Sunday, September 29, 2019


On Instagram, in late August, my cousin Andrea posted a picture of a place. It was beautiful, and she sounded happy. I had just booked a last-minute ticket to Cape Town to see my mom. She sounded sad. I had plenty of work to do but all of it could be delivered remotely. Walks, talks, and classes requiring my physical presence only begin again in October. The Frenchman was very understanding. He always is.

The ticket gave me a month to be home with my mom and Selina, and I decided within hours of seeing Andy's picture that I would like to spend a couple of days at her spot, too. With friends or in silence. So in Brooklyn I tapped a touchpad and booked some Karoo emptiness, thousands of miles and two hemispheres away from teeming New York City.

A couple of weeks later my friends Jacqueline and Willemien, biologist and artist, were driving with me in Mogashagasha, the beloved Landcruiser, heading north into the edges of semi-desert Karoo from spring green Cape Town.

After leaving the N1 - the artery that connects Cape Town and Johannesburg - opposite Matjiesfontein we steered west on dirt roads, each smaller than the last. Several opened and carefully closed gates later we saw some sheep, and knew we were in the right place.

The biologist opened the last gate, and we were there. Almost. We passed neat staff quarters and our hosts' unoccupied stone farmhouse, and then bumped and rocked our way up the final narrow track.

Snyderskloof Cottage. The feathered branches of pepper trees (Schinus molle) blew in the afternoon wind.

Every inch of crushed shale and earth around the cottage was neatly raked.

A hammock rocked under the trees. A dipping pool and outdoor shower called, but the weather was too cold for them. We would be building fires, and I had ordered wood ahead of our arrival. Camelthorn stood stacked neatly in bags near the outdoor fire.

For a three-night, two-day stay we had come over-equipped with food, and could easily have opened a (really very good) pop-up cocktail bar with our collection of wines and hooches. We made ourselves at home.

The cottage has no electricity. This was part of the appeal, at least to people spoiled by the ease of switches and heat and floods of instant, effortless light. The kitchen had an efficient little two-burner gas range as well as an indoor fireplace large enough to cook on. There were many fresh candles in candle holders (I hate it when an old, melted candle greets you - very depressing) and polished oil lamps. And lots of back-up candles. There were plenty of matches. In fact everything we could have needed was there. Even the knives in the kitchen were sharp. This is unusual.

There was a lot of red. It could have been a disaster, but somehow it wasn't.

Two roomy bedrooms, good (and beautiful) linens, and lovely light. 

Willemien's digs were part of the living room or voorkamer - more like a sunroom, with the large fireplace at the opposite end. Somehow I missed getting a picture of Jacqueline's room. She had a particularly fluffy white duvet.

The traditional stoep was a deck with a wonderful view of the endlessness. In the mornings and evenings we watched interesting local rats scamper back and forth with bundles of bedding (grasses and leaves, not our sheets) in their mouths in the field below - Karoo bush rats. We saw some striped mice. We met the local birds: a tame robin chat,  a pair of southern grey tits, a posse of black headed canaries, and bulbuls. Naturally I set up a feeding station. At night we could turn on tiny, twinkly solar-powered fairy lights, not quite as bright as the Milky Way in the starred blackness above our heads.

We settled in. I worked on my local mixing skills. Jacqueline identified plants in her field guides.

The artist worked on a commission.

And I made fires. This simple trivet is brilliant.

We counted bunnies. This is just a fraction of the bunnies. A very small fraction.

There were bunnies everywhere. On the last day we saw bunnies we had not seen on the first.

                                                      We went for walks. 

                         The shale was incredible. Ancient mud. It built the cottage. 

From a distance the low Karoo shrubs are monotonous. Up close there is a lot going on. Pelargonium crithmifolium.

Cocktail hour came round again. I loved the pepper trees' fragrant leaves. The trees are synonymous with the Karoo, even though they are South American imports. They are often the lone tall green thing shading a roadside picnic table beside a road that ribbons into the shimmering horizon.

Rain arrived on our last day (an event in the dry Karoo). The weather turned snow-cold. 

On that last, chilly night, I cooked a lamb knuckle tagine indoors. 

And then it was time to leave. So we got a flat. At the last gate the air came hissing out of a back tyre like an angry snake. And to my disgust I found the tools had been left behind in Cape Town. How stupid. But luckily I had pumped the spare wheel before leaving - we had been warned of sharp stones.

Jacqueline, a veteran of field trips and the things can go wrong in the middle of nowhere, wisely counseled me to turn back toward the cottage, with a farm en route, rather than limping on to tiny Matjiesfontein, further away. We stopped on a ridge and I WhatsApp'd our host, Emmarie, far way in Cape Town. Despite being near nowhere we always had excellent reception. Emmarie immediately called back and then sent a very reassuring message with a set of three galloping horse emojis. Kerneels was on his way.

Kerneels and his wife Zelda live on site and take care of the cottage's needs. And apparently also city guests who can't change their own tyres. About ten minutes later, far in the distance, we saw a white shape with an encouraging plume of dust behind it. Kerneels in his bakkie, and really galloping.

He arrived with Ouboet and the two men got to work. Fast. They even repaired and pumped the punctured tyre - in case it happened again (please god, no).

It was a sobering and embarrassing experience for me. I do not see myself as the stereotypical and helpless female. But there I was. So I have some basic mechanical re-education to undergo. I just wish I could take M'gasha with me to New York to learn on her.

Before reaching the N1 again we stopped at a ridge that we had begun to explore the day before (see my previous post for some of our finds) - Jacqueline begged for 20 minutes - Willemien and I shivered in the car - and she came back with this gorgeous little Hermannia.

Back in Cape Town, friends dropped off,  I washed the 4 x 4 of the red dust and clay mud and vacuumed her.  My father always kept his cars impeccably clean, and the Frenchman and I have similar habits.

I took out her protective blankets and mats.

And then I found the hidden (dusty!) tool compartment. Complete with jack. 

The tools had been there, all the time.

That Brooklyn expression came to mind: 



Friday, September 27, 2019

Karoo Flowers

The flower spotting on our three-night Karoo wegbreek (escape) began from the car. I am usually the one hollering, Flower! or What's that? or just, Ooh! while the patient Frenchman slows, stops, and backs up to the desired spot. This time, because I was driving, it was Jacqueline-the-evolutionary-biologist-slash-closet-botanist spotting the blooms beside the road, and me slowing down and then reversing.

Beside the turn-off from the N1 (the tarred artery between Cape Town and Johannesburg) to Matjiesfontein, on our three-woman-way to the stone cottage at Snyderskloof, we found Moraea miniata.

After we had settled into our new home, we went for a walk up the dirt track behind the little cottage, into the low shale hills that provided the stone our walls were made of. Above, Cyanella growing right in the track.

Holothrix villosa, sheltering within the skeleton of a former bush. We saw dozens (of the orchids, but also dead bushes).

Monsonia (previously classified as Sarcocaulon), with silky, ephemeral flowers, spikily defended by sharp thorns. Flammable, apparently, and used as kindling. Its common name is bushman's candle.

Our walk gave us a wide view over our temporary homeland.

Jacqueline photographing Cyanella in a dry stream bed, stepped by shale.

It looks hot, but it was chilly. And within these apparently uniform sepia undulations, small botanical treasures.

Like Crassula tomentosa growing in the eroded bank of a seasonal stream - dry when we were there and probably only briefly in spate after serious rain.

Unsteady in the cold wind, tiny, ethereal Ixia rapunculoides.

And on another day, wandering on my own, I collected Pteronia incana (asbos in Afrikaans, meaning ash bush) - then unknown to me, but very appealing because of its intensely aromatic leaves; and Pentzia incana (the iconic and fragrant karoo bush) - both went into some juniper-forward and rather nice gin to make bitters for later vermouth.

On a drive back towards Matjiesfontein, the biologist begged to be let out near a rocky ridge. She found exquisite Aptosimum procumbens - the tiny Karoo violet. Last seen here and here.

And with a better sense of scale.

Ferraria crispa

And finally: Crassula columnaris. It flowers once in ten years. And then it dies.



Saturday, September 21, 2019

Flowers for all seasons

My story about how to have a flower-filled garden (almost) all year is in the spring edition of South Africa's Platteland magazine, available now. The double page spread above features - of course -  my mother's garden in Constantia.


Thursday, September 19, 2019


It's just a windmill, but close your eyes, and you can hear the sound of the Karoo. 


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Pride of Madeira

In my mother's Constantia garden the pride of Madeira, a Mediterranean native, is now a focal point. I don't recall having seen it in bloom, before. September in Cape Town is comparable to April in New York, in terms of stage-of-spring, although this Western Cape climate is Mediterannean, with wet winters (when all is well, and this winter it rained, at last) and dry summers.

Its botanical name is Echium candicans, and while it is a gorgeous garden plant it is potentially invasive in South Africa. Still, I have never seen a plant that attracts as many bees and other insects.

It is hard to stop taking pictures of it.

The clump planted at the edge of a bed is leaning sinuously.

And every flower is many flowers.

The garden is a daily delight, with all the plants, the view, dozes of birds and beautiful birdsong. After a short trip with friends to the Karoo last week (Snyderskloof, highly recommended) it is now back to work. Deadlines are pecking at my shoulders.