I began my recent trip to South Africa in Cape Town.
Partially, this was because I’d never been there before (not counting a primary school bus trip, aged 11, of which I have absolutely no recollection apart from a crush on the teacher who chaperoned us, and a few grainy photos). And partially also because everyone had told me Cape Town was where I should start. Johannesburg is usually described as being a dangerous crime-ridden jungle, where you’re virtually guaranteed of being car-jacked, mugged, raped, or worse. But then the very next sentence will invariably be: “Cape Town, on the other hand, is different. You’ll absolutely love it”.
So I guess I thought Cape Town would be a good place in which to get reacquainted with South Africa. A country I lived in until I was thirteen, but have never visited since.
Context: My aunt and uncle recently celebrated their combined 120th birthday (they’re both 60), at a game park in South Africa. This provided a convenient excuse to return to the country in which I had spent my childhood – the first time back there in almost thirty years. My youngest brother travelled with me. We visited Cape Town; made a trip down memory-lane in Johannesburg, where I lived until I was thirteen; and then met family and friends on safari. The trip was jam-packed with memorable experiences, which I have tried to capture in this series of stories. I hope you enjoy.
Question: What do you do when you find yourself in a strange city, jet-lagged and awake before dawn? Answer: You climb something to watch the sunrise. In Cape Town the most obvious target is Table Mountain, although this is a gruelling climb that takes about three hours to complete. Whereas the Lion’s Head, a “small” outcrop of rock in front of Table Mountain, apparently offers equally magnificent vistas, but is scalable in under an hour.
This explains how my brother and I came to be standing by the Lion’s Head trail-head, at 5.00 am on our first morning in South Africa, ready to climb. At which point we realised we’d overlooked a few minor technicalities:
- It was pitch black, neither of us had a flashlight, and waving a mobile phone around was an entirely useless substitute.
- It had been raining, and the ground was sludgy and slippery. It was also foggy and bloody cold. So canvas sneakers, shorts and cotton t-shirts were possibly not the best attire we could have worn for the occasion.
- Owing to adverse conditions (refer 1 and 2 above), we were the only idiots out that morning. Apart, that is, from three ultra-fit looking hikers in professional mountaineering gear, who stared at us and our self-evident lack of preparedness like we were retarded aliens. We probably were.
Not easily deterred, we decided to follow the hikers. They obviously knew the mountain, and we thought we’d be able to slip-stream in the light from their head-lamps. An excellent plan, except that they turned out to be a threesome of mountain goats, scampering ahead so quickly that after about eight minutes we lost sight of them and were left completely on our own, in the dark.
Anyway, for the next hour we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. It was hard work, and slow going. The steep gravelled track quickly narrowed into a precariously thin path, cut directly into the side of the mountain, winding its way up over rocks and huge boulders. Each time we thought we were near the top we’d round a corner and see that there was yet another steep section ahead of us. At times we were reduced to scrambling up bare rock-faces, using our hands or gripping to chains that had been fixed to the rocks. It also became progressively mistier and foggier the higher we climbed, not to mention that what began as a drizzle graduated into a fully-fledged downpour by the time we neared the summit.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the whole thing was a cold, wet and miserable disaster.
But then we finally reached the peak of the Lion’s Head, and as if on cue the sun rose above the horizon, the clouds miraculously parted, and we were rewarded for all our suffering and hard labour with magnificent views of Cape Town and the shimmering ocean beyond.
Yeah, right. I wish.
No, what actually happened was, well, pretty much nothing. At the top, conditions were just as bad as they had been the whole way up. Only now in addition to the rain and cold we were ravaged by a fierce, howling wind. We were soaked through, and shivering. Mist swirled around, reducing visibility to three feet, so we got to see precisely fuck-all of Cape Town’s legendary view. Honestly, it would have been more fun to be wrapped in a damp blanket, pummelled to a pulp, and then dumped into a frozen river.
Still, we dutifully looked around, and even snapped the obligatory photos of us artfully posed against a background of white mist, and more white mist. Then we turned and forlornly began the long trek back down.
Just when I thought it couldn’t be any worse, my brother decided to get morbidly philosophical. “You know”, he mumbled as we began our descent, “this morning was a bit of a metaphor for life in general. You spend the whole time struggling to get to the top, and when you do, there is nothing there”.
Thanks for that. Oh, and welcome to Cape Town, not.
Ex-South Africans the world over routinely describe Cape Town as the most beautiful city on earth. A place like no other, a modern-day Garden of Eden, fabulous beaches and glorious weather and night life to die for, and a shining beacon of racial harmony in post-apartheid South Africa. So I guess I was expecting big things of the place. But after the Lion’s Head disappointment, a sense of anti-climax set in, even as the weather improved and we were able to get out and about over the next few days.
The Waterfront, an old port area redeveloped into an open-air retail and leisure precinct, could have been anywhere else in the world: the same restaurants serving the same mandatory range of global cuisines; the same baristas pulling espressos at quirky cafes; and the same stores offering the same knick-knacks, from scented soaps to souvenirs. No different really to Pier 39 in San Francisco, or Darling Harbour in Sydney.
Apart from how overwhelmingly White it all was. In “the new South Africa”, the only non-White faces I saw in this upmarket area were those of wait-staff, cleaners and shop attendants. Exactly how I remember things being thirty years ago, when I was a child.
Cape Town’s CBD was the same. The streets were part English boulevards, where mainly well-off White folks were going about their business. And part bustling African market-places, where mainly poor Black folks were going about theirs.
Anything taller than four stories was a 1960s concrete and glass construction which may once have been cutting edge, but which nowadays is plain ugly. Everything else was a muddled mishmash. Grand colonial architecture stood alongside run-down buildings alongside shanty huts. The “must see” houses of the Bo Caap district were lovely, painted in bright vivid colours, but also quite obviously dolled up for the benefit of tourists, so about as authentic as a kangaroo on the African savannah. Long Street, lined with two-storied bars and restaurants, had a distinct New Orleans vibe to it, but was seedy and quite scary to wander around at night. And the makeshift market-stalls occupying every available street corner and empty piece of sidewalk had all the charm of downtown Jakarta, say.
Further afield, Cape Town continued to underwhelm. Camps Bay was beautiful, but basically felt like a junior version of Santa Monica beach, incongruously transplanted to Africa. Luxury apartment blocks in up-market seafront suburbs reminded me more of mass-market tourist resorts, like Surfers Paradise in Australia or Torremolinos in Spain. Quaint seaside villages along the coast looked like someone had randomly thrown European fishing ports and Orange County beach towns into a blender. Even the fabled Cape wine growing region was not as expected: neither as lush nor as green as advertised, but instead a dead-ringer for the slightly harsher, scrubby Hunter Valley in Australia. Right down to the Blue Gums and Eucalyptus trees.
And all the while, everywhere we went in Cape Town it felt like we were being followed, by a somewhat uneasy sense of separateness. An underlying tension that was hard to pin down, but also impossible to ignore.
So the seaside suburb of Llundadno, an absolutely stunning collection of mansions tumbling down a hill to a beach of boulders and crashing waves, was also a White fortress – accessible from a single check-pointed road, and devoid completely of coloured faces apart from gardeners and road workers. Or like visiting old friends of my parents, who now live in a lovely Cape Town suburb – gated, exclusively Afrikaans speaking, and exclusively White. Or like the picturesque holiday town of Hout Bay, an island of sun and sand and surf, until you venture into the run-down Coloured fishing villages that surround it. Or like when I took a wrong exit off the freeway, and within minutes of leaving the manicured lawns of a (mainly White) residential area we suddenly found ourselves on the outskirts of a Black township – a vast sea of dirt tracks and shanties and corrugated iron houses.
You get the point: Cape Town was slightly off kilter. Most of the areas of interest to us as tourists were pleasant enough, and clean and safe and with nothing in particular I could fault. But at the same time it all felt a little disjointed, like bits and pieces of everywhere else had been cobbled together to make a city, yet in a way where the components didn’t quite fit together. And where the apartheid system I knew as a child was hanging about like a bad smell, officially dismantled twenty years ago but still engrained into every facet of the city’s daily life.
Late in the afternoon of our third day in Cape Town, we were driving through the CBD and noticed several streets had been blocked off for what looked like a market of sorts. It turned out, however, to be a free concert in Greenmarket Square, as a precursor to the Cape Town Jazz Festival kicking off that weekend. A large temporary stage had been erected at one end of the square, on which a succession of singer and musicians, mainly South African, performed a mixture of jazz standards, and then DJs belted out dance tracks.
It was a spectacular setting, Greenmarket Square being a compact and very beautiful showcase of the multiple influences that make up South Africa today. More than three hundred years old, it has variously served as a slave market, a vegetable market and a parking lot, and in apartheid times it was often a site of mass public protest. But nowadays it is a broad swatch of cobbled stones, trees and public space, lovingly restored, fringed by restaurants, African curio shops, boutiques and market stalls. The backdrop to the temporary stage was a gorgeous Dutch-style building from the first settlement of Cape Town, a beautiful old church, and a pair of exquisite art-deco buildings.
A crowd of about a thousand people had gathered for the concert. It was an eclectic mix of people – Black, White and Coloured; young and old; locals and tourists; rich and poor; office workers in designer suits mingling with domestic workers in print dresses and doeks (head-kerchiefs). Almost everyone in the square had a little South African flag, pinned to their lapel, tied into their hair, or simply waved around in the gentle breeze. The mood was upbeat, happy, and incredibly festive. People were smiling and laughing and mingling; the music was loud but not deafening.
Some folks were swaying gently, some dancing in couples, and others were simply moving about at one with the music. Like the old Black guy in a shabby suit just in front us, who was stomping the ground in a trade mark African dance move, but so rhythmically and effortlessly as to be mesmerising. Others were a little less graceful, like the youngish hippy, wildly gyrating about in an effort to impress his girlfriend. Or like the bloke from Australia via London visiting South Africa for the first time in thirty years, seemingly intent on single-handedly proving that white men can’t dance. But no matter the talent level, without exception everyone was dancing in some way.
It was really quite fabulous, and being there in the square, listening to the music and moving with the crowd, I “got” Cape Town in a way that I hadn’t before. A place that had initially seemed to be a confused pastiche of a city now suddenly appeared to be something altogether different. Not an awkward composition of disjointed bits and pieces, but rather a meeting place of Africa and Europe; a fusion of the old and the modern; a melting pot of different languages and peoples and cultures and religions. A city with a rich and diverse history, that was now embracing its heritage – the good, the bad and the ugly – to redefine itself into something new.
Looked at in this different light, it occurred to me that Cape Town was not a little like everywhere else, but a lot like nowhere else at all.
Our final activity in Cape Town involved taking the cable-car to the top of Table Mountain. We shared the carriage up with a herd of Chinese tourists, a class of Black primary school children, some retirees, and a group of Indian women in saris.
Unlike our first experience of Cape Town on the Lion’s Head, the weather had now cleared up. So rather than the rain and mist with which the city had welcomed us, she said farewell with clear blue skies, and an amazing vista of the town laid out in a neat grid below us, interspersed with green parks and sandy beaches, all framed by a glittering azure sea that stretched out to the horizon.
The view from Table Mountain that afternoon was nothing short of breathtaking, and when I saw it I couldn’t help but think how completely I had misjudged Cape Town to start with. As a city it may have initially disappointed, but then it had slowly and imperceptibly got under my skin. What had seemed like a disparate series of dark, confused mental snapshots had now coalesced into a light and sunny picture that made perfect sense.
This was a city that, although still covered in scars from a troubled past, was resolutely looking forwards to the future. I was not in a wondrous new country; but nor was I in the same country I knew as a child. In Cape Town I didn’t find the violent collapsing post-apartheid South Africa I have often heard stories of, but then again, I didn’t find the sanitised wonderland I had been led to expect, either. Instead I found a city I had never been to before, but which was nonetheless oddly familiar. In a country that was the same and yet vastly, unfathomably different to the one I had left almost thirty years ago.
Cape Town had somehow managed to be many different things, all at the same time. A hard trick to pull off, I grant you that, but ultimately Cape Town did it well. And in the process, it felt like I had been gently reintroduced to South Africa in a way that was not too hot, not too cold, but just right.