I immigrated to South Africa in 1968, when USA was in the throes of Vietnam, the Cold War was at its height and apartheid was really beginning to bite. I left six years later, disillusioned with human nature but at the same time desperately in love with the place. By the place I mean Southern Africa in general and Cape Town in particular. Settling back here was hard. I’d been desperate to escape not that long before as for a young man with adventure in his blood Britain was too tame. The wonderful summers of 1975 and 1976 softened the blow and life soon took over.
And now here I was going back for a visit and taking my newish (5 years) partner with me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t think my love of the place would have diminished and was worried about the effect my return here would have on my future well-being. This on one hand, on the other, all the discussion of high levels of violence, the seeming lack of credibility of the President to deal with the countries Aids problem, which betrayed a woeful ignorance and grasp of its seriousness, and the international weakness of the currency.
We had almost three whole weeks in front of us. Friends I had kept up with and, who still lived in Cape Town, planned out the whole itinerary for us. I was pleased that the list included new places as well as revisiting old haunts. I wanted to avoid too much nostalgia.
Basically the holiday was in one-third sections: six days in Cape Town; a trip to the northern Cape with our friends; and a canoe voyage down the Orange River on the border of Namibia and South Africa.
Our friends took us to a concert in the Kirstenbosch Gardens where the Soweto String Quartet were playing. I was very moved to see the races mixing freely and everyone enjoying themselves – white girls dancing with coloured lads – what a change.
In Cape Town we did the normal things any tourist might do with the added bonus (for me at least) of meeting a different friend or set of friends each evening. We walked up to the end of Adderley Street. On the way we explored the street markets, marvelling at the prices of fruit, flowers and African craftwork. At the end we found ourselves in the Company Gardens complex (called after the East India Company who originally planned the street layout) where the Houses of Parliament, the Museum, The Art Gallery and the Cathedral are situated – if only we were able to plan our urban environments so successfully today.
The next day was a day-trip to the Cape – Cape Point is more spectacular than the better-known Cape of Good Hope – but we walked to them both. Only a beautiful white sandy beach separates them. On the way there we stopped at Scarborough beach, unbelievably beautiful, where the memories of the South Atlantic swell rolling through the kelp beds were rekindled; and walked through a small section of the Cape Point nature reserve, marveling at the variety of plants – there are more species there than in the whole of Europe. At the Point we could see the southernmost point, Cape Agulhas far across the other side of False Bay (named after the seafarers who turned north too soon). We forgot about the sun and got fearfully burnt. On the way back we called at Boulders to see the relatively new colony of Jackass penguins (so called because of the braying noise they make). Welcomed by the residents at first, these enterprising birds have claimed a prime beach in the middle of a wealthy suburb for themselves and made themselves unpopular because of the noise and smell. For the visitor they are a delight accessible through a series of well-constructed wooden walkways a metre above the beach. One little chick was only a day old and only 2 metres from the viewing platform.
On day 3 we had planned to visit Robbin Island, the fearful prison where Nelson Mandela spent 28 years, but the boat was full. Instead we meandered through the Waterfront, a very successful revamped dockside warehouse area, now a whole variety of shops. I dragged Sue away an hour before sunset and we took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain. The car rotates as it ascends or descends so you all get a good view. The vistas of beaches and mountains, the views over Cape Town, and the lovely unusual plants all vie for your attention. Once down we visited the fashionable Clifton Beach where we had arranged to meet yet more friends I hadn’t seen for 26 years just as dusk was falling. Out to the popular Africa Café for a superb meal. Cape Town seemed to have everything!
Next day was the promised wine tour. We set off in a Combi with our friends and their grandson to Stellenbosch and the rich surrounding wine lands, a trip of about 30 km. En route we attempted unsuccessfully to find a craft market in the heart of the Cape Flats where the level of violence is frightening. There are still huge numbers of shanty town dwellers in spite of the huge house building programme focussed on the poorest people. Unemployment is about 50% and places like Cape Town are a mecca offering more hope of prosperity than the rural areas so that as soon as the shanties are replaced by more permanent housing more mushroom. What is impressive is that the City Council supplies water and electricity to the shanty towns. Certainly the diversion brought home the vast difference in prosperity between the Cape Town we’d seen and that experienced by the majority of the population. Of course, by African standards, this was not real poverty but never the less the contrast was alarming and the differential huge by European standards.
Stellenbosch is a lovely town, with Cape Dutch architecture and lovely shady tree lined streets, set off by the surrounding majestic mountains. The wineries are set in this lovely countryside and were extremely well tended. No expense seemed to have been spared in the pursuit of providing perfect surroundings for the visitors; wonderful gardens, lovely buildings and tasting facilities. We had lunch at one of the vineyards on a shady terrace with views over the vines to the mountains beyond. The food and service were excellent and the winemaker himself was there too. Our friends thought the prices had been jacked up for European and American visitors so we bought little (although by British standards the prices were very reasonable). So we called in at an establishment where they sold most of the local wines and allowed you to taste five of them for R5 (about 50p) and we bought some bargains there; for example Bubbly Chardonnay for R18. There is so much to see there I could happily have spent a week in the area.
Next morning we called in to see my old house that I’d left 25 years ago. I’d worked had at improving the place and was interested to see how things had progressed since my conversion of the place from a 3 bed, 1 living room, bungalow to a lovely residence with a stunning first floor lounge extending over the whole previous area of the building. The original bold design had been worn down into a disappointingly higgledy-piggledy place but it was interesting to see never the less. The emotion that that stirred up was nothing to the next event of our packed day – Robin Island. On the way out they show you film of the system of apartheid. Done I thought dispassionately enough considering how recently millions of people suffered under it so recently but pretty sombre watching anyway. Nazi Germany was worse, but only in degree. The trip takes about an hour in a modern ferry and the dock area, when you get there, is grim. The buses that take you around the island look like old prison buses and the guide who showed us over the prison had been a political prisoner until the general release. The cell housed by Nelson Mandela was 1.5m by 2.5m; as many as 330 prisoners slept on the hard shiny concrete floor of a large room so cramped no one could turn over with out disturbing at least two neighbours. The guide that showed you round the Island was like a preacher, a disciple of the great men who founded a ‘university of love and understanding’ in a hostile environment. Men who used the little time they could call their own, when out of earshot of the guards at lunchtime, squatting in a cave filled with the stench of their own excreta, to teach other to forgive the individuals that perpetrated the evil system while at the same time to abhor the system. They were so successful in their beliefs many of the guards became their personal friends in spite of the indoctrination and against all odds. The most famous graduate is perhaps internationally the most influential person on earth since Gandhi. The quarry, set in a bleak island dominated by the picture post card view of Table Mountain rising from the streets of Cape Town, must have been fearful in the height of summer when the blazing sun lit up the dazzlingly white limestone.
On our return we made a few purchases at the Waterfront before heading back to get changed. The ex-colleague lives on a smallholding where the boundaries between the house and outside are less defined that usual. Larry is a passionate amateur fisherman and we were given the best of the local produce – perlemoen (abalone to Americans), squid and a wonderful white rockfish, galjoun. His wife entertained us in the most extraordinary way, which I recalled, she had done by running her husband down. To the extent that (this time) she humiliated Larry by getting him to confess he’d been unfaithful to her. Her whole force was in making us believe that her life was the pits totally because of him. Yet it was done in such an amusing way that I was unsure at the end of the evening whether Larry loathed or was indifferent to this continued outburst or whether meant it or not. The evening has made a great impression on me.
We had to get up early next morning, to get ourselves organised for the second phase of the holiday – an action-packed trip to see the highlights of the western Cape.
We, the eight of us, were going in three separate cars for the first activity, a three-day trip, including an overnight stay in a mountain hut, in the Cederberg mountains, about 200 miles north of Cape Town. There was us, Piet and Ginny, a slim 60-year old artist from Germany with an architect husband with bad knees and Rob, who I’d not met before, a companionable Mountain Club friend of Piet’s.
We met up with PT & GN just before the turnoff the main road onto dirt. Not long on dirt before we crossed and then left behind the lovely Olifant’s River, that charms for a long, long way up this route. The industry that has converted near desert into wonderful vineyards stretching for mile after mile along the banks has not taken away the essential beauty of the place.
The Cederberg mountains are sandstone, about 2,000 metres high and covered in the most amazing (to an Englishman) vegetation, including scores, if not hundreds of species of Protea, the national flower of South Africa. The rocks are the other remarkable feature, reddish brown in colour and weathered into huge blocks, often balanced on each other in precarious ways. The streams in the valleys are large enough, when damned with streambed stones, to make swimming pools and there’s enough rainfall to water lovely green farms, like the one we camped the first night at. The drive had taken the best part of the day and the weather was unsettled with patchy low cloud but we all went for a brisk walk to a vantage point from where we could view down to the next valley as well as look back down on our campsite from above. We had a brai, as a bbq is called there. There was an air of expectancy about the meal (amidst a considerable consumption of red wine) and the excitement of getting to know each other.
In the morning the weather was better although it still didn’t look settled. We climbed steadily from the farm, laden with spare clothes, food and bedding (but no tents). Civilisation seemed to cling on for miles as the path was a vehicle track until it narrowed to a footpath at the top of a rise. It then quickly became less easy to follow, and at the same time the weather began to worsen. We totally lost the path but occasionally seemed to pick it up only shortly to lose it again. The wind picked up, straight in our faces and the rain became heavier. After about an hour I developed shivering attacks and it became evident our situation was not good. We were lost in the mountains in appalling conditions with only two hours of light left and no shelter from the weather and most of us were close to sixty. So we turned back and tried to retrace our steps. Almost straight away the clouds lifted to reveal the neck that we had to walk through and we stumbled on the path leading off to the mountain hut we had as our destination. I was amongst those who still rated our chances of having something disastrous happen fairly high and I was worried about my ability ( and that of some of my companions) to keep going. After 9 hours (overall) suddenly it was there. The occupants who hadn’t ventured out all day reluctantly made room for us. I climbed straight out of my soaking clothes into my sleeping bag until the 3-hour shivering session at last stopped.
The weather had lifted the next day and we had a pleasant enough walk back to the campsite but the trip was a disappointment after the wonderful times I had had there 30 years earlier.