Escape to the Dragon Mountains

In the green embrace of the dragon gods

We took the long route to the Drakensbergs as recommended by the lodge staff. “If you have a low riding car, do not use the R74 “! If we’d had a 4×4 we’d have been there in 3 hours rather than 4.5. But we saw lots of the beautiful agricultural part of S.A., cattle farms and corn or soy fields.

The site was an oasis in the middle of spectacular mountains. Rolling green hills of waving grasses dotted with wild flowers, protea covered slopes, steep rocky ravines with tumbling waterfalls. Hidden sandstone caves as well as outcrops and flat top “mesetas”. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, well deserved designation.

Arriving mid-afternoon at the Cavern Resort and Spa, we settled in to our Superior Suite, complete with four-poster bed and fireplace (and TV for CB). Also came with some Cavern crunchies and a carafe of sherry for afternoon tipples. The view from our window included the beautiful green mountain and some baboons coming up the Nature Trail.

Our mountain nest

Our mountain nest

King of the mountain

King of the mountain







The Cavern is a family-owned business, now in it’s third generation. The original farmhouse buildings remain and were re-purposed. The owners are very invested in the community, with a beautiful school on site for staff and locals, as well as support for a dozen nearby crèches (daycares) through a breakfast program.

Staff are local, most of them coming from the nearby villages. Unfailingly helpful and willing to share the beauty of their world. Our waiter, Mhlengi a sweet young man who also sang in the Cavern Choir and convinced us to try the kudu steak.

One of the owners, Megan, sat with us one evening in the cave bar and regaled us with tales of growing up at the Cavern.

The dining room

View from the dining room


Hiking was the reason we (well, Debbie) came here. Every morning, she opted for the “long walk” which lasted about 4 hours with differing levels of difficulty. (Catherine walked around the hotel a couple of times).

One of the more difficult treks...

One of the more difficult treks…

Hardy hikers on the trail

Hardy hikers on the trail

Echo Cave

Echo Cave

The walk to Echo Cave was the hardest, with the terrain described as “difficult: steep, slippery and scrambly in places”. Strenuous trekking, not helped by the high altitude, especially going up. The rest at the top was most appreciated, especially with our guide Stanley bringing out the tea and crunchies. Replenishing our glucose levels made the trek down easier.

Our guide Stanley, in the morning mist

Our guide Stanley, in the morning mist

Although it wasn’t a game reserve by any means, there was lots of flora and also some fauna to be admired. Other than baboons, and the bull mastiffs who were supposed to chase them but seemed more interested in hanging by the fireplace, there were tons of amazing birds and some other critters scurrying around.

Cape Ash, the oldest tree around (200+ yrs)

Cape Ash, the oldest tree around (200+ yrs)

Dwarf chameleon needing to change colour...

Dwarf chameleon needing to change colour quick!

Protea bush and Sugarbird

Protea bush and Sugarbird







There were also horseback riding opportunities and Catherine was tempted to try some equestrian pastime…

Catherine thinking about a horseback ride....

Catherine has found her trusty steed!

But it wasn’t all just fun and games. This was not called the Cavern Resort and SPA for nothing! After the morning trek and a delicious lunch buffet on the terrace, there was some serious massage, foot scrubbing and even facial rejuvenation to be had. Debbie spent most afternoons  at the Forest Retreat Spa, leaving barely enough time for a nap before being summoned for sundowners and supper.

The view from my massage table.

The view from the massage table.


So, after four nights in this oasis, we had to head back (long way) to buzzy, scruffy Joburg and it was all good.

That’s all for now folks!



Hop on to the Joburg vibe with Debbie and Catherine!

Hillbrow and Ponte towers from the Carlton Centre

Hillbrow and Ponte towers from the Carlton Centre

Had a busy couple of weeks doing bus/walking/self-guided tours of various parts of this amazing and confusing city.

Most of the time we were accompanied by a new Canuck colleague, Karen Hemmingson from BC Housing. Karen is spending 3 months as a Rooftops volunteer doing various pieces of work for NASHO.

We managed to snag the cottage right beside ours, in Ruby’s backyard. So Karen is our neighbour as well and we can share dinners as well as power outages, rides to work and nice rosés. Malcolm, the ED of NASHO, thinks there’s a conspiracy to have Canadians take over the SA social housing sector!

Hop on/Hop off bus tour:

On a perfect Joburg day, Sunday the 11th, we found parking at the train station and took the tourist bus around town. It gave Debbie and Karen an idea of how spread out the city is and stopped at some of the well known destinations like the Casino (évidemment), the Apartheid Museum, the Transportation Museum (who knew?), the Carlton Centre (tallest building in Africa when it was built), etc. We only got off in Newtown to spend an hour looking at an amazing photo exhibit from the struggle period (Rise and Fall of Apartheid) at the Museum Africa.



Special “turista” week

On the evening of that perfect day, Catherine succumbed to what turned out to be a rotavirus. After three days of staying very close to the bathroom and not doing much else, some chicken soup revived her and the nasty bug went away without affecting anyone else. There are no pictures related to this event.

Every city has one

A Chinatown, that is. On another perfect day a week later, Saturday 17th, the three Canuck gals took a guided walking tour of Cyrildene, the “new” Chinatown of Joburg.

It is a very small area in one of the (previously Jewish) burbs, where the Chinese community migrated once their traditional CBD area became unsafe.

Nice, but Ottawa's is nicer

Nice, but Ottawa’s is nicer

For us the highlight was visiting a Buddhist temple and hearing from their head monk and then participating in a tea ceremony.

High Mountain  Tea on the roof of the temple

High Mountain
Tea on the roof of the temple

Cyrildene temple head monk with Kwan Yin

Cyrildene temple head monk with Kwan Yin

As in Ottawa and Vancouver, “Chinatown” is a broad term and encompasses Thai and Vietnamese shops. We recognized many of the typical vegetables and ended up having lunch at a Thai place.

Just like the Kowloon, but outdoors!

Just like the Kowloon, but outdoors!

Yummy prawn sticks, only fifty cents!

Yummy prawn sticks, only fifty cents!

Maboneng, place of light

After driving past highjacked buildings , surrounded by bundles of razor wire covered in garbage, we arrived at the Maboneng Precinct, an entirely different world… Funky whitewashed warehouses full of galleries and shops and a smorgasbord of gourmet food to meet all cultural tastes.

The area, which was predominantly industrial, manufacturing and small business, fell on hard times. Consequently there was opportunity to snap up some originally very well built, vacant buildings at reasonable cost.

A 29-year old “entrepreneur”, Jonathan Leibman, formed a company called Propertuity, which has been the driving force to transform this area into a center of creativity and commerce in the heart of Joburg.

Good advice

Good advice







Sales trailer for the tiny affordable condo units

Sales trailer for the tiny affordable condo units

But what to do with/for the "binders" who work/live in abandoned warehouses?

But what to do with/for the “binners” who work/live in abandoned warehouses?

One of the first businesses to be established, taking advantage of a City program to encourage youth entreprises, is Curiocity Backpackers Hotel. The owner, 21-year old Bheki Dubé, showed us around and mentioned some of the history of this site,

Bheki Dube at Curiocity

Bheki Dube at Curiocity community kitchen

which included being the gathering place for the Black Sash (white middle class women fighting apartheid). It is believed that Mandela and others were also sheltered here at some point.

Black Sash women protesting the passbook laws

Black Sash women protesting the passbook laws

Another business, I Was Shot In Joburg, is an arts-based entreprise for at-risk youth to manufacture retail items (bags, tshirts, books, cushion covers) that speak to the inner city vibe. The kids were given cameras and the images they captured are used in the making of the merchandise.

I Was Shot in Joburg and all I got was this tote bag...

I Was Shot in Joburg and all I got was this tote bag…

We came back twice after to attend movies at the Bioscope. The owner also runs the Chalkboard café next door where one can buy pizza and a nice merlot to bring in to the movies. (Hint to Bytowne owner…) The documentaries were both worth the drive. The first one was based on Franz Fanon’s writing and called “Concerning Violence”. The second one, which we really loved, is called “Jeppe on a Friday” and was done by two women filmmakers. It follows 8 people who live and work in the very same area (Jeppestown) and takes place all in one day. Turned out that one of the filmmakers, Shannon Walsh, is associated with the NFB and made a very similar movie called “26 August, St.Henri” in Montreal a few years ago.

Here is a link to the trailer for Fridays on Jeppe.:

Note to readers: there are a number of links to YouTube on this blog. It’s possible that you are not getting them if you are reading this on a lower rez device like a phone or tablet.

Another dinner at the Leopard

With Canadian friends, of course. On Tuesday 20th, we spent a lovely evening with Ottawans Penny and Gautam as well as Penny’s brother-in-law, Iyavar, who lives in Joburg. They were doing a couple of weeks in SA before heading to Zambia and then India.

Iyavar is a lawyer working on issues of child pornography and travels around the world offering his knowledge to police and courts trying to deal with this terrible scourge.

Gautam related their attempt to get to Beijing, where apparently you can land, but can’t leave. The upshot was they were “deported” straight from the transit lounge and managed to get an early flight to Cape Town.

The Melville Canadian Consulate and restaurant

The Melville Canadian Consulate and restaurant

Where the music and the struggle met

And the whole place was bulldozed to the ground in the mid-50’s, when Sophiatown was declared a “whites only” area.

Until they come with guns and bulldozers....

Until they come with guns and bulldozers….

Sophiatown was a private piece of land which the owner subdivided, hoping to attract white middle class buyers. But it was poorly located (near waste management plants), so he gave up on that and decided he would sell to whoever was interested. Turned out that a large number of black and coloured folks bought up the area and it became a very vibrant neighbourhood.

There were a number of gangs formed (The Americans, The Berliners) who ruled much as they do elsewhere, though most of them stole only from the rich (=whites). They even developed their own lingo, Tsotsitall. So when the cops were coming heading their way, folks would warn them using this secret language.

Sophiatown was where the music was, spawning ground for folks like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and many more. Of course, this music was also part of the resistance to apartheid. People met at the ODIN theatre where they pretended to watch gangster movies while actually sitting in the back rows and planning the revolution. If you get hold of the 1951 version of “Cry the Beloved Country”, you will see some scenes filmed in Sophiatown.

There are only 3 buildings left of the original Sophiatown, one of them is now the Cultural Centre and that is where we started a walking tour of the area. It was a bit disappointing, since our guide could only point to places and say “that’s where…. used to be” But the museum had some great photos and write ups. And it was another blue sky sunny day in Joburg on Saturday 24th.


Sophiatown Cultural Centre and our guide (forgot her name!)

And now we are in the Dragon Mountains where Debbie is hiking and Catherine is not hiking. More on that in the next post.

So… that’s all for now, folks!


Debbie’s adventures in Game Land

On the way to Madikwe…I almost got arrested!

The N4 divided highway was great and at 120 km an hour, it proved to be clear sailing…until I got pulled over in Swartruggens at a speed trap. As you enter small towns the speed limit goes down to 60. I was leaving the town and assumed the speed limit had increased again. The highway patrol woman told me I was going 96 in a 60 km zone and showed me the chart with the respective list of fines. When I asked what my fine would be, she said that anything over 90 km  was automatic arrest. She said we’d have to go with her to the Police Station which was down the road. At which time Catherine asked whether we should contact the Canadian Embassy. She hesitated, I think having assumed we were locals. Catherine asked whether we could just pay the higher fine. She stated that no there was no higher fine; the penalty was arrest. At this point, I started to cry…This obviously got to her and she said, “Please don’t cry. Oh, just pay me R200 (the equivalent of $20 Can!)”. We thanked her and went on our way, realizing just what happened there. We were just implicated in bribery! Thinking back on the situation, there was definitely something fishy…she didn’t ask for my driver’s license; she didn’t show the picture of our car at the speed limit she asserted and why would she asked for a mere R200 when the fine for going 90 km was R800! She obviously pocketed the R200.

Mosetlha Bush Camp & Eco Lodge

Named after the Mosetlha tree, which grows in abundance in the Madikwe Game Reserve. It’s a very valuable tree providing food and shelter and its flowers are favoured by bees. It’s also know as the “toilet paper tree” because of it’s soft, feathery leaves. But one must beware to not confuse it with the similar Acacia tree, which has thorny spines along its leaves!

Our gracious hosts at Mosetlha. The owner, Chris is standing and Greg, the Manager. After each game drive they would meet us and debrief about our sightings and experiences.

Our gracious hosts at Mosetlha. The owner since 1995, Chris is standing and Greg, the Manager is seated. After each game drive they would meet us and debrief about our sightings and experiences. Chris just left the corporate world last year seeking to live a more peace existence..I think he’s found his niche..

The Madikwe Game Reserve is one of the closest game reserves to Johannesburg, about a 4 hour drive. This is the 4th largest game reserve in S.A., with just over 75,000 hectres of land. Bordered by Botswana to the north, the Dwarsberg Mountain range to the south and the Marico River to the east. The unique location supports a rich diversity of landscapes, from bushveld to dry, grassy, savanna plains to rocky outcrops and mountains, to natural streams, manmade damns and troughs running from the Marico River. The rich diversity of land lends to an unusual variety of game sighting. Our reason for being there!

“The little unpolished gem in Madikwe’s crown”

The Mosetlha Bush Camp is off grid, with no running water / electricity. This is the only eco-lodging within the Game Reserve. A maximum of 16 guests are accommodated in 8 cabins located around the perimeter of the camp. Facilities are rustic with comfortable beds in raised wooden cabins, open at the front and back but having canvass covers for privacy and to keep out the rain. The day we arrived it was 38 degrees, so the cross ventilation in the cabin  was a godsend. It’s surprising how quickly things cool off once the sun goes done.


Each night when we return from our evening game drive we were greeted with over a 100 oil lamps that grace the paths to our respective cabins and the central area where we share our evening meal together. It is a magical sight. At the centre of camp is the lapa, where the lounge, reference library and bar are located, the boma (fire pit and seating area) where we gather after evening dinners and the dining room with the massive table which comfortably seats 20 people  under the thatched roof.

A place to relax in the lapa.

A place to read, relax and cool off in at the lapa.

Our dining area

Our dining area at the Mosetlha Bush camp

The outdoor toilet and shower areas were impeccable given their bushveld rusticity. These are of roofed timber construction and fully surrounded by wire mesh fence (to keep out the animals). There are long drop, ventilated toilets with real wooden seats and never a smell. (Always a point of interest for us housing folk!) The showers used a traditional donkey boiler system.

And if you’re really interested…here’s the link to the UTube video by the owner’s daughter:

Basically here’s how it works: Cold water from the reservoir goes into the funnel, down into the metal barrel which is heated by the fire below and hot water comes out immediately on the other end. The hot water is then taken to the shower room and placed into the safari shower (a hanging metal bucket with a shower head attached to the bottom). That one bucket of water gives a 3 to 5 minutes shower. Amazing, simple technology and conserving water to boot! Do I ever feel guilty about the amount of water I use in my bathtub at home! Catherine and I actually preferred the cold, refreshing showers to cool off between game drives and after dinner before going to sleep

Bush Camp Schedule

5:00 am: wake up and relighting of oil lamps

5:30 am: morning game drive

7:30 am: coffee break on the bushveld

9:30 am: return from morning game drive & hearty breakfast

10:00-2:30: chatting, napping, checking reference library on game, bird, reptile and tortoise sightings and Catherine reading aloud the stories of Herman Charles Bosman: “a feast of S.A. best-loved tales” of the area!

2:30 pm: lunch is served & more chatting, napping, researching & reading

4:30 pm: evening game drive


At 6:30 we stop for our sundowner on the bushveld with our favourite libation. Justice, our trusted guide is on the far right. We shared our lovely vacation with folks from Amsterdam, Moscow and England.

8:30 pm: return from evening game drive & late dinner

10:00 pm: lights out

Sort of like summer camp as a kid! But way better.

4 days, 6 game drives

We were awoken each morning at 5:00 a.m., had coffee and fruit before leaving at 5:30 just as the sun was rising.


Stunning Madikwe sunrise with the unmistakable Leadwood trees skeletons

Perfect bird watching/listening time! Thanks to Richie, I’m always lucky when I wear my crow earrings she made. Although many S.A. birds were similar to ours (finches, starlings, doves, crows, buzzards, eagles, herons, ducks) there were many new birds to me (not that I’m a serious birder though): pied babbler, weavers of all kinds!, kites, hornbills, francolins, louries, nightjars, redbilled oxpeckers (we saw one go into a rhino’s ear!), many different kinds of shrikes, swifts and waxbills. One of the most interesting birds was the male Paradise Whydah. He has this incredible 23 cm tail on his 15 cm body. It’s there to attract the gals. Once he finishes mating, he no longer has need for this long appendage and he loses it.

Yellow billed Hornbill outside our cabin

Yellow billed Hornbill outside our cabin

Besides seeing “the big 5”! (elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino) we also saw many herds of prey, including: impalas, burchell zebras, wildebeests, kudus, giraffes, warthogs, red hartebeests, steenbok, gemsbok (oryx gazelle). They tend to hang together for protection against their predators: cheetahs, jackals, spotted hyaenas (also sighted) plus lions and leopards.


Red Hartebeest with her baby. Our cabin was named after this mammal.


A small herd of Wildebeests with their young.


Giraffes, a most elegant and regal species….


A Burchell Zebra and her baby. No zebra has the same pattern. Each is unique.


Female Kudu

Female Kudu with a Zebra in the background

Male Kudu

Male Kudu. Try and get a close up of the unusual shape of the horns. What a perfect setting.

Leopard Tortoise, one of the "little 5"

Leopard Tortoise, one of the “little 5” often seen crossing the roads

Justice: Our driver and field guide

He was fantastic. He knew exactly where and when to look for game, birds, reptiles, tortoises and the ever-incredible dung beetle. Catherine liked these guys the best of all!


The male is front centre and the attached female is off to the left.

The male dung beetle positions himself upside-down and uses his back legs to push the ball of elephant poo, while his female partner attaches herself and goes along for the ride. Once the ball gets to a sufficient size, they bury the ball and the female lays her eggs inside. When the larvae hatch they feed on the dung and eat their way out. Fascinating stuff those poop balls and beetles!

We lucked out in seeing a leopard!

There had been no leopard sighting in over 2 months at the Reserve. Justice knew she was around because another field guide spotted an impala kill up a tree; a sure sign of the leopard’s handywork. Leopards do this to keep scavengers, like hyaenas away from their kill. The next day, Justice took us back to the location, the kill was gone but we later sighted the leopard as she took off into the bush and then escaped into the culvert. I was able to get a picture before she escaped our vision; it was fleeting but worth it!


Leopards are solitary and exceptionally strong, having the ability to carry the large carcass of an animal up a tree away from scavengers.

Only 7 cheetahs at the Madikwe Game Reserve

We saw 4 bachelor cheetahs on two separate game rides. The males stay together. Justice told us that there are 2 females that are quarantined on the Reserve and they are just getting ready to release them. Hopefully, more cheetahs in future! Cheetahs are recognizable by their “tear stripe” leading down from the corner of their eye. They also have longer legs than leopards.


Lions: the most social of “the big cats”

They live in groups called prides, usually consisting of a male with several females and their cubs and maybe a few other males. Our first day out we saw a male and female together. Our last day we came upon a pride with 1 male and 4 females. Justice told us they were 2 pairs of twins. The male was getting on, at 10 years. The average life span of a male lion is 15 years. Males are constantly marking their territory by spraying and scuffing. We didn’t see any lion cubs because the females are currently contracepted to keep the numbers in check.

Lions are found in savanna grasslands with scattered Acacia trees, which serve as shade.

Lions are found in savanna grasslands with scattered Acacia trees, which serve as shade.

Rhinos: endangered species

There is a poaching crisis in S.A. due to the rhino horn demand from Asia. In 2011 alone there were 448 rhinos killed. Word has it that much of the poaching is due to inside jobs or from locals who are offered lots of money. There is quite a lobby effort in place in S.A. and more money has been put into anti-poaching park rangers that do surveillance of the reserve 24/7.

We only saw white rhinos. Black rhinos are now extremely rare. Most Game Reserves no longer publish their numbers to deter poachers. It is heartbreaking to know this cutting off of the horns and the killing of these animals continues to occur on a regular basis.

Rhinos love to roll in the mud. It not only helps them cool off but the mud acts as a sunscreen and insect repellent. I guess we’ll be rolling in the mud come July in Ottawa. I’m sure this is hard to fathom given the deep-freeze temperatures now…


The female rhino has the larger horn


African Buffalo: this guy gets to be on the back of the 100 Rand banknote

There were a few African Buffalo and their babies that roam through the bush camp due to it being unfenced. This aspect adds greatly to the experience of being in a true bush camp. They’re attracted to the watering hole located in front of Chris’ house, the owner of the eco-lodge. Apparently they can be one of the most dangerous animals in the bush. One came crashing through camp one night. Luckily I was sound asleep. Another night, upon arriving from our 4 hour evening game drive, around 9:30 we came upon one almost charging into the Land Rover. Other times we’d see them in the distance, but given I only had a pocket camera with limited zoom capability, I’m afraid I never had the opportunity to get a picture. Pictures of rhinos, however are everywhere…for it’s on the back of R$100 banknote. Worth about $10.00 Canadian. In fact all “the big 5” are on the back of the South African banknotes, with Mandala, of course on the front. Only the leopard rates higher, on the 200 Rand banknote!

Who is the favourite of them all…?

Of course the blog would not be complete without reference to the all time favourite of the big 5, the elephant. We saw many elephants, only bulls, however and no babies…There is a popular folklore that elephants get drunk on the fruit of the Marula tree (which also grow in abundant at the Reserve) but wildlife specialists argue that they could not possibly eat the huge quantities to compensate for their enormous size. Amarula is a popular after dinner liquour made from this fruit tree. It was served on my KLM flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg. Similar to Bailey’s.


There comes a point when you just need to get from behind the camera and be in the moment with the animals when they are displaying the fullness of their behavioural traits, the things that so fascinate us about these amazing creatures the elephant bulls playing with one another, interlocking their tusks and wrapping their trunks around each other before heading off to cool down and spray themselves at their favourite watering hole.


… And there was the night display as the “king of the jungle” roared many times as we sat in awe listening and watching. The sound does not come from his throat. It comes from the very pit of his belly and we could see the reverberation of his body as he roared. It was an enthralling experience to be apart of. To see all these animals in their natural environment is such a privilege and so awesome.


Not only can he roar but check out the paws on this king of the jungle…

We are indeed lucky gals…!


Guest post by Debbie

Good omen as I embark on my 2-month journey in South Africa:

100% Guarantee


No major delays encountered on the long trek to Johannesburg. My one regret was having a window seat for the 11 hour flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg. I was glad to be greeted by Catherine with a big welcome smile and open arms. We drove back from the airport entertained by a spectacular sound and light show of thunder and lightning. Accompanying the warm summer are also tropical storms, which usually don’t last longer than 2 hours.

Christmas was celebrated with the opening of cards and presents from back home. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful and yummy presents from Canada. The local hawkers did well by Catherine who bought several small beaded Christmas decorations to hang on the tiny black beaded Christmas tree.

Our festive Christmas at the Melville cottage

Our festive Christmas at the Melville cottage

World’s biggest man-made forest

One of the striking things about Johannesburg is how green it is. It’s known as the ‘city that’s a rain forest’ with more that 10 million trees. The tree canopy is fantastic. Right in the middle of this sprawling metropolis of 600 suburbs is the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve, one of the most beautiful natural settings in Joburg. Catherine’s cottage overlooks this lovely green area covering more than 150 hectares. On the Sunday after arriving I did a rigorous 10 km group hike through the Koppies. The 3-hour walk was rated a 2 out of 3 difficulty, with some relatively steep, rocky slopes. Given the high altitude of Joburg (almost 1800 meters) and it being a hot and humid day, I certainly felt tired and winded when finished. I plan on taking a guided walking tour this Sunday so maybe I’ll write more of the geology and the flora (entirely indigenous!) in the Koppies. A gem indeed!

Walking in the Koppies. Many dogs, great views of Joburg.

Walking in the Koppies. Many dogs, great views of Joburg.

The protea, S.A.'s national flower

The protea, S.A.’s national flower

Most progressive constitution in the world

A walk and guided tour of Constitution Hill was a very moving experience for me. This notorious prison complex was where Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and many other anti-apartheid activists, including the students of the1976 Soweto uprising were detained, at “Number Four”. During the height of the apartheid era, as many as 2000-3000 black men and women a day were incarcerated under appalling conditions for merely not carrying their pass books.

Solitary confinement cells for political prisoners

Solitary confinement cells for political prisoners

This entire site has been transformed into a place of teaching, and it demonstrates that the injustices of the past can be turned into a place of present and future justice. It is now the location of the highest court in South Africa, dealing with constitutional matters. The Court building is a beautiful piece of architecture and highly symbolic. They have reused the bricks from the demolished Awaiting Trial Block, now part of  a circular, welcoming and transparent space, where natural light streams into the forum from many angles and one can see in from the outside.

Inside the Constitutional Court

Inside the Constitutional Court

The use of slanted columns throughout is a metaphor for trees, the place where traditional Africa would resolve disputes. It is definitely an architectural space that pays homage to the work done there. Sometimes architects do get it right!

The view from Con Hill

The view from Con Hill


Mall Culture & Driving around

On Tuesday, I got up my gumption and took the wheel. Remember, driving is on the left side of the road here. Luckily it appears that everyone has left town for the holidays, so no traffic to contend with. It wasn’t too bad except when the “robots” (we call them traffic lights/signals) at the major intersections were not working (note: this happens regularly). Starting to get my bearings and know my way around in the immediate neighbourhood.

What’s up with this mall culture? Everyone goes to the malls and there are many of them…Guess in part, it has to do with the safety factor. Wherever one parks, there are lots of “car guards” everywhere; guys looking for money to take care of your car. Everyone’s got some sort of job here…

Stylish glass toilet doors at the Cresta Mall

Stylish glass toilet doors at the Cresta Mall

December 31, 2014

New Year’s eve, we headed down to Newtown to the Mary Fitzgerald Square to take in some local live music and food. Mary Fitzgerald was the first female trade unionist in the country and in 1911 she led the wives of striking tram workers. The square is the centerpiece of this area’s (Newtown) urban renewal project, which includes 650 mixed income housing apartments delivered by the Johannesburg Housing Company, major private investment to develop shopping, sports and cultural facilities. The verdict is still out as to whether it has been successful.

One of many colourful characters ringing in the New Year

One of many colourful characters ringing in the New Year

We ran into some youth wearing “Ambassador” t-shirts and started chatting with them about the event. This led to us asking about their take on politics in South Africa. They are not of the current ANC Zuma regime and although they appeared interested in the Ecomomic Freedom Fighters (EFF), they were still hesitant about putting hope in the party. Turns out they are part of a City led initiative, called “Cities Yeah” (?) which involves youth aged 18 to 24 in mentoring initiatives. They were fun, engaged and thoughtful youth and a highlight of our New Year’s eve.

The future of Joburg

The future of Joburg wishing you a great 2015!!

Happy New Year to all my friends, family and co-workers.

That’s all for now folks….


Where is everybody?

Don't atheists  get a happy new year too?

Don’t atheists get a happy new year too?

It’s true, everything in S.A. shuts down mid-December and nothing much happens till mid-January. Every email gets bounced back with an “out of office” message, my favourite coffee shop is closing at noon today until Jan. 19th. And there’s no traffic in town, other than taxi vans full of folks “going home” for the holidays.

Work, what’s that?

So, there’s nothing to report on the work front. I’m planning a workshop early February with my RESHI (?) (Rapidly-expanding Social Housing Institutions) to discuss their property management systems (computer programs, basically). My back door wish is that they will agree to work on a sector-wide system that could be managed through NASHO, but we’ll see.
One thing I’ve learned about systems is that every social housing provider hates theirs but is always reluctant to move to a new system. Devil you know and all that…

16 Days of Activism

From November 25 (UN day for Elimination of Violence) until December 10 (Human Rights Day), people are encouraged to participate in actions and events to highlight the need to reduce violence against women and children. There’s lots of media coverage, people calling in to talk shows, banners and parades, bike and foot runs.  And on the street where I work, I felt something as I passed under a tree on my noon walkabout.

An angel on Main St.

An angel on Main St.

The angel's story

The angel’s story

Yesterday in the Star there was a report about the allocation of widow’s pensions. Apparently the allocation panel takes into account the widow’s “marriage prospects” when making their decision. So if the widow is young and attractive, she’s not as likely to receive benefits. ARRGH! There’s some activism required on that file, I’d say…

Drug safety

At the DisChem, where I had to line up for 30 minutes to buy some Ibuprofen, which is kept behind the counter, I was pleased to see that no one could steal my drugs while I walked back to the other 15 minute line up for the cashiers. My 200mg pills were jailed for the duration and only “released” once I’d paid up and the cashier snipped off the plastic tie!

Now, there's a system!

Now, there’s a system!

And the receipt slip came with this affirmation from my cashier, Ntombele: “Always remember you are BRAVER than you believe, STRONGER than you seem, SMARTER that you think and twice as BEAUTIFUL as you’d ever IMAGINED!”  Better than ibuprofen…

Informal Economy, part II:

Since I arrived, I’ve had to duck around the 7th Street hawkers who sell their “beadwork” to tourists. I’ve not been entirely successful, but I have been adopted by Shepherd. He is my official hawker, much to the dismay of the others.

He is my Shepherd...

He is my Shepherd…

The City of Joburg does have a formal recycling program, at least in my neighbourhood where people are given special bags, one for paper and one for plastic/metal/glass. However, there is a very large informal economy of “binners”.  We see them in downtown Ottawa too, of course, looking through blue bins on garbage day. Most of the guys here are either from Zim or some other nearby country and can’t get work permits.

Next stop, 41 Florence porch

Next stop, 41 Florence porch

Recycling and traffic calming!

Recycling and traffic calming!

They walk in the middle of the street, pulling these large plastic bins on a makeshift cart system. It’s very dangerous and dirty work.

They mostly live either on the street or in dismal flophouses, sharing floor space in shifts.



 The Rusty Radiator awards

Are put out each year by the Norwegian Students and Academics’ International Assistance Fund. They are meant to remind people that “foreign aid” comes with a whole bunch of misconceptions and that we need to think twice (three times) about how we “help”.

Watch this, it is hilarious!

Only four more sleeps…

Until my Christmas present arrives at OR Tambo. Yes, Debbie is due in at 10 PM on Xmas and that will be soooo good.

If anyone is looking for help with Christmas shopping, I think a gift certificate for a session with Professor Musa would be a great stocking stuffer:

This guy could replace Dr. Phil. 100% guarantee!

This guy could replace Dr. Phil. 100% guarantee!

That’s it for now, folks



One more rat changes the world…

and “Africa” becomes a non-colonized continent. In a scenario where everyone in Europe gets wiped out by the plague, by 1355 no one is left to “colonize” other parts of the world. Swedish artist Nicolaj Cyon was intrigued enough with this idea that he re-mapped the continent.alkebu-lan-1260In this non-eurocentric map (merci Michel), where Alkebu-lan is actually at the top of the map, the countries are aligned by languages and peoples and have no relation to current borders. For more on this, check out: map of africa

The Canucks are coming,the Canucks are coming…

Yet another Canadian invasion this week, when eight Rooftops Canada visitors arrived in Joburg. This is the Study Tour contingent and I was part of it two years ago, when I fell in love with Joburg.

They spent a week in Nairobi first, visiting Rooftops partner NACHU, a wonderful union of housing cooperatives making miracles with so little. Right now, Rooftops is helping with NACHU members’ struggle to bring potable water to their homes. As one coop member says: “Water has no alternative. If you cannot install electricity, you can use a kerosene lamp, but water has to be water,” – Peninah Wanbua. So, if you haven’t yet checked it out, here is a bit more info on the work we are doing there: Water in Kenya

Apart from having some lovely dinners at various Joburg eateries, the visitors had a full agenda, including a day in Soweto, and walking in Hillbrow with Josie Adler (always an eye-opener!). I spent most of Saturday with them, visiting Constitution Hill, which is the old prison site, now turned into a museum and new building housing the Constitutional Court. It is a very well used public space and while we were walking around a terrible memorial to those who were jailed and tortured for believing in human rights, there was a huge Peoples’ Pride event, mainly attended by a very young GBLT crowd. These “born frees” were celebrating on the same spot where they would have been put into solitary only 20 years ago.

The visitors headed out to CapeTown on Wednesday and will be flying home soon. They will bring with them some incredible stories and share them with Canadian colleagues. If you get an opportunity, take one of them out for lunch or better yet, have them come speak to your bridge club or church group or work colleagues and, if you work for a social housing organization, your Board!

Constitution Hill

Constitution Hill

Roland, Keith, cb, Hugh, Shelagh, Vanessa & Heather @ the Leopard

Roland, Keith, cb, Hugh, Shelagh, Vanessa & Heather @ the Leopard

Hey Melissa, nice rug you got there!

a girl and her kitty

a girl and her kitty

Melissa Bachman, who apparently has a hunting show in Minnesota or somewhere, has now bagged herself a lion. There are indeed sanctioned areas where these animals can be legally hunted. If you have the cash (not cheap!), you too can go canned hunting for lions. These animals are actually bred to be hunted and killed. They’re penned up until a hunter books a kill and then they’re released into a fenced area where they can be “tracked down” (like fish in a barrel).

This great “conservation technique” is applauded by many and reminds me of Ducks Unlimited in Canada, which sounds like they might care about ducks, but really…. (guess the rest).

Oh, how many Strategic Planning Sessions must one attend?

Well, this week it was NASHO’s turn to have a 2 day facilitated workshop about it’s 3 year strategy. Unlike at CCOC, we did not make alien-proof hats out of aluminium foil, but we did use a lot of post-its and masking tape!

financial sustainability, branding, lobbying, fish paste

financial sustainability, branding, lobbying, blah blah fish paste

Of course, some of the discussion was about member dues (how much, who pays more/less) and all that took me back to many similar debates at the ONPHA table, and then later at CHRA. And then there are user fees…That delicate dance of associations – how much are members willing to pay to help others?  I always think of the fable by La Fontaine about the lion and the mouse, and remind people that the big guys need to agree to pay more so that the little guys can survive. Because sometimes the little guys have more political heft. On a souvent besoin d’un plus petit que soi.

All in all, it was a good two days. Those who came were engaged and the suggestions were made with thought and care. It will mean more work for staff, as these sessions always do. But there were offers of help from the members and I know they are willing to make sure NASHO continues as the effective representative of the social housing sector.

"and now we're going to break up into groups...."

“and now we’re going to break up into groups….”


The Informal economy, part I

As you can imagine, with an unemployment rate of over 25%, South Africans find ways to earn cash without the help of a regular job. In my neighbourhood (cool Melville) there are many “hawkers” who try to sell  their wares to tourists and locals. These two mammies work 7th Street, just up the block from my home. The one in the red skirt is Busiwa, I can’t remember the other gogo’s name.  Joseph sells household cleaning tools to the large informal economy ladies who arrive from Alexandra or Hillbrow every morning to all the Melville houses to clean and look after the kids.

how do they do that???

how do they do that??


"get your brooms, get your mops...."

“get your brooms, get your mops….”

And the reindeers are prancing…

At the mall, the seasonal fever is on. It’s strange to walk around in a hawaiian shirt and sandals and be surrounded by snowflakes, elf hats and snowmen, and even stranger when you think that the holiday is a celebration of something that happened in Egypt, but there’s no avoiding the hype.

Everything is big in Africa!

Everything is big in Africa!

I’ve been humming a terrible and beautiful song from one of the true geniuses of American music, Randy Newman. It’s not for everyone, so it comes with a warning. Here’s “Christmas in Cape Town”:

December 5 today

And it’s year since Nelson Mandela died. Much died with him, it seems…

Rest, Madiba, rest now

Rest, Madiba, rest now

That’s it for now, folks.

WHOA! I wasn’t quite ready….

where gogos go ....

where gogos go ….

For the frail care wing, that is. But here I am in Cape Town, staying at the Berghof Retirement Village ( ), one of NASHO member Communicare’s projects. AND my next-door neighbour in 202 really is Mrs Boucher!!!

Apart from this episode from the Twilight Zone, all is well here in Cape Town. CT reminds me of Banff, but way bigger and hipper. Everywhere you look, there’s a mountain and it’s nice that rich and poor share the same view.

view from my room

view from my room

Joburg or Cape Town?

I came down at Malcolm’s suggestion (well, In fairness he was also responding to my chronic whining about none of my work taking me to Cape Town). He and I were scheduled to call in to the ONPHA conference Saturday afternoon and he didn’t really want to leave home just for that. So he organized a couple of SHI visits for me, and that worked out great!

Malcolm and his lovely wife Emmanuelle sold their house down the road and bought a loft in the heart of town, across from a great coffee spot! I totally understand why he’d rather be here.

cool crib

cool crib

queen st west, 1974?

queen st west, 1974?







But apparently, Joburg is named #2 Good City, and I’m going to support that contention for now. Check it out: (Thanx Babs!)

Joel’s baby

On Friday, I spent the day with Joel Mukunqwana and some of his great folks at Communicare, the oldest social housing institution in South Africa. They started 80 years ago, mainly as a charity providing housing and supports for the elderly, depending on private donations (including land and buildings!).

When the government put out a social housing program, Communicare decided to hop on board. So now they have a portfolio of over 3,000 units and have used their existing sites to intensity and build family units into their mix. This has caused some consternation in their long-standing tenant base. Ottawa providers who are familiar with the “age mixed” OCH building challenges will understand this.

So Communicare is struggling to move away from being a kind of care provider to more of a “regular” SHI. They are slowly decreasing their home/medical support staff component and going more towards a community development model.

But because the current social housing funding model is not sustainable, they are also very keenly looking at some income mixing or other ways to change the revenue base.

Frail gogo, Jerome, Wasima, Waleed, Joel

Frail gogo, Jerome, Wasima, Waleed, Joel







those seniors at Dromadaris know how to garden!

those seniors at Dromadaris know how to garden!

jackie, cb, andrew -dromadaris community space

jackie, cb, andrew @ dromadaris community space

When we arrived at Bothasig, a tenant was busy weeding in the vegetable garden. As I was chatting with staff about converting a rubbish bin building into a meeting room for tenant events, it came to me that they needed a gardening shed too. I put this to the gardener and here he is, making a case to Jerome, who then encouraged him to bring a plan. A few minutes later, as we were walking elsewhere on site, the gardener arrived, holding a glossy magazine to show Jerome what he meant. I gave him a big “thumbs up”!

Bothasig Gardens: corn, chard, onions, celery, etc....

Bothasig Gardens: corn, chard, onions, celery, etc….

And we need a water tap, some shelves, rakes....

“And we need a water tap, some shelves, rakes….”

Some technical glitches having been resolved,

Malcolm and I managed to speak to folks in Ottawa who were attending the ONPHA conference. Did I say I might bore you with a Power Point someday? Well, here is my take on how social housing can have impact on breaking up the spatial inequalities left by apartheid. Here’s hoping the technology works….

ONPHA Rooftops PPT Nov 2014

Like Lebreton Flats and Lowertown, but worse 

District 6, where Malcolm lives now, used to be a very poor but vibrant community of people of all colours, religions and origins. And then they were all forcibly removed in order to declare their neighbourhood a “whites only” area. Pushed out into the Cape Flats, housed in shoddily built, leaking and overcrowded buildings, separated from their street “family”, their livelihood and ability to easily get to school or work, District 6 folks lost their identity.

And Cape Flats is now the area with the highest crime rate, topping the murder charts in South Africa every year.

District 6 back then

District 6 back then

Cape Flats now

Cape Flats now

This one’s for Dennis and Debbie:

On November 5 and 6, the RESHI (my guys) came to Joburg to hold a 2-day workshop on all aspects of building and managing social housing. We also invited two WESHIs (Well established SHIs) to join us.

Renier Erasmus, the CEO of Madulammoho Housing, a very innovative and capable SHI with lots of development experience was talking about moving tenants in to new projects and he said:
“We always schedule the move in date 3 months after the contractor’s estimated time. We want all the deficiencies corrected before tenants move in!”
I had to smile….

It was a great workshop, everyone learned a lot (even the WESHIs).

Tooting our own horn!

Tooting our own horn!

Ever wonder what happens to

Old VW vans?  Saw one the other day at the Joburg Photo Umbrella event in Newtown.

After following the Grateful Dead for 10 years.....

After following the Grateful Dead for 10 years…..

That’s all for now folks….