I’m Still Thinking…

A few weeks back, Jenny and I strapped our bikes to the ol’ Kia Rio and set off for the Groenkloof Nature Reserve for an afternoon ride. I know we’ve said it before, but that place is lekker. There’s some really excellent single track, and if you can go on a weekday – as we sometimes can – you can have the place almost entirely to yourself.


Except for the giant animals.

We saw just about all of the usual suspects that day: impala, kudu, zebra (one standing in the middle of the bike path), wildebeest, ostrich and about a half million guineafowl. Oh, and the giraffes, of course. I almost didn’t see the one gangly beast, as I actually pedaled too close to it as I climbed a hill (forest for trees…giraffe for spots?). Once it saw me, it sauntered off and tried to hide behind a tree. C’mon, I said, I don’t fool that easily.

Though we were only out for about an hour, it was hot, dry and dusty, and we worked up a considerable thirst. Luckily, there’s a sort of pan-African restaurant called Moyo on the same property as the nature reserve – as nice a watering hole as you’ll find. We stopped off for a quaff.

It was a gorgeous day, really. The kind that begs you to sit in the sun – the African sun – and ask yourself whether it gets any better than this, because if it does, you’re gonna stay here forever. A perfect, Pretoria springtime day. Not a cloud. Just a touch of breeze.

A waiter approached our table on the front terrace. Drinks? Yes.

Jenny chose a Windhoek Draught, a Namibian beer of German tradition. I couldn’t make up my mind. Nothing jumped out for some reason. So, I looked up at the waiter and said, “Hmmm. I’m still thinking.”

“OK,” he nodded, and left to fetch Jenny’s beer.

In the meantime, Jenny and I asked each other inane questions about the narrow-gauge train tracks circling the property, as if either of us held the answers. Where’s the train now? Is it just for kids? Do you think we could ride? Thankfully, this cross-examination was derailed by a peacock preening in the adjacent field.

When our man returned, he had not one beer, but two: a Windhoek Draught for Jenny and an Amstel for me.

My first thought, obviously, was that I didn’t order an Amstel. Those that know me know I’m not a beer drinker. Despite the photographic evidence of Toddler Ryan nursing a PBR (I was hipster before all y’all), I never acquired/developed a taste.

Lager? I don’t even know ‘er.

But I quickly realized that I did, in fact (or interpretation of fact), order an Amstel. What the waiter heard was not “Hmmm. I’m still thinking.” It was “Hmmm. Amstel, thank you.”

I’m still thinking. Amstel, thank you. Tomayto. Tomahto.

I was too tired and thirsty to argue. I drank the beer. My first full beer* since…well…ever. Probably my last.

Should I have ordered a juice? A Dry Lemon? A Grapetiser? A South African wine?

Good question. I’m still thinking…

*The trusty and tireless fact checkers at AfricAnnum.com note that there were at least three (3) healthy sips of beer left when I gave it to Jenny, meaning I still have technically never had a full beer.

How do you say…

So I realized that we’ve been sharing all sorts of new words and names of places here on the blog, but we’ve not described how you actually say them. I remember how surprised I was to learn that Havmandsvej Street in Herlev (suburban Copenhagen), where I was to live during my college semester abroad, was not have-MAN-dis-veg in HER-lev, it was HOW-mands-vie in HARE-lou. (Tusind tak til Familien Jørgensen for undervisning mig lidt dansk.)

HOW do you say Gauteng?

To this point, most of the new words we are using on an everyday basis are rooted in Afrikaans, which derives primarily from Dutch. For example, the province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg is called Gauteng. Not GOW-teng with a hard g, more like HOW-teng. But since we are talking about a relative of Dutch, the g sounds are more like ch sounds in English words like school, or the proper German pronunciation of Bach, or borrowed Scottish words like loch. As the sound comes at the beginning of the word, it isn’t quite as hard a sound as school or loch, but softer and more “throaty” — like if someone from Chicago said (in a derogatory way??) that they spotted Hanukkah Harry in Highland Park.

There are quite a lot of these g sounds in our life these days:

  • The new, high-speed train between Pretoria and Johannesburg is called the Gautrain (HOW-train).
  • The main road behind Menlyn Mall is Garsfontein (HARS-fon-tayn).
  • The suburb, the nature reserve and the name of the campus where we live is Groenkloof (HROON-kloof)

As “ugly” as the sound may seem to an American English speaker, The Starry Night remains just as beautiful as painted by Vincent van HOCH as by Vincent van GO. But I digress…

Another consonant sound that differs slightly from English is the Afrikaans v. Take the word Voortrekker, which is a big word here, for many reasons. Voortrekker literally means “those who trek ahead” and has great historical significance in South Africa. The Voortrekkers were the Afrikaners who left the Cape Colony (on the west coast, where Cape Town was settled) under British rule in order to find independence in the interior. Many ended up in the area where we live now, formerly part of the Transvaal, as well as the (Orange) Free State. [Of course, there were already people living here at that time, but that’s another story…] Anyway, the word is not pronounced VORE-trekker, as we might want to say it in English; it is FOUR-trekker.

If you visit us in Pretoria, we might see you staring off quizzically into the distance before asking, “What, on Earth, is that giant toaster-looking thing on the side of that mountain?” We would smile, nod, chuckle knowingly and say, “Eish. That’s the Fourtrekker Monument. Shame…”

Vowels can be equally tricky, actually. In English, by and large, when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking (I eat pie on the boat!). In German, when two vowels go walking, the second does the talking (Ich liebe Fleisch!). In Afrikaans, it’s every vowel for itself! Run for your lives!


  • Jenny likes to drink a Windhoek on the front stoep after a nice meal of snoek. (VIND-hook, stoop, snook)
  • Ryan likes to buy koeksisters from the oumas at the tuisnywerheid. (COOK-sisters, AH-mas, TIES-nee-vehr-hide)

See the inconsistency?

Now, for an added degree of difficulty, there are the African names and words, which can be derived from any of a dozen or more languages and dialects. My attempts to learn a few words in Sotho from our friend and former housekeeper, Maria, have not helped me greatly in attempts to pronounce names of cities, surnames, etc. Some can be tackled in a fairly straightforward, phonetic manner (Polokwane =  po-lo-KWA-nay), but others follow rules we don’t have experience with just yet (Tshwane = TSWA-nay).

These last two examples are indicative of something that’s very interesting here: Since 1994, when the ANC became the governing party and the majority black population gained more influence, many cities and areas were given new names to replace — or in some cases coincide — with their Afrikaans or English names. Polokwane was formerly called Pietersburg; Bela Bela was called Warmbaths; and Tshwane was just kinda made up

Perhaps our favorite pronunciations, though, are our own names. Tannie Elsje, who manages our guest flat at Groenkloof, is a lovely auntie with a strong Afrikaans accent. “Jaynie!” she yells. “Are you and Keelpatreek OK here?”

Yes. Yes, we are. Buy a donkey.

Angry Birds

Angry Birds

It sounds like the entire cast of Angry Birds is outside our window today. It sounds like that most days, actually. Seriously, between the Grey Loeries, the Hadedas and the Blacksmith Plovers, I sometimes think we’re going to see them line up and slingshot themselves into our house because they think we stole their eggs. (I suppose that would make us the giant, snorting pigs.)

The Grey Loeries are also known as Go-away Birds because their call, to some people, sounds like “Go away!” To us, it sounds like the noise Jenny’s sister, Jaimie, makes when she doesn’t want to do something. At various times of the day, a small group of them will roost in the trees out back and indiscriminately tell things to “Go away!” It’s pleasant. We hate them.

The Hadedas are just weird-lookin’. As members of the ibis family, they have those long legs and long, curved bills. Only slightly attractive in direct sunlight, the Hadedas also have iridescent, green-purple wings, but in general they’re pretty ugly. Their name comes from their loud, nasty call: haa-haa-haa-de-dah! Indie hates them.

The Blacksmith Plovers are, dare I say, another creature altogether. Their name comes from the shrill, super annoying call they make when approached by another animal – avian, biped, quadruped, it doesn’t matter. As soon as you get within 30 feet, they start making this “tink! tink! tink!” sound (like a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil) that increases in amplitude and frequency the closer you move. There’s a pair of plovers that must have a nest somewhere near the field where we walk Indie in the mornings and they go crazy when they see us. If we walk too far in the “wrong” direction, they start dive-bombing us. I have to wave a plastic bag to keep them at bay. They hate us.

The entire Groenkloof Campus is full of wild (and sometimes, beautiful) birds. One of the prettier varieties is the Southern Masked Weaver (or African Masked Weaver), though it, too, has a helluvan ugly call. I’ve seen a couple flying around our front yard, though they never seem to sit still long enough for me to get a good shot. With my camera, I mean. They make these cool, round, hanging nests on the ends of tree branches. There are some good photos here.

One of several birds of paradise in our front yard

Oh, and while not fuming, feathered or flying, the other “birds” we see a lot on campus and around town are birds of paradise. We have several in our yard. Tropical!

By the way, don’t get confused and think that I’m suddenly some sort of bird expert, or even a bird watcher. The only “Ornithology” I know is a saxophone track. Which reminds me, I still remember the day I bought Charlie Parker at Storyville. I was on a break from college and was at the mall with some guy friends from home. At some point, we stopped cruising for chicks long enough to hit a music store, because that’s how you used to buy CDs. While they were looking for the latest rap or metal or hair band disc (maybe grunge by that point?), I was deep in the Jazz section deciding between Bird and Monk. My friends thought I was the strangest dude on the planet. They probably still think that.