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Thandeka of Sweet Tea and Chickadee serves American biscuits to grateful customers like me

Mouth-Watering American Biscuits, in Joburg

On many occasions I have tried to explain American biscuits to my South African and European friends. “They’re not cookies. They’re savoury…kind of like scones,” I say, grasping for words to describe that dense yet flaky, crispy yet soft, impossibly buttery biscuit mouth feel. “But not really. Actually not at all.” In the summer of 1991 I worked as a hostess at a Bob Evans restaurant in Columbia, Maryland. Part of my job was to lift thick, fluffy biscuits out of the steel oven, arrange the piping hot biscuits onto plates, and set them onto customers’ tables. I consumed so many biscuits that summer. When customers left with their plates of biscuits untouched (crazy people!), I sometimes carried the plate into the back and gobbled them all down. It never occurred to me that American biscuits could exist in South Africa, just as it would never occur to a South African that boerewors could exist in America. Biscuits, like many foods originating in the American South, just don’t make sense outside the United States. Until now. Thanks to Sweet Tea and Chickadee, American biscuits have arrived in Joburg. They totally make sense and they are spectacular. The Story of Sweet […]

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Drinking wine at the "Uncorked1" class at the wine school

How I Became a Wine Guru in One Day

I love wine, especially South African wine. I love to sit outside on warm evenings and sip a glass of rosé. I love wine pairings and wine tastings and wine farms and pretty much everything to do with wine except the hangovers, which I try to avoid by drinking in (relative) moderation. Even though I’ve blogged quite a bit about wine over the years (see here and here and here), I never really knew what the hell I was talking about. So when I met Janice Scheckter at a dinner party and learned she has a course that teaches people how to be a Wine Guru in one day, I asked for an invite. I’ve always enjoyed the delicate, complex flavors of wine and I know generally which types I like best. But I didn’t understand the lingo, at least not before this course. I would go to fancy tastings and wine industry events and cellar tours with prominent winemakers, and the words would go right over my head. Then I would have to write about it later and the best I could muster was: This wine is good! Janice’s business, called the Wine School, was the solution to my […]

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Sunset from the top of the Hallmark Hotel

Joburg’s Hottest Rooftop Party at Hallmark House

A couple of weeks ago I visited Hallmark House, a hip hotel in downtown Joburg, for my friend Gilda’s birthday celebration. Hallmark House has an interesting story. It was built a few years ago (at great expense) by Propertuity, the real estate company that created the Maboneng Precinct, and designed by acclaimed architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. Hallmark went up for auction last year when Propertuity abruptly went out of business. The building is now owned by Steyn Investments. Most interestingly for me, the top of Hallmark House has the best view of downtown Joburg in the city. (Okay, maybe the view from the top of Ponte City is better. But only just.) The Hallmark rooftop has now become a bar with the hottest sundowner party in town happening every Sunday. I had already been to the top of Hallmark a couple of times before it was renovated, but this view never ceases to enthrall me. I’m so glad the rooftop is now open to the public. (Most of the best downtown rooftops are open only for private events.) Hallmark Rooftop Sundays is an all-day-into-the-evening affair, with a fancy bar, brunch specials, […]

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My Never-ending South African Visa Journey

I’ve been waiting to write a South African visa post for nearly a decade. Since 2010 I’ve been granted four long-term South African visas of various types, with many three-month tourist visas in between. I’ve been rejected multiple times for different visas. I’ve spent many thousands of dollars on immigration consultants, application fees, flights, medical exams, criminal background checks, postage, passport fees, and printer cartridges. I’ve cursed and raged and cried rivers of tears. I’ve considered giving up. I’ve aggravated friends, family members, and multiple ex-boyfriends with unrelenting angst and hand-wringing. And guess what? My visa journey is not yet over. Also, to the disbelief of most South Africans, my situation isn’t unique. If you’re a foreigner living in South Africa you’re definitely nodding vigorously as you read this. My South African visa story is long, complicated, and at times ridiculously dramatic. Things have finally settled down and I no longer feel like I’m at risk for getting kicked out of the country, so I thought this might be a good time to tell the full tale. Then I realized the full tale would be a book, not a blog post. Also most of the information isn’t relevant to people […]

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Donkeys in Kameel

#10SouthAfricanTowns, Part 2: Kameel

Kameel is the second stop in my  #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign, for which I’m visiting ten small towns across South Africa in 2020. Kameel means “Camel” in Afrikaans. The original farm there is called “Kameel Bult”, which roughly means “Camel Hill”, and I assume the town got its name from the farm. This might make sense if there were a hill in the area, but there isn’t. This land, in the far reaches of South Africa’s North West province, is flat as can be. The sky is huge. Kameel Bult could also mean “Camel’s Hump”. The name could be a reference to the ubiquitous camel thorn trees in the area, or maybe to the mounted police who used to ride camels in this part of the country. No one knows for sure. Like Val, Kameel is technically a hamlet, not a town. It has about 30 residents, two B&Bs, a general store, a bottle store (liquor store), a co-op (hardware store) with petrol pumps, and a post office. (The post office is just a few post boxes in the general store.) Kameel has more maize silos than people. I visited Kameel for three days and stayed at the Kameel Rust & Vrede B&B. […]

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Boho Cafe & Co coffee

Magic at Rand Steam: Rialheim and Boho Cafe and Co.

I’ve already blogged about Rand Steam and how it is by far the most pleasant suburban shopping center in Joburg. But when I wrote that post I didn’t yet know about Rialheim and Boho Café & Co. — in fact I don’t think they’d opened at that point. As it turns out, this corner of Rand Steam is the best spot in the place. Rialheim and Boho (I’m forgoing the “Café & Co.” from now on because it’s too much funny punctuation) is a coffee shop inside a ceramics shop. Or rather, it’s a coffee shop surrounding a ceramics shop. It’s hard to explain but trust me, it’s delightful. Boho Café & Co. The café is mostly outside, in a little courtyard shaded by a huge, ancient pepper tree with a wooden swing hanging on it. The courtyard is surrounded by greenery and artwork and attractive, cleverly placed structures, allowing guests to almost completely forget they are sitting beside a shopping mall parking lot. I had two americanos at Boho and they were very good, especially served in Rialheim’s mugs. (I forgot to find out where the coffee comes from.) The biggest surprise was the food, which is excellent. Initially […]

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The Upcycle Shop on Long Road in Greymont

Upcycle: Giving Junk A Second Chance in Joburg

As an “influencer” and member of the media, I often receive swag (i.e. free gifts) from events, product launches, travel campaigns, etc. I can’t tell you how many branded bags, water bottles, mugs, notebooks, hats, and pens I’ve collected this way. Much of this swag is useful. I’ve received some ridiculously nice gifts over the years, some of which I keep for myself and some of which I gift to others. But lots of things, I must confess, go straight to the back of a desk drawer or closet and never see the light of day again. Swag that actually makes it into the hands of a person like me is, in essence, a success. The company who made/branded the item did so to get its message across, and by giving the item to me they communicated their message (at least theoretically). But the truth is, branded items like these often never reach an end user. Tons, literally tons, of this stuff gets made and then goes straight to landfills without ever being given to anyone. This is where Upcycle comes in. Upcycle, launched and run by Winnie McHenry and her partner Mark Fruhauf, is an initiative aimed at reducing […]

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Val train tracks at sunset

#10SouthAfricanTowns, Part 1: Val

Val is the first stop in my #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign, for which I’m visiting ten small towns across South Africa in 2020. After months of talking about it, my #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign has finally begun. I visited Val, a tiny hamlet in Mpumalanga province, on the third weekend in January. Val, which has only 10 permanent residents, is not large enough to be considered an official town. But for the purposes of this project I’m defining my towns loosely. I chose Val because: 1) It was recommended by a couple of my readers; 2) I was intrigued by the idea of such a tiny “town”; 3) The Val Hotel sounded like a fun, quirky place; and 4) It’s only a 90-minute drive from Joburg and I wanted to start somewhere close to home. I spent three days in Val, which is a long visit in such a small place. I really learned a lot, about the town and also about myself. But somehow I still didn’t manage to see and do everything I wanted. I’m considering another visit to Val before the year is over. Rita Britz, the Grand Dame of Val I don’t think Val would still exist without Rita Britz […]

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Top floor of 9 Rose Road, Johannesburg

The Ruins of Rose Road: Photo Bonanza

The Ruins of Rose Road The moment I saw the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation announce this tour — even before I read the description — I signed up. I had never heard of Rose Road. But the tour’s title was so evocative…My mind’s eye quickly filled with images of haunted mansions and stately gardens of a bygone era. My mind’s eye was spot on. The Ruins of Rose Road were everything I could have imagined, and more. Rose Road is a dead-end street at the top of a ridge in Joburg’s wealthy Upper Houghton neighborhood, overlooking the Wilds Municipal Nature Reserve. All the north-facing mansions along the western end of the road, built between the 1920s and 1940s, are — for reasons I don’t completely understand — unoccupied. The land is owned by a property development company and slated for redevelopment, taking into account the historic heritage of several of the homes. But due to South Africa’s stagnant economy there are no immediate plans for this redevelopment to begin. Johannesburg heritage gurus Brett McDougall and Flo Bird took us on an exploration of three houses along the road, each of which required climbing a steep, winding driveway. 3 Rose Road Number […]

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Tswana dancers on Vilakazi Street in Soweto

Touring Soweto with a South African Blonde

Last week I did an all-day tour of Soweto with Eenblond Tours. “Eenblond” means “a blonde” in Afrikaans, which makes sense because that’s exactly what Gilda Swanepoel is. Gilda and I are kindred spirits — we’re the same age and our life stories have many parallels. Gilda spent lots of time traveling solo around southern Africa and used to write a travel blog. She loves getting to know Joburg’s people and cultures in a very intimate way. I’d been meaning to take one of her tours forever and she does lots of different ones, around Joburg and all over South Africa. But I was particularly keen to go to Soweto with Gilda. I’ve been to Soweto — which is technically part of Joburg but really its own place entirely — countless times (browse all of my Soweto posts here), but I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go again. Soweto is so huge, so historic, and so diverse that no one visit is the same as another, even when you go back to the same places. My tour with Gilda was no exception. A Day in Soweto Gilda fetched me at my house and then we went to pick up […]

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Travel books at Maps 4 Africa

Maps 4 Africa: Navigating Africa Without Google

In today’s Google-powered world, it’s tempting to believe paper maps and guidebooks are obsolete. Who needs hard copies when every piece of information ever collected is contained inside our phones? I’m as guilty as the next person of operating this way. But as recently as a couple of months ago, I found myself stranded in the middle of Joburg’s northern suburbs when my mobile signal suddenly dropped and I didn’t have Google Maps to guide me to my next destination. And you can’t use the “Well, you live in Africa” excuse, either. The same thing happened last year in Manhattan. I still need maps — real maps — and real guidebooks when I travel. And even if I don’t need them, I want them. Luckily there’s a great place to buy them in Joburg. I discovered the Maps 4 Africa shop many years ago, then forgot about it, then discovered it again last year while looking for a Mozambique guide book for my trip to Maputo. You’d think Exclusive Books, the country’s most popular retail bookstore, would have a wide selection of guidebooks for Mozambique — a major tourist destination and one of South Africa’s closest neighbors. But nope — […]

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Looking up at the Carlton Hotel and Carlton Centre

Memories From Joburg’s Carlton Hotel

The Johannesburg central business district (locals call it the CBD) has experienced tumultuous change over the past 50 years. Nowhere is that change more visible than at the once glitzy, now abandoned Carlton Hotel. The Carlton opened at the height of apartheid in 1972, when black South Africans in Joburg still had to carry passbooks. The hotel was grand, by all accounts, albeit with ugly (in my opinion at least) brutalist architecture. The Carlton had 31 storeys, more than 600 rooms, a rooftop pool, and several fancy restaurants and shops. Only the richest South Africans could afford to stay there. Less than 30 years later, in 1998, the Carlton Hotel was closed and mothballed as the CBD collapsed around it. The Carlton has never re-opened. This hulking skyscraper has been sitting empty for more than two decades, and as far as I know there is no plan to revive it. (It’s not alone, either. The old Joburg Sun Hotel, a few blocks away, suffered the same fate.) The Carlton is closed to the public and it’s not easy (or advisable) to get inside. But thanks to a gutsy friend who shall remain nameless, I recently spent a few minutes snooping […]

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