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Sticking with Las Vegas, a billionaire, Microsoft and a Volksie shop

The week started with a bang.

On Monday, the EyeforTravel WhatsApp group started pinging madly. Mostly I annoy people by ignoring WhatsApp, but this activity seemed unusual. It was, I soon realised. The news of the crazy, incomprehensible, senseless shooting in Las Vegas this week was headlining in the UK.

Pinging aside, I could almost hear a collective groan ripple from Devon, where the boss was, all the way up to the Spitalfields office and across to South West London, casting a shadow over my sunny loft office. You see, EyeforTravel’s next event is taking place in the very Mandalay Bay Hotel from where Steven Paddock fired his shots from the 32nd floor. 

Before long, the team already had an email from one delegate who was in the midst of the carnage, and unsurprisingly wanted to cancel – she doesn’t want to ‘set foot in that city again any time soon’.  However, there was never really any doubt that the show should go on – EyeforTravel represents the travel industry and these incidents hit hotels and airlines, and the livelihoods they support, hard. Luckily this strategy is one many have rallied behind. It was particularly nice to hear from one the event’s key note speakers Paul English, the former founder of the travel company Kayak, which was sold to the US firm Priceline for $1.8bn in 2012, that he agreed with this call.

Interviewing Paul, whose rise in the world of travel has been immortalised by the Pullitzer prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder in a memoir titled A Truck Load of Money, was a highlight of a week that started badly. Though hard to be sure, from our +-45-minute telephonic interview about his latest venture Lola, he seemed decent, determined and very smart.

Paul told me that for the past few years he and one other foundation have been the main funders of 10,000 students in 40 rural schools in Haiti, where they’ve been investing in teacher training and are also building infrastructure. He is also working with the homeless community in Boston, and doing a big project related to building a Martin Luther King Memorial in the city.

In preparing for my interview, I read somewhere that his background is Irish Catholic but I forgot to ask. Need I say more.

At the end of the interview Paul thanks me for asking about his philanthropic work. ‘Nobody ever does,’ he says.

It’s nice he thanked me, but I’m surprised people don’t ask. Surely if you claim to be doing philanthropic work and you’ve made a ‘truckload of money’, you need to held accountable.

Like, Wow, Microsoft!

The week’s next highlight has to have been the email that landed in my inbox on Tuesday from a Stuart Greif, a senior executive at Microsoft who I also interviewed recently.

I paraphrase Stuart here in a few paragraphs, that can only be described as blowing my own trumpet.

‘I’ve interviewed with hundreds journalists over the years from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Marketwatch, CNN, Fox …USAToday, as well as countless from the trade press. Your approach, lens, writing, incisive insights, storytelling and accuracy are all exceptional.

‘Often times, journalists are good at a few of these things.  Factual information frequently is misunderstood, misconstrued, and more often than should be the case, factually wrong. You are truly in the top 1% of the journalists with whom I engaged over the years.’

Like wow, how great am I, I thought, before the self-doubt kicked in. I found myself reflecting that, although Stuart might deny it, this was probably a little too positive a story about Microsoft’s foray into the brave-new-world of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and machine learning – heaven help us all.

In my part-time gig at EyeforTravel I have editorial independence to a degree but we’re the travel industry’s ally, not whistle blowers – although be warned, I will if I have to.

Feeling good about Volksies

An email later in the week from one of my first, and still favourite editors, Business Day’s Tim Cohen, brought me back down to earth. I’ve not been in touch with him for a while, but earlier that morning had sent a pitch along these lines to what I referred to as the Saturday Magazine.

‘I’ve got a feel-good story about two small and growing businesses in Joburg. The first is renovating and fixing VW Beetles and campervans and seems to be flying, the other is run by a Ford Lancia fanatic, (whose mother-in-law’s chestnut brown, leathered-seat classic is parked up on one floor).’

My pitch continues:

‘There are couple of old geezers, one of whom couldn’t hack retirement, a 40-something mechanic, and VW aficionado who happens to be gay. There is also an energetic 20-something young black woman, who has ‘small hands – useful in this business’ – a wide smile and fantastic hair, who trained in electronics but wanted to be a mechanic, and the just turned 21-year-old white male, with a complicated family history.

The old boys are training the young one’s up. I transcribed my interviews last week, which had me laughing out loud – there’s definitely a story here. Got some half decent pics too.’[South Africans might understand better than others why it’s necessary for me to mention age, colour, sexuality and gender, so overtly in this pitch]

The response from Tim: ‘Sure, story sounds good. But I think you may be getting kinda old and forgetful – we never had a Saturday magazine. We had the Weekender, which was a tabloid paper, but it’s long closed.’

Forgetful maybe, but who is calling me old?

Tim’s not interested, however, in a media deal with the African magazine publisher, which also asked me this week if I’d be willing to cover Africa 2017  to be held in Sharm-el-Sheikh in December. Winter sun, here we come – well maybe. It’s a toss up between Egypt and Ivory Coast.

Still I’m chuffed that I’m going to be able to write my vintage car story. Let’s just say it will be another sort-of homage to my Dad who died suddenly and expectedly in Japan, a year next week. My father loved a classic car, and would be tickled that the jolly Volksie-Lancia crew, a growing business doing good, have found a home on the top floor of his ‘Rainbow Building’ in Wynberg.

The market for vintage cars in  Africa is growing,  Mike Mullan the boss of the Volksie shop tells me – and for many the VW is still an affordable statement.

I’m penning that piece today, so the week, it seems, is ending with a story about a few old bangers. That’s kind of cool, I think, air-cooled should we say.



Google and the place of the flying ducks

‘Matatiele’: When I entered this Basotho word, which roughly translated means ‘the ducks have flown’, into Google last week, I was curious. How would, or even could, Google portray this place of beloved and vividly remembered childhood holidays?

My second cousin Penny – and the trusty Kipper – instilled an early love of horses

Top of search was Wikipedia with a description reading: ‘Matatiele is a mid-sized town serving the farming and trading communities of East Griqualand in the foothills of the western Drakensberg, Eastern Cape, South Africa, on the border with KwaZulu-Natal and 20 km from the southern frontier of Lesotho.’

A little lower down, it continues…

‘Evidence of Stone Age inhabitants in the form of art adorning rocks are found throughout the area. In the early 1860s the Griquas settled here after migrating across the Drakensberg from Philipolis. The town was the centre of cattle rustling and gun-running and order was only restored in 1874 by the Cape Mounted Riflemen. The town became a municipality in 1904.’

Early days in Matat – date unknown

So a bit of interesting history, though Wikipedia doesn’t say that East Griqualand was given the title ‘No-man’s land by the Xhosa King Faku after he was defeated and driven out by Shaka, king of the Zulus.

The mist rolling in from the hills of Rietfontein where Bushmen paintings can be found

Nor does it give any sense of the barren beauty of this remote, untouched landscape where Bushmen once roamed, and whose paintings can be found in mountain caves across the region, including on the farm Rietfontein, where my relatives settled some time in the late 1800s.


What I see in my mind’s eye when I think ‘Matat’ is a road sign with the three flying ducks welcoming us to this one-horse town in the foothills of the Drakensberg. I see the rusting farm gate swinging open, and ahead the dirt road that leads to the bridge over the donga and then swings right towards the stone farmhouse, with its archways of rambling roses and grapevine-hung stoep.

On a visit in the winter of 2015 my son Calum leaps out, as we always did, to open the farm gate

From the farm gate on the hillside to the right is a crumbling house, which cattle have made their home. This is the house that Uncle Frank built for his English fiancé but was left to go to ruin after the letter arrived to say that she’d met somebody else on the boat from Bournemouth. It was a letter that broke his heart and, the story goes, is what drove him into the arms of a black woman, for which he was charged under South Africa’s brutal Immorality Act, and which led to the family becoming increasingly hermit-like.

The house that Uncle Frank built, photographed in the 1980s. It has now been renovated.

I see the light from the stained glass window falling into the hallway with its polished wooden floors and the organ in the front room, where Aunty Ada, one of the farm’s strange and ancient inhabitants, is hunched over embroidering.  Then there is Aunty Dorothy in her ankle length skirt, woolly hat, and the stick she carved from local yellow wood, stooped over feeding her beloved sheep, which she refused sell unless traders swore that they would not end up as mutton chops.

Aunty Dorothy, the shepherdess, and one of the four unmarried siblings that were born on Rietfontein

I can picture the house nestled at the foot of the mountain that hugs the border of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho; if you’re not scared of porcupines, prickly grass and snakes, you can climb it for a vista of the Drakensberg escarpment

In 2015, my children and I returned to the farm and climbed the mountain

I remember bitterly cold nights, wearing pantyhose as thermal underwear and a guinea fowl shooting party. Flooding back comes the smug elation of being told we could sleep in the comfy beds in the rondavel behind the house, which doubled as spare room for guests. What we weren’t told was that our Granny-ma had spotted a Black Mamba in it earlier that day, and had decided it would be safer for her to sleep on the floor.

Aunty Elaine (left), Aunty Ada and my second cousin Stuart who was killed in a car crash on the farm road in 1979

Then there is the smell of wood smoke from the rondavels, paraffin as the lamps are lit, and Gaulois cigarettes, which my great-aunt Elaine always puffed on Audrey Hepburn style from a tortoise shell cigarette holder – and which caused her emphysema.

The rondavels today are painted in bright colours

The sound of dogs barking, the musical chitter-chatter of local children, the call of the Piet-my-Vrous, and the morning croo-coo, croo-coo of the Cape Turtle Dove, are also neatly stored in the compartment of distant memory.

On the horizon to the west, I recall the spectacular sunsets; a violent red strip of sky, flecked with wisps of cirrus cloud, and the voice of my mother Red Sky at Night is a Shepherd’s Delight.

Back to reality

I could go on, and on – and on. But I have accommodation to find in Matatiele because, after throwing the remains of Dad darling to the Indian Ocean where he loved to surf on December 23rd, I want to make a sentimental journey to this place of rich childhood memories.

A view from one of Durban’s Piers

So what then does Google show me if I enter ‘Matatiele accommodation’ into search? Only last week Google was slapped with a €2.4 billion fine by the European Commission which found that the US company had “abused its dominant position by systematically favouring” its own shopping comparison service.

So I’m curious to see how search results are being displayed, as one of my hats requires me to cover the travel industry, which is becoming increasingly threatened by Google’s monopoly in search, and its move up what industry jargon refers to as the ‘trip-planning funnel’.

Needless to say, top of the pile are results from Google Hotel Finder (paid for adverts don’t seem to have reached this part of the world) but I have to confess that I’m pleased to see that Resthaven, where we stayed in 2015, sits top of this pile.   There really isn’t much choice in Matat but if hospitality is the secret of a guesthouse’s success, then Resthaven comes up trumps. When we stayed there in 2015 Philip Rawlins, the proprietor, really could not have been more helpful. Not only did he contact the new owners of Rietfontein to arrange a visit, he even lent us his 4×4 (at no extra charge) when we heard that the donga bridge had been recently washed away in a recent flood.

The 4×4 lent to us by Philip Rawlins at Resthaven Guesthouse which allowed us to cross the donga and get into the farm hills

Google’s number 2 is also a pleasing result for me personally: the Royal Courtyard Hotel. Though clearly a very different place today, this was formerly the net-blankes, whites-only Royal Hotel, where we’d stayed on at least one occasion in the late 1970s and ’80s with Umma, my great uncle Max.

Back then it was a grand and austere establishment with, as I recall, a maroon-carpeted, dark-wood hotel bar, where we’d sometimes stop for refreshments en route to the farm. Here Umma would steadily drink his way into an argument and sometimes, lubricated to the point of showing off, he’d insist we spend a night of ‘luxury’ before heading to Rietfontein, where there was no running water or electricity. If he’d told them he was gay, it might have been the end of us.

The Royal Courtyard Hotel today, formerly the Royal Hotel

Click through from the Google Hotel Finder results and you find yourself on another Google landing page offering Google Reviews first, followed by the hotel’s own website, then TripAdvisor and finally a lesser known online travel agent

No doubt Google is providing these establishments with a service, even if they have to pay it. But what about the others that aren’t? Since most people start their search with Google that clearly isn’t working for them. On turning to Airbnb, I find just two listings in the town itself, one a family home, the other the Kairos Guesthouse and few more on which also has inventory that hasn’t found its way onto Google.

What my searching for accommodation on Google has shown me is this: no website, does this remote, wild, unspoilt region they call East Griqualand justice. The sweeping vistas and barren surreal landscapes are just too far from Johannesburg or Durban for a weekend trip away. And so, major developers in tourism have stayed away, so you won’t find anything too flash or upmarket.

When I returned in 2015, I was worried that I would find the area vastly changed. Yes the farmhouse is a little different. The rambling roses have gone, there is more Australian wattle, now classified as an ‘alien’ plant, growing a little too vigorously on the banks of the donga. And Uncle Frank’s house has been developed, and is now inhabited.

Maybe I’m stuck in my own past looking back. But when I returned to Matat two years ago, it seemed to me that in this corner of South Africa there is harmony, where people and landscape are in communion with each other, even in a country where elsewhere things seem to be falling apart. Secretly,  I’m hoping the same will be true in December this year.

At this stage, I still haven’t decided on the dates for my journey to Matat, but I’ll more than likely stay at Resthaven. I can hardly wait, and I feel excited, and a even a little emotional.

The house of Jan Schoeman who is a collector of local memorabilia in the town of Matat

This is not uncommon, Jan Schoeman, a collector of local memorabilia, who I met in the town on an early morning walk in 2015, and who invited us in for coffee, told me: ‘You only cry twice in life. When you arrive in Matatiele and when you leave’.










A sort-of tribute to my late father

The day my father died, three months ago yesterday, I was at my mother’s house helping her to move out of our family home. It was nearing the end of the two weeks I’d spent with her laughing and crying through the packing up of 40 years of tat, trinkets and family treasures.

I was alone, sitting on the verandah and lamenting that this would be the last time I could enjoy the spring lushness of the sub-tropical paradise that my mother had created in her garden, when the phone rang. It was my younger brother.

‘Pam?’ There was a pause. ‘Dad is dead.’ Continue reading

Counting blessings

“Darling, why not phone them now and say we will ring them when we get to Nairobi. Tell them Mummy wants to take them to Carnivore tomorrow night.”

Carnivore, this slightly overweight, posh Brit tells her public school looking teenagers, is a restaurant. As I’m standing in the queue at Heathrow waiting to board the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, I imagine them gnawing on a great big kudu leg, and I shudder, suddenly grateful that my family have lived in Africa long enough to have lost this colonial edge. Continue reading

Secrets, lies and thinking on your feet

Keep Calm Pamela. This is the message on the key ring given to me last Saturday morning by my friend, the mother of my daughter’s friend of nearly 15 years.

The best friend is organising a surprise birthday party and I’m dropping my son off at hers so that we can spend some ‘bonding’ time together while my house is decorated and the food set out. Continue reading

Putlocker, piracy and parents: when sharing isn’t always caring

“Art is art. That’s how it is in our household. No way would any of us ever download free music or films. Absolutely no way!”

It was an emphatic response to the question I’d put to the crowd at coffee last Friday: “How would you feel if your children were downloading films or music illegally?” Continue reading

The Cloud Lifts

At 4am the day after my Gmail account was hacked over a month ago now, I penned a blog, Google’s Very Dark Cloud (see below if you didn’t get a chance to read it before I binned it). Sleep was elusive and there was little else to do while I waited for two hours to run my anti-virus programme before reactivating my account. Words flowed easily. Continue reading

Our Monsters on Moshi

Last night my six-year-old son signs in to MoshiMonsters, the popular online children’s game, which now has over 50 million users worldwide. He is very excited because he got a monthly membership for Christmas so he can now do more with his pet Monster. So while I get dinner started he clicks through to his friends’ tree, the space where children post messages to each other, and lets out a shriek of delight. A pink monster in America called KittyKat wants to be his ‘friend’.  “I’m going to send her a message,” he yells and excitedly begins typing. Continue reading