Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cape Town R&R

The extraordinary beauty of the city and how it sits on the oceanic front and sprawls into the valleys between the mountains was evident seen from the air as we descended in the rapidly darkening dusk. I had specifically asked for a window seat and not over a wing so as to have the chance to behold what I anticipated would be a gorgeous landing. But this was even more beautiful, as the changing colouring of the landscape conspired to make the scene mystical. First, the sun shone bright, almost dark red seemingly at the level of the plane. Soon it disappeared behind the western horizon sinking into the Atlantic Ocean leaving an orange glow in the sky. There were narrow vertical layers of high clouds that were gilded by the sun’s last rays, while the lower level clouds hanging languidly over the valleys were turning dark. Below, the city lights were already on as the night had fallen on the ground. City suburbs and the vineyards of Stellenbosch and Kirstenbosch were connected by the pearly strings of roads on which car headlights were moving. The Table Mountain stood black surrounded by twinkling city lights. In the harbour off the coast a few large container ships were moored with all their lights glittering against the water.

It was indeed fully dark when we deboarded at the Cape Town international airport and walked across the tarmac to the terminal building. The Kulula flight from Johannesburg had taken two hours. I collected my bag and chose one of the several car rental companies almost at random based on name recognition and a vague recollection that they might contribute miles to one of my frequent flyer programs. The choice was good, as the efficient, friendly and very attractive lady of vaguely South Asian origin quickly dispatched me on my way with a very reasonably priced Chevy Spark equipped with a GPS navigation system. The latter was essential as I immediately had to navigate the airport exits and then the highways in this unfamiliar city, again getting used to driving on the left side of the road in a new car with a stick shift. I managed to get off the freeway at the right junction and entered the suburbs at Claremont and found my way to Newlands close to the Kirstenbosch vineyards on the northern side of the Table Mountain. The classic Vineyard Hotel & Spa had been recommended to me by my friend, Cape Town native David Simon, who now teaches development geography in London. I thoroughly looked forward to three days of R&R in between the conference that had just finished in Johannesburg and my next work engagement that would take me across the Indian Ocean over the coming weekend. Over dinner in New York a few weeks ago, David had virtually planned my visit highlighting all the necessary things I would have to do and see. I would have to find the right balance between doing that and just relaxing.

Cape Town is very different from Johannesburg in Gauteng, the business and government heart of South Africa. This town—often compared in its beauty to Rio de Janeiro—located in the southwestern tip of the African continent is much more relaxed and blessed with an extraordinary natural setting. When I woke up the following morning in my comfortable room with panoramic windows over the luxurious gardens of the hotel, it was drizzling and the Table Mountain was entirely covered in low hanging clouds. I knew then that today was the day to explore the city itself. The drive to the centre some 10 km away passed through clean and beautiful neighbourhoods with manicured lawns that gave way to the bustle of the city. Cape Town has a turbulent history since the first encounters between Europeans and native Africans here more than half a millennium ago. In the more recent past, the city has seen strife as a result of the unjust apartheid system that had legislated inequality between the races. The city also has slums, or townships, that are run down and lack infrastructure, but not on the scale of Gauteng where places like Soweto became symbols of the violent struggle against apartheid.

I started my visit at the Castle of Good Hope, built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the late-17th century. It is an historical landmark that still houses the South African military, as well as the Military Museum. Its collections around the history of the Cape were to me very enlightening, starting as they were with the first encounters between European explorers and the African tribes living in the area. The very first European contact with the Khoi (or Khoikhoi) was in 1488 when the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape. A more intense period of European intrusions started with the rounding of the stormy waters of the Cape of Good Hope by Vasco da Gama in 1497, in a quest to find a sea route to India around Africa. Dias and da Gama’s countryman Francisco d’Almeida sailed to the Cape in 1510, but his fate was less fortunate than that of his predecessors. Lured to the shore, he and more than 50 of his crew were slaughtered by the Khoi who surrounded the men. This setback was such that it took decades before the Europeans again landed in the area.

The Dutch were the first to permanently settle into the Cape area, which was administered by VOC from 1656 to 1795. During this period, large numbers of European immigrants of mostly Dutch, but also of German, French and other origins—who would become the Boers—arrived in the Cape and spread deeper into the country. Their hunger for agricultural land inevitably led to clashes with the pastoralist tribes like the Khoi (who were dubbed ’Hottentots’ by the settlers) who were used to following their cattle roaming around according to seasons. A series of Khoi-Dutch wars ensued between 1659 and 1677.

Since those times, the Cape became a frontier in the struggle for control by successive European nations—Portugal, Holland, England, France—who all invariably fought the various native tribes, at times enlisting them to fight against the European rival of the day. One of the military brigades whose intriguing name caught my attention in the museum was the ‘Bastaart Hottentotten,’ which in 1781 consisted of Khoi soldiers recruited to serve under Dutch command.

The wars between the Europeans and Africans, however, were far from over. There would be nine Frontier Wars between 1779 and 1878 caused by the expansion of European settlements into the African lands. These wars were first fought mainly by the Dutch, but following the annexation of the Cape by Britain in 1806, they got drawn into the conflicts to protect the settlers.

But it was really the competition between the Boers and the English that defined much of the 19th century history of South Africa. The Boer farmers started their Great Trek away from the British controlled areas moving inland in large numbers in the 1830s and 1840s. They also founded a number of republics, notably Transvaal and Orange Free State, under their own rule. The discovery of rich gold and diamond deposits some decades later resulted in gold rushes that again pitted the Boer settlers against the British who followed inland after the valuable minerals. Finally, in 1910 the Union of South Africa was formed following the British victory in the bloody Boer War of 1897-1903. The former Boer republics were merged into the union.

The castle also contains the William Fehr Collection consisting of artworks and furniture styles from the VOC days until the mid-19th century (Fehr was a South African businessman and art collector). I was entirely taken by the numerous paintings by artists such as Thomas Whitcombe (1760-1825), William John Huggins (1781-1845), William Syme (1824-1866) and John Thomas Baines (1820-1875) whose works depict powerful scenes in which the waters of the Cape are always turbulent. I stared for a long time at a Baines painting of a boat carrying newly arrived European immigrants—men, women and children—from a mother ship to the shore with waves churning around the hull. Irrespective of what one thinks about the consequent subordination of the native populations, one can only admire the courage and determination of the people moving to a new and strange continent under such conditions.

Race-based oppression was part of black South Africans’ life much before apartheid, which institutionalized the separation of the races (whites, blacks, Asians and coloureds) following the electoral victory of the Boer National Party in 1948. The superb District Six Museum tells the story of one particular residential area in Cape Town. Established in 1867, the Sixth Municipal District used to be a mixed neighbourhood, originally of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants that became a target of successive white city administrations. Already in 1901, the Africans were forcibly resettled from the district that was located close to the city centre and port. As the wealthier parts of the population started moving out, District Six became increasingly marginalized. Despite the intentional neglect by the city authorities that ran down the place, it had a rich communal and cultural life with plenty of music and other forms of culture. A particular type of music that developed there was Langaarm played by dance bands inspired by early jazz. Using the degradation of the District Six as an excuse—and it was true that the area lacked sanitation and most of the houses were decrepit—the city government declared District Six as unsuitable for human habitation. In 1966, based on the Group Areas Act of 1950, District Six was declared a White Group Area and the forcible removal of its 60,000 inhabitants was completed by 1982 when all the buildings were bulldozed to make way for new construction for whites. The museum’s historical collections, including photographs and audiovisual recordings, show in grim detail the timeline of this brutal process.

Following this quick immersion in South African history, I needed a walk to absorb all the information swirling in my brain and to sort out the often confusing timeline of events. The spring weather was fresh and I walked pass the College of Cape Town on the walking street where groups of students—black, white and mixed race—sat smoking under the trees, and continued to the City Hall square where I had parked. Reaching my car, I saw two young African men approaching me from opposite directions. Both turned out to be unofficial parking attendants who looked after the safety of the vehicles left on the square. I recognized one of them, a tall fellow with a bright smile under his woollen cap, as the one who had been there when I arrived. Consequently, I passed the 10 rand note to him. This resulted in an argument between the two and I saw the boys scuffle as I drove away towards my next stop.

Long Street is to Cape Town what the Village (or today Brooklyn’s Williamsburg) is to New York, a mixed and hip neighbourhood with alternative types of shops, ethnic restaurants and bars. I spent the following hours browsing in excellent second hand bookstores (including the classic Clarke’s Bookshop, which has been around since 1956) and music shops, before settling down on the second floor terrace of the ‘Neighbourhood’ bar with a badly needed pint of Castle. In this late-afternoon hour the place was starting to fill up. Opposite from my still empty table on a tall stool sat a beautiful young black woman who was soon joined by two white chaps who had the air of being designers or perhaps theatre people. In this joint, young white waiters happily served a clientele whose skin colours reflected a wide scale of hues. As the crowd increased, I shared my table with a group of cheerful young Africans, two boys and three girls. It was happy hour and the kids were getting two-for-one cocktails. I clinked my glass with theirs and let them have the whole table after I downed my second pint.

The following morning the sky was clear and iconic shape of Table Mountain stood free of clouds outside of my window. I programmed the GPS navigator, which was a blessing as the route to the seemingly nearby mountain turned out to be complicated, involving a rather long drive on the freeway, then heading up steep city streets before reaching a winding road that leads halfway up the mountain to the ropeway (or aerial cableway, as it is officially called). Although it was a Friday, the place was crowded and I had to leave the car several hundreds of metres from the entrance. Luckily I had bought the cableway ticket online so I did not have to wait in the queue. The wait for the ride up was quick as there are two gondolas that move up and down the cables in opposite directions. I took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves as I stepped into the gondola. I must confess that riding in a small cabin suspended from a cable tens of metres above a steep mountainside makes me nervous. It didn’t help that this particular cabin was designed to rotate throughout its five-minute (it felt much longer) ride to the top at 1,067 metres. En route I could see a group of climbers heading to the top the hard way, clinging to the vertical rock face aided with little equipment.

From the top the view was magnificent far over the city and its harbour. Robben Island, that houses the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years alongside other leaders of the African National Congress opposing the apartheid government, sat in the bay like a southern Alcatraz. To the south, beyond the mountains, one could see the place where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet. The mountain itself is a natural wonder: a 3-km long plateau of sandstone with an elevation variation of only 19 metres. Its nearly treeless and rocky expanse hides a rich biodiversity. In particular its flora is unique, consisting of endemic ’fynbos’ (’delicate bush’ in Afrikaans) vegetation. Fynbos, threatened by erosion, fires and human impact, consists of four primary plant groups: proteas (large broad-leafed shrubs), ericas (low-growing shrubs), restios (thin reed-like plants) and geophytes (bulbs). Due to its uniqueness and the rich variety of almost 1,500 plant species found there, the Cape Floristic Region has been declared a biodiversity hotspot and Table Mountain is recognized as a World Heritage Site. Although the fauna on this rough windswept plateau is less abundant, there are still several species of rodents, snakes, lizards, frogs and other animals who call Table Mountain home. Numerous birds ranging from smaller thrushes, bulbuls and doves to buzzards and eagles are found on the mountain. As we descended, I observed a pair of black eagles soaring majestically across the sky lifted by the air currents flowing up the hillside.

I drove south on the road that lines Western Cape. The ocean to my right glimmered brightly. After a while I entered the Chapman’s Peak Drive, a 9-km toll road that winds in between the hillside and the shining sea through some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it was virtually impossible to stop and take photos without endangering the traffic. I accepted this fact with some regret and continued the drive until I reached the extension of the Table Mountain National Park at the southern tip of the peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and False Bay to the east. The land has a barren beauty accentuated by the rocky beaches that disappear into the sea. I reached the legendary Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern-most point on the continent of Africa. It was obvious why it had posed a challenge for early navigators and had become the site of many a shipwreck over the centuries. Even on this beautiful and relatively calm spring day, the sea was churning and waves struck the rocks with mighty force splashing water high into the air. Bartolomeu Dias originally named this the Cape of Storms (Cabo das Tormentas) but the Portuguese king changed this to Cape of Good Hope (Cabo da Boa Esperan├ža). Never having actually faced the force of the sea at the Cape, the king only saw the hope of his fleet reaching the riches of the east through this route.

As I was relating these thoughts to the historical facts I had learned the day before, the place was suddenly invaded by several large tourist buses. Out poured tens of young Africans screaming with delight at the gorgeous sight that awaited them. They quickly spread around the beach and lined up to take each other’s photos at the wooden sign that declared the longitude and latitude of our location. Many of the girls were dressed in short skirts and light blouses that seemed to provide inadequate cover against the strong wind gusting from the open ocean, but this didn’t seem to quell their enthusiasm.

I decided it was time to continue my journey and head to Cape Point occupying the eastern fork of the peninsula. On the shore three ostriches were grazing, their silhouettes against the blue of the sea—an unlikely sight. There were signs posted warning about the pesky baboons, but I was not bothered by any. Cape Point was equally or more crowded than the commercially undeveloped Cape of Good Hope. Here there was a large parking lot lined with shops where the walkway up towards the lighthouse on the hilltop began. The elevation was much higher here and the views over the two oceans very beautiful.

My return route went north on the coast of False Bay. I had spent so much time admiring the spot where the waters of the two mighty oceans merge that I was now very conscious of the time. I definitely wanted to get to Boulders Beach while it was still light. Here on the east coast of the peninsula the road was already darkened by the shadows of the hills to my left, although the sun was still relatively high above the horizon. I stepped on the gas to the extent I could safely do on this unfamiliar winding road. Passing Simon’s Town, I arrived at Boulders Beach just after 5 pm. Here, the daylight would still linger for a good hour or more, although its warm yellow glow already reflected the sun’s position low on the western sky. I started walking on the small road parallel to the beach, which then turned into a wooden walk bridge across coastal bushes. That’s where I detected the first penguins. They were small, standing or lying down among the bushes; not a habitat that one immediately associates with these birds. The Boulders Beach – Simon’s Town area is host to the northern-most colony of penguins in the world.

A bit further on, the bushes gave way to bare rocks that descended into the bay. This was more like it, I thought. I found penguins basking in the sun on these rocks, their white and black appearance dignified in all its bowling pin –like roundness. There were lone males standing still and proud against the wind and there were small groups lying on the rocks. Many were in couples, with the female standing beside her male, sometimes grooming him. Occasionally they would peck each other tenderly. A lovely scene against the most beautiful natural setting. A lone white lighthouse stood in the middle of the bay. There was a group of kayakers paddling among the boulders that must have given the name to the community. There were also seabirds other than the flightless penguins: gulls were coasting in the wind; a goose family with fluffy chicks was determinedly heading somewhere; a handsome white heron stood on a rock just off the shoreline. Just behind on the gently sloping hillside stood the idyllic small town of Boulders Beach with its white houses and romantic little restaurants. What a lovely place to live one’s life, I thought. Signs warned motorists to look under their vehicles for penguins before starting their engines.

I had seen many such beautiful settlements along the coastal road today. In Cape Town itself, there were fabulous neighbourhoods facing the blue Atlantic that were as clean and white as their inhabitants (or at least the absolute majority of them). Seventeen years after the arrival of democracy in South Africa, political equality hadn’t translated into economic equality. In fact, the income differences had actually risen. Despite the emergence of a black elite and a growing middle class, most Africans were still poor and worked in manual labour or lower service positions, if they were lucky enough to have a job at all. Driving to the airport the following day, I saw a large township next to the highway. It was an entirely unplanned settlement some ten kilometres outside of the city where presumably most of its inhabitants sought employment. The small houses were built with corrugated iron and were immensely densely packed leaving just narrow unpaved lanes in between. At the airport, I talked with a shoeshine man while waiting for the departure of my flight back to Johannesburg. Having discovered a sympathetic ear, he opened up about the hardships of life. He was lucky, in relative terms, to have a job at the airport relatively close to the townships. But the job paid a pittance and it was virtually impossible to survive on the income. And there was little hope for anything better. A bitterness came through in his voice.

South Africa’s development after the democratic transition has been positive and first of all peaceful, thanks largely to the wisdom of Nelson Mandela and his associates, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who understood that South Africa had to continue on its multiracial path and put the painful inequalities and injustices behind. But one had to wonder at the patience of the people who had seen so little improvement in their lives despite the promise of majority rule, while they saw a minority—no longer determined solely on the colour of one’s skin—thrive and grow rich. Something must be done about the growing gap in standards of living lest the multitude left behind lose its patience and take matters into its own hands. In that case, everyone would lose and the regional superpower could no longer be a model for its neighbours.

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