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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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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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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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Our Jozi Works piece in Louis Both S-Bend mural

The Louis Botha S-Bend: Walking Through Joburg’s History

Along Louis Botha Avenue between Orange Grove and Yeoville there is a half-kilometer stretch of road previously known as “the death bend”. Louis Botha is one of Joburg’s main thoroughfares between north and south, connecting Alexandra Township and the city’s northeastern suburbs to downtown Joburg. The road is notoriously ruled by speeding minibus taxis. This particular stretch is a relatively steep downhill from south to north and has a few dangerous curves. The Louis Botha corridor is in the middle of a major redevelopment. The death bend was recently straightened out somewhat, and there is now a wide pedestrian sidewalk and a very high wall along the northwestern side the road. A few months ago, that wall was covered with a huge, vibrant graffiti mural illustrating the history of the Louis Botha corridor (previously the Old Pretoria Road). The graffiti project is called the S-bend mural and it’s the largest mural in Joburg, covering 3,000 square meters. The S-bend mural — “S-bend” is meant to be less negative than “death bend”, while still warning drivers of potential danger — was commissioned by the City of Johannesburg Department of Transport, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), and a JDA-supported art campaign #ArtMyJozi. […]

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Eucalyptus tree at Kings Walden

Kings Walden: A Magical Hotel in the Mountains of Limpopo

It’s been weeks since my stay at Kings Walden — in Agatha, Limpopo, above the town of Tzaneen — and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about it. Perhaps it’s because this magical place is difficult to describe in words. Kings Walden is a hotel, in the simplest of terms. But “hotel” or “lodge” or “guesthouse” are not sufficient descriptors. Kings Walden is three generations of a family’s history — a family’s joyous, acutely painful, sacred legend, which embodies the story of South Africa in so many ways — perched precariously at the top of a steep, misty mountain in Limpopo. Bridget Hilton-Barber, a writer friend of mine who grew up here and now runs the hotel, wrote a book about Kings Walden called Garden of My Ancestors. The book starts with the story of Ess Tooley, Bridget’s grandmother and the late grand-dame and garden architect of Kings Walden, snaking down the matriarchal family tree to Ess’ daughter Tana and eventually to Bridget herself, who returns to Kings Walden as an adult coping with multiple losses and traumas. Bridget gave me a copy of Garden of My Ancestors during my stay (there are a few […]

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Meruschka in Turkey

12 Portraits of Inspiring South African Women

Today is National Women’s Day in South Africa. South African Women’s Day, which is a public holiday and falls on 9 August, is different from International Women’s Day on 8 March. The holiday commemorates the Women’s March of 1956, during which 20,000 South African women of all races marched in Pretoria to protest the apartheid pass laws. On that day in 1956, the protestors sang a struggle song that included the famous line: “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.” Every time I hear or even think about that sentence, the hairs on my arms stand up. I didn’t think much about celebrating womanhood before I moved to South Africa. Women’s Day isn’t really a thing in America. We have Mother’s Day but that’s really not the same. The truth is, before moving to South Africa it never really occurred to me to be proud of being a woman. But now I am. I’m grateful to this country for that. Also Women’s Day in South Africa is fun. Everyone has the day off, winter is coming to an end, all the restaurants and bars and coffee shops have specials for women. It’s a day for celebrating […]

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Ode to Limpopo

I spent seven days driving 1500 kilometres (about 1000 miles), mostly alone in my very tiny car, through Limpopo. I drove Limpopo — South Africa’s northernmost province — from top to bottom and around again. I visited towns with lyrical names: Mookgophong, Mokopane, Polokwane, Tzaneen, Giyani, Makhado. I stayed in luxury lodges and self-catering chalets. I gaped up at a full moon from beneath a towering white tree that’s been dead for more than 30 years. I got lost in an orange grove. I drank gin and tonics. I ate a hamburger on a bun so stale I could have used it as a hockey puck. I ate macadamia-crusted trout and rare beef fillet and vegan burgers and beetroot quinoa. I sat alone and cried in a birdwatching hide. I faced down a warthog. I watched monkeys copulate. I hung out with honking geese at sunrise. I photographed women embroidering elaborate masterpieces. I drove up a mountain on a dry, pockmarked dirt road and gazed down at a sacred lake. I communed with an ancient baobab. I saw the dusty grave of a Canadian First Nations soldier who died in a savage South African war. I visited a macadamia nut […]

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Sculptures and Tiny Sweaters for Nelson Mandela Day

Today is Nelson Mandela Day. July 18th was Nelson Mandela’s birthday (he died in 2013 and would have been 101 today), and while it’s not an official holiday, it’s a day when South Africans are called to do something small but significant to help others in their country. I spent the day driving through rural Limpopo province and happened to meet a legendary South African artist who has made many beautiful sculptures portraying Mandela. I’ll have more to say about Johannes Maswanganyi in a future post. But the actual purpose of today’s post is to tell you about Andrea’s Little Lung Warmers. 67 Little Lung Warmers for Nelson Mandela Day A couple of months ago a woman named Andrea asked if I could photograph a project she was working on. Andrea is a knitter and she was making 67 tiny sweaters — Andrea calls them Little Lung Warmers — to donate to charity in honor of Mandela Day. The number 67 is significant for Mandela Day because Mandela served South Africa for 67 years. (Read more here.) Once the sweaters were finished, Andrea wanted to photograph each one and then donate them to Friends of Tambo Babies. Andrea and I […]

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Slouw coffee trailer in Potchefstroom

Five Things to Do in Potchefstroom

The town of Potchefstroom, 120 kilometers southwest of Joburg in North West province, has several claims to fame: Potchefstroom is a very old town by South African standards, founded in 1838 by Voortrekker Andries Potgieter. Potchefstroom is a university town. The Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education — now the North-West University Potchefstroom Campus — was founded here in 1869. Potchefstroom has the longest avenue of oak trees in South Africa — possibly in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Potchefstroom is a long and difficult (at least for me) word to say. Thank goodness most people call it Potch. (Read more about the origin of the name Potchefstroom.) I lived 90 minutes from Potch for nearly nine years before going there. I didn’t expect to particularly like it. With the exception of the oak tree story I’d never heard much about Potch, and it isn’t a town that one unexpectedly stumbles upon. It’s not really on the way to anywhere. But I did finally go to Potch a couple of weeks ago, for about 24 hours. And guess what? I had a great time and didn’t want to leave. I liked Potch because: University towns are fun, interesting places. I’d forgotten […]

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The Rand Club, Reinvented

I last blogged about the Rand Club — one of the oldest, most historic, most colonial buildings in Joburg, founded by Cecil John Rhodes — more than six years ago. I just reread that post — titled The Rand Club: It’s Old — and (as with many of my old blog posts) felt a little ashamed of it. Although it’s informative and historically accurate, I was subtly making fun of my visit to the Rand Club that night. I implied the club was stodgy and uptight and said I’d probably never consider becoming a member myself. Last week I went past the Rand Club to deliver a copy of my book to one of its members. What I initially intended to be a 10-minute stop turned into an entire afternoon; I literally could not bring myself to leave. I realized a lot has changed at this place over the past six years and it’s definitely time for a new blog post. The Rand Club is still old and it always will be. (I won’t repeat the whole checkered history here — see my previous post for that.) But it’s also changing with the times. And after a brief closure in […]

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