Brrr, it's 9c as our car tires crunch along the gravel driveway as we head towards our booking at Grande Provence. It's a Shiraz wine and dine collaboration dinner and it sounds spectacular. We're welcomed by a huge silvery full moon rising over the mountain casting its magical light on everything as we make our way to the restaurant.
Inside soft candles flicker on the tables while a crackling log fire warms the restaurant. The soft hum of chatting diners draws us in.
“Hello, I'm Michael,” we are warmly welcomed. The waiter gives us a board of warm homemade seed bread with sundried tomato butter.
“We probably shouldn't be filling up on the bread,” I say as I reach for another piece. I can't resist. I've just read the menu and it looks spectacular. Maybe just one more piece.
The first shiraz arrives it's a 2010 Lammershoek Syrah. It's smooth with a lovely linger. Maybe it's because it's our first wine and the tastebuds are excited, but this is a great start.
We kick off with a spiced butternut and saffron mouth warmer. So smooth. So tiny. So leaving me wanting more.
Clink, clink goes a glass. All heads turn towards a tall, commanding figure standing near the log fire. “Hi I'm Karl the general manager of Grande Provance,” he says as we all go quiet. He welcomes us to the fourth wine evening for the year. Darren the chef then takes us through the menu in an exciting verbal journey. This is followed by the winemaker from Lammershoek telling us about both his vineyard and the wine. Now I have a problem. I want to go and visit this vineyard. It sounds stunning. Nicky is soon on Google looking to see if we can find it. Maybe...
“Sir, here is your Indonesian salt cured duck...” the waiter says continuing with even more detail. All I know is it looks delicious. And as my teeth sink into the succulent duck with citrus caviar I'm enraptured.
“What makes a wine great?” asks Tamsin from Hartenberg Estate who has now stood up to introduce our second wine for the evening. “It's the company you keep.” And she is right. I'm enjoying this evening with stunning company - my wife - and a group of fellow wine lovers. “It's a very masculine wine,” Tamsin says describing the 2008 Hartenberg Gavel Hill Shiraz. “Hmm...if this is masculine I'm glad I'm a dude.”
Horse and carriage, love and marriage. That's what this is. The perfect pair. The barbecue sea bass with charred baba ganoush arrives on a warm stone plate. It is deliciously smoky and goes like a Siamese twin with the wine drawing out the natural smokey taste of the Shiraz. It's probably the best pairing I've tasted.
While the bliss of the taste match is still doing a tango on my tongue the winemaker from Eagles Nest stands up and regales us with fascinating stories about their farm and the 2012 Shiraz we are now having. It's paired with slow braised beef brisket and once more the combo is a choreographed symphony.
Finally, Karl stands up again and introduces us to our last Shiraz. “It's always a worry when you have to pair your wine to dessert,” he says smiling, “because the cream and buttery flavours mask the taste.” He tells us a great story about the guy who attempted to produce great wine by introducing weeds, then goats to control the weeds, then dogs to control the goats, then children to control the dogs...and finally birth control to control child production. Which shows simple birth control can produce the greatest vines. Just shows what you can learn about wine making at an evening like this.
The dessert arrives which is scarily “sago with white chocolate creme”. Sago? For dessert? Isn't that boarding school food as Karl joked? The plating is beautiful. I take my first tentative bite. “Bounce” go my jowls. Bounce. It's sago after all. Despite the delicious topping I still think sago is best kept as punishment for boarding school kids.
The diners next to us joke that the sago is big balls - sago on steroids. Well, the Shiraz was great! And serving this for dessert was indeed very ballsy.
Finally Darren the chef appears together with the whole kitchen team. It's been a spectacular evening. Lovely tastes. Great wine. And as we learnt...the key ingredient...great company. Here's looking forward to the Pinotage evening.
To find out about their next special wine pairing evening check out their site.
I know what I must speak on today, I can hear him tell me. I need to share this message. Someone needs to hear it. I bow and pray as I thank God for his message, as I begin to prepare my sermon for Sunday.
“We aren't running the Comrades marathon this year.” That's what we have declared multiple times to those who have enquired. “We are taking a gap year, and that includes running Comrades. I'll come back next year for number ten,” I confidently proclaim.
Then why is it that I find myself standing scantily dressed in running gear in the pitch dark huddled with 18,000 other nervous runners while the haunting strains of Chariots of Fire blast through the speakers at the start of the Comrades Marathon? Let's back up a bit.
It's a year of travel and adventure that we have planned. Getting in training for Comrades is not going to happen, and also after running 9 in a row a break will be good. Especially as there is only one word to describe the 90km experience for me - brutal! So we aren't running it this year. Well, that is until some crazy Aussie mates said “Hey we gonna come to South Africa to run Comrades...” so we couldn't let them do it alone. So we enter, you know, just in case they come.
The training is minimal as there are no marathons that seem to coincide with the out of the way places we are frequenting. No worries, I have plan. We're staying at Fanschhoek so I say, “Nicky, let's run a marathon.” Of course she's keen...and so after waking up a few mornings and looking at the dark world outside we roll over and say “maybe tomorrow”. But eventually “tomorrow” does come.
We set off from Franschhoek in the pitch dark using my cellphone torch for light. This is crazy! It's a simple plan - run 21km and turn around and run 21km back. Long story, short...42km is long, but we survive to tell the tale. And then a week later we do it again, but this time I feel like I've been beaten by an oversized wet porpoise. Eish! Comrades?
A few days later we find ourselves sipping wine and smelling the roses...literally, in the spectacular Kirstenbosch gardens. A message comes through from the crazed Aussies. “Sorry, we won't be able to make Comrades...” I do an Irish jig of joy. Well, that's off the agenda. I let the wine and roses wash over me. I'll drink to that.
We're back on KZN and Comrades is now drifting away into the void, where it belongs. We're headed to The Waffle House in Ramsgate. The prospect of a crispy Belgian waffles topped with icecream and honey lures us in. As we disembark from Pajey a friendly car guard says, “So are you running Comrades this year?” Huh? Who's this crazy dude talking to? “Umm, we're not sure,” I reply, still not sure why he's asking us this. “Well, if you've done 300km of training you're good to go,” he says. "I did that and finished in 11h25." We would be very happy to finish in that time...more than half an hour to spare, but that seems unlikely.
Ok, let me put this is perspective. Most Comrades runners do about 1200km of training runs between Jan and May. We, who like to come in fresh and undertrained, do about 700km...so 300km is very light indeed. I quickly check my Runkeeper app...we're closing in on 300km. But it's so little..and what's this crazy dude with the 8 month belly bulge know, even if he says he's done it?
“Let's do an ultra tester,” Nicky suggests when we are back at base camp in Cowies Hill “Let's just see how we handle it.” Sigh! And so we decide to test our bodies. You can't do this crazy Comrades thing without at least one ultra under the shoes. And so we awake before the roosters have even contemplated dawn and run for about an hour in total darkness before heading towards the Durban beachfront where we enjoy a short breakfast break before returning. 54km and it wasn't too bad...maybe it was the breakfast break.
But the fear gnaws. Yes or no? To run or not? We're enjoying ourselves in Sodwana, I'm trying to forget. Comrades is next Sunday. We attend a local church and God speaks.
“How many of you have heard God audibly speak to you?” asks the pastor. No hands go up. “How many of you would like to hear God audibly speak to you?” All the hands go up. “Well, if you want to hear God audibly speak to you, read the Bible out loud!” And how true that is. This is God's word. It is him speaking to me. And so I hear God speak.
“Fear not!” says God as the Pastor reads these words from the Bible. It's for me.
But he is not finished. His message is more direct than that. He continues, “run in such a way as to get the prize…Run like you are enjoying it.” What? This is not God speaking to me he's shouting at me. “Many people are running Comrades next week...” he continues. I'm stunned.
“There will be a wall. Press through it and before you know it you are in the stadium and it has all been worth it. Finish the race you've been called to. Listen to God when he speaks to you. He speaks to you through his Word. Sure he may also speak to you in other ways - directly, through nature, or even through other people. Listen.” It's God speaking directly to me. Wow! A peace I can't explain settles over me. Comrades is coming yet I feel such peace.
“It's last minute I know, but we've booked flights. We're coming to run Comrades.” That's what the crazy Aussie message says. After all this they're now coming. And that's how we find ourselves standing at the start of the 90th Comrades marathon, Nicky's 9th and my 10th.
Chariots of Fire fades away, the moment is here. The rooster sound crows through the speakers and seconds later the gun blasts heralding the start of our 90km journey from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
We were never planning on doing this crazy run this year and so we have an H seeding...that means we are right at the back of the 18,000 field. When the gun goes we stand and stand and stand. It takes us 8 minutes to cross the start line and about 15 minutes before we can start to run. In a race like this, where 12 hours is the cutoff, those minutes can make the difference between a medal and no medal.
Finally we find some space and Nicky and I can run freely. We're feeling great as we move steadily up the field passing hundreds of runners. Yet nagging in the back of my mind is the wall. It's huge for me. Last year it hit at the 60km mark. That meant 30km of nausea, vomiting and walking - 5 hours! I don't want that. Yet I feel peace as we continue to push on. It's like we're flying.
We move comfortably through halfway in 5h20. We've made up loads of time. We're flying. Feeling great. The weather is not too hot and the up run, notorious for being brutal is feeling good. However at about 75km I meet the wall. It's what the pastor said. But he also said,”Press through it and before you know it you will be in the stadium.”
Nicky is, as always strong in this part of the race, but she stays with me. Nausea swamps me. Vomiting. Walking. Nausea. Vomiting. Yet before I know it we're over the daunting mountain called Polly Shorts and headed to the stadium.
The sound of that announcer's voice mingles with cheers and music pulling us inexorably towards our goal. We've slowed but have plenty of time now. As I enter the stadium I'm overwhelmed by the emotion of finishing my tenth Comrades. My children who have tirelessly supported us through the whole race with the selfless help of my cousin, are waiting. They hand me a banner and together with Nicky I round the final corner holding the banner high - “10 with God's Strength”.
There are no words to describe the feeling of finishing my 10th Comrades and earning my Green Number. They have all been a huge challenge, but somehow this is the culmination. My mind is racing, my legs are still running even though I'm standing still, my nausea fatigued stomach is still churning as I smile for the camera as I'm awarded my Green Number badge. It's over. Done in God's strength. Nicky and I have done it, and so too has the amazing Aussie-ex-Saffer crazy runner Roxie. The flood of joy is indescribable. Sometimes we just need to step beyond the line to experience the power of God - his love, joy and peace.
We finished...in 11h25. That's what the strange car guard said. Sometimes we just need to learn to listen!
As my mom bends down to tie my shoelaces I think to myself, “I'm glad it's not winter.” The walk to school is only 20 minutes but often it's raining and cold in winter. However with the harvest season over my parents have no work and so there's not much food. I set off with a skip in my step looking forward to the meal I will get at school.
It's an early start as Nicky and I slink out of the house while the children are still asleep. We are headed to help with an outreach effort run by the Kusasa charity at a local school. As usual we get lost as we try and find our way around the township outside Franschhoek. “Hi, sorry we are lost,” I say as I call Carryn who we're meant to meet at the school. We are stopped outside an area that is really poor with broken shacks everywhere. We try and explain where we are. “Sorry,” Carryn replies, “I don't really know the township very well. I just know how to get to the school and out again.” Now that's handy for us, but we are resolved to find our way. After asking various kids strolling the roads obviously headed to school we eventually locate the Dalubuhle school. It's situated at the top of the township and at the base of a beautiful mountain that rises above it.
“Wow,” I say as I look at the school, “this is impressive.” It is obvious that someone has put some money into this school, as a lot of attention has been paid to the buildings and common areas. The walls are filled with fun paintings and even the stairs have games the kids can play that teach maths as they climb them. Nicky and I head down to the reading room where Carryn is going to be teaching Grade 2s English.
Arriving in the room we find Carryn with a group of 16 children sitting quietly before her as she tells them, with animated enthusiasm, a story using some bright images to further engage them. “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Carryn asks a small girl as she teaches them counting. “One - two - three - four,” the girl starts counting with her fingers as she replies, “five - six.” She beams a huge, proud smile at Carryn. The children are all primarily Xhosa speaking, and so teaching them English is not easy. Some of the children seem to have a basic grasp of English, and it soon becomes apparent how important this is.
After a few minutes the children all break up into groups and seat themselves at tables where they have to complete a worksheet. This is where we come in...well Nicky, comes in. I'm the blogger, photographer, observer, assessor, person. I'm not that good at wiping snotty noses, patient enunciation, and general kid teaching. Thankfully Nicky has all these skills and is soon engaging the children entusiasitically in the lesson. Similar lessons are unfolding at the other tables. It's now that we realise how important it is that some of the kids speak English. They quickly translate the instructions to their siblings and its heartwarming to see the care and concern they have for each other. This is where ubuntu is born and demonstrated, where the success of all is more important than the achievement of just one.
“I drive in from Paarl” Carryn tells us as we chat to her afterwards about her work with the children. It turns out she volunteers to teach these children three days a week, for no other reason than that she cares. She drives 100km three times a week, and its making a huge difference in these kids lives. It's passion and dedication like this, the unsung, quiet heroes of our country who make both our journey so fulfilling and our country so beautiful.
As we leave we see a little girl skipping out of the large school hall. I can see a look of glee on her face. “We provide breakfast for the children everyday,” Sintu the community liaison officer for Kusasa, says as we see other children filing out the hall. “Many of their parents are seasonal workers on the winefarms, and so they often have very little at this time of year. Its the donations of many kind people that help us feed these children. It makes a real difference, one that many never see nor ever know.”
As we chew on a crispy chocolate twist and wash it down with Franschhoek's best flat white at The Hoek coffee shop, we marvel about South Africa's paradox. Just minutes from this up-market coffee shop are shacks with hungry kids. Just kilometers from the beauty of Franschhoek is the harshness of shacks. Yet in this paradox is a story of hope. It's a story that shows while our world will always have paradoxes, true beauty exists when the one touches the other, and when both learn and grow from one another. Just outside Franschhoek at the beautiful wine farm La Motte there is a statue of a woman holding an overflowing cup of water. Its the symbol of our experiences, for surely our “cup runneth over”.
Clip, clip, clip. Once more my tips are trimmed. It's been the same routine for over 40 years. I'm never short of water or food. I'm never too hot or too cold. I'm constantly cared for, constantly groomed, but yet I am still so small. So unbelievably small.
How do you script a perfect anniversary day? Well it's hard after the previous day's experiences at Kagga Kamma and God's bedroom - but we are determined nonetheless.
The start is obvious. Walk the 100 meters down Frasnschhoek's Huguenot street to the best coffee spot, The Hoek. Begin the day with the best flat white around and their delicious chocolate twists - crispy on the outside with soft chocolate on the inside. Great start!
We then head over Hellshoegte Pass to the university town of Stellenbosch. Unlike Franschhoek on the opposite side of the mountain, Stellenbosch is not only bigger and busier, but it has a student vibe not a tourist vibe. The green heart of Stellenbosch is a stunning botanic garden and so we start our visit here. Soon we are immersed it its beauty and tranquility.
“This bonsai is 40 years old,” an official and obviously knowledgeable curator says as he gently trims the tree. Everything about it is miniature, even the fruits. It's amazing. “Yes,” he replies, “they are olives. However they are a special olive that is naturally small and so it makes them appear just right for the tree.” It's like we've been transported to a Lilliputian world. In fact we are so enraptured we even consider returning next week for a bonsai course.
We wander out the gate and notice a popup art exhibition in a disused building, and discover that Stellenbosch is having a huge art festival. And so begins a visual feast as we stroll through art shows in restaurants and shops, craft markets in hidden corners, and food stalls tantalizingly beckoning the unwary towards them. We soon find ourselves wandering around the vaulted halls of Stellenbosch's museum and art gallery. It's like being in another world - art, music, beauty, history, smells, tastes.
It's not long before our meanderings lead us past a restaurant that is advertising a delicious sounding mushroom burger. And so like those helpless to the siren's call we are drawn in for a burger and beer. A student sits with a long empty coffee cup at a nearby table working on his computer, while at another table a group of friends laugh loudly as they clink their glasses in a toast. The food is rich and full of flavor, just like our experience in Stellenbosch.
Returning to the botanic gardens towards our car we round off our experience with a dark chocolate cake and a chocolate mousse cake washed down with a double espresso. Our gastronomical glands are enraptured.
Did I say “round off our experience”? You can't leave Stellenbosch without wine tasting, it is one of the top wine regions in the world. And so we need to round off, again, our experience, by visiting Blaauwklippen and Lanzerec wine farms for a taste of the grape and a mellowing of the soul. Now we feel fully rounded off! With a glow of contement we drive back to Franschhoek to spend a few hours catching up on life before the coup de grâce of our day - dinner at Rocos.
We arrive at Rocos which is located at Dieu Donne wine farm just before sunset. We are seated outside where we have drinks and watch the sun explode the sky into oranges and reds from behind the mountain. We then move indoors to their beautiful glass enclosed restaurant and settle to enjoy what Josh and Hannah say are the best meals they have ever had - I have a Pork Belly that is superlative, Hannah has the Springbok Loin which is equally delectable and Josh and Nicky share a cheese board starter and a Pork Belly.
We all feel a little like porkers with full bellies, but as I drive home and slip into bed I can truly say this has been a day gifted by God…a gift that began 23 years ago and just keeps on getting better. Thank you Lord for 23 years and my four beautiful gifts.
It's a great time of year mainly because there's no shortage of food. Yet I know that it won't always be like this. In a short time the sun will not be as warm and the days will be short. So I don't take the food for granted. Even though we have enough I'm constantly searching for more. Yet today there are so many people around. It's unusual. Every now and then I spot an opportunity to dart down. I've seen an acorn lying just below a nearby tree. I climb rapidly down and dart across the open grass. Grasping the acorn with glee I turn to climb my tree. My heart leaps as a huge person towers over me. I jump backwards clawing at a nearby tree as I scuttle to the safety above, thankfully still holding my find.
There are many amazing things you can do on the Western Cape but if you are there at the right time of year, like the end of summer, there is a real treat you can share in. In what has echoes of Biblical times, we head to Eikendal Wine Farm to celebrate their annual harvest. We had been warned to get there early to secure a good spot so using our Berg Time to our advantage – we moved our watches two hours forward in January and we're still enjoying it - we manage to get there by 10am Local Time, 12 noon Berg Time.
We are ahead of the imminent masses and find a lovely tree and table near the edge overlooking the vineyards on one side and the lake on the other. Hannah and Josh notice an unused mega bean bag and drag it over to our idyllic spot. They plop down onto their comfy spot and we lean back to watch the arrivals.
Slowly like ants attracted to honey the crowds begin to roll in. Lounging in our spot we watch the latecomers’ despair as they search in vain for a nice table but have to settle for a spot under the burning sun. And so a day of relaxation and celebration unfolds. From tractor rides to grape stomping to art exhibitions to just chatting or lying on the huge bean bag, this is a wonderful way to spend a day.
The highlights are the grape stomping and the wine christening. Huge barrels of grapes are brought and throwing decorum to the wind the revelers leap in barefooted, dresses lifted high and long trousers pulled up. Children giggle excitedly as locals and foreigners, young and old enjoy the squishy sensation of crushing grapes with their feet. I'm not sure I'd want to drink the resultant wine, it piquant, somewhat acidic flavours with a lingering sweaty nose might not be the best. But it is sure fun stomping those grapes.
The harvest celebration pinnacle involves the naming and releasing of the new season’s wine. This year the 2015 Chardonnay is named after Solly Kramers wife, Anita. Of course what's the worth of naming without tasting! A huge barrel is opened and faster than squirrels on heat the crowds converge. I stand patiently in the line and am finally rewarded with a glass of strange milky colored wine – apparently this milky color is part of the final wine process. With glee I navigate the swarming harvest revelers with my glass headed for our table. I'm so intent on my destination I nearly step on a squirrel who also must have been celebrating with too much fruit of the vine judging from his startled expression and hasty exit up a tree. We drink deeply of the new vintage enjoying is tropical and slightly sweet taste. Here’s to Anita!
With the lingering taste of joy filling our souls we finally leave to pick up Sarah who has spent the weekend with her friends at UCT before heading back to our base at Franschhoek.
One might be tempted to think that this is the end of the day. One would be wrong – this is the Cape and there is always the prospect of a sunset which one cannot leave unseen. So Nicky and I, armed with sushi and a drop more wine, head to our special sunset dam in Franschhoek where we toast the end of a wonderful day and give thanks to God who has made all things possible.
Blue skies and deep cool shade blended with live music and good food results in a full bodied experience with a long finish. This truly has been a time of celebration.