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Trellidors & laser beam alarms, Karoo chops & Peppermint Crisp tarts — an American’s tale of a trip through SA

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Thomas Graven is an occasional South African surf tourist. A retired principal and teacher, he resides in the redwood paradise of Monte Rio in California, US.

Being a tourist in South Africa is beautiful and somewhat disturbing at the same time – the breathtaking scenery along with food and drink of Bacchanalian fantasy, alongside the ever-present reminder of brutal victimisation by an unnamed ‘other’. It’s enough to make you lose enthusiasm for Peppermint Crisp tart.

I’ve come to understand that some South African food is wrong and irresistible at the same time. Peppermint Crisp tart, koeksusters and Karoo lamb chops come to mind. So indulgently tasty, and so potentially unhealthy, but soooo good, much like the experience of travelling to this beautiful but strange country.

Recently I took a surf trip around parts of South Africa, from East London down to Cape Town and then up to Lambert’s Bay on the West Coast. I stayed in Airbnbs all the way, hitting every surf spot, eating venison pies, drinking lime milkshakes and sampling the droëwors and biltong at every padstalletjie along the way.

When staying in South African Airbnbs, you are taken into people’s homes and enthusiastically welcomed into their glamping magazine fantasy. Concrete-formed dolphins and whales abound, toilet floors are consistently beset with patterned river stones, curtains are draped evocatively from every protuberance.

Mosquito nets are knotted artfully above the beds, no bush animal escapes caricature in shells, wire, wood or recycled art. The hosts are unfailingly affable, first walking us through the amenities of the house and then going over the inevitable “security protocols” including where tourists should NOT go.

“No, look, you CAN use this main road IF YOU WANT, it does go through the township but as long as you keep the doors locked and get home before dark, you’re fine. Nobody’s going to bother you as long as you just don’t stop for any reason.”

They stare at you to make sure you are getting the message, and you nod vigorously while patting your pockets checking on where you put your wallet and passport. Thus reassured that you still have the means to go home again if you survive the trip, you get your notebook for the inevitable briefing on the security mechanisms.

These ‘truth for the foreigner’ talks are usually delivered over a large ‘braaiboep’ with the hot coals and sizzling braai full of Karoo chops, steak and wors, next to a cooler box full of beer.

First the house door key, usually an old-fashioned one that requires the keen ear and feel of the safecracker to turn over. Then it’s the burglar bar trellis gate key (known as a “Trellidor”). These are always tough, turn over twice before the key releases, then lock both doors behind you.

Then it’s the outside gate trellis door with another double-turn mechanism and, of course, a different key. After closing that behind you, get into your car and press the green button on the key remote to open the rolling gate. (“green is for gate” you are told helpfully.) Pull the car out and now press the brown button to put on the laser beam (“brown is for beam”), and wait for the blue light to come on before closing the gate behind you with the green button again.

By now you realise that you left your phone on the charger inside so you have to redo the whole procedure twice (going in and coming back out) before you are finally sitting outside with the engine running, ready to go.

As you put the car in gear the host affably explains that if you do trigger the laser beam alarm for some reason, “it’s not to worry, the armed guard will come by very rapidly to check. He’s a sweetie! (from Zimbabwe, you know – they speak excellent English there – such a shame about their country!)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Is it still yesterday in South Africa? The meaning – if anything – of being South African today

“Just say the password which is ‘Jericho’ and he won’t shoot you as long as you don’t make any sudden movements!”

I write JERICHO in very large letters on the front page of my notebook. I’m guessing this password is not case sensitive.

Once the security briefing is out of the way my conversations with South Africans of all races had two main themes. One was how corrupt the government is, and the other how bad crime is. These “truth for the foreigner” talks, as I have come to call them, are usually delivered over a large “braaiboep” with the hot coals and sizzling braai full of Karoo chops, steak and wors, next to a cooler box full of beer. The aforementioned Peppermint Crisp tart or granadilla fridge cake is usually temptingly displayed on the overloaded dessert table.

It’s usually very soon after the government corruption discussion that the crime discussion comes.

Other times we get the talk in one of South Africa’s many excellent restaurants (usually Indian, Japanese or some other ethnic food) with swarms of black waitstaff bringing sparkling water, assuring the guests that there really are no carbohydrates in the banting menu items and apologising for any delay in the table service. There are two main themes being transmitted to us foreigners:

Theme 1: How corrupt the government is

It is usually only halfway down the first brandy and Coke before the conversation wanders into government corruption. The catalyst for this subject is usually load shedding and how fucked up it is that the country can’t keep the lights on. The Eskom contracting and bidding process is laughed at as a sick joke which is killing the economy. BEE is seen as government overreach and further evidence of corruption.

One host delivered a compact five-minute seminar on how the ANC political structure prevents competence from rising through the ranks. Cape Town and the Western Cape are seen as the great hope against corruption: “Everyone (meaning those who have the means to do so) is leaving Joburg and Durban and coming to Cape Town, the traffic is only going to get worse,” was a frequently cited trope.

Theme 2: How bad the crime is

It’s usually very soon after the government corruption discussion that the crime discussion comes. The talk is ongoing about the latest carjacking or home invasion, how close it was to “where we are standing right now”, and how people are contract-murdered for the price of a bottle of whiskey and how tourists are particularly targeted.

There is an official sign up at Noordhoek Beach which informs beachgoers that “criminals frequent the area”, and to “not resist” if approached. My Kommetjie host tells me a German tourist was murdered in the fynbos wildlands above Hout Bay a few months ago (in fact, he disappeared, and has not yet been found).

This makes the South African tourist experience rather schizophrenic. On the one hand, there’s the breathtaking scenery and experience of the African landscape along with the food and drink of Bacchanalian fantasy.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s best small towns to visit

On the other, the distinct and ever-present reminder of brutal and possibly fatal victimisation by an unnamed “other”. It’s enough to make you lose your enthusiasm for granadilla fridge cake and Peppermint Crisp tart.

But that Karoo lamb is pretty good too, and I guess it tastes extra special when you have to risk your life to get it. The waves aren’t bad either. DM

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  • Yunus Scheepers says:

    It’s funny ’cause it’s true. Things we consider to be normal in South Africa are not so in other parts of the world … and vice versa.

  • David Bristow says:

    🙂 🙂 🙂

  • Vincent L says:

    Well at least we aren’t running around with AR15’s in schools!

  • Ryno van Zijl says:

    Probably got the spelling of koeksuster from the guy with the braaiboep. It is actually koeksister from the sis sound it makes when you drop the ‘koek’ in the oil.

  • Gretha Erasmus says:

    Enjoyed this article so much, thanks!

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Last week I couldn’t find parking at my local, small shopping centre in Gordon’s Bay. This week, plenty of space….few GP, KZN number plates and smaller vehicles

    • Mark K says:

      This’ll be the one with the Pick n Pay and the Wimpy? My wife and I nearly left this mortal coil on the bumper of a berserk Northern Cape driver in that parking lot last week.

  • Stephen Cornell says:

    phew, sad and accurate and makes me long for home from faraway Tasmania.
    Pity he did not meet any of the many wonderful people trying to make SA a better place for all- the NGO workers, ordinary people, just trying to live a normal life in a complex and challenging place. And the waves are good!

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Great article. Sadly the crime is predominantly in townships and poor areas, so the better off seldom experience it.
    We live in an amazing country which has everything going for it except the criminal ANC.

  • William Kelly says:

    It is the crime that ruins lives, shatters dreams and destroys communities. Kidnapping increasing at an alarming rate, thanks Carte Blanche (I think) and zero, but zero consequence from a corrupted police force. It will take decades to solve. And I see no future other than if the WC makes the call and establishes itself with an independent police force, if not country with its own borders. Else it’s more of the same for the next 5 years post this upcoming election farce.

  • Graeme Bird says:

    I hope you at least enjoyed the uncrowded and world quality waves without the same trepidation. After seeing the rest of the worlds breaks destroyed by crowds I’ve come to realise that crime (and sharks) are our biggest advantages at backline. Although next time turn right when you leave East London and enjoy the warm water surfing paradise that is KwaZulu-Natal.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful and accurate article, it certainly highlights that addressing crime is a critical issue that must be tackled for South Africa to fully realize its potential as a fabulous tourism destination. It also shows the burden that crime places on all of us in our daily lives, which is a crisis that needs to be addressed.

  • Musick Mama says:

    Hi Tom this is Ceri from King. Glad to see you still return to the country of your birth. Great article!

  • Jennifer D says:

    It is interesting how funny the serious issues other countries contend with, are, to Americans – that is if they ever leave the US shores, or read any foreign news, which is atypical. At least we know whats going on in other countries – I mean for example, we’re helping Hamas fight the Israelis, despite our own murder rate, which exceeds what the Israelis have achieved in their calculated efforts. Travel to America and listen to the Trump/gun/school shooting issues which are on the table and heatedly discussed everywhere by the locals – not so amusing and simplistic are they Mr Graven?

    • Johann Olivier says:

      A very defensive response. A classic ‘whataboutism’. No country is without its issues, but today’s South Africa’s stare you in the face like none other. The locking & unlocking. The justifiable paranoia about locking & unlocking. Omni-present ‘shoot-to-kill’ security signs & vehicles. And Eskom, everyone’s darling. A truly awful constant. And everyone has been, or knows someone close who has been, the victim of crime. Quite startling compared to most Western countries, where folks go their entire lives without experiencing crime.

      Actually, Americans discuss the cost of goods (especially where to get the cheapest gas…really?) and the crazy weather far more than they discuss political issues of the day (whatever that may say about them). Social media has its own universe of issues which, if one isn’t on social media, simply do not feature daily. Unlike locking & unlocking & cursing Eskom (and the ANC) while trying to use that unresponsive microwave.

      • Jennifer D says:

        Yeah – having lived in America for many many years I do have an idea. I dislike the the tone of the article which trivialises both the issues and the people.

  • Bruce Q says:

    Travel is an education!
    Having been “privileged” to sail around the world in our very small (33 ft.) sailboat, my wife and I visited some quite fabulous places.
    The so-called paradise of Bora Bora, to the dirt-poor islands of Indonesia.
    When you travel by boat, you don’t holiday in a country for a week or so, you spend months there. You really get to know what the place is all about.
    We found it remarkable how self critical the local population can be.
    Don’t go there!
    Don’t speak to “them”!
    Never venture out after dark!
    On arrival in a new country, our modus operandi was to quickly find the local “watering hole” and get chatting. Far better information than the Tourist Centre, if there was one.
    The similarity of dangers shared, to those quoted in this article are remarkable. The difference is that the security displayed in some of these countries far exceeds that seen in South Africa. Guards with assault rifles were ubiquitous. Double and sometimes triple gated entrances to restaurants, shops and homes were everywhere in the bigger centres.
    An eye-opening experience indeed.
    However, the biggest revilation came when we returned home to SA.
    This, dear reader, is true paradise.
    And yet we find locals here, are often more critical of their own country than those in other countries were.
    This may well be due to our corrupt government.
    But – Feel blessed that you live here.
    Feel privileged that you live here.
    We live amongst beautiful people in a beautiful country.
    Believe it!

  • Jaco Janse van Rensburg says:

    Mr Graven. I am glad to hear you enjoyed the peppermintcrisp tart, too. And koeksisters! Your appreciation of our country is truly heartwarming.
    I trust you did not intend to trivialise the lived experience of your hosts. Do take a moment to consider how different your article would have been if you were the one to take the wrong turn-off on your way from CPT international airport…

  • Colleen du Toit says:

    Mr Graven I suggest that rather than waste your money and energy on gracing South Africa with your presence and opinion again you just stay home in the US where there is zero ‘corruption’ – after all your president-elect Mr Trump is squeaky-clean; zero ‘crime’ – including no mass shootings of innocent children in school, police brutality and murder of innocent civilians – especially black people; and of course no ‘braaiboeps’ at all – I have noticed that all North Americans are very slender and completely health conscious and fit. Kindly keep your condescending opinions to yourself from now on – and as for all the South Africans who agree with Mr Graven’s opinions – SHAME on you – why not leave right now for greener pastures!!! (PS the last time I saw a ‘Peppermint Crisp’ dessert on any table in SA was in 1971!)

    • Kay CeeDee says:

      Funnily enough, we were served peppermint crisp pudding last night in a five-star hotel. I think you missed the entire point of this article too.

  • C Moola says:

    Bravo! It’s the kind of humour that sits lightly on the soul.

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