December 21, 2016

Public Transport

One thing South Africa doesn't do particularly well is public transport.

If you're an expat soon moving to South Africa, you might have come to this blog by way of Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa. There is a reason that article is so popular. Without a car, you're pretty much lost in Johannesburg, otherwise a world class city in many ways.

Granted, this has changed some with the arrival of Uber. It's like South Africa was the perfect match for it, with families experiencing a new kind of freedom as their teenagers can now come and go as they please without their parents having to worry about their safety.

Yet in a way Uber just proves the point: A lack of public transport plagues Johannesburg.

You might be forgiven to think, well, what do you expect, this is Africa. It can't be as efficient as the Western World. If you live in Europe, you may be right. But if you're American, not so fast, my friend. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate my point:

It's a cold Sunday morning a week before Christmas. What I would most love to do on a morning such as this is lounge in front of a crackling fire and read the New York Times, beginning to end.

What Jabulani, a high school senior just out of school for the Christmas holidays, wants to do this Sunday morning is visit his girlfriend in Chattanooga, a little under two hours from here. Since his siblings are still in school writing exams and will need the car, he was faced with the option of either staying home or taking the bus for the first time. He opted for the Megabus, departing Nashville at 10:10, corner of Charlotte and 5th Ave.

No problem, I say, let's take you there. I should be back by 10:30 to have my tea and paper.

Except the Megabus does not run like the trains in Europe. In fact, I'll take the Gautrain in Sandton any day over this sorry excuse for a bus line, both in terms of punctuality and comfort level.

The day already starts badly when we can't find the darn bus stop. Google does not seem to treat bus stops with the same kind of attention as it does actual buildings. Which is no surprise, given the dearth of bus stops in the United States.

We finally find it, just in the nick of time, and Jabulani shoulders his bag, waves good-bye, and disappears into the assembled Chattanooga-bound crowd. I linger. In typical American mom mode, I stay put. I realize how ridiculous that is, when in Germany my son would have been taking buses since the age of ten, going to all sorts of places amongst all sorts of strange people without any adult supervision. But here, in America, it is perfectly normal that an 18-year old has never traveled by bus in his entire life.

Megabus stops in the U.S. are not unlike minibus stops in South Africa. You show up
and hope for the best!

It's a good thing I stayed around, because the bus is nowhere to be seen. After about 30 minutes Jabulani appears back at my car, wanting to escape the deep-freeze outside. Simultaneously, the crowd begins to thin. Do they know something we don't? Where is the bus? Jabulani calls Megabus. Gets hung up on. Calls again. Is told 10-15 more minutes. After 20 minutes, he calls another time, finding out that the bus is actually delayed until 11:40. What now? Ranting and raving won't help, so we drive off to find some breakfast.

Nashville is deserted this bitter Sunday morning, but if you think that would make parking any easier, you're mistaken. We pull into a surface lot, walk up to the machine for a ticket, and learn that it's $18 for a minimum of two hours. Seeing a the entire bus ticket is only $16, which was the main attraction of the Megabus as an alternative to taking the car, we politely decline and drive off again.

I remember the public library. It has parking. It's not far from where we are, and indeed offers parking in a nice garage for $1.50 the first 30 minutes. I have never understood how this huge gap can exist in Nashville's parking scene without market forces somehow leveling this gap, but am quite happy it exists on this increasingly annoying Sunday morning.

The Starbucks we spill into minutes later is tiny. It has exactly seven seats, five of which are occupied. How lucky. Except once we settle into the two remaining seats with our steaming cups, the man next to us starts speaking in a loud voice. Looking like a homeless person, but one who owns a laptop that he is at this moment hunched over, with headphones on, he begins to... preach a sermon! Or something like that, it's too strange to repeat. He sounds a little like one of those guys walking the streets of New York City with a big sign yelling "the end of the world is near!" The weirdest part about it is that the other patrons seem oblivious. Like only we can hear him, and no one else.

We gulp down our drinks and polish off our sandwiches, trying not to ogle the other, equally colorful occupants of the coffee shop too much while our preacher's sing-song baritone booms in the background, and then we figure it's time to get back to the bus.

Hallelujah, this time it is here. We are early, it's only 11:30, but from about three stoplights away we can see that the line is getting shorter as people are boarding. What the hell, it might actually leave without Jabulani if these lights don't start turning green anytime soon!

Just in the nick of time he makes it. I'm about to text home that we have had success and that he is boarding, when I see him approach again in confusion. It's the Atlanta bus, he tells me, defeated, while I'm busy arguing with a cop who has appeared out of nowhere and takes issue with my illegally stopped car.

"Are you crazy?" I say (not to the cop, but to Jabulani, after I've pulled into another illegal spot farther away from the cop.) "You better get back on before it leaves. Last time I checked, Chattanooga was on the way to Atlanta." Had I not been there, the hovering mother to educate her public transport uninitiated child on the intricacies of North American geography, he would be standing there still. The good news is, he didn't get mugged or kidnapped that day. As menacing as that bus stop crowd had looked to one who'd never taken a bus in their life, they seemed to mostly mind their own business as soon as they'd found their seats, eyes on phone displays and earbuds firmly plugged into their ear canals.

It was 12:30 pm before I was back at home. Only slightly earlier than if I had just driven straight to Chattanooga and back. I might have missed the Sunday paper, but I came home with something better: A good story to tell.

Welcome to public transport in America.

So.... My point is, before you diss South Africa about the lack of buses to take you places, ask yourself when you've last ridden a bus in your home country, and whether it left on time.

If you call the United States of America your home, the answers might not be very flattering.

You might also like:

Is There Public Transport in South Africa?
Joburg Traffic

December 15, 2016

A Great Way to Explore Johannesburg

Vibescout Johannesburg Events

When you're new to Johannesburg, it's great to have a good to-do list to start out with. And I don't mean the kind of list telling you to call Eskom to set up your electricity (or, most likely to complain about an error on your bill) or calling the City of Joburg to alert them about the broken robot at the nearest intersection. We all have those lists and know that they are terrible and never go away.

What I'm talking about is a list telling you about all the exciting things you can do in the sprawling city you now call home, so that you can dive right in and get to know it. Joburg teems with exciting happenings at any given time, and the sooner you start, the more you'll fall in love with this young and vibrant city.A bit farther down I'll tell you about a great new tool to get real-time news about what's happening in Joburg. But let's go over the must-see sights first. In What To Do in Joburg you'll find a comprehensive list, but here is a quick summary depending on your area of interest:

Apartheid Museum

History and Culture

Your list should include the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Memorial, Mandela House, Walter Sisulu Square, and Regina Mundi Church, all of them in Soweto. Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia is offers another great history lesson. Or Kruger House Museum in Pretoria a bit farther afield.
Graffiti Tour with Past Experiences

On Foot

If you’re adventurous, go on a graffiti walking tour with Past Experiences, join Dlala Nje's Streets of Hillbrow. or go on MainStreetWalk's Underground Pub Crawl. Join the Joburg Photowalkers on one of their Sunday walks, or find a tour that ventures into Alexandra, one of the most infamous (and historic) townships in the area.

With Children

If you have kids or are adventurous yourself, start with Gold Reef City, the Bird Gardens at Montecasino, the Maropeng Visitor Centre and Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind, JoziX, which is a bit like the TV Show Wipeout, the Magaliesberg Canopy Tour, and Avalanche, an artificial ski slope.
Elephant Sanctuary


The best way to see animals is to venture into Joburg's surroundings for the Elephant Sanctuary or the Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary near Hartbeespoort Dam, or the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt. Less than two hours away, you can explore Pilanesberg National Park in your own car and see the Big Five in their natural habitat.
Dainfern Square


Johannesburg, more than any other African city, is for shoppers. People still flock from all over the continent to stock up in a place that seemingly has it all. Don't miss Sandton City, the new Mall of Africa, Rosebank Rooftop Market on a Sunday, Bryanston Organic Market, and Dainfern Square.
View from Northcliff Hill

Enjoy the View

Be sure to drive up to Northcliff Hill, Johannesburg's 2nd highest point. Another great view can be had from the top of the Carlton Centre, the Soweto Water Towers (which you can also bungy-jump off of!), the balloon at Montecasino, or the Melville Koppies.

Introducing VibeScout

All the above are mostly places any well-read tourist will know about. What if there was a way to get the true vibe of Johannesburg, by diving right into the scene whenever things are happening in one of its many suburbs? What if you knew about more authentic local experiences you could join, like live music, a food festival, an art exhibition, or anything else that is going on at this very moment in Johannesburg? 

I've recently come across a service that is right on the pulse of these happenings in Joburg. VibeScout is a new tool that brings you fun things to do in Johannesburg (as well as other metropolitan areas like Pretoria and Cape Town). It's a cool and completely free and easy to navigate entertainment guide for Johannesburg created by brothers Paul and Jonathan Myburgh. On VibeScout, you'll find events as varied as this week's Holiday crafts and animal feeding event for kids at the Johannesburg Zoo, the African Summer Christmas Picnic featuring iced drinks, a band, and African-inspired carols at Joziburg Lane, or if you're lucky a raffle of free Johnny Clegg tickets for the first 100 patrons registering for one of his outdoor concerts on Facebook.

To find out more about how VibeScout came about and what new features it has in store, read the back story here.

I hope you'll give VibeScout a try (make sure you also check it out before your next trip to Cape Town, Durban, or Stellenbosch). The sooner you start diving into the street scene of Jozi, the City of Gold, the sooner you'll hopelessly fall in love with it like so many who have gone before you. Trust me on this.

This post was sponsored by VibeScout; opinions expressed are entirely my own.

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December 5, 2016

Top Five Ways to Prepare for Your Health When Moving to South Africa

Like most expats, I'm big on lists. When you have moved across continents with a family in tow, you learn to live by a ginormous checklist to keep your hectic life organized. 

The problem with lists is that you never prioritize them properly. Things that are most decidedly not a matter of life and death are invariably at the top. Finding an internet provider so that your kids don't have to go without Snapchat for a minute too long, assembling the paperwork for your Traffic Register Number, booking your first safari because you can't wait to find out what the big fuss is about the Big Five - those are most likely the issues you're grappling with during your first week in South Africa.

The topic that actually can be a matter of life and death - your health - often gets pushed further down the totem pole.  

It happened to me after just a few weeks in South Africa. I brought back tick bite fever from our first foray into the Waterberg, and I was so miserable I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I had no idea what ailed me or where to go for relief. While you'll be happy you did prioritize the internet connection so that you can research doctors online, it's no joy doing it while your head feels like it's split open by a cleaver. Much better to have all your healthcare ducks in a row before disaster strikes.

Here are the top five ways you should prepare for your health when moving to South Africa:

1. Diseases and immunizations

The good news is, South Africa isn't a particularly disease-ridden country. But you need to be aware of what lurks out there so you can be prepared. And you need to be up-to-date on your immunizations.

Let's start with the aforementioned tick bite fever. As the name suggests, it's transmitted by ticks. But unlike its ugly American cousin, Lyme disease, it's relatively harmless and can be treated with antibiotics. When you go hiking in the bush in the wet season, wear long pants to protect against tick bites. Some seasoned Africa travelers often carry antibiotics with them just in case they're needed when there is no access to doctors, but it's never a good idea to take them preventively. Also note that pets can be infected by tick bite fever as well, so treat your cats and dogs against fleas and ticks regularly.

Malaria is practically non-existent in South Africa. If you go to Kruger Park during summer from October to March, you should consider taking malaria prophylaxis such as Malanil (or Malarone in the U.S.). Other than that, South Africa is malaria-free year-round. 

You will need immunizations for Hepatitis B, DTP, MMR, and Polio before moving to South Africa. Hepatitis A is recommended but not required. (If  you travel to a yellow fever risk area outside the country, such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Kenya, see a doctor before you leave to obtain a certificate.)

In rural areas, you might be exposed to typhoid fever, cholera, and rabies - take the necessary precautions before prolonged stays in such parts. If you're not in South Africa for missionary or humanitarian work, most likely you will live in a metropolitan area and this will be of no concern to you. 

The tap water in South Africa is absolutely safe to drink and quite delicious.

HIV/AIDS poses a very small risk for expats. If you have small children and consider employing a nanny, tuberculosis is a larger risk factor. It is recommended to request TB screenings before hiring domestic help (maid referral services typically provide them).

2. Health insurance

Don't go to South Africa without having researched and obtained the proper health insurance, or medical aid, as South Africans call it.

Many expats have a global health plan that allows them to keep the same insurer as they go from one assignment to the next. In that case, you usually pay for your medical bills up front and claim your refund later by providing the invoice. 

Local medical aid plans likely offer better rates - with the exception of orthodontists, doctor and hospital fees are generally much lower in South Africa than in many Western countries - and let you avoid having to pay upfront, but if you're expecting to move again in the not too distant future, having to switch plans again might be cumbersome.

Your best option might be a combination of the two, like Hollard Cigna Health, a partnership between local underwriter Hollard and global health service provider Cigna, offering you both local know-how and global reach. This merger hadn't happened at the time we lived in South Africa so I don't have first-hand experience, but we did use Hollard to cover our house inventory and car insurance, and were very happy with their prompt and professional service. 

Make sure you research your options while you plan your move and set up an appointment with a local broker for your first week in South Africa if you haven't already obtained coverage before your move.

3. Doctors and emergency rooms

Your first week in South Africa, you should set aside time to research both nearby doctors’ offices and hospitals. 

For any check-ups and minor problems such as colds and immunizations, your entire family will see a general practitioner or family doctor. Intercare, which operates offices around the country and offers a wide range of medical services such as prenatal care, psychiatry, dentistry, surgery, a travel clinic and x-ray labs all under one roof, is a solid choice if you're looking for a larger practice. However, there are also many 1-person doctor's offices that provide excellent care. Asking your neighbors and fellow school parents where they go is a good strategy, but try to stay relatively close to home as traffic can make your commute very lengthy. 

If you need a specialist, you will most likely find them associated with a hospital.

See the scar on Sunshine's forehead. Stitches courtesy of Life Fourways Hospital. 

Jabulani's arm  operated on at Mulbarton Hospital, then plates removed at Life Fourways.

The level of training and care at South Africa’s private hospitals is excellent. There are three major private healthcare providers: Life Healthcare, Netcare, and Medi-Clinic, each with a number of branches in the major metropolitan areas. All of these have excellent reputations and offer world-class care. Again, pick one close to where you live and make that your go-to place for emergencies. We lived in the Dainfern area and were very happy with the convenience as well as service at Life Fourways.

If you don't have local medical aid, make sure you bring a credit card (preferably not AMEX) when checking in at a private hospital. You might have to pay each service separately, like x-rays, blood work, doctor, or anesthesiologist. Insist on a detailed receipt to submit to your health insurance. We've had to chase South Africa’s bureaucracy for receipts after the fact and it's no cakewalk. If you schedule a larger procedure ahead of time, try to get approval from your healthcare provider beforehand.

Please note that the above advice is geared toward private hospitals. Even though some South African government hospitals are internationally acclaimed and well-known for their research – let's not forget that the first human heart transplant in the world was performed by Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in 1967 – be mindful that service quality tends to be lower than at private facilities.

4. Pharmacies

First, the terminology. You won't get far with "drug store" when looking for one. "Chemist” is what drugstores or pharmacies are called in South Africa. The major chemist chains are Dis-Chem, Clicks and MediRite. Clicks outlets are often conveniently located right next to an Intercare practice so that you can pick up your drugs right after seeing the doctor. MediRite pharmacies can often be found in Shoprite and Checkers stores. Dis-Chem is the nicest of them all and the closest to an American CVS or Walgreens, often offering additional services like mail-order and courier delivery, clinics and vision screenings.

Your first week in South Africa, make a point of visiting all three chains so you know what they carry. I ran around frantically the first few weeks looking for night lights and an electric toothbrush charger. I felt such relief flooding through me when I finally discovered them at Dis-Chem which sells more or less everything from vitamins to bags of dried mango to small appliances. 

The fun part when going to a chemist in South Africa is the little metal cage. You go to the counter - even for non-prescription drugs - and ask for antibiotic cream and ear drops. The pharmacist will pull them from the shelf and drop everything into a small lunch-box sized metal cage and seal it with a zip-tie. You then wander through the store doing the rest of your errands, feeling a bit weird with your cage like Harry Potter carrying Hedwig to the Hogwarts Express, but you take comfort in the fact that everyone else carries the silly little cage too. At the cash register, the seal is broken and your items released so you can pay for them. Quaint.

5. Emergency phone numbers

I don't think I've ever lived in a country with so many emergency phone numbers as South Africa. Writing them all down the very first day you arrive in the country and posting them in a central location is an absolute must. 

"Call 911" is something you and your kids will have to get out of your head when living in South Africa. Many cities have different numbers for police, fire, and medical emergencies. However, if you are calling from a mobile phone the universal number for all emergencies is 112 - make sure to program it into everyone’s mobile phone the first day. While you're at it, locate your emergency room of choice from above and save it in your Google Maps.

In addition, there are two major private ambulance services: Netcare 911 and ER24 (owned by Medi-Clinic). It is best to call them directly should you need an ambulance.

If  you live in an estate, you might also write down the number of the gate, as the guards are often the quickest to arrive and can give assistance for minor emergencies. 

Here is a list of South African Emergency Numbers:

ER24 084 124
Netcare911 082 911

Police/Fire (this might vary by city)
From home phone 10111
From mobile 112

National Poison Control
0861 555 777

Being well prepared in the event of an emergency is a little bit like carrying an umbrella: Having it with you, according to Murphy's Law, pretty much guarantees it'll never rain. So go ahead and follow the above steps so that your time in South Africa can be spent on safari and not in the emergency room.

For more information on immunizations, diseases, and medications, read this follow-up blog post on health in South Africa.

This post was sponsored by Hollard Cigna Health, but opinions expressed are entirely my own. Click here to learn more about their affordable, comprehensive health insurance plans. 

November 22, 2016

Exclusive: Interview with Tony Park, Africa's "New Wilbur Smith"

Tony Park, Author
Learn more at
As you well know, all things expat are my passion, especially when pertaining to South Africa. Books and writing are my other passion. When these two worlds overlap, I'm in heaven.

So perhaps you can imagine my excitement when Tony Park - who has been hailed as Africa's next Wilbur Smith - agreed to give an interview and have it published right here on Joburg Expat!

Tony Park is an Australian author who writes novels set in southern Africa, with a focus on South Africa. His books are sold around the world with two, Ivory and The Delta, so far available in the U.S.  (However, I've been able to buy three others, African Dawn, African Sky, and The Hunter via Amazon 3rd party sellers.) He recently launched his 13th novel, Red Earth, which is set in KwaZulu Natal. He is an expat of sorts, spending six months of every year in Africa where he has a house near the Kruger Park, and the remainder of the year in Sydney.

I hope you'll pour yourself a cup of coffee or Rooibos tea, sit back, and enjoy reading what Tony has to say about the inspiration for his novels, how he likes to spend a Saturday afternoon, his favorite "This is Africa" moment, and why "now now" gets him into fights with his editor. And oh, I'll be raffling away a copy of The Delta among those of you who leave comments and questions for Tony, so don't be shy! I promise you The Delta makes for great beach reading with the school holidays looming.

Joburg Expat: How (and when) did you come to South Africa for the first time, and what made you fall in love with it?

Tony Park: My wife Nicola, the planner in our relationship, decided in 1995 that we would go for a once-in-a-lifetime safari to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. That one-off trip proved to be anything but.  Within the first few days of arriving in South Africa we were bitten by something, drank something, or breathed something in - but the continent hooked us. I guess it was a combination of the amazing wildlife, incredible scenery and the fascinating stories that everyone seemed to have that made us book our second trip to Africa before that first one was over. With the exception of 2002, when I was called on to serve with the Australian Army in Afghanistan (I’m an army reservist), we’ve been back to Africa every year since.

JE: Ha! If it weren't for our spouses, we writers would never go to the places we need to see so we can write about them! Were you a writer before coming to SA or did SA inspire your writing career?

TP: Ever since I was a little kid the one thing in life I always wanted to do was write a novel. Around the time of my first or second trip to Africa I left my full time job in public relations to try and write a novel. I wrote a turkey of a book set in the Australian outback and fortunately that manuscript never saw the light of day. It was dreadful. It was on our third trip to Africa, a four-month self drive safari, that I sat down to try and write a book again, and it was then and there that I found my inspiration, my ‘muse’, Africa.

JE: You are killing me! As a fellow author, but one who had no aspirations to write books when I was a little kid, I somehow always feel envious when others say that. though I'm a bit mollified about the "dreadful manuscript":-) What do you love most about Africa?

Every Day is a New Adventure

Tony with a hand reared young black rhino at a rhino breeding facility in Zimbabwe that gave
him the inspiration for hisbook African Dawn, about rhino poaching.

TP: The unpredictability.  Good, bad or otherwise, every day is a new adventure.  That goes for game drives in the bush - you never know, literally, what’s lurking just around the corner - and for life in general.  Countries that were doing quite well when we first visited in 1995  - Zimbabwe is a case in point - are a basket case now, but on the upside, places that were war zones or devastated by tragedy 21 years ago are thriving, go-ahead places today.  I’m a positive person and I see no end of evidence of the indomitable human spirit on my travels in Africa.

JE: Are your characters inspired by real people you know?

TP: No, the characters per se in my books are not inspired by real people but some of the things my fictional characters go through are based on real events and real stories told to me by people I’ve met.

JE: Many of your characters are the adventurer types who don't always play by the rules and know how to wield an automatic weapon - where have you learned so much about guns and explosives?

TP: I served with the Australian Army in Afghanistan in 2002 as a public affairs officer. I was called up from the army reserve to full time service - what the American Armed Forces calls active duty. My 34-odd years in the army, part time, have exposed me to some interesting stuff. I’m not a man of action myself, but to paraphrase one of the characters from Stephen E. Ambrose’s ‘Band of Brothers’, I had the privilege of serving in the company of some real life heroes. I learned a lot from the people I served with.

JE: This is a more geeky question I hope my readers will excuse, but I'm always curious about other writers' source of inspiration. Where do your best ideas come from, and how do you go about putting them into your books - i.e. is it a very methodical approach with an overview first, then chapter by chapter fleshing out of the storyline, or do you just get struck by an idea and write down that scene and build the rest around it later?

TP: My ideas come from newspaper articles I’ve read in South Africa, from conversations I’ve had with people around the braai, or, in the case of my latest book, Red Earth, from one of my readers. I have a friend and reader named Andre Botha who is the head of the Birds of Prey conservation program for South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust.  He suggested I write a novel that touched on the plight of Africa’s critically endangered vultures.  (Vultures are killed for use in traditional medicine, thanks to a mistaken belief that they bring good luck, and poisoned by poachers because vultures act as an early warning system for national parks rangers who are drawn to freshly killed rhinos and elephants by the vultures.)

JE: That's fascinating! Who would have thought vultures are endangered? So how does a book come to life from a suggestion like that?

TP: Once I have a basic premise, such as ‘guy in the bush researching vultures,’ I then sit down, open my laptop and start writing a new book. I do not have a plot or overview first - I’ve found from experience I can’t work that way - so I simply make up the story and the characters as I go along. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow when writing a new book any more than I know how the story will end. Not everyone writes this way, but it’s what works for me.

JE: Thank God! I was secretly hoping you'd say this, versus telling me about binders full of character studies. What do you do to get new material for your books?

The Best Way for Me to Research and Write My Books is On Location

Tony "on location" in Zimbabwe. God, I'm jealous!

TP: I’ve found that the best way for me to research and write my books is to do it ‘on location’.  As I’m not from here, I have no residual knowledge of the countries I write about, and rather than Googling information I find it’s much more fun (and a great excuse to travel) to spend time in the places I’m writing about and draw inspiration from the people, landscapes and wildlife.

JE: Where is the next place you'd like to visit?

TP: My wife and I just did a seven week road trip from South Africa to Tanzania and back in our Land Rover. We did 11,000 km on atrocious roads so at the moment I’m not planning on going anywhere for a while! Seriously, we were very impressed with Zambia, a country that was well and truly on the skids when we first visited in 1998, but today, after a few years of stable government and an influx of displaced farmers from Zimbabwe, is looking fantastic. I have a hankering to visit the Liuwa Plains in Zambia, the site of the second biggest animal migration in Africa.

JE: Aha! So might we see Dusty Plains next in the bookstores? Coming up with book titles is agony to me, especially short ones like yours. Speaking of agony, do you ever get writer's block?

TP: I find that it’s almost impossible to get writer’s block in Africa. If I ever get stuck for something to write I just look around me, pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio, and I’ll get a dozen or more bizarre ideas for plot twists!

JE: That's for sure. Africa was a blogger's dream. Shifting gears a little bit: What do you like to do on a rainy Saturday?

TP: I love to read.  I spend so much time in between writing with re-reading and editing my manuscripts that I don’t get as much time as I’d like to read other authors’ work. I grab any chance I can get.

JE: You're sometimes called "the next Wilbur Smith" - have you read his books and what would you say to that?

TP: I’m happy to be compared to a man who is incredibly successful with a following around the world. I’m a fan of Wilbur’s earlier, stand-alone books, which tended to be snapshots of Africa at the time he was writing them. I think if people like his stuff from the 70s and 80s they might find something of interest in my books. I didn’t actually start reading his books until after I was published and travelling more in Africa. I like to say that the two major differences between me and Wilbur are about 35 books (though I’m catching up), and $35 million.

JE: Ha! One book at a time, right? What's your favorite novel set in Africa? Favorite author?

TP: Hold my Hand I’m Dying, by the late, truly great, John Gordon-Davis. It’s set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the bush war.  I love that book and loved all his novels.

JE: Whatever one can say about Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, it has given the world some of the best literature! Changing track a little bit again... Rumor has it you live in one of those "wildlife estates" near Kruger Park; what can you tell us about that? Is it as awesome as it sounds?

We Have a Resident Leopard Who Sneaks Around Our House

Tony Park on the banks of the Sabie River on the border of Kruger, near his house

TP: Yes, I do. And yes it is as awesome as it sounds. My wife and I bought a house in a small game reserve that joins on to the Kruger Park. We have sundowners every day on the Sabie River, looking into Kruger, and we regularly see all the Big Five and much more. We have a resident leopard who sneaks around our house - I’ve caught her on my infrared camera trap again, but when the bushbuck bark and the baboons yell out their signature ‘WA-HOO’ alarm call, you know the neighbourhood cat’s out there somewhere.

JE: Are there many other expats in your area?

TP: Most of the owners on our estate are South Africans, but we do have a small, active community of expats. We have other friends from Australia and there are also people from Holland, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Nicola and I were recently featured on the U.S. reality TV show, Househunters International Off the Grid, talking about how we found our house in South Africa, so we’re bracing for some new neighbours from around the world!

JE: Everyone moving to Africa has their "This is Africa" moment, as in "I can't believe this is happening but it IS kind of quaint." What was yours about?

TP: I think that when we were buying our house in Africa our best TIA moment was when we first saw a copy of the title deeds to our house. As well as the person we were buying the property from there was another name on the deed, as a joint owner, and we had never heard of this problem. The advocate (lawyer) handling the sale said, “don’t worry about that, it’s just a mistake. It happens all the time. It will be fixed.” We had a minor melt down, but it turns out he was right!

JE: Sounds just like the meltdown my husband had when handing over a few hundred thousand rand and not receiving a title deed for the car. Could you see yourself moving back to Australia full-time? What would be the biggest culture shock when moving back?

TP: I think we’ve got a good balance, living half the year in Africa and half the year in Australia. Not only are we on different continents, making the most of what both have to offer, our lifestyles are very different. In Australia we are very much ‘city people’, living in an apartment in Sydney, a beautiful harbour city with beaches, restaurants and bars close by, while in South Africa we are ‘bush’ people, enjoying the peace and solitude of the natural environment. The biggest culture shock I find when I return to Australia, is that drivers actually stop for you when you cross the road at a pedestrian crossing!

JE: What's your favorite South African food?

TP: Biltong. I’m an addict and can’t get enough of it.

JE: That reminds me I have yet to use my biltong maker I purchased and hauled back from my last South Africa trip! One last question: How would you explain to an outsider what, exactly, "just now" means?

TP: Ha ha. Just now means sometime between half an hour and six weeks. I also like ‘now now’, although whenever I have a character say that in one of my novels my editor wants to chop off the second ‘now’! I have to explain to her that it’s an essential term that should be introduced to the rest of the world.

JE: Very essential! And this concludes my interview. Thank you so much for your time, Tony, and best of luck on your quest to catch up with Wilbur Smith - I'm rooting for you!

To learn more about Tony Park, visit his author website or his Facebook Page. And now now, make sure you leave a question or comment in order to be eligible for our drawing of The Delta!

November 14, 2016

Whales, Khoi-San, and Chardonnay: Getaway to South Africa’s Wild Coast (Part Two)

Part One of the story of our Wild Coast Meander brought us all the way to Wavecrest Beach on the evening of our second leg, with my husband staring at the boulder in his hand and cursing our friend Mike with a string of expletives I won’t repeat here. Because no doubt it had been he who had planted the rock in Noisette’ backpack while we all took short naps during our lunch break.

I can only imagine the glee he must have felt when he shouldered his daypack and loudly announced to no one in particular: “Funny how these feel heavier than before lunch!” We should have known then that he was up to no good.

Noisette, not to be outdone, spent a considerable amount of energy on cooking up schemes to get back at his tormentor. The next morning Mike came to find his shoes tied to a fencepost with remarkable patience, and he would finish the day soaked to the bone after a river crossing where Noisette scouted out the surroundings, stripped to his boxers for a swim, and pounced on Mike’s canoe once it was safely in the middle of the stream.

Serenity: Sunset at Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa

Perhaps I remember Wavecrest Hotel and Spa as the nicest of our hike simply because it was such a welcome sight after a brutal day of battling the elements. Perhaps any old hut would have done. But to me, its unique location with the ocean on the right, rolling green hills on the left, the river flanked by mangrove swamps before us, and the vast expanse of the beach beyond, left nothing to be desired from life.

A quick note about the Wild Coast Meander hotels:

Kob Inn, located approximately three hours Northeast of East London, is where you begin your hike. Offers many activities like tennis, mountain biking, horse riding, boating.

Mazeppa Bay Hotel is tucked among lush tropical plants in a gorgeous setting. Amenities include swimming pool, tennis court, trampoline, beach volleyball, and a private island with suspension bridge. 

Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa sits on the banks of an inlet with a mangrove-lined  lagoon on one side and an expanse of beach and rolling dunes on the other. Best features: outdoor jacuzzi, cappuccino maker, and full spa offering massages.

Trennery’s Hotel has an African ambiance. Rooms are white-washed, thatch-roofed chalets tucked under indigenous trees, and dinner is served off the braai.

Morgan Bay is a good spot to add another day when traveling with family, as it features large 3-room suites sleeping six, and a number of activities, but it is less secluded than the other hotels.

The Wild Coast Meander can be booked through Helen Ross at Wild Coast Holiday Reservations:

P O Box 8017 Nahoon
East London
Tel  043 7436181
Fax 043 7436188
If our plans had allowed for it, I would have liked nothing more than to stretch out on a chair in front of our thatch-covered cottage and stare into the paradise spread out at my feet. And oh, I might be a bit biased by virtue of the full-fledged cappuccino machine on the premises.

Beaches, beautiful as they are, can become a bit dull after days on end walking along them and taking a gazillion pictures from every possible angle. So it was a welcome change of scenery when the next day our guide, Alex, took us inland for a shortcut through dense tropical forest. He pointed out birds and animal tracks, gave us a lecture about a tree whose fruit, I seem to remember, the locals called White Woman’s Titty (but I can’t be sure), and stopped to dig under a bush to reveal a “miden,”a substantial mound of seashells discarded by the Khoi-San Bushmen who roamed this land in ancient times. One time he relegated us to a stanza of the “Tongue Clicking Song,” a must when traveling in Xhosa territory.

But by far the best application of Alex's knowledge and craftiness was on display when he purchased a bucket of oysters from a local fisherman for a pittance. I'm no big fan of oysters, but Noisette claims they were the best oysters he has ever had.

The Wild Coast is not so much wild because of its untamed wilderness, but rather because it has never been developed. What was formerly the nominally independent Republic of the Transkei, one of the “bantustans” or homelands established by the South African apartheid regime to foster their policy of “separate development,” is now part of the Eastern Cape, a rural and impoverished area of the country.

Much of the farmland along the Wild Coast is held as communal property by the Xhosa tribe and can only be leased but not purchased by private citizens, which is why commercial development is practically nonexistent. The notable exceptions are the very hotels we rested in along the way, spaced so far apart that you won’t encounter a soul when hiking from one to the other.

The only signs of human habitation were occasional rondavels on distant hillsides – what a spectacular view these modest dwellings came with! – and the sad remains of a ship one wrecked on this coast. If you live in those parts, you earn your keep by herding cows, acting as guides or selling beaded jewelry to groups like ours,  or working as a ferryman operating ancient canoes across the many rivers and collecting ZAR 2  (15 cents) as their fare.

This is Gladys, who was selling beaded necklaces and other trinkets at Kob Inn. I purchased
a Christmas ornament and some ankle bracelets for our girls from her.

The last two days of our hike are a bit of a blur to me. More pastures, more cows, more picturesque beaches with breakers pounding onto the rocks and miles and miles of sand under a warm but never too hot sun.

Trennery’s Hotel, the second to last of the hotels, was beautiful in its own way, an oasis of green lawn surrounded by African bush with yet another gorgeous view. Morgan Bay feels more like a true resort with all the amenities it offers and definitely marks the end of the hike in that it brings you back to civilization and hence bigger vacation-going crowds. For some reason I remember the bars at those last two stops most fondly, but this could be due to the fact that over almost a week of hiking together, our group had grown very close and the jokes and insults were flying – preferably over more than one bottle of Chardonnay.

Our porters on the 2nd day. Porters changed daily, hiking back to their starting points after delivering
our bags and collecting their payment. On long stretches they changed over midway.

The typical vast expanses of beach during the Wild Coast Meander

Yet another beach

This beach was the home stretch coming towards Morgan Bay

Our suite at Morgan Bay: You can glimpse the edge o the bed in the next room, and another
one beyond that one. We could have moved in with our entire family for a week.

The view backward to where we came from as seen from our room at Morgan Bay Hotel

By the way, when we added and divided our entire group’s bill for drinks, boat rides, and – yes! – massages at the end of the week, it came to under $100 per person. Travel in South Africa, once you’ve paid for the flight to get there, is laughably affordable.

One of the biggest pleasures of our hike was the gratuitous whale watching from almost every vantage point. Whenever you managed to take your eyes off the molehills or boulders in front of you and turn them to the horizon, you’d glimpse a big splash of a fluke or spray of mist shooting up into the air. Our South African friends who remembered vacationing there as children were certain there had been no whales in those days. Even though whaling was banned by South Africa as far back as 1935, it has taken this long for Southern right whales and humpbacks to make these waters their breeding grounds again.

When the end of our Meander approached after a rather modest 56 kilometers, we all agreed that we’d happily continue to walk all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to the windswept Skeleton Coast of Namibia, especially if we’d continue to be wined and dined like royalty and trailing our entourage of porters.

I’m definitely a convert to the slackpacking cause. We will just pay better attention to stray boulders in our packs the next time.


And now, the moment my husband had so meticulously planned to avenge the indignity of the boulder in his backpack:

Here you can see Mike hijacking the Xhosa tongue clicking song to show off his African dance moves:

November 7, 2016

Sun, Wind, and Cows on Beaches: An Unforgettable Hike along South Africa’s Wild Coast (Part One)

When we – reluctantly – left Johannesburg in early 2013, I knew we had made the most of our three years in Africa. We had seen the continent up and down from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope and East to West from Pemba Beach in Mozambique to Swakopmund in Namibia. We had been to its highest peak in Tanzania and into the deepest sea when diving in Zanzibar. It’s hard to imagine that we could have squeezed even one more week of exploration into our busy lives.

And yet I always regretted never having seen the Wild Coast, that fabled place that conjured images of Where The Wild Things Are in my mind’s eye. I still keep a copy of the children’s classic by Maurice Sendak on my bookshelf, dog-eared and well-worn. I suppose I must have always had a yearning for adventures to parts unknown, even if scary things might lurk around the corner.

Imagine my delight this past July when out of the blue we received a phone call from our South African friends. Two spots had opened up in their group going on the Wild Coast Meander a mere three weeks later, and would we be interested in joining?

Not typically ones to make quick plans, we dropped everything and booked our flights via Atlanta to Johannesburg. Our kids were old enough to stay on their own for 10 days, we reasoned, and so we brushed away any feelings of guilt or worry. The Wild Coast was calling!

I’ve always said that nowhere but Africa are you so pampered when embarking into the wilderness, and this is very true for the Wild Coast too. The name might make you think of deserted landscapes and rugged terrain to be conquered by sheer power of will, but in reality porters would be carrying our bags and we would walk along mostly flat stretches of beach ending at a nice hotel – and inevitably its bar – every afternoon. Our South African friends called it “slackpacking,” a term we immediately embraced as the ideal junction between adventure and luxury.

The vessel for our sunset cruise at Kob Inn, making or a beautiful photo prop.
Hiking along the Wild Coast with a group of friends is great fun! Photo: Jacky D.

The Wild Coast Meander is a leisurely hike following a 56 km stretch of coastline along the Indian Ocean roughly halfway between Durban and Port Elizabeth. Depending on just how slack your pace, this takes from four to six days of walking. Our group – four couples and two teenagers – started out at Kob Inn, a friendly if a bit dated family hotel we reached by shuttle from East London after we’d caught the early flight from Joburg.

At the time of booking, it seemed like a good idea to spend an extra night there to relax, giving us a chance to ride – or rather mostly push, in my case – mountain bikes along the beach, trot horses through the pounding surf, and take a sundowner river cruise in a rickety motor boat supplied by the hotel. Later, however, we discovered that the hotels got progressively nicer as well was more secluded along the way, and wished we had planned a day of rest at one of them instead.

One of the big questions we pondered quite thoroughly:  Why did we come across so many cows standing on the beach? No one seemed to know the answer, but we were grateful to the cows, because they made great photo props.

Perhaps they do it simply because they can. I mean, who doesn’t want to stand on a beautiful beach without another soul invading your space?

One of many cow sightings on the Wild Coast Meander

It was when we had to cover a whopping 22 km the next day that the Wild Coast lived up to its name.

A quick note about the Wild Coast Meander hotels:

Kob Inn, located approximately three hours Northeast of East London, is where you begin your hike. Offers many activities like tennis, mountain biking, horse riding, boating.

Mazeppa Bay Hotel is tucked among lush tropical plants in a gorgeous setting. Amenities include swimming pool, tennis court, trampoline, beach volleyball, and a private island with suspension bridge. 

Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa sits on the banks of an inlet with a mangrove-lined  lagoon on one side and an expanse of beach and rolling dunes on the other. Best features: outdoor jacuzzi, cappuccino maker, and full spa offering massages.

Trennery’s Hotel has an African ambiance. Rooms are white-washed, thatch-roofed chalets tucked under indigenous trees, and dinner is served off the braai.

Morgan Bay is a good spot to add another day when traveling with family, as it features large 3-room suites sleeping six, and a number of activities, but it is less secluded than the other hotels.

The Wild Coast Meander can be booked through Helen Ross at Wild Coast Holiday Reservations:

P O Box 8017 Nahoon
East London
Tel  043 7436181
Fax 043 7436188

We woke to a blustering wind that we were to wrestle against for eight long hours without reprieve. We doggedly put one foot in front of the other, hoods tightly cinched around our faces and legs stinging from the whipped-up sand. Silently we trudged on, sometimes in pairs, sometimes single file, conversation impossible in the howling gale.

Take Mazeppa Bay Hotel, for instance, where we arrived on our second day after a short two hour walk over sun-drenched pastures and across the most stunning beach I’d ever seen. We climbed a long staircase through lush tropical vegetation, past a secluded infinity pool and a rather ancient tennis court, and found ourselves looking at a charming collection of cottages, each with its own small garden perfectly suited for an afternoon nap.

My favorite feature was the ginger house cat that insisted on squeezing between my Kindle and me when I stretched out on the lawn in front of our room. 

Sufficiently rested and supplied with a sundowner from the bar, that evening we backtracked our way down to the beach and at its far end crossed over to a rocky island by way of a suspension bridge that would have been well placed in an Indiana Jones movie.

I held my breath as I gingerly placed my feet on the swinging planks and had to close my eyes when I came to the inevitable part – why do all suspension bridges have this part, right in the middle? – where a cable had snapped and the railing was interrupted. But once safely across, it was an awesome feeling to plop down on some scattered boulders, point our toes to the East, and ponder the big questions in life while the surf pounded onto the rocks below.

When it was time for our lunch break we threw down our daypacks, opened up our paper bags – lovingly packed every morning by that hotel’s staff – and each found a sunny spot behind one of the many rocks to eat our sandwich in peace and with a good helping of the relentlessly whipped-up sand.

But any self-pity we might have indulged in had to be swallowed when glancing at the backs of our porters carrying our heavy packs into the same unrelenting wind. What in my imagination had been a troop of strapping young men in reality was a gaggle of frail looking elderly women wearing colorful wraps and flip-flops.

The suspension bridge at Mazeppa Bay Hotel

Beach between Mazeppa Bay and Wavecrest. You can see the ripples in the sand from the wind.

Can you think of a better spot for a lunch break? Photo: Andy V.

Yours truly on the right with a less than enthusiastic expression. I was grouchy because of the
endless wind and the sand between my teeth. Photo: Andy V.

What renders the Wild Coast particularly beautiful is the succession of river mouths separating one beach from the next, some mere trickles of water, and some fast-flowing streams. Several times that day we had to take off our shoes, roll up our pant legs, and wade through the crystal clear water.

The best river crossing awaited us at the next destination, Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa, where hotel staff manned canoes to transport first our bags and then us across the wide river whose banks it was built on. But we scarcely took in the gorgeous surroundings. With single-minded fervor we dragged ourselves to the large pool deck, stripped our feet off their boots and lowered them into the delicious hot water of the Jacuzzi, not willing to move again for a good long time, except when it was announced that in addition to the beer and wine we’d been guzzling there were massages to be had.

One of many river crossings on foot.

The view from Wavecrest Beach

Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa - a welcome sight after 22 km of hiking against gale winds

Later in our room we were silently rifling through our backpacks to get them ready for the next morning when Noisette yelled as if bitten by a tarantula. “What the f--- is that?” he said, and pulled out a large rock he’d discovered at the bottom of his pack. “What the hell is this doing in my bag?” And then with dawning recognition: “This time I’m going to kill him!”

To be continued... Stay tuned for Part Two!

October 24, 2016

The Eight Best Johannesburg Sightseeing Tours

I've lately gotten many inquiries about exploring Johannesburg and whether it is safe to do so.

While I don't want to be responsible for you getting mugged - something, I might point out, that can happen to you in any big city - I can tell you that in 3 years of living in Johannesburg I never encountered any trouble. And it's not because I stayed locked up behind the walls and fences of our security estate in the Northern suburbs. I took many trips into Soweto and Alexandra in my own car, I delivered firewood for women in Diepsloot, and I walked the streets of the inner city hunting for perfect pictures of jacarandas, graffiti, and the occasional This-Is-Africa worthy situation.

This shot was taken on my way to Arts on Main. It wasn't part of a walking tour but shows
the kinds of street scenes that offer such rich photo material when touring Joburg.

(You might also take heart in learning that Joburg is Africa's most visited city, ahead of Cape Town which is a distant second. So you won't be alone in exploring it.)

What I do recommend for those new to Johannesburg and concerned about safety is taking a tour as part of a group. It's more fun that way in any case.

Here is a list of what I've put together using my own experience, as well as that of Heather who blogs at She has become an expat's expert on Joburg few of us can hope to emulate in terms of her detailed knowledge of the city, and many of the links below are to her articles.

1. Walking tours with Past Experiences

I met Jo Buitendach, who runs Past Experiences, when I participated in one of her Graffiti tours of Braamfontein. It was fabulous. Jo's knowledge of the city is remarkable, she and her partner are a lot of fun, and the pictures I took that day were some of my favorite of all of my time in Johannesburg. See here for yourself.

You don't often see graffiti in the making, but Johannesburg is a good place to find some of
the world's most renowned graffiti artists.

2. Joburg Photowalkers

It's a great way to explore Johannesburg on foot, but not alone. Plus, they'll get you to the best picture spots in town, as most of the photowalkers are photography enthusiasts. You might learn a thing or two from them about your camera too, if, like me, you find all those buttons a bit of a mystery. My walk was during jacaranda season and I was very happy with Purple Explosion, the resulting photo essay. It's that time of year again, so join their next walk if you can!

My Joburg Photowalkers group in a puddle of jacaranda petals in Rosebank, 2011

3. Johannesburg Heritage Foundation

This was recommended to me by a reader and I don't have personal experience with any of their tours. However, their website is an excellent resource for all things Johannesburg, and the tour offerings look very interesting and unique, such as the Mosques and Minarets tour. Jacaranda tours are offered here as well - make sure you don't miss the chance while they are in bloom. For more insight into one of their tours, see Heather's excellent blog post From Mansions to Muti Shops: Exploring Johannesburg's Heritage.

4. Johannesburg Red Bus

It didn't exist yet when I lived there, but I've heard good things about Joburg City Sightseeing or Joburg Red Bus for short. City sightseeing has been in Cape Town for ages, but has newly arrived in Johannesburg, offering bus tours to the CBD as well as Soweto. Read about Heather's experience of a day on the Red Bus to get an idea of what it might look like. I also see that they offer free walking tours.

Again, apropos no specific tour I did, but I wanted to point out that Johannesburg has a vibrant
Chinatown. It also has an Ethopian quarter and some of the world's most impressive mosques.

5. Joburg Places

According to Heather, one of Gerald Garner's tours is a must for anyone wanting to understand Johannesburg's history and how it came to be the city it is today. It's also a must if you like to visit rooftops - and trust me, you will want to, as the photo opportunities are incredible. See What I didn't Know About Joburg for an excellent blog post on one of his tours.

6. Dlala Nje's Inner City Adventures

If you really want to get into the thick of things, "hit the streets of Hillbrow and discover the truth about one of the city's most notorious and misunderstood suburbs," starting out in the iconic building of Ponte City. If that sounds too gritty for you, try their "Taste of Yeoville" tour for a culinary experience. If you tell any South African that you're planning to go into Hillbrow, they will shudder and tell you you're crazy. It wasn't that long ago that Hillbrow resembled a war zone that no one in their right mind would venture into, at least not unarmed. But things are changing rapidly in Johannesburg, particularly the inner city which has been vigorously rejuvenated over the past few years, so I think even Hillbrow is well worth a visit if you've got an adventurous spirit and the will to experience the real South Africa.

7. MainStreetWalks

For a slightly different perspective of Johannesburg, try their Underground Pub Crawl, a nighttime tour to places you'd likely never get to on your own. Just make sure you have a taxi ride home lined up so that you can enjoy the drinks included in the tour without worry. MainStreetWalks also offers daytime tours with a slightly different twist, like their coveted picnic at the top of Carlton Centre.

View from the "Top of Africa" in the Carlton Centre. Photo credit: Zax.

8. Nielsen Tours

I found them via a link from the Red Bus website so can't personally vouch for them, but yet another outfit offering free walking tours. If you follow the maxim of "You get what you pay for" a free tour might not be your first choice, but I didn't want to withhold the information. Personally, I can highly recommend Past Experiences.

9. Sophiatown Tour

This one was a late entry meaning you get 9 for the price of 8! The historical suburb of Sophiatown (it was one of the racially mixed suburbs that was dismantled and whose residents for forcibly relocated during Apartheid) offers walking tours and a small museum. You can also go to one of their monthly live jazz events or community encounters - the next Jazz Fest is coming up this November 19th, and it's free!

There are some other options out there for exploring the city, such as Voice Map, a podcast-type app where you download walking tour audio onto your phone, or simply Uber. We used Uber on our recent trip to South Africa for our airport transfers, and it worked like a charm. Under 5 min waiting times, clean cars, good drivers, and incredibly affordable compared to U.S. prices.

Oh, and here is a seasonal tour that sounds like a lot of fun, put on by, another website you should bookmark: A Mystery Ghost Tour! I can't wait for one of you to go on that one and tell me all about it.

I hope this has given you a good overview of the many options of exploring Johannesburg, on foot or by bus. I'd love to hear about your adventures, or if you've found any new tours not mentioned here!