On a meander through the Midlands

On a meander through the Midlands

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With a plethora of tours to choose from in each port, it's always hard to decide what to sign up for.  We always try to vary the experience - in much the same way as we do when travelling independently and having spent yesterday finding out about the Zulus, on this our second day in KwaZulu Natal we decided to take the chance to see some conuntryside.

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We sailed into Durban a little later than planned due to the pilot, I believe.  The colour of the sea was from a different palette today - a deep teal blue.

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Another new port for us, Durban was a name to bring a reliable reaction from my Mum, who was here a couple of times and was far from impressed, especially since she had her pockets picked on one occasion.  I wear a small souvenir of one of those visits, though, in the form of a small gold bracelet she and Daddy bought when they were here.  I don't wear gold as a rule, but make an exception for this little sentimental piece and as we stood watching our arrival, I realised that it was coming home.

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There was a lot of noise to greet us on the pier.  Heaven knows how the chap with the drum got so much sound out of that one simple instrument, but it inspired at least one of the group to perform the same high kicks as we'd seen yesterday.  Very impressive, but the whole thing was rather half hearted and most of the group were simply sitting chatting

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We recognise that the port area of a city, like the station, is never the most attractive and here in Durban, the lines of cars ready for export confirmed what we'd heard in our port lectures.  This is a busy, industrial port and is doing quite nicely thank you.

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But the parts of the city we saw as we drove out into the suburbs were scruffy and unkempt.  We passed a huge shopping mall, rather like the Trafford Centre, on the outskirts, but apart from one or two enviable properties on the hilltop, the general scene from the road was one of sprawling shanties.

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We were driving out on the N3, a major motorway linking Durban with Johannesburg.  At this time of the day, the road was busy and though we made good progress it still took us a good hour and a half to reach the junction signed "Midlands Meander"

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Along the way, we'd passed the Midmar reservoir, currently 100% full and overflowing following a good season of rainfall - in sad contrast to the water levels on the western side of the country.

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From here, we were out in open countryside, lovely green rolling hills and wooded valleys.  This area, known as the Midlands, is a popular place for weekend antiquing drives, has an abundance of B&Bs, restaurants and craft workshops and the "Midland Meander" is an organised route along which we were going to travel for a while.

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Our destination was Ardmore Ceramics, about which we knew little, save for the fact that it was a community enterprise, training local artists and equipping them with the resources needed to sell their work internationally.

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The setting was beautiful and as we walked down to the studios, we admired our surroundings, for there was a lake, a couple of fine horses grazing, a dressage space and extensive stabling in addition to the ceramics workshops.

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And although we'd decided to forego wildlife viewing opportunities at this stage, it was sweet of a local caterpillar to come out to greet us - though crossing the path in front of a group of tourists was probably not one of his wisest decisions.

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Anyway, here we were, greeted by the owners and invited to make ourselves at home and wander wherever we wished.  For some, that meant a closer encounter with the horses but for me; well, you'll guess where I was headed.

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Te products of this studio have a distinctive style.  Very decorative, rather elaborate and definitely African.  We all agreed, we'd seen nothing quite like it before.

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The ceramics sell to a worldwide market, each piece is unique and bears the name of the artist, who is paid for the work he/she does.  Prices were exactly as you'd imagine - serious.  We were not talking holiday souvenirs here, but considerable investment in most cases.  Fee, the owner explained that she had taught ceramics in a university previously, but had set up the workshop to provide electricity and materials and train young artists from the locality to create these amazing works.  The range had been extended as her daughters have developed some of the designs into fabrics and wallcoverings and there were examples of all of these here in the showroom.

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Having seen the finished products though, I was keen to see the process, so wandered over to the workshop.

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In the first room, a few young men were working on the modelling, some creating the basic shapes, others adding the distinctive fine details.

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Working from a photograph, this artist was trying to work out the placement of the chimpanzee's arm.  Not easy!

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The completed work on show, having had the initial firing was fine and detailed.  Somehow, in its plain form, the details of the work are more impressive.

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But watching as colour was added was even more so.  The fine brushwork required concentration and the atmosphere in all of these rooms was quiet and purposeful.  The artists didn't have a lot of room, either, sitting close to one another must add another level of difficulty when it comes to that fine work - don't jog one of their arms, I told myself!

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It's all painted freehand, some from designs worked out on paper, but each artist has a style and a distinctive set of patterns, it seemed.

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Seeing this intense work close up and watching as each piece was individually created, the showroom prices became clear.  None of this is quick or "processed" in any way.

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Even here, perched on the corner of a cupboard, a young man was carefully painting a series of monkeys, frolicking along the edge of a bowl.

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An hour or more had passed and our guide was relaxed.  We had time to take another look in the shop and see some finished pieces to remind us of how these works in progress would eventually turn out.  My hero and I agreed that we didn't need a souvenir from here, that however tasteful these designs were not really our style and settled on taking mere memories home with us.

Find out more about Ardmore here - a very impressive website!

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From Ardmore, it was a short drive to our lunchtime venue.

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The hotel consists of a collection of thatched cottages and one of them had been set up for lunch.  We sat back, chatted and enjoyed a three course meal - it had been at least a couple of hours since breakfast, after all - before gathering our things to return to the coach.

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Except that we had a problem.  It had broken down and though the company was sending a replacement vehicle from Durban, it was going to take an hour and a half to reach us.

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What's to do?  Well, nothing but enjoy the beautiful setting, maybe take an afternoon nap in the comfortable lounge and just relax with another cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  However, Navigator was scheduled to sail at 5pm, it was now approaching 3 o'clock and it was a good two hours drive back.

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We knew the ship would not sail without us, our guide was in touch with the pier and everyone knew what was happening, but even so, we were glad when some local transport turned up to take us to the main road, ready to meet the replacement vehicle and save a little time in the process.

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Strangely, I'd remarked to my hero earlier in the day that I had seen no white faces amongst those standing/working/waiting by the side of the road and here we were, bucking the trend!  Interesting, though, that neither the hotel manager nor the local tour company were happy for us to wait there...

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It was a swift ride back then, hardly slowing down as we passed the site of Nelson Mandela's capture, marked by a granite waypoint and the site of a new museum under construction.

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Thankfully, we were back at the ship only fifteen minutes late, but as we boarded, the steps were pulled up and we were ready to go.  Or were we?  No sooner had we reached our suite and turned on the shower for a quick turnaround to meet our friends for drinks at 5.45, the Captain announced that the pilot had been delayed and we'd not be leaving till 6pm.  

What fun, eh?

With the Xhosa people

With the Xhosa people

Sawubona!

Sawubona!