Living in the bubble

It will be with a heavy heart that I get on board the BA flight to London on Friday evening. I’ve really enjoyed being back here in South Africa. Sort of.

We came here in mid-October and Di left for her medical consultation in London a couple of weeks ago.

The update on that is that she is now waiting for a consultation which ought to immediately lead to radio therapy for her acoustic neuroma, rather than surgery. She is also about to start seeing a physiotherapist, who specialises in balance-related problems. Hopefully soon, she will be on the mend. Di that is. I’m sure the physio is fine already.

So, I’ve had the best part of three weeks living back in the bubble that pretty much everyone I know in South Africa says we live in. It’s true. Inside is largely secure, protected, insulated from the daily horrors of rape, murder and mayhem that beset the broken South Africa outside.

We live in quiet ocean-side villages, towns or gated communities and travel from home to work to shops to restaurant by car and in the main, send our children to private schools. Those living beyond the bubble have to deal with poverty, massive unemployment, township (shack) housing and non-existent, or poorly run transport facilities. The other option is to use one of our so-called minibus taxis; all too often overloaded, badly maintained, uninsured and quite likely piloted by a drunk driver. There’s lots of lip service, but little meaningful policing of these kamikazes.

Awful prospect that may be, but it’s that or walk.

The press bays about our desperately unequal society and I agree.

What I don’t agree with is that it is the fault of anyone who isn’t a black African, in some kind of “I’m OK, you I don’t care about” attitude.

Let me put that in context.

Like most South African families and in the forty-odd years we’ve both been here, we have worked, paid our taxes and supported various initiatives to assist the mass of the population. I’ve employed countless people, volunteered and worked for a number of aid organisations, including the world famous Outward Bound. Di funded one of Laura’s school chums through senior school and made a telling contribution to her university education. We might have done more, but that would then have been at the cost of our own family.

In 1994, when the ANC was voted into government, Nelson Mandela and his comrades inherited a state that worked. And before you tell me that it was uneven and legislated against the bulk of the population, I agree.

However, we had water. It was piped everywhere for everyone and cheap. Today, the so-called Minister of Water Affairs has announced a R900 billion (£40bn) plan to upgrade our water infrastructure. Why? Because the one we have now has been ignored and allowed to deteriorate to the point where many small towns have no water, sewage in their rivers and in many cases, no infrastructure left, as it is either broken beyond repair, or has been stolen and sold for scrap.

Of course, the Ministers from 1994 until now have all been ANC appointees, most believed to have stolen/misappropriated the bulk of the funding allocated to keep the filters, pipes and pumps maintained.

My recent experience aside, our railway system is a shambles. Copper cable theft, signalling system failure and zero maintenance mean commuter trains never run on time; in Cape Town a 30-45 minute delay in in- and outbound trains is the daily norm. Often several hour delays are experienced.

That makes those least able to afford and avoid the inconvenience late for work and it is only a short time before tardiness leads to non-payment for unworked hours and eventually, dismissal. It’s not the employee’s fault, but who cares?

In 1994, we had electricity. So much that we were busy selling it to governments as far north as Ghana. Well, that didn’t last. By the late ‘90s, government was being told by those that know that we needed new generating capacity. The advice was ignored, because the Mbeki administration didn’t want to fund that kind of capex.

We eventually ran out of capacity and despite belatedly spending billions on building two giant coal-fired stations, have experienced load shedding and complete black outs for the last several years. Both new stations are years and years behind schedule and both currently running at well over 100% cost overruns. Poor workmanship, management failure and corruption are the culprits and still no-one seems to know how to get the electricity flowing.

As I finished editing this piece, a link to an article in this morning’s Sowetan newspaper arrived. I feel as though the author Ebrahim Harvey was watching over my shoulder.

Back to my own rant.

I mentioned the idea of “keep ‘em poor, keep ‘em stupid” in a recent post and it may never be more apposite than in South Africa’s state education system, which has lumbered from un-inclusive and barely acceptable (but working) in 1994, to a non-functioning process which is hallmarked (for me at least) by the idiotic idea of Outcomes Based Education, which required modern schools, skilled teachers and access to computers – none of which the country had then and still doesn’t possess today. It took more than a decade to dump this ludicrous idea and still we have ideals that simply can’t be met. When tens of thousands of school leavers can’t even read and write, you have to know the problem is writ large.

Many rural classes are held under nearby trees as there are no buildings. A couple of years ago, one youngster drowned having fallen into a long drop (pit latrine). The government’s response was to allocate several hundred million Rand to building toilets for our school children. Because there is no oversight or morality, every single cent of those millions have gone AWOL and not a single toilet has been built. Are the culprits in jail? You need ask?

In our state schools we have a so-called Democratic Teachers Union wagging the dog and controlling what goes on. Up to 40% of its members are believed to be absent, drunk or making sexual advances to their pupils on a daily basis. Try and fix it and the teaching (such as it is) stops completely.

One of the government’s sops to itself has been to reduce the pass mark for almost anything, including a university-entrace-necessary matric pass to 30%. Now, children who can barely scribble their names are lauded for the great achievement(s) of the education system. They get a matric pass and head for further education. Our once proud universities are a laughing stock and good luck to you going for a job interview in London, Paris or New York, brandishing your Wits, or UCT degree. It’s just about as valueless as our currency.

The Post Office collapsed a couple of years ago, with something like 80 million undelivered letters/parcels to deal with. It’s a different 80 million today, but the backlog still remains.

But, if you stay in South Africa and live in your bubble, everything is OK. You might have to boil your drinking water and need a little generator in the garage, but that’s OK. Woolies has lots of very expensive food for sale and we’ve got little else to spend our salaries on, as the Rand is so weak that overseas must remain just that for now.

Looking at the mess, one thing is clear; the wooly-headed notion of cadre deployment – communism is alive and well down here – has proven to be a complete failure. Before you ask, cadre deployment is the placing of loyal ANC people (cadres) in jobs for which they have no aptitude, qualifications, interest or motivation, beyond a month-end salary cheque. Uneducated, unskilled and uninterested, these loyal political hacks are there to ensure things go the way the ANC wants. They don’t of course, as they do no work at all, or worse, interfere and then really break things.

Similarly, the Black Empowerment programme was intended to quickly move black folk into partnership and management jobs across the entire spectrum of South Africa’s commerce and industry. That hasn’t worked either.

So, twenty five years after the celebrations of 1994, the Stalinists and central controllers have won the day. Our economy is becalmed and slipping further into complete melt-down by the moment. What money was in the fiscus has been stolen by generations of corrupt politicians, most recently Jacob Zuma and his coterie of helpful Indian shoemakers, who are believed to have siphoned more than R1 trillion out of the economy between them.

They’re all in jail now?

Not one.

Still, we’re in our bubble. As secure as money can make us.

So is it to be civil war or an African Spring? If only the nation could stop the deliberately uneducated and starving from continuing to vote for the so-called party of liberation, South Africa might stand a chance. No matter how much I love being here, I’m not holding my breath.

#livinginlondon7 (but not there at the moment)

No-one stops to look at impala

The Kruger Park

It took a while to get here – three days of travel – two spent on a 36 hour train journey from Cape Town that should have taken only 26 hours and then, a day long 700km drive from Johannesburg. More than 2000km in all, literally, from one end of the country to the other. The weather is overcast, meaning a coolish and pleasant 20C, as opposed to last week’s 39C in the region.

Aside from a few drops last night, the Park hasn’t had much rain of late and is as dry as I’ve ever seen it. This is the wet season and there’s still hope; some years, the rains don’t come until December/January, but then they tend to be biblical.

Elephant at the Mopani water hole
Dawn in the Kruger Park
Beobab at Mopani
Sunset at Talamati

Friday – 18:15 and a brief halt to tapping at my keyboard as a lion roars thunderously nearby. We quickly head for the camp’s floodlit waterhole, but by the time we get there the fun is over and Leo has legged it.

Until you experience it, it’s unlikely you have any kind of idea what it’s like. When asked on his first visit to the bush, our son-in-law said that he had imagined the bush was like being in a “drive around zoo.”

Not.

The Park is huge. A business and massive revenue generator for the operators and nation alike, but the bush is just that. In many of the rest camps there is no electricity, save that generated on site with solar systems. There is no blanket cell coverage – this to try and deter poaching, which has decimated our rhino stocks and is now hunting down our elephants as well. The rest camps offer limited and very localised coverage for those of us who don’t want to be too cut off from the rest of the world.

The bush is dry, dusty and dense. If like us, you prefer to drive yourself, there are strict speed limits; 30km/h on sand roads, 50km/h on the main tarred sections. Faster than that and you’ll miss the flash of a zebra just a few metres away, or the unmistakable shape of a lion in the distance.

The Park teems with game, but the thickness of the bush coupled with a visitor’s limited ability to see deep between the trees and scrub – visibility from publicly accessible areas of the Park is estimated at around 3% of its 19,500 square kilometres – means there’s plenty of space for the animals to hide.

Kruger sunset
Kruger sunrise
Zebra crossing
Threatening clouds

The title “No-one stops to look at impala” will quickly become self explanatory. As a species, the beautiful, doe-like impala are by far the most plentiful – estimates as to the current population suggest upwards of 150,000. Singly, in pairs, small groups and large herds, there are impala everywhere. Often it’s all you’ll see for hours on end. It’s not their fault, but when you are desperate to see a one of the Park’s very few leopard or cheetahs, even a rare antelope, the appeal of an endless procession of impala can quickly pall.

Impala

Remember too; aside from around the rest camps and closing-off the Park to the outside world, there are no fences. Even the fences between South Africa and Moçambique were removed some years back, creating an even larger Trans Frontier Park.

This is Africa in the raw.

Stay in your car, or end up being trampled by a hippo (Africa’s most dangerous animal and no.1 killer), eaten by a lion, stomped and gored by a Cape Buffalo, or bitten by a snake.

I tend to start wilting as the thermometer breaches mid thirty degree Celsius numbers. As I write at 11:36, it’s already 36C and our self-declared rest day continues to underline our prescience. 38C is the predicted maximum for today and a whopping 41C tomorrow, there’ll be lots of mooching in our rondavel (circular, thatched chalet), sitting in the shade and endless thanks to the air conditioner that is belching cool air at 18C.

As it turned out, the thermometer hit 45C. It’s very, very hot and not conducive to doing anything.

Cooling down from a high of 45C

But then, this is Africa.

Changing gears; South Africa is now without any kind of political opposition to blunt the excesses, venality and stupidity of the ruling ANC. Officially, the Democratic Alliance (DA) carry the banner of opposition, but last month’s ructions in the party have seen the return of long time and much hated (on the Thatcher-scale) leader Helen Zille, now once more at the helm of the entire DA, following the departure of its leader, parliamentary leader, Chief Whip, and Secretary General (albeit to retirement). The ensuing days have seen a constant stream of press announcements; changes, new faces and newly appointed leaders. I suppose when the dust has settled, we’ll see a new look DA, or more likely, a slightly facelifted version of the old one.

Whatever happens, the DA will continue to fight the accusation that it is a party solely for whites, something the office bearers’ merry-go-round is only underscoring, as if that were that necessary.

It’s a shame. The party is populated by many, many really fine, well intentioned people, dedicated to a liberal future for South Africa. Aside from the inevitable political and internecine squabbling, their task is stymied by the way South Africa votes along cultural lines. Non-racial liberalism? I’d love to say yes, but know it’ll never happen as it looks today.

Tomorrow South Africa does battle with England for the Rugby World Cup. I have no idea who will win but expect it to be a real tussle. I’ll be watching it at the rest camp at Orpen, undoubtedly alongside the black, white, pink and grey South Africans who also love the game. We’ll drink copious amounts of beer, yell at the idiotic French referee and cheer our lads on regardless.  Both sides have world-class players, equally determined to win. England has Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Jerusalem for inspiration, we have gees*. The two anthems are well known, gees is our secret weapon.

Oppas mense. Suid Afrika kom vir jou.

Winning the Cup – gees in action

Sunday. I decided before turning-in last evening that I wouldn’t set my alarm for 04:00 to go out and look for a sunrise to photograph. It had been a long day; up early, an interesting and fruitful game drive, breakfast, drive for an hour to Orpen camp, watch South Africa win the World Cup, another hour long drive back to our own camp, an early supper, a congratulatory drink or two to the team and a couple of strenuous hours reading and just after nine o’clock, bed.

Rugby; a passion since I was at school. I stopped playing when I came to South Africa; one look at the rock hard winter pitches – it doesn’t rain here in the winter months – suggested the smart thing to do would be to quit while I was ahead. The pleasure of watching rugby hasn’t dimmed however and yesterday was no exception. 

Initially, I hadn’t expected South Africa to go so far. The round-robin stages turned out to be easier for the ‘boks than I’d imagined and aside from the opening game’s loss to the All Blacks, we did pretty well, albeit in a not particularly inspiring fashion.

England’s path to the final was much harder and their win over the same All Blacks in the semi finals, certainly made me awfully nervous about our chances in the final.

It’s often said that most teams competing in tournaments at this level have one great game in them. And so it proved. England’s demolishing of the All Blacks was a masterstroke. Sadly, the team had showed its hand and running out against South Africa yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking there was little left in their collective tank.

So, South Africa holds the Webb Ellis trophy for four more years. It was a great game.

Cape Buffalo
Portrait
Beobab at Mopani

The last few days of our stay and we’re back in the deep bush at one of the Kruger’s more private camps, called Bateleur, after the famous raptor. The thermometer was at a wilting 39C when we arrived and sweated to unpack the car, 19C, twelve hours and a crashing thunderstorm later. It’s remained overcast, but rain and the game we’ve travelled so far to see, remains elusive.

And then. One of the most bizarre incidents I’ve ever encountered.

Heading south towards the Mopani rest camp, to make contact with the cell network and get our irregular dose of e-mail and messages, we see a large collection of cars stopped in the middle of the road. In the Park, this usually signifies a lion kill, or something everyone wants to see – definitely not impala. This requires good manners and lots of patience, waiting for occupants of the other cars to see their fill and leave, making space for the next visitor(s).

Not so. As we approach, it becomes clear that there has been an accident. At 50 km/h? Huh?

Maybe not so. A minibus carrying many members of the Park’s staff had been also heading southwards. The accident was caused by two things; a giraffe emerging from the bush to cross the road and secondly, judging from the skid marks, the minibus’ excessive speed.

Long story short, the bus hit the giraffe, tossed it in the air, only to land on top of another visitor’s vehicle coming in the opposite direction. What must have been close to a ton of already dead giraffe smashed the roof and cab of the bakkie and then seems to have rolled off into the bush. The Swiss driver was very badly hurt and spent several days in a Johannesburg ICU, before succumbing to his injuries.

The aftermath

Passing the carcass en route from the Park this morning, there is surprisingly little left and a huge flock of vultures making sure that that doesn’t last much longer.

The media reported the death of the driver in a Johannesburg ICU some days later. I’m beyond words at the poor man’s misfortune. The taxi driver who should be charged with (at the least) culpable homicide? No police at the scene, no forensics and I imagine the worst that will happen to him is his vehicle being written off.

Welcome to South Africa.

#livinginlondon6

Deep into October and I’ve yet to write a word. Shame on me.

It’s hard to write when you’re also having fun – which we have been. We both have birthdays in October and in recent years, have chosen to spend them in Singapore. That’s two weeks – more than most visitors spend there in a lifetime. Even the locals give us very odd looks when we say how long we’re in town for.

It works for us.

Bar blur – Singapore
Red bike – Singapore

Last year, we came to the realisation that age, stamina and the heat weren’t as do-able as they used to be, restricting ourselves to one major outing/activity a day. That worked very well, and we left for Cape Town and home, aware that even so, there had been a couple of things we usually do that had been missed this time around.

A good reason to return. As though we needed one.

This year has been different. Having been recently diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, Di’s poor balance, fatigue, inability to walk properly and hearing loss now seem to have a genesis, which is being dealt with by the NHS. In practical terms, she wears hearing aids, but there has been no solution for her mobility issues and so, this year in Singapore has been marked by longer rest periods in the hotel, shorter walks and lots of planning in terms of access, staircases, escalators and lifts.

That said, our time in the city state was as much fun as usual, to the extent that we actually managed to see and do everything we wanted, albeit at a more leisurely pace.

Aside; it’s been a while since we discovered the hotel transfer service offered from Changi airport. Then it was S$9 per person. Today, probably six or seven years later? Still S$9 and just as efficient.

Commuter – Singapore

And so with most things. Prices rarely change and there’s a VAT hike looming (from 7%) which has the locals in an uproar. They should try living in SA, where the cost of pretty much anything seems to be based on a whim and there’s little justification offered when 15% or more is suddenly hiked to the price of anything. Before leaving for London in May and in the space of a few weeks, I watched the price of beef mince increase from a usual R44/half kilo pack to around R55. Five months later, the price has now inched up to R58. It’s the same 15% saline injected meat and I wonder how the resellers (in this case, Woolworths) justify it.

We’re in the middle of a drought, with beef stocks being run down – mainly by increased slaughtering – as a result. Yet meat prices increase by more than 30%. How does that work?

With our part relocation to London earlier in the year, a planned family trip to Mexico in the New Year and a host of other things, our travel plans and ticketing has been something of a Gordian knot, resulting in our recent outbound leg from London to Singapore being handled by Lufthansa. This required a hop from Heathrow to Munich and then the long haul section, again with the German carrier.

I’m glad my flying for work days are done – see photograph below, shot between London and Munich  – I can’t imagine being subjected to this on a regular basis. The long haul flight was markedly better, but the food as awful as one’s imagination can conjure.

Cramped – Lufthansa style

If you can that is. Let me help; chicken or beef? The main chicken offering was a thick mess of cooked to death flesh that was more soggy collagen than meat. That’ll set you up nicely.

We returned to Cape Town with Emirates. A crazy way to fly, but inbound from South Africa, the Singapore Airlines flight arrives at 05:50 and the return flight to Cape Town leaves at 01:55. In short, the super early landing means an extra half day added to your hotel bill if you want a shower and nap on arrival. It’s that, or hang around until 14:00 when they’ll let you into your room as usual.

More importantly, it also avoids the Singapore Airlines landing, two hour wait for the baggage handlers to have a leisurely luggage search and theft session in Jozi – the plane lands both ways; in and out of South Africa.

Similarly, when flying back, one must bear in mind that a take off thirteen hours after you’ve been required to vacate your room usually means the extra cost of yet another full day in the hotel, even if you’re not there to enjoy it all.

So, Emirates it was. We left for Changi at a sensible 17:30, changed planes in Dubai at an inescapable but pretty do-able 03:00 (time difference taken into account) and arrived in Cape Town after a lengthy sleep at 11:30 in the morning. Good call.

Back in Rooi Els just after midday, we discovered that ESCOM was once again load shedding and had to wait a couple of hours to do anything that required electricity. Fortunately, we have a solar water heater and a gas stove, so a shower and food wasn’t such a problem.

14:30 and the scheduled switch on time came, but the electricity didn’t. As so often happens with the nation’s poorly managed and maintained electrical infrastructure, the restoration of power broke something else and we were left without power until after 19:00, by which time, the jet lag had caught up with us and we were almost comatose and beyond caring much.

I should have known better, because the second round of load shedding started barely minutes after the power was finally restored from the morning session. No problem there – we were asleep by then, but when the power was finally switched back on some time around 22:30, our alarm system went into hyper mode, because the batteries hadn’t been charged for almost twelve hours.

Modernist Singapore

The shrieking siren eventually roused me enough to realise something bad was afoot, but it took considerably longer for my addled, sleep deprived mind to work out exactly what was going on. After several minutes of panic and wonder, a visit to the control unit in the garage and frantic button pushing quieted the damn thing sufficiently for me to stumble back to my bed and several more hours of blessed jet lag relieving sleep.

Welcome to South Africa.

Just about anyone you might talk to has an opinion about and a remedy for our failing electricity supplier. They’re all much the same and most employ language as a club, rather than a tool. I’ve been away for four months and am already angry all over again.

Load shedding day two was much the same as day one, including the failure of restoration after the promised 20:30 switch on. The bedside light we’d switched on to use as a signal when the power came back on woke me at about 02:30, not that I cared over much by then.

“Stop bitching. It is what it is. You could be freezing your cobs off in London, but you chose to come here instead.”

I did. I’ll make the best of it. Promise.

Everyone has some kind of tale to tell of Britain’s NHS. Most not very complimentary. We’re doing our best, with Di succeeding significantly better than me at this stage.

To try and avoid more frustration with the NHS, I decided to use our still in place South African medical aid and made appointments with our GP, hygienist, dentist and optician while we are here. In addition to all that, I’ve also had my annual blood tests done and three visits to a physio to sort out a post-airline seat stiff neck. It was a hell of a busy week, but all in, a one worth spending time on. I have new glasses, Di has had root canal and a new crown made and so, we’re both now in pretty good shape.

Barriers – Singapore

Tuesday 29th and we are due at Cape Town station by 08:00 to put the car on the Shosholoza Meyl train to Johannesburg – the first leg of our now annual trip to the Kruger Park. I decided to try the train last year, in preference to driving almost 2000km each way. It proved cost effective, got us to Johannesburg (and back to Cape Town) in reasonable time and reduced the amount of wear and tear (and stress) on both the car and us.

This year, has not been such a happy time. The morning traffic into Cape Town’s CBD is nightmarish and so bad, that despite allowing two hours for a journey that usually only takes half that, we almost missed the train. Once there – within seconds of the deadline – we got a great welcome and boarded ready for our 09:05 departure. The train remains solid, comfortable and offers AC access for charging computers, phones and the like. The food is unimaginatively edible, a percentage point or two above boarding school fare. The bar makes a fair G&T.

Regrettably, the service itself has deteriorated. Last year, we were two and a half hours late into Johannesburg and almost four hours delayed on our return into Cape Town. This year, rail operator PRASA, has excelled themselves.

As I write, we are crawling across the Vaal Triangle, some 50km south of our destination, already five hours and change late. Since leaving Cape Town we’ve experienced a constant stream of start/stops, signal delays and we are told, as recently as this morning, cable theft from the signalling system near Carletonville which has caused the closure of the line. So, we’re on a detour and experiencing yet more delay. We are expecting to arrive somewhere around 19:00 and I am still hoping to get the car this evening. But if everyone has got bored and gone home, who knows what will happen?

As it turned out, the train arrived ten hours late. We then waited another hour and a half for our car to be de-trained. Fortunately, I’d warned the hotel of our likely lateness and we had to postpone our planned dinner date with friends. In fact, we missed dinner completely.

After four decades of living here, we’re pretty used to this kind of thing. I feel sorry for the tourists who are enchanted into buying these services by glossy brochures. They don’t know how to plan around the inevitable missed flights and connections. There is little or no help for them, in fact, most of the time finding anyone to ask is fruitless, as the respondent is all too often sullen, ill-educated and has been innoculated against the stresses of being helpful.

Welcome to South Africa.

In stark contrast, I’ve watched the latter stages of South Africa’s progress into the RWC Final at our local, as our satellite TV service DStv went into the bin a while back. Against Japan, a small but rowdy crowd cheered our lads on. Playing Wales last Saturday and I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the ruckus was heard in far off Tokyo.

There we all were, blacks, whites, pinks and greys full of gees* and giving it large. I’ve watched South African sport on our travels around the world over and there are few populations who can generate so much national pride and fervour. I cannot for the life of me work out why our government doesn’t share the vision. Maybe they are all too busy stealing, hoping we’re so busy being patriotic that we won’t notice?

* gees: Afrikaans for national pride and much much more. Oppas mense. Suid Afrika kom vir jou.

Experiencing the ANC government’s hopeless management, corruption and cadre deployment at first hand

For the second year running, we just used state-run PRASA’s Premier Classe train to travel with our car to/from Cape Town (to Johannesburg and then by road to the Kruger Park). Last year, it was a delightful trip, despite the train being a couple of hours late into Johannesburg and somewhat later on the return journey.

This year has been much less satisfactory, to the extent that we are unlikely to travel this way ever again.

The train itself was much the same as last year; old, well worn, but in the main, clean and serviceable. The crew, delightful. The catering is unnecessarily ambitious for such a restricted facility and would be better sticking to the basics.

The up train was almost half an hour late leaving Cape Town and got progressively later in an endless series of starts/stops until we reached Klerksdorp, where it stopped completely. Passengers with time sensitive travel connections in Johannesburg left the train to be ferried in a minibus, while we sat. And waited. After perhaps half an hour, the train manager told us that a cable theft had all but rendered our passage into Johannesburg impossible and that the train was being re-routed via the Vaal Triangle.

Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. I lost count of these momentary, minutes long or half hour delays, but 20 – 30 wouldn’t be a bad estimate. The Train Manager explained that there were signalling problems and each stop required an “authorisation” to move forward.

The train eventually arrived at Park Station some time after 21:00 – ten hours late.

We then waited another ninety minutes while the less than enthusiastic staff dragged themselves into slothful action and delivered our car.

During that time, we were required to cross with our luggage, from the arrival platform to the unloading bay, up a very long flight of 35 stairs and down a similar lengthy staircase. The escalators don’t work, nor do the lifts and apparently haven’t for at least two years. The waiting area is a collection of scruffy, broken chairs and benches in an almost pitch black area under a road bridge, adjacent to the unloading bay.

Di has a serious medical condition which affects her hearing and balance and is likely to have surgery shortly. She walks with a stick. Stairs are impossible. If it hadn’t been for the train crew’s assistance, we’d have been in serious trouble. And I have to ask, would you want to be hanging around Johannesburg station late at night in the dark, with absolutely no security, protection or supervision going on?

The return journey?

It’s hard to imagine worse, but it was, by a very long way.

We left Johannesburg 40 minutes late and made reasonable time until Leeudoringstad, where the diesel engine expired. It took seventeen hours for a replacement locomotive to arrive.

Leeudoringstad – the view for 17 hours

Then, the train still went stop, start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. We were also without water for the shower, washing hands, toilets or anything else for much of the trip. The WCs had no plugs in the sink, rarely had soap and were constantly without towels, paper or otherwise.

Then the train’s on-board electrical generator failed in Kimberley, leaving us sweltering with no air conditioning. Eventually, the crew managed to re-start the equipment, but only long after it was dark.

Between Paarden Eiland and Cape Town, one of the two replacement electric locos failed and we sat for another two hours until a diesel loco arrived to drag the train into the station – now 27 hours late.

Of course, there were any number of PRASA managers and PR people on hand to apologise and offer compensation.

Not.

After the Train Manager had scuttled off home – no doubt exhausted by making excuses for his employer and its complete inability to manage anything, there was no one from PRASA at all. The most senior people being the guys that unloaded the cars – that took another 40 minutes, because Transnet never seems to be in a hurry.

Meanwhile, international visitors had missed connections, car hire arrangements and hotel bookings. No apology from PRASA. To a man those visitors and their pounds/dollars won’t be back.

Us too. We stopped flying with SAA many years ago after we were left behind in Miami after Hurricane Andrew stranded us in Orlando with no connecting flight. Now, it’s PRASA/Transnet.

I’m asking for a refund. For the entire trip – all R20-odd thousand Rand’s worth. I doubt it will change much, but it will make me feel much, much better.

#livinginlondon5

Three geezers – Shoreditch

It seems that no sooner had I clicked on “post” for the last blog entry than I found myself at Heathrow waiting for a plane to Munchen and on to Singapore for our annual birthday frivolities.

Actually, I’d had two really interesting and pleasing e-mails overnight. One came from a fellow blogger in Australia, the other the wife of a long time business associate and friend in Johannesburg.

The first traversed my post and mentioned a fellowship as a psoriasis sufferer. Comparing notes helps, but does little to assuage the difficulties (for me) of dealing with the NHS. The other bought a fascinating life story of growing up in East London, hardship and changing times. Here’s a glimpse:

“I grew up whereby my grandmother knitted my shoes. That is woolly socks with rubber stuck as soles. We were poor, I worked in a pub and fish and chip shop from the age of 14! The deal when you grew up was you married the boy next door, lived in close proximity to your parents, bought a house two up two down… I nearly married a Jamaican, when his parents found out he was shipped back to the States!”

How times have changed.

Foundry tools

Last week also saw us catching-up with South African friends who now live California. We see each other irregularly and is so often the case, within minutes, we’ve picked-up where we left off. This time, we met at a classic (and favourite French restaurant in Mayfair) called Le Boudin Blanc (The White Sausage). It’s been around too long to be a jape at Boris Johnson’s Johnson and his erratic womanising, so I have to assume it’s real.

The lunch was. Real that is. A classic Table d’hôte, three exquisite courses for very little. Great company, great food…

Earlier in the week, I’d travelled out to Beaconsfield, deep in the stockbroker belt, to meet with a small group of school pals. Our lives have diverged unimaginably since we left grammar school in the late 1960s. A couple have travelled, one worked in South East Asia, fought the demon booze and then returned to Good Old Blighty before it was too late.

My best mate is continuing to fight the good fight against the Big C, still playing in a folk band and despite everything, still funny, great company and a friend I’m happy to stand alongside.

Me? I’ve to admit my gauche, abrasive and often profane view of the world doesn’t seem to sit well amongst such otherwise genteel company. I was reminded twice that I spoke too loud and said fuck much (much) too often, especially given the sensitivities of the well bred local community that might have been within hearing distance.

It’s not just me it seems

I left smiling, but feeling more than a little introspective. On the I’m OK, you’re OK scale, I’ve always felt quite content; enough of this and not too much of that. Being told that I am loud or just too un-English took me by surprise.

Money. Live here and you’ll need lots of it. And, when you’ve got it, suddenly, you might not need it after all. Few folks around here carry cash. Most use contactless credit and debit cards, or a phone-based option like Apple Pay.

It’s facilitated massively by the zero charge a card transaction attracts.

Walk through the turnstile for a Tube, or Overland train? Tap your card on the reader. Buses too. Buy a round in the local, cashless. Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco too. Almost no-one uses money any more.

Imagine! No cash. Less theft, less loss, less cost.

Trouble is, it’s hard to imagine FNB, ABSA or Standard Bank in South Africa writing off their card charges. After all, we’re a captive market and so, why shouldn’t we pay the excessive bonuses the managers of these usuries feel they deserve?

Offices, Hackney
Shopkeeper – Hoxton
Chatting – Shoreditch
After work – Shoreditch

Moving on.

Singapore. Just about our favourite place to visit. Many years ago, we promised each other that we’d come to South East Asia every year and so far, not broken our word. We know people ask what we do in such a city state, as surely, we’re past the shopping now?

We are and have been for years.

What bring us back is the easy lifestyle, a collection of restaurants we’ve tried and liked, food we can’t always find at home, honesty, safety and a chance to temporarily live among interesting people. In truth, we’d happily live here, but the smallest of apartments are beyond our pocket and the lifestyle we enjoy elsewhere carries a price tag that causes hilarity to even consider. So we visit, usually longer than many folk spend on their beachfront holidays.