The Call of the Cape

Cape Town has always held a special place in my heart. It was the place where I first tasted independence, that somewhat scary but ultimately rewarding experience that comes when you have the freedom for self-discovery. As my university town, I grew up, figuratively anyway, in the shadow of Table Mountain. Having not been back for 15 years, I was determined to squeeze it in to our South Africa travel plans somehow, and it was well worth it. Although we only had three days there, we jammed it full of highlights, caught up with friends and family and indulged in both the nightlife and the spectacular natural beauty of the land.

We arrive at dusk. Cape Town is settling into its evening jewels as we make our descent. The omnipresent mountain, with its craggy sides and the flat top that gives it its name, is a darkening backdrop to this illuminated water-side city. In the western sky, the sun has set into the ocean, and the horizon is a smouldering palette of pinks, oranges and greys. It’s beautiful, even from on high.

Like many places in South Africa, Cape Town is a town of stark contrasts. There is natural beauty in abundance, a lively food scene and enough historical attractions to keep even the most ardent student of history happy but there is also poverty and desperation, and the traffic is horrendous. You can skim the surface here – enjoying the bars and beaches, wines and African crafts, and we mostly do. But, you can also scratch below the glittering façade and see what everyday life looks like for its varied population. Our social activist teen pushed us in that direction and by moving out of our comfort zone we gained a richer and more rounded experience of the town.

To start though, we visit the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, nestled at the eastern base of the Table Mountain. It is spring and the gardens burst with colour. Pretty streams and old baths, an ancient cycad forest and the tree canopy walkway occupy our time and attention. Various sculptures dot the landscape and the sound of laughing children on school excursions float in the air that feels fresh and full of optimism.

We are drawn, of course, to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a pivotal attraction point in Cape Town. We sit in the sunshine against the backdrop of Table Mountain, eating lunch and listening to live music – a four-man percussion and rhythm ensemble playing an upbeat tune on xylophones and drums. It feels uniquely African, and joyful. Here we explore the wonderful arts and crafts markets and shop up big to bring a piece of Africa home with us.

The Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Arts – Africa) grabs our attention and inspires more than a little awe. The building itself is spectacular –  a mesmorising architectural feat that transformed soaring old concrete grain towers into a space that is full of light and sound. Looking back, I have a sense of floating in the space.  The main exhibition is a showcase of William Kentridge, a prolific artist whose underlying political commentary is unsettling. (He did much of it during the apartheid years, calling out the absurdity and cruelty of this horrific political regime).

In stark contrast to all of this, we visit Imizamo Yethu – an “informal settlement” directly across the road from one of the richest suburbs in Cape Town – Hout Bay. Here, crammed into a small space on the side of the mountain, we pick our way through narrow muddy pathways that wind through what are primarily ramshackle tin shacks crowded together, like birds huddling in the wind. Our guide explains that people create their houses from whatever bits of materials are to hand, presumably putting them up wherever there is an available shard of space. Residents share inadequate sanitation supplies, and cold water taps provide hydration and washing opportunities. We are welcomed into homes that shine with care and hope despite the dire circumstances these poor people have been born into. The view from the township is one of space and luscious green grass, for across the road the horses of the rich stand in wide spacious paddocks, complete with stables that offer more comfort and luxury most people here have. No wonder people get cross.

My favourite part of this tour is a visit to the pre-school. The kids are exuberant and lively, with smiles that glow from lips to eyes. They demand our hands to play jumping games, and spontaneously deliver hugs and high fives. The number of children crammed into this small space would give Australian regulators nightmares, but there is no doubting the passion of the teachers and staff as they care for their high-spirited charges.

As in all communities, even one that is demonstrably poor, there are people who are doing better than others. The pub is thriving and the local internet café boasts a steady stream of business. Dogs roam the street and neighbours call out to each other. Some people are lucky enough to have traditional houses – made of bricks, with proper front doors (apparently the work of an Irish charity). The local church provides succour, handing out care packages from charities and showcasing some of the local arts and crafts. I spend big as a way to give back. At the end of the tour our guide thanks us for our bravery… they are words that floor me.

Cape Town itself, the city centre, is vibrant and full of life. Business is booming and the streets burst with people going about their business. But, lulled perhaps into a false sense of security, we nearly get mugged while standing outside the main train station looking somewhat confused and cashed up. Years ago, a taxi driver taking us to a similar place in Rosario, Argentina gave us a stern warning. “Cuidado, cuidado” he said, making a strange wavy movement with his hand. Watch out. Beware. Crooks about. So, it’s a lesson we know from old – in places with rampant income inequality, you need a bit of cuidado about you, especially at train stations. The intervening years of suburban complacency have clearly dulled our travel-senses. I ward off the “aggressive beggars” with the large painting I had purchased at Green Market Square earlier in the day.

The night life in Cape Town doesn’t disappoint. We bar and restaurant hop through the heart of the city which teams with life.  The Gin Bar – a light and airy space with a wide selection of gin-cocktails; The Commissary – an intimate, low lit restaurant above a graffiti covered stair well serving excellent food and great wine; The Shortmarket Club – somewhat more sophisticated and high end for dessert. Through it all we felt safe and sated.

To round off the trip, we hike up Table Mountain. Yes, you can take the cable car or walk up easier pathways that wind step-like around the back of the mountain. But in the company of a local, who may well be part dassie, we opt for a frontal assault. Despite dire warnings of steep rock climbing and difficult navigation, our friend shrugs. He runs up here, apparently, and perhaps he is telling the truth because on our 4-hour climb we pass people doing exactly that. Still, there were some hairy moments for a little soul like me who is a tiny bit afraid of heights. Chains had to be used and there was some tentative shuffling across a narrow ledge to reach the end. But we made it and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city so ripe with hope – if only more could be done to provide willing people with economic opportunity.

On the way home we stop at UCT – our old uni campus – and sit on Jamie stairs and reminisce about those long ago days of heady freedom, with just a few assignments, a part time job and exams to cope with. What a privilege it was to have attended this beautiful campus and what a gift it was to make life-long friends who still travel with us along this journey we call life.

Blue Suede Shoes, Baby

The streets of Parkes are wide, and largely empty when we arrive the day before the Elvis festival is due to kick off. At 6pm, as we wander down the main street, tinny-sounds of Elvis waft across the town. There is a haunting note to the music. If it was a story, it would have Stephen King all over it.

There are three pubs offering to quench our thirst after the long drive out from Sydney, and we err with our first choice which provided karaoke and wine in a champagne glass. However, we soon stumble into the action at The Cambridge Hotel. Our very first Elvis impersonator is up on the stage, and the crowd is pumped, rocking and rolling like they were there the first time round. Friends are gathered in matching Elvis paraphernalia and someone has even gone to the trouble of shaving ELVIS into his hair. It is hysterical, and enchanting, and we are soon joining in the antics on the dance floor. The Memphis Cowboys steal the show by not being impersonators at all, but rather excellently engaging musicians rocking out their own version of the songs. I suspect they must be on their way to the Tamworth Country Music festival next. We dance extravagantly, without any expertise nor embarrassment. It’s that sort of place.

By the time we’ve been in town for two days, we’ve seen all manner of Elvis impersonators. Young and old, fat and thin. We’ve experienced the buskers, the pub-players and the in-it-to-win-it professionals. What a strange life, I muse, living forever in the shadow of greatness. On the road, never quite yourself, never an original. Then again, perhaps it is no more strange an existence than doing market research for a living, and perhaps in that sense, it is more authentic because it comes from passion.

The vibe in the town is friendly, welcoming. Old cars line the street and all the shops are bedecked in Elvis mania. Whilst it is putting on a show, it feels very real. As though the townsfolk would do this for fun anyway, even if no-one came. But come they do, in their droves. Bussed in, trained in, driven in. The streets are soon buzzing with Elvis chops, Rockerbilly skirts and bejewelled polyester jump suits. The town-piped Elvis of the night before has been supplanted by buskers who crowd the pavement and croon out their own versions of Elvis’ most famous hits.

It’s a fun way to spend a couple of days, but I am soon sick of hearing Blue Suede Shoes over and over again. Following my own passion, we make a break for The Dish. It looms large on the horizon, visible for miles around. A resident astrophysicist is giving a talk that we are lucky to catch. She explains radio waves (which is a form of electro-magnetic energy, like visible light) – as a radio telescope is what the Dish is. She lights up when she talks about pulsars. They’ve located more than half of all known pulsars, gazillions of light years away, from this unassuming outpost of science in the middle of country NSW.

It is quiet here, away from our noisy society, and that’s important if you are a radio telescope. All around us, the landscape stretches flat to the edge of the horizon. Peaceful and serene. Green paddocks, blue skies, red earth and an ear to the Universe and the possibilities of tomorrow.

Puppy Love

If you follow me on instagram (@sharlzed), it would be hard to miss that I have just become a new fur-mum.  Yes, some people have puppies (and I honestly thought I would be one of those), but it turns out I have a fur-child.  You can tell this by the number of   photos of the dog sleeping, eating, running and (oh I can’t describe the joy this brings me) wee-ing on the grass rather than on my newly cleaned wooden floors.

Everyone said – “You’ll end up doing all the hard work”, and they weren’t wrong.  But I was ready for a dog.  I haven’t had one since I was a child, and even then my experiences weren’t great.  Poor old Honey, sent to romp in doggie heaven because of bad eczema (I remember sitting in the front of my Dad’s VW bus, under the tree, being told Honey wasn’t going to be our dog anymore).  I was about 6 I think.  Then there was the little Jack Russell, who as they are wont to do, ran away and got run over.  I think I was 8.  And that was pretty much it for my dogs.  There was Lady – my Dad’s bull terrier, who was unjustifiably blamed (and yelled at by an hysterical me) for biting off the top of my 2-year old brother’s finger – when I was ten.  For the record, he got his finger caught in one of those stable-style kitchen doors that slammed shut in a wind gust.  Poor Lady.  My other memory is of her drinking out the toilet bowl.  My dad loved that dog.  I should probably mention Steffie the Staffie, but I was long grown up and moved out of home by the time she was around.

So, I was ready for a dog.  And it is a good thing too, because they are hard work.  A lot like having children – you have to feed them, train them, be patient with them (not my strongest point), provide endless cuddles and attention.  And, just like children, they have a mind of their own, that is not always aligned with mine.  Ah, the frustration of independent thought 😉  I find I do a lot of wheedling with everyone in my family.   Is that just me?

But the dog is such a blessing.  His sheer enthusiasm for us – from his early morning bark to say “I am awake, wake up and love me”, to the jubilant wriggling that occurs when we come back home, forces me to stop and appreciate the moment.  You have to pause and give him love, and it reminds me to take a breath and pause and give attention to the people I love too.

Working from home, it is gorgeous to have a little living thing at my feet, just quietly content to be near me.  If I get up and make a cup of tea, he follows me and plops down beside me patiently.  He is like a little shadow.  A solid little shadow I have tripped over several times, but a delightful one all the same.  And it means I have a reason to talk out loud – a habit I got into when my kids were babies and I haven’t managed to give up yet.  A dog provides at least some semblance of an excuse for these random mutterings.

The children christened the dog Rocky long before we met him.  It is an ironic name, since he is far more fur-ball than dog-of-steel.  And they hate it when I call him Sylvester.  A cultural reference far beyond their ken, they are convinced it will confuse him.  So Rocky it is.  Or Puppy.  Or Dog.  But only when they are not around.

Yes, I have a bad case of Puppy Love.  And I would recommend it to everyone.

Allergy-friendly cupcakes

I hate the lunchbox rigmarole.   I have a friend who is insanely organised.  She has a weekly lunchbox meal plan, that she just rotates.  That much structure freaks me out.  Even thinking about it gives me a headache (in a jealous “I so wish I could do that” kind of way).  As a result, every morning I run around like a headless chicken trying to work out what to give my fussy kids for lunch and recess to ensure some vague balanced meal requirements are being met.

Anyway, my latest thing is the bake up a batch of cupcakes once a week and stick them in the freezer.

Always a winner, eggless chocolate cupcakes with chia seeds.  Surely the addition of Chia seeds makes them sorta-healthy?
Eggless chocolate cupcakes, with chia seeds

Ingredients 
2 tbs chia seeds
6 tbs water
125gm dairy free spread (like Nuttelex)
¾ cup caster sugar
1 cup rice milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
½ cup cocoa
1 and ½ cups self raising flour
½ tsp bicarb
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Method
Preheat oven to 180degrees. Prepare a muffin tray with paper patty pan cases and give them a spray of oil to help with sticking.

Add the water to the chia seeds in a cup and mix together until it’s a glutinous mess. Set aside. (If you don’t want the crunch that comes with having chia seeds in your recipe, grind them down first with a spice grinder and then add to the water)

Cream together dairy free butter and caster sugar with electric mixers until creamy and smooth. Mix long enough so that the caster sugar starts to dissolve.

Add the chai seed mixture, vanilla essence and rice milk to this and mix in with a wooden spoon. I’ll confess, it looks a little alarming at this point, but persevere!

Add the sifted dry ingredients – cocoa, flour, bicarb and baking powder and salt to this mixture.

Mix together with a wooden spoon until smooth and combined.

Fill the patty cases ¾ of the way. The mixture is quite stiff.

Bake for 20 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of one comes out clean.

Leave to cool on a wire rack and then ice. I used a simple mixture of icing sugar, cocoa and water which makes the topping crack when you first bite into it.

Vivid

Ahh Vivid – the natural beauty of Sydney’s foreshore adorned with jewels of light.  A celebration of artistry and imagination. An irresistible  calling to all Sydney-siders to get out and enjoy this amazing city we get to call home.

How fitting then that it should be my first post for June – a month I am dedicating to seeking out and focusing on those things in my life worth celebrating.  Things I am thankful for.  Things that bring me joy.  It is too easy to focus on the things that are wrong, the problems, the irritations, the bumps and the grinds.   Easy to give them the mental space to grow, big and heavy, until they weigh you down.  This month I am going to take at least ten minutes a day and focus on something that brings me joy.  Something that makes me smile.  Something that reminds me just how lucky and fortunate I am.

And to live in this glorious city, surely the most beautiful city in the world (do you disagree?), is a privilege and delight worthy of a post!

Sydney at Night
Sydney at Night

We took the ferry into the city last night – it was clear and not too cold.  Even though it was only approaching 6, darkness had set and there were stars in the inky blackness above us.  The kids and I stood on the deck, hair blown awry and watched the golden glow of the city grow larger.  It is a beautiful sight even when it is not in the midst of a Vivid festival.  A magical sight, bright and alluring, against the foreground of the dark black water.  And set to the giggle of delighted children, even more precious.

How wonderful to come in to Circular Quay just as the sails of the Opera House lit up with images reminiscent of 70’s pop culture.  Bright, garish, loud.  Very much alive and indeed, very “Play“ful.  The city was heaving with people of all ages and sizes and shapes.  A mass of solid shadows moving through the dark, from one light installation to the other.

Vivid Sails
Vivid Sails

 

Vivid Sails

From the Opera House, through the Rocks and all the way to Walsh Bay, celebrations of light could be found lurking on buildings, around corners and in narrow alleyways.   Little or large, interactive or still – art that you could play and engage with, art that changed the facade of buildings, art that caught your eye and sent you a thought provoking message.

Thankful to live in as beautiful and engaging a place as Sydney.  Thankful for art, artists and all creative people who make the world a bit brighter, happier and more thoughtful.  Thankful for time with my family, enjoying it all.

 

Vivid Magic Mirror
Vivid Magic Mirror

Vivid Lights IMG_0148

 

 

Camping in the heart of Sydney on Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island, in the middle of Sydney Harbour, has had a diverse history in its time. Although today it plays host to happy campers and day trippers, it has done time as both a colonial penal establishment and Australia’s biggest shipyard. The island’s latest incarnation is an increasingly popular tourist destination, which blends its industrial heritage with more modern day pursuits – camping, partying, a coffee stop for intrepid harbour kayakers. Cockatoo Island’s dockyard past is abundantly displayed in the large cranes and oversized rust-coloured metal constructions that remain scattered about the place, artworks in themselves. The convict quarters are now a photo opportunity for children and the massive turbine factory an exhibition space, available for rent.

We camped overnight, meeting up with friends. While our posse of children ran about, climbed a tree and played at adventuring and football, we sat around drinking G&T’s against the backdrop of this most beautiful harbour. Against the city skyline, yachts with bright red sails cavorted on the water, catching the blustery winds. Despite being literally in the middle of the city, a mere swim away from Balmain, the very nature of camping makes you feel “away from it all”, at peace and in the moment. Spending time with friends while the kids largely entertained themselves just added to the overall feeling of peace and wellbeing.

We zoomed over in our little boat, bouncing along the tops of the swell that the wind and clouds and ferries created in the harbour, much to my consternation. All morning I kept looking out the window at the trees blowing sideways and the heavy grey skies, saying “are you sure this is a good idea?”. But my dearly beloved, who has to put up with much wimpyness from me, was firm in his assertion that it would be okay and we stuck to the edges and stayed away from the main channel and of course it was fine. We even stopped over at the Fish Market for lunch on the way.

Despite being a less enthusiastic boatie, I actually love going to the fish market by boat – no cars, no parking queues and a generally feeling of smugness that we get to live in this beautiful city and take advantage of the water and sunshine and do something as ridiculously great as travel by boat!

Even though we weren’t officially “glamping”, camping at Cockatoo Island is so easy. The tents, mattresses and chairs for sitting in and watching dusk settle on the shoulders of Sydney are all provided as part of the package. Fridges, hot water, clean BBQ’s and bench seating for hungry children and chilled out adults make dinner and breakfast a breeze. If you are a bit bleary eyed in the morning, you can join the queue for a freshly made cappuccino from the cafe.

As everyone settled down for the night and I made my way back from last minute ablutions past dark and quiet tents, the sky cleared up and I could see Orion’s belt a million light years away. Out on the water, a party boat, an outline of orange lights and muted laughter, sailed by and Sydney, bedecked in its evening jewels of red and blue and white lights, twinkled on the far shore. All in all the perfect ending to a fabulous day.

Key replacements for dairy and egg for bakers

When I first became head cook of my family of allergy sufferers, I had absolutely no idea how to go about baking for kids who could not eat egg or dairy. I loved baking. But baking without egg and dairy seemed a formidable task. It took me a lot of trial and error, and serendipitous comments to work out what the options were.

Firstly, dairy free margarine. I had no idea what to use. Every thing I picked up, however much it promised to be made of olives or similar, seemed to contain milk solids. An acquaintance mentioned using Nuttelex. This of course was the one brand I had never picked up – after all, why on earth would I use something that seemed to scream “nuts” to me, when nuts were yet another thing I needed to avoid at all costs. This poorly named product, however, has become a staple in our house because of course it has absolutely nothing to do with nuts. Made with cholesterol free vegetable oils, it even comes on holiday with us!

Secondly, milk alternatives. There are quite a few milk alternatives out there. Here in Australia we are lucky that all the rice and soy milk on offer appears to be fortified with calcium. In the UK, you have to actively search for calcium enriched options. We tend to use rice milk, because my son was allergic to soy to start with, and the kids are now used to the taste. There are a number of rice milk options, some nicer than others, but (key to getting kids to like it), is they all tend to be very sweet. Which makes it great for baking too. As part of my ongoing efforts to make sure they get enough calcium, I also buy the small cartons of chocolate soy milk (oh, how I wish someone would make a rice milk version) which the kids take to school in their lunch boxes.

Finally, egg-replacer. This is a key ingredient and is brilliant for baking because it means, in general, that you can take your regular recipes and merely substitute the egg for the egg-replacer. I add in a table spoon of vegetable oil, along with the egg-replacer and this seems to work very well. I have a cake recipe from my mother which has four eggs, and I make it with egg replacer to good effect. (Okay, its not light and fluffy, but its tasty!) As far as I know there is only one brand here in Australia, Orgran’s No-Egg. Its an excellent pantry addition and once you discover it, baking becomes a breeze. Okay, maybe not quite a breeze, but certainly less daunting and more achievable than before. Incidentally, No-Egg is also gluten free.

But if you don’t have any to hand, no worries – chia seeds soaked in warm water also work well as a binder and my latest discovery is that banana works well as an egg replacer too.  (I know put a mashed up banana into cupcakes, which makes me feel they are at least a little virtuous!)

 

 
Have you got any hints and tips for additions to the allergy-friendly pantry?