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Stars, Sextants and Sea Turtles: Part 3

“I would not creep along the coast but steer

Out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars

– George Eliot

My father was sixty-five when he passed away. He was tired, vulnerable and defeated from battling an unfair and protracted illness. He had desperately tried to navigate his way through to a better destination. Ultimately, it was not the dignified death one would hope for after a life of adventure, and he fought against the shutdown of his body until his very last breath. His passing left a void where once there had been my hero.

Our family was devastated by our loss, and embarked upon our own journey of grief. I remembered a day, more than twenty years earlier, when we had been in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My dad had asked me how deep I thought the ocean was. I don’t recall my answer, but it was probably something like “five hundred meters”.

“No,” he had said. “The sea here is almost six kilometers deep!”

This had seemed like a very long way down. I had looked across the gentle swell to the horizon and wondered whether it was closer than the sea bed. I had suddenly felt insignificant and vulnerable in the immense vastness of the sea. It seemed so easy to get lost. If the ship went down, how would I ever find my way home? That’s how I felt when my father died, and I suspect that was how he had felt in the final stages of his illness.

A few months after his passing, my family chartered a yacht and we sailed out of Durban harbour, just like he had done so many times before. We dropped anchor offshore to scatter his ashes and float some beautiful Stargazer lilies to commemorate his life. We sipped champagne and reminisced about our “old man of the sea”. It was a beautiful clear day off the east coast, and the sea air was salty and fresh, just as Dad would have liked it. After a few hours the skipper weighed anchor to head back to port. Just then a beautiful old Loggerhead turtle surfaced off starboard and looked quizzically at us. In less than thirty seconds he had flapped his flippers and returned to deeper waters. He was probably just popping up for air after a late lunch of delicious starfish and molluscs from the nearby reef, yet in my mind that turtle brought a message of comfort and inspiration from beyond the grave. To this day, sea turtles hold a deep significance for me. Like my father, they are the “old men” (and women) of the sea. What I didn’t realise at the time was that, also like my dad, they are master navigators.

As air breathers, turtles need to lay their eggs on land, and this defines their entire life cycle.  Once hatched, baby turtles make their perilous way across the beach to the shoreline under cover of night, and swim out to sea as far as possible. They swim for up to twenty hours to be picked up by an offshore current and carried out to deeper waters.  These deep oceans are effectively “blue deserts”, and both food and predators are scarce, unlike the shallower waters closer to shore.   Little is known about “the lost years” of immature turtles, but we know that they migrate long distances in search of feeding grounds, often relying on seaweed beds and ocean currents for assistance.   They stay in the deep sea for several years, only reappearing when they reach adulthood up to twenty years later to breed and lay their eggs.  They navigate their way back to the only safe land they have ever encountered: the same beach where they hatched.

The Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town has conducted extensive research into turtle navigation.  Their research confirms that their navigation systems are very advanced. Even juveniles that were raised in captivity can find their way back to the exact beach of their hatching from anywhere in the world.   They do this by employing a fascinating combination of magnetic compass, celestial body tracking and taste.  All sea turtle species contain tiny crystals of a magnetic mineral called magnetite deep inside their brains. These magnetite crystals behave like a compass and enable them to navigate great distances between their nesting and feeding grounds.   The magnetite compass of Loggerhead turtles is so finely tuned that it can sense different rocks beneath the sands of its nest, making a “magnetic fingerprint” that allows them to remember their place of birth. In addition some species, such as Leatherbacks, have a thin spot on their skulls that allows sunlight to stimulate a gland in their brains and helps them determine the season and hence migration times based on the length of daylight.  Their circadian rhythms are so precise that they can orientate themselves by the position of the sun in the sky, much like a “sun compass”. Between seeking food sources and returning to their place of birth, sea turtles can cover up to 10 000 kilometers per year!   Because baby turtles never set eyes on their parents, they embark on one of the most epic solo journeys on the planet.

Imagine a juvenile turtle all alone in a massive blue vastness, unable to retract its head or flippers to protect itself from predators. Furthermore, it’s proximity to the surface in order to breathe every five minutes or so, renders it clearly visible to everything below. Instead of hiding from predators, they must outsmart them.   What turtles lack in speed and design, they certainly make up for in courage and wisdom.

That tiny vulnerable turtle all alone in the deepest sea reminds me of that small girl in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Admittedly, I wasn’t alone, I was on a sizable vessel with a master mariner, my own “old man of the sea”, and his crew. I did not have to evade predators as I searched for food in a blue desert, and I was taken home safely in a ship. But imagine if the ship had gone down, and I had been alone at sea. I very much doubt that I would have navigated very well, even in a lifeboat.

Now that I’m older, I think life is not dissimilar from a big scary ocean. Survival is part instinct and part navigation. At times we can set sail into deeper waters and cross vast and perilous distances. However, there are seasons where it is wiser to navigate to shallower waters and drop anchor. We need those times to repair our sails and reinforce our hull.

These are reflections that will stay with me forever as I navigate the stormy seas of life.  Seafarers have been doing it for centuries, sea turtles have been doing it, alone, since time immemorial. 


Stars, Sextants and Sea Turtles: Part 2

By the time I got to the second and more serious half of high school, I was doing less travelling with my parents on the ships and more focusing on my studies. My father had progressed from commanding bulk carriers to commanding large container ships. These were impressive ships painted a brilliant white. Because of their size, majesty and gleaming white hulls they were referred to as “The Big Whites” in shipping circles.

One day my father and his Big White were docked in Durban, and he took me up to the bridge to show me something new.  There was an air of excitement around his usually calm disposition as he led me to the chart room at the back of the bridge.  There, taking up almost a quarter of the space, stood what looked like a large steel cabinet, about the size of a double door fridge.  This, he said, was satellite navigation, and it would change seafaring as we know it.  The thought that a ship could be guided on its course by an orbiting man-made satellite that intercepted the space between us and the celestial bodies was a completely new concept for both of us.  Nevertheless, my dad, the professional captain, embraced new technology, and was quick to praise the obvious benefits of such an invention. 

Satellite navigation quickly dominated shipping. However, seafarers have never been allowed to forego the “old school” way of navigating, just in case the satnav system failed.  To this day, because it is not dependent on electricity or any man-made controlled system (such as a GPS satellite), the sextant is still regarded as a precise and practical back-up navigation tool for ships, and the use of this 300 year old instrument continues to be taught at maritime training academies. It is a stark reminder that, no matter what goes wrong, the celestial bodies are a constant. The sun always rises. The sun always sets. The symbolism of always looking to the horizon on a voyage and the significance of navigating by the stars was not lost on me then, and is not lost on me now.  

Celestial navigation will always evoke a bit of magic for me, although, if my dad was here, he would tell me it was just skill, science and discipline.  Sadly he passed away almost seventeen years ago.  I often think how impressed he would be if he could see how satellite navigation has evolved beyond seafaring, and how GPS has evolved from an instrument the size of a large double door fridge to something that can be contained inside a watch.

After his passing, my father left his sextant to me in his will.  Whether it was to remind me of the steering days when I was young and confident, or whether it was to encourage me to always be cognisant of my horizon and to never forget the stars, I will never know.  Perhaps he wanted to keep my inquiring mind intrigued, or maybe he just wanted someone to look after one of his most prized possessions.   It is kept in a beautifully crafted wooden box, cedar I think, with a certificate of examination dated 8 October 1959, and a small bag labelled in his meticulous handwriting: “stick-on stars. Place strategically on big end of sextant telescope”. I sometimes wonder whether he could ever have guessed the significance his beautiful  gift would have for me much later, as I navigated my way through some of the toughest times of my life, through a troubled marriage and into deeper waters. Sadly I have never mastered the centuries old science of taking a sight with a sextant, but its home with me is a perpetual reminder to never lose sight of my horizon, to always stay in line with my true North and to always respect the wisdom and the magic of the stars.  

My father’s sextant

Stars, Sextants and Sea Turtles: Part 1

My father was the wisest person I have ever known.

He was a Master Mariner, trained the old school way in how to navigate by the celestial bodies. As a child, my family and I were sometimes fortunate enough to accompany him on his seafaring voyages. Some of my more memorable adventures included traversing the Panama Canal, mooring at a floating dock off the shore of Mauritius, exploring the vast and scenic harbour of Vancouver in a lifeboat and visiting South Korea. However none of these experiences was as magical as the big sky on a clear, calm night at sea. On such a night my father would take me outside and show me billions of sparkling stars in a sky that was more massive and more lively the further we were from shore. Constellations that I had never seen before would come to life before my eyes, and my father could name almost every one of them.

In those days, and for nautical centuries before, an instrument called a sextant was used for the purposes of celestial navigation.   The sextant was able to measure the angle between an astronomical object and the horizon. This was known as “taking a sight”.  The angle and the time at which it was measured were then used to calculate a position line on a nautical chart to estimate latitude.   The sextant was also used to measure lunar distance between the moon and another celestial object (such as a star or planet) to estimate Greenwich Mean Time, and therefore longitude.   From what I could gather, using a sextant properly involved training, discipline and knowledge of celestial bodies. There were specific times of day that sights had to be taken and logged, and the accompanying chart work was precise.  This was crucial for accurate nautical navigation. Any errors or insufficient sight-taking could have taken a vessel off course, at great expense and risk.

My father taught his officers well, and they were required to take sights and plot charts numerous times a day.  Dad himself could be found several times a day in the chart room on the bridge, checking and rechecking the work of his cadets and officers, making them redo anything he was unhappy with.   He was a meticulous and hands on leader who commanded respect and excellence from his officers.  This earned him the unfortunate nickname of “Slangkop” (Afrikaans for “Snakehead”) due to his habit of popping his head up at odd times and surprising them.

My dad loved being at sea, and could often be found pacing the wings of his bridge and sniffing the sea air. When I was eleven, he taught me how to steer the ship he commanded, which sounds more impressive than it was. The S.A. Skukuza was a large bulk carrier, yet despite its size all I had to do was stand at the helm and manually maintain the steering dial to a specified measurement using the ship’s wheel. This went on for an hour or two at a time. Whether this was a serious lesson, or whether he was just trying to keep an energetic eleven year old occupied is irrelevant now. In retrospect, being in the wide open sea, the most likely risk was that I would get bored, lose concentration and go off course. However, at the time, being in control of a 225 meter long vessel with over thirty crew members on board made me feel like the most daring and courageous eleven year old that had ever lived. I loved those hours at the helm, being in charge of the destiny of the ship and scanning the horizon for adventure all at the same time.

When I had completed 30 hours, my father awarded me a Certificate in Ship Steering. To this day my ship steering certificate can be found in pride of place in my Curriculum Vitae alongside my post-grad degree, to the perplexity of prospective employers.

Photo by Chuck Conway on

The Lockdown Chronicles Chapter 4: The Awakening

When we first went into lockdown, what seems like a century ago, I remember walking outside at 00h01 and expecting the whole world to suddenly go quiet. Like somebody had switched off the switch on the motherboard. I stepped reverently onto my patio just before midnight and held my breath, anticipating the immediate beginning of dystopian times. It never happened – somewhere in suburbia, a sports car revved its motor over the distant hum of traffic. The magic was gone and I was disappointed.

While I sat out lockdown, I began to anticipate what the lifting of lockdown would be like. Would Uncle Cyril send out a dove, like Noah, and then announce that all was well and we could come out now? I imagined us all squeezing out of our Hobbit Holes, stretching and blinking in the bright sunlight, then all singing “The Age of Aquarius” as we ran around in circles in white cotton clothes, hugging those who had made it out alive. We would party in the streets like it was Rugby World Cup 1995 again. Families would be reunited, friends would gather and we would all be popping champagne corks around the braai and share our lockdown tales.

Nope. It hasn’t happened like that at all. First of all, the lifting of lockdown has not been a binary affair. It has been a staged affair, with levels 4, 3, 2 and 1 before we could have lift off. Of course that makes sense, because we are still in the midst of a yet to peak pandemic. However, there has been so much confusion about what is and isn’t allowed in each level, that the joy of embracing each new “freedom” was tainted with the nagging doubt that it might not be legal. Furthermore, people have not come out of lockdown in a good headspace. Instead of being deliriously happy they have coming out desperate. Careers need resurrecting, families need feeding.

Some of the lockdown regulations have been frustratingly petty. Instead of opening up retail completely we have been restricted as to what we can buy. Initially we could buy tracksuit pants but not open-toed shoes. We could buy tea but not a kettle. One of my more first world friends was incensed that the Nespresso shop at Gateway was still closed, however the Lindt shop next door was allowed to trade. Since when has Swiss chocolate been an essential item but coffee has not? And wine!! What the heck was that all about?

Our government loves stages and levels. Sometimes I think it is just their way to confuse us all so that we don’t know what is really going on. It also helps them dodge accountability. It’s like when Eskom makes it sound like they’ve had a successful week because they managed to move loadshedding from Stage 4 to Stage 2. Instead of saying, “we’re still useless, but y’all are using less power ‘cos it’s Friday, so here you go”. Or like when some departments refer to a backlog as a pipeline. I’m wondering what it will be like when water restrictions become a regular thing. I don’t think a spreadsheet will cut it. I am going to need a very complicated flow diagram to explain what to do when we have Advanced Level 3 lockdown, Stage 4 loadshedding and Grade 1 water rationing. I mean, can I go to the hairdresser or not?

So, no, The Awakening has not been the new new age utopia that I had imagined. It has been frustrating and slow. Look some things were quick, like my bottle store delivery. The words “Level Three” were barely out of Uncle Cyril’s mouth, when The Cellar delivery team were ringing my door bell with a case of Sauvignon Blanc. Then schools were back, then they weren’t, then they were, then they were going to tell us in the morning. Girl Spartan had the right idea and told me to wake her up when a decision had been made.

One thing I had really battled with during lockdown (apart from the dearth of Sauvignon Blanc) was being restricted from open spaces. We live in a lovely duplex, but there are no trees and my garden is tiny. I found myself longing for the sounds and smells of the bush as I binge-watched virtual safaris on You Tube. The lifting of outdoor exercise restrictions helped a bit, but I still craved the bush. Last week the most wonderful thing happened: game reserves were opened again. Unemployed Pilot and I grabbed our trail shoes and raced to the car and drove to Stainbank Nature Reserve at the speed of light. Then for two hours we crashed around in the trees, jumped across rivers, smelt flowers, talked to monkeys and greeted the resident zebras. It was indeed our Shangri-La. And as we emerged from a particularly overgrown section of the indigenous forest, all scratched and happy, we startled a young family having a stroll. They pulled up their masks and stared at us. “Isn’t this wonderful?” I gasped, and ran off singing “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the age of aquarius …..”

Disclaimer: I confess, it was actually me that went to the Nespresso shop, okay! (but I didn’t buy any Lindt)

Lockdown Chronicles Chapter 3: The Grumpy Years

I know.  We’re all sick of lockdown, right?  It has been “almost over” for ages and it feels like an endless Groundhog Day.  I have read the hero stories, and I truly believe that the war against Covid-19 has brought out the best in people.  It has also brought out the worst in people, myself included.  I regularly find myself becoming melancholic, cantankerous, petulant, irrational and acerbic all in one day.

A few weeks ago, my social media persona boldly tried to take on the conspiracy theorists and self-proclaimed overnight Covid-19 experts.  I gave up when I realized that I was having blinkered one-sided arguments and was starting to rage, just like they were.  While I am usually the first to consider other points of view, I have come to realise that there is a whole overpopulated alternative universe out there.  One of my favourite anaesthetists from my ICU days had a wicked sense of humour.  He was frequently heard saying “You can’t fix stupid – but in ICU we can at least sedate and restrain it”.  Never have those words rung so true as now.  The irony of the little dark ICU twist is not lost on me. After all, ICU is where we could all end up if this goes horribly wrong. 

These days it feels like everyone is at each other’s throats.  The runners are arguing with the dog walkers who are arguing with the cyclists, who are arguing with the jay walkers who are arguing with the runners.  Meanwhile the smokers are arguing with the non-smokers and the ex-wine drinkers are arguing with Uncle Bheki.  Things are getting ugly, and I’m not even talking about the people who desperately need to visit the salon.  

Even our pets are taking strain from having to entertain their humans 24/7.  Just this week I was conducting a group webex training, when my pugs started barking at the monkeys (who were grumpy because the birds had eaten all the bird seed).  Somewhere on the other end of the internet, the poodle who lives with my colleague in Pretoria started woofing at the pug in Durban, which set off the Jack Russel in Bloemfontein and the pavement special in Cape Town.  Before I knew it my webex training session had degenerated into a national online barking bruhaha.  I had to mute the whole session for ten minutes so everyone could calm down.  The pugs were given a treat to distract them from the monkeys, and business was finally able to continue.  

Talking about the grumpy pugs, they have hijacked my me-time.  At level four lockdown we have been granted three hours to exercise between six and nine in the morning.   The problem with this (apart from the overcrowded pavements) is that I need to manage a run, a pug walk, yoga AND intravenous coffee all before I start work at eight.  Before lockdown I ran at 5h00 and walked the pugs in the evening.  This was a happy arrangement, as I would run and let off steam with my friends, and still be home in time for a leisurely coffee and the school run.  These lockdown glory days have me tiptoeing out for my run just after 6h00.  One of two things usually happens.  The normally somnolent pugs employ their new-found skill of going from 0 to 100 in five seconds.  At 6h02 they come barreling down the stairs, screeching to a stop between me and the front door, and glare menacingly, threatening to report me to Uncle Cyril who promised them a daily walk.   Alternatively, on the rare occasion that I have managed to have my run and slip back into the house unnoticed, they sneak down the stairs and stage a defiant sit-in on my unrolled yoga mat while I am making my coffee.  Either way I miss the run or the yoga.  Sometimes I lie in bed thinking “what’s the point?” and do neither. 

This morning I skipped both my run and my yoga and had to combine my coffee with the walking of the pugs.  Have you ever tried to hold onto two stubborn pugs (who habitually walk in opposite directions), pick up poop and sip coffee from a travel mug all while navigating a face mask?  At least I entertained the neighbours, which is great, as there has been a lot of testiness and tittle-tailing in my complex of late.

In fact, everyone is grouchy.  The suburbs are full of crabby wine-deprived, home-schooling, working-from-home people.  Since I have given up participating in social media, I have become an observer (I suppose this is a polite word for troll). Facebook neighbourhood pages are full of disgruntled people complaining about everything from water outages to the price of cheese.   With home/school/office boundaries having become blurred, the usual frenzy seems to have been taken up a notch or three.   Somebody is complaining about the walkers waking up the hadedas, while somebody else has declared their right to homeschool if they want to.  Somebody else has demanded that nobody must hoot in the suburbs during working hours as it is distracting.  There are complaints about everything from the language/smell/habits of next-door neighbours to the incapacity of the police force/government/world.  Some people are just having a bad day and want everyone to know.  I mean who isn’t having a bad day after two months of lockdown. 

Having said that, there are several noble people who are running schemes to assist those that are really battling.  I salute them. I also applaud the spirit of entrepreneurship that has evolved with this lockdown.  This has opened up a whole new world for me as, instead of scrabbling for what’s left of the veggies at my local supermarket at the end of a working day, I am now ordering the most incredible produce online from a lovely girl in my complex.  I have also ordered some homemade running buffs from an out of work interior designer, while my (still) unemployed airline pilot perseveres at perfecting his home brew. 

In the meantime, I shall continue to admit to feeling resentful and irritable when I do.  Honesty is a thing, and I’m owning it.  I know lockdown has been implemented for a reason and that it’s a learning curve.  Nevertheless, most of us don’t do well when we have taken on new roles we were not designed to be in – like school teacher.  Or when we can’t go out to play with our friends or have extended Sunday lunch with our extended family. Or when we are living in a confined space with teenagers who are not able to pick up after themselves.  Or when our depleted income is further pillaged by the electricity bill which has been accelerated by the over worked dishwasher, non-stop Netflix and Eskom’s latest price hike.  This is bound to antagonise the best of us, especially when we don’t have wine to help us cope. 

The Forever Pug

This month marks one year since Luki the Rescue Pug came to live with me. You would think he would have been ecstatic at being adopted. He wasn’t. In fact in the beginning he was absolutely appalled.

It all started when we moved. The complex we moved into allowed for two small animals, so I set about finding a companion for my sweet, pudgy hard-of-hearing pug, Daisy. I approached Pug Rescue South Africa, an incredibly proactive rescue organisation run by Cheryl and Malcom Gaw. They go to great lengths to rescue pugs (and honorary pugs) who have been abandoned, abused, neglected or who are at risk. They ensure that the pugs receive specialised veterinary care, and accommodate them at their beautiful sanctuary in Midrand. Some of these are special needs pugs who will probably never be adopted. The majority of them are put up for adoption, and PRSA do their very best to rehome them responsibly. Animal rescue is a tough and thankless job, which involves dealing with a public that is often ignorant and sometimes downright cruel. The people at Pug Rescue do animal rescue better than most.

Because of frequent broken promises, the adoption criteria are rightfully stringent, and Daisy and I underwent a thorough home inspection. A few adjustments later, and we were cleared for adoption. I just needed to choose a pug. Circumstances dictated that I couldn’t travel to Midrand to choose one, so I scanned the adoption web page, sent a list of preferences and Luki (pronounced “Lukey”) was selected. Luki had been rescued little more than a year previously from the busy Moloto Road, where he narrowly missed being flattened by a bus somewhere between Pretoria and Mpumalanga. He had since been living the life of luxury with all his new friends in the beautiful garden sanctuary at Pug Rescue, with massive play areas, customised cottages, ample food, sun-loungers and a swimming pool. Now he was going to be sent to live in a three bed-roomed duplex in Durban with a vegetarian, a teenager and a chubby girl-pug who slept all day. Despite his downsizing, I had visions of this little homeless pug bolting straight from his crate into my waiting arms, falling in love with his new pug sister and immediately settling into his forever home. It didn’t quite happen that way.

The day arrived, and I took a day’s leave to go and fetch him from the airport. I heard him before I saw him: the unmistakable snort of an excited pug. At the time I thought it was because he was excited to meet me and see his new home. In retrospect, it was probably that he had been challenging the husky in the crate next to his. The Petport guy uncrated him, checked him over and carefully passed him across to me. Gently, I popped on his new harness and leash, gave him a drink of water and we took a stroll on the nearby grass for him to relieve himself. He was absolutely adorable. He was a beautiful silver fawn colour with the sweetest little face that wouldn’t stop grinning.

The drive home was noisy. Following another walk on the grass outside his new home, it was time to bring him in and introduce him to Daisy Pug. It wasn’t quite the “love at first sight” I had anticipated. Although Daisy was delighted to have a play date for the afternoon, Luki mostly ignored her at first and wanted to know where the rest of the pugs were. There ensued a frenzy of sniffing, snorting and peeing with me trying to calm everyone down. Daisy wanted to play, while Luki wanted to explore everywhere. He was like Livingstone. I don’t think I had ever seen such a busy pug.

At dinner time I presented him with the food of champions in his brand new bowl. The excitement came to a screeching stop. He snuffled it and looked up at me incredulously: “what the hell is this?” Daisy was ecstatic and set about claiming both dinners, while the newbie sniffed and did a slow, disappointed walk out of the kitchen. I was devastated. This carried on for a few mealtimes, despite me trying various combinations to see what was hit and what was miss. As with most things, we eventually figured it out.

My previous belief that all pugs are the same was quickly proven wrong. Luki continued to run, explore and pee while Daisy wanted to sleep. On day three she woke up and looked at me exhaustedly, as though to say “why is he still here?”

I realised that if Luki was to settle, I needed to give him space and meet him on his own terms. I couldn’t give him too much space, as initially he didn’t realise that he had been adopted. On his first outing to the dam, he tried to speed off in the direction of every braai he could get a whiff of, hoping that one of the families would share their meat and take him home with them. In fact Luki was a motorised pug. This is why he kept the name Luki – it rhymes with Suzuki. He has such a distinct way of running as well: nose to the ground and little legs working furiously as he propels himself forward like a clockwork mouse. I wondered whether that was how he came to be lost on the Moloto Road in the first place.

Because Luki was an unclaimed stray, we had very little information about his pre-sanctuary life. I have sometimes tried to piece together what might have transpired in his past. Despite living in Durban, he remains sensitive to the cold, which could be a throwback to him surviving on the highveld streets at the dead of winter. I shudder to think how long he was cold and hungry for. He is at times head shy, and his vet has commented on an old front leg injury which could attest to him having been abused at some point. Perhaps he ran away for this reason. However, as I have got to know him I think it is not impossible that he was living a happy life with a lovely family, was playing in his garden one morning and smelt something yummy, set off to investigate and never found his way back. The fact that nobody ever came forward to claim him makes me doubtful. We will never know for sure.

Adopting a rescue animal is such a rewarding experience as you help them overcome their confusion and trauma and see their personality emerging. I discovered that Luki Livingstone Suzuki absolutely loathes cats and hadedas and will chase them relentlessly until they chase him back, at which point the game is firmly off. I finally got the food thing right, and he loves his nosh to the extent that he is now on a diet. He worships the sun and loves his daily walks, which are taken at an erratic pace – long periods of snuffling followed by speedy trots to the next interesting smell which is usually peed upon. He is vocal, and grumbles under his breath if he can hear people playing without him. He has bonded well with the couch and loves his fluffy blanket so much that he sometimes lies on his back licking it. His favourite toy is a little bird, ironically designed for cats, that chirps when he drops it. While he is not wild about the vet, he is easily bribed with boiled chicken treats. He and Daisy, though quite different , are now inseparable. I didn’t realise how deaf Daisy actually was until Luki became her best friend, and her “ears”. She relies on him to let her know when I arrive home, and I am greeted by not one but two wiggling curly bottoms.

It took a full ten days for Luki to accept his new home. I remember the moment well. Him and I were lying at opposite ends of the couch watching a movie. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. I looked back at him. Slowly he made his way across to me, climbed onto my lap, rested his head against my chest and let out the biggest sigh I had ever heard from such a little body. He looked up at me, blinked, then closed his eyes and went to sleep. We lay like that for three hours. The pug that nobody had wanted was finally home, and I had found my forever pug.

Lockdown Chronicles Chapter 2: The Perils of Pineapple Beer

One of the things that always marks the start of my weekend is a glass of wine on Friday evening. In fact, if I am neither working that weekend nor running very early the following morning, with company, that Friday night glass of wine may become two or three glasses.

When Bheki Cele declared that no alcohol would be sold during lockdown, I made sure I bought sufficient wine to last the anticipated three weeks. When our Cyril extended the lockdown and introduced levels, that marked the end of my Friday glass of wine for the foreseeable level four future. Now, its not like I went into cold turkey or anything – I’m not that bad. It’s just that for two weeks, Friday came and went and my glass of Sauvignon Blanc was missing. I tried drinking soda and lemon in a wine glass, with disappointing results.

Halfway through a particularly dull Saturday, Richard suggested we try making pineapple beer. Initially I scoffed at the idea. I imagined us as bootleggers during the prohibition era, strapping kegs to the sides of mules, a far cry from the well-behaved upstanding citizens that we are. After all, one of us is an unemployed airline pilot, the other is a corporate sales manager. Furthermore, I have pugs, not mules. Before I knew it, the unemployed pilot had produced several pineapples, a bag of sugar and some yeast, and had set about destroying the pineapples in my Nutribullet. The twenty litre camping water container was produced and soon mangled pineapples, sugar, yeast and eleven liters of boiled water were sloshing around in it. It was sent to live in my garage next to the washing machine.

Later that same day, while sitting in the open garage watching the fermentation process, as one does, we had an “across the driveway” conversation with my neighbour. It turns out he was a bit of an accomplished brewer, and was a lot further down the pineapple beer road than us. We compared notes and learnt a few tips and tricks that were not in the recipe we had googled. As luck would have it, he had a batch that was on day seven of fermentation – regarded as drinkable but still young by pineapple beer connoisseurs. He kindly gave us a bit to try with our afternoon braai, and I was pleasantly surprised at how palatable it was. It was like drinking an entry level house wine. Perhaps we could survive the prohibition era lockdown after all. The only problem was that Richard insisted that we wait the full ten days before we crack open our pineapple beer, which meant a third dry Friday loomed.

I decided to take the bull by the horns, or in this case, the pineapple by the spikes, and make my own brew. Armed with my neighbour’s far simpler recipe, I combined pineapple juice, sugar and yeast, and placed my two liter concoction in the garage between it’s bubbling big brother and the washing machine. My brew became known as the “odd bins”, while Richard’s was known as the “single malt”. Together they became our dirty little secret in the proverbial basement.

The following weekend we sampled the “single malt”. It was a few days ahead of the ten day rule, and the brew was so sweet and awful that we froze a bottle of it and drank it as a slushy. When frozen, you could just taste a hint of alcohol. Richard was disappointed, but admitted to adding extra sugar as he had read that a higher sugar content created a stronger brew. The “odd bins” remained on the shelf, fermenting busily.

Happily, the following week was shorter, so Friday came early. The “odd bins” turned out to be dry, and rather yeasty, so we tried to filter it through a fresh mutton cloth three times. Despite this attempt to upgrade it to a triple distilled masterpiece, it remained rough as a beaver’s ass. Perhaps, rough as a pineapple skin would be a better description. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and, with a bit of imagination, it was a passable substitute for Friday night wine.

Days passed and the Boy Spartan arrived. He is of legal drinking age, and was delighted to hear that matured “single malt” pineapple beer was on tap in the garage, and disappeared down the stairs with a two liter coke bottle and a kitchen funnel to decant the spoils. I hadn’t tasted it since the slushy stage. After dinner, I retired to bed leaving him enthusiastically quaffing a third beer glass of pineapple beer while face-timing with his brother in Canada. I woke up the next morning, fresh as a daisy, while he staggered into my room and growled: “I am never drinking pineapple beer again!” I thought to myself how strange it was that his alcohol tolerance level seemed so much lower than my own famously low tolerance level. I fed him greasy eggs with strong coffee and plopped him in front of Netflix with a liter of water. Meanwhile the beast in the basement continued to brew.

I’m usually the type of person who goes adventuring at weekends, although lockdown has forced me to become more domesticated. Yesterday was a difficult day, as my dishwasher was not draining, and a gem squash had exploded in my oven. These events dragged me to a new level of domesticity that involved bicarbinate of soda, vinegar and a can of oven cleaner. Finally, when all had been fixed, I remembered the “single malt” in the garage, and sent the Spartan down to the garage with an empty bottle and the funnel to decant a reward for myself. I poured myself a large glass of the brew. The Spartan declined the offer of a glass. Upon tasting, I discovered it had clearly matured, but was still a bit sweet. Nevertheless, one glass became two, with a third consumed while I made dinner, giggling to myself. Boy Spartan said I was being silly and sent me to bed early.

And that is how I came to be wide awake at two o’clock this morning, scrambling for paracetamol or a cranial drill (whichever came first) and texting my social distance running partner to cancel this morning’s run. I died a little bit. Then I died a bit more. The rest of the decanted bottle was donated to my brew master neighbour, who has informed me that my headache is due to the fusel oils produced by the fermentation process. I don’t care yet. Actually come to think of it, I haven’t heard from him. I’m hoping he didn’t drink all the “single malt” in one go as it might have killed him.

I am never drinking pineapple beer again. We will brew cider.

Lockdown Chronicles Chapter 1: This is Sparta!

Lockdown is a shared process, yet an individual experience.  I for one seem to be handling it like I do most things in my life: with a thick skin, a healthy dose of humour and an unhealthy amount of optimism.

I realise that not everyone shares my outlook.  Some of my friends are so bogged down that they are barely breathing.  They are home-schooling multiple young children, managing a household with no helper and staying married, all while holding down a full-time-now-home-based job.  Any platitude about inspirational isolation-induced self-improvement and a more existential level of engagement is generally met with a snarling “I’m in f***ing Armageddon here!” I don’t dare suggest they have a therapeutic glass of wine, since the extended lockdown has probably outlasted their wine stockpile. They probably underestimated the amount they needed anyway.

I get it, believe me I get it!  As someone who had to use a calculator to check my son’s grade 4 maths homework back in the day, I know I would be horrible at home-schooling. In fact, my kids might have faked their own abductions and hidden in the garage if I had been forced to home-school them. Add to this a working-from-home husband who asks you what’s for dinner every 5 minutes, and mariticide (look it up!)  with the proverbial frozen leg of lamb would be a given.

But I’m not in it. You see I’m in lockdown with two fat pugs and my alternating week Spartans. The Spartans are my teenagers. I call all teenagers Spartans as they tend to hang around in angry little groups like warriors . Only now they can’t hang together as we’re social distancing. I love being in lockdown with my particular Spartans – they’re funny as hell and they can find anything I need on You Tube from “what to do with overripe bananas” (make banana bread or ice cream) to “how to empty the anal glands of a pug” (don’t do it). They are great kids and, as long as I have a relatively well-stocked fridge, pay my Netflix account and have functioning uncapped WiFi, the Spartans are entry-level self-sufficent.  Not “loading the dishwasher and cleaning the floors” level self-sufficient, but we’re working on the upskilling.  The fact that taking out the rubbish has become an event helps.

During the day Girl Spartan sits with me at the dining room table. I send emails, write reports, participate in online meetings and phone colleagues and customers, while she summarises “Macbeth”, practices her Afrikaans and draws diagrams of photosynthesising plants. Meanwhile, Boy Spartan does Boy Spartan things, which is mostly a good thing. This week his OCD spilled over into rearranging my kitchen cupboards which was an unexpected bonus. However, he was been known to swing the other way and use every coffee mug and towel in the house in one day. I make them food, they make me tea, and sometimes bake (to add to my lockdown carbo load). It’s a happy symbiosis. At the end of the week, as per the amended directive from the Minister of Social Development, we all put on our surgical masks and they happily toddle off to their father’s house to empty his fridge, use all his bog roll and ramp up his bandwidth. They probably all ask each other what’s for dinner every 5 minutes.

This is when the fat pugs and I take back control of the kitchen, the bath towels and, most importantly, Netflix. This is also when I ignore the basic food groups, make popcorn for dinner, pour myself a glass of soda water (because the wine is finished and the pineapple beer is still brewing) and stretch out on the empty day bed to watch “Mindhunter”. I sigh to myself above the sound of the contentedly snoring pugs, look around my peaceful, tidy home and wonder how the married-with-young-kids inmates are doing during suicide hour.

Days pass, and just as I am starting to miss the Spartans and become melancholic, it is time for them to return.  I wash the fat pugs, go real food shopping (Cyril calls it essential items shopping) and hide all the evidence of my hedonistic second life.  The pre-lockdown evidence used to be pizza boxes and wine bottles; now it has degenerated into popcorn packets and my Netflix recommended viewing list. When they return, they assure me that they have missed me as much as I’ve missed them. They are thrilled to be presented with a full-ish fridge again (having scavenged their father’s down to a wilted piece of celery and some post-expiry Dijon mustard), and we do it all again. I open the fridge and say what Spartans say: “Molon Labe” -come get them (it).

This is Sparta during lockdown. It’s a total win-win, and nobody gets stabbed in the eye with a fork.

The Spartans and co-Spartans in Lake 4 at Kosi Bay (pre-lockdown)

The Beta Version: sanitisers, face masks and pineapple beer.

Yesterday a talented doctor friend of mine sent me a poignant piece he had written entitled “A Dream in the Time of COVID”. With a raw heart and a lucid voice, he told how COVID-19 had forced him to interact differently with his patients and their families. His story interweaved authentically and effortlessly, and brought me to tears. I wished I could write as skillfully and gracefully as him.

I texted my friend to compliment him on his sensitively written prose, and he asked me how my new blog was going.

“Well, it’s not, I replied. “Everything I write comes out lighthearted and it just seems wrong at a time like this. I need to find the appropriate voice.”

He answered: “Everything is wrong at the moment in a way … Sometimes you just have to launch the beta version.”

He’s right. Nothing is right at the moment. We all know that COVID has changed the world and will continue to do so for a long time. Those of us who are not on the frontline, have new respect for the medical personnel who are putting their lives at risk to diagnose and treat those infected. We empathise with those most at risk, which in Africa, is not just the elderly, sick and immune compromised, but everybody living below the poverty line. How do you self-isolate in a 3m X 3m shack with 7 other people and no running water? What is worse: watching your children starve, or catching an invisible virus that you may have a better chance of surviving? These are heartbreaking, scary “shit got real” questions. Those with access to media watch the curve going up, up, up – it’s not a curve yet.

The epidemiology of COVID is horrific on a global level. It’s the stuff of those far-fetched disaster movies, where there is a meteor or tsunami or massive earthquake and everything gets weird – until the guy gets the girl and they sail off into the sunset on a makeshift raft as the final credits roll. But COVID is not a movie, and there are no final credits. COVID has brought out the best in people. It has also brought out the worst in people. (Disclaimer: I do not mean to trivialise the virus, the essential workers or the lockdown situation in any way).

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, shit has got interesting – and not always in a real way. I just can’t help myself. I have to write the beta version.

First of all, I’m so impressed with how well we’re all doing. Most of us still have a sense of humour, even when we are sent the same lockdown meme by 300 different people. Secondly, the legendary South African entrepreneurial spirit remains intact, and has evolved from “how to make a face mask out of a sock/dishcloth/bikini” (with extra bonus points if it is made from recycled materials), to “how to make pineapple beer in 7 days” after Cyril extended the lockdown by two weeks longer than our wine stash. NO, you can’t drink your hand sanitiser, even if you dilute it. That stuff will kill you, plus we are going to be sanitising our hands for a jolly long time and you’re going to need it.

Our OCD friends are delighted that washing hands twenty times a day and sterilising groceries has become a thing and they are no longer outcasts. The agoraphobics amongst us are loving the social distancing, and I suspect, many of them are visiting the shops for the first time in years. Also, none of us has stabbed bossy “The Karen” from Facebook who has become an expert virologist/psychologist/personal trainer/remedial teacher overnight and tells us what is real, what isn’t real, how we should legit feel/eat/home school and shows us how she keeps fit doing triathlons in a tutu in a half hectare garden with a pool and stationary bike, documented entirely with 28 photos a day. True, nobody is able to actually leave their 250 square metre (no pool or stationary bike) home to take definitive action against irritating “The Karen”. But they haven’t defriended her either – maybe in case lockdown gets extended by another 100 days and they need the entertainment.

Wildlife has returned to the suburbs, which is exciting. In my neighbourhood, this has taken the form of a loud breeding pair of magnificent Crowned Eagles who perch on the tall gum trees next to my housing complex where they can see and intimidate the local cat ladies and their cats. This was the cause of a great flurry of concern on the complex chat group. I also read that a neighbourhood cat, obviously completely fed up that his humans were in his home 24/7, had disregarded the “no visitors” rule of my complex and moved in. He was caught trying to romance the complex kitties, which caused another flurry on the chat group. The poor little “Romeo” was caught and boxed and shipped off to the local vet before he could say “want to come back to my place?”

My favourite part of lockdown has been going to the shops (only to buy essentials, of course). I shouldn’t laugh, but people are on edge. Myself included. It’s not normal times. But some people are REALLY on edge. Yesterday I noticed a very nervous man in the fruit and veg section. He was wearing a serious mask made from a double-layer flannel facecloth, (which was useful as it also served as a facial sweat absorber) and yellow industrial grade gloves (like the ones my mom used to wear when she washed the dishes). Concerned, I watched him to see if he could breath through all that material, and noticed that he was getting increasingly frustrated in his efforts to open a fresh produce bag without licking his fingers. Eventually he got so frustrated that he slipped one gloved finger under his mask and into his mouth. Heavy duty latex made contact with dry, nervous mouth, and he realised what he had done and physically recoiled, yanking his finger from his mouth and dislodging his face mask. He took three horrified steps back, straight into my germy trolley, and let out a little shriek. and glared at me like I was the anti-Christ. I moved back and tried smiling at him reassuringly, then realised that he couldn’t see my smile beneath my own mask. Under normal circumstances, I would have asked him if I could help, maybe opened a bag and passed it to him. But being in a supermarket in protective gear with a scared stranger who might spray your eyes with sanitiser if you pass him anything is not normal circumstances. It’s sad but true.

You see, like my talented doctor friend and his patients, COVID has changed the way we interact with each other. How we engage with and support each other and talk to strangers has changed indefinitely. We will find new ways to connect. We already have with our virtual book clubs and sundowners on Zoom. And much as she is preachy and condescending, “The Karen” is getting her stuff together and connecting in her own way.

So let’s lighten up, be kind and focus on peacefully brewing our pineapple beer to help us with the home schooling. I might even look out my cheap red tutu and do laps around my tiny patio to connect with “the Karen”.