This is a newly published book and on the bookshelves of your favourite bookshop just before Christmas. It makes an ideal Christmas present. It is something of a stocking filler book which will delight and have wide appeal. Luke Alfred is South Africa’s own Bill Bryson. He writes with an easy flow of style. The book combines memoir, reminiscences, history, travel and reflection. There is a mix of past personal travel adventures and Sunday stepping out and about. I enjoyed the book because the author opens up about himself; he is quirky, funny, rambling and fun.
Luke Alfred is a veteran journalist; he spent a year walking about the country meeting a variety of people and here he recounts their stories. Each chapter offers his reflections and experience of a number of different walks. Alfred steps out in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape, the Western Cape, KwaZulu Natal and the North West Province. Sometimes he is alone on his walks, sometimes he gathers friends and forms a hiking party. There does not appear to be any single route and there is no map in this book. The coloured photographs add to the visual appeal and you glimpse some of the characters who populate the book such as Julian Pereira, a railway enthusiast in rural KwaZulu Natal, or Philip Kgosana of Makapanstad in the Northwest. Travel brings one into the orbit of “the kindness of strangers” and this too has been my experience of South African hospitality from people everywhere. Curiosity, shared humour, jokes and questions about the lives of others with my husband’s elementary Zulu and my Irish nun taught Afrikaans brings wonderful connections and friendships everywhere. In Alfred I felt I was discovering a “fellow traveller”.
There is nothing too strenuous about these walks but Alfred reminds us that walking is a forgotten pastime and it is when you are on foot that you will encounter the unusual, the eccentric or just smell the air and feel the weather. His reflections offer a mix of a bit of history, light research into a place added to the experience of traversing South Africa on foot. This is not exactly a guidebook, though you may be inspired to take your own walk in Alfred’s footsteps and with this book as your guide you are likely to be in the mood for your own adventures.
I was immediately interested in the parts of the country I too recalled from childhood, such as the walk from Orange Grove to Modderfontein. For me the route is indelibly imprinted in my memories as a school girl travelling on the AECI company bus from our home in Antwerp Village to primary school, the Maryvale Convent or to give it its fuller name the Convent of the Immaculate Conception. I never tried that route as a pedestrian, though there was the six-mile annual adventure walk for the Orange Grove girl guides that took in some of the sights. I can’t fault Alfred in his blend of childhood memory, history of Rietfontein hospital (now the Sizwe Tropical Diseases Hospital and the land up for grabs in the hands of developers and earnest densifying town planners, who do not seem keen to preserve the old graves). Alfred has yet to discover Christopher Hope’s homage to Sandringham in his delightful novel “The Love Song of Nathan J Swerzky“ with its nod to T S Elliott.
Old photo of the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory
Rietfontein Cemetery (Sarah Welham)
The Soweto 10 km memorial walk from Orlando to the Oppenheimer Tower and the Credo Mutwa village is undertaken in group formation. The guide is Vuka Gladstone Tshabalala (who I would like to meet) described as a hustler and Orlando Pirates supporter and owner of the self-proclaimed oldest house in Soweto. Alfred ends his walk with a slightly sour comment on the lady member of humanity who bums the return taxi fare from him.
Oppenheimer Tower (The Heritage Portal)
Another Johannesburg walk takes Alfred in the footsteps of Gandhi from Museum Africa in Newtown to the Hindu Crematorium (on the edge of the Brixton cemetery) via the Hamidia Mosque. The Crematorium sojourn brings a touching outpouring of Alfred’s grief of the loss of his mother, just two years ago. I find this mix of the family, the historical, the geographical and the journalistic is an expression of life, the pleasures of celebrating people and the glories of South Africa. It is moving, it is touching, it is wonderfully entertaining and all of this is gathered through following Alfred. I am the armchair traveller and reader of his generous sharing and he is the walker. And oh yes, time to reread the travel books of Dickens, Stevenson, Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor - heavens, all of my classic Penguin travel series and Alfred should join the shelf.
Aha… Time to pull on my seldom used Nike walking shoes (a great gift from my daughter-in-law in London who insisted you had to walk London to come to love the city and nogal in Nikes, as indeed I did) and now explore South Africa.
My thanks to the author and publisher for supplying a review copy.
2016 Guide Price: Copies available on Amazon Kindle for $19.23 or a printed paperback version at R250.00
Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories. She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven.