As I looked at the water, frozen in our bird bath, and shivered in the full morning sun, I pondered being under house arrest in the middle of a Joburg winter.
Cyril had prevented us from leaving plague-ridden Gauteng, so we missed out on two weeks in the Karoo and Knysna. It was particularly irritating because the best time to travel in South Africa is winter … for me anyway.
Normally I like to get away to somewhere warmer in winter and our trips to the bushveld have been amazing over the years. And Gauteng can be very ugly in the coldest times of the year.
The Bushveld air seems cleaner, there are fewer people and the chill is not nearly as bad. There is nothing quite like a fire in the evening in the bush – and I often build one up after the braai is done, for the pleasure of sitting next to it and gazing philosophically into the coals, while a chill nibbles around the edges.
Oh, and the place we regularly go to in the Waterberg in winter sees the annual return of its migratory group of bat-eared foxes which, one memorable July, included an albino, its creamy coat contrasting with that of the darker colouring of its siblings.
A family trip to Namibia – to feel real solitude and space, as well as show my son the place he was born – also took place in winter … which in the Namib Desert anyway, saw temperatures in the low 30s and in Etosha National Park, I braaied in shorts and a T-shirt while family in Joburg moaned about their -20C temperature.
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In Knysna, a frequent destination for our family, the weather is mild for us upcountry folk even when the locals shiver in winter, the shorter days only mean even more spectacular sunsets over the lagoon.
This past week, when temperatures fell even further across the country, I looked at a picture of the snowed-in Swartberg Pass in the Cape – where at least eight vehicles, including 4x4s, reportedly got stranded – and was reminded of the consequences of travelling in Europe in the teeth of their winter. Driving a rear-wheel-drive BMW, we slid backwards on black ice, into a ditch on a road in deep rural Northern Ireland. It was a frightening experience – and something for which I was totally unprepared, despite my many years of driving.
Yet, funnily enough, the winter there has its charms, too. The early (well 9am is early in winter, there) mornings with a weak sun peeping through wispy cloud produced an almost ethereal light. And walking through the snow on Christmas Day, it was as if I was wrapped in cotton wool … not only soft and fluffy but also thick enough to absorb the sound and leave you wandering in a pure, near-silent world.
While there is the downside of slush and grit and grime on the roads in Europe – and especially the UK – in winter, the balance is that, once inside, you’re as warm as toast thanks to ubiquitous central heating. And, when it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better than being inside a pub, sitting near a roaring fire sipping on a draft beer, contemplating a plate of fish and chips or a “ploughman’s platter” of cheeses, breads and onions.
It would seem to make sense to hit Europe when we’re in the teeth of our own winter. That might not be such a good idea, though. Once the world returns to normal, so will the tourism industry and the crowds in Europe in summer are just awful. None of the pictures of beautiful places you see online or in brochures will look anything like the seething mess of humanity which covers them in summer.
The best option is to travel in the “shoulder” seasons of spring and autumn. Spring in the Northern Hemisphere is achingly beautiful and so is autumn with its myriad different colours. After so long under a travel quarantine, I am not fussy about when I travel to be honest. Cold or hot, I am looking forward to freedom.