Five months, 20 weeks, a gross of days. However phrased, it is a lot of time to be holidaying a long way from home. Truth is, this story should have emerged about 15 months ago after a vacation lasting a mere two months. Even that would have been a pretty epic break had it gone to the original plan. And then along came Covid and Johnson Jail. Quite a parameter shift.
In the naïve and heady days of early 2020 Shelley-ann and I were poised on a wave of optimism. This was the year for 60th birthdays and ruby wedding anniversaries.
“Do you have any special requests for your birthday?” I asked my dear wife of almost 40 years.
“I just want to spend it with my Mum,” she replied. We had royally celebrated Mum Judy achieving nonagenarian status in Hermanus in the Western Cape in June the previous year.
“No big parties,” Shelley-ann assured me.
“just a small celebration including Mum,” she stated emphatically.
Nothing like the extended Eriksen gathering around the matriarch a year previously, with four generations in attendance.
Itinerary grows as wine rears its head
Our itinerary for 2020 swiftly grew. I had been desperate for my life’s partner to accompany me on a road trip to revisit places we had not been together: a slow meander from Johannesburg to the Cape and majoring on the Karoo. Add to that a rekindled interest in South African wine on my part. Lit by an extraordinarily talented and comprehensive gathering of New Wave SA winemakers in Soho in September 2019 and culminating in a WSET2 qualification with distinction for me in London at the beginning of March. The cherry (Pinot, surely, Ed) was securing a place on a WSET3 course to be held in Stellenbosch in November.
Tickets were booked to fly to Joburg at the beginning of October 2020, returning to Oxfordshire two months later. An encounter with winemaker Hanneke Krüger at the 2019 Swig do had ended up with 4 nights secured at the Badenhorst ranch in November, adjacent to the WSET school session.
In Soho, I had been hoping to get a few words with Adi Badenhorst but the crowds around him were impenetrable.
“You’ll just have to come and stay with us on the farm,” Hanneke smiled, handing me a delicious taster of a perfectly crafted Steen (Chenin Blanc). “Contact Semma, who handles our bookings.”
I made a mental note and moved into another room with other New Wave/Young Gun superstars to talk to.
Three young guns in Soho. Hanneke Krüger, Jasper Wickens and Ryan Mostert enjoying the evening
Towards the end of the evening I noticed that there was a chink in the group around Adi. It was a quiet moment and the adjacent Mullineux table was quiet, too. Hanneke had returned to base.
I approached Adi, gestured towards Hanneke and said, I thought sotto voce, “your daughter suggested I come to stay at your farm to get some quality time with you.”
“My daughter!” Adi exclaimed, only to be drowned out by the mirth from the assembled grandees at the next table.
I have been known, occasionally, to put my foot in it. I retired as gracefully as I could but it didn’t stop me getting on to Semma the next morning and securing that farm booking. After all, I had read accounts of wine fundis pitching up at Jackalsfontein and finding Adi expounding while flinging slightly tidied up whole bunches of grapes over his shoulder into a vat behind him. The man was a legend. Well worth destroying a car on the ruthless roads leading to his inner sanctum.
Soon a pretty impressive itinerary had evolved. Exotic guest houses and B&Bs, a hire car, road maps, the lot.
And along came Covid ...
We did have some concerns about the effect this would have on our trip but were reassured by British Airways when we received the “Preparing for your trip” email in mid May 2020. There was no suggestion of flights being cancelled. After all, our “honourable” Prime Minister, no less, had stated that everything was under control after the government’s swift action in bringing about the 1st UK lockdown. Plans were announced in early May that commencement of lifting restrictions had begun.
They never really did, though. Our Johno spaffed around with his willing cheeky chappies, Hancock leading the pack through the misery of the 20/21 winter. BA dropped us a friendly email on the 10th of August with the title “Your BA57 flight to Johannesburg on 28 Sep 2020 has been cancelled”. The new date they’d allocated us was 30th November. Our outbound and return flights were scheduled to cross in midair.
Brief intermission for a 60th
Almost to the day, we both got Covid a month before Shan's 60th. We weren't hospitalised or anything but the two of us were pretty much basket cases for most of that fortnight. And now the country was in a severe lockdown1. The Mater was being extremely brave about her big day that should have been happening with family2 in the Southern Hemisphere.
There was a bit of a recovery period for the two of us between the end of our own bout of Covid and November 163. Daughter Kate and I stealthily conferred on a cunning plan. I would make a clandestine trip to a Michelin starred restaurant, the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, where they were doing fine-dining takeaways. Little Bedwyn was en route from our house to Kate's. We would have a virtual dinner party on Zoom. Identical meals and wine on either end. There was an unexpected benefit, too. All participants could enjoy the wine without having to drive home afterwards.
Sue and Roger Jones the Harrow owners had instituted the utmost propriety in the pick up cycle. It felt a bit like prohibition. Masked actors at a distance with two large brown paper bags sitting on a table at a safe distance in between. In each bag were 7 course meals for two and precise and copious instructions as to how to prepare the repast. Kate and I repeated a similar process at her end before I returned to base.
Coming up to 60 yrs: A bit of a timeline, mother of the bride a year earlier and a stoical painter making the best of the days leading up to her birthday ...
The whole celebration went pretty much like clockwork once the Zoom was established. I know it wasn't perfect but a lot of fun was had and Shelley-ann knew she was loved. And she got to have another virtual 60th a year later ...
Return from intermission ...
Talk about Ground Hog Day.
Except this time the Spaffmeister had introduced a new piece of skullduggery into the mix … the Heathrow Jails. Basically, if you were unlucky enough to time your journey to return to the UK at an “inappropriate” time he received a bonus of £3,700 (approximately per couple) while you languished in the makeshift jails dotted around the country. A kind of lottery, then.
And this time it was all but impossible to telephone BA. We eventually “secured” a holiday a year later than our original booking, in October and November 2021. Surprise, surprise, the outbound flight was cancelled at the beginning of August 2021.
Every time this happened, BA left the return flight alone. At one point, we were actually booked on a return flight that preceded the outbound flight and the only way to resolve the situation was to get BA on the phone.
Normal people might have given up at this stage but a major imperative for us was Shelley-ann’s mother, now 92-years-old and suffering the strains of Covid-isolation. Sister, Kerry, was extraordinary, a saint, but her communications were, understandably, cause for concern.
After an extraordinary number of attempts to contact BA (I’m talking weeks of quite a few dropped calls a day) I got through. Thankfully S-a was in the room with me. It was difficult to be angry because the people on the other end were doing an all but impossible job and were most gracious every time we got to speak to an actual person. This particular person was sympathetic to our plight. We wanted to push the return flight as far back as possible to mitigate the risk of the outbound flight overtaking it again.
“More than two months after the outbound,” I requested.
“I’ll need a specific day,” she responded.
I had no idea of an appropriate specific date but mindful of the difficulty getting through to the call centre, I quickly consulted my wife. She didn’t hesitate for long.
“The 28th of February next year,” was her half-joking response. It meant 5 months in South Africa. “Maybe Johnson’s Jail will be a thing of the past by then?”
Sounded about as feasible as anything else to me. I repeated the date to the BA representative. She didn’t seem fazed.
That’s how we came to stay in South Africa for 5 months.
The irony, for there always seemed to be one, was that Joker Johnson’s Jail requirement was abolished the day we arrived in SA at the (slightly later) date in early October.
There were compensations for our mêlée: we were around to collect our awards for our voluntary work in cycling and to spend more time with our rapidly maturing delightful granddog, Georgie.
Coming soon: A series of episodes following our adventures and occasional travails during the 144 days