Western Cape, South Africa
If you’re going to South Africa, Cape Town is a good place to start. It’s not necessarily representative of the rest of the country, and certainly not of the rest of Africa, but it’s a pretty amazing place all the same.
Priya and I caught a morning flight and arrived around 5pm. We picked up a tiny, white rental car proceeded to zip to our B & B for the night. I drove and Priya was navigator, roles we would assume during the 4 days we were there.
Immediately we were in amazement as to the prosperity of the place. It has a European/American feel that is pretty incredible for an African country. We’d heard about how nice it was but it was a little beyond what we expected. Both at the airport and on the way to town there were nice cars everywhere, big fancy homes, etc. It was only after we’d been on the freeway several kilometers that we first noticed a shantytown. A striking contrast to everything around it, blacks are still cordoned off as they had been during apartheid. All the houses are shacks seemingly thrown together with whatever materials one could find. Lots of corrugated metal, tarps, plastic and so forth served as both walls and roofs. It really gives you a sick feeling as you see these villages wedged in between homes with swimming pools and golf courses. More on apartheid later.
Nonetheless, coming into Cape Town was absolutely beautiful. As much as we were stung by the presence of poorly hidden squalor, we were all of a sudden entranced by this wonderful city perched between a small bay to the north and a larger bay to the south. It has the normal skyscraper collection downtown and the famous flat-topped Table Mountain adjacent to it. We made our way through town amidst the fancy cars, well-manicured gardens, tall buildings and so forth to the Green Point area near the harbor. It was the beginning of many California-esque sensations.
We found the Olive Branch Guest House which was to be our home for both this night and eventually the last night before our flight back to Dar. We met our very nice host couple, checked in and proceeded to get ourselves to the massive harbor shopping area. Deprived as we are in Tanzania, big stores with lots of goodies are nothing to sneeze at. There’s a chain of outdoor sports stores similar to REI and the one we went to even had a climbing wall. Throughout the entire trip we constantly needed to remind ourselves we were still in Africa. We went sort of crazy in there, partly because we had our Mt. Meru climb a few days later.
After our sporting goods frenzy, we waded through the throngs of white people and maze of harbor shops to book our tickets to Robben Island, the infamous prison island (not unlike Alcatraz) where Mandela gave up 20 years of his life. We were set for 10am the next day.
Tired from travel, shopping and a tough week at work, we headed back to the guest house for the night. The night turned out to be active with rain and robbery. The next morning as we set out for our day of tourism I noticed sizable puddles and the fact that bandits had broken into the car and stolen the stereo. There was nothing else to take so that’s all they got. The door had been pried open like a can opener but there was ultimately little damage to the car. I was able to open and close the door without problem. After a bit of bending on the top of the car door it worked fine and we were off to the tour.
Robben Island is a pretty sobering monument to the battle against apartheid. It opened in the early 60’s as the zeal of the modern white extremists took flight. Mandela was one of its early residents and was there almost the entire existence of the prison which was primarily used for political prisoners. The tour takes about 3 ½ hours and starts from a rather glossy but moving exhibit in the harbor building. You then catch a boat to the island. The tour is guided by former prisoners. It’s pretty intense and really brings home the ugliness of racism and the Nazi-esque methods of those who institutionalized it. We visited Mandela’s cell and listened to horrendous stories of brutality inflicted upon people simply because of their skin color. One strange ironic twist is that the former warden still works on the island and frequently appears in the same social settings as the guides – the recipients of the torture and humiliation that he orchestrated. I honestly don’t know how one could sit across the table from the man who spent years overseeing your suffering. I don’t think I could do it.
One interesting note about the term “colored” is that it’s used differently from the way it’s used elsewhere in the world. In S. Africa it means anything between white and black. It’s sort of complex but in 1948, when apartheid was introduced by the whacko Afrikaner (white South Africans) nationalists, they attempted to codify perceived racial differences. By 1959 they’d created eight categories of “colored” and there were some bizarre tests to determine which category you were in. One example was the infamous pencil test where a pencil would be twirled in a person’s hair. If the hair sprang back they’d be considered “colored”, otherwise they were white.
All this wasn’t just a label. It determined what kind of life you’d expect from schools you could attend to jobs for which you could apply. Though these rules have officially been abolished, it’s still very much ingrained into the mindset of much of the population. Besides the fact that this is all interesting, it’s a helpful backdrop for a visit to the country. Not because it causes you to look suspiciously at all the older white guys you see during your visit (which I did, not unlike the suspicion I had seeing old men while visiting Germany), but because it explains a lot about what you see. There are a lot of things that don’t make much sense – like shantytowns with no running water or sewage system butted up next to golf courses with parking lots full of fancy cars. The contrast is unsettling.
So anyway, back to the tourism stuff. After the Robben Island tour we had lunch at the harbor and headed around the western coast of the cape peninsula aiming for Simon’s Town. The drive, also known as the Chapman Peak drive, was gorgeous and contains the most expensive property in all of Africa. It is all Santa Barbara. Nice cars. Joggers. Cyclists. Mansions. Palm trees. You name it. Certainly not what I was expecting. We then went through a stretch that was very much like Big Sur before going over a pass into Simon’s Town, home of the penguin colony.
The penguins are not far from town and amused us for a good hour. I’d never seen them in the wild though it wasn’t as wild as I was thinking it would be. In any case, they were fun to watch and photograph.
That night we stayed at a backpacker place that was sort of a dump but actually sort of a nice change to the previous 24 hours of opulence. We did seek out a sushi place, something that lacks in Dar, and had a fantastic dinner on a chilly terrace overlooking False Bay.
The next morning we got up and headed to the airport. We had to deal with the stolen stereo thing and it cost us a couple of precious hours. We swapped cars and headed southeast towards Cape Agulhas.
This was something I wanted to do probably more than Priya. There is a common misperception that the Cape of Good Hope (the southern end of the peninsula south of Cape Town) is the official bottom of Africa. It was thought this for years not only because it looks like it sticks way south but because sailors thought that the confluence of warm water from the east (Indian Ocean) and cold water from the west (Atlantic Ocean) meant that it had to be. However, Cape Agulhas, further east is actually further south. The warmer waters from the east that fooled the sailors at the Cape of Good Hope were caused by the protected water of the adjacent bay (called False Bay) rather than the Indian Ocean. I don’t know if that’s interesting to you but I thought it was.
Anyhow, the drive to the REAL southernmost point was very nice and very unlike anything you’d think Africa to be. It’s fall in South Africa and a lot of the colors were out. It was apparently much browner than it is during other seasons. We passed shanty towns occasionally, each one resembling the previous one. Hard to believe that 15 years after apartheid that the government still allows such an incredible discrepancy between the white and non-white populations.
Cape Agulhas was actually pretty cool. Signs direct you straight to the point where you can get out and set foot at the southernmost point of the massive continent that is Africa. In addition, it is the real convergence of the even more massive Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Once you get over how cool it is and you’ve taken your photos, you start to realize that there are little bastard horse flies nipping at you and reason to move on. We had some lunch in the protection of the car and then proceeded to visit the lighthouse.
Our plan at this point was to head back in the direction of Cape Town towards Hermanus, a gorgeous town on the western coast of Cape Agulhas. On the way we braved unpaved roads and poor maps leading us to a small village called Elim. Established by Moravian monks many decades ago, the houses look more hobbit than African. Most of the people, the few that were out and about, were dark skinned but had sort of an Asian look to them. They were apparently were of Malay-African descent. Because the southern tip of Africa was a common passageway for all ships, the population is sprinkled with all sorts of interesting mixed ethnicities.
Hermanus is in the same vein as the western coast near Cape Town. Lots of luxury. This time I felt as though I was in Monterey. We found a B & B right on the water and the look and smell was almost identical to Pacific Grove. We called from the car, pulled in the driveway and within a half hour of spotting the place we were sipping on a beer, talking with our hostess and looking out at the ocean. She was very friendly, clean and organized. She had given up life in the city and a well-paying job to run a B & B, a fairly common career path in the developed world. What is interesting is that she is a second-generation white African. Her parents immigrated to Zimbabwe decades ago when the British government was still paying their citizens to relocate to their colonies – the most common and effective tool the colonial governments had for whitening the continent and therefore strengthening their physical presence. Now, though they are native Africans, they are increasingly under threat. African countries with their black African governments are determining to what extent these people are responsible for the sins of their fathers, grandfathers, etc. In Zimbabwe, many have already been kicked out though they were second, third or fourth generation Africans.
After our interesting chat with our hostess, we were off for a great steak dinner with South African red wine in the town of Hermanus. It was so damn good, even better than the sushi we’d had the night before. We were thinking at this point that the culinary aspect of our trip had become a pleasant bonus to our adventures.
From Hermanus our goal was to make it all the way back to Cape Town and hike Table Mtn. We had breakfast and headed out. On the way out of town, however, I took a “wrong” turn and we found ourselves in a shantytown. It is not a thing that white South Africans do so we were all of the sudden objects of curiosity, probably more than they were to us. I drove somewhat slowly as we were given a glimpse of life as it is for most black South Africans. It’s sad and depressing to see so many people living without running water, toilets, etc. in shacks made of scraps of wood, metal and plastic, more so given that it’s “hidden” by a big, freshly painted white wall from the lavishness that is Hermanus.
We made it to our Cape Town B & B by noon and prepared for our hike. It turned out to be a 3 ½ hour technical trek up that included some bouldering and lots of steepness. There are dozens of trails and I just happened to choose that one. Priya climbed like a mountain goat and, though it got a little precarious at some points, we kept forging ahead. As we neared the top we were in the clouds and the temperature dropped considerably. It actually felt good and our main concern was finding a particular trail down given there was no way in hell we wanted to go down the way we came. Our concern turned out to be shared by a Table Mtn. veteran that we met. He cautioned us heavily saying that we could get dangerously lost. He offered to lead us down going the way he came but we stubbornly decided to shoot for the trail that we’d planned to take. It turned out to be easy to find and after a short rest on top we headed down. About halfway down we strangely ran into a couple of friends of ours from Dar es Salaam. Not sure what the chances of that are but for some reason that sort of thing happens to me quite a bit.
Once down, our quadriceps thoroughly trashed, we drove back to the B & B, showered and went out for our final S. African dinner. Priya led us to a place that served wild game and we took full advantage. I had crocodile and she had springbok (like antelope). Both were well prepared and fantastic – a fitting end to our trip.
The next morning we drove to the airport, dropped off the car and caught our plane. It’s a relatively easy couple of flights back to Tanzania. We had a little over 30 hours before we’d be off again, this time for northern Tanzania and our climb of Mt. Meru.