April 2006 - Cape Town & Safari
03.12.2006 31 °C
I arrived in Cape Town on Tues March 29th. Kim picked me up at the airport since there really is no form of public transport in Cape Town. I was first surprised by how small the airport was. I suppose since Cape Town has about the same population as Sydney, 4mm, I thought the airport would be the same size. But Kath explained that only a small percent of the population has the economic means to travel. I was reminded of this once again on the drive from the airport as we passed the townships made up of tin shacks that we had flown over on our descent. The income discrepancy between the people of South Africa explain the need for such high security. Although Kim had a lovely two bedroom cottage with an outdoor patio, all the windows need to be covered in bars, and the house surrounded by gates or walls. Locals also do not recommend walking to far on ones won, which is disappointing as I had wanted to explore a bit.
Once Kath and Rob arrived we went into central Cape Town to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront and had lunch with her family at the Cape Grace Hotel. The waterfront is custom built for tourists with restaurants, shops and marinas, and apparently did not even exist 5 years ago. The locals are optimistic about the future, based on the current economic growth the city has been experiencing. The hope is the continued economic growth of the country is the only way to reduce the poverty levels and the diseases that come as a result of that poverty. We had a view of table mountain as we dined on the waterfront, which we had plans to climb in a a few days.
After lunch we grabbed some beer and cider and headed to Llandudno beach, not pronounced in the traditional Welsh way as its namesake is, instead they pronounced both L’s. It was a lovely beach with soft white sand nestled into the hills, a perfect spot for my first ‘Sundowner’ as the South Africans call it. We enjoyed a brilliant, fiery sunset and it felt a bit like Australia until I ran into the water for a picture and found the temperature to be about 12 degrees C.
On Thursday we headed up the less touristy West Coast where Kath’s father used to have a house. The town only has about 150 residents, and the house was once owned by the local minister who held prayers and other functions in the various rooms. The house is done in traditional, charming Cape Dutch Architecture, recognized by its symmetrical design and prominent gables. We stayed with the new owners, an eccentric and thoroughly interesting couple, the host being a successful artist whose wildlife art hung throughout the many rooms. Our favorite was a six foot black rhino painting that watched over us as we dined. As always, dinner conversations amongst various cultures was ensured to be entertaining and illuminating.
Upon arrival we took a short drive to a local spot known for its ancient cave drawings. The area has been recently confirmed by archeologists as being the oldest site to show human habitation using tools, estimated at about 10,000 years ago.
After a peaceful night’s sleep in the countryside we headed back toward Cape Town along the West Coast, stopping at a small town called Langebaan, along the beach. We had lunch at an open air eating known as a ‘skerm’, Afrikaans for ‘shelters’. The restaurant was called Die Strandloper, which literally translates to ‘living off the beach’, a fitting name given you dined on tables cut from rocks and used oysters as your cutlery, and the roof was made of fish nets. We ate ten courses of fish and shell fish smoked and grilled seafood cooked on the fire. Garlic mussels, snoek, angelfish, stumpnose and crayfish to name a few. During courses you could take your drink and walk along the beach, and they would call you back for each course with a huge gong. Every bit of the three and a half hour meal was thoroughly enjoyable.
On the way back into to town for Friday night drinks I was reminded of the the world element of Cape Town. Many of the cars are dilapidated and hardly road worthy. They drive for miles on the shoulder, exceed speed limits of 150 kms/hr, and even go the wrong way on a road to get where they are going. I was reminded once again that safety is always a concern in Cape Town, no time was this more evident than when I read the sign outside a hospital that read ‘Please leave your firearms and ammunition with reception staff’.
We enjoyed a Friday night out with locals, starting with sundowners at the Radisson overlooking the sea. Cape Town has a real small town feel when it comes to social life, with many people knowing each other through work, or outdoor activities, as CT is great for mountain biking and other outdoor sports.
On Saturday we climbed Table Mountain, which looms over the center of Cape Town, standing at just over 1000m. It only took us an hour and a half to reach the top where we were rewarded with amazing views of the city and the bays.
Sunday was a tour of the Peninsula in the morning along Table Mountain on the Atlantic side, heading towards Hout’s Bay and finally Chapman’s Peak, rising nearly 2,000 feet. The road had previously been closed for four years due to risk of falling rocks from the sheer cliffs above. Now some areas are secured with safety netting and wiring, although some are very much still exposed. The stunning view down the cliffs to the swirling seas below is worth the risk.
We arrived at the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve by midday where we walked about 100 feet up toward the highest ppoint overlooking Cape Point, and were greeted by gale force winds and a signpost that read ‘Sydney 11,642 kms & South Pole 6,248 kms’. The winds I had felt previously while cycling across the Golden Gate paled in comparison.
We drove back on the opposite coast, along the Indian Ocean where the winds settled a bit. We stopped at Boulders beach to visit the African penguin population that live on a nature reserve. They were lying with their mates in small burrows in the sand or sunning themselves on the beach. The colony has grown from 4 in 1982 to over 3,000 due to their location being excellent shelter from frequent southeasters. After seeing March of the Penguins, it seems to me they are quite content with their location compared to their cousins in the Antarctic battling sub zero temps.
On Monday said goodbye to everyone as Kath & Rob were heading off to the wine region and I was heading into central Cape Town for some time on my own. I booked into a backpackers with about a half hour walk to the Waterfront in town. I had taken the precaution of not wearing any jewelry or taking a hand bag just to be safe. Although it was unnerving at times, I arrived without incident and dined on traditional Cape Malay cuisine for lunch – grilled snoek fish with malay seasoning – divine. I visited the Aquarium which was very nice and the arts and crafts warehouse in search of some of the designs we’d seen being sold along the roadside.
Wire art is everywhere, and it’s both unique and beautiful, combing wire and beads to create bowls, animals, key chains, vases, ornaments, you name it. I got myself a gecko for myself and Rob as well as a bowl. Meeting the artist was a highlight as he shared his success story of how he had been making wire art since he was a young boy, starting by fashioning the wire into cars. However as he grew older he was pressure into giving it up, being told it was childish, and not seen as a viable career. He tried various jobs, not of which had the power to hold him. He secretly continued with his wire art in his own time and began selling it at the stop lights (called robots). Business was so good that quite often he would hold up traffic for miles. For this the police would fine him. However as a serious business he simply calculated the reduction of the fine from his daily sales and realized he could still have a viable business. He’d earned about 1000 rand (100 pounds) and day and head to the station on the way home to pay the 120 rand fine, considering it an overhead expense. The police got wise however and said on his next offense he’d have to serve 30 days in jail. Given he had numerous orders it was now time to set up a proper shop, which he found in the arts warehouse. A few months after my visit he has now also set up a website. All of the art in South Africa is very creative and uniquely South African. If only I had more room in my luggage.
The following day I headed back into town to take a boat ride to Robben Island, the prison that held numerous political prisoners including of course Nelson Mandela. There was a wonderful exhibit at the ferry terminal that documented the Freedom they signed in the 50’s and were subsequently tried for it. It was interesting to note that of the 156 people on trial, many of them were white. Good to see that at that time some people were willing to fight for the right cause, even if it did not directly affect them. After a four year trial they were found not guilty but we put under government surveillance after that.
They also documented the deadly aftermath of the student uprisings in Soweto in 1960 and again in 1987. It was their political reactions to these uprisings in 1963 that put Nelson Mandela and 5 other away for life. Upon reaching Robben Island we were greeted by our first guide, who was himself an ex political prisoner on the island. He pointed out how the leaders were separated from the followers, and even sometimes in solitary confinement for fear they would incite uprisings. The prison itself of course was very dire, the cells only about 4 feet by 6 feet, smaller than the dog kennels. They only contained floor a bucket, stool and a bed mat, and did not get cots until 1978 when the Red cross intervened 15 years into Mandela’s sentence. They took us to the courtyard known as Mandela’s garden because he had petitioned to have bushes planted there, and when they obliged he used them to hide sections of his manuscript “A Long Walk to Freedom.” Based on the size of this book he must have had many holes in the garden. Im looking forward to finally reading this book that I have had from ages now that I have seen where much of it took place.
They also showed us the quarry where they worked and the hole in the rock used as a bathroom which was the only place on the island that they could commune and make plans without the guards, given that bathroom were segregated . The conditions were vile but they made the most of it, communicating and teaching one another. Their motto from the leaders to the others was ‘each one, teach one.’ They would also communicate using messages tucked into the inside of tennis balls which they would throw over the prison walls feom cell block to cell block. They also spoke of the sense of community among the prisoners, with them sharing food with the Bantu prisoners, who were at the bottom of the racial food chain and would receive less rations than the others.
It was a real pleasure to shake the hands of the many guides there, knowing each one of them had given up so much of their lives in hopes for a better future for their country. Both of our guides that day served 15 years for sabotage, the other common crimes being treason or terrorism. One of our guides was on the last boat off of Robben Island upon its closure. All in all an amazing trip and a real eye opener into South Africa’s troubled past.
Then I headed up North to Durban to meet up with Kath & Rob at Rob’s parents place. The next morning we packed up three cards between nine of us and headed to the park, pronounced Sheshlooee. Its park is the 4th largest in S Africa and is known for its rhino conservation efforts, and home to nyala, impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, zebra and buffalo, all of which we encountered on our drive into the park.
The bush camp is roughing it at its best, consisting of 4 round thatched huts, up on stilts, and a dining hut overlooking the river. It’s super hot here during the day so we relaxed a bit until about 4pm when we headed out for our first dusk drive. We saw a giraffe eating from a treetop just before sunset and encountered 2 white rhinos not more than 500 meters from camp, blocking our road back. We had not choice but to watch them and wait and they ate, as given they were nearly the size of our truck, they were not intimated by our presence in the least.
The next morning Mafuta our Zulu Guide arrived at 6am to take Kath, Rob ad I on our walk. The rest of the group decline d to go as they said they were too old to climb trees. I thought they were kidding….His English was minimal but his instructions were clear. Black Rhino charge– up tree, Buffalo – up tree, Elephant –run, Lion – stand together, walk slowly backward. After that speech we were too scared to speak, but we did relax a bit as the walk went on and we did not encounter any charging animals. Each time we saw an animal, like hyenas (mating – a sound I wont soon forget), giraffes, zebras, we all breathed a sign of relief.
We were quite happy to see the other animals from the safety of the truck. The bush was far greener and more lush than I had expected, given they had experience a great deal of rain. On that evenings drive we saw wild dogs, which are apparently quite a rare sighting.
I would have believed that if another pack of them had not run straight through our camp during dinner, chasing a young impala. I witnessed my first kill by the pack of dogs right along the river bank of our camp. An amazing site, although right before dinner was a bit unsettling. Not half as unsettling as the being awoken by lions roaring in the middle of the night in our camp and desperately wanting to go to the bathroom. But given the bathroom was in the middle of the camp, and Robs parents had told previous stories of finding lions in the loos, I gave it a miss. A very sleepless night.
The final evening we had more evening guests, with elephants visiting us at our camp right before dinner and again in the middle of the night and again at breakfast. Two huge ones, splitting trees in half right in front of our hut. You could no sleep with the noise so we simply got our flashlights and watched them dine. The next morning we inspected the damage and it looked like a tornado had gone through camp. They came back again to finish it off, and I got caught under the hut, hiding behind the stilts as I took some nice close up shots. Terrifying for a moment or two when he caught my eye and seemed to be eyeing up one of the stilts. Thankfully he returned his attention to the tree and was finally chased off by Mafuta when he came to take us on our final morning walk. An exhilarating way to start the day, no coffee needed.
It was an amazing experience although I am looking forward to a good night’s sleep without lions, elephants and especially bats that wee on you in the night!