THE BLOG

South Africa

13/07/2015 14:51 BST | Updated 13/07/2016 10:59 BST

'One thing. Make sure you take any valuables into the room with you.'

We looked at our host, an old friend of R's.

'Don't leave them in the living room at night,' he continued, 'in-case someone sees them through the window.'

We were staying in a farm house in the middle of a vineyard in the Western Cape. Determined criminals only would venture in here. But our hosts had been broken into before, more than once.

Across the hallway, leading down to the bedrooms and the bathrooms, was a security gate. It reminded me of the criss-cross doors on old fashioned lifts still in use in some European hotels.

Outsiders know about the heavy crime rate in South Africa. But not how it permeates so many lives and conversations. It has become an unsettling constant, wrapped up in issues of race and economics which together form the stark underbelly of a complex and beautiful country. There has been hardly anyone I have met who has not mentioned it.

Crime is to South Africans what politics is to Kenyans and what the weather (and sometimes immigration) is to the British.

We had gone to visit R's girls and his family before a business trip the Cape. Ours was a wine import company, bringing boutique South African wines into East Africa.

'Have you heard,' my brother James had asked an old family friend at a BBQ back in England, 'she's in the wine business now!'

I had pictured our friend's chuckles morphing into a great big belly laugh. My work had always centered on writing and education. But R had seen a burgeoning wine culture and an untapped market in Kenya, and because no-one gets there entirely alone, we had taken it on together, weaving our way through layers of complication, banging our heads against brick walls and watching as R's hair turned greyer.

We were in the Cape to tour the vineyards our company was representing. I had put the final touches of our itinerary together while we were still in Durban, in R's father's house. It hadn't seemed as hectic then as it was when we got there.

My advice to wine enthusiasts would be: don't try to do 20 vineyards in a week. Also, try not to drive back and forth across different valleys in the same day.

We crisscrossed Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville, Ashton, Franschhoek and Robertson as if we had never seen a map. We had. But our trip wasn't a leisurely holiday; if it was, I would probably pass on another one. It was planned and executed around meetings and other people's schedules. There were early morning starts and late night arrivals back at the farm where our hosts produced the one thing we didn't want to see: wine.

Elaborate tastings with winemakers averaged 20 wines in one sitting. R, the designated driver, felt sure that he had never spat out so much wine in his life. We each knew what we liked but there was a certain perplexity around whether we could really pick up wood, cut grass or asparagus. R, swirling a glass of red in his hand, thought he might be able to detect a hint of leather, then realised he was wearing a leather hat.

People were welcoming and warm and quick to laugh. Almost nothing happened on time. Meetings started when they started and went on longer than expected. African Time existed in the Western Cape, too; it reminded me in this way of a less eccentric Kenya.

Our complex wine route took us over the Du Toitskloof Pass, a mountain pass surrounded by towering peaks which looks out over the Paarl and Worcester wine valleys. Everywhere is a stunning shade of emerald green. It evoked, for R, the view of Kenya's Rift Valley, beloved by me and one of the first, emotive sights you see on the winding road down to Naivasha. Epic is a word that belongs to Africa.

We had one day off. It was a Sunday and nobody could see us. So R and I, aching for sleep but not wanting to stop and slow down, took the scenic Chapman's Peak route along the icy, turquoise blue Atlantic from False Bay to Noordhoek and onto Cape Town. The road winds and curves around a vertical mountain side through picturesque fishing villages and naval towns that meet sandy bays below.

We had wrestled with the idea of relocating to South Africa. I started to mentally move my life out there but we had not worked out how to do it. Then a series of problems unfolded in Kenya, simply because we were not there, and took the decision away. So R and I flew home for some crisis management and to decide where in Kenya we might go next.

Taken from the blog Sunset Under the Baobab Tree: My African Life