

‘It is what it is, and whatever will be, will be.’ That’s the mantra according to which Allan Karlsson has lived his life – and a very long and eventful life it’s turned out to be. In fact, by embracing the randomness of fate, Allan has quite accidentally played a key role in several of the major historical events of the 20th century. From saving General Franco from being blown to smithereens, to unlocking the secret of the atom bomb for the US, and then for Russia, razing Vladivostok to the ground, and providing the catalyst for Kim Jong Il’s life-long paranoia – Allan has done it all, without ever really intending to. He’s been incarcerated (in a mental institution in Sweden, a secret police headquarters in Iran, and a Russian gulag), and he’s dined with presidents and dictators. Despite some fairly steep ups and downs, he’s reached the rather ancient age of 100. And now he finds himself incarcerated again – this time in an old age home, his slippers slightly damp with pee. But Allan is not ready to go quietly into the good night. And he’s certainly not ready to give up his freedom and his vodka habit. So rather than face the mayor, guests, journalists, nurses and old folk who have gathered to mark his centenary, he steps out of his window and makes an arthritic escape to the bus station. There he has a chance encounter with a rather disagreeable, greasy-haired young man. Allan decides on whim to steal the lout’s suitcase. And so, quite randomly, he begins another grand adventure. This time, he’ll find himself on the run from drug dealers, gang bosses and the police, he’ll commit murder, more or less accidentally, more than once, and he’ll befriend a motley bunch of misfits, including an escaped circus elephant. Being Allan, he’ll take it all in stride.

Expect black humour, incredulity, silliness, laugh out loud moments, and a crazy romp through world history. My favourite line: ‘You see, Mr Prosecutor, I haven’t always been a hundred years old. No, that’s recent.’

Advertisements
Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Harold
Life is a complicated business. We make odd choices, say things we regret, hurt the people close to us, and stray from the path we’d imagined for ourselves. It happens to everyone, to a greater or lesser extent.

It happened to Harold and Maureen Fry, 20 years ago. But when a delicate pink envelope arrives in the mail, Harold is forced to examine how far off course he’s strayed, and to confront a multitude of memories and regrets. Feeling isolated and inadequate, he takes a walk, and strikes out on an unplanned and entirely unexpected new course. He’s ill equipped and inappropriately attired, but by simply putting one foot in front of the other, he starts to restore his faith in himself. Quite by accident, he finds himself connecting with strangers, providing hope through chance encounters, and even, briefly, sparking a pilgrimage craze.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the kind of book that reels you in gently, and then hooks you so that you’re compelled to put everything else on hold until you reach the end. It’s quite likely to cause some reflection on one’s own path – on why we say things we don’t mean, and fail to say what we really should. It might even occasion a little stroll, to pick up the phone and reconnect with an old friend, or to amble over and give someone an appreciative hug. Because life is, after all, about connecting with people, and we can always be better at that.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kitchen Boy

Image

Jenny Hobbs’ Kitchen Boy is the story of JJ Kitching –World War II hero and rugby legend, Durban celebrity, and family man. The book is set on the day of his funeral.  It’s a grand affair in the Durban Cathedral, presided over by a publicity hungry bishop and a fire-and-brimstone township Reverend.  Among the hundreds of mourners in attendance are the surviving members of JJ’s World War II South African Air Force air crew – a motley collection of ancient, grumpy old men.  Sixty years ago they marched off to war as volunteers for the Allied cause, in search of glory and adventure.  They flew supply missions into Warsaw, in support of the Polish partisans, and survived bombings and crash landings.  And then, just a few weeks in, they were captured and incarcerated in Stalag Luft 7. 

The narrative is made up primarily of their silent reminiscences and whispered conversations, remembering prison camp boredom intermixed with bursts of horror, and a single terrible incident that changed the lives of JJ and a fellow prisoner forever.  They are men who have been through hell, who endured the 500km death march from Poland to Germany in ice and snow, and who returned from war lost and angry.  As one observes: ‘war doesn’t stop when it ends.’

Their musings drive the book’s core theme – the dehumanisation of war, the horrifying brutality to which men can be driven, the acts of dishonesty and betrayal committed in extreme conditions, and the extent to which the ensuing guilt and regret sticks around for the rest of one’s life, undermining trust, and creating an insurmountable barrier that will always separate those who have lived through horror from those lucky enough to believe they have control over their lives, their destiny and their integrity.

But don’t let that put you off – the story is jam-packed with colourful characters, and steers well clear of morbidity. We hear snatches of gossip, bickering and secrets from an array of extended family members, ex-servicemen, former servants, Springbok legends and Sharks players, bored teenagers with inappropriate urges, and the odious undertakers, Purkey and Clyde, lurking conspicuously on the side lines.

The lingering tensions, disparities and social awkwardness between South Africans of different races are subtly explored, with satire, wit and sensitivity.  Powerful black characters, such as the feisty mayor of Durban, resplendent in her orange turban, JJ’s sexy young daughter-in-law, with her high powered university job, and Theodora, the former maid, cut a swathe through the mainly pale and grey-haired congregation, leaving shock, exploded prejudices and grudging respect in their wake.   

Jenny begins the book with a quote from Khalo Matabane, ‘The past and the future are all interconnected’.  Her book is a poignant illustration of the truth of that statement, and of the long lasting damage that conflict inflicts on the survivors.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Napoleon Bones

Bones

If you’ve ever loved a dog, particularly a rescue brak of dubious parentage, you simply must read Napoleon Bones by Jenny Hobbs.  The title character is a street-wise and super smart police dog, part golden retriever, part ridgeback, part SPCA all-sorts. He’s a deep thinker, a gourmet eater, a lusty sower of wild oats, and a loyal and courageous partner.  His chosen policeman is Rusty Gordon, or Big G, a young newly qualified constable, with excellent police skills and zero luck with the ladies.  The trio is completed by Rusty’s partner Spike, a ‘gay Malay’ computer whiz with depressive tendencies, who’s dating a South African Airways steward with a side-line in smuggling.

Together, Bones, Big G and Spike beat the streets of Cape Town, from Khayelitsha to Rondebosch.  They’re determined to prove themselves, and succeed admirably – busting a drug lord and his minions, rescuing a Madam in distress, nabbing tsotsis and tik-heads, saving a truck load of dogs destined for pit-fighting, and extracting several people from burning buildings.  But their nemesis is the Blackjacks, a professional and deadly jewel heist gang that manages to stay one step ahead of the long arm of the law.

Will Bones’ highly advanced olfactory skills secure the Blackjack’s downfall?  Will Big G get over his blushes and stammers and in the presence of the female species? Will Spike’s Fransie turn out to be a pawn in an international crime syndicate.  It’s a funny old life with no guarantees, but with Napoleon Bones on the side of the good guys, everything is bound to turn out all right in the end.

This is a delightful book, packed with humour, compassion and wry observation.  It’s robustly South African, rich with slang, skollies, and bergies, and paints a vivid picture of Cape Town’s leafy boulevards and dusty townships.  Napoleon is absolutely convincing as a narrator – his mighty intelligence and deductive powers had me wondering what my own dogs might be capable of (although I suspect they may be stoepkakkers).  Read this book with your hounds nearby – you’ll want to reach out and cuddle them every couple of chapters.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

iSimangaliso World Heritage Park

1 (1024x768)

Visit Kwa-Zulu Natal’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park out-of-season, and have paradise all to yourself.  You’ll find few other visitors, mild sunny days, and an abundance of wild animals scattered across wide open spaces.

Zebra (1024x768)We stayed in St Lucia, a tiny town on the north coast, wedged between the ocean and an estuary.  A high volume of summer visitors ensures that the town is well equipped to cater for your every need, with loads of accommodation options, multiple restaurants, plenty of shops, and tourism services offering everything from estuary cruises and game drives to deep sea fishing and whale watching.

hippo (1024x768)From town, it’s a five minute drive to the iSimangaliso park gate.  Your entrance fee allows you access until 6pm, and you can expect to start seeing wild animals almost as soon as the friendly ranger waves you through the gate.  A single tarred road runs the length of the park, from the gate all the way to the beach at Cape Vidal. If you can’t wait to dip your toes in the sea, you can drive straight from the entrance to the beach in about half an hour.  But don’t! There are dozens of intriguing detours – loop roads and viewing hides – offering close encounters with hippos, rhinos, buffalo, buck, zebra, warthogs and all sorts of birds and creepy crawlies.

Catalina Bay (1024x768)

Water lilies (1024x768)The pan loop arcs along to crystal blue dam full of wallowing hippos.  The vlei loop meanders past lakes occupied by enormous purple water lilies and more lolling hippos.  The Mission Rocks loop includes a breath-taking picnic spot overlooking the wide green plains of the estuary, dotted with grazing rhinos, and a pristine secluded beach full of rock pools, and knee high green waves just begging for paddlers.

Loo2 (1024x768)At Catalina Bay, there’s a lovely shaded view point perched on the water’s edge, and two magnificent toilets enclosed in slate and wood, cunningly constructed to provide privacy and views of the surrounding bush.

In several places, the road is dense with trees that meet overhead. It won’t be long before you notice the thick silky webs stretched between branches, glinting and golden in the sun.

Orb 3 (1024x768)These are the super-strength lairs of the enormous golden orb spider. Once you’ve spotted one, you’ll quickly realise that they’re everywhere – their amazing webs gently undulating in the trees on both sides of the road and stretching overhead.  If the multiple signs asking motorists to remain in their cars except in designated areas haven’t had an impact, the multitude of massive spiders ought to do the trick.

Orb 2 (1024x768)

Monkey (768x1024)When you finally reach Cape Vidal, along a long winding road through dense forest, you’ll find a gleaming white beach and a calm clear sea.  You can park and picnic under the shade of the pine trees, with a view across the dunes and the ocean.  Keep an eye on the Samango monkeys – they’re all over the car park, and they’ll make off with your cooler bag given half a chance (we saw a couple making a concerted effort to detach the luggage from a roof rack).

Cape Vidal is renowned for snorkelling, offering clear water and an abundance of marine life.  Equipped with mask and snorkels, you can loll about in the waves for hours – it’s really just like being in a swimming pool.

Imfolozi (1024x768)When you’ve had your fill of sea and sunshine, make sure that your afternoon includes stops at some of the fabulously serene bird hides that overlook the park’s various lakes.  Sitting quietly at the Imfolozi hide, watching birds plopping about between water lilies and buck drinking shyly at the water’s edge, provides a very complete sense of peace and quiet.

Rhino 6 (1024x768)The park’s closing time of 6pmin winter allows you to watch the sunset over the bush just before you have to leave.  We were enjoying the spectacle of the sky slowing turning orange as we drove toward the exit, when two boulder-like shapes alongside the road resolved themselves into a pair of black rhino, grazing peacefully.  It was both awe-inspiring and heart-rending to watch these two critically endangered colossuses munching away as if they hadn’t a care in the world, gradually fading to silhouettes against the darkening sky.

Rhino 5 (1024x768)Rhino 4 (1024x768)

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Mountains and Milk Tart

The top (768x1024)Joburg gets awfully chilly in winter. When the mornings get frosty, it’s a good idea to go somewhere else, at least for a little while.  This time last year, we found our way to Prince Albert, a pretty little village in the Great Karoo, nestled against the formidable Swartberg mountain range.

The road to Prince Albert is an adventure in itself.  The shortest route is up and over the mountains, along the Swartberg pass.  The gradient is vertigo-inducing, but the scenery is spectacular.  Going Up 2 (1024x768)

The pass was constructed in the 1880s, under the supervision of master road-builder Thomas Bain. It took seven years to complete, with a workforce of 200 convicts.  On the south side, it is cut straight into the mountainside, with dry stone retaining walls holding it in place along the cliff edge.  It offers endless vistas across the Little Karoo, if you can bear to tear your eyes from the rather narrow gravel track.  Falling off the edge of the world feels like an imminent possibility. Wolverine (1024x768)

The summit is 1,583 metres above sea level, and over 1,220 metres above the Little Karoo.  The descent on the north side is enveloped in bizarrely curved and twisted sandstone cliffs, which glow red and orange in the afternoon sunlight.  In some places, the rock strata seem to have been mashed together like play-dough.  In others, enormous shards of rock rear up into the sky, as if cast aside by angry giants long ago.

Near The Top (1024x768) Coming down 3 (1024x768)

The pass is only 30kms long, but it took us about 2 hours to travel.  Every time we turned a corner we were confronted with a new fantastically dramatic view, and had to pull over to drink it all in.

Coming down 2 (1024x768)

When we finally reached Prince Albert, we found a delightfully picturesque Karoo dorp.  Kerk Street (which contains two impressive old churches) is lined with quirky shops.  I bought linen napkins embroidered with windmills, Cape Mohair socks, a hand-made rag doll named Bonisiwe, Christmas angels made from driftwood and curly wire, and multiple bottles of jam and olives.  Despite the tininess of the town, there’s a big selection of restaurants and coffee shops.  We quickly learnt that no-one is in any rush – why would they be.  There’s always plenty of time to settle in and get comfortable before the owner of the establishment wanders over to take your order (it’s always the owner – too small for waiters).  The Prince Albert Country Store, an antique shop and restaurant in one, is particularly lovely.  We spent a perfect few hours there, on a big floral sofa in front of a blazing log fire, eating delectable milk tart while Fred the ancient basset hound snored at our feet.  This alone was enough to persuade us that Prince Albert was a worthy winner of its title of Western Cape ‘Dorp van die Jaar’ 2012.

Dog

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A slice of heaven in the Cederburg

DSCF2256 (1024x768)For a little slice of heaven, head to Petersfield Farm on the edge of the Cederburg.  It’s a working citrus farm, perched on a mountainside, with a distant view of Citrusdal in the valley far below.  There are four cottages on the property, spaced at least a kilometre apart, and entirely invisible to one another.  You’ll feel like you’re the only people in the world.

DSCF2662 (1024x768)Three of the cottages are family and pet friendly, with fenced gardens.  We stayed in the fourth, Stonehaven, designed for privacy, freedom, and oneness with nature.  It’s an open plan chalet, offering an enormous but cosy single room.  Comfy chairs and sofas cluster around a big stone fireplace, alongside a dining room table laden with fresh oranges, and a well-equipped kitchen.  In the centre of the room is an enormous bed, covered in fluffy pillows, and fleecy blankets for the chilly evenings.  A big triangular bathtub fills another corner, perched on a raised platform and promising complete relaxation.  There’s also a separate bathroom, with a shower.

DSCF2616 (1024x768)If you follow the garden path that leads from the kitchen door into the back garden, you’ll find another bathtub, set high in the mountains, under the big blue sky, where you can bath under the sun or the stars, and watch the tiny cars race along the distant highway.

A big patio in front of the cottage offers a plunge pool, sun loungers, a dining area, a built in braai, and the perfect space to while away the hours with a view of the mountains.  The only sounds to be heard are bees buzzing, birds singing, and the calls of a rather raucous troop of baboons who hang out on the neighbouring hill and raid the orange orchard in the early morning.

DSCN0256 (1024x768)We shared our patio with a family of swifts, who swooped and dove around us all day.  Our driveway was lined with flowering aloes, which were a magnet for iridescent green malachite sunbirds. We also had a Cape mongoose scampering around, and geckos who appeared in their dozens at dusk, to gobble the moths fluttering around the outside lights.  Our most exciting visitor was glimpsed for only a second, just before dawn.  We woke to the sound of water being lapped from plunge pool, and tiptoed over to the window to peek out.  For a brief moment, we were eye to eye with a Cape mountain leopard – or perhaps a large, very feline sort of a dog.  He slunk away into the darkness, and left us feeling awed and amazed.

DSCF2366 (1024x768)The property includes 2000 hectares of mountain wilderness, and little maps showing walking trails are thoughtfully provided in the rooms.  We spent hours wandering the trails through the old rooibos plantation, and to the little damn which is teeming with bird life (and sometimes baboons).  We were there in September, and enjoyed multi-coloured carpets of wildflowers and fynbos stretching in every direction.  At night, we bundled ourselves in blankets and lay on the patio, gazing into a deep navy sky blazing with more stars than the average city dweller sees in a lifetime.

DSCN0276 (768x1024)The cottage is completely off grid – all the hot water is supplied by solar geysers, and the fridge, lights, stove and oven run on gas.  There’s no television – but don’t panic, there is cell phone signal, internet reception, and a CD player.  It’s a place of pure bliss, an escape from the world that will relax body and mind, and revitalise your soul.

 

 

For more info visit http://www.petersfieldfarm.co.za

DSCF2758 (1024x768)

 

 

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments