Sunday, May 23, 2010

Climactic Conditions & Being a Surfer's Girlfriend

Being the girlfriend of a surfer has taught me many things. I’ve always had the travel bug and surfing inevitably takes you in search of new places, so it’s a good match in more ways than one. Together we’ve churned up the dust on lots of pothole-filled back roads on our way through isolated sections in not-for-tourists zones, where the locals look up at you in surprise because visitors are a novelty. I can unpack a boot, jack up a car and change a flat tyre in 5-minutes flat. I’ve become a practiced wave photographer – enjoying my time on the beach while snapping up lifetime memories that can be savored and celebrated. I’ve found myself in the middle of the ocean – kayaking or snorkeling where I would never go alone – taking in the beauty of aquamarine water, seeing the shore from the other side, meeting inquisitive sea-friends and strange alien looking plantlife. I’ve been dunked by walls of seawater, sputtering to the surface like a fledgling painfully trying to learn to surf my own fun. I’ve gone on adventures when most stay inside cozy under a duvet – braving the rain, the wind and the cold – to catch a glimpse of Mother Nature gracing the seas with big swell, big waves and big dreams.

In surfing, the convergence of a myriad of factors makes for perfect conditions: the wind direction, the swell height, period and direction, the angle of the beach, the tide and the cycle of the moon – Neap or Spring – the time of day. For some surf spots these things unite only on rare occasions, making the event one of significance and worthy of the chase, to travel at odd times, seeking out the dream. I’ve always been spontaneous but now the weather patterns have become a deciding factor in my life – beach holidays are no longer decided by the condition of the sun but by the direction of the wind and on storm patterns emerging from the deep Antarctic. Hand-drawn synoptic charts, plotted in purple, red and orange, have taken me as far away as Mozambique and Namibia, and just about everywhere in between.

As co-pilot on surfing adventures I’ve learnt that when the time is right and a window of opportunity presents itself in a moment, you have to be ready. And even though I’m not the one suiting up and jumping into the sea, there are many fringe benefits like the exciting feeling of discovery, experiencing beautiful landscapes and taking in the magic of the sea. And so it was that I found myself awakening in the cozy predawn darkness on a wintry morning – rising, dressing and rushing to the car for a new expedition. We were chasing the tide and the dawn for the promise of a new surf spot up the West Coast of South Africa.

We drove through the darkness blanketed by fog – at times visibility was limited to only a car’s length, maybe two. The headlights punctured the mist with inadequate shafts of light. Eventually the mist lifted and the dawn presented itself to us in shades of pink, orange and yellow – lighting up the sky in beautiful streaks of colour. We arrived at our destination on a lonely strip of beach, seemingly isolated yet managed by a gate keeper who greeted us with clipboard in hand and made friendly small talk as he slowly signed us in. We were at the doorstep of a beach resort, and were obliged even though we were not guests. Paperwork completed, we were finally free.

We got started on our walk – 4-kilometres to go – and celebrated as we found ourselves starting the day in the West Coast, taking in its few unmistakable characteristics – a red dirt trail, scrubby bushland crowded by one colourful succulent plant after another, thorny bushes, lucent green and dark rich browns in the dew of the morning, everything wet, and birds – everywhere birds, gliding through the long view of the Swartland.

We eventually found the spot through the wonders of Google Earth, a GPS-enabled phone, and hearsay. We celebrated as we found ourselves in view of Table Mountain across the bay, shrouded in pink clouds. The beach had a steep pitch and as the waves broke on the shallow sandbar the water rushed back down the slope, crashing into the sea, churning and causing a great wobble on the surface. The backwash caused the waves to double in height and as they closed out the sound reverberated like thunder.

After the surf we were back in the car and passed by the harbour – the fishing boats had come in, laden with hundreds of Snoek – some of them still gasping, drowning in air – and an assault of relentless screeching seagulls circulating overhead, their noise overwhelming and as charming as nails on a chalkboard. The fishermen called out their prices, one voice on top of the next, all the while cleaning the fish on the side of the boat, splattering blood, dumping the guts and tossing the fish into boxes for transport. We scored two enormous fish – a rare treat.

We headed home through Darling – a small town made famous for its history, quaint buildings, a local satirical celebrity who makes his living by poking fun at the government while dressed as a woman and last but not least, wine farms. We drove through rolling farmland lined with row upon row of grapevines with yellow and brown leaves, about to fall to the ground before a winter’s sleep during the rainy months to come. We stopped at Darling Cellars for a taste of their berry-rich Pinotage and were greeted by the farmer’s wife from behind a giant tasting bar made to look like a wooden wine barrel. She generously treated us to samples while straight-talking stories of farm life in a gentle voice that masked her sharp wit.

Our day complete, we returned home with memories of the foggy journey, a pink sunrise, the discovery of a new place, photos of beautiful surf, the freshest Snoek possible and Darling wine. We were only an hour from home but it felt like we’d gone so much farther. I couldn’t help thinking how nice it is to be a surfer’s girlfriend and co-pilot on trips that take you to so many more places than the surf spot alone, and that once again leaving things to chance – or rather to the weather – turned out better than we could have ever planned.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

An Ode to My Car, Bev

People love cars – their first car, their first “nice” car, that old classic that’s just like new, and even an old bomb that just keeps ticking. Cars represent more than just transportation – when you have one, the ideas of freedom, travel and adventure become an everyday reality. You don’t need to rely on anyone else, and there’s no need for public transport – you can go anywhere you want, whenever you want. You can travel the open road – see new things, live, breathe fresh air. You can get to work and back. You can come and go as you please, on your own time, on your own terms. Listen to your own favourite music. Let the windows down. It’s your own private getaway, like a mobile VIP club.

We love our cars so much, they’re more than just “things” we own – we give them names, invent personalities for them, and even take our pictures with them. To some of us, our cars are more like friends – remember the first time you met? And how about all those road trips you had together? The older the car, the more love we show them, especially those old clunkers we dream will drive on forever – like my car, Bev.

Bev is a 1985, light metallic blue 323i BMW coupĂ©. This year, she turned 25-years old, only eight years younger than me. In a few more years she’ll be considered an antique and if there was such a thing as “doggie years” for cars, most people would consider her to be elderly, plodding towards the twilight phase. But Bev’s got a secret – she’s not nearly finished.

She’s got a strong build and lots of spit-fire – perhaps it’s her German descent. She smokes a lot these days and drinks more than she used to, but after all these years of service, I suppose she feels she’s earned it. She took good care of herself for most of her life and today she looks a lot younger than she is, but over the past few years she has had a tough time, with bouts of downtime when she wasn’t feeling herself and had to slow down. Her eyes aren’t as great as they used to be, especially not at night, and she’s got a few niggles like getting grumpy when you rush her, or completely passing out on odd occasions. But sometimes she surprises you with her pep, picking up the pace when the occasion calls, making me remember how she was in the good old days. The mornings are a little harder and especially when it’s cold she needs a little extra help getting started. But once she gets going you can tell she’s happy by the way soft way she talks along the road. She loves to travel almost as much as me and together we’ve been to Mozambique, the Drakensberg Mountains, Namibia and everywhere in between along the South African coastline.

Even with all these good times together I know Bev won't be around forever. I daydream sometimes about having a nice shiny four-wheel-drive number – maybe I’ll even spring for air conditioning. Then I can escape to the bumpy, sandy, pot-hole laden roads of the great unknown with less risk and more comfort. The world will seem more beautiful from behind my new windscreen, and I’ll feel invincible as I look out at others’ breakdowns and strain to remember what those times used to feel like – way back when. No more not-starting, no flat batteries or kick-starts, no more tow-rope-towing, and definitely, no more “bad-car-days” that leave you stranded on the side of the road. My new ride will be amazing… but the truth is – she's pretty far away, a change would be expensive, and I’d have no way of knowing if the new times would be as great as the old times. And anyways – Bev is right here with me and she's still my trusty sidekick. May you drive on forever, Bev – drive on.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Simonsig - Bubbles that Bring Me Down

Until recently, I have been a loyal Simonsig fan – the Kaapese Vonkel is a beautiful bubbly, it’s history in South African winemaking makes it unique, and the lovely champagne stoppers sold at the wine farm seem difficult to procure anywhere else so I decided long ago that I would make a plan to visit the estate.

My opportunity finally presented itself this past weekend while I was in Stellenbosch for a girls’ getaway. I told my friend with much excitement what a treat we were in for – the perfect ending to our afternoon, keepsake glasses we could remember the experience by, a few bottles to take home for another time, and finally, the much-sought-after champagne stopper.

Unfortunately for us, this was not to be. We were under the impression that closing time was at 16:30, and as we arrived at 16:15, we were relieved to find that there were still plenty of patrons and staff on site and were thrilled to have arrived “just in time”. We were wrong, of course – closing time was actually at 16:00. The smiles on our expectant faces wilted away when we were informed by the “Host” that we would not be served a tasting – we were too late, Simonsig was now closed. He told us this from the counter where he was sitting – the same one we had hoped to be served at – and after barely replacing his very own glass of crispy cold sparkling wine.

We told him how disappointed we were – that we had planned our visit for a very long time and would not be able to come back any time soon. We asked if he would reconsider, especially since there were still so many other patrons at the Estate, that closing time had just only passed, and that we had intended to purchase as well. He looked over at us, still seated in front of his bubbly, and replied with a monotonous tone that we should rather plan to come back on the following day. I barely convinced him to allow me to purchase the champagne stopper before we had to turn and leave otherwise empty handed, disappointed, and dejected.

My friend and I were let down by an un-empathetic employee who was probably only thinking about his plans for the evening, and not about the potential damage his handling of the situation could have for the brand. Worse, it seems this is not a once-off encounter but rather a general impression of Simonsig among the wine community – as we went on to visit other farms during our stay, my friend and I couldn’t help but recount our experience to other patrons and hosts, and each time we were met with looks of understanding, nodding, and murmurs that it wasn’t the first time they’d heard something negative about Simonsig. The experience was really very unfortunate and I had the sorry realization that none of a wine estate’s magic – not is history, its stunning setting, nor its winemaking excellence – can compete with the visitor’s experience.