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SOME PICNIC!

 

 

 

SOME PICNIC

 

 

BY

 

 

IAN ROBINSON

 

 

 

 

 

 

LEGAL STUFF

Author: Ian Robinson

Publisher: Ian Robinson

All rights reserved

Cover design by the author.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the express permission of the writer.

 

ISBN No: 1-514-28681-5

Published: February, 2017

Copyright 2017 I D Robinson

Shakespir Edition

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LEGAL STUFF

DISCLAIMER

DEDICATIONS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CONNECT WITH IAN ROBINSON

ROUGH DIAMONDS A killer read The first three chapters.

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organisations, places, events and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. (See Fact and Fiction on the last pages, but please read the book first.)

 

 

DEDICATIONS

For my wife Athena.

 

“Big sky.” Athena would say sometimes looking up at the vastness above.

 

“Wow, where did you get that from?” I’d asked the first time she said it.

 

“I felt it the first time I came to Africa. There’s just so much space and when you look out at the landscape it just seems to go on and on and on to the horizon and up into an endless sky.”

 

Big sky.

What a profound thing to say.

 

The glorious memories of what happened at Horizons and what I dreamed could have been. Aah, the wine farm…

 

 

To Courtney, Olivia, and my step-children Zoe and Jack…

Life was filled with the most exciting adventures there.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

150 Friends for Lunch

 

CHAPTER 2

Just a quiet weekend getaway

 

CHAPTER 3

What’s that on the horizon?

 

CHAPTER 4

What a picnic

 

CHAPTER 5

An offer they can’t refuse

 

CHAPTER 6

Eureka

 

CHAPTER 7

Some work to do

 

CHAPTER 8

Restaurant economics 101 (with cucumber soup)

 

CHAPTER 9

Debits and credits

 

CHAPTER 10

DNA

 

CHAPTER 11

What’s in a name?

 

CHAPTER 12

Bed time

 

CHAPTER 13

Catching up – the calm before the storm

 

CHAPTER 14

Driving a hard deal

 

CHAPTER 15

The wow factor

 

CHAPTER 16

Road kill

 

CHAPTER 17

A good coffee

 

CHAPTER 18

Water everywhere, but can we drink it?

 

CHAPTER 19

Bagging the baguette

 

CHAPTER 20

More wow food – Tonnato

 

CHAPTER 21

Getting the numbers right

 

CHAPTER 22

Mediterranean in the Midlands?

 

CHAPTER 23

Making the Midlands Meander

 

CHAPTER 24

Surviving the Concrete Jungle

 

CHAPTER 25

Just another quiet weekend

 

CHAPTER 26

At your own risk

 

CHAPTER 27

A basket case?

 

CHAPTER 28

Bugs and Ginger Bread Men

 

CHAPTER 29

The big move

 

CHAPTER 30

The publicity machine

 

CHAPTER 31

Only a week until opening – let’s go on holiday

 

CHAPTER 32

Welcome all

 

CHAPTER 33

We’re open – I think?

 

CHAPTER 34

The waterworks – No, it doesn’t!

 

CHAPTER 35

The grapes of wrath

 

CHAPTER 36

Boletus Edulis and other mushroom magic

 

CHAPTER 37

Another big move, and another

 

CHAPTER 38

Mayonnaise

 

CHAPTER 39

Surprise storms

 

CHAPTER 40

Some rocky weddings

 

CHAPTER 41

A fancy school and the picnic lady

 

CHAPTER 42

Boys will be boys

 

CHAPTER 43

Let’s gather around a fire

 

CHAPTER 44

A different world – forty-three million light years away

 

CHAPTER 45

Follow the signs – really?

 

CHAPTER 46

The chicken and the egg – any Cock’ll do

 

CHAPTER 47

Four seasons, five senses

 

CHAPTER 48

The fish farm and the fish pond and other wildlife

 

CHAPTER 49

A little nibble of Prosciutto

 

CHAPTER 50

Tadpoles

 

CHAPTER 51

Let’s reward ourselves

 

CHAPTER 52

Buried secret

 

CHAPTER 53

Ant city

 

CHAPTER 54

Toil and trouble, bubble, bubble – kitchen calamaties

 

FIFTY 55

Bank squeeze

 

CHAPTER 56

Looking forward to a rest with a Ferrari

 

CHAPTER 57

Subdivision – becoming a road builder

 

CHAPTER 58

Moving four cats, no three…?

 

CHAPTER 59

Losing some good people to HIV Aids

 

CHAPTER 60

Horizons Gourmet foods

 

CHAPTER 61

Trip of a lifetime – and the money’s in the bank

 

CHAPTER 62

Less ice cream, please

 

CHAPTER 63

Vroom, Vroom

 

CHAPTER 64

Beetroot soup

 

CHAPTER 65

Thai oysters

 

CHAPTER 66

Notes from Athena’s diary

 

CHAPTER 67

The best wedding – ever

 

CHAPTER 68

Back to routine – all in a week’s work

Experiences and what I’ve learnt from horizons

CHAPTER 1

150 friends for lunch

 

I fled from the chaos inside the house.

 

Outside, an entirely different and tranquil scenario awaited me, where a gloriously, peaceful morning had dawned two hours before. 

 

It’s 8 am Sunday, early in winter, where I stand on the front verhanda looking out across the valleys of the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. A mountain chill lingers in the air and the shadows under the giant conifer trees are still brightened by frost. That will disappear soon – it looks like a fine day ahead reaching low 20C’s – usual for this time of the year. In the distance magnificent Giant’s Castle rises languidly out of the early chill air, catching the early rays of the rising sun.

 

When I return inside the house it’s bedlam. There are picnic baskets everywhere. Fifty large ones for adults and thirty kid size ones make an obstacle course – across the  lounge floor, the sofas, the spare room bed, the temporary table, on top of the TV – anywhere there’s a flat surface.

 

It’s going to be a big day – the trial run-through of the brand new Horizons Gourmet Picnics business. My bride to be, Athena and I, have bravely (or stupidly?) invited many of our friends and their children to test the systems before we officially open to the public in a week’s time. As today got closer the numbers grew from sixty to seventy and now we were expecting ninety adults and who knew how many kids.

 

Years in the advertising industry have hardened me to deadlines and a stint as catering manager for the Royal Cape Yacht Club have given me all the basics of the restaurant industry. Nonetheless my excitement for today is tinged with not a little anxiety. Fear of the unknown.

 

I navigate the baskets to the kitchen. How anyone can work in there is a wonder. More baskets cover the floor, the table has hundreds of little plastic containers sliding off the edges and there are giant pots and trays of food balancing on the stove and fridges. The industrial size oven is on Gas mark ten as it battles to keep up with rows of ramekins waiting their turn. Yet labouring in there are five Zulu ladies and my gorgeous wife Athena who could be a reincarnation out of Greek mythology.

 

“Taste this please, Ian, I think it needs something,” asks my goddess as she hands me a sample spoonful of her legendary insalate di mare (yet to be bettered anywhere).

 

“As good as ever,” I mumble as I savour the vinegary, lemony, garlicky, olive oily, parsley, black peppery chunks of seafood. 

 

It’s the eleventh dish I’ve tested since getting up so my taste buds are already well tuned in. There was the chilled cucumber soup, the tonnato, the lamb casserole, the mielie bread, the…

 

My mobile rings and it’s one of my golf friends we invited. I fear it’s bad news – a last minute cancellation. “Hi Ian”, he says, “looking forward to seeing you midday.” I relax a bit. “By the way, we had a few friends stay over last night and I thought it would be good for them to find out about your picnics – may they come – they’ll pay?”

 

“Of course, and we don’t expect anyone to pay. Today’s on us to get people to know about it. The more the merrier.” Athena gave me a strange look.

 

The food – unbelievably – was coming together, although we knew our challenges were far from over. 

 

How would our little-trained, local Zulu farm workers cope with presenting our high end, al fresco, gourmet picnics? Would our oven cope with crisping up the baguettes and heating lamb casseroles for ninety adults? Had we mastered making espressos and Capuccinos to pump out sixty in half an hour?

 

Would Athena and my relationship stand up to this weekend in and weekend out?

 

The next dish I had to do was one of the most important, and alongside Athena’s insalate di mare our other signature dish – my carpaccio made with my specially cured bresaola. I had been building up expectations all week and now was my time to deliver. Most of the work was done and it was simply a matter of slicing it and plating it up.

 

Bresaola – a cured topside of beef – was one of many dishes inspired by our travels, in this case to the north of Italy. I sourced the basic recipe off the internet and had given it a South African twist. Sliced less than a millimetre thin, this is the main ingredient of my carpaccio. Because of the curing, it makes for a serious version, unlike the insipid affairs served in most restaurants made with tasteless fillet.

 

My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of Flo, who we had brought to Horizons to help with the load of the extra work. She is a little woman (compared to the huge size of the maids that one can see around), and as an outsider (she was from a different African tribe in the Umhlanga Rocks area on the coast) and she was standing up to her proper right in amongst the half a dozen ladies that we had working today. These were locals from the farms in the area and the nearby village, Bruntville,

 

Back to the bresaola. For this I trim a full topside (about seven kilos –readers, don’t try this at home!) of the flap and all fat. Then I cure it whole in a few cups mix of sea salt and sugar and about a cup mixed of ground black pepper and coriander seeds. After four or five days I rinse it in vinegar and rest it in the fridge for another few days for the flavours to penetrate through before it’s ready.

 

The ingredients are inspired by those used for biltong. This is the dried, cured meat developed by the voortrekker pioneers to preserve their slaughtered beef as they trekked on their conquest of savage southern Africa. I only use the meat from a Midlands butcher – reared solely on its lush pastures. It’s some of the finest – a deep, rich burgundy colour.

 

The rest of the dish is simple but requires equally good ingredients. 

 

We served it by plating a portion for two on a sideplate, covering it with about four delicate slices of the bresaola. A handful of shaved Grana Padano (similar to Parmigiano Reggiano but less expensive) is scattered over the top (can’t be too frugal with this as it adds to the rich umami flavour of the dish). Then follows a dressing of olive oil and finely chopped sweet basil. Lastly a couple of lemon slices to be squeezed over just before eating with a grating of black pepper.

 

This would be one of our signature dishes upon which we build our reputation.

 

However I digress (food does that to me).

 

“Bring me the mkulu nyama – the big meat,” I shout above the voices of the six Zulu ladies all going in different directions across the kitchen, doing their best to avoid tripping on the looped picnic basket handles sticking up in the air.

 

This is one of the big moments I’ve been waiting for – to christen our brand new meat slicer. My mind flashes back to the many delicatessens in Europe where I’ve watched prosciutto, coppa, parma and salami deftly sliced to order, and I keenly anticipate using our new Rheninghaus Stellina – all shiny, stainless steel and brand new out the box.

 

Every self respecting restaurant should have a good quality meat slicer. It’s an essential piece of equipment – along with a good espresso coffee machine. So we’d had no hesitation in investing in a top of range German make that was the price of an overseas airline ticket.

 

I fetch the box from the store room where it’s lain unopened since the catering equipment company delivered it at the last minute on the Friday. It weighs a ton and has no pictures but lots of German on it – a good sign of a quality slicer.

 

Around me the buzz continues with Athena efficiently commandeering the plating up of the insalate di mare, folding the cutlery in the napkins, and making sure there are butter dishes, salt dishes and pepper mills in every basket. Meanwhile I’m picturing myself in a Milanese deli savouring a slice of cured ham – either the dark, slightly sweet San Danielle or the truffly Pata Negra made from pigs that forage the forests for their favourite food – acorns.

 

“Get on with it,” Athena yells, “you still have to fetch the twenty bags of ice from the trading store and our guests are on their way!”

 

I open the box and glimpse the shiny machinery through the layers of plastic packaging. Impressive. Carefully I lift the couple of pieces out and unwrap the biggest piece first. It’s the length of my forearm and as thick as my leg and looks like a cannon. I’m a bit puzzled.

 

“What’s this?” I say, but no-one takes any notice.

 

My bresaola waits to be sliced. The ice waits. Lunchtime and our guests approach.

 

I unpack more and suddenly the horrible realization hits me. Slicing the massive bresaola into paper thin slices for nearly 100 guests has just become another, unexpected challenge to serving our test picnics. 

 

Why? Because what has been delivered is not a slicer. Instead, before me is an industrial strength, very large and impressive – but quite useless to me with 100 guests on their way – meat mincer!

 

What a thing of beauty, I momentarily think before realizing this unexpected predicament.

 

I look at the six kilograms lump of bresaola sitting on the table that should be in 300 slices. I look at the machine that could pass as a World War I cannon. 

 

With an hour to go before our guests were due to arrive, the plan was unravelling fast!

 

CHAPTER 2

Just a quiet weekend getaway

 

Our craziness had all started about six months before. We were relaxing over the Sunday crossword with the last of our lunchtime chardonnay.

 

“I’d like a little place in the mountains,” said Athena, “somewhere to escape to for weekends, with views, where we can go for walks and really chill out. You know, absolutely relax and do very little.”

 

With four teenage (or soon to be) children between us, and both running our own businesses we needed somewhere to get away to. Not that where we lived – Durban and Umhlanga Rocks – really needs to be got away from. With miles of beaches, a subtropical climate to enjoy them year-round, and the best rugby team in the world (The Sharks), it’s no wonder it’s South Africans’ favorite holiday destination. (Athena: enough of the travel commercial, Ian).

 

Right. So, it was we had started our search for a little place – a cottage by a mountain stream or lake with views of the magnificent Drakensberg. Or a little smallholding where we could grow our own organic vegetables and a few chickens.

 

A little geography may be useful here. Durban is one of the few places where in the morning you can enjoy surfing and at lunchtime be sitting at a log fire in your snow kit at the Highest Pub in Africa. This little gem at 3,000 meters on top of the Drakensberg sits just inside the little mountain kingdom of Lesotho (which if you didn’t know was there you could quite easily overlook). It’s only about three hours’ drive from the coast.

 

In between is what’s marketed as the Midlands Meander – a quaint tourism route of a couple of hundred artists, artisans and piss artists – where you can spend a day or more meandering around eating, drinking and resisting tea cozies embroidered with ducks.

 

Fortunately, there’s also a brewery at Rawdon’s Hotel, which has a fine pub with a roaring fire in winter where you can have a good pub lunch. A bunch of people have also been trying to grow grapes to produce wine in the area so it does have some respectability.

 

“You’re right,” I succumbed, not bothering to think of a reason not to.

 

So, we spent a few weekends driving to places like Underberg and Himeville and Drakensberg Gardens looking at possibilities. And mostly we spent the time driving.

 

To get there we would head inland from Durban along the motorway. After about an hour we’d turn left at Midmar dam or Nottingham Road and drive for another hour or more to the foothills of the mountains. The route through Nottingham Road (there’s another good pub at Notties Hotel) takes you through Rosetta – a tiny little village that everyone seems to have forgotten – where you turn left again.

 

This route heads to the Kamberg where an interaction center (fancy name for a hall with a video) has been set up by Ezemvelo Wildlife. They are the provincial nature conservation people (or Parks Board, the un-politically correct name many still call it) who are entrusted with nature conservation in KwaZulu-Natal. This center is perched on top of a hill, and here you can find out how the early settlers, with missionary zeal bent on bringing civilization to the area, wiped out the San – one of mankind’s earliest civilizations. Get the irony?

 

This area is now also a World Heritage Site – with the slip off the tongue name of Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Mountain Park.

 

The Kamberg has one of the best hotels in the country with the odd name of Cleopatra. Proprietors Richard and Mouse Poynton create and produce a unique menu from local produce 365 days of the year to a 95% capacity of mostly foreign guests.

 

It’s also known that it tops the list of favorite places of ex-president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. So, you might bump into him in the pub and share his favorite tipple Chivas over an enlightening fireside chat about how the arms deal went down. Or he went down. Or a few of the other public figures that went down in South Africa’s post ‘94 scramble for top paying government jobs and contracts.

 

So, our quest was having another benefit. We were discovering places and facts and meeting lots of interesting people.

 

A few times en route we drove through Rosetta (which also has one of the best wine shops in the country – the Wine Cellar, and one of the worst named restaurants – The Piggly Wiggly).

 

This had got me thinking. No, not the wine or the Piggly Wiggly, but this idyllic little populated village in its pretty setting. It had got me thinking.

 

“You know something,” I said as we were crawling out of the Umkomaas Valley stuck behind a taxi crammed with more people than the designer intended, “we’re missing the point here. If we’re going to get good use out of this place, we can’t spend half a day driving there and another half back home.”

 

“Look what happens,” I added, “when we go somewhere a bit far for the weekend – by 10 o’clock Sunday morning everyone’s getting fidgety because lunch won’t be relaxed because we have to set off home at the time we should be having our second bottle of wine followed by a Sunday afternoon nap. Doesn’t make sense.”

 

“You’re right,” concurred Athena, as the taxi nearly hit a goat.

 

“In fact, much as we love the actual mountains,” I built my case, “what we really want is a place that is very quick and easy to get to. We must be able to leave Durban at four on a Friday afternoon and an hour later onto our second glasses of Sauvignon Blanc admiring the sunset.”

 

“Makes sense, otherwise we’ll end up not using the place. And then we can enjoy the whole of Sunday, have a full-on Sunday roast and leave early Monday morning.” You can tell why she’s my goddess.

 

I need to explain here, for the benefit of those people unlucky enough to travel long distances to work. Here we are, discussing an hour’s journey like it is the trans-Antarctic survival mission. Well, for good reason. We’re spoilt in Durban. Three cars make a rush hour (well they used to). People would lose touch with friends if they lived more than twenty minutes away and a dinner invitation almost meant taking an overnight bag. So, for us an hour-long drive is not what we do to and from work every day.

 

___________________________

 

After a few weeks exploring, Rosetta and its surrounds was a growing blip on our radar. Having driven through it a few times we started falling in love with it.

 

Unlike so many other small towns, it had been forgotten about, ignored and not stuffed up. No franchises except for the Piggly Wiggly, and I swear I’ve never seen another Piggly Wiggly anywhere on earth but they do tell me it’s a franchise, and besides a trading store or two, not much else. It has a small dam and on the village outskirts the gentle hills give 180 to 360 views of the midlands and the distant Drakensberg. There used to be a station there because people would train up from the seaside (that’s how pretty Rosetta must have been, and could be again) for the weekend or day and stay at the Rosetta Hotel – which is now the Piggly Wiggly. (I can see a time-warp, back-to-the future type movie somewhere there…

 

“The area around Rosetta is the answer,” I said, as we tucked into chargrilled calamari for lunch after a summer morning on the beach at Umhlanga. It was early January; the year had started and our minds were back into “Goals for the Year”.

 

“It’s off the beaten track, the gateway to a World Heritage site, peacefully quiet and is just over an hour’s drive from Durban. Let’s look there.”

 

Whether it was my sound logic or the African sun and the Chardonnay, either way I had Athena nodding.

 

Nothing fancy at all. In fact, a single room cottage with a fireplace in one corner and a bed in the other would do.

 

We agreed.

 

At that time, we were dealing with an excellent estate agent Shelley Nortier (who is sadly no more), and so I asked her to see if her contacts in the Midlands could find us anything. Our brief was simple: a modest cottage, small piece of land for a bit of weekend agriculture, mountain views, stream or dam (with trout), north facing to enjoy the winter sun, verandah for summer al fresco lunches.

 

Would something turn up?

 

CHAPTER 3

What’s that on the horizon?

 

Durban’s colonial forefathers saw fit to preserve the city’s botanic legacy. So, close to the city’s center nestles the Botanical Gardens – about three hectares of lawns, gardens, trees and a dam – which is grandiosely referred to as a lake.

 

It’s the perfect place for a picnic – especially when the province’s philharmonic orchestra is in concert amongst the palm trees and the ducks are splashing around. (They had tried spectacular and noisy firework displays with some of the concerts, but that had the birdlife running for cover and the greenies up in arms as quick as you could say “global warming”!)

 

We were now just into the second week of February and still no cottage. “There’s good music at Botanic Gardens this Sunday for Valentine’s Day, let’s go,” said Athena.

 

My mind immediately recalled our past successful picnics there – Athena’s Insalate di Mare of course, platters of my home-made prosciutto, and some of the best, rich, sticky Gorgonzola we know of. All washed down by a couple of bottles of good stuff.

 

“Great – we’ll do one of our fine picnics.” I’m easily convinced by good food.

 

About Wednesday that week a call came in from Shelley. “I’ve been asking around and there isn’t much in your price range. However, our agent in Notties has something you may be interested in – it’s next to Rosetta on about twelve hectares and is on the market for R1 million (roughly US$14,000).”

 

“Shelley, are you crazy – we don’t want to buy a farm! Surely there must be a little cottage somewhere?”

 

“There’s very little around there unless you want to go into Nottingham Road, Fort Nottingham or the town of Rosetta itself. The next smallest size is something like what I’ve found.”

 

“But there is something about this worth looking into,” she added. “The sellers have been subdividing so you may be able to buy part of it or sell part of it. Shall I get the agent Anthony to call you?”

 

So, it was that Saturday morning saw me heading up to Rosetta to view our possible weekend getaway. Athena was working at her linen store so I went on my own.

 

“Meet me just before Rosetta where you see a little dirt road the D146 on your left,” was the arrangement with Anthony.

 

I arrived a little before the arranged time of 8am. The air was thick with the scents of summer and the distant sounds of farm animals going about their Saturday morning business. I hesitantly looked up the steep Road D146, which barely qualified as a road. Summer rain torrents had rushed down, gouging deep ruts and turning the clay surface into a slippery mess. The low-level bridge barely cleared the stream and logs, grass and litter clung to its upstream edge.

 

A mud splattered 4×4 pulled up and someone who looked like Magnum PI’s brother shouted out the window: “Good morning, welcome to Rosetta, Ian. I’m Anthony Baker,” he drawled at about half the speed of someone from the city. “Follow me.”

 

We slithered up the hill with my sporty Alfa doing its best to think 4×4. I tried to ignore the occasional grind as it scraped over a rock or I navigated a man size wash away in the road.

 

After about 300 metres we crested a hill. I slowed down to take in the landscape but Anthony sped on. His vehicle disappeared up the road through an avenue of towering blue gums so I used my rally driving skills and caught him up, just as he stopped at a pumpkin coloured entrance.

 

As we entered all I could see were buildings. Our modest little weekend “cottage” had the makings of Rosetta Club Med!

 

A gravel driveway was flanked on one side by stables converted into cottages (plural) and garages (plural), and on the other by leafy poplar trees and parking for about twelve cars. The pale pumpkin colour theme followed through to a thatched home beyond, partly obscured by three-meter-high hedges.

 

A man came out one of the garages wiping his hands and a woman emerged from behind the hedge to meet us – Avril and Trevor Spiers, the owners. Half a dozen dogs of wide ranging size and provenance sniffed us new visitors.

 

“Come in, welcome,” Avril greeted us warmly.

 

We entered a side door into first a hallway with a cosy lounge and earthy fireplace and then a very large area the size of a restaurant that Avril had also furnished as a lounge. The walls were the colour of pinot noir – a light coloured , but very noble red wine -punctuated with large windows.

 

“Let’s go outside,” Avril invited.

 

I stepped out onto the veranda and gasped.

 

Birdsong and a rich amalgam of natural scents filled the air: freshly mown grass, conifer trees and floral fragrances.

 

Sprawling emerald lawns were dotted with flower beds glowing yellow, orange, pink and white in the rays of the early morning sun. The grass flowed into a gently curved double row of conifer trees that was obviously once a grand driveway entrance. Just in front of the house to the right a large pond half filled with lilies shimmered and reflected the bullrushes and fountain at its centre.

 

Beyond, valleys spread out swallowing the last of the morning mist and pastures defined by rows of trees started to form. Through the blue gum trees, I could see in the distance the imposing Drakensberg.

 

“If you look through there you can see Giant’s Castle,” said Trevor.

 

“There’s also the dam that’s being built – Spring Grove Dam,” said Anthony. “It’s going to be 1km down the road and will add enormous value to the property as it will be recreational as well. They’ve been planning it for the last fifty years and it’s due to be built now.”

 

“You’ve also seen what’s happening at Nottingham Road with Gowrie Village and there’s a big new shopping centre that’s about to be built.”

 

A flood of emotions engulfed me – I was smitten, excited, inspired. My marketing background and trendspotting nature of my work was picking up all the right signals: key tourist region; attracts the well heeled; close to a World Heritage Site; a big trend towards living in the countryside and commuting; working from home with digital connections; an unspoiled, undeveloped and potential Franschhoek. I could see fabulous investment potential.

 

I was also very aware that this was rather a lot more than we had in mind.

 

______________

 

“Let’s see the rest of the house,” said Anthony.

 

In South Africa, we have a dwelling known as a rondavel. It’s a very rudimentary structure – simply a circular abode with a pointy thatched roof. Usually only one door and anything from three to five metres in diameter.

 

Like many farmhouses (which this started out as) they grew organically as did the family and the need for more rooms. This one began as two separate rondavels a few metres apart. They were now bedrooms, one the main en suite, which had been connected by what was another lounge for watching TV. Leading off from that was a tiny passage with a bathroom and toilet and another bedroom.

 

“What’s through there?” I asked pointing at a door towards the rear of the house.

 

Avril puffed up her chest. “This is the kitchen.”

 

She opened the door and we entered very large, very blue kitchen.

 

To me the kitchen is the soul of the home. A meal of good food, in my view, is a sharing of love with friends and family.

 

This one had the makings of lots of affection and I could imagine our family gathered here surrounded by aromas and anticipating one of Athena’s fine country meals. An industrial stove and oven dominated. Cupboards lined every inch of wall except where a fridge and a freezer stood alongside. A walk-in cupboard occupied one corner – it alone was big enough to be a pantry for the average size house/family. Strangely, none of the cupboards had doors.

 

“What about the doors?” Athena asked?

 

“Trevor made all the cupboards, he’s still finishing them off.” Avril quickly replied. “They’ll be completed.” Out the corner of my eye I’m certain I glimpsed Trevor squirm a bit at this.

 

_____________________

 

A couple of hours later I returned to Durban having seen the full extent of the property. I couldn’t wait to tell Athena. The land sloped gently to the north and I envisaged vineyards and olive groves basking in the sun. Up by the homestead, which was at the highest point of the land, apricot, peach and fig trees had been planted where the ground sloped slightly to the east. On the west side, there were the makings of a vegetable garden. Surrounding it were apple, mulberry and plum trees.

 

The Spiers, as Averil pointed out to me, had undergone a long and expensive process to have the land subdivided into three sections, each about four hectares in extent.

 

I was filled with mixed emotions. This was much bigger than we had in mind, however, it had so much going for it. My subconscious started processing the morning’s revelation and making connections as it explored and investigated experiences stored in various files and folders in my cerebral cortex.

 

As I cruised back to Durban in the glorious summer sunshine my conscious mind was focussing on Averil’s words as I had been about to leave: “We already have an offer so you’ll need to move fast.”

 

This was going to be an interesting weekend.

 

CHAPTER 4

What a picnic

 

Being Valentine’s weekend, Athena was working flat out at her linen shop. The sensual bedding and lingerie was disappearing as quickly as a bride’s wedding nightdress.

 

I was hunting and gathering for our Valentine’s day romantic picnic.

 

To confess, we do go to town on our picnics and confess to enjoying the finer things in life. That’s not to say Athena and I can, and have, roughed it. She’s survived the terrors of the Amazon and climbed Kilimanjaro when she was two month’s pregnant (Athena; that’s a story for another book…). I did a year in the infantry lugging full battle gear fuelled by little more than “dog biscuits”.

 

But everything definitely tastes better on proper crockery with proper cutlery. A glass of bubbly tastes better than a plastic of bubbly.

 

So, when I arrived back I spent the rest of the day preparing. Champagne, ice bucket, champagne glasses and candles. Small table, tablecloth and golf umbrella as summer showers were common in February. Lightweight fold up chairs. The entertainment for the evening was the Natal Philharmonic Orchestra playing romantic love songs.

 

Athena’s Insalata di Mare made the night before waited in the fridge, developing its delicious flavours.

 

The trick to this is to get your hands on flavourful seafood and then carefully cook it just enough. Steamed, preferably. Overcook it and it starts losing its flavour. The main seafood ingredients are octopus (or calamari tubes), prawns (or extravagant langoustines) and mussels.

 

I don’t know what on earth they do to it, but a lot of the frozen mixed seafood from supermarkets tastes more like it has been swimming around a washing machine full of soap than in the sea.

 

The most flavourful calamari we’ve found was actually from King’s Sports, a fishing tackle shop in Durban. There it was in the deep freeze: “Tugela squid bait.” Fish don’t go for stale bait I’m told – except a shark would eat strange things spat into the sea by a river in flood. We’ve eaten “bait” grilled and fried. And it was excellent. But let’s rather get back to Athena’s Insalate di Mare.

 

ATHENA’S INSALATA DI MARE

 

Finely chop red onion. Sprinkle with sugar and mild grape vinegar, stir and leave to rest for 20 minutes or so.

Very quickly steam the seafood – literally two to three minutes. Better to have it under rather than overcooked. The acid in the lemon and vinegar will part cure/cook it some more.

Chop celery and red pepper into 5 – 10mm dices.

Crush garlic, chop Italian parsley and mix with the olive oil.

Drain some of the liquid off the red onion.

When the seafood has cooled, chop large creatures into similar bite size chunks. Mix all the ingredients gently

Squeeze lemon juice over (use fresh, not the nasty bottled stuff that is usually preserved with sodium benzoate)

Season with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. (I find this salt is less salty and adds more flavour than the fine, free running kitchen salt)

 

So, that was one dish to look forward to. What else?

 

I headed downstairs to my cellar and selected one of my prosciutto’s that was eating perfectly after about twelve months maturing. A dozen or so slices on the small household slicer – the one we bought in Bergamo on a recent trip to Italy – would do just nicely.

 

My herb garden was full of fresh rocket and baby lettuce leaves. They would go well with the Insalata di Mare.

 

I had bought a dozen fresh oysters as a surprise. I made sure there was enough ice for the champagne and to make a bed for the oysters and set aside a cooler box to keep it frozen. A bottle of Krone Borealis (a local methode champenoise said to have been misidentified by some French winetasters as French Champagne) was already well chilled in the fridge.

 

I lined up a couple of lemons and Tabasco for the oysters and in case needed for the insalate di mare. Into the picnic basket went a few other goodies and soon I was ready to go.

 

With all this seafood and champagne a good Valentine’s night was on the cards. Somewhere deep in my subconscious, without my realising it yet, my synapsii connected insalata di mare to a group of cows in a midland meadow.

 

_____________________

 

 

The orchestra tucked into a Frank Sinatra as the local bird population returned, undiscouraged, to their nests in the trees surrounding the Botanic Garden’s little pond.

 

We tucked into our picnic as the late afternoon gave way to a balmy summer evening. Our champagne glasses sparkled in the flickering candlelight and our spectacular spread drew inquisitive stares. A few clouds gathered.

 

Athena was impressed by the picnic effort and even more so by my morning’s discovery.

 

“We must move fast,” she said, piling her masterpiece insalata di mare on my plate. “I can leave the shop tomorrow morning – it should be quieter now that Valentine’s day is past.”

 

“They want a million – I’ve no idea if I can get a bond for that much,” I said, napping a dribble of lemony, Tabasco-ish oyster juice from my chin.

 

“But they’re quite advanced with the subdivision, so I’ve been thinking. Even if we don’t get the main property with the house, then at least we could get one or both the pieces of land.”

 

The three subdivisions would each be about four hectares, all north facing and each with slightly different views.

 

The orchestra cheerfully frolicked along, telling us that Rita was a showgirl and Tony was a gangster at the Copa, Copacabana. A few people realized it was Barry Manilow. Some more rain clouds came.

 

“Avril says they have other people interested, so I’ll put in an offer tomorrow.” I said this confidently, although I still had absolutely no idea how to finance it.

 

“They always say that,” said Athena, artfully folding a delicate piece of prosciutto into a bite size roll and popping it into her mouth. “Don’t worry.”

 

“I really don’t want us to miss out on this, you’ll see when we get there – it’s stunning.”

 

The orchestra launched into a Barbara Streisand number and it started drizzling. Out came the golf umbrella and the two of us cuddled together in the soft, warm candle glow that enveloped our little romantic picnic.

 

It so spectacularly captured the essence of a Valentine’s picnic that a nearby picnicker even took a picture of us.

 

We, enthused by the possibility of having found our weekend hideaway, polished off the champagne and dived into a ’95 Hartenberg Shiraz, which had its own happy marriage with a sticky, ready and very seductive gorgonzola.

 

Later that evening we were tempted by the Club 330. This is/was a “destination” on the Point Road, now an in-between location separating the city and a newly developed area in The Point, with state of the art apartments.

 

This is divided by a somewhat seedy area which you have to take your life in your own hands to travel through. It’s inhabitated by low life drug dealers and misfits who occupy run-down apartments/“flats”, (where they share rooms – they fit a dozen people in one 16metre2/160foot square space), and pay rental to someone who collects it (illegally!) It’s an unsightly, unsavoury barrier to overcome – much like the Berlin Wall! We set out to brave this area of iniquity.

 

The Club 330 is divided onto three floors. We enjoyed ourselves (boogying immensely) and staggered out of there a few hours later (Athena was a bit tipsy, I had restrained myself fearing the newly applied liquor laws governing drunken driving!). Thank goodness, because rounding a corner we were confronted by a million blue flashing lights.

 

I waited for my turn, with growing anxiety, amidst the queues of traffic building up. “Evening officer,” I politely said from my driver’s window to the gentleman in uniform.

 

“Evening sir. Have you had anything to drink?”

 

I was mindful that I was slaughtered early that evening but a few hours had passed and I could see clearly. I looked into his eyes, and with all sincerity (this was after all very early – about 3am – the next morning), I said “Not today, officer.”

 

He looked me in the eye and glanced across at my somewhat comatose passenger, and waved me on my way. Perhaps something to do with all the garlic and olive oil in the insalata di mare which was undoubtably destined to pollute the inside of the breathalyser machine!

 

CHAPTER 5

An offer they can’t refuse

 

We rose early that morning after three hours sleep excited by the day’s potential.

 

As we climbed up the last hills near Balgowan through the Midlands to reach Rosetta a beautiful sunny day awaited us through the fog, in our minds and as well in the air around surrounding us.

 

The road from Nottingham Road to Rosetta is only seven kilometres and for the most part is straight. It runs parallel to and alongside the train line which connects Durban to what used to be called the Transvaal or the Reef or Witwatersrand or Rand for short. Now it’s called Gauteng.

 

A kilometre from the entrance to Rosetta, the road twists through a little cutting. Although small, in the spring and warmer months it is spectacular. A mixture of indigenous and alien trees, some in flower, line the sides of this modest pass. After a couple of left right, left right bends, the road enters the wetlands which Rosetta surrounds. It’s dense with tall bamboo, grasses and willows and a cool tranquillity envelops passers through.

 

“There it is – the D146,” I pointed, as we slowed over the speedbumps. “That’s where we turn up.”

 

As we climbed the short dirt road I started noticing more detail than I had the day before. On the left were larger smallholdings while on the right a sign proclaimed that this was Rosetta Township Development.

 

So the D146 effectively was the boundary between farmland on “our” side and the suburbia of Rosetta on the other. However, although the fences dividing the suburban plots very visible, there were only a few homes. It was mostly bush and trees. Rosetta was unlikely to have any kind of rush hour traffic.

 

The cows munched away happily in the field where I had seen them the day before. A group of happy African children waved at us as we drove past. Fluffy little clouds happily floated across the big African sky. Christmas beetles (others call them cicadas) happily buzzed away in the trees, unconcerned that yuletide was two months past.

 

“There’s such a… …happy feeling around here,” Athena eventually put her finger on it.

 

Introductions done to Anthony, Avril and Trevor, we walked through the house to the front veranda and presented the view to Athena.

 

She was almost in tears. “This is so beautiful. Oh wow.”

 

________________

 

 

Two hours later we had taken lots of pictures and asked every question we could think of. I called Anthony the agent aside.

 

“I’d like to put in an offer, but I need to think about how to structure it. Please tell them we’ll have an offer to them tomorrow.”

 

Anthony went to speak to Averil and Trevor and a few minutes later came back. “It’s best we put an offer in today. They say they have someone else interested.”

 

“Let us have a couple of minutes,” I said to Anthony and Athena and I went out into the garden.

 

“It’s stunning. But it’s huge and so much more than we were looking for – how will we pay for it?”

 

“I really don’t know. But let’s put in an offer and buy some time and we can figure that out.” I really didn’t know how I was going to do this, but we had to give ourselves a fighting chance to come up with a solution.

 

If I couldn’t raise the finance on the total property, then there was a good chance that one or both of the subdivisions were managable.

 

An hour later we had drawn up three offers, one for the main property and two for the subdivided portions. Total purchase price? One million rand made up of two subs at R80,000 each and the developed property at R840,000.

 

We made sure that the massive cooker was included and a condition was that the kitchen cupboards would be completed with their doors.

 

“We’re selling most of the furniture with the house as well,” said Averil.

 

Although Athena and I had plenty of furniture between us we didn’t have what was needed to fill this place. I had already counted five large couches being put to good use, and to replace those alone could easily add up to over twenty thousand.

 

“We don’t really need anything but please do us a list and we’ll have a look at it,” said Athena.

 

I looked at her quizzically and a little surprised to which she inconspicuously squeezed my hip and took on an “I-know-what-I’m-doing” look.

 

“We have to put in a date for the finance to be approved,” said Anthony.” 21 days is standard.

 

All the details covered, I signed.

 

It was Sunday 15 February. By Friday 6 March I had to provide proof from a bank that I had secured the finance to make up the million rand.

 

I had no idea how I was going to raise the money. For sure I would have to do some serious George Clooneys to charm the bank people.

 

CHAPTER 6

Eureka

 

Now this is the moment in this book of the grand, seminal occurence. It’s that point when my synapsis thingies (those bits in the brain that connect thoughts I believe) put a few experiences together and made an idea.

 

It’s when there should be a massive orchestra with pyrotechnics and those northern light things and a thousand-strong chorus ullulating and singing hallelujahs.

 

But I’m not sure how to do that in a book printed in black and white with no sound so maybe you can go to You Tube and watch one with the volume turned up.

 

In reality, it all seemed so logical and was more of a quiet, “the-pin-dropped” sort of moment.

 

We were throwing around ideas as we headed back to Durban. To fund the total purchase there would have to be an income from the property.

 

We talked about renting it out but then that defeated the object of us having a weekend retreat. So what about renting the cottages? Or a bed and breakfast? We could also do conferences? Or farming, particularly organic (I had just started a business called Go-Organic.co.za.)

 

“Picnics,” I said.

 

“What?” said Athena.

 

“That’s it! Look at it. It’s in the Midlands where lots of people go for day outings. It’s got all that beautiful lawn and trees and views – what a perfect place to do picnics. Like a picnic restaurant. Al fresco. Nobody does picnics like us, surely people would love it?” I said with only a certain amount of confidence.

 

“And we can have the B&B and do conferences,” added Athena.

 

“Yes it’s got the two cottages and space for more if we want to add on.”

 

Our concept of a quiet little relaxing weekend getaway where we could laze around seemed to have got lost somewhere along the way.

 

CHAPTER 7

Some work to do

 

My mind was racing. If I could have bottled the amount of adrenalin thundering through my veins, I could have sold it to the Springboks and made a fortune.

 

Days and nights became a blur. Athena was working hard to establish Christies’, her fine linen and sleepwear shop in Musgrave Centre, into a success, so we met up whenever we could to discuss ideas and notes.

 

We had the seed of an idea – the picnics. But in the following two and a half weeks a lot had to be worked out:

 

How will the picnics work?

What do we need to make it happen?

What will it cost?

Would it actually pay for itself?

How will we run it or do we get a manager?

Will we move the kids to schools in the area?

What about our other businesses?

 

There was so much to figure out. But I was fired up – this was one of those “find an old farm house in Tuscany and do it up” fairytales.

 

Now I need to give a little of my background here to give a sense of how my mind was working. It sounds a bit like a CV so bear with me. Anyway this is my book so I can include what I want :-)

 

My main business at that time was doing brand* consulting. It’s sort of like being a marketing consultant. Previously I’d run a business unit at ad agency TBWA Hunt Lascaris and the portfolio I’d built up had a focus on tourism clients with accounts like Durban Tourism, KZN Tourism, The Natal Parks Board, and the KZN/Durban Millenium Project. There was also Durban’s Olympic bid - the one against Cape Town and Johannesburg to bid for South Africa for 2004 – the one that went to Athens because Cape Town lost (and just as well because it would have been premature I believe). There I’d led the marketing drive for the Durban bid.

 

*Brand – I describe this as a relationship. So it’s more than a trademark or a logo. It’s a relationship between a customer and a product or service created over time as a result of all the interactions between them. It’s fluid and everything from the product’s features and benefits to how the receptionist answers the company phone to the clothes employees wear influences this relationship. See also “Snakes and ladders approach to branding” further on.

 

And there was The Sharks – the provincial rugby team brand. I had motivated in my strategy to the Natal Rugby Union they adopt the Shark as their brand icon to capitalise on world rugby entering the professional era in the mid-nineties.

 

And for the record, this is how I went about it. Eddie and his son Terry Kukhle had been selling some merchandise with a shark on it at the small merchandise shop at the stadium. I approached them and said I wanted to present this strategy and wanted to recommend the shark and asked them as a courtesy. They had tried without success to have the shark adopted as a mascot for the NRU who was set on using the Wildebeest as its emblem. The team was popularly known as the “Banana Boys” [because KZN is a big banana producing province – although not the biggest producer in SA].) The actual used shark image was evolved from the Kukhle version by one of the designers (name?) at TBWA Hunt Lascaris when we pitched for and won the advertising account in about 1995 to add it to my portfolio.

 

My biggest mistake was not negotiating a personal royalty through NRU and TBWA. Within a couple of years the NRU had already sold R5 million worth of merchandise (that was around 2004 and over US$700,000) and that was over ten years ago. My vision of The Sharks becoming the global Manchester United of provincial rugby sides has seen some success.

 

So, I had built up a very strong network amongst the tourism industry and good contacts in the media. I’d also had lots of opportunity to hone my marketing and specifically PR skills during my various “careers”.

 

This had really started when, from 1976 to 1981, I had raced cars and needed to promote myself. I met a guy named Mike Jacklin who was involved with the whizz of South African Tennis Owen Williams. Mike was setting up motor racing sponsorship deals all over the place and I learnt a lot from him.

 

Those were the heydays of South African tennis with the SA Open. The flambouyant and larger than life Williams, ever like a movie star with his signature fat Cuban cigar, attracted just about all the top world tennis names of the time to play in South Africa. We were privileged to see Ille Nastase and Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and Guilermo Vilas and Virginia Wade and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (check this). These were the Federers and the Nadals of the time.

 

There I also met up with Carol Schneider and Keith Brebnor who were involved with Owen Williams. Both were firebrand entrepreneurs – Keith took over from Williams and later became a prominent figure in tourism for Johannesburg, Carol became a media giant (not to be confused with her petite physical stature).

 

In 2000 I spent a year in the Seychelles. The government had established the Seychelles Tourism Marketing Authority (another roll-off-the-tongue name) to drive tourism and I was head hunted for the job of marketing director of tourism. It involved a lot of contact with international travel media, and it didn’t hurt that my brand was probably the world’s most exotic and romantic tropical destination. There I worked a lot with Peter Economides of TBWA’s global operations and David Wright, a strategic whizz from TBWA SA. Although I didn’t get on with Peter and questioned some of his actions, he brought a lot of experience and hard edged wisdom. This was gained from working on brands like Coke in New York, arguably the toughest ad industry in the world.

 

(Oh yes, and it was in Seychelles that I also met the gifted Ron Schiff, financial director of STMA but better loved as a middle aged, slightly wrinkly prankster and keyboard pianist of unlimited talent.)

 

So, I’d learnt a bit about publicity, branding and marketing along the way from the best.

 

We were going to need every trick in the book to pull this one off.

 

_____________

 

But let’s just get this all into perspective with the story so far. The clock was ticking. We had less than fifteen working days to get the finance.

 

My strategy was to do a business plan and raise finance on the strength of that. I’d already made a call to my bankers – Standard Bank – and set those wheels in motion, or so I thought. They had recently financed a few property purchases of mine and my credit with them was good.

 

My mind had to think along a few tracks at the same time if the finance application was going to be ready.

 

1 Research the market so we could understand if and how the picnics concept would work

2 Break the concept down into workable detail – a typical business day and what was needed

3 Find out what the cost would be for each of the elements from furniture to blankets to coffee machines

4 Work all this information into a business plan

5 Find and convince a bank to fund it

 

Who says men can’t multitask. I found myself thinking about lobster and oysters when I was trying to focus on tourist numbers. Or chardonnay and shiraz when I was calculating the interest payable on the bond. It was exciting. It was fun. It was scary.

 

As the idea developed the enormity struck home.

 

“Just keep focussed,” Athena said. “You don’t have to cover every little detail – just the important things so that you can do a business plan.”

 

I kept reminding myself of this when my mind started thinking of wild pigeon stuffed with forest mushrooms.

 

There seemed to be more questions than answers. When one answer materialised, it brought with it two more questions.

 

What happens when people arrive? Do they just go and choose a place? No, we have to allocate them. Then who does this? We need front of house. We need a booking book. Who will people call to make bookings? What phone number would they use?

 

As I write this a few years later, it’s a glorious early summer morning. I mean both early in summer (October) and early in the day (5.30am). Outside there’s frenetic activity as two male weaver birds – brilliant golden yellow in the morning sun – vie for a mate. In the last two days they’ve built nests in two trees – one in the atrium and one in the front garden, just metres apart. Every few minutes raucous displays of puffed up feathers threatens to wake the rest of the household.

 

It’s the same hectic action I felt in those first three weeks of Horizons.

 

The one chap has built two nests – skilfully weaving long strands of soft grass with his beak (how do they know how to do that – weaving university?). Why two? Because the female didn’t like the look of the first one – that’s the way it works. “Not my colour wallpaper, darling!” So she flits between the two trees playing off one against the other.

 

Up in the rafters, a pair of swallows had returned to their nest. They mate for life (some say, they take a second wife…, go for it, you little bugger!) It’s their third summer here now, and who knows exactly where they go during our winter. They disappear for at least six months and we’re taught they migrate north. So perhaps they have found a nice little place in Kensington high street or Windsor Castle or Provence or Istanbul on the Asian side, where they spend the northern summers. Does that mean they breed twice a year? South African kids and European kids? What passports are the parents on?

 

So I was luckier than the male weaver bird and more like the swallow. I had secured my mate. She’s beautiful and I can tell by the looks in my golf buddies’ eyes that she has stunning plumage too.

______________

 

By now it was already Tuesday evening. I needed to bring Athena up to speed and bounce some ideas over supper. She’d made a pasta dish learnt from her Bolognese Italian friends: prawns, tomato, cream, brandy.

 

“The research is looking good. Tourism is growing, property developments are happening.” The delicious pasta was equalled by a delicious viognier chardonnay blend which had just the right amount of citrussy, fruity acidity to bring out the seafood flavours. I speared another chunk of prawn and twirled a mouthful of pasta around it.

 

“I’ve heard about a tourism subsidy and incentive programme,” I told Athena. “It’s called the Tourism Enterprise Project or TEP. It’s designed to create jobs and what they do is help people establish or grow tourism businesses. I’ll call my friend James Seymour at KZN Tourism – he’ll know.” James headed up research at KZN Tourism and in addition to being a very sharp strategic thinker, he’s one of the most efficient, likeable and helpful people I know. He was also fascinated by what I was up to.

 

I related my conversation with James to Athena.

 

“Gourmet picnics is a great idea, Ian, it’s just what the Midlands needs. Speak to the people at Midlands Meander, Geoff Maikin. You must be a member and they’ll be keen to have you on board.” James also gave me the contact details for TEP. It was a DTI (that’s the Department of Trade and Industry) initiative so not part of KZN Tourism.

 

So the TEP programme looked like a good idea. In fact a real blessing. To qualify one had to have accommodation and it went something like this: let’s say you set up a B&B with capital costs of three million. The TEP programme would refund you your finance costs over the first three years, relieving the business of one of its major expenses for its start up. So the B&B funding part seemed covered as far as finance was concerned.

 

Not the picnics business. As the concept developed it became more and more complex.

 

“This is just like setting up a restaurant. We’re going to need a lot of stuff,” I said to Athena after dinner.

 

“Look here,” I showed her a list of needs – in a little black bound book my 10 year old daughter Olivia had made with my help. “This is just a start.”

 

It went something like this:

Baskets

Blankets

Tables

Chairs

Crockery

Cutlery

Glassware

Linen

Pots

Other cooking stuff

Drinks fridge

Coffee machine

Umbrellas

Till

Knives

Cutting boards

Slicer

Raw materials fridge

Blender

Breakfast stuff (muffin tins)

Salt pepper things

 

Olivia had added:

 

Sugestion

Kids shampain champagne

 

I had also drawn up a flow chart of how things might work for the picnics to get an idea of the resources needed.

It ranged from indemnity forms in five languages (what if someone got bitten by a snake – so had to warn eg. German tourists of the hazards), to waitress order books to pokers for the fires I had thought would be a good idea in winter.

 

“And what are we going to charge?” My mind was jumping from creative to business.

 

We did some sums on the picnics. It all came down to this: could we put on a fine picnic at a price that would look like amazing value?

 

“If the basic price is too high people will be put off,” said Athena. At that time main courses at a decent restaurant were around R70 to R80.

 

“What we have to do is have an attractive entry level price, and then people can buy extras. But I’ve no idea how we work that out – you know me, I’m always getting the quantities wrong. Even for four people.”

 

Athena was generous to a fault. Any meal she cooked was guaranteed to feed the family for another three or four days. Great for a mum – not for a restaurant manager.

 

But we were in luck. “Let’s look at the food cost,” I said, pulling another arrow from my quiver.

 

CHAPTER 8

Restaurant economics 101 (with cucumber soup)

 

This was where my restaurant background – well, a year of it at least – kicked in. In 1987 at the age of 34 I had decided I wanted to open a restaurant so my first wife, Gail, and I packed everything up in Johannesburg and went to Cape Town.

 

This was not only very brave but also rather stupid. Firstly, I had no experience. Like many people I thought a passion for cooking and being able to entertain a dozen friends somehow qualifies one. Secondly, Cape Town has miserable weather most of the winter so it’s very seasonal. Restaurants have been known to fold after a year because they can’t make it through the quiet winter. Not to mention the city has some of the finest restaurants in the world. But, spurred on by friends’ comments like; “You’re such a good cook, you should open a restaurant,” that’s exactly what we moved to Cape Town to do.

 

I was very fortunate. The first thing I did was visit some top restauranteurs to get an idea about the market and how to proceed. Someone suggested I see Fred Gottgens, who had set up some of the Mike’s Kitchen’s steakhouse franchises. Mike was also commodore of the Royal Cape Yacht Club. I was not to realise until a year later what a godsend it was to meet Fred.

 

“It will take you three years to establish a restaurant. Have you got that much money? And, something like eight out of ten restaurants in Cape Town don’t last beyond two years.”

 

This was not how my dream was meant to roll out.

 

“Don’t be a fool, Ian, you’ll lose all your money. But I have got an idea.”

 

“The yacht club has a catering management position coming up. Even though you don’t have that experience with your business background and age you should pick it up quite quickly. That way you can learn at someone else’s expense.”

 

I should have kissed him. The RCYC has a few thousand members including many of the city’s elite and rich and famous (although it didn’t have the celebrities it does today) so it was a great place to make a name for myself. It also offered a few types of dining experiences from the main restaurant to casual to bar meals and functions.

 

“Are you good with people? Restaurant staff need a lot of control – if you don’t watch out they’ll steal every cent of profit. You won’t believe what they will do – slipping a few kilograms of steak into their underwear at knock off time…”

 

“Yes, of course,” I answered confidently. Actually, I loathed managing people.

 

“The manager is leaving for Australia and there’s an assistant manager, so you can work alongside him until we find a new manager. The pay is R1,500 (roughly US$215 in 2009) a month. I suggest you take it, you won’t get an offer like this anywhere else.”

 

Now he wasn’t referring to the salary. That was laughable and a fraction what I had been earning. But it did mean I was learning at someone else’s expense AND getting paid something.

 

I accepted.

 

Three months later the committee of the RCYA was satisfied enough with my progress that they made me catering manager of the Royal Cape Yacht Club.

 

“Come on, Ian we need to sort out these prices.” Athena brought me back to 2004.

 

Food cost is the critical management point of the food business. It’s really the opposite of gross profit. So , for example, if a restaurant is going to sell a dish for say R100 and you’re aiming for a food cost of 35%, the ingredients in that dish must cost no more than R35. That’s the same as a gross profit of 65%, and that GP portion goes to all the non-food expenses – rent, staff, financing equipment, advertising, the whole kaboodle. Most commercial establishments aim for 25% to 35% food cost. AT RCYC, being a club, the food was subsidised so the cost target a bit higher at 45% (therefore a lower GP and lower selling or menu price).

 

Some dishes will be easier than others to achieve the target – pasta is easy, fillet and wild mushroom sauce not. So, in our case, with a kind of Table d’hote menu (you get everything for a fixed price) as opposed to a la carte (choose off the menu and pay per dish), it would be important to have a range of dishes so that they average out

__________________

 

Back to the picnics and Athena. “If we do a basic picnic for about R70 a person and we work on a 40% food cost that gives us R28 to spend on food. Our overheads aren’t that high so we don’t have to be as low as 30% on the food cost.”

 

“That doesn’t give us much to spend,” Athena looked worried. “One decent prawn in the Insalate di Mare is a couple of Rand.”

 

“Yes, but remember there are other things that cost little, like the soup.” We had decided that a soup would be a wow factor and that the picnics should include one. Often, we have a chilled or iced soup in summer and it’s delicious. On colder winter days a steaming bowl of hot soup would be a winner too.

 

“So, if we’re going to do six or seven dishes that gives us about four rand per dish per person. It sounds tight.” Athena looked worried again.

 

“Remember we’ll be buying from wholesalers and in bulk so we can save ten or twenty percent on retail prices at least. For now, let’s work on that.” I reassured her.

 

“Ok then we must price it at R69. But what if we take the dessert out – then that’s an extra?”

 

“Yes,” I liked the sound of this. “And coffees and drinks.” Initially we thought we may include a bottle of wine but that was too inflexible for many people’s tastes. Lots of South Africans are beer or spirit drinkers – even with a picnic.

 

“So for the business plan we can probably work on per adult R69 (roughly US$10) for the basic picnic, a dessert at say R20, a coffee at R12, drinks at R30, that makes R131 per person spend.” I entered the numbers into the spreadsheet. “Booze is a bit tricky – we’ll probably only achieve 50% food cost, but this still gives us about R55 food cost and R75 to overheads per person.”

 

My mind was spinning but the numbers were starting to come together.

 

“But if there’s a whole family with a couple of kids that adds up.” Athena stopped me. “That’s five or six hundred rand – it won’t work.”

 

“Do we really want kids here?” I asked half seriously. I had this image of fine dining – noisy kids running around didn’t really fit in.

 

“But let’s look at how people think,” said Athena. “Give them an easy starting point and then trade them up. Especially after a glass of wine or two. So what about two kinds of picnics – a basic and a luxury? Then they can buy the basic for the kids.”

 

“Yeah great, let’s call them…. a De Luxe and, umm, what’s light, a…. Snacker,” I threw in my marketing angle.

 

These were fixed at R90 and R45, so that would give adults and families options and not scare them away. We worked on each person having two drinks.

 

The business was starting to sound more and more viable now. Just the picnics alone was giving us a very attractive product which would add something special to the Midlands Meander. With more potential income from conferences and the B&B I was feeling confident the banks would finance the project.

 

Except I did not account for the bureaucracy of the banks. With few days to work with, they were not going to make things any easier.

 

It was time to chill out with some refreshing soup.

 

CHILLED OR ICED CUCUMBER SOUP

 

This sounds weird but it’s delicious. The ratios are not critical, but don’t leave out the cream and never boil anything with cream in because it curdles.

 

The original recipe I was given didn’t have the fenugreek but it works well with the cucumber. Not serious if you can’t get it but most spice shops should have it.

 

This makes about 1,2L – four big or six smaller servings.

 

About 1 Tbsp butter

About 1Tbsp olive oil

1 cucumber about 30cm

1 onion

1 tsl fenugreek seeds

2 -3 cups chicken stock

White pepper – about ¼ teaspoon

Half cup cream or more

Rock or Himalayian or other salt to taste

 

Very important. This is a lightly cooked, fresh soup, NOT boiled for ages. It should retain the greenness of the cucumber which will be lost if you cook it for too long.

 

Use organic ingredients preferably. Cucumbers grow easily and prolifically in summer so it’s also worth planting some.

 

One

Dice the cucumber into small cubes about 1-2cm

Chop the onion finely

Put the butter and oil into a soup pot and add the onion and cucumber. Put the lid on and soften stirring every minute or so. This takes about five to ten minutes.

 

Two

Add the stock and pepper

Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes.

 

Three

Remove from heat to a cool place (not the fridge yet – it’ll damage everything else in the fridge). Add cream and blend. Check seasoning – only add salt now if needed. Depends on the saltiness of the chicken stock.

 

Four

Can be eaten hot. Best is allow to cool and serve with a sprinkling of chopped chives or parsley and small swirl of cream. For really hot summer’s days, put in freezer until icy (probably about 2 – 3 hours), and serve like that. Almost like savoury cucumber ice cream. If you’ve got an ice cream maker, why not make it into ice cream?

 

What can go disastrous?

1 Boiling the cream. No easy fix so just don’t.

2 Adding the cream when the soup is already chilled – the cream won’t really blend into the flavours and will leave a fatty mouth feel. Not the end of the world but not the best.

 

Applying some restaurant economics theory, cucumber soup is a good item to bring average food cost down. It was quite substantial yet only about R1 food cost per portion. That also makes it an impressive dish that’s great for a budget dinner party.

CHAPTER 9

Debits and credits

 

My main bankers have always been Standard Bank. I’ve been a customer since I was three years old when my Dad proudly presented me with a piggy bank.

 

“Congratulations, we’ve opened a bank account for you,” he announced. “When this is full, we take the money to the bank and deposit it in your account.”

 

This “piggy bank” looked nothing like a ceramic pig. It looked like it had fallen off a passing Martian UFO. The size of a hamburger, one of those double ones with two patties and cheese and an egg – it was all round and stainless steel and rivets. It needed to be. Coins were to be reckoned with in those days – large, thick and heavy – and they built things properly. I had tried to open this machine when I got older, and it wasn’t easy. This was definitely all metal and very solid. No fragile (especially in those days) plastic “Made in China” bits.

 

It had different size slots for each coin size (pounds, shillings and pence still in those days before South Africa changed from a Union to a Republic in 1961). It had a bigger slot underneath where one could squeeze in folded banknotes. “We’ll keep the key safe for you,” my Mum said. Oh, joy of joys, what’s the point, I must have thought. First, I put the money in here where I can’t get at it, then you give it to the bank and it’s gone.

 

Quite a mature line of thinking for a three-year-old I admit, but it probably went something like that.

 

Back to the present. My experience with bankers is that they ask you to fill in enormous numbers of forms accompanied by all sorts of supporting documents and then they reject you on a simple issue which they could have done without all the work.

 

So early in the first week I called up my branch of Standard Bank so I could get everything together just right.

 

I carefully explained the scenario:

1 We’re setting up a tourism business in the Midlands Meander for which we are buying a property and need financing

2 I have two weeks to secure finance for the property which will be funded by a business.

3 Who must I deal with so I can find out the criteria and present all the right information and get a quick decision?

 

They put me onto what they said was the right division and onto a new lady in a senior position.

 

The situation was carefully explained again with the key points emphasised. Time critical. Right first time. No wild goose chases. Give me the criteria up front. If option A not viable must go to option B straightaway. No time to lose.

 

“Yes,” said the bank lady. “Fill in all these forms, submit all your support documents,” or something like that.

 

“So, this is definitely the procedure?” I checked again, mindful that a couple of precious days of the fifteen were already gone.

 

“Yes,” said the bank lady.

 

“What is the chance of approval?”

 

“That’s up to credit control, they go through everything and decide.”

 

That didn’t sound good. Anonymous people somewhere.

 

“May I speak to them? Time is critical. I need to know that I’m doing this the right way.” I looked her squarely in the eyes. She didn’t blink.

 

“It has to go to them through my department here.”

 

“How long will they take to respond?”

 

Without a blink she replied, “Applications usually take three weeks. You could have an answer in principle in about a week.”

 

I was shocked.

 

Quick calculation. It was now Wednesday of week one. If I worked flat out and through the weekend with Athena’s help I could get the business plan and application in by Monday of week two. We were at least a week short.

 

“I don’t think you understand – I have to confirm the finance by two weeks on Friday or the deal’s off. I don’t have three weeks.”

 

She didn’t blink. “Provide us with your application and we’ll assess it and give you an answer.” I’ve had dialogues with computers that have been more amenable.

 

“What’s ‘in principle’ mean?”

 

“It means that, subject to conditions being met, the finance will be granted.”

 

“And we can get that in a week?”

 

“Get the application in and the bank will process it.”

 

If there were no backwards and forwards or queries we could, maybe, have an answer ‘in principle” by about Wednesday or Thursday of week three, only one day before the deadline!

______________

 

Athena and I had been seeing each other for a couple of years by then and we had a good arrangement and a healthy relationship. We each had two children either in their teens or about to enter, so we were kept busy with their activities in and out of school.

 

We enjoyed each other’s company as much as we did our independence. Some kind of routine had been established – we’d see each other one or two nights during the week and spend some or most of the weekend together.

 

Weekends depended on our children. We’re sure we were the envy of some of our friends because every second weekend our children were with our respective spouses, so for us they were “free” weekends.

 

We could have weekends away, late nights and long lazy lunches. On our weekends “off” we didn’t have to worry about children’s parties, school sports or a fund raising event for that extra school tennis court.

 

We needed and enjoyed our R&R times (= relaxation and recreation). The year 2003 had been a busy one for both of us. Athena had started her fine bed linen boutique Christies in Musgrave shopping centre and it was about to open in September. It was also a good year for my brand consultancy. In addition to good business from regular clients, we’d handled the publicity for the Celebrate Durban event – a mixture of civic, cultural and sports events over a week in October. So September was a particularly busy time.

 

It was when the fire took place.

 

A romantic evening at her home with candles had turned into near tragedy when the candle ignited a tablecloth which quickly set fire to the curtains which resulted in her apartment burning down. The speed which the fire took grip was terrifying, as was the panic as we woke her children Jack and Zoe and evacuated the house of pets, personal effects, computer hard drives and anything else we could think of in the blind panicking terror that seemed important.

 

The fire brigade had put the fire out quite quickly and neighbours had helped move furniture out into the garden to avoid the fire and the torrents of water from the firemen that flooded downstairs.

 

The fire reignited itself after about two hours – which put paid to our carefully laid plans for the next few weeks. Or make it months.

 

We learnt a very valuable lesson from that fire which I urge you, dear reader, to note. Call me neurotic if you like. This was a small fire and it wasn’t pleasant.

 

Burglar guards and other measures designed to keep intruders out are just as effective at trapping people inside a burning house. So, the lesson is this: whatever building you enter, be aware of your exit options.

 

A fire brings with it pandemonium. Power fails so the lights go out. If there’s any light the smoke will still make it difficult to see. A fire creates unbelievable noise – from the exploding of glass to crashing of ceiling panels falling down. So there’s panic. It’s not a good time to be figuring out where the exits are.

 

For some reason in South Africa as far as I know there’s no legislation requiring fire detectors in private homes. There should be.

 

It will solve all sorts of terrible problems.

CHAPTER 10

DNA

 

So, for the last few months Athena had been battling with insurance assessors to pay for the damage and get the repairs done. During that time home was just two doors away in the same complex in an apartment of her very good friends and neighbours.

 

Finally, the job had been completed except for quite a few snags and we had moved Athena, Jack and Zoe back into her home.

 

So, it was at the start of the second week that I sat at the breakfast bar in Athena’s apartment admiring the brand-new finishes that had just been completed as I took a breather.

 

“This business plan is driving me crazy, there’s so much that has to go into it.”

 

For those who’ve never done a business plan, it is effectively the DNA for the set up and first few years of a new business. Everything is covered, from the reason why the market has a gap for it, how it will be run, who will run it, what it will consist of, what it will cost, how much it will make, how it will be promoted, the list goes on and on.

 

For more than ten days since the offer had been signed it was all I’d thought, eaten and dreamt.

 

So far, I had pulled in as much external information as possible to build a case for the business. This started with the big picture and then gradually focused down on the area of Rosetta. I had some of the costs in place but there’s was still a lot to do.

 

Athena poured me a glass of liquid therapy called Merlot. “Have some peri-peri chicken livers,” she added.

 

“This is looking promising,” I said, licking some spicy sauce off my finger. “Look at how it’s coming together. To tell the truth, it’s looking very convincing – I just hope the bank thinks so too.” Certainly, it was looking encouraging with all the trends pointing to it being a good investment.

 

The business plan went something like this:

 

THE MARKETING OPPORTUNITY

 

The Macro Market

 

South Africa is experiencing an increase in overseas tourism visitors. This trend is expected to continue due to the concerted marketing of the destination to key source markets by S A Tourism. Furthermore, foreigners are finding good value in property in South Africa – and KZN in particular – and many are investing or taking up residence here.

 

The Micro Market

 

The buoyant property market is reaching into the midlands of KZN and interest levels and prices are growing day by day. Foreigners are buying into the area (three farms sold to two English and one Australian respectively near Estcourt to “capitalize on tourism opportunities” Independent Newspapers Feb 2004), and new developments such as those at Howick and Nottingham Road have sold quickly. A R53 million (roughly seven and a half million US$) retail development in Nottingham Road (the Oakwood Shopping Centre) is due to begin this year. .

 

The Midlands Meander (the tourist attraction in the midlands of KZN that is made up of cottage/home industries such as arts and crafts) has led the way in South Africa for regional collective tourism marketing and goes from success to success. Membership continues to increase, with the last few years seeing growth from 142 (2001) to 154 (2002) to 168 (2003).

 

Rosetta’s proximity to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site and the major N3 that gives access to the Gauteng market ideally position it to benefit from any economic growth in these areas and transitory traffic.

 

Mooi River’s once flourishing textile industry is on the verge of being revitalised.

 

The construction of the Spring Grove dam – planned to feed the recently increased capacity Midmar Dam through the Mooi-Mgeni pipeline – is “inevitable” (Dept of water Affairs), and may begin late 2006 for completion in time for the 2008 summer rainfall. Once completed, the dam will provide a major leisure attraction nearby (less than two kilometres away) drawing more visitors to the area. This will create a demand for accommodation for the professionals involved on the site.

_____________________________

 

Mmmm, this got me thinking further. Another excellent opportunity.

 

CHAPTER 11

What’s in a name?

 

A brand or trading name needs to be unique and catchy and relevant. It should easily allow the right things to be associated with it as consumers are exposed more and more to the brand.

 

Some of the traps people fall into in creating a brand name is to make it too descriptive – like Wishy Washy laundry. That way you can end up sounding too generic and indistinct. Priority is to be distinctive. If one can build a descriptive concept into that great. Otherwise remember that the brand name is rarely seen in isolation, so the context – be it in eg. an ad, on the product, on a letter – does describe the product.

 

If neccessary a descriptive couple of words can be added or these included in the slogan.

 

The property didn’t have a name and it didn’t take us long to come up with an idea for one.

 

“This view is amazing,” said Athena when we were viewing the property. ”Whichever way you look you see the horizon.”

 

“They’re new horizons for us” I said. “Horizons – we could call it that.”

 

It could also work for the picnics business; exploring new horizons, expanding your horizons… Let’s use that for a working name – I need one for the business plan. We can think about it more and change it.”

 

We never did and so the business plan said Horizons. Smaller underneath it said: Gourmet Picnics and B&B and Horizons.

 

That’s the name that’s stayed.

 

CHAPTER 12

Bed time

 

The viability of the B&B was important but I had very little information about the B&B industry. So, the next morning I got out the Midlands Meander guide and started calling some of the B&Bs.

 

“Hi, I’m doing some research on the tourist industry, can you tell me what your occupancy rates and prices are?” That was the sort of tack I used and it mostly worked. Obviously no B&B was going to give away trade secrets to an impending competitor.

 

The answer on average was between R200 and R350 at that time per person sharing. Occupancy was between 33 and 38% and it took about four years to reach that level.

 

This last bit did not sound good. But at least with the TEP subsidy the first three years of bond repayments were partly covered.

 

The construction of the dam would help and seemed to promise that rooms could be let out for Monday to Friday to senior management who needed to be on site for the duration of the project. That would even be better than the odd nights here and there and the bother and cost of changing bed linen every time. I would be very happy to secure a couple of long term lodgers and have a lady come in every morning to do breakfast and service the rooms.

 

So, that went into the business plan and I felt some progress was being made.

 

But the days were flying by and it was already a week since I’d had the first conversation with Shelley and Anthony.

 

It was now a weekend with children and I still had lots to do to get the business plan and finance motivation in by the Monday. In between being parents, cooking meals for our children and keeping them entertained, Athena running Christies and my working on the proposal, it would be difficult for her and me to get together.

 

I pressed on.

 

A marketing plan, which forms part of the business plan, has five major components. It used to be the four ‘P’s, (which represent) Product, Price, Place (viz distribution) and Promotion. In the nineties I started thinking that there should be a fifth ‘P’ for People, as they and the culture of an organization are so fundamental to its success. This was picked up by the universal consciousness (or vice versa) and it wasn’t long before the fifth ‘P’ was adopted.

 

To digress for a moment, to establish a successful brand one needs to be aware of what I call the Snakes and Ladders approach. It goes like this:

 

Branding – the theory of snakes and ladders

 

Branding is a complex business, however, I’ve always found the easiest way to describe it is as a relationship. And, just like a relationship, every interaction affects how good or bad that relationship is. That’s where that old game of snakes and ladders (that some of us used to play as kids) comes into the picture. The objective of the game is to advance along the squares according to what you throw on the dice in order to be the first one home. Land on a ladder and you shoot up and advance rapidly. But land on a snake and you go backwards. In building a brand, it’s exactly the same. Every interaction a customer has with a brand is either a credit (ladder advance) or a debit (snake backwards).

 

That’s why one has to pay attention to how every detail of one’s business is portrayed – from the receptionist, to the delivery driver, to the message the CEO sends out in a press statement, to your advertising, to your website, to your retail outlets’ design theme, to your packaging (the list goes on) – to ensure it is consistent with the image you intend to project. 

 

As an example, think of call centers and some of the bad experiences one has these days – how does a customer feel about that brand afterwards? 

 

So, as customers make their way through the game of brands, each bad interaction devalues a brand, just like landing on a dreaded snake. Each good interaction adds to its equity.

 

Make sure there are no snakes waiting for your customers.

___________

 

During the weekend, Athena and I spoke on the phone.

 

“I think we’re getting there,” I said wearily. “Most of the marketing is covered. Aaargh but the number crunching is another story!”

 

Certainly, as far as the five ‘P’s were concerned the boxes could be ticked.

 

We had a good idea what the product would be: gourmet picnics on weekends and holidays (when we could be there to run them) and B&B lodging. We had also come to some conclusions about the picnic pricing and I now could factor in the B&B pricing as well based on my research.

 

The promotional activity would center around the Midlands Meander membership, leaflets and a web site. I was confident with my network and custom with local media that we could do promotions with East Coast Radio and the provincial and local newspapers with prizes rather than hard cash, us funding these by the way of barters.

 

The gourmet picnic concept was novel and interesting and sure to get us valuable column inches with the mainstream consumer and foodie magazines. We would ensure food critics Derek Taylor and Ingrid Shevlin of the Sunday Tribune, Anne Stevens of The Mercury and the writer of The Witness (her name escapes me for a moment) to experience our unusual picnics.

 

We would also exhibit or promote at food and travel related trade shows.

 

The people aspect would be heavily under our influence. Athena and I had the benefit of being well travelled and both hospitable and social. Our staff would be selected on the basis that they would project the same bonhomie even if they had not travelled much further than the local trading store.

 

The ‘P’ for Place usually refers for example to where a product like say dishwashing liquid is sold. As we were the “place” we would work hard at making it a destination.

 

With the marketing plan well covered I turned to completing the inputs into the financials.

 

Business forecasting is always a bit tricky. But, while it’s like being a fortune teller there are some basic rules to follow. Look at similar businesses (in our case restaurants and B&B’s) and trends that will either work for or against the business.

 

However, we weren’t exactly like a restaurant. And while we loved picnics, how many other people liked the idea?

 

So, I had to be conservative but at the same time show the bank that the business was viable.

 

It was time to call Athena again. She was at Christies – checking up how the weekend’s sales were progressing. Jack and Zoe were at friends.

 

“What’s your feeling on the numbers for the picnics?” I put to her.

 

“Well, look at places like Rawdon’s, and what’s that nice Italian place of your friend that looks like it’s in Tuscany…?”

 

“Oh, Pino and Caroline Canderle’s place – La Lampara?” Pino used to race single seater cars at the same time as me in the eighties.

 

“Yes – they’re always quite busy for Sunday lunches. I don’t know about Saturdays though.”

 

“And what about holidays – I’m sure days on long weekends will be busy and with all the kids on school holiday it’s something for them to do?” The ever-ambitious optimist I am.

 

Athena tempered my optimism. “I have to leave it to you but rather be conservative.”

 

So based on the assumption that; a) people had to eat when they were on the Meander; b) we were offering something novel; c) we were going to tell lots of people about it; I deduced that by the end of year one we would be averaging about 90 adults a weekend.

 

By now I was starting to get boggled by all the financial spreadsheets. I had been looking at them so intensely for days and becoming nervous. Was there a hidden blunder that would have the credit control people splitting their sides?

 

At the same time our days were running out. It was already Tuesday of week two. But I reckoned we had one chance so it had to be absolutely right. It also had to look professional and impressive. I spent the day thoroughly going over everything and putting in different scenarios.

 

Finally late that Tuesday night the business plan was finished.

 

Within three years we would have paid for the property and could enjoy the benefits of our hard work. Maybe we could even have some quiet relaxing weekends – our original goal?

 

On the Wednesday morning I finished laying out and dressing up the proposal with pictures.

 

Horizons Gourmet Picnics and B&B was a big step closer to reality. I was impressed with my handiwork and pressed print – four copies should do it.

 

I was feeling good that the bank would be impressed as well and delivered it with the necessary application forms.

 

Afterwards Athena and I met up for lunch at Circus Circus, a trendy cafe a few metres from Christies. “That’s the proposal,” I said, handing her a copy. “Hold thumbs.”

 

“Wow this looks impressive – when will they tell us?” Athena asked as she put down the glossy covered prospectus and tucked into Circus Circus’s version of a Caeser salad.

 

“You know the banks, they can take their time,” I muttered, “but I couldn’t have made it more clear that we’ve got a deadline when we have to confirm the offer by.”

 

“It will be a good idea to approach a second bank, don’t you think? Play them off one against the other if you have to. A million Rand loan is good business for somebody to write.”

 

“You’re right. I’ll make some calls.”

_________________

 

Nedbank had been making the right noises about start-ups and small businesses so I went to see them. By then it was Thursday and a couple more days were gone.

 

I met with Regina Gounden, a very pleasant and helpful lady, at their offices. (I’m pleased to see that these days banks are sending people to see their customers instead of the other way around.) She was impressed by the comprehensive proposal and the picnic concept.

 

“So, this is a residential property that you want to use as a base for a business? What is this property zoned?” she asked.

 

“Agricultural.”

 

“This looks like it will have to be a residential property application – it won’t qualify for a business loan.” She responded.

 

At that time the banks were just about giving mortgages away to build up their debtors’ books and businesses. I decided to play hard ball. I had built up a nice portfolio of properties – all financed – and intimated that I may move some of this business if the deal was good.

 

“Standard Bank are busy looking at the proposal too and have indicated very good rates.” On other properties, I had negotiated good discounts on the market rates and the banks were negotiable. “Would you like to offer me a rate and I’ll see. How soon can you let me know?

 

“It usually takes a week,” she said. That would take us to the next week Thursday, just 24 hours before the cut off for finance approval. I explained this to Regina.

 

“Let me see what we can do, we would like your business.”

 

So, a second application was in. I made sure that the small print left me the option to turn one down if they were both approved. I didn’t want to owe R2 million.

CHAPTER 13

Catching up – the calm before the storm

 

The weekend came and Athena and I enjoyed our liberty (ie. the weekend with kids at the spouses respectively). The weekend went all too fast.

 

The new week began. Monday and I caught up with my brand consultancy clients and a new business which I had recently started with Karen MacIntosh and I had started in 2003.

 

I had two Karens working for me, both absolute stars – Karen MacIntosh who was an accounts executive and Karin Le Roux who was a media planner. They were referred to as blonde Karen and brunette Karin.

 

Blonde (MacIntosh) Karen’s family were involved in a company called Biological Control Products. It sounds like something out of a 007 movie but in fact BCP is a very sustainable, eco-friendly system that uses naturally occurring fungi and bacteria to counteract pests and diseases on crops.

 

“Hey Ian I’ve got this idea, and I’d like to know if you can help me get it going?” Karen said to me one day as we worked at my Halford Road home office. “I want to start a company called Go-Organic.”

 

Go-Organic’s core business would be to promote organics by educating and facilitating trade through an online directory.

 

“You’re a brilliant marketer and I need your knowledge to help set it up,” she said.

 

“Of course,” I was flattered. Karen was right – I was brilliant and she should expect to pay a fortune for the benefit of my unlimited talent and skill.

 

“I can’t pay you anything though – so all I can do is offer you shares in the business. I’m glad to have you as a partner.” And with this she gave me a big charming smile and that was that.

 

Talent and skill – priceless. Resistance to flattery from a blonde – useless!

 

Organics are the way of the future, she said she had learned from work that BCP was doing. People are realizing that all the chemicals used in agriculture are bad for us and the environment and that there’s a better way of farming – organically.

 

She explained the business concept in more detail to me and how she saw it getting established. There was very little revenue in it and our contribution to the industry was best described as voluntary and driven because of our passion. Well, it was Karen’s passion mainly. I didn’t know much about organics but it sounded like a good idea with long term potential. The directory was the revenue stream (trickle more like it, at the start) with advertising potential on the website.

 

Whenever we could manage we each did some of the work required and gradually set up the website Go-Organic.co.za and built up the directory. The strategy was to offer free listings until we had enough “critical mass” as Karen called it to start charging a fee.

 

So, over the last year I had started what has become a very committed and passionate involvement in the industry.

____________________

 

When I saw the Rosetta land I started thinking about organic farming as an option. The land looked like nothing had been grown on it for a long time so it should be well detoxed of agro-chem inputs, a pre-requisite for organic farming.

 

Foodies that we were, I envisaged that our place could become a production centre of good food. Athena was already a wiz at making cheese and was keen to learn more. My experiments with charcuterie (cured meats) were providing tasty results.

 

This is exactly what the Midlands Meander is about – artisanal products made from the best local ingredients. And there was the benefit that organic farming would provide jobs – the area had abundant labour looking for work.

 

Very soon we could have the land, water, sun, labour – everything organic farming needed – it was all there. And with many top restaurants and B&Bs and private schools in the area, and the cities only an hour or so away, there had to be a lucrative market.

 

CHAPTER 14

Driving a hard deal

 

It was now Tuesday on week three. I hadn’t had a decision from the banks yet and was getting nervous and had arranged to see Standard Bank that morning.

 

My phone rang and I recognized Anthony Baker’s voice: “How’s the financing coming on?” he asked. “I’m sure you haven’t forgotten that Friday is the cut off for confirming it.”

 

I went into the bank and sat down with Ms X (name not disclosed for the reasons that will become evident).

 

“We don’t do this sort of finance,” she said. She looked mildly comfortable.

 

I didn’t think I had heard right. “Sorry, what did you say? I’m not sure I heard.”

 

She repeated her gut-wrenching, heart-stopping, floor-disappearing- underneath-me statement.

 

“But it’s been a week since I saw you and you tell me this now?”

 

“I’m sorry but they don’t. This has to be a straight residential property application.”

 

“So, have they looked at it?”

 

“No, you have to do a new application.”

 

Now let me say, to prevent any libellous action from the bank concerned, that this is more or less how this whole escapade had gone and the dialogue may not be accurate, but the gist of it is.

 

Essentially there was a new, inexperienced lady in this position and she just did not know which application to do. Instead of saying so a week earlier and dealing with it, she’d sent the glossy proposal, which I had burnt many candles from both ends in preparing, into the void of the bank’s systems and processes.

 

I was gutted, to say the least. Thank goodness for Athena’s wisdom to suggest approaching another bank.

 

I was also furious. “You’ve got two days to sort this out. This is a big chunk of business you stand to lose (it was big to me) and I may well move all my other bonds and business.”

 

72 hours to go and this bombshell. I stormed out the bank and broke the news to Athena.

 

She was quite calm. “You’re going to have to play this smart,” she said. “Don’t tell Nedbank that Standard haven’t approved it. Play them off against each other.”

 

I called Regina at Nedbank.

 

“I’d like to hear your interest rates proposal,” I said, “Standard have given me their rates and I need to make a decision.”

 

“We haven’t approved it yet, it’s still with credit,” she apologetically replied.

 

“I only have two days so I have to make my decision,” I applied the pressure.

 

“Let me see if I can speed them up,” she offered.

 

Two hours later Regina called me. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” she said. “Which do you want?” I could do without the cliché, please just tell me, I thought.

 

“We can do the finance but the bad news is the rate is at the base home loan rate.”

 

I had to control my joy and keep a poker face on the line. “I’m on 1/4 %* below commercial at Standard Bank.” Actually , I had even better than this on some of the other loans I had with Standard, but I had to give Nedbank space to counter offer.

 

“Why don’t you come in and see us and we’ll see what we can do,” said Regina.

 

That afternoon I accepted their rate of ½%* below and “making a quick executive decision” as I put it, said I would accept their offer over Standard Bank’s provided they gave me a letter by Friday morning to give the buyer confirmation that the finance was in place.

 

They did, and I faxed copies to Anthony and Averil and phoned them both to check they had received them.

 

Boy, did we have some good R&R that Friday!

 

*I don’t remember if these were the actual discounts but it makes the point.

 

CHAPTER 15

The WOW factor

 

With the money in the bank, so to speak, we could start rolling out our plan.

 

Occupation of the property had been agreed on as mid-May. So, it was an easy and logical and possibly quite crazy but natural decision to launch Horizons at the beginning of June. This gave us just a little more than two months with the test-run a week before the planned “grand” opening. It was cutting it fine to get everything set up.

 

The magic ingredient for the success of a brand is for it to stand out from the herd. You have to be known for something, give people something to talk about and remember your product by. That means being courageous. Mostly it means daring to be different.

 

Richard Branson and his Virgin brand are one of the best-known examples of this. He turned the stuffy, institutionalised airline industry on its head by rewriting the rules with Virgin Air.

 

So, we looked back at all the picnics we had ever been to on Cape wine farms, the Midlands Meander and with our friends. Usually pate, cheese and cold meats took centre-stage. Good wine was drunk out of plastic cups which wobbled on a bumpy blanket.

 

There was lots of room to do things differently.

 

We decided that a visit to Horizons Gourmet Picnics was going to be a stylish, chic, memorable event. And to make it so, every aspect was to have a wow factor.

 

First of all, patrons would be expected to not bring anything. No packing or lugging your own blankets, chairs, umbrellas or baskets.

 

Just arrive.

 

We were enjoying the sun on the beach at Umhlanga the next Sunday morning, suitably inspired by an occasional dip in the Indian Ocean.

 

“Those European pavement cafe’s always look so stylish,” said Athena.

 

“Yeah, and you see those pictures of a chateau with the whole family and friends outside at a long table under big shady trees. . .” I looked at all the families making the most of the beach on the steamy summer’s day. “Everyone from Granny and Granddad to little kids. It’s got a tablecloth, all these different dishes, people tearing at baguettes, bottles of wine.” I was starting to get hungry.

 

“Come on, it’s nearly lunchtime,” said Athena, “I’ve got some calamari tubes and prawns in the freezer – they’ll go great on the braai. And a nice glass of white wine.”

 

“There will be groups but sometimes a couple or four people,” I said, resuming the conversation as I turned over the calamaris on the braai, one side now perfectly caremilized. (A good trick here – the small tubes or rings often fall through the braai grid into the fire, so I thread them onto a skewer. If you don’t have you can make one by straightening a wire coat hanger – but don’t use the ones with a plastic coating!)

 

Not much beats fish on a braai. I always baste it (not marinate – this starts cooking the fish) first in a half half mixture of olive oil and butter, crushed garlic, a little lemon juice, salt, white pepper. Just be careful because the fat can flare up, so be ready to rescue your fish.

 

I never understand why people wrap fish in tin foil on a braai. You might as well cook it in the oven as you’re only using the heat and missing out on that slightly smoky flavour from the fire. And never overcook fish. And never buy fish that smells of fish – then it’s not fresh – fish should smell of the sea. Sort of ozoney and seaweedy. You can also tell if it’s fresh by looking in the stomach cavity or gills – any signs of blood should still be crimson. If it’s turning brown, don’t buy it.

 

(If, disaster or disasters, your fish starts getting pongy because you forgot it in the fridge for a day or so, rinse it with a bit of vinegar. I was horrified to learn this from the head chef when I started at the Royal Cape Yacht Club and he was making sure the “old” fish got used up before the fresh stock! The fish pong is usually no more that the bacteria on the surface so this destroys it, but a dodgy practice in a fine restaurant.)

 

Best is to keep your fish as chilled as possible (frozen or just above freezing) and thaw it just before cooking. Fish should be just cooked, never overcooked.

 

“Mmmm, great, that looks cooked. More wine, Ian?” my goddess interrupted.

______________

 

Sitting together at a long table sharing food is a great way of bonding. It’s also a hell of a lot more comfortable than balancing a plate on wobbly, or skinny, thighs.

 

We decided on two table/seating arrangements. Long tables for up to twelve people and small square ones for two or four. These could be joined in various permutations.

 

Well, actually there was a third type of table. A cunning combination we came up with of a butler’s tray come low Japanese table. For those who wanted to sit on blankets this was only centimetres off the ground and it gave a slightly raised surface perfect for laying out the food. But it’s most important function was to stand your wine or champagne glass.

 

“A meal looks better on tablecloths,” I offered. “Remember those huge white tablecloths I got for wine tastings?” There was a group of us called the Circle of Eight that regularly got together for ritual tasting evenings. It sounds like a cult that sacrificed live chickens but it wasn’t. We mainly sacrificed cases of wine.

 

I had been very, very privileged to experience some of the world’s best wines – such as Petrus, Lafitte, Vega Siciliana. This was thanks mainly to the older, founder members of the Circle who had, for example, bought First Growth (the classification for the premier French wines) in the 70’s when they cost about R2 and the South Africa Rand was stronger than the US$. (As we write this in 2010 it takes about seven Rand to buy a US Dollar, nine for a Euro and eleven for a British pound. Mark my words, one day this fact will be very, very interesting, so editor, please leave it in).

 

The white tablecloths were important for the wine tasting. They allowed one to discern the subtle nuances in colour that indicated the age of the wine. Explaining this simplified: in a red: very young (purple), ready to drink (brick red) or past it (brown). In a white: very young (pale greenish straw), mature (the green tinge has gone and now pale yellow), or past it (golden yellow). Inexpensive fabric was also a good idea because during the evening a fair amount of wine ended up on the tablecloth. Not good on a family heirloom.

 

So I had found a very inexpensive, heavyweight white denim. Perfect for harsh al fresco dining and frequent industrial laundering.

 

“We can also make serviettes out of it,” I offered.

 

“It’s a bit stiff, sort of starchy,” said Athena.

 

“Maybe, but after a few washes they’ll soften up. And some may get stolen so better that than spending a fortune on fine linen that vanishes.” (My words were to prove prophetic.)

 

So each table, even the low level ones, would have a starched, bright white tablecloth.

 

“We need some sexy cafe chairs,” I said, back again in Paris. “Lots of restaurants in Durban (back home again) are now going outdoors and they have them. There must be a supplier.”

 

I found the supplier and we settled on a natural looking rattan on a contemporary Verdi gris frame. The rattan was synthetic “and will last for years,” assured the sales lady with a big grin as I paid for 36 chairs.

 

The tables required a bit more resourcefulness. Buying ready made would cost a fortune and we needed very specific sizes which no-one had. The Meander, famed for its crafts and artisans quickly provided the solution in the form of a whizz at constructing anything we could wish for.

After much haggling we agreed on sizes, structure. They had to be sturdy to cope outdoors and to be moved back into storage at night. And waterproof as inevitably they would occasionally have to withstand the occasional midlands surprise thunderstorm.

 

Benches were designed for the long tables to give flexibility of numbers.

______________________

 

Don’t get the impression we were departing from traditional picnic blanket eating. Here we also had a trick up our sleeve.

 

Colour is important to signify a brand and what it stands for. So we chose a palette of pumpkin, charcoal and pomegranate. Ok, well we cheated a bit. Our colour choice happened like this.

 

Regular blankets would get dirty very quickly. Often the grass may be damp from frost, dew or recent rain. So we needed a ground sheet as well.

 

“Let’s make our own blankets with a ground sheet on one side,” said Athena.

 

So it was that when we went to buy the white denim we came across a sort of Picasso/Mondrian/Zulu design fabric in grey, orange and dark red.

 

“These colours are perfect for the Horizons brand,” I advised. “They make a sophisticated statement of countryside, provenance, food and wine, and they’re unique.”

 

“They won’t show the dirt,” stated the ever practical Athena.

 

“We need a groundsheet sort of thingy,” added Athena. “Otherwise these will get so dirty.” So she found a grey waterproof fabric to line the underside.

 

“Cushions will be a good idea,” Athena suggested, “but the stuffing is quite expensive.”

 

“I thought you could stuff cushions with any old rubbish?”

 

“No, but we could use those that white stuff, those millions of little white balls….?”

 

“Polystyrene.”

 

“Bean bags!”

 

“What?”

 

“Big cushions, mini bean bags, so people can sort of sit propped up on them.”

 

“You’re brilliant, my angel. And after a picnic people can just sort of roll over and fall off to sleep!”

 

So we found plain fabric in pumpkin, slate and a sort of purply, winey colour for the cushions which brought out well the colours of the blankets.

 

We had decided to cater for 110 adults which meant 55 couples. Although some people would sit at long tables or cafe tables, it still meant we needed a lot of picnic blankets and a lot of cushions. About thirty-six blankets and double that number of cushions.

 

The width of the fabric (the “bolt”) helped decide for us the size of the blankets. We could square it and it gave us the perfect size for a couple and literally meant we were cutting according to our cloth.

 

Athena found a seamstress to make them all up. So we would now have enough “seating” for easily 110 people.

CHAPTER 16

Road kill?

 

In South Africa we have what can only be described as an institution – padkos. It translates to road food (duh… no, not to be confused with road kill!). With the vast distances we travel, it may be hundreds of kilometres between eating places so, in true voortrekker, pioneering spirit, South Africans overcome this small adversity (pre road stops) by taking vast amounts of food in the car on journeys.

 

Our family favourite was pork sausages, hard boiled eggs, sandwiches made of fresh brown bread with only butter. We’d stop by the roadside and, armed with salt and white pepper to sprinkle on the eggs, tuck in.

 

Wisely (with three kids) my mum packed a couple of dampened kitchen towels. We had to run the gauntlet of face and hand scrub down before we were allowed back in the car.

 

This had given me an idea.

 

“You know when we fly overseas, they give you those little wet towel things – we should do those too. So when people arrive, and they’re a bit dusty, they can have a clean-up. It’s another ‘WOW’ factor. In summer they can be cooled and on cold days they can be warm.”

 

“It’s like the middle eastern hand washing ritual, and we can scent it with rose water,” added Athena with a feminine touch.

 

She continued. “That welcome is so important. And do you know what would be nice as well, we can give them a little pastry too before the picnic. Keep them happy ‘til the basket arrives.”

 

“Sherry is not expensive, a glass of that is always a great way to greet guests. We can give them a glass when they arrive.” I added.

 

Things were falling into place and the welcoming ritual developed. First a welcoming sherry in the bar area. Then, when people had been shown to and settled down on their blankets, two of our ladies would take out the fragrant towellettes and a plate with a small pastry for each person.

 

It was time to do some shopping. In my earlier advertising days, one of my clients was Glodina, South Africa’s top towel manufacturer. So off I had gone to their factory shop and bought 110 face cloths in sort of pumpkin and stone colours.

 

The face cloths were to become one of our most popular items – with the picnickers and with the locals.

 

“Where are all the face cloths?” Athena asked the staff one day, only to be met by the usual, silent, “I know nothing well maybe I do but I’m not saying anything because then I won’t get into trouble,” stare.

 

The original count of 110 had dwindled. We couldn’t get together more than fifty.

 

The reason emerged later. In the poorer townships, a bath towel is a bit of luxury. So for many, the daily wash is done using a facecloth followed by a drying with a facecloth –the same facecloth that’s just been used to wash with and wrung out. Over and over again by different people on the same day! It may be a small item but there’s a big market.

 

The fashion colours of the 2004 season in facecloths in the township bordering Mooi River – where some of our staff came from – were pumpkin and stone. Thanks to the enterprise of one of the earlier staff members who had set up a roaring trade sneaking out our facecloths and flogging them.

_________________

 

Our ladies didn’t escape our colour palette.

 

Although, in some cases we needed a fair amount of “paint” to do the job.

 

“They come in so many different sizes – so simple, neat cotton knit tee type shirts will be our best chance of finding a style that fits everyone,” guided Athena.

 

“I’ve still got a couple of rolls of that black canvass fabric left over from that restaurant we did at the airport, we can get some more aprons made from that.” I had a sample in the kitchen with a couple of the others I regularly used so I fetched it. “Look, simple, just with a couple of pockets. We can even get our name embroidered on it like this one.”

 

“And they can just wear their own pants or skirts – we can’t buy those as well.

 

”This made sense – African women’s bottoms come in wide range of sizes and shapes (with a lot of emphasis on the wide).

 

“They should all be black,” I added, “so that there’s uniformity of some sort.

 

So Athena found pumpkin coloured tops and had black aprons with spaces for notebooks for orders made.

 

CHAPTER 17

A good coffee

 

No self-respecting restaurant should be without a proper coffee machine. Nor without someone who can make a decent Cappuccinos.

 

During the business plan proposal, I had called some catering equipment suppliers and was a little horrified to find out that a restaurant espresso coffee machine could cost nearly R40,000 (over US$5,500) – enough to buy a small, recent model second hand car.

 

Clearly, we needed to know what we were doing before we made this sort of commitment so I turned to someone who would know.

 

Neville Trickett, an old advertising colleague of mine, and his wife Sharon, have set the scene in Durban with their creative flair driving a brand called Saint Verde. Sharon, at that time, designed and manufactured reproduction or faux classical bronze and iron garden containers. They lived in the Midlands where Sharon manufactured her masterpieces. Neville, an advertising and marketing genius, would commute a few times a week to Durban – I remind readers that it’s only an hour’s drive. They set up their first Saint Verde avant garde/retro cafe and retail shop down a side alley in Marriot Road, Morningside. Later they converted an old electrical sub-station on the corner of Essenwood Road and St Thomas roads and moved Saint Verde to this higher profile position.

 

Neville does things properly. The first store was industrial chic and featured a classic fountain in the centre of a courtyard surrounded by Parisian cafe tables and chairs. A circle of young leopard trees just planted around the fountain were about two metres high at the time. A few days ago Athena and I went there for our wedding anniversary dinner and the trees are now five metres high. Interwoven with fairy lights, they made a spectacular and romantic setting. The current restaurant, Market, is excellent.

 

The new St Verde even had its own pastry chef, one Eric Berullier, ex pastry professor at the Christina Martin school of cooking and regarded as one of the top patissierrierres (pastry chefs) in the country.

 

And of course he had the best trained baristas and the finest espresso machines money could buy to ensure he served the best cup of coffee.

 

Who better to ask for advice on a coffee equipment merchant? So it was that one morning I took time out from the business planning and met up with him, naturally over a couple of fragrant Arabica Capuccinos.

 

“There’s only one person to speak to in Durban,” said Neville, “ his company supplies and services our machines, sells us our coffee and has taught me a thing or two about making it.”

 

I considered this as I savoured one of Eric’s fresh Rhum Baba pastries.

 

“But isn’t most coffee the same?” I put my foot where I should have put another mouthful of the delicious glazed fruit and syrupy sponge. Neville could hardly restrain his disdain.

 

“Gradimir!”

 

Obviously I underestimated Neil’s passion for the subject, causing him to unleash this profanity. “Sorry!” I humbly apologised.

 

“That’s his name, speak to Gradimir, at Amarina Coffee. He’s the only person in Durban you should work with on coffee. He has the best machines. And only use Illy, which he also supplies.”

_________________

 

Next day Athena and I met Gradimir and his wife, Lilian, at their showroom surrounded by brand new shiny espresso machines in all shapes and sizes. In a very strong Eastern European accent, we were given a brief business and technical lesson on making and selling good coffee.

 

“We’d like to start with a small, simple machine until we get established,” opened Athena. “Possibly you have a good quality second hand espresso machine?”

 

Gradimir looked down his Eastern European nose at us and proceeded to run us through the numbers on coffee as a profit centre for our business. He manoeuvred us towards a Ferrari-red, spectacular machine that looked like it could make coffee on its own.

 

Suddenly, what before today had seemed a necessary expense became a desirable income generator that we would be foolish (and find very hard) to resist.

 

“Coffee cost: R2 per 7 gram portion, sugar and milk cost: 35 cents. And what’s the going rate for a Cappuccinos? R10 plus – that’s profit of…?” he allowed the coffee math to sink in.

 

“And you need to be able to make lots of coffee quickly, otherwise when you’re busy you’ll not keep up and lose sales. How many people do you expect per sitting?”

 

We estimated up to 100.

 

“Then you need a four cup.” And Gradimir cornered us next to the red and stainless steel monster.

 

Athena and I looked at each other.

 

“Now to make a good coffee it must be freshly ground – you also need one of these,” Gradimir pointed to a matching red machine that looked a bit like a blender. “A grinder.”

 

“Now, the coffee.” What looked like a time capsule from the movie Space Odyssey 2001 materialised. “Only the best – Illy. This holds three kilograms, which makes 420 cups. It has a vacuum seal here and fixes to the top of the grinder to keep out the air – number one enemy to coffee!”

 

We had already been told that too high a temperature was number one enemy. And that letting the coffee run on after it had achieved optimum extraction was number one enemy. And that boiling the milk was number one enemy. Neither of us had realised coffee was under such constant siege.

 

So it was that we left Gradimir’s showroom committed to R23,500 worth of coffee making equipment and enough time capsules of caffeine to keep a herd of elephants alert.

 

Making a good espresso (and a good Cappuccinos)

 

Espresso, or expressed coffee, is the best way of making coffee because it extracts the full flavour by forcing the hot water through the compacted coffee, dissolving the flavours as it passes through.

 

There are some key points in getting this critical part right.

 

If the water goes through too fast it does not have time to dissolve the flavours. So the coffee must be fine enough for maximum exposure to the water. It should be powdery and definetly not grainy to the touch.

 

Most coffee sold in stores is filter grind, which is too course for espresso. Look for Espresso grind and don’t be confused by packets that call the coffee Espresso when it’s a filter grind. Usually the pack has small graphics showing the machines it’s suitable for.

 

You can use one of those propeller type grinders at home to grind it more finely.

 

Only express the coffee while it’s brown/creamy – don’t be tempted to “squeeze” out the last drops. And you should have a “crema” (a creamy topping which lasts and lasts on the top of the coffee).

 

Now the fluffy milk bit on top.

 

Allow more than enough milk – you don’t want to run short. Place the steam emitter just below the surface of milk – and froth it until it squeaks (you will know what I mean when you get to that point). Just before that point stop frothing the milk. It should be at 68C to 70C (or about that give or take a degree or two) – the jug or container should be able to be comfortably held.

 

The rule is a third coffee, third milk and a third froth. This is how the Italians and the French enjoy their coffee.

 

You run the risk of having the Cappuccinos thrown back at you. Figuratively, at least.

CHAPTER 18

Water everywhere, but can we drink it?

 

We had arranged a Saturday in April for the hand over. Get the keys, the burglar alarm security code – the basic stuff when you buy a house.

 

“Let’s start with the water, because the tanks need filling,” Trevor says, and leads me around the back of the house. He points to a contraption on the wall that has pipes attached to it. Part of it is see-through and inside there’s a greeny brown liquid.

 

“This is the water filter,” he says. “The water comes from the tanks up there, through this and into the house.”

 

“Is it drinkable?”

 

“We use it mainly for washing and cooking but we’ve never got sick from it. You can put chlorine in there but we don’t bother any more. If you’re worried about it you can get one of those twenty litre camping water containers for drinking water.”

 

“And where does this water come from?”

 

“We pump it from the river.” Trevor adds.

 

I imagine lots of little farm kids playing and doing unmentionable things in the river.

 

“You open this here,” Trevor unscrews the contraption, “and clean this filter under the tap. But let me show you how the tanks work.” With that, he leads us up a path towards the highest point of the property.

 

Three massive green plastic tanks, like a secret military nuclear storage facility, become visible as we fight our way into thick bush.

 

“Look here at the back,” Trevor fights through more bush. A branch nearly takes out my eye as it stabs my forehead. A maze of pipes and taps connects the three tanks. Pipes in the bottom, in the top, coming from the bush and disappearing into the bush. It’s hard to fathom the pipes on the ground because they’re mostly covered by thick grass and rotting leaves.

 

“You open this tap here when you’re pumping so that it goes in here. But you must also open this tap here otherwise the water will overflow this tank. Then you must close this tap here otherwise all the water will run back down to the river again. Then when you’re finished you must close the taps on the two tanks you’re not using so that you only use one tank. Then when that tank is finished you must close that tank’s tap and open this tank’s tap.”

 

“But don’t worry if you forget, because Herman knows how all this works and when to fill up the tanks.” Herman looked confused.

 

“What if the river runs dry?” I ventured.

 

“Never happened since we’ve been here.” Trevor was firm. He and Averil had also only been living there for three years. “And this here is the electric pump.” He lifted a rusting piece of corrugated iron to reveal what looked like an old swimming pool pump. A few wires aimlessly pointed to the sky. The electrics looked very exposed and vulnerable.

 

“And that pumps the water up from the river..” I stated knowledgably.

 

“No, that fills the pond and waters the garden. Otherwise there’s not enough pressure for a sprinkler. Besides you can’t have a pump at the top of a hill sucking water, it has to be at the bottom pushing the water uphill. The pump is down at the river.”

 

“How do we switch the pump at the river on?” I asked.

 

“It runs off a petrol motor which we connect to the pump. Let’s go and do it so you can see. Oh and watch out for snakes if you come in here, there are lots of the buggers because all the rocks keep it nice and warm in this bush.” With that, we fought our way out the bush following Trevor towards the garage.

 

Parked outside was a wheelbarrow which I saw had a small engine in it. Herman started pushing it down the drive.

 

Trevor explained: “That motor drives the pump down at the river. Herman connects it up in the morning and it runs all day. That is usually enough to fill one tank and a bit. He has to top the petrol up at lunchtime.”

 

We set off down the road, and continued our conversation over the rattling of the wheelbarrow on the gravel dirt road. After two hundred metres I asked why he didn’t drive down to the river. “Too many gates and fences, and also there’s no road.”

 

When big farms with water frontage and access are divided into smaller farms, water rights are retained for each smaller farm or plot. In our case, we didn’t have water frontage. (Our property was on the top of a hill so we had magnificent expansive views, which was a compensation for no water frontage.) So instead a water access servitude is provided to reach the river. It’s simply a three meter wide section of land – usually running along a neighbour’s boundary. Our title deeds included this as an inalienable right – twenty four hours a day access to the river.

 

Suddenly a big brown farm dog rushed menacingly across the neighbour’s property at us and dustily slid to a halt, thank goodness, on his side of his fence. Startled, I continued.

 

“That’s Lou Cuthbert’s place,” pointed Trevor, “he doesn’t like visitors.”

 

Beyond the fence lay an assortment of derelict farm machinery. Behind them were a variety of building structures made from left over wood sheets, poles and corrugated iron in greater or lesser stages of rusting. Piles of scrap wood and fallen trees were partially overgrown by weeds and thick grass.

 

As we walked, two other dogs rushed across to add to the aggressive display of territorial possession, clearly annoyed by the fence separating us. Swopping places and scrambling for the most threatening position, they followed our progress down the road.

 

After a hundred metres we stopped opposite a gate where the three snarling, barking dogs strained to escape and attack us. Trevor turned and pointed in their direction.

 

Despite the dogs I definitely heard him say: “This is where your servitude is.”

 

I looked in horror at him. We would have a difficult time passing those vicious dogs.

________________

 

Herman continued past us with his wheelbarrow.

 

“Lou is a really difficult bugger – and doesn’t make it easy to get in and out. So we go further down the road to Martin’s place – it’s much easier.”

 

We continued around the corner and the view, and atmosphere, changed. The land dropped down to the river on the left. In front of us the hamlet of Rosetta nestled beyond bright green pastures of lucerne where a dozen cows munched contentedly.

 

Herman was opening a gate where a fluffy dog wagged its tail and a couple of smaller ones yapped excitedly. We entered and I was about to lean on the gate when Trevor grabbed my arm. “That’s electrified,” he pointed out, indicating a wire running along the top.

 

He closed that gate and we stood before another gate. “On a farm always leave the gate as you find it,” he instructed. “And don’t, don’t, forget to close a gate again. If any livestock escapes, you’ll have an angry farmer coming after you. Also you don’t want Martin to stop us using his land to get to the river.” I hadn’t met Lou yet but if owners take after their dogs or vice versa then Martin sounded like an infinitely more pleasant neighbour.

 

After we had opened and closed five gates descending the hill to the river, any sign of road had disappeared. First it changed into ruts eroded by water running down the hill, then barely identifiable tracks where the grass had recovered on the flat terrain. Herman huffed and puffed through ever lengthening grass. There was no evidence anyone had been to pump water here for a while.

 

Through thick bush and trees sunlight glinted off water and there was the gentle sound of the river. A barbed wire fence – one of those with three or four strands – had halted Herman’s conquest. He lifted the red and white Honda motor through the fence then picked up a black plastic tool case from the wheelbarrow and climbed through. I nearly ripped my shorts on the barbed wire as Trevor stretched the fence for me to follow.

 

“We’re back in Lou’s property,” he said. I nervously looked for the dogs but fences, mielie fields, buildings and hedgerows separated us from where we had last seen them.

 

Relieved, images filled my mind of fresh trout leaping from crystal mountain water as I masterfully fly fished it into submission for supper. We had our dreamed-of river frontage after all, even if it was only three metres of it.

 

The trees thinned and I made my way through the clearing that ran down to the river. A black plastic pipe disappeared into the earth in the direction of our property (or at least where I guessed it was). It was connected to a rather dirty dark metal object about the same dimensions as two sausage dogs in a tug of war over one bone. Sticking out one end was a tap next to a pulley.

 

A rusty pipe was connected to the other end which I followed over the bank where it dipped into the source of our household water supply – a brown, swirling muddy mass.

 

“Let me show you how this works,” said Trevor.

 

Herman took out from the toolbox a spanner and four threadbare looking bolts then positioned and bolted the motor onto a concrete base. The motor had a smaller pulley which lined up with the pulley on the pump. He then took out a fanbelt and wrestled it onto the pulleys.

 

“Make sure the motor is switched off otherwise it can fire up when you do that and take your fingers off,” Trevor laughed. “Now we open this tap here,” he pointed to a tap that stuck out the side and was not connected to a pipe, “to prime the pump before it will start pumping up the hill. As soon as water comes out, open this tap and then close that one.”

 

I tried to recall the permutation of taps at the tanks and the pump. What if Herman was away and we needed to pump water? I imagined exploding the whole pipeline one day by opening tap A and closing tap B instead of the other way around. Just like those hostage movies and the ticking bomb with a red and a black wire.

 

Herman filled the small petrol tank on the motor. “Now we start it up.” Trevor said as Herman continued to do the actual work.

 

After three pulls on a frayed cord the motor went putt…. putt… putt, putt, putt and settled into a nice rhythm. There was no sign of water.

 

Trevor switched off the motor. “Did you check the filter last week?” he asked Herman. Herman looked sheepish. “Where the pipe goes into the river it has a filter to stop stones and rubbish getting sucked in. Sometimes it gets blocked.”

 

We went to the river’s edge and Trevor grabbed a wire attached to the pump pipe and pulled it out of the river. The end came up covered in mud and what looked like green algae. “If it’s too low down it gets blocked like this. If it’s too high and the river level drops it will suck air and burn out the pump and the motor.” He didn’t look at all concerned at the muck.

 

After half an hour the demonstration was complete and the pump was merrily sending water along at least half a kilometre of pipe up the hill to the tanks.

 

“A couple more things. In winter the pipes freeze and you can’t start pumping until about ten am and they’ve thawed. If you try you’ll burst the pipe. It’s happened before and then we have to replace a section of pipe. Same as when the pipe gets damaged – have to replace the section.” Trevor explained as we panted back up the hill.

 

“How does the pipe get damaged if it’s buried under ground?” I was intrigued. “And doesn’t it run across Lou’s property – where those nasty dogs are?” I quickly added.

 

“Yes. Sometimes if there’s lots of rain the road gets washed away and the pipe is exposed. And Lou drives over it with his big tractor.”

 

I sighed. This was turning out to be a bit difficult.

 

“Yes. Sometimes if there’s lots of rain the road gets washed away and the pipe is exposed. And Lou drives over the pipe with his big tractor and crushes it. Then you have to mend it.”

 

I just couldn’t wait to come face-to-face with those viscious dogs.

 

CHAPTER 19

Bagging the Baguette

 

If there’s one ingredient every picnic should have, it’s bread. (And wine of course, but I don’t think you, our reader, needs any convincing of that.)

 

If there’s one bread that straight away says “picnic” it must be the baguette, that king of breads. (Athena: shouldn’t that be Queen of breads …LOL HA, HA…)

 

A picnic basket with a golden baguette sticking out is undeniably impressive. So, baguette it would be.

 

We’ve both done a lot of baking. Athena’s cakes, pies and biscuits are without equal. I have centred my attentions on breads, and only now as I write this, a few years after Horizons, have I come close to mastering the Ciabatta. Credit for this must go to my brother-in-law, Peter Quinn. He and my sister Dianne “emigrated” from Durban first to Greyton and then to Caledon in the Western Cape. They had explored New Zealand but common sense had prevailed. Now, every Sunday, the Caledon bowling club has the benefit of some of Peter’s freshly made Ciabattas or Focaccias dotted with rosemary and garlic and cut into chunks to dunk into local olive oil.

 

Ciabatta is Italian for “slipper” and the bread is so called because it is a very wet, sloppy mixture and looks more like a slipper than a loaf.

 

While I have been perfecting Ciabattas, I have also been working on baguettes, and I still have not got anywhere close to a satisfactory result. The texture is too fine and the crust is too soft. The best baguettes we have eaten are the opposite, with a chewy interior and the crust dangerously crisp. Where it has been slashed during the proofing process two colours are created by the platted/chevron pattern. You could probably knock someone out with a good baguette it is so crisp on the outside, yet the inside is as soft as a pillow.

 

Recently, thanks to Google, I have come across Barry Harmon at artisanbreadbaking.com who is coaching me via emails on how to make baguettes. My baguettes are now capable of knocking people out – but unfortunately I mean this literally. I still have work to do on the inside.

 

Back at the beginning of Horizons, any notions of baking our own baguettes were quickly dispensed after two very dismal, time (and dough) consuming attempts.

 

Our search then started for a local baker. The romantic in me imagined finding a french style boulangerie somewhere in the Midlands. I could imagine the sight and smell as early on a picnic day I would emerge with armfuls of just baked baguettes.

 

A trendy new village, Gowrie Estate, was getting established at nearby Nottingham Road. Its clientele would make it the perfect market to support a sophisticated bakery. The Midlands is home to some of the best schools in the world, Michaelhouse a prime example. Gowrie is made up of second homes for many of the very wealthy parents of their pupils. They pop down at weekends to see their kids and enjoy the area.

 

I recalled there was a nice deli where we had bought some good local cheeses, organic veggies and free to roam chicken eggs. (I don’t support the term free range because it is abused – but that’s another story).

 

We stopped in there one Sunday morning and it was abuzz with breakfasters enjoying eggs Benedict and good coffee. A good sign.

 

We were disappointed not to see any racks or baskets with a variety of breads.

 

“Hi do you have baguettes?” Athena asked.

 

The African lady behind the counter was mystified. “Is the manager here – could you call her please?” Athena continued.

 

An elegant middle aged lady appeared. No, they didn’t even have a bakery, she sympathised, however the KwikSPAR in Nottingham Road did and they baked a variety of breads. That would be our best bet.

 

The manager at the KwikSPAR was delighted when we enquired. “Oh yes,” he said, “we make baguettes.” They’ll be ready in half an hour.

 

Enthused, we wandered around the craft art shops in the village to pass the time. That didn’t take long so we had a coffee.

 

The manager was busy on our return so we located the baker and asked for a baguette. He disappeared behind some of those dangling clear industrial curtains and returned with a tray of loaves. They were too fat and very pale. I prodded one and it was not at all crusty, but like a giant version of those dreadfully insipid hot dog rolls.

 

“Maybe they can make what we want,” I said to Athena, “but I wonder how much they are?”

 

“R5.50,” said the baker, hearing me.

 

This was a bit startling and would do damage to our food cost - the holy grail. It’s worth repeating that it’s the percentage of your menu price that is made up of ingredients’ costs. So, as an example, if you’re selling just a boiled egg, and the egg cost R1, a likely menu price would be R3, which would give a food cost of 33.3%. The rest of the menu price covers all the other overheads of running a business. 25 to 35% is generally the food cost restaurants run on, except when you get to serious up market places where the overheads are a higher proportion. This can be due to the greater expense of more skilled chefs, sommeliers (wine servers) and front of house staff, and higher rentals for prime high street locations.

 

But back to the baguettes. I described a classic French baguette and asked if such a thing was possible for his bakery to produce?

 

“We get ready-made mixes for all our breads, and this is the baguettes.”

 

I don’t give up easily. “What about…”

 

Athena cut me short. “We won’t win here,” she said. “Let’s go.”

__________________

 

Our enquiries revealed that as far as bakeries went in the area, that was it. As far as baguettes went, that was it. We found out that if a B&B or restaurant wanted something as adventurous as a croissant it had to be bought from Pietermaritzburg or Durban. We had to change our approach, as neither city was close enough to pop into at the start of a busy picnic day.

 

“Maybe we can get them in Durban on the Friday and bring them up with us,” ventured Athena, “they should be fresh for the weekend.”

 

There are a chain of stores around Durban called Everfresh, and they are as close to mainstream foodie retailers as you’ll get in the area. Their baguettes were as close to our spec as we could find, unless we went to Woolworths and bought a partly cooked baguette and finished it off ourselves. But that would break the bank as there was no way we could negotiate a deal with a national chain. The problem with Woolworths is they are a regimented operation unlikely to be flexible enough to bake baguettes to order – the way we liked them.

 

We bought a couple of Everfresh baguettes and tested them to see how long they would stay fresh. By day two they were not fresh enough to go into our picncs. In fairness, even in France a baguette is expected to be eaten that day.

 

Something clicked. We had an industrial strength oven at Horizons. Woolworths sell par baked baguettes. “We can get Everfresh to par bake baguettes and that way we can finish them off at Horizons and they’ll be as fresh as freshly baked.”

 

After much explaining and convincing and a few tests we worked out with the baker (name?) at Everfresh the optimum time to par bake the bread. We left the loaves for a day before finishing them off. They were as good as freshly baked. Two days – perfect. Even after three days they were good, but that was about the limit. Eureka.

 

The next issue was the price. A regular baguette, which is about 60cm or two feet long was going to cost too much. The going price wherever we went was around R5.

 

By this stage we had a good idea what would make up a picnic basket and we realized that a) we could not afford a whole baguette in each basket – certainly not at R4 or R5 a baguette; b) if we gave people too much bread, they would be too full to order desserts and extras.

 

We could ask Everfresh to make a half size baguette, but it would still be too big a component of our food cost. Athena came into her own in these situations. “I’ll go and see Ricardo.” She said, referring to the manager of the Everfresh we had been talking to in Cowie Road, Durban.

_________________

 

A few days had gone by and I had a phone call at work from an excited Athena. “I’ve done a deal on the bread,” she said. ‘If we are going to buy a few dozen loaves each week, Ricardo can do the loaves for R1.50!”

 

That evening we celebrated with a bottle of ’98 Hartenberg Shiraz.

 

Our first weekend of real trading approached and we had a challenge.. We had no idea how many people to expect. There were a couple of bookings but we had to allow for walk-ins. On the Friday we collected five dozen par baked baguettes from Everfresh. That would do 120 adults.

 

By Sunday afternoon we had four dozen baguettes waiting to be finished off and eaten. We all had baguettes for lunch. There were still four dozen baguettes left.

 

Each baguette came in its own plastic bag and we closed these up and into the freezer went the baguettes.

 

But would they be ok the next weekend? We couldn’t take the chance and ordered another five dozen baguettes for collection the Friday.

 

By the end of our second weekend of trading we were all sick of eating baguettes. Every spare inch of our freezers were filled with nearly a hundred baguettes.

___________________

 

As the months went by, our mini baguettes became legendary. Customers complimented us on the warm, crisp outside, soft inside, freshly-baked wonders. They were inquisitive about our baking skills and capacity, that we could produce dozens of perfect baguettes a day. (Actually, they weren’t always perfect – but I’ll come to that.)

 

Our picnics were about quality, style and taste experiences and not quantity. But we didn’t want people to go hungry. So we always offered extra baguettes.

 

“There’s not very much food here, is this really for two people?” were very occasional responses when people were presented with their baskets.

 

However the quantity was always about right and it was very seldom that anyone requested another baguette.

 

So one busy Sunday we found out how popular our baguettes had become. We didn’t take too much notice of the occasional extra baguette going out. Each time neatly wrapped in a linen serviette – a sign that it was an extra.

 

“Baas, the Thompsons* ordered another baguette,” said Busi, who was sort of in charge of the kitchen staff.

 

“That’s ok, you know they can have another baguette,” I calmly said.

 

Twenty minutes later Nonnie was standing waiting for a pause between Capuccinos and ringing up tabs and processing credit cards. “Sir, the Thompsons by the trees want another bread.”

 

We looked at the bookings book and saw that the Thompsons were two adults and two children’s picnic baskets. Which meant the kiddies were younger than 10. Down under the trees we could see the Thompson family, and for children who looked in fact about as little of four years old they had mighty big appetites.

 

“Please come with me,” said Athena to Nonnie, and led her to the kitchen to investigate.

 

We had five ladies serving that Sunday, and by the time Athena looked into it, all but one had been asked for an extra baguette. By who? The Thompsons, who, at our expense, had nicely stocked up their little home with Horizons baguettes for the next few days.

 

*Name changed to protect their identity.

_________________

 

The Italians make something called Grissini – which are breadsticks. They look like very miniature, long skinny baguettes.

 

They’re about as thick as one’s finger and cooked until crisp – perfect to dip into a pate. They’re also good with a piece of parma ham wrapped around them. We included a couple of Grissini as well.

 

CHAPTER 20

More WOW Food – Tonnato

 

Our menu was inspired by many cuisines so, yes, it was fusion.

 

By the way, a WARNING: This is a foodie chapter, so if you’re not much of a foodie, skip to the next chapter. Otherwise read this and learn about one of northern Italy’s favourite classical dishes and (one of our picnickers’ favourites) and a great party/drinks/cocktail snack.

 

We had been to an Italian cooking class one evening where we learnt to make Vitello tonnato. It’s a classic dish of thinly sliced veal, that has been poached/pot roast and cooled, smothered with a savoury, piquant sauce primarily made of tuna.

 

I googled and came across this explanation on a foodblog called memoriediangelina.blogspot.com

 

“The origins of vitello tonnato are subject to some confusion, in part because it is typical of two  adjoining but different regions of northern Italy, Lombardia and Piemonte.. According to Anna del Conte in her Gastronomy of Italy, the original version, without mayonnaise but include a bit of cream, comes from Lombardia. When it was taken up by the piemontesi, they added the mayo under French influence.

 

On the other hand, the Oxford Companion to Italian Food has an entirely different explanation: they say that the mayonnaise version is indeed from Piemonte and the original one while the Milanese version is served hot, larded with garlic and pot roasted, the cooking liquid mixed with tunafish and thickened with a roux. And many Italians apparently believe that the dish has French origins, perhaps because of its French-sounding dialectal name, vitel tonnè, but that is apparently not the case.”

 

Jamie Oliver has this to say:

 

Vitello tonnato comes from Piemonte. It was already mentioned in the cookbook ”Il cuoco senza pretese” written by Odescalchi in 1834, where the recipe still had the name “vitello tonné”

 

Vitello tonnato is the central dish for the Italian Ferragosto, a Catholic holiday on August 15 in Italy marking the occasion of Mary’s ascension to heaven.

 

But I had found the veal a bit bland when it was made in front of us (in the cooking class) that evening and on one previous occasion I’d had it.

 

I suspect the dish had not been made as well as it could as far as the veal was concerned. It should be full of flavour, provided it has been cooked slowly and gently, sliced when cool, smothered in the sauce and left for a couple of days for the piquancy to flavour the meat.

 

Veal is also not readily available or it’s hellishly expensive, so to be fair, I haven’t experimented much.

 

However the sauce is full of flavour and I had used the ingredients to make a dip of sorts for a couple of our picnics.

 

I’ve since done some research on the classic vitello tonnato recipes and decided it’s worth making. So in a page or two is the recipe for it and don’t be put off if veal is unavailable – you can also use a turkey breast or a pork loin.

 

Athena and I were discussing menu ideas one evening. “You know those bread stick things, they’re fun and cheap and great to dip in something,” I put this thought on the table as we developed our menu. ‘We should do tonnato to go with them.”

 

“Yes and it should keep ok too… maybe even freeze,” added Athena.

 

The sauce for vitello tonnato is of a pouring consistency – just. For the dip it needed to be a bit thicker.

 

The ingredients are readily available and it’s a handy standby recipe to have for a party finger snack food.

 

To make about 500g (enough for one of the dishes for a cocktail party or aperitif snack for a dozen people) we use:

 

One tin tuna (in oil – I find this has better flavour, but you can use “in water”). It’s going to get blended so tuna pieces or shreds are suitable.

Three hard boiled eggs

A third to half cup of olive oil (about half less if the tuna is “in oil”)

A small lemon or half a large squeezed for the juice

Teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

2 to 3 teaspoons of capers

 

Blend all the ingredients. It can be blended very smooth or left still with some texture (we did the latter). The creamy texture and flavour goes well with a rough texture like breadsticks or bruschetta (sliced bread – like a ciabatta or baguette – that has been toasted).

____________

 

VITELLO TONNATO

 

This is the classic version. For best results it should be made about three to five days before serving. The recipe for the sauce follows.

 

The meat is cooked in a flavourful court bouillon. This is a fancy name for a poaching stock and it’s quite simple – enough water to cover the meat, (for cooking say a 1 – 2 kg veal roast) flavoured with a quartered onion, a carrot in big chunks, a stick of celery chopped in chunks, a bay leaf, a few cloves, a teaspoon of salt, a glass of white wine. By chopping the veg more flavour is extracted. The salt helps prevent the flavour of the meat leaving.

 

Before putting the meat into the liquid, the other ingredients need to flavour the court bouillon. Simmer this for about 15 minutes and let it cool slightly so that you are not putting the meat into boiling liquid which will toughen it.

 

As I said, this is not a hurried dish.

 

Once the meat is cooked (anything from 30 to 60 minutes depending on the size and the tenderness of the cut) remove from the heat and allow to stand in the liquid to cool down. This will keep the meat moist and maximise the flavour from the stock.

 

A note about salt which I recently learned when making bacon. Different salts have different intensities. The course sea salt (rarely available from supermarkets) we use is milder than the free running, anodized kitchen salt (which is available from supermarkets). It may even be only half as salty so be careful when changing between one and the other.

 

The sauce is like a tuna mayonnaise and there are variations on it.

 

This makes enough for about 500g of meat.

 

The best way to make mayonnaise is go and buy a Braun type blender (it looks like one of those things you use to make milkshakes and smoothies). This is an essential kitchen addition and good for blending soups.

 

It turns an egg and oil into mayonnaise in twenty seconds. Depending on the consistency of the tonnato sauce use less or more eggs.

 

You start by making a mayonnaise with:

1 egg

About a three quarters cup of olive oil

Then you add a tin of tuna (with its oil for the flavour)

3 – 6 anchovies

A couple of teaspoons of pickled capers

A teaspoon of Coleman’s mustard or two or three teaspoons of dijon mustard

A dessert spoon of white wine vinegar

Juice of a lemon

A level teaspoon of sugar

A half a teaspoon of domestic or a level spoon of eg. Maldon salt

A thumbnail of pepper

 

Blend all this to a smooth creamy consistency.

 

Once the meat is well cooled, slice it as thinly as you can (say about 2mm thick).

 

Spread some sauce on a large serving platter, then layer the meat slices on this. If the slices are going to overlap, put on more sauce. You want each slice of meat to be in full contact with the sauce so that it soaks up the flavour. It works best when there are equal amounts of meat and sauce, no less. A little of the cooking juices can be used to thin the sauce and make it go further.

 

Cover with plastic food wrap and put in the fridge for between 24 hours to five days, depending on how much you want the flavours to mingle.

 

Remember to allow it to come to room temperature before eating.

 

Serve with lemon wedges and black pepper. A great starter or dish to include with antipasto.

 

CHAPTER 21

Getting the numbers right

 

In a perfect restaurant situation, one would sell exactly everything one had made.

 

We had just started and were a long way from perfect. We also had absolutely no idea how many people would arrive on any given day. Even though we said “Bookings advised”, that was as much to pretend we were so busy that you may not get in as it was to know what to prepare.

 

After the first few months we managed to get about 85% pre-bookings (usually in by the Friday) and about 15% walk-ins.

 

But when we began we didn’t know this and especially for the first few weekends we had no idea how busy we would be. So we guessed the Saturday and Sunday would bring us up to sixty guests. We brought extra baguettes and breadsticks because we couldn’t rush back to Durban for those.

 

Once Saturday afternoon came if we were busy and looked to be low on food for Sunday we would get stuck in and cook more.

 

But to start we had to be ready to feed those that arrived. Some of things would be good for the next weekend. We could freeze the soup. We could freeze the salmon rolls. We could freeze the lamb casserole.

 

That first official weekend we made tonnato for sixty people which is 30 ramekins (each double portion was about 150g in a ramekin – those things crème brulees are served in).

 

By Sunday afternoon we had 25 left. We had tonnato on baguettes for lunch. We took some back to Durban. We still had nearly 20 left.

 

“Let’s try freezing them,” Athena said.

 

“Yes, can’t see why shouldn’t work,” I agreed.

 

A week later we found the answer. They didn’t freeze well. Must have been the boiled egg in the tonnato.

 

CHAPTER 22

Mediterranean in the Midlands?

 

There must be millions of people with romantic notions fuelled by books like Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. In it, an English couple is inspired to escape from their UK damp and dreary existence (the book would have us believe) to the sunny and exotic south of France. To Provence and the Cote d’Azur in fact, which, to me, blends all the best qualities of France and Italy.

 

A Latin cheerfulness, warmth and spontaneity replaces the austerity, condecension and aloofness of Parisians. It’s a haven for artists. The area’s glowing, diffused sunlight proved a magnet to many famous artists like Chagalle, Matisse and Klein who escaped here from the miserable overcast winters of the rest of northern Europe.

 

The area also draws from the diverse food cultures of cooler northern Europe and the warmer Mediterranean and it could well be the epicentre of the European gastronomical universe. No doubt every other nation in Europe – wurst, frite or tapas in hand – would vigorously dispute that.

 

More recently, Carol Drinkwater’s books on her escapades not far away fuelled this inspiration. Later her search for the origin of the olive tree (she got back 7,000 years to somewhere in Tunisia or the middle East) illustrated the important role the olive has played in cuisine over not the centuries but the millennia.

 

Of course wine was there along the way too.

 

So when we came across Horizons with its sunny north facing slopes it didn’t take long for us to imagine at least a hectare or two of vineyards alongside an orchard of olive trees.

 

“Imagine picking our own olives, making our own olive oil, I’m sure we could grow some grapes here and make our own Horizons wine,” we romanced.

 

Athena and I were proud that we could both boast winemaking experience. We had noticed the previous February piles and piles of red and white grapes on the fruit displays of our local Everfresh. They were on special for R5.95 a kilo.

 

“Let’s try making some wine,” I suggested. Many years before I had done a basic wine certificate course. Athena, always game for anything to do with food and wine, got out the books and we soon had an idea of the difference between making red and white wine. Mainly that white oxidises very easily and needs kid-glove handling. Red is a little more robust.

 

A few days later the kitchen in my Halford Road home smelt like a wine cellar – musty and alcoholic. Four of our largest pasta pots were frothing and bubbling away as the sugars and yeasts had a jolly time together creating alcohol.

 

Within 24 hours the white had oxidised. It smelled and tasted foul. Athena sensibly rejected my suggestions of making vinegar by sending it down the drain.

 

The red was a different story. Every day it looked better. We pressed down the must (all the skins and remaining fruit floating on the top) to extract as much colour and flavour as possible. Between the two pots there must have been four litres.

 

After about five days we filtered it through some cheese cloth and bottled it. I put a few pieces of oak (from a packet of smoking chips for the braai) in one bottle to simulate six months in a French barrel.

 

We got less than we expected – just less than three bottles.

 

They went into my special fridge where they would be in good company. It was a small old fridge with a door that didn’t seal anymore and stayed at about 10C and sucked in some of the humidity from the outside air (fridges are one of the driest environments, surprisingly). About as close to perfect as one could get in subtropical Durban to cure my prosciuttos.

 

Because the red wine was still a bit active when we corked the bottles I stood them up in the fridge. Just as well. Fermentation continued and popped the corks out and the fridge now smelt like a Barcelona street bar – of cured ham and spilt wine.

 

They needed a second filtering and we ended up with enough to fill two bottles. The wood chips had seemed to introduce some flavour, even if it suggested an old furniture shop.

 

“This is not bad,” I pronounced, handing Athena the tasting glass. “It’s got good fruit and acidity, there’s still some sweetness there. It’s quite light in colour, sort of Pinot Noir-ish, but no faults. We’ve managed to get a bit of tannin which will help stop it going off too.”

 

“Durban’s first wine, and not bad for a couple of novices,” Athena beamed.

 

“Problem though. How long do we mature it for?” I wondered.

 

“It will be a pity for it to go off after all that work.” cautioned Athena.

 

We decided to open the first bottle after three months, expecting vinegar. It hadn’t spoilt. It was still bright purple and didn’t taste that different from when we had bottled it – a good sign of stability.

 

I was so impressed I decided to create a surprise label for Athena. Her home was in Umhlanga Rocks where she had some beautiful sculptures of lizards. So I named our product Umhlanga Rosso (an interplay on the Rocks and Rosso – Italian for red) and used Athena’s lizard as the main graphic.

 

The label proudly stated the provenance of the wine and the skill of the winemakers:

 

2003

UMHLANGA ROSSO

 

A quickly harvested pile of unidentified grapes picked from the supermarket hand pressed with help by the goddess of wine, Athena.

Four days on the skins and into the bottle before it escaped. Probably enough tannin to cure a soiled buffalo hide, but then, hey, this is Africa.

 

WINE OF ORIGIN COASTAL REGION, KWAZULU-NATAL

 

 

Of course, here was a vintage not to be taken lightly, so the final label looked like this:

 

 

So we now had one bottle left. Full marks for rarity – even rarer than a $200 bottle of ’79 Chateau Petrus! Every now and then I gently took the bottle out the fridge and looked at it without disturbing the contents. A large deposit of sediment was forming – a good sign that the wine was clearing as the flavours extracted from the grape matter.

 

A year passed and the colour – as far as I could tell through the dark green glass – looked good. Still red with a touch of purple, not brown, which would have meant deterioration.

 

A suitably auspicious occasion was needed for Umhlanga Rosso’s debut.

 

“It’s my Circle of Eight wine tasting dinner coming up. I’m going to include it as a laugh.” I announced.

 

The Circle of Eight is a group of eight guys who enjoy and taste wine and each person hosts a dinner and tasting once a year. The host presents six wines of his choice for tasting. These are usually presented in glass decanters numbered one to six and only a few clues are given. Part of the fun is identifying the wine, where it comes from and rating it.

 

The clues can be quite cryptic at times so Umhlanga Rosso could be snuck in without giving the game away. I would describe it as a South African, warm climate, red blend (we had absolutely no idea what the grapes were) made by a new producer.

 

It was going against some stiff competition. They were:

 

Goede Hoop ’98

Nederburg Reserve ’98

Rust en Vrede ’98

Bernheim 2000

Jordan ’97

 

If our wine was really faulty and undrinkable I would replace it. If it was drinkable then our guests could at least taste our experiment.

 

The night arrived and Athena and I ceremoniously, and nervously, opened our precious and rare bottle. I very carefully and gently decanted it in one smooth go to retain most of the deposits in the bottle.

 

It was clear, bright and looked even more like a Pinot Noir, usually identifiable by its light colour. The body was a thin but dark cherry red and the rim showed hints of brick red maturation. So far so good.

 

I poured two precious mouthfuls into two tasting glasses.

 

Athena took a sip, closed her eyes and savoured. “Mmm, that’s not bad.”

 

The bouquet was strange. Not unpleasant – but certainly unlike any of the hundreds of wines I’d had before.

 

It wasn’t good but I didn’t think it was bad. “I’ll include and let’s see what the guys say.”

 

The tasting progressed. Umhlanga Rosso stood proudly with the five SA cabernets. Its lighter colour did make it the odd man out amongst the deeper cabernets. (Note for oenophiles – tasting conducted September 2004). I knew it was in decanter number 3.

 

I gave few clues. All SA. Vintages from ’97 to ’03. All one cultivar except for one – the joker. (A cultivar is the type of grape, for eg. Cabernet Saivignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Ruby Cabernet, Pinot Noir, there are hundreds and about thirty popular for wine in SA).

 

We often included what we called a “joker” which was usually quite different to the others to act as a benchmark of sorts.

 

I must also point out that we don’t spit out after tasting because part of the enjoyment is to drink good wines and we are fortunate to have some good stuff.

 

We got to the part where we all present our scores. The other wines were mostly scored between 15 and 17 out of 20, equivalent to 3½ and 4 stars out of five. Very respectable.

 

“This number 3 is a bit odd. Not sure, could be a Ruby Cab…” said one.

 

“Bit of a pong – can’t say what I’m smelling though. Not faulty but I just can’t place it.” Said another seasoned taster.

 

“It’s SA so it has to be one of the usual cultivars…”

 

“Maybe it’s a Merlot…?”

 

It was not looking as good as we thought and hoped it might. What little virtue No 3 had when I opened the bottle had quickly deteriorated in the decanter.

 

Our good friend Arthur Taschner generously gave it 13 out of 20, probably not wanting to embarrass his hosts.

 

I had given it ten – the borderline for a faulty wine. Everyone else declined to score it.

 

Last person to give their comments was another good friend John Booth. His pronouncement sealed the fate of Umhlanga Rosso: “It needs a spittoon!”

 

The identities of the bottles were finally revealed, and the professionally done Umhlanga Rosso label had them foxed.

 

Most admitted they thought it was one of the SA cultivars or at least a blend. Applause for Athena and me for the good effort.

 

What was the cultivar? We’ll never know – let’s just call it Everfresh.

 

The final consensus*: “a good wine gone bad.” I could live with that – far better than a damning verdict of “a bad wine.”

 

*The author reserves the right to use creative licence to distort facts and intimate an improved reality.

 

(For academic interest for the oenophiles, the wines’ average scores were: Rust en Vrede 16; Jordan 15½; Bernheim 15; Nederburg 14½; Goede Hoop 13½; Umhlanga Rosso?)

 

CHAPTER 23

Making the Midlands Meander

 

“Did you see the email I sent about the Midlands Meander?” Athena asked one day. “They’re closing bookings for the year next week.”

 

I hadn’t. It was now well into April and there was so much going on and the list seemed to grow not diminish. April was also a crazy month for us – made crazier by the fact that South Africa has most of its public holidays in April. And there’s labour day on May 1 so you may as well chuck that in as well.

 

School holidays are usually in April. Courtney, my eldest daughter, has her birthday on April 10 and Athena her birthday on April 24.

 

“What do we need to do?” I asked, fearing that the list would get longer still.

 

“They need to come and see us and decide whether we are good enough. They don’t think a picnic is anything special to add onto the Meander. And they can’t consider the B&B until it’s up and running.”

 

I was affronted. “Are they crazy? These are going to be the best picnics in the world!” OK, so I was also being a little bit arrogant. Of course they had to inspect us – it was standard procedure. They also had to keep up their standards.

 

This could be a major blow. We were depending on the Midlands Meander as a major thrust in our advertising and promotional armoury. Every member we had spoken to had sung its praises.

 

We also knew it well from a consumer angle having used it often to explore the Meander. It is a well developed system. Every year they produce a tabloid size brochure with maps and advertisements for all the members. Clearly marked routes have distinctive Midlands Meander signs at the turnoff to each member’s attraction. (Sounds like a dirty joke lurking in there somewhere with all these references to members!)

 

“And we don’t have anything to show them,” lamented Athena. ”And we only move in in the middle of May.”

 

“And we’ve got your big birthday in two weeks. And I’ve arranged a surprise.” There were just too many “Ands”. It was Athena’s fiftieth coming up (sorry my angel, is that bad form to say what birthday it was?), and a big birthday bash was planned at her Umhlanga Rocks place for the Saturday night.

 

That weekend was also a long weekend (Tuesday was a holiday) so I had arranged on the Sunday morning, bleary eyed or not, we would be going down the coast to Selborne Spa and Golf Estate for a couple of days. They were one of my clients and I often bartered services.

 

“We’ll have to arrange to meet then during the week,” I said. “We also need to take another look at the furniture Averil wants to sell, so we can do that then.”

 

A couple of days later we met Ron/Rod? Gold, (and Geoff Maikin?) two of the board members of the Meander at Rosetta, and led them out to the front garden.

 

“This is it,” I said, proudly and expansively showing off the view. The lawns and trees were still dazzling green in the late summer and the fountain gurgled and splashed happily into the pond.

 

“What?” asked Rod. I wasn’t sure if he was being serious.

 

“This is where we’re going to do the picnics,” Athena said, also a little indignant that he hadn’t been blown away by the magnificent views.

 

“There are quite a few people doing picnics on the Midlands,” said Geoff. “What’s special about yours?”

 

We explained. These were like no other picnics. We emphasised that they would be gourmet food and chic and stylish and different in that no-one had to bring anything. So no more schlepping around food and booze and blankets and chairs and umbrellas and so on. This would be an asset to the Midlands Meander, we said, adding a new experience. We were eminently equipped, we argued, to bring this amazing new product to life. I felt like saying they should be grateful we wanted to use their services.

 

“You’ve been through the documents so we take it you’re familiar with members’ responsibilities and the code of conduct? You know you have to be open at certain times?” stated Geoff.

 

I vaguely remembered seeing something to that effect when I had hurriedly signed and submitted the Midlands Meander application a few days previously. “Yes, of course,” I agreed.

 

“We’ll have to discuss it and get back to you,” said Rod.

 

They left.

 

“That went well,” I muttered. “Come on, we need to look at that furniture and get back to Durban.”

 

Averil had sent us the list of what they wanted to sell. We wondered what they were going to use in their new house they were building on the other side of Rosetta. The list included just about the entire contents of the house.

 

It was all useful stuff. Besides the couches there were beds, tables, coffee tables, a fridge, a freezer, shelves, cupboards, a Verdi gris cast iron outside table and six chairs, a kitchen table with at least six chairs.

 

“Don’t be too keen,” Athena reminded me, her negotiating skills once again to the fore.

 

We inspected it and it all looked ok. The main bedroom double bed and dresser were a substantial matching affair of solid looking square steel tubes. The exposed ends were finished off with what looked like cricket balls and then it was all painted a dark greeny blue colour. Averil proudly declared this bedroom suite was hand made by Trevor.

 

I feigned disinterest. “It’s not really our style,” I said. In truth very little of it was. “How much do you want for it?” Athena gave me a hard look.

 

She rambled on about the quality of the furniture and how prices were going up and how expensive it would be just to have to transport replacement furniture to Rosetta. “R75,000 (over US$10,000),” she added.

 

If I added that to what the coffee machine was going to cost it would pay for a newer, bigger car.

 

“Mmm, we’ll have to think about it,” Athena maintained the disinterest. “We don’t really need any of it.”

 

“Someone else wants to buy it, so you need to give me an answer,” Averil pressured.

 

“I’ll let you know,” I countered.

_______________________

 

As we drove back we agreed that R60,000 (roughly US$8,500) was fair value to pay for the furniture.

 

The next day I called Averil and reminded her how little we needed the furniture, that it really wasn’t our style, but that we would “take it off her” for R60,000 however that was the most I would pay.

 

She accepted too quickly and I knew straight away I could have gone in lower. Her only condition was as long as I made the transfer within 24 hours as “the other people desperately want to buy it.”

 

“But the sale still has to go through,” I said. “I’ll send you a letter committing to buying it when the sale is confirmed. I’ll fax it to you now,” I added before she could respond.

 

Two days later Rod Gould called. The Midlands Meander had decided that Horizons Gourmet Picnics was worthy of becoming a member of the Midlands Meander. We would need to pay our annual fees (about R8,000 – roughly US$1,100) in advance by the following week. “And we’ll need your advertisement in three weeks as the brochure is going to print at the end of May.”

__________________

 

My head was swimming. The list of things to do was increasing and so was the list of things to pay for. The only thing that was decreasing, and way too fast, was my bank balance!

 

Never mind, there was a long weekend coming up and there was Selborne to look forward to. It couldn’t have come at a busier time, but it was more than welcome. Selborne always offered a stylish, tranquil escape where one could refresh, relax and rejuvenate mind, body and soul. (If that sounds like advertising speak, it is – that’s what I had written in their brochure copy).

 

Athena’s birthday approached. I had bought her something I knew she would love. But now I was getting nervous about this present. Why?

 

A month or so earlier, I had seen a special advertised for a weekend to Maputo in Mozambique, staying at the Polana Hotel, flights included. The special was to publicise the hotel which had been restored to its full colonial splendour. It was somewhere we had always wanted to go – both Maputo and the Polana.

 

At the time, finding a suitable weekend had not seemed an obstacle. However, as things got busier and busier and the list for Horizons got longer, finding a free weekend was going to prove difficult.

 

I decided it would be prudent to present Athena with her present early so we could plan it.

 

Athena was thrilled. “Small problem,” I said, “we have to go in the next month.” We had already planned the launch weekend for the last weekend in May.

 

A month or so earlier, I’d had a call from my Dad.

 

“We’re moving to Scottburgh,” he had said. He and my stepmom Betty had been living in a retirement village in Pietermaritzburg for a few years. “We’re going to stay in a hotel there – you know how much we always enjoy going there on holiday.”

 

They had a house full of furniture in Maritzburg. How would they fit that into a residential hotel?

 

They wouldn’t, replied my Dad, it was furnished so they would be getting rid of most of their furniture. “Maybe there’s one or two things you would like? Can you help us sort it out and help us move please?”

 

“When’s that, Dad?”

 

“At the end of April.”

 

I reminded Athena of this.

 

“We have exactly two weekends to choose from. Next weekend we have the children and I’m helping my Dad and Betty move to Scottburgh. We’re moving into Horizons on the middle weekend in May. So, we can go in two week’s time or one week before our friend’s launch picnic… And we still have so much to do.”

 

Mild panic would have set in if it weren’t for the third glass of Pinotage.

 

“It will have to be that last weekend before we open,” Athena suggested.

 

So the next day I called the travel agent and booked our flights and weekend to Maputo for the 21st to 24th May. The following Sunday the 31st, we would be hosting a hundred friends and their kids to test our as yet untried (and far from finished) picnics.

 

It was going to be a busy few weeks. But the surprises weren’t over – I had another one up my sleeve.

 

CHAPTER 24

Surviving the concrete jungle

 

We’re surrounded by millions of Zulus.

 

That may sound like something those poor chaps said at Isandlhwana but it’s not what I mean.

 

Yes, KwaZulu-Natal is the home of the Zulu, that proud, savage nation. And yes, it is also the scene of many historic battles that affected history – some say of the world as we know it.

 

What I mean is that there’s a whole culture that we live alongside and amongst, and one of the many traditional skills – besides making spears and shields – is the skill the Zulu women have to weave things.

 

“It should be no problem to get all the baskets made,” I declared with more than two months to go to opening. “There are lots of places we should be able to get them. I’ll try Victoria Street market.” Athena looked blank. “You know, that’s the one in Warwick Triangle. And there’s a lady that sits outside the parking garage at the SPAR in Avondale Road,” (my local supermarket), “And there are those ladies on the beachfront – there are lots of them around so we should be able to get them made ok. I’ll go and see them.”

 

Armed with a drawing of the basket, off I had gone.

 

The Victoria Street market is on the western edge of the city, in the middle of what’s known as the Warwick Triangle. If it sounds a bit like the Bermuda Triangle, you’re right, because things (and probably a few people) have vanished there.

 

It’s the major entry point to the city for taxi and bus commuters. Durban has about three million people and a lot of them come through here every day. The Warwick Triangle is full of street vendors catering for the high footfall. (The rail station is elsewhere – more about that shortly.)

 

Warwick Triangle is also the site of the original Indian Market – an atmospheric place reminiscent of other long-established, sprawling markets elsewhere in the world. Located in and around vast Victorian warehouses, many of its stalls had been handed down families through generations.

 

You could buy just about anything there from fresh fish and meat and fruit and vegetables to household wares. And more. My recurring memory of as a student of market visits was the oft said offer; “Spanish Fly, condoms, mister?” (I shall have to google it because I’ve never known exactly what Spanish Fly is or how it works except that it goes with condoms and seems to be an aphrodisiac.) If you asked you could also get the famous Durban Poison, reputedly the best quality marijuana in the world.

 

Very sadly one evening in 1972 it was burnt down (and I say “was” purposefully) as a desperate measure because the police could not control the massive underground drugs industry that ran in the market. That’s the conspiracy theory anyway, I don’t know if it was ever proved.

 

There was a lot to burn – it covered the size of a few football fields – and the conflagaration lit up the Durban night sky for hours. It was made even more spectacular because many of the stalls also sold fireworks.

 

I set off early the next morning on the basket search. The roads around the Victoria Street Market (a very sad excuse for a replacement) are jammed packed with taxis and a parking spot is rare.

 

Reminds me of the joke: a guy driving around desperate for parking says a prayer: “Dear God, if you give me a parking spot, I promise to go to church for the rest of my life.” Miraculously, just then he sees a parking spot. ‘Don’t worry, God,” he says, “I found one.” (I thank God for my blessings every day, by the way. They are many.)

 

The parking spot God has opened for me was next to a street Muti vendor. Muti is the Zulu word for medicine, but this is mostly not the kind you’ll find in a dispensary or pharmacy. This one has a trestle table and next to him are a couple of boxes and a rusty steel shopping trolley with his wares. He also has two of those mobile clothes rails.

 

Onto this make shift merchandising disply he’s laying out and hanging up his wares – mostly unidentifiable (to me anyway) plants and herbs and some reptile and animal parts. Tufts of fur and hair are still in evidence on many of the dried out animal parts and there’s a whole selection of suspect looking bones.

 

The streets have not yet been swept by the city’s workers and the gutter is filthy and full of litter. So I have to allow extra space from the kerb. I’m parked on the right side of the road in a right hand drive car. As I opened the door the car’s cool conditioned air was replaced by strong smells of decay and flesh.

 

In the gutter was what appeared to be a flat chicken ready for roasting – like a Nando’s peri peri flame grilled chicken its carcass was splayed out at my feet. But it was not.

 

I couldn’t help noticing that neither the head, nor the body, was that of a chicken. Lying spread-eagled and naked in the gutter was the skinned carcass of a small monkey.

__________________

I made it through the Victoria Street market and found no basket weavers, only imported Asian versions which were not suitable. The Muti vendor, my car, the monkey carcass and the smell were still there when I returned.

 

Next stop my supermarket.

 

The lady at the SPAR wasn’t at the SPAR. She only came on Thursdays and left again on Sundays, said another craft lady.

 

“Do you have her telephone number?” I asked, pen and paper in hand.

 

“She doesn’t have a phone anymore, it was stolen,” came the reply.

 

Next stop, the ladies at the beachfront. But they were more interested in selling plastic Chinese handbags and fake/child labour (pick one) Nikes than upholding their traditional craft.

 

I returned to the SPAR on the Thursday.

 

The basket lady was there. First there was much polite greeting – it’s Zulu custom to say hello and enquire about each other’s health and only then introduce oneselves.

 

It goes something like this (translated into English):

 

“Yes” as in I acknowledge your presence.

 

“Yes” I agree, we are both here.

 

“Hello”

 

“Hello”

 

“How are you?”

 

“I am well. I am here.”

 

“How are you?”

 

“Yes I am also well. I am also here.”

 

There may be some further discussion about one’s cattle, the weather, one’s friends, before eventually any mention of one’s names enters the conversation.

 

Addresses (as in Father, Mother, Boss, Chief, Grandfather etc) are also added if there is a marked difference in age or stature along with suitable dignified submissive bowing and other respectful body language.

 

Once I saw an example of this great respect shown in the Zulu culture for another person, especially royalty or anyone of class or rank. Once I was taking a pee in the men’s toilet in Durban’s world class ICC (International Conference Centre) during a break. The toilet was full of men – many of them Zulus. In walked Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, second only in stature to King Goodwill Zwelithini. There was much shuffling as every Zulu in the men’s toilets, it seemed, dropped what they were doing to bow in respect of him.

This long greeting is now a commonplace custom in South Africa and one will often receive a business call and spend the first minute discussing each other’s health without a clue who one is speaking to…)

 

I’m reasonably practiced in that greeting part now, but can’t speak too much more Zulu – just a few words I picked up at boarding school from white mates who were fluent in Zulu. For many of them it was their first language as they usually had a Zulu nanny as toddlers.

 

I approached one of the other ladies there and respectfully had the health conversation with her before asking her if she spoke English. Fortunately she did or I could have been there all morning determining the state of health of at least ten middle aged Zulu women. Her name was Thokozani and she said the weaver’s name was Thebile.

 

I showed them the drawing.

 

A lot of thought had gone into my basket design. It had three compartments so that the cold food could be separated from the hot and the heavy things like plates and cutlery (proper ceramic and stainless steel remember, not plastic) could be positioned to balance the weight. I’d also worked out very carefully what size and shape I wanted. Each basket would hold a picnic for two, so it needed to be about 40cm x 30cm x 10cm deep. I should say 10cm shallow, because it was a flat design not a deep design.

 

A lengthy discussion in Zulu ensued. I was impressed with Thembile who seemed to have a good grasp on the design.

 

Thebile picked up a small basket she had on display and tried to sell it to me for R40. I waved my arms, shook my head and pointed to the drawing. “Please tell her I need it made just like this and ask if she can make it,” and I prodded the sizes written on the drawing.

 

“And I need fifty,” I said.

 

“Haauw!” She said, which means something like Oh shit or Merde.

 

Her response was interesting – mainly because it was not one of delight at the prospect of this business windfall, but one of horror.

 

“How much?” I asked, pointing at the drawing again.

 

Thebile didn’t know. She would have to make one and then she could tell me.

 

Now I knew that these weaving ladies are pretty nimble with their hands and they can craft something in a matter of hours. “Can I come and see it tomorrow?” I posed the reasonable, I thought, question.

 

Not possible. Next weekend. Thebile didn’t have enough reed with her for such a big basket so she would have to get some from her home.

 

“Where’s that?” I asked Thokozani.

 

“Pongola,” came back the answer. “That’s where the Ilala reeds come from.”

 

I was to learn more about this a few years later from a good friend Justin Dymond. He grew up on a sugar cane farm in Zululand and later started up a community project making huge mats from a useful reed. His idea: to use these to stabilise earthbanks along roads and motorways while the vegetation rehabilitated, a business which could create thousands of jobs – a brilliant idea. Sadly as I write, the project is still stalled as he battles to get funding for this worthwhile business.

 

Back to the Ilala reeds. They use them because they’re abundant, strong and flexible and don’t rot when you make baskets out of them.

 

This geography lesson was all very interesting. In the meantime my anxiety level was was growing. Because a) there weren’t as many ladies around making baskets as I thought; b) I wasn’t comfortable with our key picnic basket manufacturer Thebile being of address unknown and disappearing off into the bush and not having a phone.

 

A precious week went by and I returned to Avondale SPAR’s parking garage.

 

A weight lifted off my shoulders as I saw Thebile. After discussing each other’s health she led me to her “spot”. I could have hugged her when she showed me her handiwork. There on the concrete floor was not one but three baskets, each a variation on my theme and size specifications.

 

I admired her handiwork. One of the three didn’t have compartments and it was sturdy and would hold a picnic for two easily. Presentation was important, especially that first impression. I could imagine a golden, crusty baguette sticking out from under some crisp, white linen partly revealing some wow food. I decided to go for that design.

 

“Ubani umali koka? How much money do I have to pay?” I used some of the little Zulu I knew.

 

“R100.”

 

“Zonke? For all?”

 

“Haauw! Aai zonke, haauw!” Thebeile seemed to do a little dance in her mirth at my preposterous suggestion that all three should be R100.

 

“Ask her what’s the price for sixty baskets like this one, please,” I put to Thokozani, picking up the one that was the best shape and feeling the firmness of the handles.

 

Thebile did some complicated mathematical calculations on an old piece of washing powder carton and conferred with Thokozani. I thought I heard the sum of R120. Obviously I must be mistaken. Yes, the baskets were well made and we’d get good use out of them, however, I’d be happy to pay no more than about R75 each, R80 at a push.

 

“R120 each,” said Thokozani.

 

She must be mistaken. “R120? That’s more – it must be less if I’m giving such a good order. It’s work for lots of people. That’s good. Isn’t it?”

 

Thebile and Thokozani had another quick board meeting.

 

Thokozani pronounced their conclusion: “It’s too much work so she has too charge you more. She has to get other ladies at Pongola to help her make them.”

 

Ten minutes later with the help of Thokozani we had negotiated that Thebile would make sixty baskets at a price of R110 each.

 

Another ten desperate minutes later I had to accept there was no way I could get Thebile to commit to a delivery date. The best I could get was that “Each week she will bring the baskets they’ve made back from Pongola.”

 

I had been sufficiently impressed by the three samples to give Thebile a deposit of R1,000 as an advance for materials and Thokozani a tip of R20 for her executive translation services and left.

 

CHAPTER 25
Just another quiet weekend

 

We survived Athena’s big birthday celebration and the next morning we set off to Selborne.

 

There were still some treats left from the party so we packed a few of the choicest delicacies (never knew when they would come in handy) and headed off.

 

Selborne is at Pennington, a sleepy little beach town less than an hour’s drive down from Durban. It was the first golf estate in South Africa. It was set up in 1984 by Dennis Barker, whose family owned it – at that time a beautiful, sprawling mansion on a stud farm. Dennis went to a stud convention (for cattle, that is) in the US and saw a golf estate. “I’m going to make one of those,” he said, and he did.

 

It looks a bit like Augusta, that beautifully manicured golf course you often see on TV because it’s the home of the US Masters – one of the world’s four major golf tournaments. It has lots of pretty bridges and gardens woven through the course. Selborne weaves its way through thick indigenous coastal bush that’s full of birds and animals.

 

Opposite the entrance to Selborne is an equally imposing estate called Lynton Hall which was built by a sugar baron early last century. Lynton Hall had at that time one of the finest restaurants and chefs in the country. It was the home to Richard Carstens, who you could say was South Africa’s pioneer of molecular gastronomy. That’s food that chefs try to break down into its smallest component parts and then recreate it differently, so you get things like foams and bubbles and wobbly things that smoke on your plate. Richard trained a local protégé Steven Kruger and around 2005 left for Manolo in Cape Town.

 

Also in attendance at Lynton Hall was Germaine Lehody, both GM and an internationally acclaimed sommelier of note. Between Germaine and Richard they staged things like salt or mineral water or chocolate tastings, so you can see this was a true little foodie oasis.

 

However, running a top restaurant in this remote spot had its challenges, as I found out interviewing Steven for a foodie article a few years ago. “We’re at the coast but battle to get fresh fish,” complained Steven, “they’re catching less these days.” But there were pleasant surprises. “My local butcher arrived with wild boar the other day,” he said with a boyish grin. Also, it’s a sparsely populated area so Steven, like Richard, quickly learnt the menu had to marry cutting edge with classic cuisine to satisfy local tastes while keeping up Lynton Hall’s reputation as a pioneering foodie destination.

 

Selborne has changed hands over the years, the family selling to a hotel group who sold it on. Sadly, as I write this, Selborne has gone into receivership. The restaurant at Lynton Hall has gone, and it’s now just a hotel that does weddings. What a pity.

 

I think it’s because although Pennington is hardly far away, it somehow feels like it’s in no-man’s land. You have to drive past Durban’s southern industrial area and old airport to get to it and then it’s still a long way to all the holiday action around Margate, Ramsgate and Southbroom – the true South Coast. It’s the sort of place that once you’re there you’re there and you relax. Just what we needed.

 

“I’m so looking forward to a couple of days of doing nothing,” I said as we checked in at Selborne. “And lunch tomorrow at Lynton Hall.”

 

We lazed at the pool and dozed under the trees. We napped in the room. By late afternoon we had recovered and were ready for food.

 

I’d brought a bottle of Krone Borealis to try out for the picnic wine list. It’s a fine South African sparkling, referred to as a Methode Champenoise (or Cap Classique these days as the French are very precious about the word Champagne). It’s so fine in fact that in a blind tasting it was mistaken for a French Champagne.

 

It went well with the savoury antipasta spread Athena threw together with the previous night’s snacks.

 

As we chatted and the sparkling had its effect and the sun’s afternoon rays beamed through the forest, I decided it was time.

 

I took a piece of the shiny foil from the Champagne cap and crafted a delicate ring.

 

“Athena, it was just amazing how you popped up in my life at the perfect time – for both of us, I think.”

 

A Loerie bird in the trees above us gently cooed it’s mating call. I was nervous and tried to remember my rehearsed speech.

 

“We’ve been together now for well over two years. We’re committed to each other I know that. But I want to give you more than that.” I seemed to be mumbling – I couldn’t believe I was nervous. Get on with it I told myself.

 

I think I went down on one knee (I’m sure Athena will remember and correct the detail) “I think we should get married. Will you marry me?”

 

Athena leapt at me and gave me the hugest hug and looked me squarely in the eyes. “Oh yes, my darling, oh yes.”

 

“We need to look at an engagement ring – in the meantime,” and I took her hand, “I’ve made you this,” and slid the Champagne foil engagement ring on.

 

“It’s just perfect,” she said, holding it up to sparkle in a beam of sunshine. “Just perfect.”

 

Lunch the next day on the wide veranda of the colonial and imposing Lynton Hall didn’t disappoint. We shared three or four dishes (that way we get a wider taste experience) washed down with plenty if good wine. Lazily we soaked in the views through palm trees and over sugar cane fields of the Indian Ocean. I proudly and lovingly looked into the eyes of my beautiful bride to be.

 

CHAPTER 26

At your own risk

People often accuse Americans of suing for damages at the drop of a hat.

 

I’ve never had that experience. But we expected many foreign tourists – including Americans – at Horizons and I certainly didn’t want to find out if that was true.

 

The African bush if full of snakes even if you hardly ever see them. In winter they hibernate. But in summer you can be lucky (or unlucky depending on your view of these beautiful creatures) to come across them.

 

Generally, they won’t attack you unless threatened or cornered or stood on. If they hear you coming they will get out of the way.

 

I was brought up in similar surroundings to Horizons (in a famous place called Durnacol coal mine, near Dannhauser, near Dundee). As a young boy I remember snakes occasionally sneaking under a door into the house. Once some of us kids (I was about seven) were playing with a ball on the verhanda and the ball rolled down the steps. I ran after it, and collected it at the bottom of the steps. As I turned to go back up, I saw a long (at least a metre) dark patterned snake sunning itself – right where a moment before I had trodden down the steps.

 

So at Horizons, surrounded by miles of grassland we couldn’t take the chance of someone, especially a child, getting bitten, never mind about being sued.

 

We also had an electric fence, which shouldn’t harm anyone, however it would certainly make an unpleasant picnic for a small child if it touched it.

 

Signs were needed. So, using our brand colours of pumpkin and a mustard yellow I had some durable, UV resistant, plastic signs made to erect at various points at the entrance and around the picnic area to warn about the fence and ones that said this:

 

WARNING

BEWARE

SNAKES

 

Did we ever see any snakes? In three years, we came across snakes three times. One seemed to live around the pond (no doubt attracted by the abundance of frogs) and some kids got very excited one day when they saw it.

 

I’ll tell you about the other two elsewhere in the book.

 

Jack, Athena’s son, loves all animals (and reptiles and arachnids) and our house has often had more than one snake and tarantula.

 

Zoe had a magnificent Amazonian boa constrictor which sadly died because its electric blanket (actually a mat) failed.

 

Athena tried freezing mice, the snakes’ favourite food (fresh killed from the pet shop) to have ready food on hand so one had to be careful with what came out the freezer. The snakes rejected the thawed, dead mice. They liked theirs’ fresh and alive so that idea, thankfully, didn’t work.

At one stage our children were breeding hamsters because they could sell them to the pet shop at a profit. We had the interesting situation where we had both a snake and a pet hamster escape their respective cages at the same time. A few days later the hamster was found behind the fridge and the snake amongst Jack’s tee shirts in his clothes drawers. Miraculously the two had not come across each other and neither was the worse for wear.

 

CHAPTER 27

A basket case?

 

A week had gone by since Athena’s birthday weekend and it was time to collect the first order of baskets.

 

Thokozani wasn’t there and nobody had heard from her. Ok so maybe she was ill or, as was often the case, Aids had tragically claimed the life of a close relative and she was attending a funeral.

 

I waited out the next week. Well, I didn’t actually sit around waiting but you know what I mean.

 

And another week – every few days going past the Avondale SPAR store to see if Thokozani was there.

 

Three weeks went anxiously by before I saw her again.

 

Her health was good. She presented me with eleven baskets. I quickly did the time and motion study: that’s about four a week. Sixty baskets divided by four is fifteen weeks. Mid March to end May was twelve weeks. Not enough time. Not enough motion.

 

Before I could speak Thokazani said she needed more money. The baskets were taking too long to make and she needed to get more ladies to help and that meant more money.

 

“Koka foete? Pay more? How much?” I asked.

 

She wanted another R20 for each basket. I agreed.

 

She also needed more money for Ilala reed. The baskets were using a lot and the Ilala season was coming to an end and the price was going up and so we must stock up. At least that’s what I think she said. Nonetheless, I was impressed enough to go to the ATM and draw another R1,200.

 

I gave her my mobile number and asked Thembile to tell her to tell me when she was bringing more baskets.

__________________

 

Athena and I had a picnic board meeting. She’d made some Thai fish cakes to dip into a sweet chili sauce with fresh coriander and lime juice. A fruity Chenin Blanc washed them down well.

 

“We have to make another plan,” she said. “Surely there are more people around making baskets?”

 

“You know there’s all those street traders at the new station building – let’s go and look there.”

 

So we did.

 

And we found Margaret, who was also weaving baskets. Margaret had secured a prime retail space in the new station concourse – on the floor at the top of the steps where foot traffic was at its highest. Hers was a much more sophisticated operation. She had a mobile phone.

 

We showed her one of Thokozani’s baskets and asked her how much. Same answer, she’d have to make one and see.

 

I should describe the station at this point because it is interesting. Durban, which was brought up as a Victorian city, had a magnificent station in its centre – like most civilized cities around the world. It was a masterpiece of Victorian architecture – Herbert Baker, I believe.

 

In the seventies and eighties, more and more of the rural black population converged on South Africa’s major cities’ peri urban areas in search of work and wealth. So the government of the time decided in its wisdom to replace Durban’s station by building a new, bigger one about a kilometre out of the city centre.

 

In one stroke of autocratic madness they: 1) replaced a warm, welcoming Victorian station with a cold, concrete monstrosity; 2) cost the taxpayer a fortune because the new station has tons and tons and tons of unnecessary concrete pillars and walls (somebody’s buddies in the concrete and steel business made a fortune from that contract); 3) they made passengers walk or find other transport to get from the station to their workplaces (maybe there was some neurotic military strategy behind this at the time.)

 

The elegant facade of the old station still stands and contains some smart offices (my ex client KZN Tourism for one is there) and the main train shed is now a Virgin Active gym.

 

Maybe one day common sense and proper first class trans-country rail travel will return and the station will be revived.

 

For now, it’s a dirty, grimy, high traffic area and the streets are lined with hawkers selling every imaginable item to the transitory masses.

 

It’s not the most savoury area.

 

We made our way nervously through the station back to the car, me puffing up my chest in classic don’t look like a target posture.

 

“Look at this,” Athena stopped me, and pointed to some small baskets.

 

“They’re a bit small,” I said.

 

“No, don’t be an idiot,” she laughed, “for kiddies’ picnics. They’re perfect.”

 

They were forty rand each. We quickly worked out we should have sixty of them as well (one for each child). The weaver had ten so we negotiated the price to R35 each and bought those. That was the best she would do on sixty baskets.

 

“Come,” said Athena to me, turning back in the direction of Margaret. And with that Athena negotiated the balance of the kiddies’ baskets with Margaret at R25 each. Her reasoning: if you save five to ten percent on everything it all adds up. I couldn’t argue with that.

 

A week later, much to my consternation and against my advice, Athena went off to the dodgy station with her Zulu maid Flo to see Margaret and the sample.

 

The basket was a bit different in size to the sample we had given her but it would still work perfectly. The price: R70 a basket! Athena ordered thirty baskets. That way between Margaret and Thokozani we should get sixty baskets in time.

 

Margaret also delivered thirty of the kiddies baskets.

____________________

 

On my last visit to Thokozani I had given her my mobile number and asked her to report back to me on progress and when I could collect baskets.

 

It was now nearing end of April. So far she had presented me the eleven baskets and there had been no further sound from her.

 

We had six weeks to our first picnics day and still only a dozen baskets, with another four samples of odd shapes and sizes we could use in desperation.

 

Every week I went to see Thokozani and she wasn’t there.

 

Margaret steadily sat and wove baskets on the floor of the station concourse. We increased our order to her to fifty baskets. She roped in some of the ladies around her and production pace stepped up.

 

Ten days before our test day Margaret delivered fifty baskets.

 

The same day I picked up a message on my mobile – it was from Thembile from a public phone so I couldn’t call back. Thokozani had asked me to come to Avondale SPAR garage parking lot because she was there with some baskets.

 

There she was – in good health and surrounded by piles of all the baskets she had to make for us.

 

In that twenty four hours our basket stocks had gone from twelve to a hundred and ten!

CHAPTER 28

Bugs and Ginger Bread Men

 

We hadn’t been idle.

 

We now had the baskets for adults and kiddies and the menu was coming on great for the adults.

 

The contents of the kiddies’ picnics needed finalising.

 

“Kids are fed so much crap these days,” was my opening statement, perhaps a little more vociferous than necessary. “I want them to have a healthy picnic.”

 

As Go-Organic was progressing I was learning more and more about the horrors of mass, commercial food production. My conclusion (and one shared by many eminent, smart people) was simple: big companies were primarily interested in making huge amounts of money.

 

Now this may not sound like rocket science and seem obvious. But what most people don’t realise is that companies place profits on a high pedestal and push all the other stuff off. Like values, people’s lives, health, relationships – you just name all the good stuff.

 

Does a pharmaceutical company want you to be healthy? Of course not. Does an agro chemical company want a farmer’s soil and crops and livestock to be healthy? Of course not. Do petro chemical companies want alternative fuel technology to be developed so that cars are not dependent on oil? Of course not.

 

I was becoming an idealist and I was proud of it. And I was determined that our picnic baskets – for adults and kids – were going to be wholesome. Along with unpolluted air I wanted them to take in unpolluted food.

 

Athena brought me back to commercial reality. She made me realise that shareholder value is essential. I was easily convinced – my pocket was the shareholder and it needed some soothing and placating.

 

“Ok then at least let’s have as much healthy stuff as possible for the kids.” I backed off a bit.

 

The food cost target was around ten Rand. So far the kiddies menu looked like this:

 

A pastry

A fruit of the season

A drink

An oats crunchy biscuit

A packet of snack food eg crisps

A sandwich

 

“We can make the sandwiches into shapes,” suggested Athena. “Just take one of those biscuit cutters – a big one that’s close to a slice of bread size.” So it was the sandwiches became the shape of a daisy.

 

This was a bit of a challenge because it meant there was quite a bit of off-cut of bread and filling (usually ham). We had to train and remind the ladies making them to just put enough meat to fill the shape.

 

For the pastry we had a few ideas – there were sausage rolls, and also pastry wheels, both very easy to make and they could be frozen and cooked along with the snacks given to guests with their first drink.

 

We had to change this though – there was so much prep to do in the morning. The contents of the kiddies baskets had to be ready by mid morning so they could be finished off and the kitchen could focus on the more serious adults picnics.

 

As kids my Mum had made us sausage rolls and I’ve yet to find a better one.

 

It’s a simple recipe and worth making a good quantity batch and freezing some of them – either cooked or uncooked.

 

EASY SAUSAGE ROLLS

 

Two rolls of ready made puff pastry (NB remember to work with it cold out the fridge. And don’t be tempted to roll it out thinner – if you do it will obviously puff up less).

A packet of decent pork sausages (this is most important – they will make or break your sausage roll.

A large potato – boiled in its jacket but not mushy

Half an onion – finely chopped

Salt

White pepper

A beaten egg to stick and brush pastry

 

You can add half a teaspoon of finely chopped sage – a good buddy of pork.

 

Set the oven to 200C. You’ll need two baking trays or roasting pans for these. Or make half the mixture and have the rest of the sausages for breakfast.

 

1 Squeeze the meat out the sausage skins and throw the skins away or fry them up for your dog

2 Mix all the filling and season. The sausages are already seasoned so it’s just for the potato and onion – a quarter of a teaspoon salt and same of pepper

3 Lay lines of filling the thickness of your thumb along the pastry. Roll the pastry around the filling, having brushed egg along the join. A sheet of pastry should give three long rolls like this. Cut these into individual sausage rolls. And lay them on a baking sheet or roasting pan. They’ll puff up about 50% more so leave a gap between them.

 

Prick the top of each sausage roll. This makes them look better.

 

Brush them with the egg.

 

Cook for about 25min until light golden.

 

PASTRY ROLLS

 

These are dead easy. Make up a mixture and spread it about 4-5mm on the pastry. This can be anything – grated cheese and spinach, mushed up roasted butternut, fried onions, sun dried tomatoes, olive pesto, mushed up anchovies (they go great with the onion – a classical French Provencal mixture).

 

Roll up all the way, slice about 5mm thick so they look like spirals, lay out on a baking tray, brush with egg and cook same as sausage rolls – maybe 5min less.

 

“I’ve got an idea for the kiddies’ baskets,” said Athena. “When I was little my Dad used to give us each a jam jar and a butterfly net and take us out in the fields. We’d have a great time catching bugs.”

 

She continued with girlish enthusiasm: “We can get those honey type plastic bottles – they’re only about 50c each. And put one of those cheap catering plastic gloves in with each.”

 

Athena wrote a clever little poem to go onto the labels which went into each of the jam jars:

 

THE JAM JAR

 

Have you ever thought about the humble jam jar?

 

This must be one of the most useful inventions by far!

 

It’s great for your nunus, insects and bugs

 

And for saving your marbles from rolling on rugs

 

While forced out of doors today why don’t you see

 

How many uses you can find for me!

 

We added sweets – usually a little box of Smarties.

 

Any misgivings I had in the planning stages about kids spoiling the party for adults were dispelled. The idea of adults having a chic al fresco lunch with Pavarotti or Michael Buble in the background was a reality. My fear of kids getting bored and annoying their parents was groundless.

 

The strategy of giving the kids a healthy outdoor experience away from their PS3’s and Wii’s and X-Boxes worked like a bomb, thanks a lot to Athena’s bug bottles. As soon as people arrived with little ones, we gave them their mini picnic baskets and they were absolutely delighted – especially the bug bottle. They’d dive into the sweets but mostly be off like a shot with the container for the creepy crawlies. After each picnic day, we had to liberate many frogs and grasshoppers from abandoned bug bottles.

 

The kids that weren’t impressed were those on the cusp of puberty or early teens. But then I guess the only thing really cool at that age is them.

 

The popularity of the contents of these kiddies’ baskets did create problems.

 

Flo, Athena’s long standing maid (literally and figuratively) would spend hours each week making the kids’ gingerbread men and pastries (and almond biscotti and of course her unbeatable shortbread that we served with coffee). We would buy in bulk the mini sweet packets (smarties or similar) and little packets of those dreadful orange dyed maize things. The Horizons store room looked like a tuck shop.

 

Yet every week the numbers didn’t add up. We never did formal stock takes yet we knew we were buying more kids’ picnic stuff than we were having children picnickers.

 

Clearly while we were not around the kitchen during morning prep for the picnics, the popularity of the gingerbread men and the sweets and the crisps had found its way to our staff!

CHAPTER 29

The big move

 

My mother, Maureen, died in 1990 at an early age due to leukaemia. It was just a month and a week after my daughter Courtney was born so at least she did get to cradle one more of her precious grandchildren. I’m sure she’s somewhere watching and is taking pleasure in seeing her and my second daughter Olivia growing up. (Hi, Mom!)

 

Geoffrey, my Dad, was what one could describe as typical RAF – Royal Air Force (that’s like Tom Cruise in Top Gun but in planes with propellers). He was always a hit with the ladies. In WW2 he was a pilot trainer and bomber pilot (not people targets but infrastructure like roads, bridges and railway lines). Pics of him from then show a debonair, Errol Flynn character. (What? Ok so Errol Flynn was a famous actor in the fifties – like a retro version of what George Clooney is today).

 

As a 76 year old widower, Geoffrey moved into Evergreen retirement village in Pmb. Mortality of men happens around seventy the statisticians tell us, so Geoffrey was one of the few men and in demand with the ladies. Betty Quinn was the lucky one hooked him and they got married in 1997. She was also in WW2 – she encoded and decoded secret messages for the allies (those were the good guys who fought against Hitler’s bad guys). We embraced Betty into our family.

 

End of history lesson.

 

But why this is relevant is that, at about 80 years old, Geoff and Betty had chosen the same month that we were moving for them to move to Scottburgh – where they often went on holiday. A serious downsizing of their full lives and possessions was in store. A three-bedroomed home (and single garage of some stuff that didn’t fit in the house when my Dad moved from a five bedroomed home with double garage) needed to be sorted.

 

They would need very little of it in the furnished seaside hotel in Scottburgh.

 

Let me also point out the geography. If I stand with one arm raised and Durban is where my belly button is, then Scottburgh is down the coast where my feet are. To get to Horizons, turn around and go back past Durban at my belly button, keep going past my shoulder (which is where Pietermaritzburg is) and you’ll get to Rosetta and Horizons at my finger-tips.

 

They say moving house is one of the most stressful things. That month we moved two. In different directions about three hours apart. Along with two eighty year olds.

 

CHAPTER 30

The publicity machine

 

Maybe after all there is such a thing as a “free lunch” – especially when it comes to talking about picnics. It’s commonly known as PR (public relations) or publicity.

 

Every medium that carries information needs interesting stuff for its audience. Somewhere behind every newspaper, magazine, TV and radio station, website and so on is an editorial team whose job is to find compelling stuff for their audience.

 

Public Relations companies spend their lives wooing the media to get their clients “stories” featured.

 

Yesterday I heard a radio DJ (Sasha Martinegro – who’s big into cars) talking about the new Aston Martin he was still driving around after the weekend, which included a stay over at the posh Sun City casino and resort. No doubt there was no limit on the bar bill and the oysters and crayfish were in abundance washed down by Sasha’s refreshment of choice. You get the picture.

 

That’s the one approach.

 

We didn’t have an Aston Martin but I was confident we had a story to tell with our novel picnics idea.

 

My goal was to have as much exposure at launch (first Saturday in June) as possible in the right media.

 

This requires some forward planning. Magazines put together their editorial at least two months, and sometimes three, before publication date. So one of the first things I did once the bank had given the go ahead was to start approaching the magazines.

 

I already had a good contact list from PR work done for my brand consultancy clients and it was a simple matter of a visit to the local magazine rack to update it.

 

We needed to be in all the mainstream entertainment and lifestyle magazines.

 

When I called the editor the conversation typically went like this:

 

“Hi (name), we’re starting a novel new concept in the Midlands Meander – chic, stylish gourmet picnics, wow food, linen tablecloths, spectacular views, champagne in ice buckets….” I really laid it on. Remember this was way back in March and so much was still just conceptual. We really weren’t sure how the final product would turn out.

 

“That sounds great, I’m sure our readers would be interested. Can you send us some pictures and more info and we’ll have a look?”

 

“Of course, sure.” ! What pictures? ! “We’re opening at the beginning of June, it would be great if we can be in your June issue.”

 

Stunned pause. “We’ve finished all our editorial but what we can do is put a small piece in our what’s on/newcomers/what’s new section.”

 

“Great thanks. What’s your deadline – when do you need it by?”

 

“Friday next week at the very latest if we want to make June.”

 

All the magazines had finalised their main editorial content for June except for the last minute, more newsy items. Unlike newpapers and live media they don’t deal in the immediate day’s news and work to long deadlines.

 

I had a week to write a story that would make sense come June. I had a week to organize a picture or two that would be attractive enough to capture the interest of the magazines’ art directors and picture editors.

 

Add it to The List.

 

I did a selection of pictures so that not all magazines would show the same.

 

Although there was an embargo (viz don’t publish it yet) of a June opening date on the story, the Good Life supplement to The Mercury (the major provincial daily newspaper) ran the story on April 2. It included my mobile number. We started getting enquiries and bookings two months before opening!

 

Whichever pictures were published each had to be worth a thousand words. (Yes I know it’s a cliché but it makes the point). So I chose these:

 

A view of the setting – looking from the sun dappled grass under the avenue of trees up towards the homestead

 

Athena and me sitting at a table laden with interesting food and champagne to hand

 

A wicker basket on a sun dappled white linen tablecloth with a few golden baguettes sticking out of white paper packets

 

And then two set-up food shots. But these had a difference. Because the mags would be published in winter, there should be an element of warmth to them. I planned to offer fireplaces to the picnickers for colder winter days anyway and wanted to show this.

 

I set up these shots in my front garden in Durban. Note that March is one of the hottest, stickiest months in sub-tropical Durban. So there I was in humid mid thirties C heat, with a fire going creating this cosy winter setting.

 

The lighting was a bit tricky, because flames are not that visible in broad daylight. So I had to build a photo tent around the shoot with darkness over the fire to see the flames, but allowing enough light over the table setting.

 

The table setting needed to say chic, so it was white linen, champagne glasses, silver ice bucket, plain white crockery and silverware (ok stainless steelware, to be completely accurate).

 

I chose to do two foods which would make a statement about our picnics. When people saw the table setting and the dishes I wanted them to say “Wow, that’s a picnic?”

 

The first pic showed a bowl of curried pumpkin and shellfish bisque with a dollop of cream and finished with chopped chives and fine shreds of capsicum. (Actually I can reveal now – it was custard with curry powder and turmeric added to get the right colour. The cream was a blob of yoghurt, otherwise it would have melted before I had enough time to do a few shots. The capsicum stirred into the bisque looked like bits of shellfish.)

 

The second dish – also on the same table setting with fire behind – is my favourite and we used this as our signature food pic whenever we could. However it was so fiddly that it never actually made it onto our picnic menu although it did inspire other dishes.

 

The dish started with an idea from my daughter Courtney – a fish version of steak tartare, the ground raw beef dish. This was chopped fresh Norwegian salmon mixed with a little whole grain mustard.

 

I thinly sliced English cucumber lengthwise to create pale green ribbons. These were delicately rolled to create a standing up tube into which was piled a dollop of the salmon. This needed some colour so it was topped with something red – again capsicum would do. Except I didn’t have any so I used long slivers of peach skin.

 

Three of these mini towers were spaciously plated on white and the dish finished off with a drizzle of vinaigrette and some shards of red cabbage. These were unidentifiable but there for the contrast.

 

In the first month of opening we were in:

 

Elle magazine First Buzz

The Sunday Tribune Lifestyle supplement Dining Bites

Garden and Home

Conde Nast House and Garden Food News

Marie Claire Fuel – 10 Best things to do

Shape

Living and Loving What’s New Food

(you could see we were appealing to the women and romantics)

 

But my best of all was this in Woolworths TASTE, a magazine that truly sets the standard with its editorial content, layout and photography:

 

WORLD CLASS (said the heading)

Ian Robinson and Athena Tompkins have lived – and eaten – all over the world. Now they’ve become the owners of Horizons Gourmet Picnics, Cafe and B&B in the Natal Midlands, where they spend their days preparing executive picnics and dishes like curried pumpkin and shellfish bisque and turkey breast with smoked trout pate.

__________________

 

The success of any restaurant hangs on the opinions of the food critics. Their word is gospel and they can make or break a new establishment.

 

In our case, it was even more important we have their support. Our customers were expected to drive an hour or more. We had to become a destination.

 

As it turned out this was not a problem and, for many patrons, a picnic at Horizons was the raison d’etre, the highlight, for a day in the Midlands.

 

On the other hand, strangely enough, for the food critics our distance proved to be an obstacle. One would have expected they’d leap at the chance – napkin, knife and fork at the ready – to try out something novel.

 

However, it took nearly a year to get the main critics to visit. There are three in the region: Anne Stevens, who writes for the Mercury (a morning daily) and does their restaurant guide every few months; Ingrid Shevlin, who writes fortnightly for the leisure supplement of the Sunday Tribune; and Derek Taylor, who alternates with Ingrid Shevlin.

 

Peter James-Smith, who at the time was doing Saturday morning radio restaurant reviews, never came. Although his slot was on a national radio station, it seemed his portfolio of review was very restricted to one area – Johannesburg, I presume his home town. Occasionally a Cape Town restaurant would feature. I was way too ambitious to think parochial little Rosetta would get a look in.

 

Horizons was of course big news in the local paper – the Quill. And we were grateful for a good couple of stories by editor Gaynor Lawson. The Natal Witness, the main paper of Pietermaritzburg, also gave us a good story.

 

Maybe it’s time to turn the tables.

 

Often when I read their weekly reviews I am critical, so now I will critique the food critics.

 

Let’s start our degustation with Anne Stevens. Her reviews left me with mixed feelings, so let’s get the negatives behind us first. Perhaps she has spread herself too thin. Some of the finer details are overlooked and more research needs to go into new businesses. I conclude Anne has too much on her plate. Also, her likes and dislikes get in the way of what she presents. She needs a more neutral palate approach that can better judge dishes for her audience – “I don’t much like chicken breast,” is hardly objective and leaves me with indigestion. Tell me whether the dish is worth my visiting. Referring to our al fresco, chic picnic restaurant as a “passing fancy” for two years in a restaurant guide shows a need to be more discerning – and able to differentiate between a trend and something that’s already here to stay. Al fresco and long table dining and picnics are well established over 100 years and more.

 

But there is much to redeem an experience with Anne. She is a stalwart of the industry in Durban and labours at keeping in touch with the restaurant scene. So despite the few gripes, it’s only occasionally if at all, that Anne doesn’t really leave me satisfied or that there’s a slightly bitter aftertaste. I give Stevens an 8/10.

 

Next visit is to Ingrid Shevlin. Now if I’m going to give someone half an hour of my time reading their review, I want to be entertained as well. I expect a lot from my editorial and do expect a critique to make a meal of a review. It’s not enough to dive right into the menu and say: “The menu has this, this and this.” I’m hardly compelled to read: “This one comes with that and this one has that served on the side.” It’s like you’re putting the ingredients on the plate but not made into a dish. You may as well just print the flipping menu in your newspaper. No, I need a little aperitif first, an appetizer. Get my taste buds going and my juices flowing.

 

Also, spend less column inches on relating your teenager’s palate’s likes and dislikes – especially when you’re reviewing a fine dining restaurant. But there is a tastier flipside to this crepe. Like Anne, Ingrid has a lot on her plate (covering less tasty or tasteful topics) and manages to fill a half page or so of tabloid every fortnight. Conclusion: although the work is there the end result leaves me feeling there should be more. Ingrid gets a 7/10.

 

The best is saved for last. Like a good chef who has sweated their career up through the ranks, here’s a writer who has earned his stripes the hard way. Derek Taylor was a war correspondent in Asia so he has dodged bullets in the name of journalism. Like a 15 year old Cab he mellowed over time (I guess this – as a twenty something he must surely have been sharp to write about the nasties of war and come back unscarred?). His knowledge of cuisines and flavours comes through in his efforts. While in the thick of conflict, here is a food writer who was paying attention to the food around him and soaking it up. And what a place to do it – Asian Pacific food has so many styles and uses so many ingredients.

 

Sitting down on a Sunday morning with a Derek Taylor review will leave you with more than you started off. Before you get to the food he’ll warm you up with some hors d’ouevres that have one salivating. It may be the origins of the food style of the restaurant under review or an anecdote about the proprietor. Whatever it is, when one gets to the food, one’s senses are tuned in for the main course. Then, Taylor has the palate and journalistic skills that take you right into the thick of things. He’ll certainly have me coming back for more and rates a 9/10. (I never give a 10/10 – got to keep them trying….)

 

Derek also never got to Horizons. But we did get a review of our picnics. Undeterred by the adversity and frustration of hosting him, we took the mountain to Mohammed. We took our picnic to him – literally. One Friday afternoon, armed with a basket of our freshly prepared goodies for the weekend’s picnics and bottle of local bubbly, we knocked on his door (ok, so we did call first).

 

We didn’t get the full on seven-course Derek Taylor review (space was limited) but what we did get, from arguably the province’s most respected food critic, was glowing.

 

Was it cheating? Naaaah. But then as they say in the newspapers, never let the facts f… up a good story.

 

CHAPTER 31

Only a week until opening – let’s go on holiday

 

So far Athena’s and my diaries for May had looked something like this. While we were setting up Horizons she was closing-up Christies.

 

Get table clothes and serviettes made

 

Meeting with Duncan Fowler trying to get water to property

 

Christies’ Vat finalizations, meeting with accountants and dealing with Trustees

 

Credit card facilities

 

Settling with staff (Christies)

 

School teacher parent interviews

 

Telkom for Horizons

 

Fri 7 may complimentary supper at Beverley Hills with Karen and Geoff

 

Sat 8 May Leanne and Burnley wedding at Kloof country club

 

Mon 10 May supper at friends

 

Flo (our maid) nephew Moses in trouble with police and beaten up. Athena to magistrate court to bail him out and sort out at hospital etc

 

Organize our visas for Mocambique

 

Wed 12 may – Jiggers (my golf school) dinner

 

Property purchases – documents and legal stuff

 

School meetings with Head and deputy head

 

Trading and liquor licenses

 

Thurs 20 May to Maputo

 

Tax returns for Christies

 

Thu 27 May – book club

 

So, we were ready for a holiday. We were ready for that dream exotic foreign destination.

_________________

 

To get-away-from-it-all I couldn’t have chosen better.

 

As we taxied up to the air terminal in Maputo, Mozambique, James Bond music started playing in my head – the one that goes dum-de-dum-dum, dum, dum, dum… dum-de-dum-dum, dum, dum, dum…. I think it’s from one of the earliest 007’s – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or From Russia With Love. It felt like we were in some foreign socialist country dripping with conspiracy and treason. A few gunmen in sinister looking military uniforms stood guard outside the building.

 

It was Thursday around midday when we arrived for our long weekend. The air was thick with tropical heat – stickier than Durban in the height of summer and I was glad to be dressed in light clothes. The passport officials, like most around the world, regarded us as though we were infiltrators and any moment we expected to be whisked off. Instead of the five star Polana, it would be a weekend of incarceration in an isolated cell at the pleasure of Maputo Central Prison.

 

We sighed in relief in more ways than one once the Hotel shuttle bus started off and the air conditioning came on.

 

The Polana Hotel was built in 1922 and is regarded by some as one of the most famous historic hotels of the world. A lot of the political 007 subterfuge I felt in the air did in fact take place at the Polana before and during WW2. It was the ideal neutral meeting place for spies from all sides and many espionage and counter espionage deals went down amongst clouds of expensive Cuban cigars.

 

In 2002, the hotel’s management was taken over by the Aga Khan Foundation for Economic Development. They began a detailed and sensitive renovation of the hotel, putting the project in the hands of only the finest local artisans and craftsmen and keeping to traditional style.

Mozambique was a Portuguese colony then and for many years South Africans made the short drive to what was then Lorenco Marques or LM for some Mediterranean culture. Well, mostly it was for the prawns.

 

With independence in 1975, LM became Maputo, named after a legendary chief of the area, Maputa. The Polana Hotel design was chosen from many submitted. It was from one Sir Herbert Baker, who was a busy chap in the area. More of his work can be seen around Franschhoek (notably the famous Boschendal wine estate), he designed Michaelhouse and Grey’s College (two top schools in South Africa) and the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1910.

 

Baker designed it in the then fashionable “Palace Style”. When it was finished, it was ‘one of the best and most modern hotels in Europe, with no rival in any southern port, and with very few hotels in Europe to equal its conditions’ according to the history books. This prestigious hotel with its elegance and grace in this sub-tropical paradise made it a magnet to the rich and famous. Quickly this unique city with its wealth of beautiful architecture became a millionaire’s playground.

 

Some of Southern Africa’s best seafood comes from these warm waters: tons and tons of prawns of which South Africa sees its fair share. Nonetheless we intended to get stuck in to the shellfish and garlic and peri peri that weekend in an authentic setting.

 

“What would you like to drink, my darling?” I asked as we lazed by the pool that afternoon, a gentle breeze stirring, not shaking (damn, 007 is everywhere in this place!) the palm fronds above us. The bay of Maputo shimmered in the afternoon sun.

 

“A pina colada is in order,” Athena said. Any thoughts of baskets and picnic blankets now far away in another country and time. (Actually, only about 400km as the crow flies…)

 

“This is the best one I’ve ever had,” she said as she sipped the pineapple, coconut and rum concoction. She should know, having tried them from Jamaica to Hong Kong to Paris (no that’s not her mission in life).

 

Well revived a bit later, we were determined not to waste any seafood eating opportunities so as sunset approached we took a taxi towards the river. We planned to continue by ferry to Catembe and find a character-full bar for some local beer, vino verde and vongole/clams.

 

“That is not a good idea – you will not return” seemed to be the advice the taxi driver was giving, as dusk approached.

 

“What time must we catch the ferry back?” I asked.

 

Why did the taxi driver look so concerned. Are the vongole bad? Will we miss the ferry? Doesn’t it come back this way?

 

“Dangerous,” he said. ‘No go!”

 

A couple of locals sat on their bicycles and watched with interest. “It’s not safe go at this time,” a Tony Banderas lookalike said. Athena smiled appreciatively at Tony.

 

“Where can we go for clams?” she said to Tony.

 

Five minutes later we were inside the bar of the safe looking Swimming Pool Club with a couple of 2M beers (aka as “doshem”, that’s the delicious local drink) in hand. It didn’t take long before we had two huge plates of Ameijoas in front of us. I took pictures.

 

The bar had a very interesting beer dispensing contraption and great party piece – we thought it would be a great talking piece at Horizons. It was about a meter high and was basically one glass tube inside the other. The inner tube held ice and the gap between that and the outer was filled with beer. A group (or one thirsty individual) could order one for the table and you tap your own beer.

________________

 

I always wake up earlier than Athena (“a lot earlier” mumbles Athena with her sweet smile). As I exited our room and turned down the corridor to the lifts I stopped in my tracks. I felt like I had strayed into 007’s nemesis’s headquarters. Half a dozen large, menacing men in black ties and suits stood guard over the lifts, the stairwell, the fire escape and anything that looked like a way out.

 

We hadn’t had so many doshem’s the night before that I couldn’t remember them.

 

Nervously I made my way into the lift and down to reception. More men in black stood firmly in position. Men in strange African and Arabic clothes mingled. Someone who looked like Muhammad Gaddaffi talked to someone who looked like Idi Amin. I felt badly dressed in my baggies and sandals and Hawaiian shirt.

 

“There’s an African union conference on at the hotel,” I could report back to Athena a bit later when she woke. “We’re here for a dirty weekend with the entire leadership of Africa.”

_________________

 

After dinner Friday night it was time to hit the highlights of Maputo and party the night away. Well at least until we were tired and ready for bed at around 11. Athena wore a sexy little strapless, off the shoulder party number.

 

“Where can we go for some good music, like jazz, in a night club, some local music?” I asked the concierge.

 

We found ourselves in a gloomy, atmospheric night club. Doshems in hand, we were soon swaying and tapping our feet to a fusion of Indian Ocean island, African and Caribbean with a bit of Portuguese. Sort of like peri peri prawns with cayjun chicken and a bread roll.

 

After two days of sun and seafood and beer and pina coladas we had slowed down to holiday speed.

 

I was feeling mellow.

 

“I can feel something,” it sounded like Athena said somewhere in the gloom and haze. I could see her doing what’s now become her party stopper Abba Supertrooper Mama Mia dance animatedly. Go Athena!

 

“Yeah, awesome,” I said.

“There’s something on my bread,” she said, a bit drowned out by a Nellie Fatado type ballad..

 

“What?”

 

“On my bread. Something fell on my bread and my shoulder!”

 

“What bread?” Where did she get bread from? We’d had dinner.

 

“Not bread, head, head, in my hair,” she moved closer and gesticulated.

 

The hairs on the back of my neck twitched. Something had fallen down my collar. Athena flicked at something on her legs.

 

I felt something fall with a mixture of a bump and a tickle on my forearm. It was a small cockroach.

 

We looked up but all we could see was a dark void. Athena lurched as another one found its target, from that dark void infested with who knew how many unspeakable creatures.

 

By 11 o’clock we were in bed in our Polana Hotel bedroom admiring the newly painted and spotless five-star ceiling.

_______________

 

Come the Sunday we were suffering from seafood withdrawal symptoms. It was hot tropical day and the concierge pointed us in the direction of the Costa del Sol – a seafood restaurant a little way up the beach from central Maputo.

 

We enjoyed walking and were happy to stroll for a while before hailing a taxi to take us the few kilometres to the restaurant on the beach. There we would laze in the sun for couple of hours before lunch.

 

Just as well we liked a stroll. Outside the hotel there was no traffic on the roads – they were all cordoned off for the conference.

 

“We can get a taxi once we’re outside the cordon,” I said. This is a tourist city and we’ve seen them around.

We didn’t.

 

So , we walked. In the 30C+ heat we walked. In the distance around the gently curved bay of Maputo through the palm trees we could see our goal.

 

There were no shops or hotels and nowhere to stop and call for a taxi. We didn’t have our mobile phones with us.

 

We did pass one strange looking building. A twenty plus story grey abandoned building which we found out later was a half-finished hotel. When Mozambique declared independence, it ejected many foreigners – including the people building this hotel. They were a little miffed and not going to leave their work for someone else to get rich off, so they poured concrete down the pipes and the lift shafts and anywhere else to make the building irrepairable. For decades it had stood there.

 

It gave us something to talk about as we walked.

 

Nearly three hours later (you won’t keep the Robinson’s from a good meal) we arrived at the Costa del Sol. The doshems and the prawns could not have been better.

________________________

 

Early on in the weekend, we had been asking the Maitre d’ about the seafood and where the hotel got it from.

 

“Our chefs go to the fish market every morning and get it fresh,” he said. “Would you like to go with him tomorrow morning to see?”

 

The Saturday morning after an earlier than usual breakfast we were whisked off in the hotel courtesy bus, executive chef hosting us.

 

Garlic prawns don’t go so well at 9am just after bacon and eggs and croissants and coffee so we vowed to return. “Let’s finish off the weekend here on Monday for lunch,” said Athena, “we’ll have plenty of time to get back to the hotel and get to the airport.”

 

Agreed.

 

The Maputo fish market is a marvellous set up. On the one side are the sale stalls – clams, mussels, prawns, crayfish, crab, linefish, you name it. The best is what’s next door – a quadrangle of cookeries with a big tree, tables, benches and umbrellas in the middle.

 

The cookeries are independent of the fish stalls so you take your haul and they’ll cook it there and then for you whatever way you like it. They’ll add some basic ingredients like seasoning and garlic.

 

Such a feast deserved a good wine. A celebratory wine.

 

We have a few emergency travel items that you’ll find in our luggage. And they depend on whether we’re coming or going. When we’re returning you’ll find interesting food – if Europe was the destination there’ll be Salami or Saucissons or a big chunk of Grana Padano or Reggiano (the parmesan type cheese for pasta).

 

We’ve always managed to get through customs with these. Unlike our Italian male friend, who then insisted to the customs people that he would sit there and eat his Parma ham, Salamis and cheese before he entered South Africa. Eventually they let him go (salamis and all) when they realized you don’t mess with an Italian and his food.

 

We’ve also had our mishaps. Buying a length of freshly made and still very moist cou? (a small type of salami) from a market at Citta di Castello with two weeks of travel to go was not smart. Especially when we forgot them inside a plastic bag in our suitcase in our warm hotel room. The hotel staff must have thought we were truly strange – this was the Villa de Este Hotel on lake Como in Italy – recently voted best hotel in the world – and we were carrying around a bag of rotten sausages!

 

Athena is never without her Swiss army knife (never know when you have to slice a salami or open a bottle of wine). Trickier these days as she must remember to pack it in her main luggage lest she be suspected of terrorism intentions and an eye on slicing the pilots’ salami.

 

My outbound emergency rations are a bottle or two of wine. It’s vital to be well equipped to celebrate the arrival at a new destination.

 

So, as we waited amidst delicious smells of olive oil, garlic, crab, clams and fresh fish, I opened my lightweight cooler bag and produced glasses and a well-chilled bottle of Poncgraz – one of South Africa’s unfailing champagnes.

 

I got someone to take pictures.

____________________

 

The food arrived half an hour later and was simply but well prepared.

 

Very quickly our glasses of bubbly were sticky and smeered with lemon garlic peri peri butter. As we sat immerged in Maputo culture, at the back of our minds was our flight later. We needed to be back at the hotel in time to freshen up, collect our things and catch the four o’clock hotel shuttle to Maputo International Airport.

 

When we’d been dropped off at the market we’d arranged for a taxi to collect us at 2.30. No repeat of the Sunday and walk to the airport, thank you.

 

No doubt smelling like the kitchen of a Portuguese seafood restaurant, by 2.20 we were standing by the road waiting for our taxi. Vendors kept approaching us with bags of dripping clams or a lethargic crayfish or massive crabs – trying to sell us the last of the days catch.

 

“Imagine if we could have all this for Horizons,” I said.

 

2.30 arrived. No taxi.

 

2.40 arrived. No taxi.

 

I started looking around, contemplating the possibility of a replacement. There were no taxis to be seen just lots of very second hand looking, decades old Fiats and Peugeots.

 

2.45 arrived and a 1970 Peugeot sedan pulled up. We knew it was a taxi because the person who got out said “Robinson” and “taxi”. Off we went.

 

There was no air conditioning and the windows were closed. I attempted to open mine and was immediately reprimanded by the taxi driver. Athena’s door was missing a window winder. As we rattled along at sixty the taxi driver removed the window winder handle off his door, leant over, stuck it on Athena’s door and opened the window, removed it, turned back and reattached it to his door and carried on driving. All at sixty kph.

 

We breathed a sigh of relief.

 

The taxi cruised comfortably (for it, not us) along the level road around the bay. Looking at my watch we had ten minutes to cover the last couple of kilometres to the hotel. The shuttle left in an hour and clearly taxis were not a fall back option if we missed that.

 

“Please go faster,” I said wishfully. By now we had turned up the hill to get to the Polana.

 

Rather than go faster the taxi rattled more and went slower.

 

A kilometre short of the hotel it couldn’t go any slower. That was it – with a shudder it expired on the side of the road.

 

We now had ten minutes to get back to the hotel, grab our bags and make the shuttle, or we could be having a few more days in Maputo. And we might be drinking doshems and eating peri-peri prawns but we certainly wouldn’t be staying at the five star Polana at non-special prices.

 

“Get hold of the hotel,” I told the taxi driver as he stood on the sidewalk.

 

While we waited, I took a picture of the taxi broken down on the side of the road with Athena looking anxious.

 

Ten minutes and much Portuguese dialogue later we were collected and arrived back at the hotel. There was the shuttle waiting – we made it with three minutes to spare.

 

Yup, the relaxing weekend was over – time to speed up again for the rat race of Rosetta.

 

Didn’t stop us having a glass or two of wine on the flight back. I got out my camera and we laughed at admired all the pics of Athena’s birthday weekend.

 

“These will look good in the album,” she said.

_______________

 

What souvenirs did we take back from this trip with us? No, not prawns or clams. (Although we did seriously consider them but reckoned even with the short flight they would probably thaw and things could get messy. Air hostess: “Will the passenger in 14A kindly attend to their overhead luggage – your seafood is leaking.” Ok so we skipped that idea.)

 

Instead, I nonchalantly walked through Johannesburg customs with a chunky Checkers (a big Southern African grocery chain store) packet as if I’d just popped down the road to the supermarket. Inside? Half a dozen doshems, some spicy corico Portuguese cured sausage and a bag of cashew nuts.

 

We were ready for happy hour.

 

CHAPTER 32

Welcome All

 

The week leading up to our test run was a blur and the big Saturday arrived.

 

By 7am a couple of hours of prep was behind us and I needed a breather. I made us a cup of tea and went to the patio. My mind was spinning with all the things to do.

 

Pictures, I thought. We were going to need lots of pictures of the day. I decided I had better check there was enough space and the batteries were ok on my camera.

 

The memory card was a bit full, but there were a few pics that I could delete – including some duplicates from our romantic Maputo weekend.

 

I started deleting pics. I got into a rhythm so that I could delete fast. The little warning message “Do you want to delete this? YES NO” came up each time.

 

Confidently I pushed YES.

 

The camera suddenly said “REFORMATTING”.

 

What? I’d selected the wrong option.

 

Oh no. Stop. Our Maputo pics!

 

Stop!

 

Can’t be. Please…

 

Just like that – they were all gone. Every one of the pics I’d taken of our romantic weekend – the taxi, the seafood market lunch, Costa del Sol, the glass beer tower, Athena looking like a million dollars Pina Colada in hand lounging under palm trees by the Polana pool.

 

“What’s wrong?” Athena sensed my alarm.

 

I didn’t have the heart to tell her but at the same time I couldn’t not tell her so I did.

 

The pain taught me a lesson – always carefully check what you’re doing when you delete pics – once they’re gone they’re gone.

 

It was not one of my finest moments. Besides my stuffing up the Maputo weekend pics and dealing with the bresaola, it was a brilliant day.

_____________________

 

As I continue to write this the weaver birds’ activity has intensified. In the last two weeks they’ve now built seven nests.

 

And there was the sunbird’s nest – but he got banished – or scared off – and his nest ended up on the ground. It was an amazing construction. The inside was as soft as a marshmellow – it had been lined with some fluffy material which wasn’t evident whether it was synthetic or natural.

 

The weavers are up early with sunrise (and me) in the mornings. The males are already staging their flambouyant demonstrations to attract a mate. They hang upside down from their newly built nest vigorously flapping their wings and swaying from side to side. “Pick me, pick me…” they’re saying to a solitary female.

 

She’ll check out the nest and if she likes it will move in.

 

More often than not she will reject it. Picky. “I don’t like the carpets, and how could you use that fabric for the couch – it clashes.” Then the male trashes the nest and starts afresh. Amazingly within less than a day he’s weaved a new one.

 

The tree is now 60% shredded and denuded of leaves but it’s a small price for our own 24 hour, live Discovery Channel.

 

We’ve been wondering how they mate. Yesterday Athena saw. “They stand on a branch sort of side on, the female presents herself to the male, there’s a quick flurry of feathers and that’s it,” she reported. Definitely the “instant gratification” generation have moved in here – don’t think there’ll be a half hour David Attenborough documentary on the mating of the African Weaver.

 

CHAPTER 33

We’re open – I think?

 

A few days to opening and my phone rings.

 

“Hello is that Horizons Gourmet Picnics?” asks a very Afrikaans accented voice, “I’d like to book a picnic.”

 

Wow, that’s impressive, I think. A booking and they’ve got the name spot on.

 

“Yes, of course. For which day would you like, we’re open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays?”

 

“Sunday, please, for three people.”

 

“Would you like a table or a blanket?”

 

“A table please, we have an old lady with us.”

 

“Your name, please?”

 

“Mrs Swanepoel.”

 

“Thank you for your booking. We open at 12. We look forward to seeing you then.”

 

How often would we repeat that routine over the following three years.

____________________

 

Sunday arrived and we were ready and waiting.

 

We heard a car crunch up the gravel driveway followed by footsteps.

 

A squeaky voice said in that very strange Afrikaans accent I recalled from during the week; “Hello this is the Swanepoels!” Next moment in walked our very good friends John and Adrie, accompanied by John’s mum Jane.

 

“Surprise, surprise,” said Adrie. “We had to make sure you had some customers on your opening day so here we are.”

 

It was Adrie’s birthday that weekend.

 

Thanks guys, we appreciate your support so much.

 

CHAPTER 34

The waterworks – No, it doesn’t!

 

“Excuse me, excuse me,” the little voice said. It was a little after mid-afternoon.

 

The post picnic rush had started and customers wanting to pay crowded the front of the bar. There was little room to move. Our usual coffeemaker, Lusanda, a tiny waif of a girl, was not at work that Sunday and Athena was tied up in Durban. It was just me.

 

“Excuse me,” again. It was coming from the coffee machine.

 

I looked over the coffee machine and a two seven or eight year-old little girls were standing there.

 

“Excuse me, the water in the toilet is finished. It doesn’t work.”

 

The credit card machine whirred out its slip. Nonnie stood patiently in the background waiting. I looked at the order slips on the table – six Capuccinos – that’s what she would be waiting for. The customers looked relaxed after their picnic, lots of wine and no doubt a snooze under the trees. But soon they would get restless as they waited to pay their bills.

 

I smiled at the little girls. “Nonnie, quickly go and see what the problem is, please.” Turning to the little girls, I said: “Go with Nonnie and please show her.”

 

I flicked on the grinder to make more coffee for the espresso machine and turned back to the customers. Our old cash machine needed every item punched in once and interruptions meant mistakes. Often, we had to redo a bill because we lost track halfway through when a customer broke our concentration.

 

A few minutes later, some customers done, some Capuccinos made and more customers asking for their bills, Nonnie reappeared with the two little girls. “The toilet she is full and there’s no water to flush it,” she announced to everyone around the bar.”

 

“Sorry about this,” I smiled at the customers. “Is there water in the taps?” I asked Nonnie.

 

“No,” chirped up the little girls together as if they had been practising. Their hands were resting on the table next to the coffee cups and teaspoons and I tried not to think of children and toilets and no water.

 

I pumped four portions of coffee into the espresso ladel/filter holder, bayoneted them into the machine and pushed the button to start the flow of water. At least it was still working.

 

“Nonnie call Oscar to see me at the door quickly, please.” I smiled at the little girls. “Thanks for telling me, we’ll sort it out now.”

 

They just stood there and looked at each other and looked back at me.

 

“Please can we have our bill – we really need to get back to Durban.” A lady asserted at the bar.

 

The number of customers waiting to pay grew. The number of Capuccinos needed went up not down and now there was an order for two Irish coffees as well – they really slowed things down. “Nonnie bring me the cream please.”

 

Add up bill. Process credit card. Make coffees. It was hectic. I was getting more frazzled by the minute.

 

“Our guest book is there on the table – have you all written in it?” I asked. This was a ploy to divert pressure and buy more time. But it was risky. It could result in comments in the book like: “Picnic great but management needs to jack up the payment system.”Or “Business appears totally understaffed – get your barman some help!”

 

The coffee machine still whirred. Damn I had left it to run too long and too much water had gone through the espresso thingies. Chuck those out and start again. Profit on one and a half Capuccinos down the drain.

 

I looked at the customers at the bar in exasperation. Images of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers came to mind. Temptation to fly off the handle and reprimand everyone like Basil momentarily touched me. Often there were times like this.

 

A large woman stood at the coffee machine. “There’s a problem with the toilets. There’s no water. It’s very unhygienic in there. I suggest you do something about it.”

 

I’ll suggest something. What do you think I am – a bloody magician? Do you people expect me to make coffee, do your bills and pop off and do a bit of plumbing so you can …” I put Basil Fawlty out my mind and managed to force a smile. There had been many times when we felt like going to another room, banging our head against the wall to relieve the frustration like Basil Fawlty, then coming back out like nothing had upset us.

 

“Yes ma’m, of course. We’re attending to the problem.” I said politely.

 

“Oscar’s waiting for you,” announced Nonnie to the bar,, pointing to the lounge door. We all looked. Oscar stood there in his torn dirty T-shirt and jeans, not at all what he was supposed to be wearing to look presentable to guests.

 

“Excuse me a moment,” I said to the gathered crowd, and pushed my way around the bar and took Oscar outside.

 

“The toilets not working, get two buckets and fill them with water to flush the toilets and then keep filling them up and leave them there.”

 

Oscar just stood there. “Go, go,” I said and turned back to the bar.

 

“Right, who’s next?” I forced a polite smile.

 

I quickly did four bills and payments and ignored the coffees.

 

Pam and Busi and Nonnie were standing behind the coffee machine now. “The customers are asking for their coffees,”said Busi.

 

I refilled the two espresso thingies and pushed the button to start the process. The machine made a different noise. I looked at the espresso thingies. Nothing was coming out.

 

I stopped it. The water – there’s no water. I tried the tap at the bar. It trickled a couple of drops and wheezed.

 

Seven slips with orders for Espressos and Cappuccinos and irish coffees waited unfilled on the counter.

 

“Go and apologise that there’s a problem with the water and say we’re very sorry but we can’t do coffees,” I instructed the three waitresses standing expectantly looking at me.

 

“Oscar’s still waiting for you,” said Nonnie.

 

“What do you mean? I spoke to him.”

 

The toilet woman was back. “There’s a queue at the toilet and it’s not working and lots of people need to go.”

 

“Please use our toilet. Busi, please show the lady where to go.” At least our toilet should have water for one flush.

 

I could see Oscar standing where I had left him twenty minutes before.

 

‘Did you take the buckets of water?” I asked.

 

“No, there’s no water,” he said.

 

Breathe deep. Count to ten. “Go and get water out the pond,” I said. But hurry.

 

“And why’s there no water? Didn’t you pump water this week?”

 

“The pump broke,” he said.

 

“When did it break?”

 

“On Monday.”

 

“It’s Sunday afternoon and you’re telling me now the pump broke. Why didn’t you phone me on Monday?”

 

“The phone she doesn’t work.’

 

“What’s wrong with it?”

 

‘Angaaz, baas. I don’t know, it broke.”

 

I didn’t have the energy to ask when. I think I knew what the answer would be.

 

CHAPTER 35

The grapes of wrath

 

Our dream to plant vines in the area, we were about to find out, was not original.

 

No doubt thanks to the passing-by well-heeled en route to the very exclusive and upmarket boys’ school Michaelhouse and the many other retired ex CEO’s who’ve finally seen common sense, there’s one of the country’s best wine shops just outside Rosetta. The Wine Cellar.

 

Many years ago I had discovered it on the Midlands Meander. Although it was, at that stage, the most “remote” northern member, it was an oasis worth visiting. Margie and Warwick find and stock many of the gems one only finds if you trail through the Cape Winelands yourself.

 

Horizons and The Wine Cellar were only five minutes apart and on many picnic days proved our saviours. We carried a range of wines that we had personally selected and catered for everyone’s pocket and palate. However, occasionally a party would get stuck into the bubbly or the rose and we’d run out. In under ten minutes I could collect stock from Margie and Warwick and serve it to the customer, them none the wiser.

 

We bought about 60% of our wine from our friends John and Adrie Booth, who own Natal Wine Merchants in Durban and represent some fine wines as well as some exceptionally well priced producers. These we would collect or have delivered in Durban during the week and bring up on the weekend.

 

It was much more enjoyable though buying at The Wine Cellar – like a quick trip to the Cape. It seemed everybody who was anybody stopped in at Margie and Warwick – from the local regulars and their weekly sherry to the Joburgers after something interesting.

 

Often a Saturday or Sunday morning would find me there, inquisitive and thirsty. If they had something new we would open a bottle and try it out and I’d usually leave with a case or two.

 

We supported each other, telling our customers about where we discovered some of our finds. They sent people to us for picnics. Although we allowed patrons to bring their own if they wanted, they seldom did and we discouraged the practice. In any case our wine list was so reasonably priced with whites and reds at the entry level at about a third of what a Joburger paid in a top restaurant for an equivalent wine.

 

Margie and Warwick knew everybody and everything that went on in Rosetta.

 

So, over a tasting of a crisp Sauvignon Blanc about 9am one Saturday, I suggested the idea of vineyards.

 

“You won’t be the first,” said Warwick. “There are already a couple of growers in the area and one in Greytown.” Greytown is about 100km from Rosetta.

 

“And that English couple have been talking about planting at Nottingham Road,” added Margie. “There’s also that wine farm who do tastings and have some sort of cellar but it’s all from the Cape. They don’t grow anything.”

 

“Is anyone actually making wine here?” I pushed, fascinated.

 

“There are those couple at Bracken, that’s the Greytown estate reckon they’ll be ready this year to make their first.”

 

I detected a note of dubiousness in their commentary.

 

“You can speak to Rob Osborne from Cedara (the agricultural college) – he’s leading a programme to experiment with grapes in the area. He’s even provided people with vine stock to plant,” added Warwick.

 

This was brilliant. I had always imagined Rosetta as a Franschoek, and here we were having landed in the middle of potentially South Africa’s newest wine region.

 

The news got better.

 

“We’ve heard that the Stables – that’s Tiny and Judy van Niekerk, the Nottingham Road people who want to plant – have applied for KZN to be classified as a wine region. That will mean if someone actually makes wine from here it can be called Wine of Origin,” Margie said, but still with a little sceptism.

_____________________

 

Came the Monday and I was on the phone to Rob Osborne. I told him about our land, what I knew about wine and the fact that we had made wine before (true, I didn’t mention it was a very exclusive batch of one and half bottles).

 

“Yes, we have been running a programme and supplying root stock, but my budget is almost finished. I may be able to let you have about ten vines. But it all depends on the soils. What have you got?” He then listed a few soil types which I had vaguely heard of but knew absolutely nothing about.

 

I didn’t want to blow it so I knowledgably responded: “It’s well drained, north facing, on a hill for good breezes and good sunshine for ripening.” (Fake it ‘til you make it, they say!)

 

“But what soil is it?”

 

I wasn’t getting out of this easily. “It’s, uuh, sort of sandy, with some clay and stone. Doesn’t look like anything has ever been grown there,” I added the last bit as if it was important.

 

Rob agreed to come and take a look and take some soil samples. ”That’s the first step,” he declared.

 

I explained we weren’t there a lot of the time, but said it was easy to find and unfenced. “You can help yourself any time,” I said, and gave him directions up the famous D146.

____________________

 

There was no stopping me now. I would not even consider the possibility that the soil would be unsuitable. Surely grapes can grow in anything? They plant them all over the place. I remembered from my school days at Dundee not too far away how many people had vines growing at their homes. The climate and altitude there were very similar to Rosetta.

 

I started doing some research. Occasionally Margie and Warwick would hold wine tastings and invite the winemaker. I did not miss the opportunity to raise the subject. The response usually bordered on condescending and ridicule.

 

“You’re wasting your time. Every enemy of the grape is here – too much damp in summer, hailstorms, it’s too warm or too cold, frost,…”.

 

I was undeterred. I also knew that some varieties are harvested earlier or later than others. “So what if we plant the later ripening varieties so that they miss the frost and worst of the summer damp and can ripen when it’s hotter and drier? What would those be?” (The Cape has a Mediterranean climate, like many wine regions, and the cold damp winters and hot dry summers suit the vine.)

 

“Your classic champagne cultivars – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Maybe a Shiraz or Cab.”

 

The label was already taking form in my mind for our own champagne – a fusion of classic French typography with a contemporary African bent. The Giant’s Castle mountain visible from our land was an inspiration. I could see our iconic creation on shelves and in ice buckets: The Giant Champagne – nothing less grand would do.

 

“Personally, I think you’re wasting your time.” The winemaker looked down his cabernet stained nose at me but I saw straight through his strategy. Clearly he saw us as a threat to the three hundred year old Cape wine industry.

 

Undeterred, in fact spurred by the challenge, the vigour of my research increased.

 

Rosetta is at about 1,500metres altitude and 30˚ South. It has the opposite to a Mediterranean climate. (I never know the word for that – is there one?) I searched the wine growing regions of the world for a successful region with the same characteristics. Argentina and Australia had areas that seemed to meet the criteria. I would have to delve deeper.

 

A few months later I decided it was time to visit the van Niekerks. Spring had arrived and it was time to see what others were doing and what was working for them. By now I had discovered some interesting information that made a compelling argument for a successful wine industry in our area. I envisaged planting our first vineyards the following season. Also, my occasional vocation as a food, wine and travel writer had seen me secure a commission for the internet site Wine Net SA to write on KZN’s burgeoning oenological industry.

 

I called Judy van Niekerk and introduced myself. By now they knew about Horizons Gourmet Picnics. I was certain they would be delighted about the publicity for The Stables and for the region. Strangely, she seemed not that enthused about my suggested visit. Perhaps the concept of someone who was a gourmet picnic restaurateur, a wine writer and a potential wine growing competitor was suspicious. Nonetheless she agreed to meet me.

 

So one Saturday morning my Alfa bumped its way up a dirt road outside Nottingham Road to The Stables. Alongside the road, rows of vines showed signs of vigorous early season growth. Evidence of what winemakers had warned of showed on the ground in between the rows – lush grass threatened to engulf the vines.

 

I found Judy organising workers in the garden and was met with some reserve. She introduced me to her husband Tiny who was the opposite – welcoming and friendly – and left him to show me around.

 

The set up, even in those early days, showed no half measures.

 

Although the scale of the operation could have been described as little more than garagista, the equipment was new and comprehensive. There were pressing machines, stainless steel vats and bottling machines. And half a dozen new oak barrels.

_____________________

 

Some months later I visited again and met Tiny in what had now become a tasting room. An alcoholic mustiness permeated the air. “You’ve already made some wine?” I probed.

 

“Yes, from grapes from Greytown that we bought in.”

 

They made quite a bit of wine right from the beginning and created the impression that KZN – and the Stables in particular – was now growing and producing quite a few varietals. As it turned out this was part of a publicity exercise of note. Grapes were being brought in from far and wide to make some of the Stables wines.

 

They also made a lot of noise about an award from a Swiss airline which turned out to be no more than a certificate saying “Javohl, this is a weiss wein.”

 

I did on one visit taste a Shiraz Rose which was new in the barrel and showed promise.

 

One of the first wines made was a Sauvignon Blanc and unfortunately it failed a Wine SA? Test to classify as it as Sauvignon Blanc: not typical, was the adjudicators’ opinion. When I went there to taste it and congratulate them on their first effort, I remember it may not have been typical of a SB but it was interesting. I recall a Khakhibos nose and lack of fruit on the palate.

 

My opinion of the wine was not soured by the fact that they chose to ignore that we were: a) potentially good customers; b) a potentially good promotional platform for their wine; c) I had already given Stables some publicity; d) we were neighbours of sorts; e) we were keen to also get the KZN wine industry going and therefore allies, not enemies. (Nor by the fact that they asked me to pay R15 to taste their wine.)

 

It did sour my view of them as neighbours. Nonetheless I still wish them well to this day – our beautifully diverse country should develop more diverse wines if it can.

 

Judy and Tiny did not make many friends in the area – certainly not amongst the few others who had been experimenting with wine for some time. Like Ian and Sally Smorthwaite just up the road in Rosetta who had a hectare or two of well established vines and (others?) at Balgowan – who now produce a very respectable label Abingdon?. One would think that Margie and Warwick’s Wine Cellar was also a good outlet.

 

But then perhaps I was being a little parochial and romantic in my approach. Judging by the resources Tiny and Judy have put into building up The Stables brand they have a larger scale vision.

__________________

 

ARTICLE FROM WINE.CO.ZA

 

Wine of Origin KZN?

 

02 February 2006

by Ian Robinson

 

Ian Robinson looks at the fledgling industry and considers its chances of success.

 

The vine is said to withstand – and even enjoy – some rough treatment. But is it willing to make itself at home in the Midlands of KwaZuluNatal (KZN).

 

Is it up to the savage electrical storms that flash across meadows silhouetting straining and twisting trees, or summer afternoon hail storms that rip and shred flora with truckloads of miniature golf balls? Or torrential rains in late summer (just before harvest-time) and vicious frost that attacks young buds when they should be nurtured by the warmth of early spring sunshine?

 

Yes, it is. Because surprisingly, this weather is mentioned often in reports on some of the world's great wine areas - like: The wettest ripening months for a century - Languedoc; Sporadic outbreaks of rot - Portugal; Summer temperatures soaring to 40° with rain shortly before harvest - Argentina; 80mm of rain in 30 hours nearby plays havoc with harvest - Hunter Valley; Vineyards badly hit by hail - Provence; A very wet summer - Loire; Damp humid weather early September - Champagne; Hailstorms, rainy weather - Piedmont; Summer storms destroy 50% of some crops - Riverina, Australia; Vineyards lose 20 - 30% of crop to frost - Curico, Chile.

 

Researching the suitability for viniculture of the KZN Midlands has taken me to similar terroir at Mudgee near Hunter Valley north of Sydney. It has a lot in common with the Midlands. At around 33° south it is close to our latitude, unlike many other areas that are around 40°. Rainfall and temperature patterns are similar. An hour or two away are Newcastle and Sydney with subtropical beaches and good surfing. At 500m Mudgee is still significantly above sea level, and, like the Midlands (1000 – 1500m), cold enough in winter to ensure the vine’s dormant phase. Their industry is over 100 years old with about 3000 hectares under vines. Are its wines any good?

 

Without doubt, yes. Full bodied, bold reds have put Mudgee on the map. Rosemount Estate’s 2001 Hill of Gold Shiraz ranked 57 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2003, scoring 90 out of 100 as "A vibrant wine with crisp blackberry, plum and vaguely leafy-herbal flavours that persist beautifully on the finish". There is also no shortage of 80+ pointer Cabernets, Semillons and Chardonnays from the area.

 

So, could the Midlands become a Mudgee? Two milestones have already been passed here: the first wines have been made and the province is recognized as a wine producing area in terms of SA’s Wine of Origin Scheme. There are about 30 hectares under vines in KZN – 20 hectares near Greytown including established Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Riesling. In 2005 another 10 hectares were planted as far apart as Oribi Flats in KZN’s south and Nottingham Road, Rosetta, Dargle and Winterton in the Midlands. The Stables at Nottingham Road will release their first efforts in March (made from Greytown grapes) and look forward to harvesting their own Shiraz, Pinotage, Chardonnay and Viognier, planted last spring and thriving. ‘The (2005) wine is very good and is currently being bottled,’ say winemakers Judy and Tiny van Niekerk. ‘This year’s should be better – the quality of the grapes is better and we have gained a lot of experience after last year.

 

‘Rob Osborne, head of horticultural research at Cedara and running a programme exploring viniculture in the region, sees two main but not insurmountable challenges. ‘There has been downy mildew, but this can be controlled by careful monitoring and spraying. What requires more control is the plant vigour in this region because soils are more fertile with flourishing vine and weed growth. Trellising and training of vines may have to be adapted and the canopy trimmed more frequently with more dropping of fruit to obtain concentrated flavours.’

 

Altitude may present other problems. Nottingham Road at around 1500 metres is prone to late spring frost that can decimate new growth – but then other places also have that problem.It is early days so Osborne is cautious. ‘The first indications are promising and The Stables Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz blend is impressive, however, it is too soon to say that KZN will become a thriving wine industry.’

 

Certainly there is the opportunity to produce local flavour boutique wines that can be sold from estates, adding value to the local Midlands Meander tourism offering. For doubters there may be a clue to the future in Rosetta – the quiet little village near Nottingham Road. The vine and the rose are good companions (the rosebush is an early warning system of pests) and roses proliferate the area. So perhaps KZN’s wine growers, like the Voortrekkers that crossed the Drakensberg long ago, have discovered another promised land.

 

COMMENTS ON THIS ARTICLE

 

Exception to the rules – David Trafford It’s an interesting concept to take all the climatic catastrophies of some of the famous wine regions and heap them together in one typical year and proclaim the region must have great potential! However like any language there are exceptions to the rules and maybe something special will emerge from the Midlands. (The key as in most regions would be to choose a good site. I would imagine a sloping site to reduce frost and increase drainage with poorer soils and permanent cover crops to reduce vigour, moderate the microclimate and reduce erosion would be a good start.) It is difficult enough making a living producing wine in the ideal Stellenbosch region…but then again if wine was only about logic, would anyone drink the stuff?

 

Pioneering lives! – Derek Koch Sitting here in Europe I was particualrly pleased to read this article as I may have been one of the 1st promotors of wine in this area: in 1995 (having just moved from the Cape to the Midlands) I lived on a small farm “Wildcroft” and I was convinced that the area had potential, I started up a wine tasting/bistro in Nottingham Road called The Grapevine and helped, I think, to inculcate an interest in wine amongst the locals, we even had brief exploratory talks with Cedara but they eventually talked me out of my dream to produce a Pinotage and Riesling, citing the climatological difficulties. Now that I have qualified myself a bit better viticulturally here in Europe I realise that I gave up my dream for lack of courage, fortitude and above all, knowledge.So it gladdens me immensely to see that there are still people in SA who have the courage, the dream and the knowledge !

CHAPTER 36

Boletus Edulis and other mushroom magic

 

When we had first seen Horizons I remember seeing mushrooms growing under the conifers.

 

I guess that if you like food you probably enjoy mushrooms. So, I was excited when spring arrived and out popped the first few fungi. By the next day there were hundreds.

 

As a kid our family had gone gathering mushrooms on our next-door golf course. It was really next door – I could stand in our back garden and easily hit a nine iron onto the fifth green.

 

“How do you know they’re the safe ones?” I asked as we wandered along the fifth fairway one steamy early summer’s day.

 

“Look there’s a good one,” said my Mum Maureen, pointing to one that was bigger than my seven-year old’s hand, when we started to gather then into a small basket one day.

 

My Mum always looked all knowledgable in that Women’s Institute formal sort of way. She was the queen or the leader or the chairman or whatever they called their leader because she baked the best chocolate cakes. She answered me affectionately. “Here, smell this,” she held it to my nose. “It must smell mushroomy. And the top should peel like this.” She skilfully pulled the skin off the top. “And they should be this pink colour underneath but after a day or two they go brown so those are still ok.”

 

I don’t remember what she cooked them with but they were delicious. Slightly chewy, dark and rich with flavour (and a fair amount of good farm butter, no doubt.)

 

So I always keep an eye open for mushrooms. I’d even had oyster mushrooms growing on a tree in our Durban garden one year. But only one year – they never came back. Strange. It was a pity, because the book identified them as Oyster mushrooms.

 

All three of us children (sisters Dianne and Jen) were clearly inspired by Mum’s cooking. The area we lived in was in the middle of nowhere (a coalmine) and the nearest town – Dannhauser – didn’t offer much for the gourmet. It had Mannies’, the Indian fruit and veg store, a bakery that did mostly government loaves and hot dog rolls and a bottle store.

 

Half way to Dannhauser there was Duchen’s, the coal mine’s trading and grocery store. We got most of our food from there. Delivered. By bicycle.

 

They had a neat system. You wrote your order in a little notebook every weekday, and the delivery guy, a young Zulu, would pick it up and return the next day with your order.

 

There was a strong Jewish community in Dannhauser and on the coal mine so you were sure to find their traditional and religious foods like the Jewish unleavened cracker bread.

 

Duchen’s also had a butchery so we got our meat there as well. All the meat was pasture fed – none of this grain finished, steroid boosted commercially fed stuff. It was deep, dark red and rich with flavour. I’m sure Mum taught them how to make and roll some of the special cuts she read up about in her Woman’s Institute cookery books.

 

The milk was probably unpasteurised and came direct from the farmer’s own dairy. It arrived in glass bottles on our doorstep each morning delivered fresh by a guy in one of those old Noddy ding dong golf cart sort of things. It was in quarts and when I held the bottle neck my hand couldn’t cover all the cream inside on top of the milk. Mum even had a tiny little scoop thing (like they put candles out in church) to scoop the cream out without disturbing the milk.

 

Admitted the variety was a bit limited. But the quality – especially of the meat and dairy – was superb. And Mum made the most out of it. (Which could be why I was nicknamed Fats at school.)

 

Thus started my journey to foodiedom, obviously. Also helped a bit by being a Cub and Boy Scout and having to survive the wild and get a cooking badge. (Although the chicken I ambitiously cooked once was ambitious – and raw.)

 

Now spring had arrived at Horizons and it presented me with all sorts of mushrooms I had never seen before. These weren’t the golf course or Woolworths variety, so the next week back in Durban I bought GCA van der Westhuizen and Albert Eicker’s Field Guide MUSHROOMS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA with more than 250 photographs for easy identification.

 

I learned about ectotrophic mycorrhizae. I saw pictures of the Amanita Phalloides with two red skulls next to it and “Deadly Poisonous”. I read that the Tremella mesenterica is known as the Jelly Brain Fungus and grows on dead branches. It’s bright yellow and slimy. The notation says it’s edible.

 

I also saw a mushroom that looked just like the ones Mum confidently gathered. It’s called Agaricus xanthodermus and has one skull. The book says “causes nausea, vomiting, headaches, profuse sweating and diarrhoea two to four hours after eating.” Mmmm… In fact there are about a dozen mushrooms in the book that look like the ones we ate.

 

Had we just been lucky? Mostly they were not poisonous but they sure looked a lot alike.

 

Turns out what we ate was Agaricus campestrus (page 102), the field mushroom.

___________________

 

Armed with my book I was ready to go hunter gathering and promised Athena a weekend of mushroom gourmet dishes.

 

We arrived after dark that Friday evening so at first light Saturday morning I was up and ready, basket and book in hand. We’d start with mushrooms for breakfast with bacon and eggs. I’d make mushroom risotto for dinner. I’d pickle some with herbs and garlic. With the piles left from my bounty I would slice them and dry them and powder them to flavour casseroles. There would be no holding me back.

 

“Come on dogs, but don’t pee on the mushrooms.”

 

I needn’t have worried. There were no mushrooms that Saturday morning. Or the next. I had to wait three weeks until the rain and the lightning and the heat were all just right again to bring out the mushrooms.

 

In the meantime, I read my mushroom book.

 

I learned that different mushrooms grow in different environments. Some only grow in grassland, some under trees (different ones under different types of trees, mind you), some on dead wood and some in compost. Some grow on herbivore dung and some on termite nests.

 

The book showed how to take a spore photograph. This is fun and you can do it at home. Remove the stem from a mushroom and place it the normal way up on a piece of white paper and cover it with a bowl. Leave it overnight. In the morning, the spores will have fallen onto the paper making a perfect image of the lamellae.

 

I also learned that the stem is called the stipe, the vanes under the cap are called the lamella, and that some mushrooms have a left-over bit that forms a ring on the stipe called a ring (they ran out of fancy words?!). And there’s another left-over bit at the bottom which sounds a bit rude and is called a volva. The shape, size, colour, proportions, presence or lack of and so on, all these help to identify a mushroom.

 

Would one of the most popular mushrooms amongst chefs be there, I wondered? Usually known as the Porcini or Cep, it’s un-mistakeable. The stipe is fat and bulbous, the colour is a range of yellow ochres ranging from khaki to gold and the underneath of the cap has tubes not lamellae, making it look like a fine textured sponge.

 

I paged through the book to see if South Africa has something similar.

 

That looks just like it – Boletus Edulis, specimen number 89 on page 122!

 

I knew they did grow in South Africa and around KZN. The year before I had seen them fresh in Everfresh. A bit of research revealed something very interesting. They grow prolifically in the forests in South Africa and there was a very smart company (run by some Italians – clever them) who had been exporting Porcini to Italy for 27 years already (at that time already).

 

I can imagine the dismay if Signor Montedellafonte had discovered his Porcini dish was made with imported mushrooms from Africa.

 

The company, Country Fresh, had (still has I believe) concessions with the two major forestry companies in South Africa – Mondi and Sappi – for their gatherers to harvest the Porcini.

 

They (the workers) were being paid a few rand per kilo. In Everfresh they were R85 a kilo at that time.

 

Messrs v d Westhuizen and Eicker explained that Porcini grow under a particular type of conifer tree – the ones with those long needle type leaves.

 

“Look at this,” I said to Athena, “I’m sure we have the right trees around Rosetta for Porcini.”

 

We did. And it wasn’t long before Jack found the first one – a magnificent specimen bigger than his ten year old hand.

 

Jack has an incanny bond with nature and if there’s one person I would choose to be lost in the wild with, it would be him. He’ll always spot the invisible animal in the game park or catch the fish where everyone else has tried.

 

Later that summer he and Athena went camping in the Kamberg about an hour from Rosetta. The campsite was surrounded by the right sort of conifer. Jack and Athena arrived back from a forest walk with piles of Porcini which they cooked and offered to some of the other campers. They were nervous but happy to taste the delicious forest fruit.

__________________

 

The first mushrooms to be tested from under our conifer trees were a blush colour with bits on top. I took one back to the house.

 

‘There are tons of these,” I said to Athena.

 

She looked very sceptical, no doubt disappointed the Porcini had eluded me.

 

I opened the book at the identification section.

 

I went through the identification steps – what type of habitat do they grow in? Under pine trees – yes. Shape – yes cap with central stipe. Lamellae – yes. Lamellae not darkening – yes. Ring on stype – no. Volval remains on stype – no. I ended up at Armilleria mellea – specimen 10 on page 42. Aka the Honey mushroom or Bootlace fungus.

 

The honey bootlace fungus was pale cream and skinny. It looked absolutely nothing like the blush, plump fruits I had unearthed.

 

I did it again – same result.

 

So I paged through the book and looked at the pictures.

 

I found something on pages 66 and 68 – Russula Capensis and Russula Sardonia. The book says the Capensis is edible and must be cooked when young.

 

Nervous, I was determined to know if these were edible. But I was not about to go down on my first wild mushroom meal. I had to ask someone who knew their mushrooms.

 

The back cover told me that Albert Eicker, the one author, was Professor and HOD of Botany at the University of Pretoria. It also told me he had done more than 100 scientific papers and books. Odds were he lived in Pretoria and there wouldn’t be too many A Eicker’s.

 

It wasn’t long before directory enquiries gave me the number for one Dr A Eicker in Pretoria.

 

He would be really pleased that someone had bought their book. I could ask him all sorts of questions. I would have a direct line to THE South African mushroom expert.

 

“Dr Eicker,” a stern voice answered the phone.

 

I explained my dilemma – the identification guide didn’t seem to work. If I told him what the mushroom looked like could he help me identify it?

 

His voice remained stern. “I can’t do that without having the mushroom in front of me,” he said.

 

That was about it.

 

I decided to go with the picture and read the description carefully, comparing it to every detail of the mushroom.

 

Everything pointed to Russula capensis.

 

Hesitantly I broke off a piece and touched it to my tongue. It was like sticking my tongue on the terminal of an old car battery –very acidic and bitter.

 

I tried cooking some. Same thing.

 

I threw them away.

 

Fungi 1; Ian 0.

_______________________

 

I wasn’t giving up hope of finding Porcini on Horizons.

 

Along the boundary at the bottom slope next to the squatters was a row of conifers. Eureka, I found something that looked like a Porcini, just a little smaller. And it was sticky. Otherwise it was the same colour and had the spongy tubes under the cap in place of lamellae.

 

Out came the book.

 

There they were – on page 130 specimen 97 – Suillus Luteus. And its common name would you believe it – Slippery Jack.

____________________

 

I became more and more adventurous with my new reference book.

 

My next destination was at Horizons under the Eucalyptis trees – those water guzzling aliens immigrated here from Aus.

 

Where the leaves had fallen on the bare ground hundreds of tiny creamy coloured mushrooms were growing. Their caps not much larger than my thumb nail.

 

Specimen 17 Laccaria laccata – the Deceiver. Indistinct odour and taste but edible said Messrs vdW and E.

 

I gathered about fifty of the little chaps. Into a ramekin with butter, garlic, salt and pepper and into the oven – still hot from the picnic breads.

 

Damn they were good.

 

“Here taste these,” I said to Athena.

 

“No thanks, I’ll wait a while,” she cautiously replied.

 

They really were good. I had some more.

 

In fact, they were so good that I started getting a fuzzy feeling in my forehead. Walking straight was not straightforward, and why was there that buzzing sound?

 

I checked the book. There were other similar looking specimens like Stropharia aurantica (suspected poisonous) but I was certain these were Laccaria laccata.

 

Interesting. And they paired well with a glass of bone dry white wine. Magical actually.

_____________________

 

Then there are the puffballs. As a kid puffballs were these brown things that exploded in a yellow brown fine dust when you kicked them. I could never imagine eating them, but according to the guys who wrote the South African mushroom guide you could. As long as they were fresh.

 

They start out looking like marshmellows when they’re young and their texture inside is just that too. Although with a very sharp knife you can slice them.

 

Taste? Just like mushrooms. Just more mushy.

 

In fact, when it came to taste, there never seemed a marked difference in flavour between all the mushrooms I tried. Texture, yes, and response to cooking, yes. But flavour? Not really. I’ve even had fresh Shitake, reconstituted Shitake, and a few others that grow in the forests of the Wilderness area and around Cape Town. They all taste much like the same mushrooms.

 

The only fungus that really stands out as different is truffles. And at a few hundred $ a kilo you’d hope so. When we visited our friends Tony and Meg at their place near Cita di Castella in Umbria (an hour north of Rome and just south of Arezzo and Tuscany), we had bought some black truffle.

 

We had spoilt the rarity by cooking it we have since learned. To get the best, they should be shaved – uncooked – as thinly as possible over your scrambled eggs or plain pasta. The warmth from the food will be just right to release the truffle’s rounded, musty, earthy, fungal aromas and flavours.

 

Have I ever found a truffle here in South Africa? No, but the bushmen have – the Kalahari truffle. They – the San – call it the !Nabas. (I think the ! in front of a word means you say it with a hard clicking sound – tongue on roof of mouth). They grow when they form mycorhizae with the melon tree and the San consider it an aphrodisiac food sent by the gods.

 

!Nabas are as rare as its European counterpart and it takes a lot of skill (not a truffle pig or dog – like in France) to seek them out – like avoiding the adders that may lurk in the grass. And finding the crack in the ground that’s a sign there’s one of these earthy treasures growing – that’s if a bat-eared jackal hasn’t got there first and left little more than a few tiny paw prints.

 

According to Namibian cook Antoinette de Chavonnes Vrugt, who devotes many pages in her cookbook, My Hungry Heart, to the Kalahari truffle, they’re not as aromatic as the European truffle but still as pungent with a similar earthy taste that makes for good eating.

 

Classified as Terfezia pfeilii they are distantly related to French truffles but a closer relative of the desert truffles of North Africa and the Middle East !Nabas look a bit like small potatoes or mushrooms and should be dark brown and firm with a meaty texture.

CHAPTER 37

Another big move, and another

 

Nomads. That’s what we’ve become.

 

“When you and Jack are finished school,” I said to Olivia while writing this recently, “Athena and I are going to seriously downsize. We’re going to get a much smaller place back near the beach at Umhlanga Rocks.”

 

“What? Are we going to move again?”

 

“Yes. With Zoe and Courtney already moved out, and you and Jack finishing school this year and going overseas, we want a smaller place. Somewhere we can lock up and go. No staff to worry about, no having to worry about making tea and sandwiches for Elliot and Nondomiso (the gardeners) on a Sunday morning when we should be able to just go out.”

 

“Do you realize Dad that between you and Mum, I’ve moved and stayed in as many houses as my age – seventeen!”

 

Olivia was correct. When her mum Gail and I had separated when Olivia was four and Courtney was seven, she was already moving to her fourth and fifth homes. With the exception of Seychelles and Rosetta, all were in and around Durban and both did all their schooling at one school.

 

Going back to the Horizons story, there were two major moves we had to do while we were running the picnics.

 

The first was to move out of my Halford Road home. Athena and I had decided that we should move in together having got engaged. Now that may have seemed the obvious thing to do, but it wasn’t a straightforward decision.

 

It was very 50/50. We were very happy with our independence and agreed on the principle of our ice cream theory of “too much of a good thing” (more about that at the end of the book). Living in our own houses and seeing each other a couple of nights in the week and at weekends was perfect.

 

Some of our friends thought this was strange and unconventional. Especially as were about to get married.

 

But neither of our existing places was large enough for a family of six. My Halford road home had three bedrooms, one of which – Olivia’s – was tiny. It was ok while she was still little but becoming a bit of a squash anyway. Certainly not big enough for two people. There was the outbuilding which I had converted to a granny flat to add resale value and act as my office.

 

Athena’s home at the Cove had three bedrooms – and one was Athena’s office.

 

We started narrowing down the options. Athena wanted to move Jack and Zoe from Crawford to Waldorf which was in Assegai near Hillcrest.

Courtney and Olivia’s school was in Durban as was their Mum and my clients were mostly Durban based. Horizons was an hour or so inland along the motorway from Durban. My home on Halford Road, although in a quiet cul-de-sac, was half a kilometer from the motorway so it was easy to get to anywhere from there.

So, we settled on an area somewhere between which gave us about a twenty kilometre stretch from Westville to Hillcrest. The N3 motorway runs close to this so it was easy to get to Durban one way and Waldorf school the other. Horizons would be closer to us.

_____________________

 

But first I had to move out of Halford Road. It was a turn of the century house (the other one, last century – not this one that’s ‘just past’, or should it be ‘already’, eleven years ago). With the artifacts to prove it. I’ll come to that.

 

There was a door on the south side that entered the underneath of the house. It was awkward to get in because the door was only a metre high and then there were two steps down. Then you couldn’t stand upright because it was too low.

 

I had got Petrus, my gardener to dig out some of the soil so it was easier to get in and store things and we’d found old medicine bottles and rusty horse shoes. This part of Durban was one of the oldest and in its day the bay (and beach) would have been a couple of kilometres closer before a lot of land was reclaimed. Today part of the centre of Durban is at 0 metres altitude. The city’s main cricket ground Kingsmead is so low it’s said that the in- and out-going tides affect the wicket (strange people cricketers).

 

This digging around had revealed that the underneath of the house was a duplicate of what was above. These days, if there’s a slope, half the building site will be excavated and the other half built up. Not back in those days. They didn’t skimp back then and foundations and floor supports were substantial.

 

This had given me an idea.

 

“Petros, can you work a few more days a week?”

 

“Yes Sir.”

 

“We’re going to dig out here so that I can make a cellar – like a bar.”

 

“Haauw, sir!”

 

So Petros spent the next few weeks digging out the basement. We needed to go down about 60cm (about two feet) and my estimations showed that Petros would have to dig out about twenty cubic metres of sand. Now that’s a lot – it’s a big truckload.

 

A wheelbarrow wasn’t much use because of the difficult access so he did it by the bucketload. The next problem is where do you put 20 tons of earth when you have a very small property?

 

So it became a bit like that classic Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape. Petros would go down into the cellar, fill a couple of buckets with sand and surreptitiously empty these along the wall that bounded our neighbours.

 

They must have wondered why our garden over a period of a few weeks was a foot or so higher than theirs…

 

The other problem was to not undermine the foundations and I had visions of coming home one day to find my Halford Road home collapsed in on itself.

 

So I was careful, very careful. I reckoned that, after over a century, the soil under the foundations would be so settled and compacted it would be like concrete. As long as I didn’t disturb that we should be fine. I showed Petros how to dig down and away from the foundation soil. Then, in those areas where we had dug out quite a lot, we laid another support foundation alongside to make sure nothing would ever move.

 

The more Petros had dug out the grander my scheme had become.

 

“Petros, I need you to dig out the passage as well.” It would make a perfect wine storage area, as it was centred under the house and the coolest area.

 

“Haauw, Sir.”

 

“Petros, I need you to dig out under my bathroom as well.” That would be the future guest toilet.

 

“Haauw, Sir!”

 

‘We’ had started the digging four months before my 50th birthday in June 2003 (the year before Horizons).

 

“What are you going to do about your fiftieth?” Athena had asked at the beginning of the year.

 

“Let’s have a party here, all my golf buddies, school friends, clients, probably about 100 people.”

 

That became the plan. There was now a firm goal in site – the Halford Road Cellar would have its grand opening that night.

 

The walls, which were unplastered, were also unpainted. Soon, Petros had developed his paint technique skills under my tutelage, and the effect of white limewash mixed with dust and cobwebs and mould emphasised the cellar.

 

The floor was a simple (although laborious) matter of levelling and laying 50cm square charcoal grey tiles and grouting them with a mixture of cement and iron oxide (the latter to darken it).

 

A full size wine barrel that we’d got from a local wine merchant took pride of place where plumbing had been installed for a basin (but no basin yet). The ceiling was the underside of my bedroom floor or the passage floor: suspended timbers.

 

From these were suspended an old solid timber door which now became the table. A clever arrangement (if I may claim) that could be positioned at a couple of places in the cellar: either as a table along the bench seats that arose where we supported the foundations; or against the other wall at bar height. Two large spun aluminium industrial lights were given extra long cables and suspended from a choice of hooks: table position or bar position. They gave a soft diffused glow that was perfect for assessing the nuances of age-colour in wine – especially a vertical tasting of a top first growth burgundy (dream on).

 

Some theatrical lighting – small spotlights – created areas of interest in the monotonous gloom and lit the wine posters on the wall from wine merchant friends John and Adrie.

 

The result – even though the cellar had to be shared with a few subterranean insects who remained with the steadfast indignancy of more than a century of residency – was spectacular.

 

The small bar fridge fitted perfectly in another corner. It was also the curing fridge for my prosciuttos: the door seal was aged and allowed a slight amount of moist Durban air in to keep the humidity up. The fridge was inefficient and hovered at around 12C – perfect for the hams.

 

Through a doorway (mind your head) under the passage was another cellar where the wall was lined with wine racks. This had another doorway that led to the area under my en suite bathroom. I’d had bathroom plumbing (toilet and hot and cold water) installed and this would be a future guest toilet at least.

 

The overall result was the envy – and pleasure – of my friends, particularly my wine tasting group who attended a few tastings there.

 

Did we finish in time for my fiftieth. Just. Well…, not quite. The last job I had to do was install the cables for the sound system, which I was doing an hour before the guests arrived. That was finished in time. But the rush meant that I neglected an important task from Athena for the evening, who had also been rushing to get some of the last snacks done.

 

“I’m going to have a shower.” She said as I screwed the last electrical connecters for the speakers in place. “I’ve just ironed my top and it’s airing in the kitchen, please bring it to me in a few minutes.”

 

“Yes sure,” I said. I had got dressed first to be ready to receive any early guests who were coming from far and wide.

 

The doorbell rang. Some guests arrived. I started hosting. Athena waited for her top as guests started to fill the front garden, the steps, the front door, the passage, the house.

 

Yes, you’ve guessed it – I forgot to take Athena her top. Which meant she had to run the gauntlet, semi-dressed, of golf mates, wine drinking mates, school mates and their partners, from bedroom to kitchen to get her top.

 

After that small hiccup the party was a great success on that balmy Durban June evening. And I do think Athena saw the funny side of me forgetting her top by the time the last guests had left at 4am the next morning. Athena, you did, didn’t you? Athena?

______________________

 

Oh yes, the moving around. . .

 

I am a sentimentalist.

 

“You’re such a hoarder, you collect so much junk,” my first wife Gail often said to me. She was the opposite and to such an extreme that I had to rescue old family photos (my great grandparents) from her throwing them out.

 

One of the biggest disasters of my life were when I went home from school one weekend to find my case full of Dinky Toys were gone.

 

“I gave them to the orphanage,” said Maureen my late Mum.

 

Even at the age of about 14 I sensed that these were more than childhood treasures – that these little 1/43 scale cast iron cars were destined to achieve great value in years to come. Never mind that the rubber wheels and the paintwork were well worn from doing thousands of miles. The area at our Durnacol coal mine home under the blue gums – void of any other flora – was bare and sandy. It was perfect for marking out roads with your hands, creating whole suburbs interwoven with race tracks and no town planning to oblige. But it was also hard on the Dinky Toys.

 

Everything has its time, though. How often have you chucked something and not long later you need it? Or it has come back as a hot retro designer item?

 

Like the classic Frigidaire fridge? Or the fifties record player cabinet in veneer with gold trim? Or the 1961 Vespa – yes I had one of those too. Mr Bapparella, Gail called it in frustration after it stopped working and it got transported from our Joburg home to our Cape Town home to our Durban home. I succumbed and sold it for R150 in about 1992. Now there’s something so I’m right, aren’t I?

 

But I am changing. All the stuff that I thought our children would want has cost a fortune in storage and has now been auctioned off or given to charity. I decided they would rather have their own choice of new things.

 

The moving around between 2004 and 2009 also convinced me.

 

The first move was out of Halford Road. Half my stuff went to Athena’s place The Cove in Marine Drive in Umhlanga Rocks. This was a temporary home while we found a place to build our new family home and her garage was filled with boxes. The other half went to Horizons.

 

Then we moved my Dad and Betty from a three bedroom retirement village to frail care. Some was used – like our family dining room table in the restaurant area, and the fridge – the rest filled the few remaining gaps in the one Horizons garage.

 

Then we decided Hillcrest was where we would settle. It’s about half an hour out of Durban, and at 500metres above sea level usually a good 5C less than Durban – a blessing in the steamy, tropical months of February and March.

 

There we rented for a while at Camelot – a quaint Victorian golf estate with small herds of Impala that scared us no end because they snorted like Hippopotami at 4am in the morning when they mated.

 

What didn’t fit into Camelot also went to Horizons.

 

“We really should get rid of some of these beds,” Athena said one day.

 

“We’ve got four children, before we know it they’ll be setting up their own places and they’ll need beds and couches and fridges.”

 

Then we sold Horizons.

 

The new owners had all their own things, so other than the picnic furniture, all that was moved to Camelot. The cars came out the garages and in went the furnishings and boxes. The garages were stuffed to the rafters with cupboards and tables and beds and washing machines and couches.

 

I did do some sorting of boxes before they left Horizons. Like the ones full of paperbacks. There were signs of mice. As I lifted the books out one by one I came across a Wilbur Smith. It was all puffed up and although the cover was intact shreds of pages were falling out the side. I opened it to find that a mouse had worked his way from page 1 to about page 347, each night making his little home more cosy as he digested the saga of one of the Wilbur Smith dynasties.

 

This was less of a disaster than the story of the chap who hid a shoe box full of his savings under his bed. When he took out his thousands one day he found that mice had got there first. Shredded.

 

Then from Camelot we moved to Cotswold. While we sorted out what we really wanted in our home we rented two garages for storage nearby. We had just about got that done when Athena’s ex husband Jerry passed away and she inherited another half a household of furniture.

 

By now we had enough fridges and couches and beds to start a dodgy club with an infinite supply of cold beer.

 

So we auctioned more. We gave more to charity.

 

As I write this we’ve now had the pleasure and good fortune of spending some time in Nice – in our 38m2 apartment. That’s about the size of a double garage. It’s brilliant. It’s also taught us how little we really need.

 

So finally I’ve moved on. I’ve finally, after nearly six decades, learned the value of travelling lightly through life.

 

I’ve no doubt that one day the kids will be horrified what we got rid of. “Dad, didn’t you have one of those? It’s so beautiful and would be worth a fortune today,” they’d say. “Why on earth did you get rid of it?”

 

I do still have one or two treasures from my early life. There’s the Bush radio from 1948 finished in walnut or rosewood veneer and with Bakelite knobs. It decorates my office and looks on as I work away on my laptop. It would work if it had the one or two valves it needs. (A valve is like a microchip processor – just an early version, very, very early). On the front it shows all the cities of the world one could tune into. Ha, and you thought we couldn’t do that until online streaming and unlimited bandwidth came along? That Bush gave me a choice of hundreds of radio stations, even if they weren’t exacty digital quality audio.

 

And then there’s the Kenwood. Every week out it comes and I make Ciabatta or baguettes or croissants for the family. Or I stick on the mincer attachment and make pork sausages or salami. Sure, it would be great to have a shiny new machine. But it wouldn’t be the same.

 

There’s something about making food for my family with the same machine that my mother Maureen used to feed us as a family fifty years ago. All those delicious cakes and biscuits and pies made to Women’s Institute perfection right up until she left – way too young – in 1990 for the hospice never to return.

 

As I stand there and the Kenwood wizzes around puffing flour into the air every now and then, “Hi, Mom,” I’ll say, “look what I’m making today.”

 

CHAPTER 38

Mayonnaise

 

Often in the working end of restaurants there are large jars of industrial mayonnaise. I never understood why. Whether you’re using a little or a lot it’s better to make your own and not difficult. The industrial or catering stuff is usually dreadful and when you make your own you’ll soon find it’s better than just about anything you buy off the shelf or out of a catering warehouse.

 

In the warmer months we always had potato salad on the menu, served in a little ramekin. (I’ll tag the potato salad recipe after the mayo – it’s dead easy too.)

 

A good mayo is also a delicious alternative to butter on sandwiches and great for potato and other salads. If cholesterol is a worry, make your mayo with a low cholesterol oil.

 

If you have a blender (especially one of those hand-held ones that look like an old-school milk shake mixer) making mayo is easy. You can also make it by hand or with an egg mixer or even in a vertical blender but the soup blender type is the answer. I’ve had a Braun for years.

 

It helps to understand the basic of what’s happening when you make mayo. There’s the continuous liquid and the divided liquid. In a mayonnaise the divided liquid is the oil, which has been broken down by the blending/mixing energy into millions of miniscule droplets (1 teaspoon = approx 1 billion droplets). This is suspended in the continuous liquid, which in this case is the water-soluble ingredients of egg, vinegar, possibly lemon juice. The key is to add the oil slowly so that it emulsifies with the other liquids.

 

Egg plays an important helping hand. Without getting technical, the lecithin and protein molecules in eggs are friendly to the molecules of both the oil and the non-oil ingredients and help them stay emulsified. If you tried to emulsify just water and oil you’d see the difference. Like a simple vinegar and oil salad dressing which no matter how madly and vigorously you shake it up it always splits or separates again.

 

So after having whisked, whipped and beaten over the years the conclusion is obvious: mayo is easiest made with a hand blender which will mix it in about 30 seconds. An egg beater can take from five to fifteen minutes and by hand about 30 minutes.

 

The secret is to get the emulsion started with a little of the oil broken down (that’s why it’s just a drop or two to begin) to disperse it. What makes this part difficult is the tremendous amount of energy needed to shear the oil into the billions of droplets. As you’re beating madly away the oil is doing its best to regroup. That’s why a hand blender does it so well – the oil doesn’t stand a chance.

 

Just make sure to keep the blender completely at the bottom so that it SLOWLY draws down the oil a little at a time into the other liquid made up of the egg and the vinegar etc. When the bottom part starts turning a pale creamy colour stop the blender and lift it a few millimetres. If it’s firm to the pull then it’s time to slowly pull the blender up and allow the rest of the oil to get sucked down (slowly now, please) and dispersed.

 

These are the basic ingredients, which you can tweak to suit your taste. Remember the vinegar and sugar should balance against the mustard and creaminess of the egg/oil mixture.

 

1 egg

half teaspoon sugar

two teaspoons white vinegar

One to two teaspoons mustard ready-made or half to one of powder (eg Colman’s or grind your own from organic seed)

pinch salt

pinch white pepper

about 250 to 300ml oil (ideally not too strong flavoured)

half teaspoon lemon juice

 

Adding a clove of garlic adds flavour.

 

Variations:

Add a handful of parsley, coriander/cilantro/dhanya, basil or more garlic.

 

BOWL or JAR BLENDER METHOD

 

Put everything except oil in a bowl and slowly add oil drip by drip, increasing to a slow drizzle only as it thickens. It’s working if the egg mixture turns creamy colour because this shows the oil is being dispersed – the droplets start dispersing the light. Remember, as you frenetically whisk away, what you are seeking to do is break the oil into separate microscopic droplets suspended in the continuous (ie still joined together) non-oil liquid ingredients – the egg, vinegar

 

Keep blending if you want a stiffer, more creamy mayonnaise.

 

POTATO SALAD

 

Steam about a kilo of potatoes with their skins on (as long as they’re organic – if not peel them first)

Mix 2/3 a cup of mayo with 1/3 cup of milk.

Into this mayo mixture add one finely chopped (3-5mm) onion, a tablespoon of chopped parsley

When the potatoes are still warm (that’s important) but cool enough to handle, peel them and cut into pieces. Mix the whole lot together and season with salt and white or black pepper.

 

That’s it.

 

CHAPTER 39

Surprise storms

 

It was always difficult to predict the spring and summer thunderstorms and it took us a while to learn the local signs.

 

So, it was with surprise one Sunday, with a full booking of 60 guests and set fair for a beautiful sunny day that we learnt the hard way about the weather.

 

I was working at the bar welcoming the last of the guests when the bar area seemed surprisingly full of people holding their drinks and picnic baskets.

 

“We need a table inside,” said one man with a couple of adults and brood of toddlers in tow. In fact, a queue was now forming.

 

Suddenly at 12.50, just when everyone had been settling down with their beers and bubbly to the mellow classical arias of the four divos, that the sky had changed. Clouds came from nowhere and within 10 minutes we had sixty guests with their blankets, drinks and kids wanting to know which was their table inside – or worse still – they just took over.

 

This time we were lucky. Only a few drops fell and within twenty minutes the sun was out again and so were the guests.

 

We learnt from this and started to check the weather forecasts and get to know the signs. On risky days we had two seating plans – one outside and one inside, holding back most of the tables for indoors. Often guests would take matters into their own hands and take any table making it difficult. Remember we were running a tight ship here and sometimes only Athena or I were hosting with our full crew in the kitchen and serving. So, if whoever was on duty was tied up welcoming an influx of guests (usually the case around 12.30 to 1) people could sneak in and grab a table. Then we’d have to politely shuffle them around – sometimes to a less desirable table.

 

Learn as we did, nothing prepared us for one spring day in our second year.

 

We had foreseen the stormy weather coming and only had about thirty people booked – an easy number to accommodate inside. All was going well and guests well into their lunches and third rounds of drinks. Outside the rain was falling in spurts with some uncertainty. Through the rain I could see the clouds were menacing – a dirty grey colour that made lunchtime as dark as evening.

 

Lightning flashed and the rain grew heavier. From the bar, I could see white specks bouncing on the lawns as hail started to fall – not unusual for this area.

 

This was great excitement for the little kids from Durban who had not seen hail before, “Look, snow, Daddy!”.

 

The first hail stones were about a centimetre. But they grew bigger and more and more fell. Soon, the garden did look like it had been snowing. Hail piled up next to the house as it slid off the roof. This was great entertainment for the guests – especially the kids who I could see were frantic to get out and play in the stuff. The bar did good business.

 

‘Baas, the roof’s wet.”

 

In between serving drinks and the sounds of Pavarotti and excited kids I half heard.

 

“Baas, the roof’s wet, you must come.” It was Busi, one of the senior staff. I felt I was having a conversation with Manuel from Fauwlty Towers. Now the roof has leaked before. Remember this is an old farm house that started as two rondavels (round thatched cottages) and had arbitrary rooms added on all sides. So I was not duly concerned, although I admit it was an unusually severe hailstorm.

 

“Just mop it up and put a bucket there,” I instructed, a bit miffed that she could not have worked this out for herself, and I turned back to sell another bottle of Shiraz.

 

Busi just stood there.

 

“Oh, all right, I’m coming,” and excused myself from a customer.

 

Muttering, I followed her down the passage that led to our private side of the house and our TV room. As I opened the door, I heard a strange sound. I soon saw why. There on the floor was just about every large cooking pot and container we owned – about eight of them, and some held as much as 30 litres. They were already half full from catching the miniature waterfalls gushing from the ceiling.

 

And the ceiling, well. . . It seemed to be a different shape. Instead of all flat and even and level, it was drooping and bulging and changing colour. ‘How long ago did this start?” I asked, not without some panic.

 

“Hauw, it just started,” Busi informingly replied.

 

Thought bubble: “Eight pots, each already holding say ten litres, that’s nearly 100 litres of water.”

 

Just then, Nonnie and Pam came through from the kitchen with empty pots and niftily swopped them for full ones. “We already emptied the pots twice,” Busi added.

 

Quick recalculation. The ceiling bulged. It was now looking very damp. The pots filled as I watched. My high school maths came to an alarming conclusion – there could be about three hundred litres of rain water about to burst through the ceiling!

 

I grabbed a broom, and lining up the largest empty stock pot, gingerly prodded the ceiling. The handle end went through the porridgy ceiling and I was drenched.

 

Like a boil being lanced the ceiling seemed to ease a sigh as the pressure was relieved. I made another and another. Pots came and went. I couldn’t get any wetter.

 

Within half an hour I calculated that 500 litres of water were drained.

 

What on earth had happened? As soon as the rain stopped I climbed onto the roof and saw. The peculiar planning and construction of the house meant that the bulk of the roof was in a U shape with a big gutter to drain the water out the open side. All very well to drain rain water, however, the flash hail storm that fell within twenty minutes meant that the hail just piled up in this U-shaped gulley, not having time to melt. This accumulated into about a half metre deep layer of hail way above the sides of the gutter and up the roof.

 

The rain that followed the hail never reached as far down as the gutter – it simply dammed up and found the easiest way out was through the the thatch, into the ceiling, the TV room, the stock pots and onto us!

 

CHAPTER 40

Some rocky weddings

 

Greytown lunchtime picnic wedding at bride’s parents’ home – 80 guests.

 

It was all very straightforward. The bride’s parents had come for a picnic a few months earlier and booked us there and then for their daughter’s wedding. Guests and family would be coming from all over the country plus a handful from overseas. The ceremony was scheduled for 12 and the picnic lunch would be served at 1. We could clear by 4 when the reception got stuck into the serious partying end of the wedding.

 

Expectations were high.

 

Athena had become the wedding picnic planner of note and, as usual, she would handle the wedding while I manned Horizons.

 

Two weeks before the wedding Athena and I had done a recce of the venue. The drive to Greytown was on a good tarred road except for a short section of roadworks which diverted vehicles onto a rough and bumpy but short untarred detour.

 

Once through some imposing and spectacular entrance gates, a grand driveway lined with palm trees split the sprawling gardens and announced guest’s arrival to the front of the home – a colonial Natal veranda architectural masterpiece.

 

We could drive all the way in and around to unload and prepare our wedding picnics where the client was to set up trestle tables in their spare double garage. It was spacious so Athena could manoeuvre the 4×4 and trailer easily. With her and three staff and all the picnic baskets, blankets, food etc we needed all the volume the trailer gave us too.

 

We planned everything with military precision:

 

Fri afternoon I collect rented trailer

Fri afternoon Ladies prepare and pack non perishables into 4×4

Fri evening Finish cooking

6.00 am Sat Finish last food prep and pack into serving portions

7.30 Load trailer and three ladies to help

8.30 Athena leaves for Greytown

9.30 Arrive and unpack

10.00 Prepare picnic baskets

12.15 Finish off cooking pastry canapes

12.30 Ready with iced, rose-scented towelletes

12.45 Ready with canapés and Champagne after ceremony

1.00 Guests seated and serve picnics

2.30 Serve desserts

3.00 Ladies clear

4.00 Pack picnic things and Athena drive back to Horizons

5.00 Arrive back Horizons, unpack, wash up

7.00 Ian drive ladies to their homes as taxies would be rare

 

For Athena, it was going to be a long day.

 

The menu for this and other weddings was based on our regular picnic menu with, occasionally, one or two things changed or added at the client’s request.

 

So, as I said, it was all very straightforward, even if a bit busy.

 

By just after 8am the last of the crockery ramekins (those small dishes you usually get crème brulee or pate in) with tonnato and hummus (40 of each) had been carefully packed in layers in the trailer. Each one was covered with a small film of clingwrap.

 

On schedule at 8.30am the dogs and cats and chickens were shooed out the way and Athena and crew and picnics for eighty headed off on the hour’s drive to Greytown.

 

I went and collected the ice for the day from the trading store, got the Saturday paper, made myself a Cappuccinos and put a couch out on the veranda. It was a tranquil morning, even though interrupted with the occasional phone call to book a picnic.

 

When my phone rang at 10.15 it showed it was from Athena. Aaah good, she’s calling to say she’s arrived ok and everything’s going well.

 

It wasn’t, I could tell as soon as I heard Athena’s voice.

 

“When we opened the trailer most of the ramekins were smashed – it must have been that bumpy detour. I don’t know what we’re going to do… The guests are arriving and it’s a mess. We can salvage a few. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I can’t tell Mrs Borthwaite, she’s already stressed out…”

 

“Ok how many are broken? Is it most of them? It’s twenty past ten. I’ll have to make more and get them to you. If I leave here in an hour, I’ll make it. Check exactly how many you need and text me, we’ll get started.”

 

“But you won’t have enough ramekins . . picnickers today…?”

 

“We’ll make a plan – quickly, I need to get started.”

 

It was already going to be a busy lunchtime. Between the wedding and our picnickers we would need every ramekin.

 

‘Busi, we have to make more food for the wedding – some of the ramekins got broken.” I quickly calculated – one egg per four people so twenty eggs at worst. Would we have enough eggs? “Nonnie, how many eggs are there? Get twenty on to boil checha, checha, quickly, I have to drive all the way to Greytown by 12 o’clock!”

 

My mobile beeped that a message was in.

 

“NEED 32 HUMUS 36 TONN

 

I divided each by two as we did two portions per ramekin per basket per couple. Not as bad as it could be: 16 ramekins hummus, 18 ramekins tonnato, but it would still be touch and go to have enough for replacements and our picnickers.

 

Hang on, was that people or ramekins? I called Athena, who was frantically rescuing hummus and tonnato from chipped, cracked and smashed ramekins.

 

“Ramekins,” she managed to get out with a mixture of breathlessness and agitation, “Ramekinsgottogo.” Click.

 

That doubled the problem.

 

“Busi how many tonnatos and potato salads have you made for today?” These were regular fare and the girls knew to make about 10% extra for walk ins. What we didn’t serve Saturday would be used Sunday with more made as needed.

 

Busi disappeared to the spare bedroom which we used to pack the baskets. I was hoping for a quicker answer but in fairness she wanted to be accurate.

 

“Twenty, baas.”

 

“Twenty of each?”

 

“Yes, baas.”

 

“Ok, this is what we have to do. Nonnie. . ., Thanda. . . come here, quickly, please” I added, shouting for some of the ladies.

 

“Take all these to the kitchen,” I pointed to all the ramekins, “I’m taking the tonnato ones with me and you have to empty the potato salad into the plastics because I need the dishes for hummus. Who knows how to make the hummus? Thanda, get out the other empty ramekins – see how many there are.”

 

“Sir,” Nonnie put her hand up.

 

“What, Nonnie?”

 

“I know how to make the hummus.”

 

“Oh, yes, good, we need. . .” I checked the sms, “32 so make enough for 34 ramekins so there’s two spare.”

 

“Busi make more tonnato for 42 ramekins. Go, go, go!”

 

I looked at my watch. 10.35 – twenty precious minutes had already gone.

 

“Are the eggs on, Busi?”

 

“Yes, sir, but there’s only twelve we finished them for today and we had to make more mayonnaise. . .”

 

“Aaargh,” I freaked. Tough, the tonnato would have to manage with less eggs, it would just be more tuna-ey.

 

“Sir,” said Busi, “who is going to run the picnics?”

 

“What? What do you mean?”

 

“You’re going to Greytown and so is madam – who is going to run the picnics?”

 

“You’re all going to have to do it until I get back, I should be back by. . .” I looked at my watch and added: hour there, unpack and help Athena half hour, drive back an hour, oh no, I would be gone until about two. “You know what to do, just apologise and say I’ll be back soon.”

 

“Busi, bring the rest of the tonnato ingredients, I have to help you because we’re short of eggs and I need to taste it ‘cos it’ll be different. Nonnie bring me the hummus to taste as soon as it’s ready.”

 

Into a stainless mixing dish went twelve cans of tuna, six cups of olive oil, two tablespoons of black pepper, a teaspoon of salt and half a small bottle of capers and their pickling brine. “Squeeze me half a cup of lemon juice please Busi, Thanda those eggs should be ready, quickly peel them under cold water and bring them. Nonnie how are you doing, I need the machine? How does the hummus taste?” The ‘machine’ was the industrial pulveriser which was as long as your arm and strong enough to mix cold tar. Nonnie held it to one side so I could spoon out a taste of hummus. “Add another teaspoon of cayenne pepper, three more garlics and another teaspoon of salt. Mix those with a cup of hummus then add it I don’t want it blended too much, it must still be a bit rough. Where’s the juice from the chickpea tins – add half a cup of that as well. Thanda how are those eggs, come, quickly. That’s it ladies go, go, go, you’re doing well. Pam, get all those ramekins laid out so we can start filling them. Call Lusanda from the bar she needs to help – ask her to start covering the ramekins. Are the ones that the potato salad was in all washed? Thanda put the eggs straight in there. Nonnie, how’s the hummus now, let’s taste. . . ok that’s good. No. . . don’t worry to wash the machine, it’s ok, it can go in the tonnato. Nonnie start doing the hummus in the dishes. Busi how’s the tonnato now…? Yes it’s not bad but we’d better mix it all with the first batch so we don’t notice the eggs are missing. Empty them in there carefully and keep the bowls clean so we don’t have to wash them, it’s . . . damn, gone eleven o’clock, come come, Lusanda as soon as those are covered pack them in the big plastic carry boxes and put newspaper in between and put them in the car. Busi how’s the tonnato now, yes good, just needs another half cup of lemon juice and tablespoon of black pepper then that’s it. Lusanda, Nonnie how many hummus?” I counted as well, “thirty-six, what’s the sms say? Madam needs thirty-two, good. Thanda start wrapping the tonnato, we need thirty-six give me forty dishes. Lusanda are they packed well, yes? Good. Take them to the car. Well done ladies, I’m going to make it. Busi quick as you can now put the tonnato for the picnics here in the plastics, cut some parsley and sprinkle it over so it looks good. Same for the potato salad. Put a bit more than usual of potato salad so it doesn’t look too little in the plastics. . .You’re going to have to keep hurrying because the picnickers are here in an hour.”

 

“Sir, what if someone wants to pay?” asked Lusanda.

 

“Umm, here,” I took out my wallet, “well done, Lusanda, here’s a float of R100, let’s see what change there is in the till. . ,” we scrambled through to the bar, “ok there’s fifty rand in change there, agree?” Lusanda started counting it and I was about to stop her when my phone rang. It was Athena. How was I doing. About to leave, I said. The guests are starting to arrive she said. Mrs (mother in law) wants to know if we can serve the picnics earlier, she’s worried about the weather, it’s getting cloudy here, she said. I’m on my way I said. Watch out on the detour she said. Ok I said and put the phone down.

 

‘Yes, there’s fifty-one Rand and eighty cents, sir,” said Lusanda.

 

“Great, you can do it, you know what to do, I’ll see you later.” Just phone me if you have any questions.”

 

“I haven’t got your number, sir, just madam’s.”

 

“What? Oh, ok, here,” and I scribbled my cell phone number for her.

 

Two minutes later I scattered the chickens as I wheelspun down the driveway and nearly forgot to slow down for the bump at the gate. “

 

“Remember the food in the boot, remember the food in the boot,” I chanted.

 

I checked the time: 11.15, my watch said.

 

The road from Mooi River to Greytown is quite good. Quite good for driving fast that is. It’s a good surface with a few fast sweeping curves and pretty too, as it follows alongside the Mooi River for a lot of the way. Although there are farms in the area, it’s a quiet road, made more so because it only really goes to Greytown and not many people go to Greytown. This also means it’s not worth setting up speed traps because they would not generate enough revenue to cover their cost. So I could drive fast. Three weeks before I had driven us there in just on an hour. This Saturday at 11.48 I pulled up at the front gates of the wedding venue. I had done the trip from Horizons to Greytown in 33 minutes. I didn’t obliterate any goats along the way and the couple of dawdling tractors were swallowed in a blur.

 

But the trickiest part of the drive was the last two hundred metres which I nearly couldn’t make. But I swallowed hard and smiled and did it in my by now very dusty Alfa.

 

It was the bit up the driveway through the front garden. Where the chapel had been created on the front lawn and eighty guests and bridal retinue watched as I did my best to discreetly drive to the back of the house and an anxious Athena. As I parked I’m sure I could hear the refrains of here comes the bride.

 

If any traffic cops reading this book work out that my average speed at 147kph was enough to throw me in jail, and that to achieve that the Alfa had to do nearly 200kph in places (because I had to go through part of Mooi River at 60kph. . . and, oh, yes, there was the detour – I had to crawl over the gravel at 40kph.), I’ll just say this part of the book is a bit fictional for the sake of adding drama to the story.

 

What really happened was Athena arrived at the venue in good time, none of the ramekins were damaged and everything went according to plan. I spent the whole Saturday morning reading the newspaper with a second cappuccino. Maybe. Or maybe not. . .

______________________

 

“Ummm, how far do we have to go?”, our lady friend painfully asked, her voice transmitted across the mobile phone. We had roped her in for another picnic wedding, down at a river in the Drakensberg along with her son, and his friends.

 

“It’s here somewhere…, in the bush,” Athena said, her Honda CRX loaded with three other picnic helpers and food for the lavish spread. “It’s close, really close…”

 

“I’ve desparately got to make a wee…”, she responded, “we’ve been driving for at least two hours. I’m critically in need to go to the loo.”

 

The venue was at a scenic stream not far from Cathedral Peak, one of the resorts high up in the Drakensberg mountains. But, I’d forgotten it required delicate driving down a steep and bumpy path to get the last two kilometres there.

 

We’d done a recce on the venue four months before. Not thinking the task of commandeering a vehicle packed with staff and trailer in tow would not be easy. Not to mention the poor little car would have to struggle to keep up or stay the pace. Never mind whether it would be balancing on a rock wheels suspended off the ground!

 

The organisers chose this picturesque setting for its rural, wild beauty. Not for one moment thinking how we could get a fully loaded CRX with trailer down to the idyllic venue. , with her small Honda which was equally heavily loaded. Our friend was struggling to keep up on the hazardous surface. Bumping and grinding along was not doing any favours for the little car.

 

CHAPTER 41

A fancy school and the Picnic Lady

 

“I’ve got a picnic in a few week’s time. It’s at Michaelhouse.” Athena announced one day.

 

Michaelhouse is set in a Herbert Baker? turn of the century designed building with sprawling rugby fields and avenues lined with conifers and poplars. The old school sits amongst this distinctive atmospheric home.

 

It too is famous for academic and sporting achievements the world over. The annual rugby game between Hilton College and the home school attracts Rolls Royces and helicopters. “We’re going to Michaelhouse, get the chopper ready, old chap. Prepare the champagne and snacks, will you?”

 

It was a late autumn day when the sun sets early and the after match party goes on into the early (late) evening. But helicopters are not allowed to land after dark so that’s a challenge.

 

The big day arrived which saw everyone pitching to help. Staff were scurrying to and fro to get the picnic baskets ready.

 

It might have been a relatively small function but Athena was a bit nervous. Meeting up with 22 randy matriculants who would eye her up and down lasciviously.

 

CHAPTER 42

Boys will be boys

 

“Got the boys see you for sundowners x” said Athena’s text message – avoiding any abbreviated sms language. She had picked up Jack, Luke (Zoe’s boyfriend) and his friend JP who was joining us for the weekend.

 

For youngsters, Horizons couldn’t have been better for boys. They could explore and wander and generally go and cause trouble and get rid of their energy where it wouldn’t be a bother to anything or anyone.

 

Jack has always been known for his resourcefulness and engineering skills since he was a little boy. He has a keen interest in nature and an inquiring mind. (Sounds like a school report!)

 

His inquisitiveness had at some stage led to the discovery of blowguns and before long he had made and perfected his own. Every now and then we would find a blow arrow astray in a curtain or stuck in the ceiling or on the back of the door. But not in any of the pets yet, fortunately for them.

 

That afternoon, as Olivia and I arrived at Horizons I could see the boys were at the pond and obviously enjoying themselves. The sun was getting low, so with Athena we quickly unpacked the rest of the weekends’ picnic supplies. A bottle of crisp Sauvignon Blanc was ready in the fridge (obviously, as there was a whole bar of wine in the fridge!) and sunset wouldn’t wait. Soon Athena and I were on the front patio.

 

“Cheers, this is therapy,” I said, as we celebrated life. Bliss.

 

Every few minutes the evening tranquillity was pierced by a couple of whoops erupting from the boys at the pond. This area was a microsystem of reeds, trout (that’s another story), leeches (that’s another story) and snakes (that’s another story) and frogs. It didn’t take much to decipher it as the cheer of a predator catching his prey. I knew Jack wouldn’t harm the trout so it could only be frogs.

 

“Jack, what are you boys doing?” called out Athena.

 

He didn’t hear (normal boy behaviour) and Athena repeated herself louder.

 

Jack turned to us. JP looked a little sheepish and concealed something behind his back. Jack innocently and proudly held up a stick that looked like a long skewered giant kebab. “We’re getting rid of some of the frogs for you from the pond.”

 

Pause that story for a moment.

 

Now let me tell you one of the things I’ve learnt about – and from – Athena that I would like all our kids to have as qualities.

 

It’s what I call her ability to “Survive the Amazon and Dine with Kings.”

 

This quality means being able and willing to rough it without hair dryers or showers and cleanser in less than luxurious conditions for days on end, cohabiting (I don’t mean sharing a bed, but existing [surviving?] alongside) people from all strata of society. At the other extreme it means having the upbringing, manners, etc, and etiquette (ha, Wiki or Google that word, kids) to conduct oneself with dignity and propriety in the most elevated of company. (Which is a pompous, very old English school way of saying “dine with kings.”)

 

Athena did in fact survive the Amazon. In her mid twenties, she and her late, then husband Jerry spent a week or two up in its deepest depths of its jungle overcoming large mosquitoes, fierce Pirhana and scratchy toilet paper (or lack of).

 

She also survived the trek to the top of Kilimanjaro and has that “badge”, which sadly these days is very common. However, (big point coming here – pay attention), she can claim one up on probably every other person to have ever made it to Kili’s peak. Unknown to her during her epic ascent, she was three months pregnant with Zoe.

 

At the other end of the scale, I believe she has sort-of dined with Kings. Well, it’s more a case of “Had tea with the Queen” She was also introduced to Princess Anne, when they held up the long queue chatting about Her Royal Highness’ support of The Save The Children Foundation and sharing experiences of their stories of Rwanda, but I still count that as ‘dining with Kings’.

 

She’s rather humble and secretive about this, but I gather she was recognised at some stage as young entrepreneur in Great Britain. Or maybe she just got to shake Liz’s hand or stroke a Corgi. Whichever it was, I have no doubt Athena did it with dignity and class befitting of the occasion. She also probably made Queenie look a bit drab as Athena no doubt looked like a million dollars (pounds – stirling?) in a trim little Versaci outfit, accessories by Cartier and high heels by Jimmy Choo?

 

Athena is also no stranger to boys’ antics, brought up with four brothers (Mike, Paul, Tony and the late Chris). So, she’s familiar and comfortable with the concept that a bunny goes well with hugging if you feel that way, but it also goes well surrounded by a few herbs, turnips, garlic and red wine in a pot roast.

 

Unpause and back to the story: wide angle picture of the pond and the boys. With a bit of imagination and help from the dusk light it looked like Discovery TV and three primitive South American hunters amongst the reeds of a swamp. Actually, in reality it was three South African teenage hunters amongst the reeds in a swamp.

 

“Boys, come here please,” instructed Athena. By now it had got quite gloomy outside but as they joined us on the patio it was obvious that the score was something like: frogs – 0; boys – 15.

 

“Aaaww, no Jack, JP,” Athena dismally said. “That’s cruel.”

 

The kebab wriggled and twitched.

 

Olivia at this stage was inside the house watching TV or reading. What would she think of the boys’ haul? As a foodie I’ve encouraged my girls from an early age to eat what’s put in front of them and been teaching them that food sometimes had four legs and looked cute. But I still had no idea how she would react.

 

I also had no idea how Athena would deal with this. She’ll admit that she’s not a great disciplinarian.

 

“Jack,” she said, “you know that you must only kill to eat. Come with me.”

 

With that Athena followed by the two hunters with their haul of spasmic kebabs marched through the TV lounge to the kitchen.

 

“Uuuuurrgh, what is that? Oh no!” I heard from somewhere deep in soft couch from where Olivia was chilling out watching TV.

 

We all gathered in the kitchen.

 

“Boys, you need to learn. These frogs’ lives are not going to waste. Now you need to kill them properly and cut their legs off. We’re going to have frog’s legs as a starter for dinner,” announced Athena.

 

“Eeeeuuuw,” said Olivia. Fair enough I thought. Scaly (or slimy) reptiles or frogs’ legs was not something that had ever crawled, leapt or been Jamie Olivered onto any of our dinner plates before.

 

“Livi, the French actually do eat frogs’ legs a lot,” I educated. “They’re famous for it and it’s why the French are called frogs.” Not sure about this but you have to admit there is some logic to it. “And the French call the English pommies because they like chips and the French word for chips is pommes frites.”

 

“What do these taste like?” she asked. I was a very proud Dad that she said this. Because although she had been making all the expected 11 year-old girl responses, she was now seeing them as food not frogs – so clearly my “survive the Amazon” conditioning was kicking in.

 

“We skin them and then I dust them in flour, then fry them in a little garlic butter. Squeeze of lemon juice. Delicious. Sort of like tiny chicken drumsticks,” Maitre d’ Athena presented.

 

“Eeuurgh,” said JP. “We’re really going to eat their legs?”

 

“Yeah, come on JP, you’re going first,” said Olivia, now enjoying that he was squirming a bit. Jack had been brought up with Athenas surprises long enough to know she wasn’t joking, and trusting her skills in the kitchen he was looking forward to something new and tasty

 

“Come on boys, now get those frogs in the sink,” I said, “and make sure you kill them properly first. . . er, Athena will show you how,” I paused to emphasize mercy, “then skin their legs ready for cooking.”

 

With that, we had 15 frogs, some still flopping around, de-skewered into the sink to prepare for their fate as France’s signature dish.

 

Here’s the recipe:

 

Two blowguns

Swamp

Boys

Adventurous mum

Frogs

Flour

Butter

Garlic

Parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Lightly dust with seasoned flour the cleaned legs and lightly fry in garlic infused butter. Sprinkle with finely chopped parsley. Eat straight away with fresh squeezed lemon juice. Note: not suitable as a main course.

 

Serve 2 legs crossed on a small mound of rocket on a huge plate with a slice of lemon to garnish

 

The kitchen was filled with delicious garlic butter and fresh aromas and soon we gathered around the table for our rather puny – although beautifully presented by Athena – starters.

 

Everyone ate them including Olivia – albeit with some reservation.

 

Were they good? Tasted like garlic butter and lemon and parsley and Athena assured us, very much like crocodile, however we likened it to very, very small chicken drumsticks.

____________________

 

When I last looked at the pond was full of frogs. I think they’re safe.

 

CHAPTER 43

Let’s gather around a fire

 

The fire crackled away in the hearth as I finished my glass of wine and asked for the bill. It was the start of the weekend and my turn to run the show. My daughters Courtney and Olivia and I had popped out for a pub supper of fish and chips at Rawdons. It’s a quintessentially English country hotel (and I was going to say except for the African and Indian staff – but then perhaps that makes it even more English these days!). Outside Tudor architecture criss-crosses the facade and inside pictures of hunting dogs and the Grand National hide behind copper and brass artifacts.

 

It’s very cosy on a mid winter’s evening, the dusty, thick drapes cocooning one from the bitter dry cold outside. By now, early June, the landscape that in summer was lush and green had turned dry and light brown. The frosts would start any day – the sign to burn fire breaks.

 

After another hard week’s work and a with a well booked weekend ahead I looked forward to an early night.

 

My phone rang. I pressed the green button and answered. All I heard was deep breathing then a scraping sound with crackling and shouting in the background.

 

“Ian, it’s John Zelenska, where are you, there’s a bush fire coming up your hill, we’re here….”

________________________

 

With hazard lights flashing we sped the ten or so kilometres through Nottingham Road and on to Rosetta. As we rushed through the twisty bit just before Rosetta the sky got rosier and brighter. Our land, or rather should I say conflagration, came into view. Fire raged all along our boundary and here and there people were silhouetted against the blaze. For ten o’clock on a Friday evening, when most of the week’s wages had been turned into alcohol there were a surprising number of active people trying to put out the fire.

 

A tractor and fire trailer moved along the fire and straight away I could see that it was doing as much work as twenty men as it doused water on the inferno.

 

“This is what we have to do,” I hurriedly started briefing my daughters – 14 year-old Courtney and 10 year-old Olivia. “We’ll each take a beater and I’ll bring the water sprayer.”

 

Now I must pause here to explain. We did have a fire plan. The gardeners, Oscar and Junior, who lived on the property and maintained it and looked after the pets and animals, were regularly instructed – or should I say reminded – about the fire plan. Keep the beaters and the water extinguisher neatly lined up and accessible by the garage entrance in case of emergencies. Very often when we arrived for the weekend, the wheelbarrow, various garden implements, a hose pipe, bags of dog food and some of the picnic furniture, which was stored in the garage, was obstructing it.

 

So, it took a few minutes to extract the emergency fire equipment.

 

The beaters look like a floppy pizza spade – a long pole with a huge rectangle of heavy duty conveyor belt on the end. One vigorously smacks the fire and puts it out. This is the theory. These peculiar instruments weigh as much as a small sheep and even I battle to swing its weight. How I expected my slight daughters to achieve much is beyond me.

 

The water douser is a big yellow 20 litre plastic tank that you strap on your back and has a squirter hose that pumps out the water. As part of our mastermind fireplan this should be full and ready to go. However, the gardeners have found it a convenient instrument to water the young hydrangea plants. Often it is not only empty but also in pieces scattered around the garage.

 

Gathering it together I rushed over to the tap. Water trickled into the container. Thought bubble: “They haven’t pumped the house water tanks full – there’s no pressure!” When it was three quarter’s full I decided that would have to do.

 

Finally, armed with our fire combat equipment we stumbled from the garage. “Dad, I can’t carry this,” said Olivia, battling to carry her beater.

 

“What must I do with this, Dad?” asked Courtney?

 

“Livi, I think you better wait in the house.,” said I as I went to unlock the gate and door to let her in.

 

“Dad that’s not a good idea – what if the fire burns the house down?”

 

“Yes, Dad you can’t leave Olivia there on her own,” says Courtney.

 

“Ok jump in the car we’ll drive around and you can wait in the car by the road, you’ll be safe there.” In the dim light I could see Olivia was pleased with this arrangement as she wouldn’t miss out on the excitement of putting out the fire. Or at least watching us do so.

 

Next moment I couldn’t see Courtney. “Courtney?” I called. “Where’s Courts, Livi?”

 

“She’s gone into the house to pack her things so they don’t get burnt. Can I go too, Dad?”

 

I managed a hysterical chuckle in my panic and rushed in the house. “Come Courts it will be fine, we have to get down there.” I wasn’t really that sure about that. But the sooner we got down to the fire the better.

 

Going back outside the acrid, smoky air seemed stronger. “We’ve got to hurry!” I jammed the fire beaters in the back seat and we all jumped in. Except I only got half way. The strap of my 20kg yellow water back pack caught on the car door. No time to waste so I wriggled and squeezed in to my Italian sports car, which I’m sure was never intended to be used as a fire engine. I was now forced forward by the fire pack on my back. The steering wheel pressed into my chest and my knees scrubbed the dashboard.

 

We skidded down the driveway onto the road in the direction of where I guessed the fire would have spread to by now.

________________

 

Darkness greeted us.

 

We drove down the road and the car lights beamed through wisps of smoke and haze in the air. At the end of our property where the fire was earlier it was dark as well.

 

Except for two feint lights bumping across the veld – it was the tractor making its way back to the road.

 

I extricated myself and my yellow burden and walked towards it.

 

“Hello Ian,” came a voice from the darkness. The tractor lights lit up a mop of silvery hair and two shiny eyes in an invisible sooty face. It was John Zelenska, our jovial neighbour. A few more black shapes joined him.

 

“Everything’s under control. Cameron brought his tractor and Mr Ndlovu and the rest of the squatters helped. The fire’s all been put out.”

 

CHAPTER 44

A different world – forty-three million light years away

 

“Can you feel that?” Athena said, as we jerked over the last speedbump before turning off the tar onto the R146.

 

“Yes, it seems like a worn shock absorber,” I instantly responded, recognizing the quicker than usual recoil of the wheel responding to the rise and fall of the road surface.

 

It was still afternoon and light and I noticed Athena looked at me strangely. “No,” was all she said.

 

“Are you ok?”

 

“Every time I’m up here I can feel it. It’s like when I was at the Glastonbury Festival,” she added, which didn’t tell me much.

 

‘What, when you slept with Ewan McGregor?”*

 

Another strange look.

 

“It’s like there are lay lines here. There’s a spiritual quality about this place,” she said slightly misty eyed.

 

We arrived at Horizons, and our animals greeted us with various levels of jumping up and down in hysterical enthusiasm (dogs) or from a distance with downright disdain (cats). Half an hour later the car was unpacked, the Sauvignon Blanc was open and we were enjoying the evening view.

 

“What’s a ‘lay-line’?” ignoramus asked.

 

“The druids used them to locate their temples and places of worship. Stonehenge is supposed to be built where a whole lot of lay lines meet.”

 

And this was after only one sip of wine.

 

“Are there maps of these ‘lay lines’? Let’s Google them.”

 

“Don’t you feel it? There’s this tranquillity and well-being as soon as we get in the area. And not just at Horizons, but the whole Rosetta area?”

 

“Well, this wine has got 12% alcohol in it and that’s tranquilizing.” I smiled.

___________________

 

When we were looking at churches for our wedding we had been to the Rosetta Anglican church. It looked like it was out of the 19th century, covered with creeping ivy – it’s heavy, local stone walls only just evident. Through the narrow stain glass windows chronicling various travesties of the ten commandments and the resulting eternal damnation, one could just make out hard wooden pews. Designed for repentance, it was for sure that here one would pay for one’s sins with a sore bum at least.

 

A sign on the door had previously given us the name and mobile number of the vicar – one Alan Venables – and we had arranged to meet him here.

 

He arrived in an old Morris Minor. He could not have been better cast as the Rosetta priest – a small Welshman with a pointy jaw and a mop of greying hair.

 

Early in the conversation Athena had praised the spiritual quality of Rosetta.

 

“I keep my flock in shape,” said Father Venables, bowing his head slightly in modesty.

 

Athena went on to explain her theory of local lay lines.

 

“Have you heard about Elizabeth Klara?” asked the vicar.

 

Can’t have anything on Ewan McGregor, I thought.

 

Father Venables told us that Elizabeth Klara was a well-respected intelligence officer in World War II (no, my step mum Betty never met her but she knew of her), who was born in Mooi River, the little town ten minutes from Rosetta. (Mooi is Afrikaans for pretty).

 

If you look up on Wikipedia tells us that Klara “studied meteorology and music in England, and learned to fly light aircraft. After reading George http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Adamski “ Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953) and Inside the Space Ships (1955), Klarer suddenly “remembered” that she had been receiving occasional “telepathic” messages from a friendly space alien named Akon since childhood. Akon was presumably unrelated to Adamski’s Venusian space friend Orthon. She was able to take photos of the ship from the Drakensberg

 

“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drakensberg_Mountains” on July 17, 1955. This was a similar arrangement to that made by Adamski with Orthon in 1952.

 

You can see the pictures below. There’s also a map showing where this all happened in SA. Except the weirdest thing – when I copied and pasted it the little flying saucer dot kept flying off the map. Serious. Wierd. A bit spooky.

 

The location of Klarer’s supposed UFO sighting, Rosetta, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

 

(The flying saucer dot is supposed to be here but no matter how hard I tried it kept scooting off to here – tell me that’s not alien…)

Klarer managed to call down Akon and his scout ship on April 7, 1956, for an actual landing.

Here are the pictures to prove it (no photoshopping from me, promise). You can see them at [+ http://www.ufoevidence.org/photographs/section/africa/Photo36.htm+]

The www says this and has the pics to prove the sighting:

“The Drakensberg Photos
17 July 1956, ca. 4 p.m.,
Rosetta/Natal, South Africa

Dipl.-meteorologist Elizabeth Klarer caused an international controversy with her claim of a contact with Extraterrestrials. Her book “Beyond the Light Barrier”, written more in the style of a romantic novel, caused a rather sceptical response, since Klarer claimed she became pregnant after her encounter with a tall, white-haired spaceship-pilot. Only in the Nineties, when cases of pregnancies after UFO abductions were given attention by serious researchers, the Klarer case received a more serious attention. Indeed Cynthia Hind, Africa´s most respected UFO researcher and MUFON representative, managed to locate and interview several eyewitnesses of Klarer´s contacts. Furthermore, Klarer was a well-respected member of the South African society. Her husband was a major of the South African Airforce, Elizabeth herself worked for the Airforce Intelligence.

Her photo series of an “extraterrestrial spaceship” (as she called it) was taken in the presence of two witnesses whom she wanted to show the site of her first contact. With them she drove through the Zulu-Land, the foothills of the mighty Drakens-Mountains, when she noticed a flash of light between the mighty thunderstorm clouds. Immediately she stopped, left the car together with her companions, in her hand theBrownie Box Camera she had brought with her. A moment later she recognized the metallic disc in the dark-clouded sky, obviously slowly approaching. Immediately, like in a reflex action, Elizabeth shot seven photos before the disc suddenly shot away. In the same moment a thunderstorm started, a shower of hail went over the field. Elizabeth Klarer confirmed the authenticity of her photos in an notarized affidavit. She stood behind her story until she died in February 1994, in the age of 83 years.

Four of the seven UFO photos taken by Elizabeth Klarer on July 17, 1956 – enlargements. Note that the cloud formations did not change remarkably on the last two photos, indicating that they were shot within seconds. The disc seems to follow a clean curve, ruling out the possibility of a frisbee or a hub cap thrown into the air.”

She was carried up to the mother ship in earth orbit, and – now the story becomes somewhat different from the mid-1950s contactee standard – was eventually transported in 1957 to Akon’s home planet, Meton, orbiting in the nearby (just a few light years that way and turn left) multiple-star system Alpha Centauri. It was there where she and Akon had sex, she became pregnant, and eventually delivered a male child, Ayling. He stayed behind at home planet Meton to be educated, (just as well) while Klarer came home to planet Earth.

The whole process, trip, lovemaking, pregnancy, delivery and return trip, supposedly required less than four months. Klarer took far more time before publishing a book, Beyond the Light Barrier, (1980), about her extraterrestrial adventures.

On his world lecture tour in the late 1950s, George Adamski made a point of visiting South Africa and looking up Klarer for a chat on their variety of experiences with the friendly, wise “Space Brothers.” By that time, Klarer was not the only Adamski follower to experience claimed space-motherhood, because in 1957 British housewife Cynthia Appleton was revealing that one of Adamski’s handsome blond Venusian Space Brothers had seduced her and gotten her pregnant. The resulting son, Matthew, has not been available for comment to date.”

 

So, that was the story so far from Alan and Wikipedia.

 

“But something more happened in 1994,” Alan said.

 

“Would you like to come for a cup of tea?” invited Father Venables.”It’s nae farr. And I can show yee where the rest of the story happened.”

 

And remember now, dear reader, this is a man of the cloth.

 

From Anglican Church to the vicar’s residence was a short hop. The story fast forwarded 37 years.

___________________

 

Most of Rosetta’s homes overlook the pretty wetland (some would call it a swamp). We stood on the Venables’ veranda and sipped our tea.

 

“I was standing here exactly like this,” he said.

 

“We had just moved here in 1994 and were busy unpacking our last things. Mrs. Venables was inside the house. More tea?”

 

We shook our heads.

 

“It was late afternoon and the light was fading. I first saw it over there.” Alan pointed across the swamp to the right. “There were these lights, they moved across the sky slowly. Too high to be a car.”

 

“Could it have been an aeroplane?” I asked.

 

“That’s what I thought at first. But not the way it moved – that was nothing like an aeroplane. And then it did something strange.” He finished his by now cold tea and put the cup on the table.

 

He pointed to the right of the wetland. “It suddenly went from there,” and with that he swung violently to his left, “to there. Enormous speed. Nothing on earth could do that. Nothing. And then they just hovered.”

 

“I called Mrs Venables to come and look and she saw it too.”

 

“And then what?” asked Athena, with a sideways glance to me.

 

“It hovered and then shot off. Far too fast to be man-made. The lights just shot off into the sky faster than anything I’ve ever seen and they were gone.”

 

“Did other people in Rosetta see it?” I asked.

 

“Oh, yes they did.”

 

“Where is Elizabeth Klara now – is she still alive? Does she live in the area?” I figured she would be the same age as our parents – all now in their late eighties.

 

“No, she went to live in Durban in an old age home.”

 

Father Venables seemed to be far away. “The next day – after the light in the sky – I bumped into someone in town and do you know what they said?”

 

“They had seen Elizabeth Klara that same day in Rosetta as the day of the lights.” (Note – Day of the Lights – that sounds like a good movie title.)

 

“Maybe she felt like going on holiday,” I said, “to Alpha Centauri.”

 

Athena gave me “the look”.

 

“She was looking old and frail but she had come to visit Rosetta.” Alan said gravely.

 

“It all sounds very weird and unbelievable, doesn’t it,” Father Venables said, almost in a confessionarial tone. “But it was to get even spookier.”

 

Shortly after, we heard something which explained why she was here in Rosetta that day of the lights. It was as if there’s was something about to happen that only she knew.”

 

“The very next day, back at the old age home in Durban, Elizabeth Klara peacefully died.”

_________________

 

Some say that in 1978 Elizabeth arranged a 21st birthday celebration for her son Ayling at the spot where she was abducted. He disappointed her and never arrived. Maybe he got the dates wrong.

__________

 

At the Picnics one day, we presented the Visitor’s book to a group of ladies (there were four of them) huddled together. “Here’s our book, please write something in it.” We went back to say goodbye to the guests as they were leaving. We noticed what they had written: their personal contact names and their numbers which we could call them to find out more about Elizabeth Klara. “We know her quite well,” the one old dear stated.

 

Later, I searched the book, but I couldn’t find where they had written their names or the numbers.

_______________

 

*Athena tells the story that she went to Glastonbury Festival about twenty years ago along with about 200,000 other people. After a very long night she dozed off sitting next to a big tent, a popular resting place. When she woke in the morning, she disturbed the person next to her. The good looking guy had a familiar face. “Hello, I’m Ewan McGregor,” said the now famous Trainspotting actor and heart-throb to my new wife.

CHAPTER 45

Follow the signs – really?

 

“There’s a lot of passing traffic where the D146 turns off,” said Athena, “we must have a sign there.”

 

As were ticking off the last few tasks just before the launch, we had come to signage. The Midlands Meander have a very good system to direct visitors to all their wonderful attractions, of which there are a couple of hundred. A free, colourful (and large – tabloid size) brochure and map is given out at major entry points to the Meander and at every attraction. It clearly shows routes and each attraction is numbered and well signposted displaying the distinctive butterfly motif.

 

In our first meeting with the Midlands Meander inspectors, we’d asked (somewhat hopefully in retrospect) if our membership package included the cost of the signage. It was about R8,000 (about US$1,100 in that day) to join in 2004 so we thought it was likely.

 

We were wrong. So, once we were Meander approved, I asked how we were to go about it. I knew from campaigns involving street posters in Durban how sticky they were with displaying things in public places and on street poles. Anything like that including signage had to go through the department of elevation control in the city for approval. They’d issue luminous coloured “approved” stickers for the exact quantity of posters in your application. I was hopeful that the Meander would have some broad arrangement in place that they administered on behalf of their members. Wrong again.

 

“You’ll need to get permission from the roads signage department to put up your Midlands Meander sign,” Ron Gold had told us. “Contact this guy, he handles a lot of the signage for members.”

 

I did. Two signs should do the job, I explained, so that our turn off was identified from both directions. No problem, that’s usual, he had said. We would need to pay him a fee for getting the signage approved and the costs of manufacturing the sign and coming out and erecting it.

 

“That’s great,” I said, “we’re opening in two weeks, do you think you can get them up before then?

 

He laughed. Not hysterically, but in that sort of sympathetic, ‘you don’t know anything’ way. “I could,” he said, “but the approval can take months going through the department. You’ll be lucky to have it by the end of the year.”

 

“I’ll come back to you,” I closed the conversation.

 

We had to do something.

 

The D146 was such a little road it was easy to drive right past. We soon found that some customers also made the easy mistake of taking the next road, the one to the Kamberg and Giant’s Castle. “We can’t find you,” they’d say, from ten or twenty kilometres and well on their way to the mountains.

 

“You know what we can do? Make some banners and just put them up when we’re open,” I recommended as we walked along the beach at Umhlanga one evening.

 

“What, like the estate agents do every Sunday?”

 

“Sort of, but bigger. About two and a half metres long and a bit less than a metre high. I’ll use some fence standards or something like that to hold them up.”

 

Banners were in some ways a better option than the signs. We could make them as big as we wanted (budget allowing) and the real plus was they could be in glorious colour.

 

However, there was one hazard.

 

On the few occasions that I had driven through informal settlements in South Africa, as squatter camps are politely, or pc (politically correctly) called, it looked like half the residents were highly commercialised. Signs promoting Coke or MTN or Toyota or other multinationals were on shacks everywhere. Any suitable material that squatters could get their hands on, they would, and this was a good building resource. Advertising panels on bus shelters, billboards, you name it, was fair game to the squatters.

 

Displaying the banners permanently was asking for trouble. The steel fence standards, the large vinyl banners and the nylon rope to hold them in place would all be desirable to a squatter. Therefore, routine was on each picnic day, either my or one of our gardeners’ jobs would be to hammer in the steel fence standards and rope the banners to them. In the afternoon once there were few drivers-by to advertise to, the gardener on duty that day needed to collect them. Usually they remembered and the banners, ropes and steel poles were safely stored in our garage.

 

The banners did the job well. They colourfully illustrated the setting and the food we offered and showed our telephone numbers, all done in the pumpkin and stone colours of our strong branding. Printed digitally using UV resistant inks to prevent fading in the sun on vinyl, they were bright and stood out against the greenery of the wetland around the stream. They directed and attracted customers.

 

But the hammering in of the fence standards was a pain. Although you could usually find the previous week’s holes, sometimes the weeds grew so fast they got lost. The ground was stony and often a few centimetres down a rock would stop any progress and you’d have to keep trying, at the same time keeping the poles the right distance from each other to match the banner width.

 

Collecting the banners was also a bit of a nuisance. The gardener would be gone for an hour because of the walk there. Neither of us could drive him down because it was at the time we were usually saying farewell to the last guests and cashing up. Pulling the stakes out of the hard ground was sometimes as difficult as hammering them in.

 

So, after the banners had survived a few months, the plan we really pushed the envelope of risk.

 

We had a few wooden poles left from retaining our new herb garden outside the kitchen. At a metre or so long they were the perfect height.

 

“Oscar, we’re going to put these poles there and leave them there to make it easier,” I told him. “And I’ve put these nails in where the rope must be tied up.”

 

Just how long would the four poles – good for firewood, roofing support structures, weapons, who knew – last? Never mind, they sure made life easier to erect and take down the banners every picnic day.

 

Often between 11am and 12 noon guests would call asking for directions.

 

We’d talk them onto the R103 – the road from Nottingham Road to Rosetta. It was easy from there. “As you go over the speedbumps coming in to Rosetta just look for our banner and turn left there.” That was our stock instruction. Easy peasy.

 

“We did turn left in Rosetta – but we didn’t see any banner,” the conversation went, one Sunday morning after a very busy Saturday.

 

“They’re bright orange – you can’t miss them. And there’s one pointing each way.”

 

‘We didn’t see any banner coming in to Rosetta.”

 

“Where are you now?”

 

Crackle, crackle… “Wait,… there’s a sign that says Giant’s Castle 80km…”

 

“Sorry, turn around and…” etc etc, and they were talked in. Half an hour they arrived. “We found it,” they said. Brilliant, I thought. What’s the matter that you can’t see a few metres of bright orange picnic pictures?

 

“And we saw a banner coming from Giant’s Castle side but there wasn’t one facing the Nottingham Road side.”

 

Ah. “Please – glasses of sherry all round. Our compliments.”

 

A little while later I had summoned the gardener on duty.

 

“Did you put both the banners up this morning?” I interrogated him.

 

“No.”

 

“What do you mean, no?”

 

“I put them up yesterday.”

 

“I know that, but did you put them up again today.”

 

Long pause and blank look. Clearly a trick question.

 

“Did you take them down last night?” I changed my angle of inquisition.

 

“Hauw, sir, sorry no, I forgot.”

 

“Athena, I’m going down to check the banners, there’s a problem.”

 

A few minutes later it was obvious. There was only one banner left and no sign of its mate. We’d have to shell out a couple of grand for a replacement.

 

So either a malicious ex staff member stole it, or a squatter now has a very nice shack advertising fine al fresco dining, chic European street cafe chairs and Bresaola Carpaccio drizzled with basil pesto.

 

CHAPTER 46

The Chicken and The Egg – Any Cock’ll Do

 

It was time to become more farmified.

 

But a cow would be a bit big.

 

I mean the fresh milk and cream and butter and homemade real ice cream would be wonderful. But if something happened to the cow like it broke a leg we could never eat it or take it to Durban in a box.

 

A sheep was not a good idea because you feed it and feed it and get nothing back (the milk’s a bit smelly) for months and then you have to use it all in one go. Besides the kids would call it Fluffy or Lamby and end up never eating Sunday Roast again.

 

As a kid I remember that around November each year (in the sixties) the cicadas and the Burchill’s Cuckoo’s would announce that Christmas was but weeks away. The air was filled with the smells of fresh cut grass and the conifer trees next door on the golf course.

 

Our garden had a new smell added to it. The smell of turkey. No, not roasting stuffed turkey but a real live turkey going gobble gobble gobble. This was no frozen monstrosity from some substance-abused mass farming system. This one came from a farm nearby where turkey lived naturally and happily. (And dare I say organically.)

 

Turkey continued his happy life in our back garden. Well, maybe he was a bit lonely behind the coal shed, but in the cool of the giant blue gum/eucalyptus trees he had the company of the turtle doves and next door chickens. He could enjoy the summer sounds and smells as much as we were. And as the exclusive rights owner to a large patch of garden, Turkey had his pick of the bugs.

 

About a week before Christmas our gardener, James, an elderly Zulu, would disappear behind the shed with axe and large basin and an hour or two later come back with our Christmas lunch.

 

I never witnessed Turkey’s sacrificial transition from happy existence to tasty dinner and I never heard my sisters screaming or pleading for Turkey. But I suspect that this had nothing to do with a pragmatic acceptance of where our food came from. Rather it had everything to do with the conspiracy to get all us kids conveniently out when the deed was done. We were probably at the local swimming pool where we spent most of the summer anyway.

 

The point is that, unlike a cow or a sheep, a poultry is managable. If you have half a dozen of them and one finds its way via the kitchen to the table, besides losing its head it loses its identity much more easily.

 

And although we pretended we were now country folk and I’ve no doubt Athena could turn Chucky the Chicken into Casserole or Cacciatore bare-handed, we were still city folk.

 

Besides, the main attraction is one doesn’t have to go through the messy business of converting something on legs to something on a plate with poultries. They produce eggs.

 

So, we decided chickens would be the livestock.

 

“But how does this work?” I asked Athena as we drove up one weekend. “Don’t we need male chickens and female chickens to get eggs?”

 

“Roosters and hens,” she replied. “Broilers and layers.”

 

“No, we just need a few hens and then one cockerel. He makes them broody.”

 

The next morning I had a good look at our back yard. It looked ideal. There was an area of lawn about the size to park six cars with the washing line in the middle. It was mostly secured by a picket fence or the garage wall or the neighbour’s fence. The last open bit, the bush where the giant green water tanks were, was only about twenty paces so we would have to fence that.

 

Also in this space was the laundry and attached to that the old outside toilet. It was called a long drop – just a deep pit in the ground that acted as a soak pit. Sometimes the staff used this and poor Busi dropped her mobile phone in there once. She recovered it we heard and I shudder to think now of her taking a phone call in the kitchen between plating up the carpaccio…

 

Between the toilet and the garage was a space as wide as a double bed. Armed with tape measure I figured out that a space about the same volume as the toilet room would be perfect.

 

“Hi Dad, what‘re you doing?” It was Olivia.

 

“Hi sweetie,” and I gave her a big good morning hug. “This is where the chickens are going to live.”

 

I showed her my sketches. “But where will the chickens sleep, Dad?” she said, “and lay their eggs?”

 

“Don’t they make a nest and do that on the ground?”

 

“Awww, Dad, shame, we have to make houses for them, little boxes.”

 

So, I added some shelves on the back wall. I would extend the back wall along the side a bit from ground to roof. This would be the base for the chicken houses. Each one had a riser along the front edge so that our hundreds of eggs each week would not fall off and smash.

 

Having enough wood was no problem. What is now a couple of cottages at Horizons used to be stables and the remnants of the solid stable doors were stacked behind the cottages. Besides these, there was a lot more scrap wood around, behind the garage as well as in the grass by the water tanks. Farm properties are like that – there’s always useful stuff. I felt like a little boy again.

_________________

 

As I’m writing this years later I hear a pop from the kitchen – damn. I put some eggs on to boil to make a salad for lunch at work and forgot them. There’s a feint whiff of burnt something in the air but it’s just the hot dry pot I caught them just in time.

 

For lunch, I’m going to make something I’ve just invented: a sort of inside-out or deconstructed Pain Bagnat salad that’s good to use up day old bread. A Pain Bagnat is a giant Provencal round sandwich – a big, flat bread roll the size of a side plate sliced flat and filled with a sort of salade nicoise.

 

The other thing that inspired me is the juice left on a plate after a salad with lots of tomato in it. It’s had a chance to merge with the olive oil and other ingredients and has a delicious, complex flavour. So, my salad has lots of tomato in it chopped up into cubes. Then you add bread cubes, olive oil, balsamic or vinegar, salt and pepper, some canned tuna and sliced boiled eggs. I also like a hint of chilli. We’ve just planted sweet basil and I’ll add some of those leaves as well.

 

The bread I use is my home-made ciabatta or baguette which is robust. Not like the cake-textured government loaves. If you used them they would turn to porridge. My bread cubes soak up those delicious flavours and still keep some of their texture. You could fry them in a little oil to make croutons – also delicious, but that gives a different texture and construct to the salad.

_______________

 

But back to Horizons and the chicken run.

 

“Look at this, Athena,” and I pointed out my plan as we enjoyed a Cappuccinos on the sunny patio. “The chicken shed can go here. These old stable doors from behind the garage will make the back wall and the shelves and then the rest of the sides will be chicken mesh. The toilet roof overhangs a bit, so I can run the chicken shed roof just below that – it should be perfect.”

 

Athena liked what I described and gave the town planning approval for chicken city.

 

I was on a mission. Once I start a project I get fired up and obsessed with it. Everything I needed was there except some chicken wire and nails. And a couple of hinges for the entrance and a latch. And the screws for those.

 

Our local trading store in Rosetta – the same one where we got our ice – also sold chicken wire and nails and the other bits.

 

An hour later I was back on site, equipped. I dug a shallow trench to anchor the walls and to prevent snakes and rats from getting in at ground level. (Although I could imagine a snake getting in, eating an egg and not being able to get its bulbous body back out through the chicken wire. But then that’s a bit blonde – these weren’t hard boiled eggs…!)

 

Athena manned the picnic side that weekend. Olivia kept me well fed with tea and picnic food but lost interest after a while.

 

By Sunday lunchtime chicken city was complete. I took Athena and Olivia and Jack on a tour.

 

I was particularly proud of the shelves which by now had been padded with hay and looked very welcoming.

 

“How will the chickens get up there?” asked Olivia.

 

I looked at Athena. “Don’t they jump and flap their wings and sort of fly?” I looked at the shelves. Good point. The chickens would have to be skilled mountaineers to climb up the vertical faces of the shelves. They’d be lucky to make the first level.

 

So, we made some ramps and ladders – chicken city was now starting to look like a parking garage. Next to go in was an old tyre and we added some tight rope swings from the ceiling. Our chickens were not going to be denied anything. We would have the best eggs.

____________________

 

During the week, I phoned around. There were egg farmers near us in the Midlands but they were suspicious when I started asking about chicks for layers.

 

Eventually I found a place in Pietermaritzburg. We stopped there on the way up the next weekend and left with a box with holes in it and six scruffy chicks. They were about three weeks old and a bit bigger than a tennis ball. Just as well, if we’d got newborn chicks they could have walked through the chicken mesh.

 

“How long will they take to start laying?” asked Athena.

 

“Oh, three or four months,” was the reply.

 

The chickens grew rapidly. They were supermachines and ate even faster – at this rate we were looking forward to dozens of eggs a day. For the price and amount of feed they were ploughing through we could have bought dozens of eggs a day delivered fresh by helicopter before breakfast.

 

Our trusty local trading store had a half a dozen feed options. Some of them looked like real food – ground up bits of maize and seeds. Others looked dodgy.

 

“That’s what the locals buy for their layers,” said the Rosetta trading store owner we had got to know quite well.

 

“Do you know what’s in this?” I asked, picking up a handful of stuff that looked like rat poo. “Does it have any hormones in it?”

 

Mohammed looked blank.

 

“What about GM maize – do you know if they use GM maize?”

 

“It comes from the feed manufacturer, that’s what everyone uses,” he said.

 

I was forgetting that Mohammed was a general dealer, not a specialist dealer.

 

Seven months went by. We were still eating supermarket eggs. Spent egg trays piled up in the pantry waiting to filled with Robinson’s Fresh Farm Eggs Straight to You for friends and family and to feed the nation.

 

Our chickens could not be better fed. Every weekend they had baguettes, tonnato, carpaccio, salmon rolls, ginger bread men and sausage rolls.

 

We found that they were also mean snailkillers. When we threw a snail to them they would almost take each other out to get at the prize morsel.

 

Another month went by.

 

“Are there any eggs yet?” I asked Oscar as we arrived at Horizons for another weekend.

 

‘No, sir,” said Oscar.

 

We studied the chickens carefully. They were strong and healthy. (Even though they stood on the edge of the food tray and crapped in it.) Mohammed was supplying us with the “layer mash” which the feed manufacturers guaranteed would “Get your chickens laying.”

 

But still no eggs. Still not even one egg. Zilch. Nada. Zip. Nothing.

____________________

 

“It says we need a cockerel,” Athena announced a few days later. ‘I went on the internet and it says the chickens need to feel broody.”

 

Enter Rumpus.

 

Now I’ve never thought of chickens as anything much other than golden roasted surrounded by crisp potatoes. And let me tell you our Flo does the best roasties. She peels, cuts to size and steams the potatoes until they’re potato salad done. Then it’s into a roasting pan in the oven with half a cup of oil til golden. That’s it. (There, bet you didn’t think I could fit a whole recipe into three lines?)

 

Rumpus reminded me of one of the Monty Python parrot sketches with John Cleese (“This parrot is dead,” complains customer. Response: “Ah, sir, but it has beautiful plumage.”)

 

Our new cockerel Rumpus was very much alive. He strutted his stuff like a frontline Moulin Rouge dancer (although that would make him gay or transvestite). His plumage was flamboyantly auburn and gold and black with flashes of purple in the sunlight. He carried himself like a regimental sergeant major – chest out, stomach in. He walked with the goose steep and arrogance of a Nazi officer.

 

Hey chickens, if a show-off, transvestite, Moulin Rouge, Nazi officer cockerel don’t push your buttons and make you broody, nothing will.

 

A month later we heard a loud squawk from the hen house.

 

“We’ve got an egg, we’ve got an egg,” shouted Athena.

 

‘What are we going to do with it?” I said. “It’s worth about R2,000. We should mount it and display it.”

 

Egg production was expected to accelerate to a trickle (plop?) after that. Athena’s research said we could expect each chicken to give us five eggs a week.

 

So, every weekend when we arrived there should have been nearly three dozen eggs.

 

We were lucky if there were a dozen. And I must say our resident gardeners Oscar and Junior seemed to be looking more than healthy and developing the good muscle tone one gets from a high protein diet.

 

But then maybe that was just all the hard work they did in the garden during the week while we weren’t there.

__________________

 

Surprisingly, when we sold a year or so later, we still had all the chickens except one. Even though they were allowed to roam free in the neighbourhood and they had to be rounded up at the end of each day. Even though we had three dogs and four cats.

 

As for Rumpus we think he was gay or underneath all those raucous feathers had erectile disfunction or something. In over a year we only had one chick born. And that could have been only thanks to a visitor from the neighbours we saw hanging around Horizons one day – a scruffy, mangy imposter who clearly had none of the breeding of our Rumpus.

 

But while he didn’t have the presence of our man, perhaps he did have the virility and libido to do the job that Rumpus never seemed to have managed.

 

CHAPTER 47

Four Seasons, Five Senses

 

“This is so different, Durban’s always green and hazy,” said Athena one Friday as we drove the R103 through Nottingham Road to Rosetta.

 

It had been two weeks since Athena was there. Still April.

 

Then, the landscape had been dark green, light green, medium green. The flowers of summer may have disappeared but the leaves and grasses had still been enjoying themselves, with enough rain and enough sun to keep on pushing out the chlorophyll.

 

It had moved on to May and all the flora had flipped a page on their calendar and agreed it was time for the autumn palette. In those two weeks all the green had been put away – now it was russets, golds, oranges, browns, ochres and ambers.

 

Although only an hour or so from Durban, Rosetta is in a different world, and I’m not talking about the aliens. The drive northwest on the N2 climbs a few steps along the way and with each the landscape, temperature and climate change.

 

The most noticeable of these is the big climb up town hill from Pietermaritzburg to Hilton – only about ten kilometres but a different world. On a clear day, as you crest the rise at the Hilton turnoff (also where one of the country’s top schools is – Hilton College), the view stretches across the midlands and climbs the foothills of the Drakensberg up to their summit at 3,000 metres.

 

Every winter there’s snow on the ‘berg. Every four or five years KZN has such heavy snowfalls in the Midlands that these reach down to Hilton. Traffic is prohibited beyond the Hilton turnoff for a day or two until the warm winter African sun takes care of the snow.

 

There’s another significant step up to the turn off to Nottingham Road. Driving up there, sometimes the mist is so thick you have to slow to 40kmh. Suddenly as you crest the hill you escape its clutches and the mist evaporates into a perfect sunny day.

 

The dates of the change of seasons have always confused me. In fact, I don’t think there are any, mainly because every area is different. The first year we were at Horizons I nearly lost a batch of salamis and prosciutto because they were in the airing cabinet behind the kitchen. Remember that we weren’t there usually Monday to Friday. I expected winter to last at least until the end of August and suddenly a few days into August the TV weatherman told us to expect high twenties.

 

For us, returning weekly made the seasonal changes more evident.

 

Autumn only lasts a couple of weeks and then winter arrives and it’s crisp. The leaves are crisp, the grass is crisp and the frost – routine every morning in the middle of winter – is crisp. Even the occasional thin layer of ice on the pond (and on the dog’s water bowls if you forget them outside) is crisp. But it’s a clean fresh crispness that rasps your lungs. No colds and flu at this time – the cold just nails any germs. So, although the thermo tells you it’s cold it doesn’t feel so cold.

 

Not like the time I had to walk a few miles in a London winter from Clapham Common to the train station. It was four degrees and misty and damp and the tendrils of this miserable moisture creeped under your clothes and under your skin and chilled your skeleton. I’ve skiid at -26C and that was pleasant. I've never felt so cold as a foggy London at +4C. It would have been warmer to swim up the Thames if I could have seen it.

 

In Rosetta, there’s usually no rainfall in winter. If a massive cold front occurs any moisture gets pushed that far inland result is turned instantly into sleet or snow.

 

This is the time of the year when the water pipes from the river freeze and we had to wait until late morning before they were clear to pump. Otherwise it would be Lew Cuthbert to deal with. Extra tricky because it was the time when we needed the most water as well to keep the grass green for the picnickers. We succeeded most of the time – if not it was more due to `mechanical or human resource failure’ than the weather.

 

Winter is also the time of blackjacks. These benign looking weeds grow through the summer to about a metre high. Then as the weather dries out their DNA says “it’s time to bring out the seeds.” The seeds are nasty little centimetre long black chaps with burs on the one end. One plant will produce a thousand of them. Which is about how many attach themselves to your clothes if you carelessly brush past it hiding in the grass. And it’s about how many minutes it takes to remove them all.

 

But this time of the year has its blessings. Although Rosetta dips below freezing at night, its winter days are the most reliable for sunshine. Usually by mid-morning the sky is pale blue and the sun radiant. By noon the ground has soaked up some of its rays and on a good day the thermo cheerfully announces 20C.

 

Durban by contrast is a bit boring in its greenness. Its subtropical climate and 1,000mm a year rainfall never allow it to dry out. So, for us it was a treat that Rosetta reminded us of the wonder of seasons.

 

Suddenly about the third weekend in August nature would wake up from winter.

 

“Wow, that tree was absolutely bare last week, now look at all the green leaves,” we’d notice as we drove into Horizons on a Friday.

 

“And look at all those bulbs sprouting in the pots,” Athena would add.

 

A week later pinks, yellow, whites, reds, oranges would punctuate the fresh green as all the flowers burst into life.

 

As soon as you turned your back the grass and weeds would be uncontrollable and the gardeners would get through metres of weed eater twine as they fought valiantly. And the weedeater fought valiantly and sometimes lost and died and we’d have to get another motor or weedeater altogether.

 

We managed to resist getting a lawnmower all three years we were at Horizons. We expected that whatever machine we got would not last so why get a big expensive one when you can get a small, less expensive one. (This theory proved true over and over in practice.)

 

The few weeks from September into October bring the hottest days of the year like an uncontrollable juvenile delinquent that doesn’t know its own moods. The temperature could scorch to mid-thirties. But then you knew. You knew that within days or hours it would plummet to zero because a cold front would arrive. The hotter it was before the colder it would be after.

 

A few weeks later we would be treated to the most spectacular thunderstorms. Bolt and sheet lightning would turn the midlands into day for a flash and silhouette the row of giant gum trees and conifers in our garden. Occasionally a tree in the area would get struck. Like the giant blue gum at the Goat’s Cheese farm next door one tumultuous afternoon. Forty years of slow growth into a mammoth with a metre and a half base was shredded in a nanosecond.

 

Spike hated these storms and could sense them hours before while it was still bright without a cloud in the sky. He would start seeking out a hiding place – usually squashed into the narrowest gap behind a couch or even the washing machine. Without fail the thunder would follow. Come to think of it, he was actually a good early warning system for rain at picnic time that we were always too busy to notice. Sorry Spike.

 

If you treated these storms with respect you were safe. Not wise to take a shower or a bath (like Athena did once in the fury of a violent electric thunderstorm because the lights had gone out and there wasn’t much else to do), or to stand under a big tree. Best to lie down flat and stay away from metal (golf clubs? Not good…). Sadly, for some friends of ours who are building up a nice little nature reserve, they lost an adult giraffe recently. It didn’t lie down and was turned from the highest object around to a barbeque quick as a flash. Not as sad as for the giraffe though.

 

With the moisture of summer would come the mist. The view from the veranda on a December morning was dynamic. At first all you could see was mist. Slowly the scorching sun would burn away the shroud. First the tallest trees would point through and then more and more details like a Turner landscape being painted until you could see the texture of every leaf.

 

At this time, while Durban sweltered even at night at 20C plus and humidity near 90%, and unless you had a fan or an airconditioner on all the time you never cooled down, in Rosetta the nights were still cool enough for a blanket and a good night’s sleep.

 

Come late January in Rosetta, the moisture would dissipate and we’d enter the best time of the year all the way through to May. Enough rain to keep everything lush and green, but mostly glorious sunshine and what, for most people on weekends, meant long lazy days by the pool with a braai and friends.

 

Exactly what we had had in mind when we went in search of our weekend getaway. Except now we were just working our butts off.

 

Never mind. Our plan to have all the picnickers gone by four (switching the music off successfully diluted the ambience quickly) and the staff shortly thereafter (never a problem to get them to finish up fast and leave) usually worked. Then we would have a couple of hours of quiet, tranquil summer evening to enjoy.

 

Out would come a couple of plates of carpaccio and I’d slice some prosciutto.,

 

“Our wine of the day was a Backsburg Viognier – ready for a glass?” I’d ask Athena, couple of glasses in hand.

 

“Absolutely,” she’d smile.

 

We’d lay a blanket on the grass and doze to the sound of evening arriving. Sometimes we’d be there until it got dark if a mozzie didn’t find us first.

 

“Big sky.” Athena would say sometimes looking up at the vastness above.

 

“Wow, where did you get that from?” I’d asked the first time she said it.

 

“I felt it the first time I came to Africa. There’s just so much space and when you look out at the landscape it just seems to go on and on and on to the horizon and up into an endless sky.”

 

Whenever we travel now I look for big sky. I’ve seen it looking from high up on the alps with Italy on one side and France on the other and snow covered peaks as far as the eye can see. I’ve seen it flying across the vast peopleless expanses of Madagascar and Australia and Africa and the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

 

But the view from our front lawn on a late summer’s evening still takes some beating. Especially after a glass or two of the wine of the day and my arm around Athena by my side, her perfume working perfectly and a hint of fresh cut grass in the air. Even in the middle of winter we would wrap up in scarves and blankets and enjoy the spectacle.

 

As first Venus announces it’s showtime and the stars switch on with increasing speed until you can’t keep up and finally it’s the full symphony as the milky way takes its place…

 

Whatever the season, on a clear night you’d be guaranteed one thing….

 

Big sky.

__________________

 

Horizon’s seasons were quintessential. I love that word (once I had figured out what it meant, that is). Model or standard or complete – it comes from ‘of the five senses’ is my interpretation.

 

Interlayered and interwoven with the sights were the sounds and smells and tastes and textures, each with a range and occasional polarity that could be frightening.

 

The smell of the dry grasses and indigenous herbiness on the winter air was reminiscent of a bone-dry sauvignon blanc. A few months later it would smell like a shampoo as the moist air carried the bouquet of a thousand flowers through the air.

 

The texture of the grass, which welcomed you in summer, springy and soft and smooth and cool to the touch when you lay on it (if you checked there were no red ants) turned vicious in winter, spiky and sharp and crunchy and unhospitable in its unwelcomingness. (Well I think it’s a word. And if it wasn’t it is now.)

 

There was usually something to taste on a walk in the garden. Although I was the only one to brave the mushrooms, there was usually some food somewhere. The rocket plants grew anywhere – even in the gravel in front of the garage. In summer, there were plums, apples, the most delicious apricots I have ever tasted. The eggs, from chickens that ate food scraps, bugs and snails, were rich. The jikki jolla berries, aka blackberries? which ripened just in time for Christmas and we used so well in Athena’s dessert, were ripened black in their sweetness and juicyness.

 

On a tranquil spring morning, the cicadas and birds would reward the early riser with their serenade. Later that same day gale force winds ahead of a giant storm or cold front would lash the massive blue gums and scream through the edges of the thatch.

 

The seasons are very definite in the Midlands. You know when autumn is coming and you know from the frost and chill in the evenings that winter is here. A drive down the road on a June morning would suck the temperature down to -2 as you went through the dip at the stream at the Springvale River (after which the dam is named) just 1km/2/3mile from Horizzons – probably Rosetta’s lowest point.

 

CHAPTER 48

The fish farm and the fish pond and other wildlife

 

Back in the nineties (scary, that’s now two decades back as I write this) I had the pleasure of seeing much of KZN consulting to what was then the Natal Parks Board, now called Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, so let’s refer to them as Ezemvelo (which means ‘wildlife’).

 

Something like 38% of KZN is under some of level of conservation and a l arge part of this is made up of Ezemvelo’s camps. When I worked with them they had nearly fifty camps/quite a few more camps but due to poor management – or rather leadership and direction – some of these gems have now been turned over to private concessionaires. No doubt they’re now turning a handsome profit in private hands. So now they have 33 camps (in 2011).

 

One of these is called Kamberg and was just up the road from us. While it is still part of Ezemvelo it has changed. As I found out when I took Olivia and her friend Cayla Botha on a very early Saturday morning outing.

 

“Dad, can we go see the snow this weekend?” Olivia had asked.

 

I thought for a moment. It was still early days and both Athena and I were still in attendance as we got into the groove of the business. And that Saturday morning around ten some journalists were coming for an interview. But if we left early enough we could.

 

“Yes, if we leave early enough we can, but really early, like 5am,” I said.

 

“Yay,” the two eleven year olds squealed.

 

It’s a short squirt from Rosetta to Kamberg where you turn off past Cleopatra and climb very rapidly to Highmoor, another Ezemvelo camp that’s very remote and high enough to be in the snow zone.

 

We were there as the first rays of sun warmed up KZN far below us and tucked into the hot chocolate and breakfast I had brought. There was little snow but lots of frost and lots of ice where water on the dirt road had frozen. Not the same but still spectacular.

 

“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” I said on the way down. I remembered that Ezemvelo’s Kamberg had a trout hatchery. It was quite a sophisticated affair, where rainbow trout were spawned and grown to a good pan size for sale to local farmers to stock their dams. “Let’s get some trout for our pond.”

 

The long channels where the trout grew were still there but as we walked in I could see everything else was in disrepair. Whereas before the channels had writhed with all the trout in them, now there were just a few fingerlings swimming around. “What’s happened here?” I asked the lone Zulu man working there.

 

He explained that Ezemvelo had now decided that the trout were aliens and had embarked on eradicating them from KZN’s rivers. So, they had closed down the trout hatchery.

 

“What’s happening with these trout?” I asked.

 

“Nothing,” he said, “when they get big we eat them.”

 

“Can I buy some?”

 

The hatchery is miles from the main Kamberg camp but he looked around and back at me conspiringly. “How many do you want to buy?”

 

“Have you got twenty? Small ones – like this,” and I measured about 10cm with my hands. “How much will they cost?”

 

“I can’t sell them,” he said, although clearly he had in mind that we could do some sort of transaction.

 

Ten minutes later he had doubled his wages for an hour or two and we left with a giant plastic bag wriggling on the back floor of the car, full of mountain water and twenty confused rainbow trout fingerlings.

 

Back at the farm Athena was getting more and more agitated waiting for me. I had not allowed for the trout shopping in my morning’s plan and with the journalists coming. So she was not happy with a) getting the house spotless on her own for them, and b) them arriving without me being there and me arriving late.

 

So, she was not as enthusiastic about the troutlings as I anticipated.

 

The trout needed to meet their new surroundings. I know from buying fish for the children that they need acclimatising so the whole bag was gently slid into the pond to first equalise the water temperatures. A couple of hours later (after a successful interview with the journos and some of Flo’s world beating shortbreads and crunchies) I punctured the bag so that the pond water could gradually mix with the mountain water.

 

Trout are either very shy or very clever and like to hide. So our pond, about ten metres in diameter with an island in the middle (yes, it was all quite large) was well overgrown on the one side with lilies and reeds and other water plants. As long as the gardeners kept the water level up (as long as the pump worked, as long as the pipes didn’t leak, as long as they remembered to tell me when the petrol was low…), I was certain this would be a great environment for the trout. Athena was less enthusiastic. “They’ll never survive,” she muttered. “Too warm and they’ll get eaten in no time.” But I think her absence of enthusiasm was more to do with cold shoulder related to my timing and planning in the morning.

Jack, even at eleven years old, was a good fisherman and delighted at being able to fly fish in the pond. “Then we can eat fresh trout,” he enthused.

 

I must admit there was merit in the idea. “That’s NOT what they’re for, Jack,” I laughed. “In no time they’ll all be gone.”

 

I warned the gardeners too. “There are twenty-three fish and I’m going to count them every week.”

 

The fish grew and I was pleased to see when I approached that they shyly took cover under all the plants. A few months later they had doubled in size. Counting them wasn’t easy. Was that the same group that I just saw over there?

 

“The trout are doing well,” I updated Athena. But she was still cynical.

 

“There was a Kingfisher on top of the fountain yesterday.” These small birds, not much bigger than a man’s hand, dove from height for their fishy prey. I kept an eye on the pond that lunchtime and sure enough, there was a Kingfisher. Was he guilty of eating our trout? I don’t know. Maybe he saw that the pond was very shallow and didn’t want to risk missing the fish and crashing into the concrete just below the surface. It was less than 12”/30cm shallow.

 

It could also have been an otter. Although the river was a kilometre away these animals are known to travel vast distances at night. Occasionally we saw signs of crab shells in our garden which an otter must have eaten. (We knew there were crabs around because a couple of times we had them coming into the bar. They would casually saunter up to the bar with a look that said “Please help me. I’m lost, where is the Mooi River, please?”)

 

Eventually I gave up counting the trout as they became more and more elusive. (Don’t you mean more and more eaten? – Athena). I was confident that they had worked out their survival skills in our small pond. Admittedly the numbers did dwindle. Like the mystery of the chickens that didn’t lay as many eggs as they should have, there was the mystery (in my mind at least) of the trout that one by one disappeared.

 

But, two years later when we moved out, I’m convinced if you waited patiently enough you could see the sun glinting off the remaining trout as he braved the water just free of the pond plants. There may have been two – it was rare to see them. The fittest (or smartest or shyest?) had survived all the adversaries to grow to slightly bigger than pan size. Aah, there’s a clue – pan size.

___________________

 

This morning (as I write this) I was again woken by our local pests tap dancing on the roof at 5am. It was the Hadidas and the Egyptian Geese. The geese live around a dam that’s three hundred metres away as the, er… goose flies, and the Hadidas live in the trees. Once they’ve made their racket at dawn they leave.

 

At Horizons there were some four legged pests.

 

“Cherry trees are one of my favourites,” said Athena one day, “so I got some from Chris at the nursery. I thought they would look good down there in front of the milk shed.”

 

We weren’t sure if the milk shed have ever seen a drop of milk and it wasn’t much of a shed any more either. But it was in the middle of the field that you looked down on over to the right. Athena’s strategy to plant a couple of cherry trees that burst into pink blooms in spring had my vote.

 

The first challenge was ensuring the gardeners watered them. The challenge was they had to position the hosepipe by the fence, go outside the electric fenced part of the property, walk all the way around, fill a bucket from the hosepipe, walk down the hill to the cherry trees to empty the bucket, and back to refill.

 

Every week we would go for a walk with the dogs to see how the cherry trees were doing. Satisfied, after a month or so, that the trees had taken we left them to get on with it. Come spring the first leaves were popping out and we were looking forward to a pink and magenta display to welcome us any weekend soon. Sure enough a week later we went to see and signs were there of the first blossoms.

 

A couple of very busy weekends had gone by when I remembered the cherry trees again. I looked across the field to the milk shed expecting to see the bright pink young trees just above the lengthening grass. Nothing. I walked down to the fence and looked. Nothing. “Athena, I’m going down to see the cherry trees, I can’t see them from here. Come on dogs.”

 

‘I’ll come too,” Athena replied. “Nonnie, carry on making these gingerbread men please.”

 

It was heavy going to get to the milk shed. Besides the long grass, the wild blackberries on one side of the milk shed had doubled from the previous year. With their sharp double back thorns and bramble leaves they’re impenetrable. Although they have a local name – jikki jollas – these are actually aliens. “Wow, we need to do something about these.” I was alarmed. In no time, they could take over the whole field.

 

“Watch out for snakes,” I warned as we went. “Come on dogs, you go first.” I remembered Juno’s incredible speed and agility when she swiftly beat a cobra to the draw and reckoned if there was a snake and she didn’t sense it before she saw it, she’d still have a better chance than me to deal with it.

 

Using my walking stick/snake club we finally got through to the house facing side of the milk shed. The cherry trees were hard to see. They were half dead. “Ahw, no,”said Athena, ‘how can that be?”

 

“They had taken so well and there’s been rain so how come they’re dying?” I pushed away the grasses and brambles that encroached on the base of one. “Look at this,” I pointed. “Something’s eaten all the way around the base of the tree!”

 

“That’s why it’s died. I wonder what it could be?”

 

“Do you think they need water? Will that help?”

 

“No, I doubt it.”

 

What had eaten them? We didn’t know. The young tender bark had been a good meal for some small animal. It could have been hares or rabbits or even field rats or mice. We asked Chris at the nursery.

 

“You should have protected the base,” he said. “It’s the small buck, the duiker, it would have been one of them.”

 

Our anger only lasted until we saw one of these beautiful creatures again in our garden. No bigger than Juno (who is a medium to large dog) they would usually come out at night or if we woke early enough we’d surprise one eating very close to the house at dawn.

If they saw you they would be gone into the gloom. Although we saw signs where they had made a sleeping place for the night by flattening a thick patch of grass (and which excited Honey, Spike and Juno no end), they disappeared during the day.

 

“How do they get through the electric fence?” I wondered to Athena.

 

“They don’t go through, they jump over,” she said. “They can easily clear that.

 

She was probably right. Although I think it was because they had found out – long before us – that the electric fence was not electric anymore but just a fence.

______________

 

Juno was lying dead to the world. Or so I thought.

 

As I walked out through the door leading to the garden patio, she jumped up and fast as lightning in a blur she attacked something.

 

“Juno, let me see, please.” (She wouldn’t have understood a word I said, but the manner in which I said it would be clear.)

 

A snake, probably 1,5metre/5 feet long, was lying there twitching in its, supposedly, death throes. “Good girl, Juno. Well done.” I felt a bit sorry for the snake, after all it had been fast asleep when it felt the incisors of Juno visciously piercing its flesh.

 

I didn’t know what it was. A Rinkals? Or a Cobra?

 

I consulted my snake expert later that day. Athena knew something about snakes. She had experienced them when Jack and Zóe adopted or bought them.

 

I described the creature to her and took her to see it. “It’s a Rinkals. Good that you weren’t in the way. Juno killed it?”

 

Juno looked absolutely fine by this time, about an hour after the conflict with the snake.

 

CHAPTER 49

A little nibble of Prosciutto

 

By the second year of Horizons my Prosciutto crudo cured ham, or Parma Ham, as most people would think of it, was getting into a routine production.

 

“This is so good,” Athena would say just about every time I sliced up some as part of a plate of antipasto or just on its own, “as good as the real thing.”

 

It was thanks to one of the Cape’s finest chefs and his generosity that we had learnt the process and I had started making charcuterie – the making of cured meats.

 

Athena had treated me to a weekend in Franschhoek for my fiftieth birthday in 2003. We discovered a little deli in its quaint main street that had all sorts of interesting cured meats including duck’s breast and lamb.

 

“These are amazing,” I said to the shop manager, “where do they come from?”

 

“They’re locally made,” she said proudly.

 

“Is it in a factory or what…? I’d love to know a bit more about how they do this?” Charcuterie is, like cheese making, one of those artisanal skills that seems to be so quintessentially foodie. Good raw materials/ingredients, skill, environment and time. Images of barns with rows of wooden racks piled with roundels of cheese maturing and hangers with lines of prosciutto legs curing.

 

“They come from Moreson.”

 

“Is that nearby – do you think they’ll let us see?” the excited little boy in me asked.

 

“It’s just down the road on the way to Paarl. You can go and try. They have a restaurant there and the exec chef is Neil Jewell – he makes them. But it’s nearly lunch time so it will be hard to see him now.”

 

Ten minutes later we drove through rows of vines and found “Bread & Wine” the restaurant at Morenson. There were a handful of customers but it wasn’t too busy. “Maybe we could at least meet Neil and then I’ll phone or email him when we’re back in Durbs,” I said.

 

A couple of minutes later we met Neil Jewell. He appreciated that we had taken the trouble to come out to see where he practised his passion.

 

Would he mind telling us a little about how he made his charcuterie?

 

‘Come with me,” he said, beaming, and we weaved our way through the kitchen to his office and the cold storage area. He opened a door to the cooler room and we entered.

 

A few wine barrels cut in half stood on the floor – some filled with dark liquid, others with what looked like course salt. Amongst the other ingredients on the shelves were small piles of different shaped and coloured lumps of dried meat.

 

He dipped his hand into the barrel with liquid. “This is a wet cured ham I’m making,” and with that he pulled out a leg of pork. “The old wine barrels add flavour to it. And this here,” he scraped some of the salt aside in the next half barrel to reveal some pink flesh, “is my Farma Ham- my version of Parma Ham. Some people also call it a prosciutto.”

 

“What’s the difference between Prosciutto and Parma ham,” Athena asked?

 

“David,” Neil shouted, “Cook me a few rashes of my bacon, to taste, please.”

 

“Yes chef,” came back the reply from the kitchen.

 

Neil turned to Athena, clearly he was enjoying the attention – hers in particular. “Prosciutto is Italian for ham. Parma ham comes from the region of Parma where they also make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The pigs get fed the whey from the cheese making – it gives them a special flavour.” (Whey is the clear liquid left over once rennet has been added to milk and it separates into the curds which ends up as the cheese and the whey. I learned this from Athena who makes Haloumi cheese.)

 

I glanced at my watch. It was nearly one o’clock and I feared Neil would be neglecting his customers for our benefit.

 

“Don’t worry,” he said and carried on enthusiastically. “You get different types of hams from many parts of the world. Parma is the most famous but not necessarily the best.”

 

Neil picked out three different lumps of meat off the shelf, one no larger than his hand, and we moved out the cold room and into the kitchen. He stood at a slicer. Around us lunches were being prepared for the restaurant.

 

“Is that bacon ready, David?” David appeared with half a dozen rashers on a dinner plate – just out the pan. Neil put it to one side. “We’ll taste that last.”

 

He held a strange looking lump that was all rough and mouldy. “Try this, it’s lamb,” with which he ran off a couple of thin slices and offered them to us.

 

It tasted like intensified roast lamb with mint sauce.

 

“What’s this covering it?” I asked, pointing at the rough texture of the meat exterior.

 

“It’s oats,” he answered, and started detailing the recipe.

 

‘Do you mind if I write this down?” asked Athena and she gave him her movie star smile.

 

“Sure, no problem,” Neil beamed back, and he went through the whole recipe in detail.

 

Next he picked up the small lump of meat. “This is cured duck breast – try it.” A few deep red slivers no bigger than anchovie fillets were produced from the slicer. It tasted like a sweeter-spiced, more aromatic version of biltong, the favourite South African delicacy of dried beef. Before we needed to ask he went through the recipe and Athena scribbled away madly.

 

By then it was well into lunch and the kitchen worked away around us, none the worse off for Neil’s preoccupation with us.

 

“Now try this,” and he offered us the bacon.

 

My palate succumbed to the slightly spicy, slightly smoky, umami* flavours.

 

“1:10 sugar to salt, coriander, all-spice for four days, 35g per kg, rinse, smoke for 24 hours,” he rattled off. Come and see.” I made a mental note.

 

He led us out the back kitchen door. Whisps of smoke drifted past. “This is my smoker.” He pointed at an old metal office cabinet with a tray full of smouldering matter underneath it. He opened the door and four chunks of bacon hung inside. Most of the smoke from the fire below was escaping and only a little climbed up into the cabinet every now and then. “It’s meant to be cold smoked, so because it’s breezy here just enough smoke gets in without the temperature going up. 24 hours.”

 

We went back inside to the slicer. “Oh yes, try this,” and he disappeared into the cold room. “This is my Jambon Bayonne – cured in four spice and red wine, cold smoked 20 minutes a day for twenty days.” It was a deeper colour than the Farma Ham and the spices gave it more fragrance.

 

The hams had two types of surface – the skin which was hard and a crust covering the areas where there was no skin. “That’s to keep it moist and protected,” said Neil.” It’s a mixture of pork fat rendering, flour and garlic.”

 

Over an hour later, having thanked Neil profusely we were on our way. The itinerary for the afternoon was wine tasting and that evening we would have our goodies for a picnic al fresco dinner where we were staying.

 

As we mellowed at one of the wine estates we went through the recipes. Athena hadn’t started writing yet when Neill told us about the Farma Ham so we racked our brains to recall it and the bacon recipe he’d rattled off.

 

Seven years later I’ve made close on two hundred kg of prosciutto and as I write this there’s a leg quietly curing away in the mixture I’ve evolved over the years. This one will be ready to start eating in about eight months, although I know I can never wait that long and start sampling it after about six.

 

Umami is a Japanese word that describes the fifth flavour of savouriness. The others are sweet, salty, bitter and acidic.

______________________

 

A couple of years ago I had about six hours to spend in Paris between flights on the way back from the world’s biggest organic trade show, Biofach, in Nuenberg, Germany.

 

Quite a bit of it was spent in the food hall at Gallerie Lafayette in the 9th Arrondisement or Precinct in the centre of Paris. It’s an absolute cathedral to shopping and is Paris’s answer to London’s Harrods.

 

In the food hall in the basement I found two very specialist merchandise counters – they were promoting hams from Italy and hams from Spain and manned by Italians and Spanish.

 

With my broken Italian and French and their broken English I sampled my way through a few Euros of Gallerie Lafayette’s best – make that the world’s best – hams: Italian San Daniele and Spanish Pata Negra.

 

As I write this in 2010 the prices are around €50 to €100 and, wait for it, €200 – €300 a kg respectively.

 

After curing for around thirty days in sea salt hams are traditionally hung up in airy barns where the temperature of around 12 – 14C and sufficient humidity allows the meat to slowly mature without drying out. Optimum maturity is reached at up to two or three years.

 

Of those I’ve tasted San Daniele has a slightly sweeter perfume and flavour than Parma which has a more nutty flavour from the whey.

 

San Daniele comes from the district of San Daniele del Friuli in the province of Udine north east of Venice in Italy and bordering on Austria and Slovenia. The early dwellers of San Daniele discovered that the hillside climate fed by warm and cold breezes from the Alps and the Adriatic Sea were ideal for making the ham. It also results in its distinctive flavour.

 

San Daniele ham began its rise to notoriety in the middle ages when the Patriarch of the region demanded taxes in the form of ham from San Daniele. It quickly became a favourite delicacy.

 

Every year towards the end of June, the old town centre of San Daniele del Friuli becomes a grand tasting hall as the town celebrates its famous ham with the Aria di Festa event. For three days visitors and locals can gorge themselves on ham dishes washed down by the regions fruity, light wines. (Athena – add that to the list of “To Do’s”)

 

Pata Negra is made from the black Iberian pig which inhabits south and south western Spain and adjacent Portugal. (A similar ham in Portugal is called Presunto de Porco Preto). The term Pata Negra refers to the black colour of the pigs’ nails – there have been counterfeit cases of farmers painting their pigs nails black.

 

When the piglets are weaned after a few weeks on barley and maize they are allowed to roam in the oak groves. They feed on grass and herbs and they forage for roots and acorns. As they approach slaughtering time their diet may be limited to acorns. When it is, the finest Pata Negra ham is created – Jamon Iberico de Bellota.

 

As I stood in the Gallerie Lafeyette sampling it, truffle and mushroom came to mind.

 

San Daniele and Pata Negra bear the EU PDO stamp – Protected Designations of Origin – for its high quality and unique flavour. Jamon Serrano is the commercial version of cured ham using compound fed white pigs.

 

I was unlikely to leave Gallerie Lafeyette with any San Daniele or Pata Negra however I did make my last stop in the food hall at the Vietnamese counter.

 

I ordered a selection of freshly cooked dumplings. Two hours later I walked onto my Air France flight with my Vietnamese take away. The flight attendant happily gave me some ice to keep it cool on its flight to South Africa.

 

The next afternoon Athena very happily sat in her Umhlanga Rocks apartment eating Vietnamese take-away. I bet she was the only one outside Paris who got it from Gallerie Lafayette.

__________________

 

Finding the right conditions in sunny South Africa was the biggest challenge. In KZN in the Midlands the months of June to July are cool during the day. In Durban the days are rarely cool – except when a major cold front comes through and Durbanites rush for their winter woollies and thermals and ski gear to cope with anything below 10C.

 

So I needed a cool, moist environment and my little bar fridge seemed the answer mainly because it was a bit old. It didn’t work so well anymore so it hovered around 12C on its warmest setting. The seal was also a bit buckled so it let some air in which prevented the air inside drying out (fridge insides are very dehydrated).

At Horizons, this little fridge lived in the outside cottage where we stored most of the picnic blankets and cushions.

 

On weekends, I would leave the fridge door open if it was a cool day so that the meat could be exposed to normally moist air.

 

On picnic days, we would also make sure the dogs were in the back area so as not to disturb guests. This was where the cottage was.

 

So, it was one Sunday afternoon that I found one of my legs of prosciutto (which was hanging up to cure in the fridge) had a corner chewed off.

 

Juno had had a nice Sunday in the cottage nibbling away at my six-month old prosciutto!

 

To Neil Jewell, a fellow foodie, once again from Athena and me a massive thanks for your time and sharing what you’ve learned. Juno and the rest of us have enjoyed every mouthful.

 

CHAPTER 50

Tadpoles

 

I was only seven when I inflicted a most awful horror on my family. Mostly on my two sisters Dianne (14) and Jennifer (11).

 

We were on our annual Christmas holiday at the Umhlanga Rocks Hotel. The three of us young kids shared a room. Dianne was deemed old enough to look after us. (Although thinking about it now, at 14, she would probably have preferred boyfriends and not siblings.)

 

It was well into the second week and we’d had plenty of sun-filled beach days. The air was humid and sticky and warm.

 

“What’s that smell?” Dianne asked one steamy December morning as the morning sun streamed in and we were getting ready for breakfast.

 

“It’s the sossies,” I said. We were on a three meals a day package and the full-on English breakfast every morning was one of the pleasures. Often faint smells of what lay in store would drift down the hotel corridors – haddock or kippers, eggs, bacon, mushrooms, mince, pork sausages, tomato…

 

“No, it’s not,” said Jen. “It smells fishy.”

 

“It’s that yellow fish they cook,” I said.

 

“No, it’s in the room.” Dianne looked at Jen. “Can you smell something fishy in the room?”

 

Jen screwed up her nose in disgust. “Eeeeuw.”

 

Dianne turned to me all bossy like. “Where’s your fishing rod?”

 

“There,” I pointed to where there was a gap between the side of the cupboard and the corner of the room. I had claimed it as my storage place. My beach board, snorkel, swim fins, wet costume, interesting things I picked up on the beach, these all were stored there.

 

And my fishing stuff.

 

Dianne approached the corner with caution. And stopped short.

 

“What’s in your beach bucket?”

 

It started coming back to me. Two or three or four days before (who’s counting anyway, it’s holiday – until we start getting near the end) we had been fishing in one of the little rock pools in front of the hotel. This was one of the pleasures for families with little kids. At low tide the sea backed out and hundreds of little pools were left full of all sorts of interesting sea creatures. Parents would buy their kids fishing rods and baited up with some strange red spongy growth from the rocks or the flesh from a cockle, it would be easy to catch a few little fish.

 

For any little kid, any catch – no matter how big or small – is something to be treasured.

 

“I dunno – stuff from the beach,” I said.

 

Dianne looked at Jen again and then back to me. “From when?”

 

“I dunno – the other day.”

 

“Well, please go and look,” Dianne instructed.

 

I went across to the corner. Dianne and Jen backed away, and looked at me like I was from the bomb disposal squad.

 

Everything smelt normal to me as I looked into my pile of 7 year-old boy’s beach stuff.

 

“Aaw, no,” I exclaimed.

 

My bright red beach bucket, which after the first few days lost its appeal for building sand castles and became more utilitarian, sat tucked back into the corner on the floor.

 

It was where I had put my catch of two little silvery fish – still alive and each about as big as my little finger – with some seaweed stuff to make them a happy home. When I’d left it they’d been all shiny and swimming happily around in plenty of fresh sea water.

 

No longer. The fish were now all puffed up, floating on top and looking – and smelling – decidedly rotten.

____________________

 

Our pond at Horizons was a bit like those Umhlanga Rocks pools. Armed with their bug bottles kids would wade in the water, which barely came past their calves, catching things (until we had an outbreak of leeches which horrified one of the Mums no end but no harm was done).

 

We usually saw the kids as they left and if they had a creature in a bug bottle we would either release it or point it out to the parents if it was something tiny and not suffering. But we didn’t always see the kids on their way out so no doubt there were possibly one or two bug bottles in cupboards around KZN with Horizons specimens in.

 

In the early days of Horizons when Jack and Olivia were still young they would join in with similar aged kids. If Olivia didn’t have one of her friends along for the weekend, she would often ask me how many kid’s picnics had been ordered so she could figure out if there would be some her age to play with.

 

After one such weekend exploring the pond I was helping Olivia unpack back at home one Sunday evening. Luckily, I saw her unpacking a bug bottle onto her window shelf. It was a bit murky and something stirred within.

 

“What’s in there Livi?”

 

“Tadpoles Dad, I’m going to see if they grow into frogs.”

 

“I’m afraid we can’t do that sweetie, we don’t have a pond. You’ll have to get rid of them.”

 

A look of disappointment crossed Olivia’s face.

 

“But you don’t have to kill them or throw them away. What about at school, won’t someone at school want them?” I suggested.

 

“Yes, yes.” Olivia’s face brightened up and my chest puffed up at a Dad’s good job done. “I’ll take them to school.”

 

“Ok just don’t forget them – make sure you give them away tomorrow.”

 

That evening I phoned Olivia as she was back at her Mum’s. Did she remember to give the tadpoles away, I asked.

 

“No Dad.” Oh oh, I thought. “I made nearly a hundred rand.” She said excitedly.

 

“What do you mean? I asked if you managed to get rid of the tadpoles.”

 

“Yes Dad, I did. And I made nearly a hundred Rand – I sold them to my friends for R5 each!”

 

CHAPTER 51

Let’s reward ourselves

 

“Wow, look at this amazing competition,” Athena said as we sat working one weekday morning in the upstairs of our Camelot home. We’d made the landing/TV lounge area into our work area.

 

On her computer screen was a picture of a bright red Ferrari. She had my attention.

 

“eBucks are launching this auction promotion – you use your eBucks loyalty points to bid for things. Just look at this main prize – business class tickets to Europe, stay in the best hotels for a week, eat in Michelin three star restaurants…”

 

“But what’s the Ferrari about?” I interrupted.

 

“Wait for this – you get a Ferrari to drive around Italy for three days.”

 

“That’s for us – we have to win that.” I’m a Ferrari fan. I refer to my Alfa Romeo as my “poor man’s Ferrari.”

 

“But it gets even better,” Athena added with a naughty grin. “You’ll really love this – the highlight of the trip is they fly the winners by helicopter into Monaco for the weekend for the Grand Prix!”

 

“What a honeymoon that will make,” I said. Besides the night at Cleopatra and the few days at Umfolozi with friends Tony and his son Euan we still hadn’t had time for a honeymoon.

 

That evening we went into it in more detail. It was an amazing trip. The prize also included R30,000 spending money. And there was an option for the weekend – Monte Carlo or shopping spree. Even Athena didn’t take long to decide. She knew that I, as a motor racing fanatic, had long had the Monaco Grand Prix on my list of world events to see.

 

The prize would be awarded to the lowest unique bidder, the entry instructions said. It’s too complicated to explain.

 

We went about it with hammer and tongs!

 

We started by doing analyses that involved number crunching. It showed we had a chance by inserting a value around the 14,500 mark. We had at our disposal 80 bids (40 for Athena and 40 for me) and we had to use them wisely – we didn’t need to waste any! (In fact, our inexperience meant we did – at least six numbers, which we carelessly inserted higher up the scale.)

 

The closing date came and went.

 

Athena gave up all chance of winning. I refused to give up hope.

 

CHAPTER 52

Buried secret

 

The mist lifted, revealing a clear view from the verhanda of the Midlands. I called the dogs: Spike and Juno. It was autumn, the leaves were turning yellow and gold, and the grass losing its battle to hold on to the last vestiges of a green summer, now a month behind us.

 

I chose the field below us, the going would be clear and the tangle of jikki jolla berries, or known as blackberries, had thinned out and the walk was relatively easy. I had not ventured there since before Christmes, when we had braved the thorns to harvest our ingredients – the tasty fruit. These were for the dessert that Athena had concocted, a summer sundae with whole berries and mushed up in layers.

 

Spike, the gatherer of spiky attachments wherever he walked, this morning was no different and he soon looked like an oversized, prickly pear.

 

We turned right at the gate and braved the short walk past those pesky animals. I secured Juno on the leash for the run along the wild dog gauntlet until it was safe to release her at the entrance to the field.

 

Juno and Spike ran and ran, stopped and sniffed an interesting smell, then bounded off in the search of more interesting odours.

 

Then it caught my eye. About 100 metres from the old, fallen down gate, was it looked like Rob Osbourne had been industrious. He obviously dug deep enough to be certain of the soil composition. I expected to find more such, similar mounds elsewhere.

 

“Here Spike, Juno, come, come.”

 

I searched and looked, examining every square metre, I was mystified. There was only one digging – the one I had seen.

 

Returning to the roughly piled earth, I studied it closely. The length, width and size of a grave?

 

I regathered the dogs and returned to Athena and reported back on the ominous finding. “It could be the oeneologist from Cedara or some road workings or,” I paused, for suitable effect, “…a grave!”

 

“Wow, our own archaelogical dig,” she responded quick as a flash.

 

Not what I had been expecting. On the Monday I called Cedara from my office back in Durban.

 

“Hi Rob, did you do some soil samples from Horizons?”

 

“No, I’ve been meaning to go there…” One down, two to go.

 

Next was the roadworkers. I called a few numbers and got hold of Mr Sitholi, he explained that it was unlikely they would drive 100 metres to drop a single load of aggregate or soil. Two down, one to go.

 

My next stop, back at Horizons the next weekend, was planned a visit to the police station in Nottingham Road, our nearest, seven km away.

 

A senior constable responded quickly and efficiently. “I will come and see right away.” A dead body or two were not to be taken lightly.

 

We walked across the 100 metres of field. I pointed out the offending grave.

 

“Could it be a grave?” I suggested.

 

“I’ll investigate whether someone has disappeared,” he replied ominously.

 

A couple of weeks had gone by and I was anxious to follow up, so I called the police station. “Any news?”

 

“Nothing yet, it seems that HIV has claimed another victim,” he jokingly responded.

 

I left it for a few more months and called again. Similar response.

 

In South Africa, life is arguably cheap.

 

CHAPTER 53

Ant City

 

There was something that was causing the gate to stick and jam – open at the moment or closed the next.

 

“Let’s go and take a look,” I said to Olivia my daughter and Spike and Juno the dogs.

 

When I opened the cover the problem was clear. “Eeeugh,” Olivia exclaimed in disgust.

 

There was an enormous nest of ants inside the control box. Some of them victims squashed by the gears that drove the gate open and closed.

 

I stared at the mess of squished ants. Olivia stared at me.

 

“Let’s get this cleaned up.” I stammered, relishing the Saturday morning task. Spike and Juno had lost interest soon as I opened the cover and wandered off.

 

I looked at the sticky mess that used to be ants that met their fate in the meshing gears.

 

It meant that I had to flush the mechamism and that proved no easy task.

 

Trundling to the tap, I carried the ants and the ex-ants to their imminent doom. Turning the water on, I watched the mass of creatures sliding down the drain to their fate.

 

CHAPTER 54

Toil and Trouble, Bubble, Bubble – Kitchen Calamaties

 

It was one of those days when the “goose” was cooked – overdone and not succulent at any stretch of the imagination.

 

Busi had been on duty making the carpaccio and dishing up the soup (taking care not to spill and mess the bowls) and a hundred other things to do too.

 

“I smell smoke,” from the bar which is the other side of the house. You may remember that you had to cross the thresholds of three doors to reach the bar from the kitchen.

 

"Busi," I shouted, thankfully no-one was in the bar. I legged it to the kitchen but Busi was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she was serving customers - although I hadn't seen her go out in the front -perhaps she left the kitchen by the back door. (The staff toilets are located out back behind the house.)

 

There was smoke seeping out the oven door, not good news. It was a tell-tale sign: all was not well in the oven.

 

I stole a look at the cooker. It was a smokescreen which I had to clear away first. I peered at the contents and it took me a while to recognise the burnt offerings. The objects made an impression, it was bread. It was well cooked and I mean it – well-done, dry as a bone, like tinder for a fire.

CHAPTER 55

Bank squeeze

 

“Hello, is that Mr I D Robinson?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Please note that all our calls are recorded for quality control purposes. May I have your ID number please?”

 

“Who is this calling, please?”

 

The calls from the bank always began like that. I could kick myself for the position I was now in. Horizons had been going for two years or so and I had taken my eye off the ball and was paying for it.

 

When we started Horizons I had become totally consumed (what’s that about obsessive, compulsive behaviour?) by the concept and preparation and getting it going. I had neglected the good little branding business that I had built up since 2001 that was generating a comfortable income. Clients that I should have been nurturing and growing didn’t hear from me for months. I wasn’t open to the new business opportunities that I should have been turning into new clients. Instead of networking with my business contacts I was busy creating new recipes and negotiating promotional deals with the media.

 

I was so consumed, you could say seduced, by Horizons that I didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that my reserves were being used at a rapid rate. First there was all the capital that went into setting up Horizons. Then, thanks to the bank’s willingness – to be more accurate I should describe it as drive – to lend, I had increased the bonds on my portfolio of properties.

 

Quite simply my balance sheet, which up to 2004 had been fattening up nicely like a well fed free range farm chicken, was looking like it had parasites it was becoming so scrawny.

 

It had become clear after the first year of operating that Horizons Gourmet Picnics, although it generated a good income, could not also handle the sizable bond I had set up to buy the property. I knew I would have to subsidise this.

 

But now the screws were tightening. I was feeling the effect of neglecting my branding business which was down to a handful of clients (Brad, Shelley, Keith, Colin, I sincerely thank you for your support and loyalty), having used as much equity in my properties as I could and of Horizons not quite paying its bond every month.

 

So, the calls from the bank were becoming familiar as the bond creeped into arrears.

 

I learned over the months how the banks worked with their credit control and what was expected of the consultants who called and how to buy time. But I’m not going to reveal any of this here. Rather I urge you to never get into this difficult hole to get out of.

 

The strain I put my wife Athena through and that I felt I don’t wish on anyone. And I should have known better. Simply I took my eye off the ball – I neglected my finances.

 

Quite a few years ago I had read a book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. It’s the sort of book you wish you had read (well at least I do) when you were 16. But of course, it’s the sort of book you don’t read because your parents recommend it.

 

It’s a brilliant book with a very simple concept. It describes two Dads (one Robert’s own and the other a good friend’s) who have very different approaches and outcomes in life.

 

The Poor Dad is traditional: get an education, get a career, get a job, work for other people. Every penny goes into just (or just not) covering the growing financial burden of the family.

 

The Rich Dad is unconventional: he’s the Richard Branson of this world. Yes, he gets an education but he does something very differently to Poor Dad. He builds a cushion of wealth.

 

He does this in a few ways.

 

Firstly, by investing in property as soon as he starts earning. Not any property but cleverly sought out good deals in areas that will show good growth. Where the rentals will quickly overtake the expenses.

 

Secondly, by getting other people to work for him rather than the other way around.

 

There’s more in the book which I urge everyone to read for your and your children’s sake. Because the main result (and key thing I learned from the book) is to build up a portfolio of properties that soon start paying a handsome return every month. This means that you can invest in more and increase that portfolio. Soon it will be providing enough income every month so that you don’t have to work.

 

Now lots of people know this and have a natural inclination to do this. For some reason (a traditionalist Dad who never knew different?) I took a long time to learn this.

 

But when I did I had followed Kiyosaki’s advice and quickly assembled a portfolio of shrewdly bought properties that within two years were generating net income.

 

Where I went wrong was I didn’t keep my eye on what was happening and drew down my reserves. And I was paying for it with a pile of stress as was Athena who I can’t thank enough for her support in so many ways.

 

There was only one thing to do.

 

“We have to sell Horizons – we can’t continue like this,” Athena said.

 

It was the reality I hadn’t wanted to accept. It was heart-wrenching. Our dream retreat in the country was becoming out of reach and not meant to be.

 

Athena’s pain was immense at the prospect of selling the place we had absolutely fallen in love with – the tranquillity, the views, the garden as it brought new delights with each season, the spectacularly clear and brilliant night sky with its plump milky way.

 

I also felt the pain. I also felt absolutely kak (miserable) and more and more depressed as the bank tightened the screws.

 

Athena swung into action. When a job has to be done, she puts her emotions behind her and efficiently does what she has to do.

 

We reckoned within four to six months we could sell the main property and business – all as a going concern – and settle the bond.

 

CHAPTER 56

Looking forward to a rest – with a Ferrari

 

A month went by. And another. It was in late August when the phone rang, on a Friday around midday. I answered again in my officious voice from my Alfa Romeo.

 

“May I speak to Mr I D Robinson, please?”

 

“Yes” I answered into the phone.

 

“May I just check your ID number please?”

 

“Who is this calling?”

 

“This is Melanie (I didn’t recall her surname) from eBucks. I need to check that I’m speaking to the correct person please.”

 

I was driving into town with Jack in the car when I answered the phone. My heart did a flutter – could it be? Had we done it? No, maybe I’d won the R500 golf voucher I’d used a couple of eBucks to bid for. I had my eye on a golf bag.

 

I gave Melanie my ID number.

 

“I’m calling to tell you that your eBucks bid was successful.”

 

For what, I thought, tell me, please… the golf clubs, or the trip to Italy, please, please tell me we got the trip to Italy. In a way I didn’t dare to think about it. I had to concentrate hard on the motorway as my hands started shaking.

 

The Ferrari Trip – as Athena and I had come to refer to the eBucks promotion – had been run in May of mid 2006 and bids (or entries) had closed in August with the winners to be announced within weeks.

 

It was now more than three months later and Athena had given up.

 

“Don’t,” I had kept saying as the weeks went by. “Believe in this. It’s so meant to be for us. I have a good feeling we’ll win it. They must be checking out the people.”

 

It had been a high profile competition with TV ads. But to date we had seen absolutely no mention anywhere of the results or an announcement of the winners. When I had told my daughters we had entered this competition they told us they’d seen a TV ad for it, which we never saw. They described it as this sleezy fat old guy driving a bright red convertible Ferrari with a gorgeous blonde beside him intercut with spectacular shots of Italy and Monaco and stunning hotels. After a while the blonde disappeared to be replaced by his less glamorous, middle aged wife. “And it says ‘Your Italian dream can come true with eBucks’ or something, Dad,” said Courtney. “Maybe it will.”

 

All this flashed through my mind as I steadied my trembling hands and stayed focussed on the motorway.

 

“Mr Robinson, your bid for the trip to Italy was the winning bid, you and your partner….”

 

I screamed and Jack nearly jumped out of his seat. “What’s wrong?” he looked at me alarmed.

 

“You have won the prize of an all-expenses paid business class tickets to France, a three day tour in the Ferrari around Italy, a helicopter ride to watch the Monaco Grand Prix, staying in the best hotels…”

 

“Woohoo, yahaaa, woooowooow, we won the Ferrari trip,” I shouted. “Your Mum and I are going to Italy and we’re going to drive a Ferrari and we’re going to Monaco for the Grand Prix and….”

 

If Melanie had been recording my reaction and they wanted an enthusiastic winner they couldn’t have asked for more. Now I started to choke with emotion – tears welled as I thought what this would mean to Athena and how it would lift her after the hard months we had been through.

 

As soon as I could I pulled over the car and called Athena. It was a Friday afternoon and she was up at Horizons with most of the staff and Horizons around her preparing food for a particularly busy weekend.

“Guess what, I just had a call from eBucks,” I said, and paused for effect, but very briefly, “WE”RE GOING TO ITALY, WE WON IT!” I shouted.

 

Athena let out an absolutely bloodcurdling scream. In the background I heard startled voices from the Horizons kitchen and a fearful and anxious Zoe, “What’s wrong Mum, no, please, no, tell me what’s wrong?” Even I was startled even though I knew why she had screamed.

 

“WE WON THE ITALY TRIP,” Athena now screamed again with joy. After a moment Zoe joined in the screaming. The Horizons ladies must have been confused, but relieved, most not having a clue what Italy was. I couldn’t wait to share the news with Olivia and Courtney.

 

That night we celebrated and had to keep pinching ourselves. We just could not believe it – that we had won this most unbelievable trip – and felt like we were floating on air for days afterwards.

 

We had nearly six months to think about it and prepare for our holiday. With the Horizons sale signed and sealed, by May when the trip was scheduled we would have well wrapped up the sale, moved and be enjoying our weekends.

 

Or so I thought.

 

CHAPTER 57

Subdivision – becoming a road builder

 

The department was adamant. There would be no subdivision without every condition fulfilled.

 

Basically we were required to satisfy the same requirements as someone establishing an entire new suburb. Roads, electricity supply, water supply, sewerage, drainage – each had its own department with its own rules with its own requirements which had to be met.

 

While Athena persisted with the bureaucracy, I concentrated on the road building. A proper entrance was needed where the two lower plots joined. This was the original entrance to the farmhouse (long before we bought it) evidenced by the still visible, double row of conifer trees leading grandly up to the homestead.

 

Two pillars, roughly assembled from crudely crafted stone still stood there, showing where the original gate was. It was possible to drive from the D146 through these gateposts onto the land, something I had managed in my low-slung Alfa Romeo.

 

However, this was not good enough. The department of transport and roads had very rigid specifications for every type of entrance, they said. The appropriate design would be sent to me so that I could get it constructed according to these. “Only when the inspector is satisfied that the entrance fully complies will they issue the certificate,” they firmly told me.

 

The pressure was mounting. It was now March 2007, and months had passed since we had agreed the sale. Running Horizons had now become a rather stressful obligation each week and our hearts were no longer in it.

 

We motivated ourselves with the promise of our fantastic prize trip to Italy – departure date 10 May.

 

“Look at this,” I said to Athena when I had the prescribed entrance design. “That’s exactly what’s there now. I’m sure there are drainage pipes there, otherwise how would the water flow down that side of the road?”

 

The location of the entrance could not have been more complicated. Not only was it on a hill, it was also on the inside of a bend in the road. The department of roads diagram showed that the entrance needed to be a certain width, certain angle to the road, a certain degree of slope, and drainage at a certain depth.

 

That weekend I examined the existing entrance. Years of rain had carried mud and stones along with vegetation debris down the roadside and dammed up the uphill side. The downhill side was just a grassy bank. Between the rain flowing down the roadside and the roads people’s routine tidying up the verges of the D146 with their grader, more and more of the entrance road had been destroyed.

 

There was no denying it. This would not be very satisfying to the roads inspector.

 

Things did not look good. How does one get a road built? Who does it? A couple of my golf buddies are in the civils business – they would know.

 

I thought of asking Doug. He builds highways and bridges that span vast valleys and cost billions. I stopped thinking of Doug.

 

I asked Don who helped build the A1 Grand Prix track in Durban. “Ask one of the people who work in the area who are building the new housing estates,” he deflected me.

 

That didn’t get very far. Was that a snigger I heard in response on the other end of the phone line? Nobody was interested. The job was just too small for anyone to consider it.

 

Time marched on, the bank was on the phone every other day and my George Clooney charm was getting perfected. Yet again I managed to buy a few more weeks to get the sale through and settle the outstanding bond payments.

 

The extra time was well needed – I still had no idea who was going to do the roadworks nor how long it would take.

 

I consulted my golf buddy Don again. “Do it yourself,” he said. “It’s a pisswilly job. Hire a digger, buy the pipes, stick them in the ground. Job done.”

 

“What’s a digger?” I asked.

____________________

 

A few days later I had found a company that rented out a TLB – one of those machines with a dinosaur-mouth looking thing on one end that can dig a trench, and a giant scoop bin on the other. (Ok Don, maybe that’s not really what they’re called, but the readers don’t know that and it describes them.) “R2,000 a day to rent with driver, seven hours running time,” the man said.

 

“Who will tell him what to do?” I asked, immediately realising – stupid question – that was my job.

 

“The driver has done lots of work, he should be ok on his own.”

 

The transport department plan showed that concrete pipes had to be placed under the entrance at the same incline as the hill, parallel to the edge of the road and at least 60cm below the entrance surface. The entrance and exit to the pipe had to be cleanly merged with a clear ditch above and below the pipe for efficient drainage. The roadway itself had to be about three metres wide (they were more specific than that, but I can’t remember), flaring out where it joined the R146. This was to allow someone to turn in without falling into the drainage ditch.

 

So far, so good. Next, the pipes.

 

The spec said 45cm diameter, made of concrete. They were two and a half metres long and two would do the job. A company in Pietermaritzburg (a mouthful – Pmb for short), not too far from Rosetta, made them and sold them. “You’ll have to collect them,” said the man, “we don’t deliver.”

 

“Err, they sound heavy. How much do they weigh?”

 

“500 kilos.”

 

“Each,” he added.

 

That made a load of a ton – 1,000kg – the weight of a small car.

 

My Alfa has a tow hitch. All sorts of things have been transported on trailers but I’d never towed anything near that weight. With bills adding up fast I didn’t want to spend more to hire a big truck to carry the pipes. That didn’t leave me much choice.

 

I reckoned a long trailer would fit and manage to carry the pipes. But there’s one very long steep hill leading out of Maritzburg and a few more climbing up the 1,500 metres altitude Midlands.

 

The steepest hill though was the rough D146 itself – bumpy and rutted at the best of times. In dry weather, it would be a challenge. If it rained we would slide back down or worse still, off the edge and get stuck.

 

“Do you think I can tow them on a trailer?” I tentatively asked.

 

“Have you got a 4×4?”

 

“No, but my car is quite powerful.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him it was a rather low slung sports car.

______________________

 

The road building weekend was going to be a busy one and everything had to happen on schedule. It was also my weekend to have Olivia and Courtney so Friday afternoon looked like this:

 

1.00pm Leave Hillcrest for Durban

1.30pm Pick up Courtney and Olivia from School

2.00pm Leave Durban after picking up their weekend stuff from their mother’s house

2.30pm Pick up trailer in Hillcrest

3.30pm Arrive at Pmb pipe factory before they close at 4.00pm for the weekend

 

It was going to be touch and go.

 

“Girls, make sure everything is ready and packed for tomorrow please.” Two teenagers can need a fair bit of organising. I went to the local garage that hires the trailers and paid the deposit. “Washington, I must have the long trailer, the short one is too small.” I told the petrol attendant whose job it was to coordinate them. I called the TLB company and the digger was booked and a deposit paid.

 

I was nervous. I was committed and it all hinged on the Alfa climbing nearly a thousand metres from the pipe factory to Horizons. No pipes, no entrance road. It would mean starting again the following Friday and losing a whole week. And I was renting a machine I had no idea about. And I was building a road – not your average weekend gardening job.

 

Friday afternoon got off to a good start. Picnic supplies were loaded. Courtney and Olivia were ready and didn’t forget any essentials. Washington had the long trailer ready and waiting and we were in and out as quick as a Grand Prix pitstop.

 

By 3.15pm we turned off in Pmb following the directions to the pipe factory.

 

They were in an industrial area. And a not very well maintained one. Some of the roads were untarred, and those that were had more pothole craters than Baghdad.

 

“Stop, Dad!” shouted Olivia. “You have to turn here.”

 

I skidded to a stop next to some road-signs but I couldn’t see a road or a factory. Just trees. “Are you sure?” I asked, as she pointed to a narrow dirt road that disappeared down a steep hill.

 

“There’s the sign Dad: Pietermaritzburg Concrete Fabrication.”

 

“But it looks like it’s pointing along the road we’re on.”

 

“No, Dad it is down there…” Olivia (14) was right.

 

I backed up, delaying an irate container truck driver whose only concern was to deliver his payload, get paid and make the bottle store for a crate of beers for Friday night.

 

The road was barely visible over the bonnet as I turned down. How on earth big trucks made it out of here was unfathomable.

 

My best laid plans were now under threat of seriously unhinging. Anxious thought bubbles: hiring an empty trailer for the weekend, losing the deposit on the digger, losing a few precious days, delaying the sub-division, more sweet talking the home-loan people…

 

To my horror, the driveway down into the factory was steep and narrow. The plan, and my Alfa, could come to an end right there and not see any of the other hills I was worried about navigating that day.

 

Getting down would be easy. Would we ever get back up?

_____________________

 

The sleek metallic silver sportscar and trailer parked amongst massive industrial machinery drew odd stares as I found the office and paid for my ton of concrete.

 

The rear of the Alfa dipped and the trailer groaned and sank on its simple suspension as the two pipes were loaded.

 

Would we be the proud owners of a couple of tubes of concrete stuck in some Pietermaritzburg loading bay?

 

There was only one way to get out of there: fast and first time right and definitely no stopping. I reckoned the clutch would not handle a restart on the hill. If we stopped halfway there would be the problem of navigating the trailer backwards down the hill.

 

“Girls, jump out, please.” Even though both are slim and petite (I had to make that point, Courts and Livi), any weight saving would help.

 

As I lined up the car and trailer far back on the loading area to build up speed for the grand exit, I could feel the weight of the load. “I’ll see you at the top,” I shouted to the girls out the window.

 

Making sure no one was coming down the narrow road, I revved the engine to make a racing start and hit the incline at speed. By now many of the factory workers had knocked off for the weekend and were enjoying the unexpected entertainment.

 

My Alfa shuddered and felt like a tanker but soon the Italian power kicked in and my trusty Alfa was doing 60kmh at the bottom of the slope and I managed to get into second gear.

 

The incline quickly affected my speed….

 

50kmh…

 

45kmh…

 

Halfway…

 

35kmh…

Nearly there…

 

20kmh…

 

I would never make it unless I changed back to first gear. The tyres screamed and snatched as I unleashed too many revs but it did the trick and suddenly I was up and out and BRILLIANT… it had made it…

 

Courtney and Olivia breathlessly climbed the road and jumped in the car. Down in the factory parking lot the group of workers looked on and I swear some of them cheered. They now had a good pub story to amuse the shebeen patrons that weekend about the crazy man and his daughters in the Alfa.

 

Without doubt it was the most spectacular and fastest that a ton of concrete pipes had ever left Pietermaritzburg Concrete Fabrication (Proprietary) Limited.

____________________

 

Sometimes it’s the smallest complacencies that catch us out. After our high profile exit from the concrete pipe factory, all the other hills were a piece of cake and we cruised along at 120kmh with ease. Even the D146 was kind to us – thankfully still reasonably bump free after the summer rains – and we pulled up at our electric gate well before sunset and in good time for a deserved glass of chilled Chardonnay/Viognier blend and a few slices of prosciutto.

 

I waited while the gate slowly opened. Juno and Spike barked excitedly at our homecoming for the weekend. A couple of the cats slunk around feigning disinterest. Two of the hens were pecking in the garden, obviously Oscar and Junior couldn’t round them up before going off work. Or perhaps they hadn’t bothered and all the chickens were out.

 

The existing driveway which I needed to drive up was covered by what’s commonly known as gravel, which is small stones usually used in concrete mix. There was a dip where the driveway met the road and then it rose over a bump to clear the electric gate track. We often heard guests’ cars wheelspinning as they navigated this slippery obstacle.

 

Now readers, you may be wondering: What’s the problem? Job done. You’re there. The pipes are where they need to be.

 

Not so simple. If you leave a vehicle unattended on a country road in South Africa overnight, in the morning it will have been scavenged for spare parts. That’s if you’re lucky. There’s an equal chance the whole vehicle will be gone – especially if it’s a trailer and you have a tow hitch.

 

Had we come this far to be foxed by this final hurdle? Don’t even think of that – I said to myself.

 

“Girls, we’re going to unload everything here so I can get up the driveway.”

 

With all the weekend picnic stuff unpacked and everything carried to the house, I looked at the Alfa and the rent-a-trailer. There was only one way to do this – fast!

 

“Out the way, mind the cats, hold the dogs please, chase the chickens away, this could be tricky.”

 

I needed some speed but not too fast or the car/and/or trailer would bottom out through the dip bump. I backed up a bit but not much and accelerated, aiming for the middle of the gate. There was a grinding, crunching sound, followed by clouds of dust as the front wheels (it’s a front wheel drive car) spun wildly, spitting out first all the gravel and then grappling to grip the earth underneath. The front of the car wasn’t even at the gateposts. I backed up and tried again.

 

Same result.

 

I climbed out. Hot car and engine smells spoilt a fine country evening.

 

The problem was clear straight away. The angle of the driveway to the road made the weighted down tow-hitch catch on the ground. There was no chance of getting up the driveway with the payload.

 

Our precious cargo and rent-a-trailer would have to spend the night on the roadside at the mercy of South Africa’s hardened and pitiless criminals. (Athena: Actually, Ian it’s a quiet little country road that leads to nowhere, but carry on…)

 

Would I have wheels on the trailer in the morning? Would I have pipes on the trailer? Well that’s a bit stupid, why would someone steel the pipes off the trailer? They’ll just take the whole trailer, with the pipes…

 

After supper in the darkness I reversed the car and trailer down the road where I thought it would be visible from the front verhanda. As I went to unhitch the trailer, it wouldn’t budge. It would probably need a few strong men to lift the front of the trailer. Alfa and trailer were joined at the hip for a few more hours for sure.

 

Maybe that was better anyway. In the garage I had a length of chain and with that I chained the trailer to the rear suspension of the Alfa and padlocked it.

 

There was more to my security plan. If anyone was going to mess with my vehicles, I wasn’t going down without a fight.

 

Before I went to bed, I put Juno and Spike out so they slept on the front verhanda where they would detect any suspicious activity around the car and trailer on the road.

 

Spike was having none of it and wouldn’t stop whinging and crying until he was back inside curled up on the carpet.

 

As I struggled to sleep I could hear the trucks on the distant road between Nottingham Road and Mooi River. I imagined my car and two concrete pipes already hijacked and on their way to Zambia or Angola.

 

That night I dreamed the D146 was a major highway and every passing vehicle stopped and removed a pipe and piece of car and trailer until it was stripped to just an axle on some bricks.

____________________

 

The chickens slept well, the cats slept well, Juno and Spike slept well. At 4.50am I felt I hadn’t slept at all and went outside. The dawn was barely lighting the day and mist was all I could see from the front door. It made me feel even more foggy. Juno lay there making a poor effort as she wagged her tail sleepily. I could just make out the fence posts along the road where the Alfa and trailer should be.

 

Should be. In the gloom and mist I couldn’t see much. Certainly no vehicles.

 

Shit. As gaps opened in the mist I saw empty road where I had parked the previous night. No trailer. No car. No pipes. Nada. Zip.

 

“Come Juno,” I said. Juno stood up, stretched, farted and wagged her tail. Clearly, she didn’t understand the situation.

 

We went to the fence and I stood there at 5am and looked at the empty patch of road and thought again of the list of people and costs I would have to deal with. It was now an even longer list -the BP garage and rent-a-trailer people were added as problems. All was lost.

 

Just then, the mist thinned and lifted. The sky got lighter. About fifty metres down the road, not where I had been looking for the trailer at all, a form emerged – the shape of car and trailer and wheels and two monstrous concrete pipes on the back waiting for their task.

 

In the dark of the previous night I had parked in an altogether different spot to where I thought I had!

___________________

 

An hour later, still enjoying the aftertaste of two Capuccinos, I stood on site looking at the old driveway. You could barely make it out. I needed to mark the trench out before the tld arrived at 7.30 so we wouldn’t waste any time.

 

The two old stone pillars were in the right spot on the boundary but a few metres from the road. I had to get the actual roadworks exactly spot on to the beacons.

 

But this was a mathematical problem of more than three dimensions. The hill sloped, the road curved. The pipes had to be x distance from the road edge and y deep to follow the drain depth. They also had to be covered with z amount of soil. The edges of the drive had to be at w radius to join the D146.

 

I scribed an arc for the road edge and marked it with sticks in the ground and a piece of string. I measured distance x and another 45cm for the pipe width and marked the two edges of the trench. Two more curved lines formed the edge of the driveway. I carefully tied the strings together at all the junctions so that they wouldn’t move.

 

I stepped back and puffed up my chest. Don my engineer golf buddy would have been proud of me. My work was admirable – it was all very clear. All the digger driver had to do was follow the lines and get the depth of the trench right.

 

At 7.30 my phone rang. The tld was lost somewhere in Nottingham Road. I directed him to the D146.

 

At 8.15 I was getting nervous about time lost when a clattering machine noise grew louder and louder and a dirty yellow machine bounced and swayed its way up the hill towards me.

 

Greetings done and introductions made (another precious five minutes gone) I proudly showed Ben the operator my surveyor’s handiwork criss-crossing the ground and briefed him on the project.

 

I watched in anticipation as he started up his yellow monster and lowered the digger head to the ground. The first scoop easily removed about five wheelbarrows of earth. Encouraging.

 

It was the second scoop Ben made that snagged the string. It took me a moment to register what was happening: the one string pulled the next which pulled the next. I jumped up and down wildly waving my arms to get his attention over the engine noise and make him stop. But to no avail. In seconds my complete surveyor’s mastermind layout was turned from squares and triangles and polygons and trapezoids into a scrappy untidy decoration unfit for the bumper of a honeymoon couple’s car.

 

There was neither time nor point in setting it all up again.

 

I went over the Dept of Transport’s spec sheet again with Ben. He nodded, having done this before he had the general idea. He first cleared a funnel shape on the upper side. Then he started on the trench, which I made sure was the right distance from the road edge.

 

Over the monster engine there was a terrible scraping sound – ten times as bad as when you scratch your fingernail on the blackboard while writing. Ben had struck something solid – it was a section of concrete pipe from the old drain. Following the line of the trench he uncovered more and more pipe – also concrete and also the size of the ones I had mounted a military operation the previous 24 hours to get to the site. We were digging up the old drain – exactly what we were about to spend a day building.

 

Over the years the existing drainpipes had filed up with sand which had become almost rock solid. But other than a few scratches and cracks and chips, the old pipes could have done the job. However, it was too late now. The roads people and the subdivision people would be expecting a perfect construction (no pressure!). Besides, while I had been thinking about all this, Ben had powered ahead and ripped up the old pipes. The monster manhandled them out the way and continued to dig.

 

Had I gone to all that trouble when I could have got Oscar and Junior just to clean up the old entrance and drainpipes…?

 

Lunchtime came and went.

 

By mid-afternoon Ben had crafted his version of the Rift Valley. The edge of the road was gone, the slope that connected the road to our entrance pillars was gone, and one of the pillars was nearly gone when Ben misjudged a reverse swing.

 

I had expected the trench to be all neat with vertical sides so that we could see it was in the right place. But, of course it would be impossible to stand the yellow monster which weighed a few tons on the vertical edge of the same trench you’re trying to dig – the whole lot would collapse.

 

We were ready to lay the pipes and once again Ben impressed.

 

“Must I bring the trailer here?” I asked.

 

“Aikona – no” he answered in Zulu and he did a sharp three-point turn and the TLB bounced up the road to where the trailer was still parked. He jumped off, opened a tool box on the side of the TLB and pulled out a steel rod as long as his arm and a strip of nylon belt a few metres long. Sort of like a car safety belt without buckles or the car attached.

 

He looped the one end over the digger part of the TLB. What was he going to do? And how? Tie this around the pipe and lift it? I imagined half a ton of concrete slipping out of this noose and smashing the trailer, or worse still, my Alfa, or rolling down the D146.

 

Then he did something odd. He took the steel rod and speared the point halfway along the pipe. A couple of good blows on the other end and the pipe gave way where he was applying the pressure. I then saw there was a hole big enough to get two or three fingers through exactly halfway along the pipe. Next Ben inserted the other end of the nylon belt which had a loop on it and, still armed with the steel rod, he squeezed into the pipe.

 

As I stared at his rear sticking out the pipe I realised what he was doing. No way. Surely it wouldn’t be strong enough. Ben was putting the steel rod through the loop inside the pipe so he could lift it with the nylon belt attached to the digger of the TLB.

 

“Is that strong enough?” I nervously asked.

 

“Yebo,” was all he said and jumped back onto or into the TLB.

 

“Watch the steel for me,” he instructed. The TLB chugged into life again and Ben slowly raised the digger to take up the slack of the nylon belt. Inside the pipe the loop pulled the rod against the inside of the hole. Brilliant idea but would it be strong enough? I gave Ben the thumbs up.

 

The trailer wheezed and seemed to sigh with relief as half a ton was lifted off it. The nylon belt was tighter than a guitar string and I nervously watched as Ben lifted it off the trailer. I stood well clear. But Ben’s method worked and in no time he lowered the first pipe into position.

 

To save time I volunteered to wriggle into the pipe to remove the steel rod so we could get the second pipe. It was a tight fit for my shoulders and not easy to move forward or backward. I’m a bit claustrophobic so I tried to think of unrelated things to take my mind off the terrifying thoughts entering my head. Maybe I should have got Ben to do this.

 

But time was precious and soon we had the second pipe. This was less easy to get right. The pipes were designed and made with opposing (or is that matching?) lip and ridge to match up and make a good joint.

 

Ben showed his incredible skill of moving the pipe a few millimetres at a time. But one of the pipes needed more rocks or sand underneath in places to get it to stay lined up. Very nervously while he supported the weight of the concrete pipe, I slid into the trench and packed rocks in position. I tried not to think what would happen if the nylon belt broke with me half under the pipe.

 

We had laid the pipes so they joined up. But now they were the wrong angle and didn’t line up with the drain.

 

We removed both the pipes. Ben dug out some more and moved the earth around to change the line of the pipes.

 

The afternoon sped on.

 

We re-laid the pipes. Now the angle was better but the pipes didn’t join up properly.

 

“What about this?” I said to Ben, holding up the stiff rubber sheath that looked a bit like a tyre inner tube.

 

‘That joins the pipes so that water doesn’t wash sand into them.”

 

“Shouldn’t we have put it on first?”

 

“No, we have to get the pipes lined up then lift one away and fit it.”

 

That was easier said than done. It was going to be a bit like fitting a giant condom onto two protuberances at once! With a few rocks and stones and sand in the way.

 

I waved my arms at Ben to switch off the TLB.

 

“We have to make space to work there,” I said, pointing to the ground underneath where the pipes joined, “so we can fit this on.”

 

With spade and hands we cleared enough space underneath the joint – half the time knocking rocks and stone back down again as we tried to balance on the slope of the trench.

 

The afternoon sped on.

 

Once again Ben demonstrated his skill with the TLB. After lifting away the uphill pipe so we could fit the sheath to one pipe, he had to guide the other pipe to fit perfectly into this sheath. I sat on the grounded pipe and, now with full confidence in Ben, made sure the other pipe didn’t swing around and un-align itself as he gently lowered it. If we disturbed any of the base ground we would have to go through the whole process of re-aligning the two pipes again.

 

Controlling the half ton pipe with surgical precision suitable for open heart surgery, he moved it millimetre by millimetre (about 1/25 of an inch for you Imperial readers) to get it into the sheath. Thank goodness for his skill, because my fingers were vulnerable to being crushed a few times. With a final solid nudge he got the two pipes’ lips and grooves to perfectly associate.

 

Main job done I quickly took pictures in case I needed to show the roads people. Just as well I took them quickly because in minutes our handywork was covered by sand as the TLB quickly shovelled tons of earth back in place.

 

This was good. Now things were going fast and the trench was filled in, pipes covered and the drain entry and exit neatened up.

 

Suddenly the engine shuddered and slowed. “What’s wrong?” I shouted stupidly in the silence that followed as the engine stopped.

 

Ben pointed at his watch. “Shaili time,” he said. Shaili means time to go home. I couldn’t believe it. It was past 4.30 already and although the pipes had been positioned the actual driveway didn’t exist yet.

______________________

 

What followed next was a serious bit of negotiating with Ben and the TLB owner. There was no way Ben could stay later as he still had to drive the TLB back and get home. They didn’t usually work Sundays.

 

“Ben can come out tomorrow, but it will be overtime rates,” said the owner.

 

“He probably only needs two hours to finish – it’s just get the driveway into shape now,” I said, hopefully.

 

“It’s a couple of hours just driving to the site and back which I have to charge you for, and with two hours of work it’s already a half day. You’re better off taking the full day rate – it’s cheaper.”

 

I did a quick calculation – I’d only budgeted for one day for the job. Now it would be at least double that. And there was the pressure to wrap up the subdivision and get the sale through and stop all those bank phone calls. It could not be delayed for another week.

 

Sunday it was to be. At double rates.

_________________________

 

The surface of the new driveway entrance had to be covered with gravel. Which in my book is the stuff you mix with concrete – small grey stones.

 

I calculated the area that needed covering and it came to 60 square metres. I multiplied by the depth of ten centimetres. It came to six cubic metres of gravel – about the same as six tons and two or three good truck loads. And another couple of thousand rand.

 

I had nearly ordered it but then realised that it would be in the way. It would be a relatively easy job for the gardeners to spread it around if it was unloaded on the driveway after the earthworks were done.

 

Ben was intrigued by this when I told him. “Hauw. That’s not the gravel you use, it’s this,” and he nudged some of the stones where we stood.

 

“The whole driveway has to be covered with it and compacted,” I said.

 

“I know,” he said, “we can scrape enough from the side of the road all along here. If there isn’t enough I can go down to that quarry and get some.”

 

“But doesn’t it belong to somebody?”

 

“It’s the roads department’s,” Ben said, “that’s where they get stone and gravel from when they’re doing roadworks.”

 

I could have hugged him. I gave him a high five instead. If I had ordered the chip stone gravel I would have had to pay in advance and there’s no way they would have taken it back. A couple of thousand rand more cost.

 

Things went quickly from then. A few trips down to the quarry at the bottom of the D146 five minutes away and Ben had all the gravel he needed.

 

By that afternoon, the driveway was done, neatly covered and compacted with local gravel and Ben was on his way home with a pack of ice cold beers for his hard work.

 

First thing Monday I called Bongani and he agreed to meet me on site on the Wednesday. He was impressed and signed off the driveway.

 

Roadworks… Done, as Gordon Ramsay the famous chef would say – although it had taken a lot longer than a few minutes.

 

CHAPTER 58

Moving four cats, no three…?

 

I’ve moved our pet dogs from home to home over time and that’s how I understood it was to move animals. Yes, I know cats are different to dogs, but a pet’s a pet is a pet, isn’t it? “Come kitty, jump in the car, we’re moving to a nice new home…” Ha.

 

Cats do not take to being moved. In fact cats do not take to any kind of command, instruction, manipulation or whatever devious means we contrive to get them to comply. The cat is the centre of its universe. We are circling around it like minions at its beck and call.

 

I’d learnt the hard way when we moved from Halford Road to Horizons – with Courtney and Olivia’s two cats.

 

My first mistake when we moved was thinking: we’re leaving at 11am, shortly before I’ll call the cats and we’ll go. After all, that’s what you do with a dog and it goes “pant, pant, heavy breath, pant, pant, I’m here… this is exciting where are we going, let’s go, pant, pant, this is fun, open the window, slobber, pant, hhhaaa, hhaaaa, …”

 

Quarter to eleven. First call to cats: “Come Pumpkin, Holley, let’s go!” . . . . (those dots mean nothing’s happening, nada, no excited cats, no mildly excited purring, zippo!). OK, maybe they’re sleeping. “Come kitty, come on, come on…?”

 

Ten to eleven. Second call to cats – we’re about to leave. Look in the usual places – Pumpkin not on the couch or in Courtney’s cupboard, Holley not on Olivia’s bed.

 

Five to eleven. Rats! Where the hell are these cats? House moving is supposed to be the third most stressful thing after death and divorce. They must mean that without cats. Add cats and children worrying about cats and it heads right up there to number one spot in harsh, glaring lights.

 

Eleven o’clock goes. So, does 11.30. The removal truck which we are supposed to meet at Horizons (only about an hour and a half drive) has long gone and is probably nearly there.

 

Well, you get the picture. I think we came back for the cats a week later after concluding that they weren’t planning on going anywhere.

 

Oh, and there’s another thing. Cats are slippery. When you put a cat in a basket in the car do not, I repeat do not, think you can let it out for a walk or a wee on the grass. You may just end up spending an extra hour wherever that is going through the “Come kitty, we’re going now,” routine. (Cat thought bubble: “That’s what you think… This tree/shed/pipe/box is better than your car and that picnic basket you want me to live in.”)

 

If the cat somehow gets out while the car is closed, stop. Yes, stop. Athena didn’t, tried to get the cat off the dashboard and now the car has the scars to prove it. I think hers have healed.

 

A cat in a basket in a car also decides it must mark its territory. So, in fact, I’ve now designed a cat transporter which is made of stainless steel lined with super absorbent towelling and looks like a cat basket. A week before moving the cat gets locked in there and goes nowhere. (Cat telepathy/thought bubble: “Mmmm they have a new plan, make a note to sleep out starting tonight…”).

 

When you have four children, you can’t really have two or three cats. So, we had four cats.

 

To start with, Pumpkin and Holley, which were Courtney’s and Olivia’s cats respectively, came from Durban. They had been bought as kittens from the SPCA in 2001. As they grew so did their personalities. Pumpkin a tawny male (well, half a male after his nuts were removed – part of the deal of buying animals from the SPCA), and Holley a completely snow white female except for a grey patch next to her eye.

 

Pumpkin developed into the most affectionate cat I’ve known (not many – I’m not a cat person) and Holley soon took on the name scaredy cat – due to the startled expression she constantly wore and her reluctance to be held or contained. So they were opposites.

 

We decided Zoe and Jack should also have cats at Horizons, so Athena went off one day with Zoe and Jack and came back with two beautiful kittens – one black with a few white spots and the other all grey.

 

Whisky, like Pumpkin was also very affectionate but in a shy way. Whereas Pumpkin would seek affection, Whisky was shy and would occasionally allow himself to be held. Charlie, the grey, was the wildest and could have been mistaken for a feral cat.

 

We now had four cats who could not have been more varied – black, white, grey and tawny.

____________________

 

Every weekend when we went up, the cats would emerge one by one and by the Saturday morning they would all be around. This started to change.

 

“Have you seen Pumpkin?” I asked Athena one Saturday.

 

She hadn’t, so I asked Junior. “Sometimes he comes and eats his food. I think he’s living there now.” Junior pointed across the road to a neighbour’s house in the distance.

 

We couldn’t blame Pumpkin. Always the most affectionate of cats he enjoyed – and maybe needed – company.

 

Day moving out (six months after he found another home) he pitches up and watches and doesn’t leave. Sits in the road and watches me as I drive off with the last load. I put him back through fence to neighbours where he’s been living, get in the car, look and there he is again, looking definitely put out and forlorn about my leaving. They know what’s going on, don’t they? Think he’ll be fine as he’s been living there for over six months.

 

Few weeks later get a call from new owners to say he’s returned and making a nuisance by pestering guests at their picnics for food! Must come and collect him. I call back two weeks later (remember we lived in a different town 100km away) and horrors – they’ve taken him to the SPCA (Society for Prevention to Cruelty to Animals) animal pound. A cold chill creeps up my spine – they put animals down when they’re not sold/collected/wanted!

 

Fret fret.

 

I called them with no time to lose.

 

“May I speak with anybody who knows about the tan female that was brought in two weeks ago?”

 

I expected the worst. Courtney’s cat had been put down – how will I explain it to her?

 

“My darling, I’ve got some dreadful news. It’s concerning Pumpkin. . .” I imagined myself breaking the sad news to Courtney. The look I expected would materialise; horror, confusion, bewilderment.

 

The assistant to the assistant came on the line. “Yebo?” (It’s the word in Zulu that means “Yes?”)

 

I began, expecting the worst, “the tan cat brought in two weeks ago. . .” I was hurrying – there was no time to lose. My Pumpkin was doomed.

 

“I explained the situation; the picnics, Pumpkin had moved across the road a year or so ago, she was pestering the guests. . .”

 

The man at the other end of the phone excused himself – he muttered to himself. A lady came on the line “May I help you?”

 

I explained again, Pumpkin was being a nuisance to the guests. . .

 

She cut me off. “Is this a tan coloured cat?”

 

“Yes.” Dread filled my voice.

 

“She’s ok.”

 

“Do you mean. . .?”

 

“She’s ok.”

 

“Thank goodness for that. I’m coming to fetch her right away.” My relief at Pumpkin was all right and that I would be spared the thought of explaining the demise of Pumpkin to Courtney.

 

CHAPTER 59

Losing Some Good People to Hiv Aids

 

Busi was fading away. She had two young kids – at that time, they were both under 10.

 

That reminds me of a story. It was a distraught Busi that came to me during the week on Tuesday (she was working on the washing). It was long after lunch.

 

“Baas, Baas, I’ve lost my children, help me, please, to find them…”

 

“What happened to them?” I anxiously asked.

 

“They went to school this morning and they’re not where they’re supposed to be.”

 

“Which was?”

 

“At my friend who takes care of them, oooww, baas, please help me…”, she was severely distressed. She’d not long before made a mobile call to her friend, and it had repeatedly been unanswered.

 

We were the only ones on Horizons.

 

Driving my car at breakneck speed, I checked with her where we should start looking for them.

 

“I’ll show you the way.”

 

We found them, alive and well, and they were very pleased to see their mother.

 

What happened was, Busi’s friend had run out of airtime and on the system she was on, she couldn’t take calls.

 

They hugged and kissed each other.

 

They were safe.

 

Not long after we sold the property, Busi succumbed to Aids.

 

CHAPTER 60

Horizons Gourmet Foods

 

The bumpy, rutted road was not doing my Alfa any favours close to Balgowan. I’d undertaken to deliver packages of Parma ham and Bresaola on my return from Horizons. Preparing them in the morning (so that the kitchen staff could clear up), after lunch and cashing up and packing up and making sure that Spike, Honey and Juno had been fed, it was the time for me to get on my way. By this time the afternoon (it was about 5pm) it was fading light.

 

Once when I got there to find no-one in. I tried my mobile phone, and that was answered by “You have reached…”and I left a message.

 

Wary of the dog who may eat it, I stuck it far out of reach a) of the dog; and, b) out of the reach of the many pigeons that were flying around.

 

I hoped that the people would get the message and retrieve it that evening before night.

 

CHAPTER 61
Trip of a lifetime – and the money’s in the bank

 

“The taxi is due here in thirty minutes, how are you doing?” Athena anxiously shouted from downstairs.

 

I franticly looked up from my laptop and pale yellow folders and papers strewed around it. My email inbox reminded me I had 72 still waiting to be read. “I’m nearly done,” I said, “I just have to shower and close my bags.” There was no way I wanted to take my laptop with me. We had promised ourselves this was going to be holiday and nothing but.

 

But with delays to do the road construction (and the servitude – or was that later only) for the subdivision and the delays in the transfer at the conveyancers, it was not going to be. Three hours later I was still on the internet, now in the Johannesburg International Airport Air France Business Class lounge wrapping up work which I had not been able to keep on top of. (On top of which I could not keep? Which I had fallen off of the top of?) Sending emails was usually difficult overseas so I wanted to get them all off before we left SA’s cyberspace and my service provider.

 

Athena was more organised. I could see her across the Business Class lounge where she was starting to unwind and looking very relaxed, using up most of a three seater. The half a glass of wine and some canapés in front of her were a tempting idea but I had to stay focused.

 

“We need to go,” Athena signalled me. I nodded and pushed send receive to get the last emails out and was rewarded with half a dozen more emails coming in. After all, it was still only Friday evening. My European organic customers were barely wrapping up their day.

 

As soon as the downloading bar stopped and said complete I quickly checked if any were significant and then shut down. That was it now. The main stress on my mind (and Athena’s) which was the property sale, just needed the transfer registered. Chris Phillips, the conveyancer, was doing more than could be expected of him to speed it through and release the purchaser’s funds. Then the bank would be off my back.

 

I sighed and stretched and did my best to exorcise my stress as we left for Boarding Gate G14.

____________________

 

The eBucks people had been fantastic. Would they mind if we added some days on to the front and back of the trip at our expense. No problem, they said, just tell us the dates and we’ll book them then. As long as you use the same airports to arrive and leave Europe.

 

So finally, there we were, luxuriating in Air France’s Business Class. It was only natural that we began our trip by accepting a glass of French Champagne and toasting our good fortune.

 

“Unbelievable, but here we are,” I said. “Sante, or a la votre, or whatever it is, but cheers my darling Athena. Bon Voyage. I could not be doing this trip with a better person.”

 

Athena just gave me the happiest of smiles.

 

The business class tickets on Air France would take us via Paris to Nice from where we would connect to Rome to begin the trip with the Ferrari. At the end, we would leave from Rome again via Paris back to South Africa. Athena and I wanted to spend some time with her family in Greek Cyprus so we planned to add on nearly a week for that. We had also decided that we needed a few days to unwind before our Ferrari trip.

 

If you’d asked either of us a year earlier about Nice we probably would have described it as a quaint little Provencale seaside village in the South of France.

 

What we had quickly found out was that Nice is one of the French’s most popular holiday destinations. So, Nice on the Cote d’Azur, or French Riviera as it’s also known, seemed the ideal place to be on our own and catch our breaths.

 

Athena had found on the internet the Hotel Acanthe, ideally placed on the Avenue Felix Faure which runs from the Promenade des Anglais on the beachfront into the city. It’s along a park built over what was a river bordering Vieux Nice – the old city. In its day, on the one side the river would have been the sheer invader proof walls of the old town and on the other side pastures, fields and vineyards.

 

So, we were five minutes-walk from the plages or beaches of the French Riviera with this history in between. To get there we could walk through the maze of cobblestone alleys lined centuries old buildings packed with bars, cafes, restaurants, patissieries, boulangeries… I’m sure you get the picture. When you see a store called the Temple du Pain, which translates roughly into the Church of Bread, you know you are in the centre of the gastronomic universe surrounded by civilization.

 

Four days later we had made the most of the May sunshine and long evenings. We were tanned, relaxed and our command of French had doubled. Needless to say we fell in love with Nice and have since returned.

 

We were also very fortunate that our good English friends Tony and Meg were going to be at their Umbrian place at that time. They had instantly invited us there for a few days – which fitted in perfectly as it was en route from Nice to Rome.

 

Tony and Meg’s ‘place’ in Umbria, just outside Cita di Castella about an hour north of Rome, is straight out of a Peter Mayle or Carol Drinkwater novel, you know, those ‘Year in Provence’ or ‘My Tuscan Villa’ books. They bought a rundown farmhouse on a few hectares of Umbrian countryside, with olive and fruit tree groves and vineyards and views of rolling hills specked with the terra cotta roofs of other farmhouses and villas and distant villages. They had worked hard to redo it and it was now a chic villa. The dining room was set in a well-fitted kitchen and this room opened out onto a shaded veranda that overlooked the view. Up some steps behind the house a sparkling swimming pool was set into the hillside.

 

We are the most fortunate of people and appreciate and frequently thank God for our good fortune.

 

While we were there the sale of Horizons Gourmet Picnics finally went through. I was able to find an internet cafe in Cita di Castella and finally placate a few people by transferring the funds that I had undertaken to.

 

Now we were ready for Rome and our Ferrari trip.

 

CHAPTER 62

Less ice cream, please

 

The less you have of something the more you appreciate it.

 

That’s a philosophy I had adopted from a young age. When we were children our family lived well but we were not spoilt and sometimes there were lean times. So, we were taught – and learnt – to appreciate what we had.

 

The three years of Horizons and my branding business when we worked just about 365 days of the year – and I mean this absolutely literally, one year I only had five days off – made this philosophy even more predominant. When you have yet again turned down a game of golf with your buddies or not been able to go out for a weekend lunch or go to a movie or declined an invitation to have dinner with your long-standing friends for month after month, you have no idea how much you come to appreciate these things.

 

I refer to it as my ice cream philosophy. If you love ice cream and eat it as often as you can and every day, it will lose its appeal.

 

So, there we were, three years down the road, like two kids set free in the ice cream shop that until then they could only look at through the window.

 

Our Ferrari trip was the big fat luscious red cherry on the top that had been waiting for us, tantalising us…

CHAPTER 63

Vroom, Vroom!

 

It was the best of times.

 

How much to tell? The Ferrari trip could fill a book and this book is not about it.

 

But in a way it is. Because it was the ice cream philosophy realised in its grandest sense.

 

There we had been – three years mostly with our heads down in picnic food outside, not even in, a little KwaZulu-Natal village called Rosetta, pop: maybe 200.

 

Having wrapped that up there we were on our way to what in most people’s book was the dream week: the best hotels; the best restaurants; a Ferrari to drive through Italy for three days and about 1,000km; a personal tour director and personal guided tours; executive, chauffeured limousine transfers whenever we moved between hotel and airport; and the finale – helicoptered in to Monaco for the Grand Prix weekend and hosted in a trackside balcony apartment.

_______________________

 

The limousine had whooshed us from the Hotel de la Russi in Rome to Civitaveccia. Earlier we’d had the best breakfast ever including some of the best smoked salmon and decadent luscious chocolate cake (yes, for breakfast). On arrival an hour later, at what is Rome’s superyacht port of the rich and famous, canapés and prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine, awaited us. Prosecco? And it’s 10am and you’re about to give me a two million rand Ferrari to drive for the day? Well, when in Rome…

 

The previous evening, Lorenzo, our tour director for the Ferrari segment, had come round to the hotel to meet us and brief us. I could see a twinkle in Athena’s eyes as we were introduced to the young, good looking, charming Italian who was to host us around Tuscany and up to Lake Como over the next three days.

 

“Ok, your eye candy. Enjoy.” I had quietly chuckled in Athena’s ear. “Mine comes tomorrow.”

________________________

 

The superyachts gleamed white and chrome and stainless steel in Civitaveccia port. The sky was already burnt out from the sun. The quayside paving was bleached.

 

Against this monochrome palette of bleached Mediterranean colours, an unmistakeable shape wrapped in the brightest of red covers, the Ferrari proudly waited on the quayside. It looked like a giant Christmas present from the Vatican. I felt like a child who’d just discovered the big box under the Christmas tree with his name on.

 

Politely and impatiently, I nibbled a couple of canapés in the Yacht Club’s lounge overlooking the spectacle. Half a glass of Prosecco calmed my nerves. Athena smiled at my excitement.

 

“Ok we can go,” said Lorenzo and showed us the way down to the quayside. ‘I’ll meet you there.”

 

As we emerged onto the quayside Lorenzo pulled up in his car – a bright red Alfa Brera – in which he would lead the way over the next three days. We wouldn’t have to stay very close to him, as we had two way radios to communicate important things like: “speed trap coming – slow down to speed limit,” or “we stop now at this restaurant for lunch.” But he would never let us out of his sight. His job was to make sure we got the precious Ferrari to the Villa d’Este Hotel at Lake Como unscratched.

 

We had done some internet research to see what models of Ferraris the tour company Red Travel offered and they were all late models. But I had no idea what we were to drive nor the colour.

 

“You can take off the cover,” said Lorenzo.

 

A salacious voyeuristic fever gripped me. I felt like I was undressing an Italian film star. As I peeled the silky cover off the first corner the fiery red of Ferrari shone back at me and then the proud enamelled yellow badge with the black prancing horse. The car was bright Ferrari red – this couldn’t get better.

 

But it did. As I slid the equally bright red cover over the windscreen the soft top was revealed – it was a coupe. Gathering the mass of fabric, I slid it back over the rear window. Underneath, red, mottled cam covers with Ferrari boldly moulded stood out against alloys and wires and pipes and technological brilliance.

 

Finally, I got to the rear of the car to expose the tail – it was a F430, one of the most beautiful and sporty Ferraris of recent years. It looked like it had never been touched or driven. My skin tingled with a million goosebumps, I was overwhelmed, speechless, in awe of the masterpiece that would be my charge (and me, and me – Athena) for three days.

 

It’s said that Ferrari has a special technique to get their unique, glowing classical Ferrari red colour. After the bodywork base metal is treated and undercoated, first colour they spray the car is silver. Next, six coats of Ferrari red are applied, each one cured before the next. Lastly, a coat of clear laquer tinged with pink finishes the work of art.

 

Lorenzo sat me in the car and explained the controls to us. On the steering wheel was a dial with five settings to adjust the suspension responsiveness to deal with a range of conditions – including snow and rain – and make the car manageable to drive for the less skilled. The extreme setting said RACE. “Can I try that?” I asked.

 

“Michael Schumacher doesn’t even use that on the road,” laughed Lorenzo.

 

Next to it was a bright yellow button with the word START in the middle. At last, driver’s briefing done for Athena and me, I was given the honour to push it. A thrill ran up my spine and the quayside was shattered by the cacophony of 495 thoroughbred horsepower bursting into life and me blipping the throttle a couple of times to rev the engine. Forget Playstation or XBox – this was the real deal.

 

“Do you want the top up or down?” Lorenzo asked.

 

‘No question,” said Athena, “Down.”

 

Strapped in and ready to go I asked Lorenzo “Please show me how the CD works.” He and Athena looked at me a little strangely but he did. I slipped a CD out of my jacket and into the drive. “Ok we can go,” I signalled to Lorenzo and he climbed into his Alfa Brera.

 

The two way radio crackled into life. “Do you hear me, over?” came his now familiar Italian voice.

 

“Si, si, va bene, okay, yes…” I replied. “…over.”

 

“Si, Remember to watch the kerb on the right hand side,” he instructed. Coming from South Africa where we drove on the left this was to prove one of the bigger challenges – keeping the wide Ferrari on the narrow Italian countryside roads. “Ok, we go! Over.”

 

My hands shook. Would I stall the car? Athena had mentioned to Lorenzo that I had raced saloon and single seater cars for six years. Was that a good idea and was I about to embarrass myself?

 

I needn’t have worried. In STREET? Mode the F430 took off so easily that a granny could have driven it. We were off and away.

 

We turned on to the road that would take us onto the route of the famous fifties road race the Mille Miglia (Thousand Miles) that twisted and wound its way through the Tuscan countryside and north on to Florence, our stop for the night.

 

Sun on our faces, wind in our hair and the throaty roar of the 5.5L? V8 massaging my back, I pushed play on the CD and turned up the volume.

 

Added to all those delicious sensations came the sound track I had secretly prepared on the CD just for this very moment. You see, Athena and I have this little private joke that originated on a ski trip: I’m 007 and she’s the seductive spy Snowflake.

 

We laughed and our spirits soared as the car filled with the unmistakable theme from the original Casino Royale James Bond.

____________________

 

*You can check out some videos here:

 

Away we go…

 

James Bond music 1

 

More James Bond music 2

 

Lunch at Orvietto

 

Ferrari vrooomah….

 

Little three-wheeler

 

Athena getting in a Ferrari 430 Coupé…

 

My very beautiful wife, Athena

 

Starting the Ferrari… Vroomah!

 

Unveiling Ian’s and Athena’s Ferrari

 

We’re lucky in so many ways. One of them is the pleasure we get from food. And that can be from the simplest pastry or peasant meal to the finest restaurant. As long as the chef has used, and more importantly, respected good quality ingredients.

 

“Michelin Star Restaurants” had immediately caught our eye when we looked at the eBucks promo material for the trip. Michelin does one of the most respected restaurant guides and their secret critics assess the restaurants to determine whether they qualify or not. Three stars are the absolute pinnacle of recognition of culinary accomplishment and dining experience. Quite stratospheric. Even two and one star indicates an extraordinary level of dining. Chefs die for their Michelin stars – literally. One has felt so shamed at losing a Michelin Star they have taken their own lives.

 

Our second day with the Ferrari was a busy one spent driving around Tuscany. It included a lengthy wine tasting in the morning (followed by driving the Ferrari). There was the lengthy lunch at a traditional Tuscan restaurant where we were absorbed into a celebratory lunch of a large group of artists and poets (followed by driving the Ferrari).

 

So, we were quite exhausted by the time we got back to our Hotel La Vedetta high up on the hill overlooking of the ViaReccia river.

 

After a refreshing swim and drink at the pool we rested up in our suite. Below us the bridges which have featured in so many books and films led into Florence where the glinting tiled domes of the cathedrals rose above the city’s patchscape of terracotta roofs.

 

Lorenzo had recommended a Michelin starred restaurant, however it was across the city and over an hour’s drive away.

 

“Is there somewhere as good closer,” we asked.

 

He appeared disappointed that we weren’t up to the drive. But as he had promised in his pre-trip briefing, he was there at our service, to be discreetly but ever present at our beck and call. When, where and whatever we wished to do we need but ask.

 

“No problem,” he replied, true to his word. “Right here at La Vedetta is one of the best and newest restaurants in Florence, called Onice,” (he said it as ‘oh-knee-chee’, even though it looks like ‘on ice’).

_______________

 

That evening we sat under the Florence sky as the evening faded and the stars clicked on out of the dusk. By the candlelight we studied the menu and were confused. It seemed that each item on the menu was a choice of four dishes. We decided to choose just one each and ordered.

 

“I’m going for the roast belly of baby pig,” said Athena.

 

I chose the langoustine with seafoam. We always chose different dishes to have a chance to enjoy some of each other’s.

 

We stared lovingly in to each other’s eyes and into the distant, hazy images as night slowly descended.

 

The starters first.

 

There was a crisp, fried sardine in a tempura batter. Then a subtle melange of sweet and sour cradling a tiny slice of pork belly. A slice of salmon done rare nestled in some crisp lettuce. But the oyster shooter was the favourite – a single oyster submerged in champagne foam and lime juice with a soup-con of aggression provided by the chilli.

 

And then they arrived.

 

Rather than one dish each, there were four in my case and five for Athena.

 

Athena’s “selection” grew. The roast belly came with a lighter than air foam married with a wafer infused with fennel and a delicious cube of another pork. There sitting alongside it was a concentrated farci and alongside it was a different piece of pork that looked like it was done in its own juices. Next to it was a roundel of rolled pork with crispy skin.

 

Mine expanded from the langoustine instead there were a quartet of delicacies. The crustacean with foam to a prawn in a crispy coating, a delightful calamari legs again in a crispy coating, and two delicacies that looked like asparagus but were from the sea. A cone like structure of pastry stuffed with sea food. The centre of the plate had been given pride of place with a delicate clear, seafood reduction that stirred some feelings on your palate topped by a wafer of pastry.

 

We swopped every tasty morsel and demolished and obliterated everything on our plates.

 

“Taste this prawn with the sea-foam,” I declared. “Savour the crunchy, roast belly,” Athena countered.

 

Then it was time to make the most of the dessert.

 

“I wonder if they will surprise us?” Athena asked.

 

The dessert was exceptional. I looked inquisitively at my partner’s and then my own.

 

Athena had spread before her not one but four delicacies. There were spun wafer-like pastry with a wrapping of caremilised sugar sitting atop a mousse, crisp pastry on top of another chocolate mousse, there was a thin, sleek wafer of chocolate, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a delectable, textural mousse, a clear film of diaphenous gel, topped with vanilla pods..

 

Mine was on one plate – but it was a dessert fit for a king and it was a “Celebration in chocolate”. From the brandy snaps dipped in Belgian chocolate to the most delicate profiterole filled with a delicious mousse (shaped like a calamari), another fine, delicate mousse supporting a flavoured wafer on one side, this was surrounding a bowl of delicious chocolate mousse topped by a vanilla infused shard of lighter-than-air pastry.

 

It was the finest meal we had enjoyed.

____________________

 

The trip was spectacular.

 

Finally, we got to enjoy the Grand Prix of Monaco. But, the noise was too great for Athena (after waiting in the sun for what seemed like hours for the helicopter to bring us from Nice and us nearly missing the start of the Grand Prix), it was earsplitting. She tried earplugs – they didn’t work efficiently enough. Then she tried ear muffs, they too were ineffective. Finally, she went inside the apartment to escape the din.

____________________

 

It had been a dream-like week where every moment had felt like we were in a James Bond movie.

 

CHAPTER 64

Beetroot soup

 

“Wow” was our driving motto for everything we did, especially the food. Mostly we got it right. There’s wow and then there’s, well, shocking.

 

Which is the effect the beetroot soup had on some customers.

 

This must be the most unusual dish we did. We were always striving to make dishes from what’s in season and beetroot were plentiful and at a good price.

 

We had experimented with the beetroot, trying all sorts of things to create the perfect soup. Glazing onions, adding spices, slow roasting the beetroot, different stocks. In the end, we found that the basic soup worked best kept simple – beetroot and chicken stock that was it. Beetroot has an earthiness.

 

It needed something to contrast with and sharpen up that bluntness, so we added horseradish ice cream, and shredded fresh mint and orange zest. The horseradish ice cream was also very simple – roughly 50/50 whipped cream and horseradish rolled into plastic wrap and frozen. Then sliced into rounds just before serving.

 

Like most of our soups, we served it hot or cold, depending on the weather.

 

CHAPTER 65

Thai oysters

 

“What did we have with those oysters – they were delicious?” Athena asked.

 

“It was like, umm, a Thai concoction, sort of chopped leeks…” I ventured.

 

Athena countered. “It was shallottes, spring onions, chopped finely – they were delicious. We had them at a Gateway restaurant.” (Gateway is a new build in the mid-nineties and is a few kilometres from Umhlanga Rocks, that rapidly growing development on the coast, a few kilometres north of Durban.)

 

My wife continued. “There was a definite Thai influence with fish sauce… with fried onions, chilli, red wine vinegar, umm, I’m sure…”

 

“That will be a worthy, tasty addition to the menu,” I added.

 

We offered them and surprisingly we had a little interest in them.

 

So, we ate them. Delicious!

CHAPTER 66

Notes from Athena’s diary

 

Just very quickly (2hours later) went through diaries to help with picnic book.  Wow… was this really our lives then?

 

Had quick look at 2003 diary and see I had written “my year so far” on 18 Aug 2003 while in Penwan for weekend:-

 

I started off by saying “I find it difficult to grasp that so much has happened this past 8 months.  Enough drama to surely last many people a lifetime!”

 

Dec 2002 our fantastic holiday.  Had got fit because of back problems, and booked in for the ‘op’ on return in January.

 

The accident in St Moritz which then also gave me neck problems

 

We flew back separately on Xmas day.  I opened your gift of ‘mind mapping’ which started me thinking

 

31 Dec 2002 our new years eve was spent with you with Courtney (concussed) and me with Olivia Zoe and Jack taking shelter in midst of huge storm.  An omen of the year to come?

 

2003

27 Jan 2003 I was informed of court case with Nedbank.

 

29 Jan my back operation.  Thought more of ‘mind mapping’ and decided to go into business and buy properties

 

Started buying properties

 

Started buying business

 

May – Fransschoek holiday for your birthday

 

June ‘smash and grab’ in Durban

 

July we took family to Tiffindell for skiing.

 

1 august took over business and had builders in

 

12 August, house on fire and burned down.

 

15 aug weekend away at penwan

 

I then wrote   “but what else is in store?

I think this is the cleansing, the new beginning. 

Jan 2004 I will have a new home, new business and another new start.  Happy times are coming to stay !

No more dramas in my life from now on…… famous last words????”

 

Then quickly looking back at 2004 diaries…..

 

Business failing.

Trip to Thailand

Heady valentines day at Christies shop

Taking months of selling on lease and negotiations and centre management declining each one.

 

Close doors on Christies end of April

 

Fri 23 april my party

Fabulous weekend with engagement

 

May

Getting table clothes and serviettes made

 

Meeting with Duncan Fowler trying to get water to property

 

Vat finalizations, meeting with accountants and dealing with Trustees

 

Credit card facilities

 

Settling with staff

 

School teacher parent interviews

 

Telkom for horizons

 

Fri 7 may complimentary supper at Beverley Hills with Karen and Geoff

 

Sat 8 May Leanne and Burnley wedding at Kloof country club

 

Mon 10 May supper at friends

 

Flo nephew Moses in trouble with police and beaten up.   I had to go to magistrate court to bail him out and sort out at hospital etc

 

Had to organize our visas for mocambique

 

Wed 12 may – Jiggers dinner

 

Property purchases – documents and legal stuff

 

Jack in trouble at school and meetings with Head and deputy head

 

Trading and liquor licenses

 

Thurs 20 May to Muputu

 

Tax returns for Christies

 

Thu 27 May – book club

 

Sunday 30 May – opening picnic 92 adults and 30 kids

 

Tues 1 June – Moses at magistrates court

 

Anti Nuptial Agreement preparation

 

Wills

 

26 June cats from spca

 

I was Trustee at The Cove and preparing for AGM and change of house rules to motivate

 

July

 

cats to vets for jabs

Whiskey to be spayed

Smuggled Cats at Camelot – so we could take to vets

 

Coffee machine problems

 

Water geyser problems

 

My HRT problems

 

My neice Maria arrives 30 July for 3 weeks

 

Still selling Christies stock in july

 

August

Arrange wedding guests accommodations

 

Jerry taking me to magistrate court to reduce maintenance payments

 

Still selling Christies stock in august

 

 

Sept.

 

Moved Zoe to Waldorf school

 

Booking our xmas family holiday to sestriere

 

Problems with some of my tenants in rental flats

 

Wedding things – dj, marqui, music, marriage vows, priest,

 

2nd oct Ian at Kamberg and steam for weekend.

 

Childrens passport applications

 

9 oct Ian did Fire Equiptment lecture at Zimbali

 

Oct still selling Christies stock and fittings

 

19 oct mum arrives

20oct Jen arrives

22oct tony and euan arrive

22oct mike and Eileen arrive

 

Staff for wedding – flo, tandi, bousie, kate, prisca, hermon, petrus, bousie brother, another? Marka dn Natasha on bar.

 

Often each month doing stock on spoons! and buying more

 

Did Halloween things in garden for picnics

 

Lots of quotes for golf days, weddings, christenings, and parties.

 

Did picnic display for a golf day at mnt edgcombe

 

26 nov – Greek evening at horizons (run out of gas in morning)  Jack prize giving at school 11am

 

FLY PROBLEMS IN KITCHEN (Athena’s capitals)

 

29 dec off to Italy

 

CHAPTER 67

The best wedding – ever

 

I had found my Athena.

 

She epitomises the saying: Dine with kings and can survive the jungle.

 

It means she’s got the ability and class to mix with Royalty (which she has).

 

And at the opposite end of the scale, she can really rough it. She’s been to the depths of the Amazon rain forest for days on end, bitten in all the places you could imagine and some you couldn’t.

 

Athena’s climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro. She found out she’s pregnant when she came back down. With Zóe, her daughter.

_________________________

 

It was about 8:00 in the morning, the day after the wedding. I found my Dad sitting in the lounge.

 

“Good morning, son,” he greeted me.

 

“How are you doing, Dad?”

 

“I’d like a drink. Have you got anything to drink?”

 

Thinking he meant an orange juice, I said yes.

 

“I’ll have a whisky, thanks, son.”

 

I knew he wasn’t feeling himself, but this was the first time he asked for something alcoholic first thing in the morning. (Except I remember he was a good-looking pilot in World War II and I don’t know what he got up to then…).

 

Just then, Athena made her appearance at the bedroom door.

 

“Hello,” he said with a wide lasciviuos grin.

 

“Hello, Geoff,” Athena replied.

 

I sensed Geoff wondered how this georgeous woman 1) knew his name was “Geoff”; 2) why she was wearing a flimsy negligee; 3) wondered how the heck this beauty was gracing this place…

_______________________

 

Soon thereafter, saying good byes to all our friends and family we set off for Cleopatra.

 

This place, higher up in the mountains, was run by Richard and Mouse Poynton. It is a feast for all the senses – mainly the taste sensations. They served up a six-course dinner followed by breakfast the next morning, which felt so close to the dinner that one has not yet fully digested it.

 

The dining area was set in trees and overlooked a dam. We sat in the calm of the early summer evening on the low wall that surrounded the water. It was slightly misty and the trout were stirring and fighting for the scattered bread we fed them.

 

After a fabulous evening and a great dinner and a long night and a big breakfast, we left for Horizons again to be reunited with our friends.

________________________

 

The air was beautifully still at 5am at the game reserve. In the distance a racket of growls and barks were carried on the gentle movement of the breeze.

 

We had set our alarms to go off at 4.45am, but the two boys were dead to the world. Jack was in a deep sleep and we had hard time waking him.

 

“Come on, Jack,” we said noisily. After all, Athena had an understanding with the difficulty in waking him up.

 

The boys were aged ten at the time. Our guide had misgivings about taking them on the walk in the wild, where danger could be lurking around every corner.

 

“Nkosi,” (it equals “boss”), “they are too young to take them”.

 

“Don’t worry, they know the ways of the wild.” After all, Jack had been exposed snakes and spiders and I was certain he wouldn’t be afraid of anything that the wild could throw at him.

 

It was with a mixture of anticipation and fear. The boys were excited and Tony and I felt unease.

 

We walked through the lush bush which had benefitted from the early rains following the guide who walked in front.

 

We suddenly stopped in our tracks as we came around the corner.

 

The guide signalled to us nervously to get back. And then we saw it – a rhino. Less than twenty metres away from us. He hadn’t noticed us. I had seen rhinos behind the enclosures in the Umfolozi Game Park getting ready to be auctioned to the best bid, when they would be translocated to another region in or close to the borders to South Africa.

 

But, this was for real. In the wild.

 

“Oh shit!”, I muttered under my breath. His horn was massive, at least two feet long/60cm. He was the size of a medium size car and would have easily won the battle with it. A walk over, literally and figuratively.

 

A frission of excitement coursed through all our veins. The boys needed restraining – they didn’t know where to turn. We were down wind to the huge beast – not that the air was barely moving.

 

The rhino hadn’t seen us. Thank goodness.

 

We retraced our steps going the long way around.

 

Jack was the first to break the silence. Unlike me, the others had not had exposure to the wild animals in the pens.

 

I was amazed to see the scale of the Eland – an antelope or a horse-like creature. It too could have won the battle against a mini.

 

We breathed a sigh of relief after our close shave. I even could have sworn I heard the guide sighing with relief. That was a really close encounter that could have gone horribly wrong.

CHAPTER 68

Back to routine – all in a week’s work

Experiences and what I’ve learnt from Horizons

 

Life is too precious not to live it to the full. Our children, and friends and Athena filled my existence.

 

One of the first mornings we suggested to Livi and Jack to go for milk. They found it down the road at a farmer. Freedom from the rat race of the city.

 

The fun and heartache with the cats and dogs and chickens and hamsters and snakes and whatever things walked on the earth was something special to experience. Juno, Spike and Honey have left vivid memories. Spike was so terrified of storms and Juno eating the Parma ham and Honey would follow me all around the estate/property. And Pumpkin, Holly, Whiskey and Charlie, they went to The Ark, a religious place, for people who had fallen on hard times. They loved it there, sleeping in the day and up at night to catch an errant rat or cockroach. The scare that Pumpkin went through at the Mooi River SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). My love and admiration goes to Athena who found a great home for the cats against all the odds.

 

Our first guests – John, Adrie and Jane Booth – aka The Swanepoels, made a special effort to come back for our opening after a week having been there before with 90 adults and 40 odd children lying and basking in the glorious autumn sunlight and enjoying our tireless production of food and wine and the children playing in the enjoyable sunshine.

 

The new Springfield Dam. We missed out on the opportunities that would have brought after more than fifty years of the thinking about it. But the trucks would have brought the gritty dust drifting over Horizons and settling on the umbrellas, tables, chairs, cutlery, glasses, flowers and picnics spoiling it for everyone. We thankfully missed out on that.

 

The guy who closed the door to the servant’s toilet and saw a snake hiding behind the door and made a hurried and tight fitting escape through the minute window that was at shoulder height…!

 

The odd occasion of the rush of packing up and taking Livi and Courts back at a reasonable hour to their mother’s place every second weekend after dark when we had that arrangement. But, it was such fun.

 

Jack and his friends and Livi (occasionally) disappearing and climbing the tree to build a treehouse with whatever he could lay his hands on.

 

Our reward of the luxurious Ferrari trip with it’s five star hotels, and Michelin starred restaurants, and the helicopter trip to the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, and our discovering magical Nice beforehand and with Athena’s family and friends after.

 

Boy, I learnt the tricks that banks will lower themselves to. The endless phone calls from them were relentless.

 

The Elizabeth Klara happening. Alan Venables who told us all about it, from the appearance of Klara ultimately where she turned up magically in Rosetta and the next day she had gone to meet her maker or lover from Alpha Centauri.

 

The struggle with the water supply, dodging ostriches to effect the repairs that were overdue.

 

Jack, JP and Luke spearing the frogs in jest in the outside fishpond. With my star wife insisting they kill them mercifully (whatever that may mean?), and having to eat the frogs’ legs in the end. But, Livi was not too sure about that. She ate them, but the “I’m sorry about what the boys did to you” look crossed her face.

 

Horizons Gourmet Foods and its brand extension Midlands Gourmet Foods. Slicing and packing a hundred packs of Parma ham and bresaola. Exhibiting at the Pmb school and Alexandra Park – it was real food theatre. There I would conjure up tastings of variations of the unimaginable forms.

 

We, up until then, were taking weekends for granted. Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute of my involvement on Horizons. The fresh air in the early mornings, going for walks as the sun was breaking through the early morning mist with Livi and Jack, watching them scoot ahead on their bikes chasing Spike, Honey and Juno, and Pumpkin who ventured not too far – about 200m – from the entrance to Horizons as it caught the early morning sun rays.

 

But, now we really did appreciate them. The moments when Athena and I lay under the Big Sky.

 

The evolution of the picnic menu from the first day to what worked then, and then the seasonal changes.

 

But the biggest revelation was, working at three jobs at the same time. Sure, they were complimentary. The three involved branding and leadership. One were on my clients on the Doc Robinson side, my position as leader on Go-Organic, and one was my leadership with Athena on Horizons Gourmet Picnics.

 

It made it easy working in two locations. Sure, I was initially obsessed with the picnics venture and I, admittedly, took my eye off the ball on everything except the picnics for four or five months.

 

Finally, this book is dedicated to my wonderful wife, Athena. She is an ideal partner in life, whatever she has to pick up and run with it.

 

Special, indeed.

###

 

 

 

 

See the end of this book for the first three chapters. I hope you enjoy reading ROUGH DIAMONDS.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

This is the first fiction novel by Ian Robinson.

 

Ian worked in advertising at TBWA for more than 10 years; in the Seychelles for the local tourism marketing authority; and went on his own to start a branding business, working on a host of brands. That led him to jointly found the business Go-Organic with Karen McIntosh in South Africa.

 

Ian Robinson lives in Plymouth in the United Kingdom with his wife, Athena. The couple relocated in 2013.

 

CONNECT WITH IAN ROBINSON

Further information about Ian Robinson can be found on social media.

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/@IanRobinsonAuth

Friend me on Facebook: http://facebook.com/IanRobinsonAuthor

Favorite me at Shakespir: http://ianrob222

 

 

 

Here is my other book, this is a work of fiction.

 

Ian spent his youth in the coal-rich mining area of KwaZulu-Natal. This is where this story is based.

 

ROUGH DIAMONDS A killer read…

Family ripped apart!

 

In the sixties, this takes you to a mining village called Scallyclare in South Africa.

 

There is deceit, evil, malice, negligence, blackmail, rape, murder.

 

It starts when the three children’s Grandfather gives them three uncut diamonds. Along with those, he gives them each a bracelet with their names engraved on.

 

The diamonds and the bracelets become their blessings and terrifying curses.

 

This killer read is not for the gutless…

 

 

 

BOOK 1

 

INTRODUCTION

 

It was the summer of 1969.

 

Already thousands of flies from the nearby gutters of the native miners’ compound and the unhealthily close sewerage works had gathered for their daily ritual.

 

The sound of the swarm, which reached its peak now in February, almost drowned out the distant whine of the mine headgear.

 

After only two hours in the hot, early-morning African sun, the sickly-sweet smell of flesh beginning to decay gave a clue to its nature.

 

Their black, green-blue and purple bodies reflected little of the blinding sunlight as they wriggled for better positions. This was before vomiting their digestive juices teeming with bacteria on to the oozing flesh and then consuming their putrid meal. Others, now satisfied, injected their eggs into the new host before moving on.

 

Congealing blood, some of it escaping the flies, slid slowly down the fence post that had been specially planted at the main entrance to the compound. At its base, carnivorous red ants emerged from their nest, fighting each other, with the odd stray fly for rich protein. Sometimes they consumed others from their army as they quickly became covered in a sticky coat of plasma.

 

To the white mine workers at the Scallyclare Colliery in the coal-rich region of Northern Natal, this revolting scene typified the vulgar and barbaric nature of the native work force. But, to the spans of underground black labourers, this gory morass of decaying ox innards (still warm from the trading store butchery where the animal had been slaughtered just before sunrise), it represented a great prize.

 

It was an incentive that drove the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Swazi miners to higher productivity levels as they sweated deep within the bowels of the earth: To be the first to meet their quota and claim their reward – this flies’ feast that hung waiting in the hot African Sun.

 

CHAPTER 1

Bafozi

 

Nearly one thousand feet below ground in Section E, 17-year-old Bafozi removed his hard-hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. While he waited for the loose coal to be loaded and removed, he thought how this place could sometimes be as warm as a maiden’s sleeping place on a summer’s evening, and as damp and moist as her young fertile womanhood.

 

It reminded him of the touch and pleasure that Selena, the 14-year-old girl who had just entered womanhood, had shared with him back in the wattle forests near Mbabane, Swaziland.

 

Here at Scallyclare, female contact was rare for most of the 3 000 men, for the only women were the wives who lived in the married quarters. Fortunately, Bafozi’s exciting new way of life gave him little time to think about Selena.

 

The work was hard and fast, with few breaks, and he looked forward to the end of the shift and the chance to rest.

 

In his new sleeping place in the compound room, which he shared with 23 other Swazis, Bafozi had repaired the thin mattress (inherited from the late victim of a mine accident) by stuffing it with the soft grass that grew in early spring.

 

He had seen some of the men covering themselves with sacks when they slept, but he didn’t do that. The room never got as cold as the high misty hills in Swaziland where he had often spent nights searching for lost cattle. At Scallyclare, the small stove that filled the dormitory with sulphurous warmth while it burnt the magic black rock made sure of that.

 

As the youngest of the men, he got the bunk furthest from the stove, and it was his job to keep the fire burning when he was not working. It fascinated Bafozi how the dark stone burnt much hotter and longer than the dead trees from the forests. It was a gift from the spirits that there was always an endless supply of coal to burn.

 

It was on this coal stove that the winning span would cook their prize of ox innards. The sweet smell would fill the poorly ventilated room and tantalise those who were unfortunate enough not to share in the feast.

 

The windows were kept shut at night to keep out the evil Tokoloshe spirit. Apparently the lingering food odours blended with those of the sleeping men were not tempting to the evil spirit. To Bafozi, it almost felt like staying in one of the grass and clay huts at home – only the fire smelt different.

 

Bafozi thought how happy he was that nine months before, his brother, Gungu, had invited him to work on the mine with him. Gungu had arrived back in Swaziland, proud of his first year’s wages and with the news that Scallyclare was offering jobs to fit men. All they needed were men who could work hard in the confines and humidity of cramped, narrow tunnels nearly 1 000m beneath the Earth.

 

So Bafozi, his oldest brother, Edward, and their uncle, Goodwill, whose family lived with them in their kraal, decided to join Gungu to travel the 300km to Northern Natal where the black gold awaited them.

 

After sad farewells, they left for the coal fields with only the clothes on their backs and the Muthi from Sakela, a wise old witchdoctor. Sakela said that the evil-smelling potion made with blood from a puff adder (one of Africa’s most venomous snakes) and other ingredients they never dared ask about, would placate the ancient spirits.

 

He had added in his hypnotic voice, referring to the white people: “Those whose sacred burial ground they might be plundering.” He continued in that same tone of voice: “This was as they were doing it for the white man’.

 

Bafozi enjoyed the challenge of the work. It was Gungu who had suggested to Bafozi that he become a pick-boy who cuts slots. His thin, wiry frame would make it easy for him to slide into the narrow space under the seam overhang to undercut the coalface in order to make it collapse when it was blasted with dynamite.

 

The time at Scallyclare had been rewarding for Bafozi and his brothers. With little to spend money on, most of it was saved. Today was their last shift and he looked forward to soon taking his hard-earned wages back home. How pleased his mother would be when she learned she’d be able to pay for clothes, books and a small blackboard for Bafozi’s nine- and 10-year-old brother and sister, who could then attend school.

 

What a good Christmas this would be for the family.

____________

 

Back underground, Bafozi placed his hard-hat on a jutting point of rock. He positioned it so that the cap lamp shone deep into the narrow slot. Even though it was against the safety rules to work without head protection, only one thing mattered to Bafozi: Meeting the day’s quota of 38 tubs for his span, so that he, the two loaders and the trammer could be first to clock out of the shift and win the ox innards.

 

He felt beside him for his pick-handle and gripped the familiar, intricately carved meranti wood. Pressing himself flat against the shards of shale and coal so that it cut into his cheek, he followed the beam of light into the claustrophobic space. Moving the light from side to side, he picked up the slight changes in colour and hardness of the rock face.

 

As Bafozi looked at the dull, black, bituminous coal seam, where it butted up against the sandstone, he signalled to Gungu, Edward and Goodwill, his span mates, to be quiet.

 

The millions of tons of rock and coal, only inches above his head, were silent. Singing gently to this mass to co-operate, he co-ordinated his arms and wrist movements in the limited space. Bafozi swung the pick head at the sandstone, neatly driving in the sharp point where he knew the coal face would be the softest.

 

The sound of steel against rock was just trailing off when something inside him made Bafozi pause.

 

Then he heard it.

 

A distant groan, like an angry bull, that coursed through the earth somewhere way up above them.

 

“Take care, my brother’s son.” Goodwill’s whisper barely worked its way through the narrow space.

 

Bafozi listened intently for the earth to speak to him.

 

For an instant he wondered if he should have supported the overhanging coal face with the two, short, wooden sprags, but then pushed the thought aside. He could speak to the coal. Besides the sprags got in the way, and time counted for everything.

 

Once again Bafozi’s sweet voice harmonised with the steel as he swung it at the shale. It penetrated the visible soft layer, and then suddenly the shock kicked back down the handle into Bafozi’s hands as it struck an aberration. The wall of coal shuddered.

 

Shards of razor-sharp shale spat on to his neck as tons of fossil that had lain undisturbed for 250 million years briefly complained and then swallowed its annoyance in a deep grumble.

 

Bafozi gripped the carved handle, but the rock face refused to release the pick. He wedged his shoulders against the smooth roof above and the gravelly bed below as he wrestled to remove it.

 

Now, the only sound was the wood as it twisted but refused to surrender in the forged iron sheaf of the pick head. Only a few grains of coal lightly dusted his cheek as the Earth’s crust seemed to go back to sleep again. His span mates shifted their weight uneasily as they waited.

 

“Be still, my brothers.” Bafozi held his breath and listened.

 

Hearing nothing, he pushed his shoulder up against the roof to feel for any tremble. Somewhere far above, a sound, like rolling thunder, gained momentum and then faded.

 

Bafozi twisted and squeezed back out of the slots. “Bring me another pick,” he said as he looked up into the glare of the cap lamps that were trained on him expectantly. “And water to drink.”

 

Refreshed, Bafozi handed back the battered old jam can water receptacle to Goodwill. His uncle’s eyes seemed to be pleading with him to take care as he slithered back into the narrow slot, to the welcome of a faint rumble. Bafozi knew only one thing mattered: To finish the quota as quickly as possible.

 

CHAPTER 2

Jan van Wyk

 

Two hundred metres east, Jan van Wyk, the shift boss, checked that all the sticks of dynamite were correctly charged. Shifting his 1.82m frame with the ease of a ballet dancer, he gently tugged on the wires to make sure all the fuses were well embedded in the dynamite.

 

“Kom, umfaan, Bring the cable.” The young Zulu boy unrolled the copper core wire as the huge white man worked his way back out the tunnel.

 

Jan easily reached up to the ceiling to ensure that the brattice cloth was firmly tied across the tunnel to restrict the force of the blast. The pair made their way around the corner and sheltered. They would be protected from any shards of rock that had the potential to shear through the brattice cloth with enough force to take off a man’s head.

 

Jan stripped off the ends of the two wires. He checked the safety switch and screwed the bare copper ends around the terminals. “Pasop, umfaan. stand back.”

 

Jan’s voice carried through the nearby tunnels as he bellowed the instruction: “Ears!”

 

Some of the older mine workers ignored the order, as they were already partially deaf from years of unprotected exposure to the booming explosions.

 

The Afrikaner’s big hands gripped the handles of the Healy & Burgess plunger and pulled them up to ready the ignition box. He flicked the safety switch and easily used his weight to generate the 2,000-volt charge to ignite the 36 sticks of dynamite.

 

Jan enjoyed the power of the blast, as the airwaves thundered through the tunnels, nearly knocking men over. With satisfaction, he felt the ground tremble as the explosion released nearly 10 tons of coal. Slowly, the eerie quiet returned to the tunnels as the last loose pieces of rock and coal tumbled to the floor.

 

Then they heard it.

 

The Xhosas called it the waking of the spirits.

 

The Zulus said that it was the earth complaining from its bowels against disturbance. Anyone who had worked in the mine for long enough knew that the terrible sound meant a fault had sheered and that wherever the weakest point was, it would give way.

 

Everyone stood still. “Oh my God!” Jan crossed himself.

 

Again the distant thunder coursed through the earth beneath the men’s feet as the rock pulled and stretched, fighting to release millions of years of pent-up energy.

 

Splinters of shale spat through the fine coal dust, showering the miners.

 

And then it came.

 

First one creak then another and another as the roof sunk all of its weight on the 20cm-thick wattle and pine poles. Then the earth shook as somewhere nearby the roof could wait no more, and a blast of air washing over Jan told him a major fall had happened.

 

“It’s dropping in Section E”, Jan shouted over the noise, instinctively moving in the direction of the danger.

 

Leading his crew, they rushed through the tunnels, easily finding the fastest way forward.

 

As they entered Section E, the deep, distant groan that warned the men that the danger was not yet over was drowned out by panic and shouting.

 

Gungu, Edward and Goodwill were being helped by nearby spans as they franticly tore at the rubble blocking the tunnel and access to the slot.

 

How many are in there?” bellowed Van Wyk.

 

Goodwill gasped between lifting rocks: “Baas, it’s my brother’s son, Bafozi. Only him. He told us to move back just in time.”

 

“Maak gou, hurry up and bring the skips and the first aid!”

____________

 

Half an hour later, with sweat and blood from cut hands greasing the fallen rock, the final pieces that blocked Bafozi’s body off from the rescuers were removed.

 

Jan van Wyk watched the Swazis’ limbs swing in unison as they sang their workers’ song from the Ezulweni Valley:

 

“The day is young,

My limbs are strong,

The blood of a thousand cattle

Make my labours easy.”

 

It never failed to surprise him how the workers would rhythmically chant themselves into a trance in these situations. Despite already having laboured for a full eight-hour shift, they found more energy to relentlessly tear at the giant shards of slate and crumbled coal in a perhaps futile effort to save the young worker.

 

Shortly after they had begun clearing the rock, the mine’s Swazi induna, who led all the men of his tribe and had been working in a section nearby, arrived at the site of the collapse.

 

He was a wise old man of 53, stronger even at his age than most young men. But, he did not touch any of the fallen rock. Instead, he took over and led the chant.

 

Jan noticed that the pace of the workers’ movements didn’t falter, but that there was a renewed intensity to their efforts. The men lifted and moved massive rocks with hypnotic ease.

 

“I see his foot,” shouted Goodwill.

 

“Yega! Stop and wait!” Jan had seen that the wall of the coal above the slot had sheared, then dropped only a few inches, wedging on to a protruding seam. Fine cracks traced across the precariously supported roof only inches above where Bafozi had been working.

 

“Bring me some sprags, checha, hurry.”

 

Jan motioned to the men to move back as he carefully picked his way to where Bafozi’s foot protruded. Only about a foot of rock covered the Swazi’s body, and Jan knew that he still had a chance.

 

Unless the tons of roof gave way.

 

Working with the skill of a surgeon, Jan carefully examined each of the smaller top rocks lying closest to the wall of coal. Only when he was certain that a rock did not support any weight did he remove it.

 

Suddenly, a rat darted out from the rubble and Jan cursed as he nearly reacted.

 

Then, to the side, there was another movement as a rock toppled noisily to the coal floor near Bafozi’s foot.

 

Somewhere deep in the Earth, a low groan carried through the rock, and Jan’s spine shivered as dust dropped from the balanced coal face down his neck. From the dark gap, a splintering sound gave warning that the rock was about to collapse on to the trapped worker at any moment – if Jan did not support it.

 

He pushed one of the short, stocky sprags into the blackness, feeling for a firm base.

 

“Give me a wedge.” He pushed it gently but firmly between the top of the sprag and the underneath of the supported rock. Normally a sprag could support four tons of weight, but not if the roof crumbled around it.

 

“Checha, we must pull him out. It’s our only chance.”

 

Gungu, Edward, Goodwill and Jan gripped the trapped worker’s overalls and boot.

 

“I’ll count: kunye, kubili, kutsatfu.” The rocks covering Bafozi twisted slightly as the men managed to move him a few inches.

 

“Woza!” The induna sprang forward as he noticed Bafozi’s other boot. He called for the men to come. As they gathered, he closed his eyes and spoke. “Nkosi, God… ”

 

The hairs on Jan’s neck prickled and his spine shivered as the induna invoked the help of the spirits, his booming voice carrying through the tunnels of the mine.

 

“…Jova!” On the last word, a call to pull, the pile of rocks covering Bafozi’s body toppled off as he was dragged free.

 

But, Jan saw the workers were shocked by what they saw.

 

 

Find out more at: https://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/704634

 


SOME PICNIC!

“Big sky.” Athena, my wife, would say sometimes looking up at the vastness above. “Wow, where did you get that from?” I’d asked the first time she said it. “I felt it the first time I came to Africa. There’s just so much space and when you look out at the landscape it just seems to go on and on and on to the horizon and up into an endless sky.” Big sky. What a profound thing to say. This captures the feelings which we set out to achieve in Horizon's Gourmet Picnics. It's a true story about Athena's (my wife) and my business just outside Rosetta in the Midlands of KZN, South Africa. Follows the finding of the property (it wasn't what we had in mind...), setting up the concept for the Gourmet Picnic business, naming the place 'Horizons' (which says 'as far as you can see' and sends a message 'to stretch our guests' expectations'). Selling the business. Every dish had a 'WOW' factor. Starting with glasses of free sherry on arrival. We walked them out to the expansive views, sat them on specially made bean bags or stylish chairs at a selection of tables. Next, we offered towellettes (heated in winter and chilled in summer) to rinse their hands with. After that, our waitrons offered guests some snacky eats. We would have kept their drinks flowing. Then, the sumptuous picnic will arrive packed in refined picnic basket containing half a dozen or so imaginative dishes. After eating, the guests were welcome to sleep off their full bellies until they had a refreshed appetite for dessert. We found that Horizons was very attractive to couples that were getting engaged.

  • ISBN: 9781514286814
  • Author: Ian Robinson
  • Published: 2017-02-25 02:50:41
  • Words: 96616
SOME PICNIC! SOME PICNIC!