Monday, January 22, 2018

Squirrel Appreciation Day?

You're kidding, right? Nope. It is a thing. And Squirrel Appreciation Day was yesterday, as I discovered by chance, hours after putting this wheatgrass on the table in the garden, hoping to attract my favorite bird, Gordita, who was MIA... I was worried a cat might have got her.

So the squirrel showed up, instead, and nibbled the grass very neatly and quite adorably. I hate the squirrels. Most of the time. They eat my bulbs and mess with my seedlings. Tourists from squirrel-free countries love them, and stalk them in Central Park.

Back to Gordita. She is an eastern towhee, above (on the Unattractive Gray Concrete), and might be a juvenile he, but I've decided she's a she. We have gender neutral bird bathrooms, so it's not really an issue. She is a genuine American sparrow, unlike the imported and rowdy brown bunch that frequents our feeding area and throws tantrums in the wisteria vine. Compared with those trim house sparrows, the eastern Towhee is fat. Hence, Gordita. I adore her. She never flies away in a panic, like the stupid sparrows - just hops confidentially about, looking for food. She has an ascending, inquisitive, cheeeeap? And she is all alone. She has been here since December.

In the coldest days of January when we entered the realms of deep freeze, I gave the birds a daily warm bath. First, I melted the frozen bath in the kitchen sink, then topped it up. I know. Crazy bird lady. I like to watch. Even if they are boring sparrows and starlings. They loved it.

The Frenchman would worry about them. That their feathers would get wet and that they would freeze in mid flight. I researched bird circulation. Their feet are complicated.

The blue jays and cardinals visit, too. I am so used to them that I take them for granted. So Gordita, the first of her kind I have seen in the city, remains special.

But happy Squirrel Appreciation Day.

Come spring, I will want to kill them, again. I am always threatening to turn them into pâté...

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Join a Flower Tour to South Africa

Have you always wanted to visit South Africa, but been nervous about finding your way, or overwhelmed by the choices available, once on the ground?

Do you love flowers and plants, and floral design? How about food?

If you have been squirreling away funds for a special holiday - this could be it.

Fellow South African and New Yorker Sylvia Clow-Wilson has created an extremely well curated flora-forward tour to South Africa from March 12 - 21.

Sylvia is the proprietrix of Cape Lily, a floral design studio in Manhattan. Her tour partner is renowned floral designer Susan McLeary.

The flower focused itinerary kicks off after touchdown in Johannesburg with game viewing and accommodation at Black Rhino Game Lodge (above) in the Pilanesberg National Park, before moving south to gorgeous Cape Town for three nights.

Here you will meet local gin brewers and mixologists, and join Roushanna Gray for a Veld and Sea forage (see my Gardenista post about her immersive classes) and meal.

You will visit one of my favorite places in the world - Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden (above), and hike on Table Mountain, which is one of the natural wonders of the world - a wilderness within a city of millions, where you will encounter fynbos at foot level. Fynbos is a storied biome within the Cape Floristic Region, one of the six plant kingdoms on the planet. It is the smallest,  but the most diverse.

You travel to the stunning farm Babylonstoren (above) with its famed kitchen garden and restaurant.

You will enjoy lunch at Babel (above) before submerging yourselves in two full days indigenous floral design workshops with Susan.

The tour culminates in a Veld to Vase dinner hosted on Langkloof Rose Farm outside Wellington, under the beautiful southern African night sky

The tour cost is $5,875.00 and Sylvia is offering to include airfare (details when you get in touch with her). For a 20% discount enter the code FORAGE when booking.

South African Airlines currently has flights hovering in the $1,100.00 range, and Sylvia can also connect you to partner airlines. Everyone meets at OR Tambo International on March 21st before 2pm.

For more information, to talk to Sylvia directly (you will have questions), and to book, visit Cape Lily. Remember your FORAGE code!

(If you are concerned about the water crisis in Cape Town, you will be there for three nights and will follow the guidelines at your accommodation. Following them you will not be thirsty or dirty. The farms you will be staying at rely on borehole water, drawn from an aquifer, rather than the dams and reservoirs supplying city water.)

Monday, January 8, 2018

Mokala - thornveld, sunlight and space

I took remarkably few pictures while we stayed at Mokala, the newest in the collection South African National Parks (known as SAN Parks). Located fewer than 100 km southwest of Kimberly in the Northern Cape, visiting it felt like a gamble. The drive from the Eastern Cape and its green coastal thickets, through the wide and dry Karoo, was lengthy, there would be no exciting large predators (although I hoped to see the elusive black footed African cat, a little sweetie that looks just like a tabby house cat), we only had my cousin Andrea's well informed say-so for visiting, and I was nervous that it might not be worth the effort. The Frenchman has two weeks of vacation a year. They have to be good.

But my first impression of the suddenly changed landscape, which was about the time I snapped Picture No. 1, above, through the Landcruiser's window, was intense. "This is good," I thought. In the driver's seat, Vince was smiling. Praise the Cousin.

Every since we camped beneath the grand old camel thorns (Vachellia erioloba) of Namibia we have loved them. And Mokala was littered with these slow growing trees, acacia lookalikes whose dignified silhouettes sing Africa. Mokala is the Tswana word for camel thorn. Many southern Africans know the tree mostly as the best firewood - its hard wood burns long, hot, and beautifully, and our Namibian trips also yielded bags of camel thorn braaiwood, usually labeled kameeldoring - its Afrikaans name -  at every stop. I learned subsequently that the tree is protected. While you are allowed to collect and sell the wood with a permit, it is sometimes collected unscrupulously or illegally.

The last hour of our drive had been rough. After being snarled in consecutive Stop-Go's on the arterial N12, we left the tar road per my directions, deviating from Google's route suggestion, and choosing secondary dirt roads that were technically shorter, but whose corrugations were the worst we have ever encountered. If I had any fillings in my teeth they would have rattled right out. But at the very end we were rewarded with sand tracks like red velvet carpets. We had arrived.

We checked in at the main rest camp, a discretely designed collection of thatched buildings with impressive lightning conducting poles rising high above its rooves. This is thunderstorm country, but at the very tail end of winter the summer rains had not arrived, yet, and the veld was still brittle and blond. The warm and unaffectedly friendly greeting at reception was in stark contrast to the utter apathy we received all round at Addo Elephant National Park. It was such a relief.

From the main camp we drove slowly to our isolated cottage (also Cousin Recommended) several kilometers away, passing through a fascinating landscape pattern en route. Some of the national park is comprised of former farmland that had been over grazed. I assume this mysterious series of excavations is about soil rehabilitation. Make a hole, pile in brush, wait for rain, rain falls and gathers, collected seeds germinate, covering the exposed and vulnerable soil?

And then, late at the end of a long day, we were at our new home for three nights. Haak en Steek is a refurbished former hunting cabin overlooking a waterhole. No fencing, a warning about roaming rhino (they charge when upset), and a steenbokkie quietly grazing under the surrounding camel thorns. (Haak-en-steek is the Afrikaans common name for another tree, Acacia tortilis, with long white thorns.)

We unpacked the Landcruiser, made ourselves at home, poured the ritual gin and tonic, and took deep breathes of clean air. We kept our eyes peeled for buffalo (not an animal you want to surprise in the bush).

At Mokala you do the traditional park drive every day, choosing your route and stopping to look at the animals on the way. It is always like a treasure hunt. I left all the critter photography to Vince, content to drive or just look. There were many giraffes, and we saw rare antelope like tsessebe, roan and sable. My favorite animals were the little mongooses that lived near the house, and one evening an enormous hare with backlit pink ears sat tamely eating a blade of scarce green grass beside our porch. A sweet scent late one afternoon led me to the flowers above, belonging to a black thorn tree (Senegalia mellifera).

While Haak en Steek's location is stunning, the cottage itself needed - needs - some improvement.  I made the very simple move on day one of carrying outside two comfortable chairs (we took them in every evening to protect them from dew, and vervet monkeys). The only other seating outside was a trio of incongruous and very ugly picnic tables which would be better suited to a rest stop, rather than not-inexpensive accommodation, as well as a stack of even uglier cheap white plastic chairs. A place like this invites repose and contemplation, neither of which can be done from bad seating. Good outdoor furniture is essential, for practical as well as aesthetic reasons.

So there we sat under the camel thorns and their opening buds, and said and did very little.

Giraffes feed voraciously on these thorny branches. They must have interesting tongues and lips.

At the end of each day we sipped our drinks, resting on a borrowed riempie bench from inside. A herd of black wildebeest galloped into the dam one evening, stopped abruptly, dropped to its knees, drank from the trough of fresh borehole water that is provided in dry times, and galloped back out, like cowboys in a Western. We both burst out laughing. Another time we saw a male kudu drinking, once a trotting and thirsty jackal, often a lonely springbok, and every evening the bokkie eating fallen camel thorn blossoms under the trees.

I made roosterkoek one night, cooking the dough over the coals. 

While it baked I caught some cell signal on a high branch. How else was I supposed to post to Instagram?

The best way to eat hot roosterkoek is with butter and green fig preserve -thornveld hors d'oeuvres.

And while the next course of chops and boerewors grilled, its deliciously scented smoke wafting through the trees, we watched the sun go down, three nights in a row, and wished quietly for more.

So that is my Mokala post. Its brevity belies the place's special appeal. We loved every minute, despite some idiosyncracies. The cottage needs TLC, but the things that mattered were there: snow white linen, clean towels, a place to braai, friendly voices when you needed them, endless space, and the deep silence and crystal night sky that I will always, always associate with South Africa.