Technicolour Dream Cape
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
"First time here?” the guide asked as we sipped our beers round the fire in the middle of the Zambian bush. I nodded. “You'll be back,” he said “gets in your blood, Africa.”
Thirteen years later, he was proved right. We touched down in Cape Town on a crisp Saturday morning, a three-month African adventure ahead. As the terminal doors swished open on a southern hemisphere winter I began to pine for the Barcelona heat I'd been so desperate to escape.
Once settled into our apartment – draughty but with superb views of Table Mountain – we set out to explore the city. Like all travellers, we were hungry for experience, seeking to immerse ourselves in the gritty reality of this new land. We got more experience than we bargained for when hungry reality chased us down the street demanding money. Downtown Cape Town wasn't like any African city I've ever seen (although my experience is admitedly limited). Just as Australia looks off-kilter with white faces superimposed on a tropical background, here it looks like a European city has been slid in as a backdrop to the African population. We stuck out like huge pale sore thumbs.
Over the following days, we learned to fake an air of purpose, surreptitiously studying maps and striding determinedly to our destinations to avoid becoming objects of unwanted attention. I had hoped being longer in the tooth would spare me the tediousness of being an unchaperoned female in a strange land. It seems, however, that there is no age limit on having your me too moment.
We took a walking tour of the city's apartheid-era hotspots: segregated benches, entire neighbourhoods bulldozed to make way for prime white real estate, and the courts where citizens had their lives dictated by the colour of their skin. We visited Robben Island, a dumping ground for the unwanted – lepers, criminals, agitators – since the mid-1600s; now a living monument to hope. A former inmate told hard-to-hear stories of police torture and showed us the damp 2x2 m cells where Mandela and countless others watched the decades pass by a grated window but never stopped working to shape South Africa's future.
We drove down the Atlantic coast past where the other half play in beach-front mansions under the sheltering cliffs. Futher south at the wild Cape peninsula, the only residents were troops of marauding baboons, knuckle-walking beside the highway on the lookout for unwary tourists to mug. Beefy elands, SA's largest antelope, grazed on the grey-green fynbos (shrubland) as beady-eyed ostriches stalked by like bushes on stilts. At Boulders Beach, we parted the forest of selfie sticks to get a glimpse of endangered African penguins waddling comedically into the surf. And from Chapman's Peak Drive, a vertiginous highway scratched into the side of the cliffs, we were even lucky enough to spot a couple of Southern Right Whales twisting in the bay below. South Africa was already delivering on its wildlife promise.
At the Cape of Good Hope we stood at the tip of Africa*, a razor sharp V slicing into the southern oceans where the Atlantic and the Indian clash. Cormorants soared over the steel blue battlefields. I never wanted to leave.
Back in the city, we rose before dawn to hike up Platteklip Gorge to the top of Table Mountain. Despite a head start on the mists, the 'tablecloth', a blanket of cloud that often covers the plateau, was laid before we could reach the summit. We emerged into an alien grey world of lichen and mist. The mountain took pity on us and a corner of cloth was lifted briefly, revealing breathtaking views back down to the ivory sands of Camps Bay and the '12 Apostles', humbacked peaks stretching away to the Cape. Then the cloth was smartly laid back down leaving us with only the breathtaking cold.
Our time in the city at an end, we drove out of Cape Town past the security fencing and armed response warnings of the residential compounds. Then past the townships of Cape Flats, mile after mile of dismal concrete blocks butting up against the motorway. These eventually gave way to the cardboard and tin shacks of the less fortunate. A rainbow arched down to the corrugated rooves but I don’t think there was any gold at the end of it, except maybe a few fillings that could be extracted for sale to the sandwich boards in Greenmarket Square.
As Table Mountain receded into the distance we turned our collars to the cold and damp, and our faces to the Garden Route and part 2 of the adventure.
*I later found out it wasn’t actually the geographical land’s end (that’s further east at Cape Aghulas) but as they say, if you’ve got a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend).