A seal pup, a man and a dog...

Greetings from Kommetjie

This morning on the beach, I looked up when I heard a bark. Lucy (pictured) was dashing towards a youngish seal pup which was now making his clumsy way towards the icy Atlantic. I called away Lucy, and we watched the seal’s hasty re-entry into the water. In a way, his departure reminded of my own relieved arrival to this sleepy seaside village three days ago.

After a dune-sized number of meetings and deadlines (interspersed with the occasional forest walk and visits to a few of my old favourite eateries — including the marvellous-as-ever Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia), I’ve retreated to Kommetjie for a few precious days of contemplative, creative quiet. A DIY writing retreat of sorts — entailing long stretches sans internet at all, deleting news emails en masse when I do go online, hitting the pause button on my (prodigious) podcast intake, and — most importantly — devoting hours to writing, reading (paper!) and long walks. Walking is a crucial component of the creative process, by the way. It’s amazing how light bulbs start flashing in your head when you’re amidst fynbos and staring at clouds.


Scribbles (and mutterings)

Finding Beauty Amidst the Brokenness: On Medium, my essay about how cultivating attention towards nature can help us to recognise signs of hope in the human world. In part, it’s inspired by Jenny Odell’s amazing book How to Do Nothing, in part, it’s the result of a few soul-nourishing visits to Newlands Forest.

The Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative: Business Day last week published my feature on this inspiring new hub for biodiversity education and training in Kruger National Park.

A holiday of ditches, dirty nails and rotting seaweed: I recently chatted on-air with Cape Talk radio’s John Maytham about the Business Day article exploring my agricultural adventures on the isle of Jura. Listen to my rambling here, or read the original article here.

In honour of the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup victory, here’s a piece from the archives (2016, to be exact) about the Jozi Cats, Africa’s first gay and inclusive rugby club.

Above — the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative (picture by Alistair Daynes).


Books and pods

Half of a Yellow Sun: I’ve finally gotten around to this searingly brilliant novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Haunting, complex, exquisite.

Mzansi Zen — I’ve recently returned to reading Antony Osler’s third book, which offers so much gentle, calming and compassionate wisdom about living life in a country filled with bounties of both tragedy and despair. (Read my 2016 review of the book here).

Pivot — While its two bantering hosts are a tad self-regarding, this podcast is still arguably the smartest and sassiest weekly take on the colliding worlds of tech, business and politics.

On Being — this series of conversations between Krista Tippett and notable thinkers is an evergreen favourite. I recently listened to the chats with conversation with the late poet Mary Oliver and the 2012 conversation with audio ecologist Gordon Hempton. Both capture the exquisite connections between presence, attention and the natural world — and how this can both soothe and inspire us.


About this dispatch: Since fleeing social media, I’ve resorted to good old fashioned email to keep in touch — with a monthly dispatch about where I’ve travelled, what I’ve been reading/listening to, and what I’ve been writing. I hope you liked it!

"People just like you have died on this trail"

Hot and bothered in the Mojave

In Joshua Tree they scare the bejeezus out of you — and for good reason. Even in September, when most of the rest of the northern hemisphere has dipped towards saner temperatures, this national park remains bone-dry and furnace-hot. Not the best place, in other words, to get lost or run out of water. We did go on two shortish rambles in the park close to sunset, when it was marginally more bearable to be outside. In spite of the desert’s harshness, I loved it — the huge skies, golden silences, tumultuous geology and, of course, those weird plants.

On our last evening in the area, we went on another sunset jaunt (this time by car), to the tiny town of Amboy which serves as a pit-stop for honeymooners driving Route 66 in rented red Mustangs. Suddenly, our nostrils filled with petrichor and, for a few exhilarating minutes, drops were leaping from the metallic sky, spattering across the windscreen. Rain in the desert! There’s nothing quite like it.


Bye for now, ’Merica

As the US government isn’t terribly fond of foreigners who overstay their welcome, I headed to Europe not long after our desert adventure. Portugal (or at least its wild, southwestern coastline) is experiencing an endless, sun-drenched summer of its own. Happily, though, hiking here is less potentially hazardous to your health than in Joshua Tree — thanks to cooling Atlantic breezes and little village snack bars serving up icy drafts of Super Bock beer.

After 111km of walking (and a LOT of bread, meat, cheese, fish soup and hearty red wine) today was time to leave this gorgeous country (and to eat some salad).

In my piece on walking the Portuguese Camino last year, I described a multi-day hike as having the potential to be a retreat-in-motion. As fond as I am of road-tripping, motorised transport often involves a churning up — a clouding of thoughts, feelings and movement. However, when you’re on foot (and alone) for hours at a time, things slow right down; the mind’s sediment settles, allowing for a spacious clarity and sharpened perspectives to emerge.

Craig Mod nailed it when he recently wrote in Ridgeline (his weekly newsletter on walking): “Solo walking extends, I believe, a kind of invitation to the world to reach out and show you things otherwise hidden.” That applies inwardly as much as outwardly. It’s a gift — albeit not always an easy or comfortable one. (Not least because there’s something about miles of empty beaches and windswept cliffs that makes you miss your better half on the other side of the ocean even more terribly. Saudade indeed!)


Books, pods, emails

How to Do Nothing — this terrific manifesto by artist Jenny Odell doesn’t simply bemoan the alienating addictiveness of smartphones: it offers ideas about “resisting the attention economy” and leading richer, happier lives that are more deeply connected to the natural and social ecosystems which we’re part of.

Lie With Me — Philippe Besson’s autobiographical novella packs a punch, precisely capturing the powerful, lingering effect of a short-lived romance

In spite of (or perhaps partly because of?) my own Yeti-sized carbon footprint, I’ve been reading a lot about climate change and the environment lately:

  • I’m a big fan of the fascinating, rigorous reporting done by InsideClimate News, a non-profit environment-focused newsroom, which has a terrific weekly newsletter.

  • New York Times’s Climate Fwd: newsletter offers helpful advice on how to make a difference as well as a round-up of the Times’s climate coverage.

  • The new HEATED newsletter by Emily Atkin also offers interesting coverage of the climate crisis (among other things, she interviewed Greta and investigated the non-recyclability of the freezer bags Amazon Prime Now uses)

Speaking of Amazon, the first season of Recode’s Land of the Giants explores the extraordinary rise of this retail behemoth. At times the podcast feels a tad simplistic, but it is thought-provoking (and a little frightening) nonetheless.


The rugged Alentejo coastline, which is not dissimilar to South Africa’s West Coast.


This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been, what I’ve read/listened to, and what I’ve written. Thanks for reading!

California dreamin'

Beneath the redwoods

Greetings from the Golden State

9,000 circuitous miles since setting off from Connecticut, I’ve reached the sun-seared, smog-stained, traffic-choked sprawl of Los Angeles. While the tacos are great and the city’s (multi)cultural vibrancy and creative and economic clout are enthralling, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Coming after months of living a mostly rural existence, the concrete, noise and crowds are a bit of a shock to the system.

At least respite — in the form of mountains, ocean and canyons — is never too far away. And, when I’m not able to jog/stagger up Runyon (from where the above was taken) or get my toes wet at Santa Monica beach, I can daydream about the redwoods of northern California’s Humboldt County. A few weeks (or a lifetime) ago, I was surrounded by the forest, neck craned and spine tingling, quietly admiring the soaring sweep of these ancient, hardy giants. There’s nothing quite like trees thousands of years old and hundreds of feet high to give you a jolt of perspective. These evergreen koans are wordless yet wondrously wise — if we’re prepared to stop and listen to them.


The long road south

I’m sorely tempted to run away to live on the (blissfully WiFi-free) lavender farm we stayed at in Mendocino. In this rural, quiet, understatedly stylish county four hours north of the San Francisco Bay Area we:

  • Wallowed in a shady swimming hole (Jenny Odell captured the magic of California’s swimming holes in a recent NYT piece — thanks Carien!)

  • Browsed at the excellent Gallery Bookshop which overlooks the headlands in charming Mendocino village

  • Ate fantastic food, including crab bisque and a codfish sandwich at the all-female-run Princess Seafood in Noyo Harbour and heavenly, charred pizza from Café Beaujolais' hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, The Brickery

  • Rode horses on a beach and kayaked through rumbling sea caves

  • Tasted Chards and Pinot Noirs in the redwood- and vine-covered Anderson Valley

Then came Sonoma County: the hushed and sterile “utopia” of Sea Ranch followed by scruffy, campy Guerneville. Bougie Healdsburg nearby was more my style (and palate: a tasty stromboli in the courtyard of Italian restaurant Campo Fina; Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Landmark at Hop Kiln along the winery-studded Westside Road).

Santa Cruz was like a Californian Blackpool. During our brief pitstop there, I felt as if I was trapped in a Lana del Rey music video — its gaudy Boardwalk the embodiment the epitome of summertime sadness.

Luckily, we had Big Sur to escape to: bracing river swims; a hike among redwoods. And my absolute favourite: a 1am soak in Esalen’s hot springs, watching the misty moonlit waves smash the rocks below.

Pictured above: Switzer Falls in the San Gabriel Mountains, a 40-minute drive (and then two-mile hike) from our north-east LA Airbnb. Paradise!


Jottings

  • For MONOCLE’s summer newspaper, a write-up about Mami Wata, the African surf brand (PDF)

  • A pithy Q&A with artist James Delaney in MONOCLE’s July/August cities-focused issue about how he and other volunteers transformed a Joburg park from a crime-ridden no-go area into an urban sanctuary. It’s behind a paywall, but you can read the extended version on my site

  • On Medium, an account of my recent travels in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia


Books and pods

  • The Nature Fix by Florence Williams: An easily digestible treatise on the sciencific research which explains why standing under redwoods (or hiking in the desert, or even a stroll in your neighbourhood park) benefits body, mind and soul

  • Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran: By turns hilarious, heartwarming and tragic, this 1978 novel (republished this year with a lovely forward by Alan Hollinghurst) elegantly and clear-sightedly captures the hedonistic frenzy of gay New York life after Stonewall and before AIDS. I’m pairing it with The Gay Metropolis — Charles Kaiser’s magisterial non-fiction account of gay life (and the gradually increasing tolerance of it) in American cities from the ’40s onwards. As we celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, inhabiting a time where “queer” is now mainstream and Pride has become a commodified and corporatised pastiche of its former activist self, I figured it’s worth being reminded of the courage, sacrifice, loss and lives of the queer people who’ve endured far greater prejudice than I (thankfully) have

  • Bundyville: I’m a few episodes into this rigorous, nuanced and spellbinding podcast about the ranchers fighting the US federal government. It touches on so many important themes — including religious fundamentalism, right wing terrorism, the future of public lands — and how these all intersect. This is podcasting at its addictive, thought-provoking best


This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been, what I’ve read/listened to, and what I’ve written. Thanks for reading!

From the mountains to the sea

Reflections from the edge.

Greetings from Oregon

Pick your poison and the Pacific Northwest will serve you it you — the small-batch artisanal version, that is. Whether its cannabis (dispensaries are everywhere), coffee (I even spotted an espresso cart on a lonely motel forecourt) or craft beer (hoppy AF IPAs, yay!), it’s here.

If nature is more your kind of fix, then there’s tons of that here too: mountains, forests, water. At times, you don’t see a building for miles, which makes the summertime hordes buzzing around touristy spots all the more overwhelming. They rather sullied my pilgrimage to the Space Needle, a structure I was obsessed with as a kid (I even had a Space Needle cake made for my American-themed sixth birthday party). As I squeezed between people to catch glimpses of Seattle below, I was grumpy. (How dare they?!) Finding a gap at the window, I paused, watching a boat’s wake slash a dark V across the mercury-glimmer of the Puget Sound. It was a sight so ordinary and yet so exquisite. The grumpiness was gone.

In this fast-disappearing blur of a year, it’s these moments —quotidian, but beautiful—that I’m trying to observe and appreciate. It’s a way of briefly dropping anchor: finding sanity in the chaos that is modern life.


Scribbles

While most of my time behind a screen over the last month has been focused on copywriting, I have had a bunch of titbits published by Monocle recently. Check out my preview of Gorgeous George, a boutique Cape Town hotel, in The Escapist, and my “How to start a gin distillery” feature (featuring Hope on Hopkins) in its annual Drinking and Dining Directory. In the July/August issue, I’ve also contributed snippets on Kalk Bay Books and Roastin’ Records. Most of these aren’t online, but you’ll find them in ye olde print on your newsstand.


Pods and pages

Lots of driving has meant lots of podcasts (and not enough reading) over the past month.

Something podcasting seems really good at is helping to make sense of recent history — a welcome antidote to the myopia of 24-hour news cycle. While Slow Burn (which delved into Watergate and the Lewinsky Affair) is perhaps the most obvious example, there are other goodies — such as Expenses (about the UK parliament’s 2009 expenses scandal) from The Telegraph and NPR’s Throughline — I found recent episodes on Christian fundamentalism (thanks, Kelly!) )and bussing fascinating. I’ve also gotten hooked on Yahoo News’s Conspiracyland in which seasoned investigative journo Mike Isikoff explores the 2016 death of DNC operative Seth Rich and the way this has been exploited by everyone from the Russians to Julian Assange.

More current faves:

  • As the name implies, the BBC’s Brexitcast combines two of my favourite obsessions: Brexit and podcasts. I’m addicted to its gossipy, smart, funny analysis of the latest twists and turns of Brexit from BBC journos and guests. Brexit might be a horrific, slow-mo car crash, but it feels rather reassuring that Adam, Chris, Laura and Katya (and their silly jokes/puns) are on hand.

  • Avery Trufelman’s Nice Try is a fabulous exploration of various utopias created over the course of history (hat-tip to Erin!). It’s better than her interesting but somewhat uneven podcast series on clothing, Articles of Interest.

  • I’ve enjoyed How I Built This — the NPR show that interviews successful entrepreneurs. Favourites include the chats with Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and Herb Kelleher, the late founder of Southwest.

What I did manage to read:

  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A memoir about gender transition, pregnancy, the modern family. It’s a book that is both full of raw, pulsing life as well as bristling intellect. Wow.

  • In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson. A novel that elegantly imagines a burgeoning friendship between Marcel Proust and an adolescent in wartime Paris.


Highways and byways

From Colorado, we drove north into the wide valleys of Wyoming where we watched rodeo and went white water rafting. Then, we drove into the rippling pine-covered hills of Montana, and westwards, into Washington. After a fortnight’s sojourn across the border in British Columbia, we’re now heading southwards.

The biggest lowlight was the RV-choked roads of Yellowstone National Park, as well as anticlimactic Old Faithful, which was much less of a gusher than I was expecting.

Highlights:

  • Seattle is great: sprawling, vibrant, surrounded by water; reminiscent of a rainier, less stuck-up Sydney. I had the best ramen I’ve ever tasted at Ramen Danbo and tasty dim sum at DoughZone. Also loved browsing the Japanese supermarket Uwajimaya and Elliot Bay Bookstore.

  • Tofino, on the western edge of Vancouver Island: I surfed lazy waves, whale-watched from a zodiac, soaked in hot springs, hiked in the rainforest, and ate sweet juicy home-cooked crab.

  • A whistle-stop visit to gorgeous Portland, Oregon. Food trucks — check! Saturday Farmer’s Market —check! Powell’s Bookstore (the size of a city block) — check! Skipped the (in)famous strip clubs; instead went to the gorgeous Japanese Garden (pictured above) on a surreally sweltering day (doesn’t it always rain here?). In spite of the people (many of them yakking — the Yanks are a chatty lot), the winding pathways and trickling water offered a gorgeous opportunity to pause, breathe and savour.


    This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been, what I’ve read/listened to, and what I’ve written. Thanks for reading!

The 1.5 mile high club

Somewhere above the rainbow.

Greetings from Aspen.

Right now I’m rather high — 2400m (8000 feet) above sea-level to be exact.

While it’s better known as a winter ski destination, Aspen is buzzing right now — there are lanyards aplenty as delegates and attendees of a conference and a classical music festival throng the streets. There isn’t an H&M for me to buy cheap new jeans to fit my ever-expanding waist, but just about every luxury fashion brand has a store here (should I fancy splurging on that Gucci onesie).

Although Aspen might be a tad too chichi for my tastes (and budget), the state of Colorado, on the whole, is a delight — from its strikingly modern flag (designed way back in 1911), to its big skies, rugged landscapes, good food, tasty craft beers and lovely indy bookstores.


On page (and screen)

In celebration of Pride Month, I’ve republished on Medium the interviews I’ve done with gay authors over the years, including Alan Hollinghurst, Damon Galgut, Edmund White, Colm Tóibín and Garth Greenwell.

Further Medium musings:

Recently in print:


Between the covers

How to Love Wine: A Memoir and a Manifesto by the New York Times’s wine critic, Eric Asimov is fantastic: a passionate and eloquently argued riposte to the snobbery and anxiety that all too often afflicts our relationship with wine.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the debut novel by Ocean Vuong, is a startlingly powerful portrait of the immigrant experience — and an unflinching dissection of tragedy and trauma, large and small. Read my review.

I’m almost done reading Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s book on writing. It’s down-to-earth, funny and very wise: in short, a must for any writer.

I read about a third of The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne before giving up. While it is entertaining in parts, the novel (which traces the shifting attitudes towards homosexuality from the 1950s onwards) frequently descends into melodramatic farce, sacrificing plausibility for the sake of its dark humour.


Up the mountain

From Vermont we’ve been making squiggly progress westwards, popping in and out of Canada and swooping down to Kentucky before belting it across the barren Midwest to the Rockies.

Highlights:

  • A heavenly home-style smoked barbeque in Indiana

  • Tasting rieslings in the Niagara wine region and craft bourbon at Rabbit Hole’s extraordinary distillery in Louisville, Kentucky

  • Canoeing and reading by the fire while it rained during our stay at White Pine Camp — a holiday camp in the Adirondacks built in the early 1900s

  • Strolling around Mies van de Rohe’s Lafayette Park in Detroit —the Bauhaus designer’s largest concentration of residential buildings in the US

  • Hiking on the forested mountains above Boulder, CO. With a trail network this extensive on their doorstep, it’s no wonder that Boulder’s residents have been ranked America’s happiest.

Lowlights:

  • Although the falls themselves were spectacular, Niagara Falls was pretty ghastly otherwise: the US side is decrepit, while the Canadian side is like Vegas-on-the-river with casinos, conference centres and chain restaurants. To make matters worse, I got locked out of the hotel room (due to a defective key card); once I’d proven to the concierge I wasn’t a rent boy/criminal and gained access to our room, an hours-long power failure then commenced.

  • Trying to find a healthy takeaway on the highways of the Midwest proved impossible. Still, it gave us a good excuse to tuck into pancakes at IHOP.

  • (Yet another) flat tyre — this one in Lake Placid, NY


This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been travelling, what I’ve been writing, and stuff I’ve been reading. Thanks for reading!

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