Thursday, January 15, 2015


In 1989 whilst returning from my father's funeral with two of my best friends we became embroiled in one of those philosophical conversations which so many of us have at times of great loss. It centred around how short life can be, opportunities missed, and how we should make the most of what we have when we have it. Right then and there we decided that from that day forth we would get together at least once a week, every week, without fail!

And so it came to pass that at three o'clock every Friday afternoon my one friend, who ran a furniture manufacturing company, would close his factory early, drive to my offices, where I had ended my day early, and we would both drive to the third friend, who was a dentist and closed his practice early, where we gathered. We would drink an Irish Coffee, only one, chat about the week that was, and the weekend still to come, and an hour or two later we would go off to our respective families.

It was the only prerequisite I had in my employment contract. When I was asked in an interview if I had any requirements of the company I stated, without blinking, that at three o'clock every Friday I would be leaving the office irrespective of the work on hand. They needed to understand that I was prepared to work any number of hours on all of the other weekdays, and weekends if required, but the Friday afternoon was non-negotiable. I think I caught them by surprise, or perhaps they didn't think I was being serious, because they agreed without hesitation.

25 years later we still get together at least once a week, every week, without fail. The format has changed slightly since the dentist has retired, relocated up the coast, and can only join us every couple of weeks. The furniture manufacturer has also retired, but that has given us the opportunity to get together more often and the two of us now meet twice a week!

The statistics are staggering!  200 litres of whiskey, 20 kg of coffee, 35 kg of sugar, and 100 litres of cream consumed, with some water thrown in for good luck!  Along the way we have become extremely good at making Irish Coffees, and are generally recognised as being the Irish Coffee makers of choice amongst those fortunate enough to join us on Friday afternoon. We've learnt that the best whiskey to use is the cheapest whiskey off the shelf because, as my one friend says, "it must be gruff". The more expensive the whiskey, the more easily it is overpowered by the coffee, sugar and cream. You get strange looks from the off sales cashiers when you ring up two or three bottles of their cheapest but we've learned to live with the stigma!  The cream must always be cold, and the underlying coffee hot, to provide contrasting sensations to your top and bottom lips. Of course it goes without saying that the dividing line between the cream and the coffee must be clear and sharp, no "brown cows" for us!  Pouring the cream onto the coffee over a spoon to ensure that  the two don't mix is a technique which needs to be mastered, but fortunately like riding a bicycle, it is one you never forget.

The numbers don't tell it all because one factor that cannot be calculated is the friendship. Our gatherings on a Friday have never been about the alcohol, or the pouring techniques. We only ever drink one Irish Coffee each. It is just a "treat" for the three of us, a small liquid vice to provide an amusing and tasty common denominator. The most important statistic is that through winter and summer, rain and shine, good times and bad, political turmoil and economic uncertainty, sport and children's school functions, on more than 1300 occasions, we have gathered together once a week, every week, without fail. We were good friends before we started, but now we are the best of friends, we are the Inner Circle, and will be so for the rest of our lives.

My father had nothing tangible to leave me when he died, but his passing triggered a decision which has had a profound effect on my life. That irrespective of what the future holds we can look back and say that we didn't allow time to pass us by and lose out on the opportunities that friendships offer. My Irish Coffee drinking friends and I have made the most of our time together and it has been, and will continue to be, the best of times.

Monday, December 15, 2014


I use a motorised wheelchair, a powerchair, so the evolution of technology in that field always interests me. Sadly, there has not been much to get excited about in the last 20 years!  As incredible as that sounds considering the amazing technological advances that we've experienced during this time it is unfortunately true. Powerchairs live in the technology world's equivalent of the Dark Ages!

In the last two decades we have seen materials such as aircraft grade aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre move from exclusive high technology domains into mainstream construction, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs. We have witnessed revolutionary developments in battery technology, most notably lithium power, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs. We have seen enormous strides being made in the design and construction of office chairs and car seating for children, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs. We have seen large scale commodisation of components, leading to a tremendous reduction in their purchase prices, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs.

As if living in a parallel universe, the powerchair industry appears to have completely missed these advances, and continues to release new models incorporating such space age components as plastic side covers, drinks holders and six wheels instead of four! The mind boggles!

What we have experienced is the development of often bizarre and unfathomable devices such as Johnson & Johnson's iBot which was set to revolutionise the mobility industry, but was effectively sunk by the ogre of potential litigation before it was even launched. The fact that it called for a purchase price of $25 000 (R265 000) nearly 15 years ago did not help matters, neither did its ability to instantly destroy household carpets when turning indoors!

Every couple of months it seems that a university somewhere around the world sponsors a research project into the development of a “new wheelchair”. Most recently a university in the UK started a project to develop an “integrated multifunctional chair”, or more simply put, the wheelchair which can be converted from a sports chair to an everyday chair with a couple of adjustments. Now I guess we all would like some sort of “transformer” wheelchair which can become different things at different times at the press of a button, but reality needs to step in, and after all we are talking about university, not a children's playground.

Even after it was pointed out to the researchers that sports chairs, even the entry-level models, are very specialised items which are generally completely inappropriate for everyday life. Anyone who has ever seen or used a track chair, or basketball chair, or a tennis chair will testify that any resemblance to a day chair is marginal. The fact that the researchers were trying to incorporate some form of motorised power into their design makes it even more improbable.

Who dreams up these research projects?

What a pity they don't choose something more practical, where the findings might actually benefit someone. Each time I read of some crackpot research topic it makes me want to tear my hair out. There is so much basic work which needs to be done that there is no need for people to initiate crazy research projects. We don't need “new wheelchairs”. We don't need integrated multifunctional chairs. We don't need stair climbing chairs. We don't need exoskeletons. We just need chairs made out of modern, appropriate materials which are reliable, lightweight, and reasonably priced.

A far more sensible idea would be for the industry to build a standard rear wheel drive motorised wheelchair using off-the-shelf stock components readily available from engineering retailers. They should use only corrosion resistant materials such as stainless steel or aluminium not only to lighten the weight but also to prevent the rust and corrosion of components in wet and humid climates. All of the components should be assembled using only Allen-key bolts, in no more than three different sizes, enabling the user to effectively have a maintenance kit in one hand. The motors should be powered by lithium batteries which will provide an exponentially longer range while also significantly reducing the weight. The powerchair should be controlled via a (and this is the important part) "programmable" joystick to enable the user to customise its handling characteristics to their disability limitations.

Sounds quite simple doesn't it? 
Not enough of a gee-wiz factor.
Strange thing is, nobody had done it yet!

Now for the challenging bit..... Given the number of powerchairs constructed by the major manufacturers around the world (in excess of six figures every year), and their collective buying power with regard to the purchase of components it would be fascinating to make public the actual cost of such a chair. I would be surprised if it even came to a quarter of what we currently pay today (including labour). Perhaps that is why the university research projects don't ask the students to try and construct a standard, but better, powerchair since it would be rather embarrassing when they manage to do so for a fraction of the price.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Storms River Mouth Rest Camp – Wheelchair accomodation at its best

The Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park incorporates 80 km of rocky coastline with spectacular sea and landscapes and is situated at the heart of the picturesque Garden Route. Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning, “place of much water.” Tsitsikamma National Park is the third most frequently visited out of the twenty national parks in South Africa and is the starting point for the famous Otter and Dolphin hiking trails.

The Tsitsikamma’s spectacular scenery includes the Indian Ocean breakers, pounding rocky shores beneath 180 m high cliffs, evergreen forests and fynbos (proteas and heath) rolling down to the sea in a lush carpet where ancient rivers have carved their path to the ocean through rocky ravines.

The Storms River Mouth Rest Camp can be found at the proverbial “end of the road” where the forest rolls down to the river's mouth and is met by the pounding ocean waves. It functions as the hub for numerous formal and informal hiking trails snaking off along the coast in different directions. Whilst much of the activity around the Storms River Mouth is not practical for mobility disabled individuals, selected cottages, the restaurant and visitors centre, and the access roads along the coastline are all accessible and provide one with an opportunity to explore the area.

As a wheelchair using traveller what keeps us coming back to Storms River Mouth are the superbly accessible seaside cottages, in particular units 3A and 3B which were built approximately 4 years ago. These two cottages are arguably the most well-designed wheelchair accessible units available in the SANParks portfolio. Simple and functional in design they are well thought out and spacious (particularly the bathroom with its roll-in shower, and the kitchen which provides access beneath the work surface), so much so that they can be used by a disabled person travelling alone.

We have been fortunate enough to witness dolphins and porpoises frolic in the breakers, and the gentle giant of the ocean, the southern right whale visits here, coming inshore to breed. Hyrax’s (dassies) scamper around on the rocks between the ocean and the cottages providing endless entertainment, particularly early in the year when the seasons youngsters have been born. African Black Oystercatcher’s are one of South Africa’s most threatened bird species and several pairs nest along the park’s rocky coastline. The beautiful Knysna Lourie with its gruff call are common in the forest, while the Cape Clawless Otter, the source of the name of the Otter Trail, hunts crabs along the park’s coastline and rivers.

It is a wonderful place to kick back and relax, take in the fresh air, let the sea breezes blow the cobwebs away, and soak in the sounds of the ocean and birdlife.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


The last five years have seen the rise of a new food phenomenon in Cape Town, the organic "food market". Quite why it has taken so long to reach our shores is unknown since these markets have existed literally for hundreds of years. The Borough Market on the south bank of the Thames River in London has been in existence for more than 250 years. The Old Biscuit Mill has been running successfully for many years in Woodstock as the lone ranger of this food genre with no takers to expand the idea further across the Peninsula. Thankfully however the idea has gained traction with some local entrepreneurs and food enthusiasts, with the result that food markets have arrived, and have taken the local population by storm.

The format is simple. Assemble a collection of 30 or 40 food traders at a single venue, provide seating and background music. Open the doors at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning and wind things down at around two in the afternoon. Repeat every week.

Of course there is more to it than that, but the formula remains common to all. The success lies in the personal nature of each trader, the quality of their ingredients, and the passion they feel for their particular food. "Organic" and "artisan" are words you will see and hear all the time. They emphasise the freshness and health benefits whilst incorporating the individual skills of the trader. I have always tried to eat healthily, following a loose principle of avoiding anything which comes in a bag, box or a tin. I am not fanatical about this, but I do try to adhere to the basic formula. Thus far it has served me well and I attribute much of my current health status to this guideline.

The eating areas of food markets generally take on a very social and communal spirit with visitors sharing their tables with complete strangers, the common bond being their enjoyment of the food and atmosphere. Most markets incorporate a wide variety of food types, often with an ethnic flavour, ranging from handmade burgers, salads, sushi, spring rolls, pancakes and pastries, all accompanied by artisan beers, coffees and fresh fruit drinks. In between one will find traders offering breads, cheeses, deli meats, sauces and relishes which one can use to construct a meal of your own making.

The assembly of a range of traders under one roof is carried through to the customers who often use the market venue as a meeting place to get together with friends and family. The range and variety of foods on display ensure that none of the party members are limited in their choices. Everyone will get to eat and drink what they enjoy most, be it meat or vegetarian, hot or cold, traditional or slightly exotic!

The venues vary from scenic parkland settings underneath large indigenous trees, to warehouses located in light industrial suburbs. What may initially appear to be an uninviting venue can be transformed into a warm and welcoming environment with the addition of wooden trestle tables, straw bales, the tantalising aroma of different dishes, and be accompanying chatter of a few hundred satisfied customers!

These food markets have a positive spin off for the disabled community. Many of them are wheelchair accessible, providing plentiful parking as well as toilet facilities, within environments which are level and easy to navigate. The accessible nature of the venues also open up opportunities for disabled traders to run successful businesses of their own, free of the potential physical constraints of corporate 8-to-5 office hours. Concerns over a lack of office block accessibility and public transport are greatly diminished.

What effect this is having on the more traditional restaurants remains to be seen, but clearly the playing field is changing. On more than one occasion we have visited a local market on a Saturday morning to meet with friends and enjoy a casual lunch, finding it full to the brim. Later that evening we have visited a local restaurant and found them to be relatively empty. A sizeable percentage of consumers are looking towards healthier eating alternatives and a different dining experience, one leaning more towards a more social and informal environment. Food markets have arrived and all indications are that they are here to stay.

PLEASE NOTE :  The author has no shareholding in a food market, but he does enjoy visiting them and sampling what they have to offer!

Monday, April 21, 2014


During a brief spell in hospital last year recuperating from a badly broken leg, and the insertion of more metalwork than I really want into my body, a good mate of mine gave me an iPod to help pass the time. This re-Kindle-d (yes, I know, very funny) my interest in music which had become a bit distracted in recent years.

Lying in my bed I was able to ponder on how the music industry had changed since I first developed an interest. We were never a musical family and the first record player brought into our home was the one which I purchased a couple of months after starting my first job in 1979. That took the form of a small Technics amplifier and  turntable coupled with a pair of Wharfedale speakers, and my first LP was George Benson's “Weekend in LA”. Bob Fosse’s movie “All That Jazz” was on the circuit at the time and I really liked Benson's rendition of “On Broadway” which featured in the soundtrack.

The mathematicians amongst us will have calculated the period between my initial interest and today to be 35 years, and in that time we evolved from records and cassette tapes, through to CDs and DVDs, and finally digital files such as MP3s and WAVs. What makes us unique, and I refer to my age group, or the generation born in the late 1950s to early 1960s, is that we were witness first hand to all of these formats. We have seen each one of the formats in their development stages, at their peak, and in their declines. No other generation has had that opportunity.

We have all probably owned examples of each of the formats, and of course the necessary hardware to play them. In the late 1980s I had what one could call a complete system, that is to say a record player, a tape deck (which had an auto rotate feature), a CD player plus an FM radio unit. I used to enjoy “loading up” the whole system with a record, tape and CD, and being able to listen to more than two hours of uninterrupted music before needing to delve into the music collection for a refresh.

The next generation of music enthusiasts, those born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mostly skipped records and cassette tapes and started out with CDs and DVDs. When we bought our first records and cassette tapes the concept of a CD would have been completely foreign and unimaginable. An entire album on one side of a disc smaller than a side plate?!  Pffft! Never!  When the CDs first appeared in the 1980s they caused a revolution in the industry. I purchased my first one from a local privateer, Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of the Moon” for a whole R30, which we all agreed would reduce considerably as the format became more popular. Yeah, right!  We could hardly have imagined that a little over 20 years later not only would the costs increase by more than 500%, but that the format itself would all but disappear.

Those born in the 1990s will probably have little or no exposure to any of the previous music recording formats. Theirs is the digital age where music is “virtual“, an invisible file, nothing physical, breakable, stretchable or scratchable!  Everything is held on a flash drive which resides either in a dedicated music player, a mobile phone, laptop or computer. Of course invisible files also tend to have invisible prices, and can be copied, shared, edited and modified at will. This has led to another revolution in the industry which is still being dealt with to this day.

So what has this got to do with disability I hear you ask….. well, nothing….. except that running parallel with this revolution of music formats was another revolution in terms of how we listened to it. The record format, and the hardware required to play it, was not particularly portable, resulting in record players being primarily located within a building, normally one’s home. In order to enjoy your music you had to be in that building (at home) and along with that came restrictions of having to share it with whoever also occupied the building. A set of headphones offered some privacy with your music but this was always at the end of a very restrictive cord.

With the development of the cassette tape everything changed again and music began to develop legs and become portable. Initially the large rectangular tape decks were as restricted as their turntable counterparts but in the 1970s came cassette decks in motorcars, the infamous ghetto blaster, and the Sony Walkman. Suddenly you could take your music with you. There were of course new issues to deal with, most notably battery life and many a good beach party was terminated when the ghetto blaster ran out of juice. Their drive mechanisms were complex and prone to breakage, and tapes stretched, especially when exposed to the heat of a car or the warmth of the summer sun.

The Walkman really was a game changer, and created a new concept in music listening, namely that one could enjoy it alone, even when surrounded by others. It became an intensely personal form of musical pleasure which one could enjoy on foot, in a bus or train, or in the workplace without impacting anyone else.

The digital age brought about the ultimate personalisation of music, continuing and refining the personal nature of the Walkman, but adding a further enhancement through the ability to choose individual songs rather than entire albums. This coupled with an enormous storage capacity and a huge improvement in battery life has produced the ultimate personal music machine, and one which is ideally suited to those of us with limited physical ability. We no longer have to try and juggle with record covers and album sleeves, turntable domes and tone arms after every half a dozen tracks. No more trying to prise open compact cassette and CD crystal cases every 45 minutes. Our music, all of our music, is now just a soft button touch away on a smartphone or iPod. It doesn't get more accessible than that.