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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Lost in Paradise - VOTES & VIEWS #41

Lost in Paradise

We land in Mauritius almost simultaneously with another brace of planes. The airport looks very much like most such places, but noticeably larger than on my last visit in 1970. The formalities are short; we seniors are luckily treated preferentially along with families travelling with children, whereas the hoi polloi have to stand in a long queue. The heat envelops us like a warm and stifling hug. Every pore sheds its load in the unaccustomed humidity. A hiccup: our hire car is nowhere to be seen – or more correctly, the firm is nowhere visible and to our consternation, no other car firm seems to have heard of them. One of the taxi drivers tries to assuage our fears. Perhaps they will come looking for us if we just wait in front of the arrivals building. He is so right. After a while a dapper man arrives bearing a sheet of paper with my mangled name printed on it. He was attending to another customer first. Then a lengthy wait in the parking area while his colleague sorts out aforementioned client and finally we are on our way.

The road to our new home had been gone over so many times on Google Earth that it was really a doddle to find our abode – after overshooting the entrance and having to reverse back against the traffic. No problem on this gentle island. Allowances are made for idiots and other tourists. Our landlady is awaiting us in the street; though we didn’t notice her until she comes down the drive after us. We introduce ourselves to this slim, middle-aged lass, clad in short-shorts and singlet (the correct attire here) and she gives us the Cook’s Tour of the premises. The studio Tecoma is enchanting; perched atop another two apartments on the ground floor, looking over a tropical garden shaded by big mango and Indian Almond trees. A blue pool winks. Inside, everything is where it should be, as it should be – faultless. A bowl of fruit awaits, milk & ice-cubes in the fridge, complimentary soft drinks, a couple of beers… we are overwhelmed with hospitality.

What a life !
 But we must see the beach. Diagonally across the Route Royal, down past the side of the main house and we have our first view of our ‘plage privee’. A sea-wall of dark basalt blocks raises the level of the garden, where you can sit under casuarina trees and watch the breakers on the reef a kilometre away, foaming over a wreck; a lighthouse towers above a low island to the north. The lagoon is a beautiful blue with darker patches of coral. A light easterly breeze wafts in; one or two people laze within view – for the rest, our only company are a few doves, mynahs and bishop birds in their scarlet plumage. We promise ourselves a sunrise dip.

Meanwhile we have to go shopping. Just a few minutes up the coastal road towards Mahebourg, a small supermarket with attendant butcher, boutiques and various other small shops. There are a wide variety of products – almost entirely imported from South Africa and Europe, as far as we can see; the prices carry a lot of air miles. We dawdle along doing frantic conversions. Meat and fish are packed in miserly frozen portions for two people; prices start at about R80 and spiral into the stratosphere. Pallid chicken sausages seemingly feed a large proportion of the population. We buy a few dispirited vegetables, some staples, the inevitable baguette and lots of liquids and flee back to our studio to relish the cool blast from the air-conditioning, toast slit baguette and spread it generously with a fine Danish pork pate for supper after a sundowner.

An early morning swim; we try out our snorkelling gear. Neither of us are water-babies but fortunately the corals are less than ten metres from the beach, and the main concern is not to trample and break them, as well as to avoid the numerous sea urchins’ menacing spines. Shoals of little striped fish sample our skins and butt us pugnaciously. Pity so much of the reef is in poor condition due to rising sea levels, global warming, pollution and human disturbance. Still, there is a Marine Reserve at Blue Bay, just round the corner of the headland which we visit on another occasion. That time we take a ride in a glass-bottomed boat, which all too quickly glides over clumps of staghorn, table-top, mushroom and brain-coral among some thirty-six species to be found. Metre-long trumpet fishes hang like static sword blades in the clear waters, while shoals
Schools of brightly coloured fish
of gaily striped fish school around the snorkeler splashing fearfully around the boats. All very picturesque and ‘David Attenboroughish’. There are no seashells to be seen – an enormous difference from my previous visit. On the other hand, none of the ubiquitous seashell-sellers standing on each street corner hawking their wares, either. It looks as if this industry has stopped dead; there is a blanket prohibition on collecting and possessing live shells in force, and even washed up dead shells are limited to ten per person. Still, in 1970 it was possible for even an amateur like myself to grab a few souvenirs off the reef and ocean floor without any great effort, so I was part of the problem then and the bare reefs are the result. Hopefully this will now be given a chance to repair itself.

Our host tells us that there is a market every day at Mahebourg, so we drive in even though it is Sunday. Most dispiriting; everything looks limp and tired but the promise is of better things to come on the main market day, Monday. On a whim, we carry on through the warren of lanes, without more than a general idea where we are heading, up the coast, towards the North. The road is incredibly tortuous, in places no more 

Up the East cost on the Road to Flaq
than five metres wide for both lanes, winding between shabby houses, embayments with mangrove swamps, lagoons and canefields. The settlements almost blend into each other. The views out to sea are framed in lush tropical trees and inland a spectacular mountain group overlooks this part of the coast, while flat islets pop up out of the still waters inside the reef.

We somehow arrive in Centre de Flaq – not that we intended to. Left turn, right turn, another into what looks like a main thoroughfare, but proves to be a one-way against us. Oncoming traffic flashes lights, hoots briefly, but nobody gets aggravated – there is no place for road rage in paradise. Anybody can make a mistake, as we do. Out of town and as it clouds over, we think we are heading north. We meander mainly through
canefields, but startlingly every now and then a spire of rock protrudes out of the plain covered in endless sugar cane. These unreal spikes are remnants of basalt plugs as the whole island is an eroded volcano, long extinct. Before long we are completely lost. We stop to consult our map as we had decided not to go for GPS – the wise web had declared it to be unreliable on the island, and we later see why. A face looms and a knock at the window; a helpful pedestrian. Small problem – he doesn’t know where he is on the map either. We debate the matter, and a second man joins in. He waves vaguely in a direction and declares that Port Louis is thataway. We are reassured by this, but none the wiser. We proceed. Our two maps don’t seem to coincide, but we soldier on until a hamlet with the name of Montrose is reached and after much map-searching, we establish where we actually are.

By this time we are starving and call a halt at an unprepossessing little wayside café. A lovely Indian lady greets us, nods at our request for food, and offers noodles or rice. We opt for the latter. Plain fried rice with a few specks of shrimp, chicken and innominate vegetables, but it fills the void. No matter that the plastic tablecloth edge is stained with what looks like blood (we discover it is my own and hastily bandage the bumped elbow and clean the table). We exchange a few companionable words with our hostess as we find that she speaks excellent English, having spent four years in London. She, in turn, is surprised that we come from South Africa, as we are obviously European, not black of hue. Once more we are on our way and triumphantly return well satisfied from our initial foray and have a quick dip in the pool before cooking up a tasty stir-fry, complete with lashings of local prawns.

Mahebourg Monday Market
 Monday is market day in Mahebourg. This time the place is a hive of activity. Stalls are heaped with a melange of greenery, leaves, stalks, fruits, cucurbits and legumes – many unfamiliar. There is Jackfruit, both lusciously ripe and green as a vegetable, stuffed with edible pips the size of Brazil nuts; longans, similar to lychees, zat, a type of custard apple, exotic dragon fruit, with its exotic looks and little flavour and the acid carambol or star fruit, as well as all the subtropical and deciduous fruits that  we know and of which many come from our homeland. The preponderant vegetable seems to be the gourd family. All shapes and sizes, with exotic names like pipangaye, patole, galbase, margoze and chou-chou, as well as huge green marbled pumpkins and loofahs. In summer temperatures of 34 degrees almost every day, salad greens are almost non-existent, but the Mauritians do love their greens and middens of various ‘bredes’ are available; stuff that we would call bok choy, Napa cabbage, turnip greens, Taro leaves and stalks, pumpkin vines and leaves, water spinach and a host of herbs that are an integral part of Indian and Creole cuisine. People are serious about their shopping. Veg are prodded, turned, sniffed and discussed before approval. Amazingly almost everything is labelled with a price, often per quantities of 100 g or half a kilo; most confusing. Vociferous bargaining seems to have gone out of the window – an entirely different situation from half a century ago, when it was the rule. We gladden the hearts of several vendors and an old lady selling incredibly tough balls of deep-fried dough. Our car, and later the apartment, reeks of jackfruit – pleasant to us, but I believe it is banned in taxis, like durian further east.

It is easy to slide into this lazy, lotus-eating existence. Only a week later the journeys all over the island, the sights, the meals, the experiences – all blend into a warm, hazy, tropical blur, interspersed with hours of inactivity sitting in deckchairs under the ragged shade of soughing casuarinas; cooled by the breeze and the odd bottle of cold sparkling wine. Some days we are lazy, visiting maybe the museum in Mahebourg; a staid, square, Dutch ‘herehuis’ set in a small forest on the banks of a river. Cannon peer over the balustrade and the fattest, biggest mortar guards the entrance to the gardens. I can’t resist comparing its rotundity to my
Who's got the biggest?
own. Inside it is cool; a blessing on another energy-sapping day. The exhibits are varied and interesting, though not imaginatively displayed. The captions are adequate and mostly in French and English. Both floors of the building have the walls plastered with paintings, illustrations from books, maps and documents. One gets a good sense of the span of human occupation of this remote island of the dodo, whose only indigenous mammal was the huge fruit bat, the flying fox, which we observed at Blue Bay, flapping like an ancient pterosaur between the tall trees of the promenade.

The island is only about sixty-five by forty kilometres in extent. It should be possible to explore it all in a day or two. So I had thought in 1970, and failed miserably in that I barely managed to explore the southern and western part of the island during my two-week honeymoon. This time we set out determinedly towards the north. A fine new double highway promised easy access to the tourist playground of Grand Baie with its myriad resorts and hotels. In no time we were alongside the impressive mountains dominated by the improbable profile of Pieter Both, a mountain with an afterthought of a very large pebble poised precariously on top. Like Mukorob, the ‘Finger of God’ in Namibia, this piece of real estate #mustfall one of these days. I would hate to be in the vicinity when a few hundred tons of basalt comes crashing down some six hundred 

Pieter Both Mountain - 2nd highest on the Island
metres. A narrow gorge cuts through the flanks of the mountains and we are spewed out onto a featureless plain, covered in waving sugar cane. With the exception of the mountains behind us – a most uninteresting prospect -which persists until we reach the conurbation of the northern tourist zone. Suddenly we are surrounded by multi-storeyed concrete boxes. Lavish portals graced with the best names the marketeers could come up with – Beachcomber, Coconut, Sugar Beach, La Cannonier, Intercontinental, Le Prince, Four Seasons, Long Beach, and the like. Just off the beach you could be stepping into the cosmopolitan world of Millionaire’s Mile shopping. Bars, restaurants and boutiques vie for your attention. It’s the off-season, so ‘specials’ abound, but prices are still in the stratosphere – tailored to suit a Euro-funded clientele. We grope our way along the beachfront, barely able to snatch glimpses of Grand Baie and its turquoise seas. We eschew the hedonism of the resorts and opt for the unfamiliar north-east coast.

At Cap Malheureux a fleeting view of the Coin de Mire island sets us searching for a parking place. Roads on Mauritius are very often a narrow raised strip, with no verges whatsoever, and a sheer drop of between
Coin de Mire Island off the North Coast
ten centimetres to a metre down to the surrounding countryside. Either one stops in the driving lane and blocks half the road, or you have to find a place where you can veer off between the trees or into someone’s driveway. We do the latter and spend some time dabbling our toes in the water in a tiny bay and enjoying the rugged cliffs of the offshore islands. Adventure calls, and off we are again, along a shady avenue, flanked by
A Dog's Life
high walls of the estates of the wealthy, contrasted at intervals with modest, shabby houses and even shacks, where the inhabitants go about their daily tasks and hundreds of depressed, skeletal curs lie in the sun or slink about with drooping heads and tails. The phrase ‘a dog’s life’ could have been coined in Mauritius – in contrast to the generally happy demeanour of the human inhabitants.

From Grand Gaube onwards the proliferation of tourist amenities gradually lessens.  At a little hamlet, called Roche Terre, we are suddenly famished and decide to stop at the very next place that promises to have some form of nourishment available. We spot a patisserie, and we investigate. Nothing but garishly coloured sweet pastries and cakes – but we are directed to a ‘hole in the wall’ across the road, where a man holds
Hole-in-the-Wall Snacks
sway over a gigantic wok glowing over a roaring gas flame. In no time at all we have some bajis and a bunch of samoosas cooking. As is the custom, hereabouts, our car blocks half the street as we wait for lunch. Just to be companionable, a battered bakkie comes from the other side and decides this is as good a place to stop as any for no reason at all – blocking the entire main road. As the tailback increases on both sides, I start feeling distinctly uncomfortable and so reverse my car up a side-road; traffic moves once more around the bakkie and harmony reigns.

Our lunch is tasty as well as being a bargain, but a stretch further on we spot another little stall, sporting a glass-sided display cabinet full of these little fried Indian snacks called Gajak. These consist of gateau aubergine (eggplant fritters), manioc goujons (cassava chips) and gateau patat (potato fritters), roti and other nameless, but toothsome delicacies. I negotiate us a brace of each on offer from a pleasant lady and we continue our odyssey, well-provisioned. During our stay we find as a pleasant surprise that lunch on the island does not always have to cost $25-60 for two people, the adventurous diner can do as well for a tenth of that price – drinks excluded. On the other hand, fruit, which should be available in profusion, is rather expensive by our standards, as are vegetables. One wonders what the poor get to eat, since the reefs around the island have almost been fished out and we only saw tired fish the size of pilchards, or a little larger, being offered for sale at the roadside.

On through the settlements of Goodlands and Poudre d’Or, where true to our ambition, we get lost in a maze of parallel roads, circles and shortcuts (not displayed on our maps), courtesy of faded road-signage which is often partially obscured by luxuriant herbiage. My navigatrix has no easy task, as I continually demand directions which she is frantically trying to find. Still, we emerge triumphant and our next point of reference is Roche Noires, where, I find out much later, there are extensive lava tubes which geologically minded tourists should go and visit. For once the Tripadvisors of the world have let me down as there was no mention of this when I researched the island for places we might visit. We wind our way through the Bras d’Eau forests along the coast; a National Park, full of birdlife but oddly made up almost entirely of exotic trees such as casuarinas, teak, eucalyptus, blackwood, mango and litchis. If nothing else, it is a soothing drive through the dappled shade, with the odd glimpse of sea. All over the island magnificent trees abound; clumps of banyans with cloaks of aerial roots, ficus trees with buttress roots encroaching onto the road edges, where they are
Ensnared by Roots in Pamplemousse
clipped by passing traffic, huge mango and breadfruit trees, and hundreds more species imported from other tropical latitudes. For the botanically inclined a visit to Pamplemousse Botanic gardens is a given. We spent an incandescent couple of hours there, earlier during mid-morning, wandering along the network of paths, from bench to bench, trying to exact the maximum benefit of every spot of shade we can find. A lovely sylvan atmosphere with much birdsong; an island of tranquility among the surrounding settlement that has consolidated during the past fifty years. One circuit, taking in the main features of animals, water and plants, was as much as we could manage. After viewing the impressive giant waterlilies, we opt for the air-conditioned interior of the car.

The triple embayments between Poste Lafayette and Poste  de Flaq are breathtakingly beautiful. Inland fields of inominate crops curve over the landscape, tended by women draped in vivid sari’s and houses are dribbled haphazardly along the roads. Every few hundred metres one seems to be crossing an estuary; fetid dark waters fringed with mangrove, spill out into the shallow reef-encircled sea. A Hindu temple pokes its pink, almost floral cupola out of the greenery. This rural scene is soon displaced by further encrustations of gleaming tourist nirvanas which are reaching hungry fingers northwards up the eastern coast. In the past fifty years the population of the island has grown by 50% to over 1,2 million. The only economic solution was to attract a flood of sun-seekers to this paradise to provide work and funds for the locals’ existence. Regrettably, coupled with that is the inevitable degradation of the fragile environment and the increasing necessity of importing huge quantities of consumer goods and food. The price of growth is that the visitors indirectly destroy that which they come to enjoy.

Having travelled for most of the day, we discover that we have in reality only covered some one hundred and sixty kilometres while spending the whole day crossing the island from southeast to northwest and back again. Dusk is falling with tropical suddenness as we re-enter Mahebourg, where the population at large is out on the streets, enjoying the slight respite from the day’s roasting. We have a little trouble negotiating through the maze of narrow roads between shops, residences, all very much out of the same foursquare mould, many in the process of alteration, with another storey or two under construction to house the next generation – a zig-zag outside staircase tacked on, precariously supported by a single pillar. Everything is full of reinforcing steel and concrete grey; there are no bricks on this island. Windows are often an afterthought. In this balmy climate the occupants are quite comfortable without them – as long as they don’t mind the mosquitoes, which are ubiquitous and aggressive.

We make an effort to find a place which sells fresh fish. Our hostess has gone to great lengths to try to explain its whereabouts. The name of the street: unknown, but it is just past the supermarket, if you go so… and then just so…and then so – she describes with her hands. Then there is a school; the house is a yellow house, two storeys – no, three storeys high – no… wait the school is after the house – she’s sure we’ll find it. She also obliges us with a lengthy, incoherent word-map to another house, a blue house – you can’t miss it - where we might be able to find some tuna. People are so helpful here. We set off without great expectations after having consulted the great Google Earth satellite photo of the area in question. We decide to approach from the museum side, take the third road as we have gleaned from modern technology, get into a whole sub-structure of single car-width alleys (which don’t show up from space) and after finding that these tend to end suddenly at a garbage heap or another structure, we extricate ourselves. Finally we seem to be on the right road. There are a number of yellow house. Some two storeys, others three storeys high; but no school
Difficult to get used to this Lifestyle !
in sight anywhere. We decide our eyesight must be getting defective, or our hearing is not what it used to be. So we return home fishless and spend the rest of the day replenishing our bodily reserves of vitamin D in the light shade of the casuarina tree on the beach front, reading a few paragraphs here and there, taking a sip of a cool beverage in between short immersions in the limpid sea, while birds serenade us and a heavy jasmine-like scent wafts over on the zephyr. One could get used to this mode of existence – with a little effort.

But the rest of the island calls. The entire southern side is terra incognita, so with the aid of two maps and the World Wide Web, we plan our campaign. This time my navigatrix takes notes: third circle, nine o’clock turnoff; T-junction left onto A9, then first right into B88… and the like. Pages of instructions, since she’s determined not to get lost again. We’re off and the best laid plans come to naught at the second intersection, since the T-junction has become a circle with five exits, and from there it gets even more complicated. Thank goodness the sun is shining and we navigate by guess and by compass, with only an occasional perusal of the charts. After a pleasant drive up into the highlands (600 m above sea level) we come to a great temple complex. There are acres of building (empty) some ablution blocks (thankfully) and numbers of taxis and buses spewing pilgrims who either wander down towards the Hanuman shrine at the edge of Grand Bassin lake, or make the short climb up a stubby hill where flags and a white dome proclaim another sacred site.
We take a quick look at what is happening, but don’t wish to intrude in the crowds’ devotions. A short distance further on, we encounter a massive statue of Shiva in all his bronze- covered glory, and on the opposite side of the road his equally large wife, complete with pet lion, is under construction, surrounded by a crow’s nest of scaffolding.

Shiva Statue at Grand Bassin
The Black River Gorges, which are our immediate destination, are not obvious from the road. One drives through plantations and clumps of strange trees (Australian paperbark myrtles) and the first stop is Alexandra Falls. A pretty little double rapid on a small stream a few hundred metres off the main road, but there is a vantage point from which one gets a wonderful view down a valley, all the way to the southern coast. The main viewsite, which faces northwest, comes complete with a scattering of ice-cream trucks jangling irritating ditties, as well as a string of stalls selling memorabilia made in China, India and Africa – but sadly lacking in Mauritian handcrafts. We walk down towards the viewpoint, which has a breathtaking vista of the densely wooded gorges below; a waterfall or two as well as two white tropicbirds disporting themselves in the updraughts. In the distance the outskirts of Tamarin and possibly Port Louis are visible, as well as the northwestern coast. Very scenic, but for once rather dirty and full of litter. A gaunt cat and her two kittens scrounge for discarded chips. They are the only cats we saw on the island, with the exception of one other in a restaurant. One wonders if the omnipresent dogs have anything to do with that.

The best part of the trip ‘out west’ is the winding road down towards Chamarel and Case Noyale. Exceedingly steep, full of short, nasty hairpin bends as well as narrow. Not to be taken lightly or under the influence; neither with poor brakes. The ancient monumental bulk of La Morne Brabant looms up, isolated on its little peninsula, which has been entirely taken over by a golf course and shoulder to shoulder gated
La Morne Brabant Mountain
luxury establishments. A far cry from when I stayed there forty-six years ago. There is still a public beach under the looming cliffs, where a monument stands to commemorate the fate of escaped slaves, who used to lurk in the crevices and caves some two hundred years ago, and we stop a while to spectate the well-off doing their thing on all forms of wind-powered and motorised watersport gear imaginable.

The road along the rocky south coast of the island passes through the heart of sugarcane country. The reefs disappear by the time you reach Souillac and instead beaches are short, often black and gravelly, or non-existent. As everywhere on Mauritius, village succeeds village. Most of these are peopled by Creole workers on the great sugar estates of the region. They look less affluent; if anything, the dogs are thinner, mangier. We attempt to find a geological wonder: the Pont Naturel, although the wise Web has warned that the roads are impassable, and the canefields nigh impenetrable. We had researched the route fully and noted down in fine detail such trivia as ‘ turn left after the second block of sugar cane; turn right at pump house; left again at large tree’ etc – all to no avail. Since the satellite photo had been taken, some hurried construction had occurred. Where the edge of the village of Trois Boutiques was supposed to be, there were houses; in a stretch of unadulterated canefield, an entire ‘morcellement’ or gated community was in progress. We made half a dozen U-turns, consulted unsuspecting pedestrians in mangled French, to which they replied in unintelligible Creole with broad smiles and in good humour, so we soldier on, either ‘gauche’ or ‘droit’ – which are about the only words we understand. In the midst of waving green stalks, we encounter a black taxi. There could only be one reason – he was going to Pont Naturel. We ‘follow that cab’ in best thriller tradition and sure enough, he finally gets us there over a painfully rocky and tree-root studded track. We walk to the cliff’s edge and savour the awesome spectacle of the towering swells from the deep south near Antarctica dashing themselves under two black lava arches and thundering into a basin behind it, on into a deep sea-cave. My navigatrix takes a picture of yours truly on the bridge, after which it almost becomes another story as my injured leg gives way in a tricky situation. Still, we make it out of there in one piece and return home flushed with success.

La Pont Naturel dwarfs a Visitor
While we had prepared an impressive list of all the places and venues we could visit during our stay in Mauritius, we actually found that apart from the adventurous forays we made into the countryside, enjoying the scenery and meeting a few people along the way, interspersed with long, lazy hours sitting in the shade on the beach, was much more to our liking. It was mostly too hot and humid to attempt any physical exertion, so what better way to savour the passing scene on a tropical island than from the seat of an air-conditioned car, or a deck-chair in the shade of a tree. Yes, we did pop in to a Chinese restaurant in Mahebourg – twice. Run by a stern-faced auntie, two lovely Indian lasses who waited on us, and an unknown number of cooks, we were confronted by an enormous menu, offering European (French & Mauritian), Indian, Creole and Cantonese dishes. We had the most tender Szechuan venison I could have wished for, a sizzling plate of prawns, and on the second occasion a typical Chinese noodle dish to take away and eat on the beach. All perfectly delicious and very good value for money, though any drinks were pricey – and don’t bring your own, as they would charge you more in corkage than the bottle would cost in South Africa. A restaurant in Case Noyale was at the other end of the spectrum. A tiny blob of heart of palm salad with a few scraps of smoked swordfish, and an ordinary fish salad, though with a delicious dressing would set you back what a full meal would cost you back home.

Mauritius is a place I remembered fondly after my first visit; we’ll remember it fondly after the second visit too. It’s a great place to get lost in; the natives are friendly – there is no road rage; even the rain is warm – not to speak of the sea; the scenery is magnificent. Apparently Mark Twain wrote “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius”. Sounds like a pretty good theory.
Mahebourg Swimming Pier

Thursday, 27 August 2015


Votes & Views #36

In my hands is this bible printed in 1702. No, let me correct that – the bible is much too big and heavy to hold – it is lying on a table in front of me. A huge, stately book of almost ten kilos, bound in wooden boards which have been covered with lovingly anointed, but heavily cracked leather; the corners are protected by ornate brass work, and two clasps keep it shut. I open the book carefully; some newer pages have been inserted, covered with a beautifully calligraphed genealogy, beginning in 1232 AD, of one of the old Cape families, the de Villiers clan. I skim over some 4 pages of entries and come to the last name. He has asked me to find a new home for this treasure, along with another couple of dozen stately, centuries-old books, and many more recent books dealing with our subcontinent.
Most parents harbour a hope that their children will one day have the same wish to preserve the material things that they themselves cherished, used and collected to paper the walls of their existence. That goes for the family farm, the ancestral home, the antique furniture or jewellery – and so often, books. However, since times immemorial children have had their own headstrong ways. They stubbornly refuse to follow in their progenitors’ footsteps in matters of careers; spending habits; political views, consumption of stimulants - and reading matter, among others.
A personal library is like a tree; there is the seed – core books acquired on a specific subject or genre, or acquired as a ‘mystery’ lot at an auction; interest is stimulated and broadens, so more books are added. Tastes branch out, mature and find other directions and so a collection grows. After the proverbial three score years and ten or thereabouts, comes the cut-off point in every collector’s life. Either they decide to reduce their establishment as it has become too cumbersome; they move into smaller, sheltered accommodation, or their life reaches its conclusion. In both cases material effects need to be redistributed and disposed of. The natural inheritors are children and grandchildren. No problem then. Or is there? The march of technology has been relentless; by now it has become a sprint with ever new entries into the field. The rising generations have less dependence on the printed word, there are more immediate, electronic, audiovisual forms of media on hand. Libraries take up large amounts of space; they need care; they are subject to fire, damp and insect attack. That cherished assemblage  has suddenly become a millstone round somebody’s neck.
Back in 1947, there lived a family by the name of Solly near Sir Lowry’s Pass.  There are no Solly’s left in the Cape that I can find, as the last of that name seem to have departed to live in France, as the user of their telephone number informs me.  I picture a modestly well-off, aging family, cultured people with varied interests, living in a large family home on a farm overlooking False Bay. Their time came, there were no immediate heirs to inherit. The executors of the estate moved in and the house, furniture and effects were auctioned off and dispersed - this much I know. Their small library, containing some of the most prized works describing life and travels during the 17th to 19th century in Southern Africa, was bought by the de Villiers family, and became the beginning of a new collection.
Now, some seventy years later, that metamorphosed library has once more come to the end of its existence. The current owners, a few generations later, are reducing their establishment, and are moving to a retirement village, where there is no space for libraries. The following generations have other interests and don’t want to ‘curate’ the books. New owners must be found, which is where I come into the picture.  After our initial contact and perusal of a list of titles, almost two hundred volumes were dropped off at Africana Books. Since many of these were items I had not handled before, I drove up to Cape Town ( as I live in the Tzitzikamma forest nowadays ) post-haste, and spent the next week working ten hours a day to acquaint myself with just twenty of the most uncommon works. Since these were written in mainly in Dutch and French – languages with which I have some familiarity, but in which I am not entirely comfortable, this was a slow process. Still, my findings were a little like a Who’s Who of early travel round the Cape. So let me tell you about them in some sort of chronological order.
The oldest item is a little extract from Churchill’s Voyages, printed in 1707. Written by Willem ten Rhyne in 1673, An Account of the Cape of Good Hope. The diary opens on 9 October 1673, when Ten Rhyne’s ship anchored in Saldanha Bay. He writes an introduction on the situation at the Cape, and then a running commentary by way of 27 short chapters on wild animals, birds, fishes and insects, plants, seasons, indigenous inhabitants and their anatomy, garments, dwellings, possessions, character, manners, way of living, fighting, dancing and religion.  Only some twenty pages, yet crammed full of the remarkable insights on a strange  continent and its people.
A truly uncommon work is Francois Valentyn’s   Beschryving van de Kaap der Goede Hoope, met de  zaken daartoe behorende (Vol 10) published in 1724. Although the writer had no first-hand travel experience at the Cape, he had access to the VOC archives, and from there comes a fine early map of the Cape, the first printed account of Governor van der Stel’s 1685 epic journey to Namaqualand, as well as the lesser known Starrenburg’s trek into the Sandveld in 1705. The latter part of the book deals with Mauritius, and there is also a fine map of that island.
 The next two items were in French, by two clerics, the Abbe de Choisy, and Pere Tachard. Both of these clerics were en route to Siam, where their embassies were welcomed in the hope that this would keep the Dutch at bay in that part of South East Asia. Choisy's account: Journal du Voyage de Siam, from 1686 (this is the oldest travel book in the collection) is in the form of a diary, and is written in an attractive style, telling about their visit to the Cape, details of the voyage and experiences in Siam. The book is a classic that has repeatedly been reprinted due to the importance of this particular embassy.
Tachard, who was a respected mathematician as well as a cleric, led the second such expedition in 1687. The voyage is described in Second Voyage du Pere Tachard et des Jesuites envoyez par le Roy au Royaume de Siam. Part of the book touches on the Cape of Good Hope, where the governor, Simon van der Stel and the visiting commissioner of the VOIC, H A van Rheede tot Drakenstein, entertained the French party and gave them a tour of the settlement, as well as helping them with their scientific and astronomical observations. For this the governor was reprimanded later, as France was technically at war with the Dutch.
 Then a classic tale of travel, survival and adversity: Voyage et Avantures de Francois Leguat & de ses Compagnons en deux Isles desertes des Indes Orientales. Francois  Leguat was a French Huguenot who had fled France to Holland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. One Marquis du Quesne had first considered Reunion as a possible colony for Huguenots, but after the French took that over,  he fitted out a small frigate, L'Hirondelle to reconnoitre the Mascarene islands, and to take possession of whatever island was found unoccupied, for that purpose.  In 1690 Leguat and nine male volunteers boarded L'Hirondelle for Reunion which they believed had been abandoned by the French. Instead he and seven companions were marooned on the uninhabited island of Rodrigues. After a year, they built a boat and sailed to Dutch-controlled Mauritius, where they were imprisoned due to France and Holland being at war. After lengthy imprisonment, the survivors were shipped to Jakarta to stand trial, supposedly for espionage on behalf of the French. They were found innocent, and Leguat and two other survivors were returned to England, where he penned his memoirs. The book is illustrated with a number of splendidly naïve engraved plates.
Peter Kolbe, another astronomer at the Cape, spent some 8 years there from 1705-1713, which gave him the material to compose his work The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope.  There is a huge amount of natural history information – most of it admittedly exaggerated and gleaned from other sources, but his observations of the Khoi around the settlement, their lifestyle, customs and language are  fascinating. The work is still much quoted as an early ethnographical source.
The Abbe de la Caille’s Journal Historique du Voyage fait au Cap de Bonne Esperance  is next. He was a distinguished scientist, astronomer and mathematician who in 1750 led an expedition to the Cape. It was said of him that, during a comparatively short life, he had made more observations and calculations than all the astronomers of his time put together and that the quality of his work was unrivalled. Among his results were determinations of the lunar and of the solar parallax and the first measurement of a South African arc of the meridian, which suggested that the earth was more flattened at the southern pole. He gives a lively description of  the countryside and inhabitants at the Cape during his stay. His observations on the voyage demonstrated the difficulties of navigation to him and led him to devise a better method of using the moon to determine time and latitude at sea.
Anders Sparrman is a well-known name among early travellers in the subcontinent, ranking with naturalists like Burchell, Thunberg and Lichtenstein. This brilliant scientist sailed for the Cape in 1772 to take up a post as a tutor. When James Cook arrived there later in the year at the start of his second voyage, Sparrman was taken on as assistant naturalist, and accompanied the intrepid explorer on his journey, reaching New Zealand. On his return he spent several years in the Cape and undertook various journeys into the interior. His work, with the descriptive title: A voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic polar circle, and round the world: But chiefly into the country of the Hottentots and Caffres was the result, and was published in 1785. Sparrman, an excellent observer, not only collected a wealth of specimens, but he had an eye for the country and a descriptive turn of phrase about the people he met.
His countryman Carl Peter Thunberg came to the Cape as a medical doctor. After his arrival at the Cape, he focused on learning Dutch during his three year stay, which was to stand him in good stead in Japan on the latter part of his travels. In September 1772, in the company of Auge, the superintendent of the Company garden, they journeyed to Saldanha Bay, east as far as the Gamtoos River and returned by way of the Little Karoo. He also met Francis Masson, who was collecting plants for the Royal Gardens at Kew, and who shared his interests, as well as being accompanied by the explorer Robert Jacob Gordon during one of his three expeditions into the interior, Thunberg collected a significant number of specimens of both flora and fauna, and has been dubbed the ‘father of South African botany’ for his contributions. Four slim volumes, entitled: Travels in Europe, Africa and Asia, made between the Years 1770 and 1779, this third edition published in 1795-6, were the result of his work.
South African travel writing would be a duller, more monochrome affair if it was not for the works of the inimitable Frenchman, Francois le Vaillant. It is fitting, therefore, that there are no less than three examples of his work in this collection: his so-called ‘first voyage’ in both the first French and English editions of 1790 ( Travels from the Cape of Good Hope into the interior Parts of Africa ), during which he had the misfortune to lose all his equipment at Saldanha Bay when his ship was sunk by the British, after which he recouped his fortunes and meandered along the southern edge of the subcontinent returning to the Cape by an inland route. Also present is his second, more historic journey, published in 1796, in which he penetrated into the inhospitable regions of Namaqualand and Bushmanland, and even crossed the Gariep River to penetrate into Namibia, as has been disputed for years, but now taken as proven. All described with the irrepressible enthusiasm of a young man out in the wilds, full of joie de vivre, seeing dangers lurking behind every hill and romance looming over the horizon.
One of the latter works of travels in the 18th century was John Splinter Stavorinus’ work: Reize van Zeeland over de Kaap de Goede Hoop en Batavia naar Samarang, Macassar, Amboina, Suratte, this published in 1798. He was an admiral of a small fleet which made an extended voyage covering the Dutch colonies in South Africa and the Far East. He visited Stellenbosch, Hottentots Holland, Vergeleegen, Klapmuts, among other places in the Cape, and remarks on the position of the farmers, whom he regards as superior to the Dutch living in the towns, whom he describes as discourteous and disagreeable, which might in part be due to the arbitrary and rapacious government they had to labour under - similar to conditions at present, in fact. His general picture of the colony is not a complimentary one and he paints conditions in the Cape Town hospital as being a complete health hazard, more likely to spread disease than to cure.  A significant contribution to social history at the Cape during the latter years of the Dutch rule.
Robert Percival was the officer entrusted by General Craig to crush resistance at Muizenberg during the conquest of the Cape. He was the first to enter Cape Town and there he remained till 1797. On his return he published a narrative of his journey and a description of the country, under the title: An Account of the Cape of Good Hope, containing an Historical View of its original Settlement by the Dutch, and a Sketch of its Geography, Productions, the Manners and Customs of its Inhabitants,  which was translated into French in 1806. This French edition is part of the collection, and though rather thin, is not uninteresting, and was warmly praised at the time. His slating of the Dutch settlers and especially of their cruelty to the Khoi, their sloth, inhospitality, and lack of social graces, are severe. However, he praises the Cape climate as best in the world and advises the British government, who had just restored the province by the treaty of Amiens, to reoccupy it.
After the takeover by Britain, it is only natural that British travellers and views should become more common. One of the earlier, and certainly more important accounts, was John Barrow’s Travels into the Interior of South Africa, of which the second edition, complete with fine hand-coloured plates by that great artist Samuel Daniell, also appeared in 1806. Barrow was the secretary of Governor Macartney, and he was despatched on a round-tour of the country to inform the settlers of the administrative changes, and to gauge their opinions. His work, though marred by bias and antagonism to the locals, is thought to be an honest appraisal of conditions prevailing in the colony, and as such is a treasured part of the literature of the period.
The era of missionaries had started. They came in shiploads, and from the early eighteen-hundreds, missionary accounts proliferated, from the arid interior, then up the West Coast, and along the southern edge of the continent. One of the enduring contributions to this genre was Ignatius Latrobe’s Journal of a Visit to South Africa. A gentle soul this Moravian missionary, a talented artist, writer and musician, he embarked on a tour of mission stations along the south coast as far as the Great Fish River, and planned on establishing a new mission at Enon. His book is illustrated with some fine colour plates and his sympathetic attitude to the folk he met, the understated descriptions of his travails have won it a lasting place on even modern bookshelves.
The last of these early works that deserve special mention is Captain W F W Owen, who’s Narrative of Voyages to Explore the Shores of Africa, Arabia and Madagascar was published in 1833 after a four year expedition which was undertaken to survey the entire coast of Africa and southern Arabia. His meticulous work laid the foundation for what we know about the geography of some tens of thousands of kilometres of coastline to this day, as he returned with more than three hundred charts. In addition his little flotilla became involved in subduing pirates in the Mascarenes, and attempting to quash slavery in Mombasa. He had much interaction with the inhabitants of the ports and islands along the coast, which makes the volumes an interesting read.
These then are the jewels in the crown of the collection that Peter de Villiers has entrusted to me to dispose of. There are many more recent works on exploration, wars, history and biography. All the above will be offered for sale by auction, on our website and by means of our catalogues which we send out to our clients at intervals. We trust that these cultural relics will find new owners, who will appreciate the contents and the workmanship of these precious volumes.
The auction starts on Thursday, 27th of August 6.30pm – and bidding ends on 3rd September at the same time, and most of the lots above, as well as other offerings can be viewed and bid on at:

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Do you know where you’re going to ? – Map Collecting


A map is a wondrous thing: one man’s attempt at describing where the viewer could go to, how there was access to the place, roads, rivers   perhaps even a habitation or settlement where he could find help if in need – or merely a depiction of how the artist or compiler imagined his physical environment. There are indications that even prehistoric man started using graphic means on the walls of caves, delineating points of reference and a sort of ‘x marks the spot’.  That hot-spot of civilization, the Middle East, shows evidence of pottery and  wall paintings that point to the early beginning of a view of the landscape from above, which meant that so much more detail could be seen than from a ground perspective. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese made giant leaps in both the scientific basis of cartography, as well as the depiction of their world.  During the early centuries of this era, the Arabs and Indians led the way, but after the Renaissance, Europeans slowly progressed beyond the roteiros of the Portuguese (which gave detailed verbal instructions on coastal features and bearings to guide the way) to the first maps printed on paper, which were carried as aids to exploration of the globe. It is said that the expansion of European power across the world can be attributed in part to late 15th Century advances in cartography. Especially early maps of the east coast of America, and depictions of the African continent (of which the general outline was known by the early 1500’s) must have aroused the cupidity of kings and adventurers alike. While any accuracy was confined to a few stretches of well-known coastline, the interior could be adorned with fanciful rivers, mountain ranges, lakes and fabulous cities of which legends abounded.

Every time I see a map of Africa or part thereof, in moderate dimensions, framed  and displayed on an office or study wall, I have this twinge of regret. Why ? Well, because most likely some perfectly good volume dealing with the history, geography or exploration of the continent has been deprived of a vital part – if it hasn’t been entirely destroyed by some ‘breaker’ as these desecrators of books are called – people who remove illustrations and maps from antique volumes in the hope of being able to sell them singly at a higher price than the book in its entirety can achieve, all in pursuit of interior decoration and profit.  These are the 18th and 19th Century maps one is most likely to run across. The works of great 16th Century mapmakers, such as Mercator or Ortelius, and even 17th Century notables like Blaeu, de Lille, Allard and the whole swathe of engravers who copied, decorated and generally muddied the pond insofar as exactitude of directions were concerned, have mostly already been snapped up and adorn the walls of museums, libraries, archives and corporate offices.

Still, it is possible to pick up the odd gem, but beware of forgeries. With the art of copying and printing at a truly remarkable stage of development, there exist facilities that can replicate old lithographs so faithfully, that it needs an expert to differentiate between a fake and the real thing. Quite frequently forgers use old paper – again, ripped from broken-up volumes, which makes it even more difficult to invest one’s money wisely. It is almost a certainty that somewhere out East there are already factories specialising in the manufacture of suitably aged, fine papers, complete down to the appropriate watermark. Some years back I was approached by a client who wanted to sell a framed map by Caroli Allard - Novissima et Perfectissima Africae Descriptio. A little bit of research gave me its date (1690), and everything about it seemed right:  islands floating in an ocean where they had no right to be, a lavish cartouche with crocodiles, lions, pyramids and a black Venus, down to the oxidation of the green pigment and light browning of the paper. Even though I trusted my client (who said he’d bought it at an auction of an estate, and could give all the particulars ) I insisted on opening up the framed piece to inspect everything with a very large lens. So far I’m happy with my purchase; a moderately uncommon example of the cartographer’s skills of the period, which now hangs on the wall above this computer.

For any aspiring collector of African maps, two books on the subject are an absolute must – Tooley’s  Collectors' Guide to Maps of the African Continent and Southern Africa and Oscar Norwich’s Maps of Southern Africa.  Both are out of print, but copies are often available from antiquarian dealers. There are quite a few other books on the subject, but most of these also end with maps published up to the late 19th century, like the two volumes mentioned, which still give a fair amount of information on works by late Victorian publishers in the UK. Some fine illustrative and painstakingly correct maps were also made during this period between the late 18th and early 20th Century by the firm Justus Perthes in Germany. The latter have the advantage of being reasonably priced due to their abundance. The internet is a great help in tracing dates of publication, details of the engravers’ work and lives, as well as rarity and a rough guide to prices. There is, as far as I know, no work dealing with more modern, yet already very collectible maps.

For collectors in Southern Africa the boom in diamonds and gold, the Zulu War, the Boer War and its aftermath all created a thirst for knowledge about the subcontinent. Prospective immigrants, traders, prospectors and businessmen all needed to know more about the region, communications, towns, climate, geology and the like. Numerous firms at the Cape as well as in Britain obliged with handsome, large folding maps in hardcover or softcover, some on linen backing for hard wear. These were at great pains to convince the aspiring immigrant that our infrastructure was expanding apace, that there were roads and towns, yet there was plenty of elbow-room and vast open spaces in which to settle, hunt or do whatever one fancied. Ten or twenty years ago one could pick up arcane gems like Richards’ Postal Route Map of the Cape Colony and Adjacent Territories, Jeppe’s Map of the Transvaal or even an anonymously published Map No 3 of the Western Cape  for a hundred rands or so. Nowadays they go at auction for prices in the thousands of rands – not bad even if you discount our rampant inflation.

Early geological maps are much prized, presumably by collectors with mining backgrounds or even the great mining houses, which would proudly display luridly coloured sheets of (to the layman) incomprehensibly named strata as the structure of gold-bearing reefs was delineated, or plans of claims to fabulously rich chunks of ‘blue ground’ which were allocated to eager prospectors. Of course, the real prize within this genre is the hand-drawn map. Either a famous geologist’s drawing of ‘work in progress’ or better still, a ‘treasure map’ such as I was fortunate to acquire and sold after much soul-searching since I coveted it for my own collection. This was one Ambrose Carroll’s little pet project. He was a notable treasure-hunter in the early 1900’s. He conceived a number of schemes to raise specie from sunken ships and to find diamonds on the Guano Islands off the Namibian coast and elsewhere. Included in his scrapbook of madcap ideas was a beautifully executed sketch-map, complete with the magic word ‘diamonds’ inserted here and there to whet the appetite. This fine map was the handiwork of one officer Pinnock of the 1st Cape Mounted Police, as the signature would have it, and I have often wondered at the story behind this partnership. Another great prospector-adventurer was Fred Cornell, and though he did not leave any hand-drawn maps among the effects I was asked to sell, there were a number of claim diagrams/maps, which, touched by the magic wand of his name, made a few collectors very happy.

Any type of war memorabilia has a wide appeal to collectors. Diaries and maps are no exception, and depending on the rank of the soldier, regiment and actions described or mapped, they can be exceedingly valuable. Hand-drawn sketch maps in this sort of situation are prime collectibles, but one needs to have some supporting documents to support their provenance. During the early stages of the Anglo-Boer War, almost hysterical patriotism reigned in Britain and the Cape, so numerous maps were published to inform the patriots of the situation of ‘The Seat of War’ and ‘The Boer Republics’ and similar titles. None of these maps showed much that was new, but the public lapped them up and they have become a genre in themselves. Much more interesting, were the little pocket maps issued by J Wood for the Field Intelligence Department in ‘a scale of 3.94 miles to the inch’. Many early editions of these maps, from 1899 onwards to 1902, bear the rather endearing legend ‘This map is not to be considered absolutely accurate – not many surprises then, as features like horse troughs, windmills, springs and gates, feature among the buildings and kopjes that littered the empty paper plains of Namaqualand and Bushmanland. As intelligence improved, new and revised maps were issued – some so fresh that some of the information was hand-written instead of typeset. There are 57 maps in the grid covering the Northern, Western and Southern Cape, and though I have collected a number of them, the outlay is just too much for my Namaqualand Collection, which focuses primarily on written material, so I have a full set of electronic images on file instead, which I could have printed out quite reasonably, if desired. These maps are often inscribed with the owner’s names, regimental data, and even stains from hard wear in the field – and in one instance a sinister brown splash of blood marred the back of one that passed through my hands..

Only thirteen years after the end of that conflict, Germany and Britain went to war, and since Gen. Botha had decided to stand behind his erstwhile victors, South Africa invaded South West, but not before a few anxious moments as the 1914 Rebellion set brother against brother in the Northern Cape. Once again the region came under the spotlight, and an almost identical set of revised maps was commissioned to reflect the salient features of the country from where the assault would be launched by government forces. In this war the set of maps extended into German South West, but the progress of the war soon outran the mapping division’s efforts when the Germans capitulated in 1915.  Both of these sets of maps in their various editions come up for sale quite regularly, and either or both would make a suitable subject for an intensive collection without being ruinously expensive. Having said that, their prices have risen dramatically over the past decade or two. World War I in East Africa must also have produced its rash of maps, but these seem much less common, and I have only come across a few, mostly of German origin, from that campaign.

As technology forged ahead, motor cars and planes became the order of the day. The rutted tracks of the ox-wagon were replaced with first gravel roads and drifts and ponts, then bridges and tarred roads made their debut.  Those much beloved maps issued by the petrol companies, automobile clubs and fledgling tourism organisations are steadily rising in the appreciation of collectors of maps. Areas of interest to lovers of nature, such as  National Parks, were mapped. Even folders of route maps from the Cape to Cairo, or from Beira to Bagamoyo for those with a hankering for crossing the Dark Continent, were available. Just tracing a route and reading the warnings are enough to conjure up the romance of the road. ‘Danger – Elephants’; ‘No petrol for 450 miles’; ‘Impassable in the Wet’; ‘Beware of Crocodiles’. Not that these routes have become much safer in modern times. All the abovementioned hazards are still present with the added peril of ‘War-zone’ added for good measure

Lastly a short mention needs to be made of hand-drawn and painted maps. They should never be ignored by the collector, as they are often labours of love, or part of a vocation. My first map was one of these; drawn by some nameless forestry official tasked with looking after a huge stretch of Maputaland in Northern Natal. The date was somewhere in the early 1950’s, and it had neat hand-lettering of the names of even the meanest kraal, pan, rivulet and hill, while delicate watercolour washes had been used to denote plantations, bodies of water, dune forests and scrubland. After a sojourn of almost fifty years in my care, I willingly passed it on to a client who thought he recognised his grandfather’s hand in the making. It meant more to him than to me.

An allied genre would be town and city plans and maps. These are actually quite common, since they generally owe their presence in the market to the previously mentioned scavengers who dismember books, but they are not the sort of thing I can get enthused about. Still -  they are all part of getting you to ‘know where you’re going to’.

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Recipe for Collectors – an Endangered Genre


When choosing from a wide range of objects, artifacts, books or whatever, to assemble a collection, it is generally assumed that there has to be a certain ‘rarity factor’ in that genre. Let’s disregard for a moment collectors of Rodin sculptures and van Gogh paintings; let us avoid Mills and Boon paperbacks, as well as those collections of matchboxes, Coca-Cola cans, barbed wire and car numberplates. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous – but to every man his own taste.

Since I am among bibliophiles (or you would not be reading this), I am quite certain that each one of you has at some time or other felt that quickening pulse, that tingle of excitement and that ‘Eureka Moment of discovering a rare and precious item to add to your collection. In our case it was most likely a book; something that was published either a very long time ago, maybe in a small print run, or the publication’s companion volumes might have had the misfortune to be stored in a warehouse which was set alight during the Mau Mau insurrection (as the lore of a rare golfing book I once handled, would have it) or got bombed in the Blitz.

Alternatively you can look towards the future. Like the art connoisseur who buys unknown, ragged artists’ weird collages or splashes or daubs on street corners for a few Rands, in the hope that they have just met another Gaugin in the making. You are speculating that one day they will be numbered and catalogued – as well as valuable and sought-after. In print terms, you might collect those hefty tomes that come in plastic bags and are thrown over your garden wall – I’m talking about the Yellow Pages – since I confidently predict that they will be as the dinosaurs in less than a generation from now. The people that use them now will go to the computer and find whatever they are looking for on Google. The era of the search engine is here, to assist you in obtaining all your needs, fancies and desires. So let’s explore that a little further, without going into the pro’s and cons of electronic media as a whole – and the demise of the printed word, as is being threatened in the same breath as global warming.

No, let us have a look at a truly endangered genre of books, which, if publishers have any business sense whatsoever, will die out in the immediate future. I am talking about cookery books. A strange choice perhaps, since you can walk into just about any type of bookshop (with the exception of those dealing exclusively with religious matters) and you will find hundreds of titles to choose from – covering every aspect and every cuisine; mostly beautifully illustrated with mouth-watering pictures of dishes gleaming with the ‘shine’ of butter, and almost fooling the senses to the degree where you can smell the aroma. So why are they endangered? This was brought home to me about a year ago as I watch food programmes on TV with great enjoyment. Eastern cuisine is among my favourites, so I learnt about a Korean dish named kimchi. This was described as a sort of sauerkraut-type, fermented cabbage preserve, with some very daring occasional additives like shrimps or fish – not normally the sort of food we would care to have standing round the kitchen unrefrigerated for a month or two.

My interest was piqued. As my sister was leaving for Singapore in the next few days, I asked her to find me a Korean recipe book, if she could locate one in that great Asian crossroad. But my thirst for knowledge demanded instant gratification. Suddenly a flash of inspiration – Google it ! I entered the word into the search form, breathless with anticipation, and in 0,29 seconds I had at my beck and call 229 000 odd recipes. I won’t bore you with the process and results, but for the rest of the summer, my kitchen and refrigerator exuded faint whiffs of sulphurous emanations from batches of kimchi in the ripening and eating stages of development. I got quite fond of the stuff.

A short while later an Irish friend, who has an Argentinian wife, introduced me to the concept of  ceviche – a food made in heaven, according to him. It consisted of raw fish, citrus fruit, onions, garlic, chillies and suchlike forms of sustenance. I had no Peruvian or Chilean cookbooks, so once again I turned to the big G on the screen – and once more 114 000 entries were lined up for my perusal. Ceviche is now one of my favoured starter dishes with which I like to surprise unsuspecting dinner guests. I was hooked. Since then, I won’t say that I have entirely deserted my trusty shelf of cookery books, but I must confess that I regularly dive into the wealth of choices presented to me on the net. Not to say that I slavishly print out a copy every time I find something – but it is oh, so easy, to find inspiration and a bit of basic advice on techniques. The sheer number of dishes available boggles the mind. Just a few examples: Beef Rendang, a Malaysian dish – 174 000 hits, Apple Strudel – 277 000, Yorkshire pudding – 354 000. I have not established the dish that you can find the most recipes for – but the omnipresent curry must be among them with 2,88 million recipes on-line. In search of something a little more esoteric, I had a look at what was on offer if one wished to use the household pet, to whit Fido or Rover, as ingredients for Sunday lunch. Yes. I learnt among 295 000 snippets on the subject that though dog-meat was no longer used in Germany as it was in days of yore under the name of “Blockade Mutton”, the Swiss cantons of Appenzell and St Gallen (more generally renowned for their cheeses) have a tradition of producing fine smoked dog-hams and sausages to this day, and the Swiss government does not see its role as having to control their citizenry’s appetites. Despite popular legend and numerous TV programmes, China is on the verge of driving dog-eating underground due to unfavourable publicity. Not so the populace of Viet Nam, as also the great Kim Jong Un who has even fixed the price per kilo on this most necessary adjunct to the national cuisine of North Korea.

I am willing to bet that you can find even the most outlandish viands and their best methods of preparation – the most obscure I could think of was kumyss – Mongolian fermented mare’s milk – and even for that there were two methods of manufacture listed. So, would you think that I am correct in assuming that cookbooks are on their way out? Surely their appeal in this era of information revolution can only be visual. Huge sums are spent by publishers on dedicated food designers, photographers, layout artists and the like to make their offerings nearly as irresistible as the succulent repasts they promise. They must be doomed! For those of you who do not want to spend a fortune on your collecting habit, those who want to get some practical enjoyment out of your hobby, I would suggest that you start collecting cookery books, and not just any, but Southern African cookery books. The subject is so wide that one should specialise. There’s always time later to expand a collection.

Sub-Saharan Africa is not historically a culinary paradise. The food crops grown during precolonial times in the largest part of the continent, were poor in variety, and from my personal tasting of items such as millet, sorghum, plantain, yam, wild leaf vegetables and a form of peanut – they were rather bland and uninteresting in taste. Protein in the form of game, fish and fowl was available in large quantities and varieties and are equal to any other continent’s. Not until the advent of Asiatic and Arab traders being blown across the Indian Ocean by the Monsoon, and the Portuguese explorers with the riches of the orient in their sights, coming down the west coast, did Africa get a sprinkling of spice in their dishes. One writer who seems to have a different opinion of African cuisine, is Laurens van der Post. In his ode to food African, First Catch your Eland (Hogarth, 1977) he lauds everything from a hunk of venison thrown on the fire by his Bushman companions, to Palm Oil Chop from West Africa and as a crowning indignity the shoeleather and fire combination from the Horn of Africa, called injera and wat. A prized volume nowadays, but for no discernible reason, except the celebrity status of its author. Despite these negative things about African foodstuff, I admit that in the realm of beverages Ethiopia’s contribution of coffee ranks in the top three world drinks along with tea and beer.

So the search for African cooking science or art can be curtailed considerably – and one could well concentrate on Cape Cookery in its widest sense as a subject for collection. Before rushing out to buy in a vast stock of secondhand works by a number of very capable cooks, bakers and domestic goddesses, let’s have a look at our culinary history. A good book to start with is Renata Coetzee’s work, The South African Culinary Tradition or if you prefer the Afrikaans version Spys en Drank (both published by Struik in 1988). It gives a good overall view of the straits in which the Dutch colonists found themselves with regards to foodstuffs and chronicles the early developments of gardening as well as sketching the content and preparation of meals. Soon a fair approximation of Dutch cuisine could be found at the Cape, enhanced by the addition of some of the herbs that they grew themselves, as well as the spices that came from the east, along with the Malay slaves, who knew so well how to use them. Added to that was the French component – a nation which was already notable at the time for some famous chefs, like Escoffier, Careme and Montagne. The author also lists a few of the handwritten cookery books of the early Cape period, which are of course, unavailable to the collector, and then gives some background to early local cuisine which I have already covered, when I extolled the delights and quirks of cookery books from 1890 onwards in a previous chapter, so we can pass on to cookery after the great Louis Leipoldt.

I can not pretend that I know most of the books that have been published on the subject since then, but here is a selection of titles that a would-be collector could start off with.  Let's get cooking with ‘Ouma’ Hendrie, who got herself into print with Ouma’s Cookery Book (Juta, 1940) but I find her hundreds of shorthand, collected recipes pretty uninteresting, if not repulsive – I mean, who wants to eat the likes of  beefsteak cake, redolent with suet, cooked in dripping etc. The only recipe worthy of mention is her ‘Humorous recipe’ in which she sets out a sure-fire method of making a compliant husband! (page 64). An obviously Norwegian import by the resounding name of Aagot Stromsoe passes on some of her presumably inherited lore on the cooking of fish, with an early effort entitled Do you know how to cook Fish? (Juta, 194-), which should have had the rider added: Because I don’t. A horrible little book, utterly lacking in any flair – though it does tell you how to render inedible perfectly good dried fish by soaking and boiling it in a solution of slaked lime. This was followed up by the laconic Fish Book (Timmins, 1962) almost two decades later. Nothing wrong with that effort, since the lady obviously spent the time between authoring the two books in learning some more imaginative ways of preparing food.

The Department of Agriculture entered the fray in the postwar years as well, with a number of editions entitled Foods and Cookery – Housewife’s Guide (1946) and later variations thereof. These works were compiled with the health of the nation in mind; setting out balanced diets, good food hygiene and safe preservation practices, as well as guiding even the most inexperienced in the arcane arts of boiling an egg and other more trying tasks.

Hilda Gerber became something of a domestic goddess by popularising large numbers of Cape Malay dishes with a number of books, of which Cape Cookery – Old and New, (Timmins, ca 1950) and Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays (Balkema, 1958) are just two examples. Reprints of these still appeared in the 1980’s, so they are relatively easy to find and inexpensive.

Just recently I came across the encyclopaedic Jess Davidtsz se Kookboek, published by herself in 1955, when she held a professorship in domestic science at a tertiary institution. This was probably the start of the ‘modern cookery book’ for Afrikaans speaking women. It is also available in English. This no-nonsense work is full of nourishing stuff, properly cooked and embellished with photo’s illustrating methods and final dishes. I seem to recall that an added bonus, was a ‘catering appendix’ where it tells you what quantities you need for 50 – or was it 500? - guests at a party.

Another I would like to mention is Judy Desmond, as I am a firm admirer of her work Traditional Cookery in South Africa  (Books of Africa, ca 1960). Not only does she give a short history of the art in the subcontinent, but she also lists a number of interesting recipes, often using ingredients that are far from ordinary. I know of several modest little publications authored by ladies’ committees to aid the new bride or raw immigrant in the best utilization of local produce and amenities. These are often liberally laced with humour and stuffed with recipes from frying an egg to concocting your own insecticide. Indian dishes get their dues in Zuleika Mayat’s book entitled Indian Delights, which appeared in the early 1970’s and which went through numerous incarnations ever since. Another is R Makan’s South African Indian Cookbook and there are any number of books on Cape Malay cuisine that should be added to a collection. Finally I would round off with Vera Heard and Leslie Faull’s book Cookery in South Africa - Traditional and Today which is a wonderful book on the culinary lore of this vast subject and the many influences that shaped its present form.

That only just takes us up to the 1970’s, and there are another couple of decades’ worth of authors and books – just on the subject of ‘Local is Lekker’ – many of them by truly innovative, imaginative people who have enriched generations of South Africans’ experiences of the flavour, aroma and convivial enjoyment of that great unifier, food. As such it would be a great pity if all that knowledge were to disappear into that great electronic limbo that is the internet. Instead I urge you to give a thought to preserving those endangered, tatty, grease-stained, scribbled on and utterly used books because above all they are “The Ghosts of Banquets Past”.