Published: January 25th 2010December 5th 2009
Cape Town is an ending for me several times over - the end of the Cairo->Cape route, the end of my African jaunt, and the end of this period of travel that has occupied the last four years of my life. Sadly it also finds me beyond the end of my travel energy and the days I spend there are lazy in the extreme. I'm reminded of Australian cities - the pedestrianised zones, the sunny weather, the cheery but not ingratiating people, the rounding down of prices to the nearest five cents. Table Mountain provides a startling backdrop, and there's some pleasing architecture, but it's somewhere to be lived in rather than merely visited.
I've been told to expect a hostelling experience also à la Oz but my first hostel fails dismally to satisfy. I'd mailed them several days previously to ask the easiest way to get from the bus station to the hostel but they'd never replied. On arriving, the receptionist tells me she'd read my mail but had decided not to reply because she'd never heard of Intercape Mainliner (South Africa's, if not southern Africa's, biggest private coach company, whose vehicles you see all over the country). I
then discover that the hostel is more of one for long-termers than travellers, a situation I've moaned about many times before. It also only has one working shower. One bonus is that there's a sink in my room but, when running, it sounds like an indri in full voice.
However the final straw comes courtesy of an insect infestation. I've learned the hard way that if I feel like I'm being crawled over by insects at night then it's probably because I am, and I get that feeling in spades part-way through my third night (on my first I was knackered, on my second drunk). Turning on the light, I find my bed alive with not one but two species of creepy-crawly. The first is like a miniature cockroach and they're everywhere - the bedclothes, the walls, the floor. The second is smaller, a yellowish creature that also seems to come in a red variant - it's only when I squash one that I realise it's filled with (my) blood. Fleas, perhaps? Who knows? However that sees me changing hostels, to one that's infinitely better.
Long Street is the backpacker hub of Cape Town and also the city's
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
most popular nightlife zone. My new hostel is one of many along the street, together with more upmarket accommodation, cafes, bars, and boutique stores, all rubbing shoulders with a church, a couple of mosques, Turkish baths, and a sex shop. The apartment block opposite the hostel is notorious for drug-dealers, though frankly I can't go anywhere in the area without being surreptitiously offered all kinds of gear. I'm regularly approached by begging streetkids, and in the evening see the bars jostling with suits from the business district. Nearby gem dealers have window signs written in Russian. It is a cross-section of Cape Town's incomes.
I encounter some interesting people in the city - Lebanese music producers (who ply me with tequila), a guy who'd once lunched with Arnie, a football journalist from the Sunday Times. Less appetising is a chap who sits near me in a pizzeria, chewing his food then surreptitiously pulling a captive bird out of his jacket pocket and forcing its beak into his mouth in order to try to make it eat. And the stream of hookers I attract whichever evening bar I go to are engaging company until such time as I reveal, innocently
and in passing, that I'm staying in a hostel.
Though the vibe is quite different to the little I saw of Joburg, it's obvious that there are some things that the two cities have in common. Most of the shops have gates, requiring the proprietor to buzz you in if they like the look of you. Guards are everywhere. I see an advert for limo hire, with one of the selling points being that the limos' windows are bullet-resistant.
However I only see one definite criminal. While sitting outside a Mexican one evening, enjoying my first burrito of 2009, a man suddenly appears, running hard and looking back with worry on his face. Shortly after, and only getting slower, a uniformed guard wielding a baton comes puffing and soon gives up the chase.
Like most of the African countries I've travelled in this year, public transport is mainly via minibuses, with similarly high accident rates as elsewhere on the continent. However there seems to be an added edge to Cape Town minibuses - there are regular stories in the papers about drivers having run-ins with the police or even other motorists.
Serving staff are called waitrons,
Two Oceans Aquarium
a gender-unspecific term that sounds to me more like a robot - if a robot wasn't South African English for a traffic light. My waitrons regularly attempt to serve me wine containing ice cubes, a practice I'm unable to wean them off. Sadly, restaurant and bar smoking policies aren't particularly enlightened so I have to attempt to guess which patrons are non-smokers and then pick a table nearby.
Close to Long Street is the colourful area known as Bo-Kaap, home of some much-photographed pastel-painted houses. Heading towards the sea, one then encounters the V&A Waterfront. Lazy editing in the WLP tells me the A stands for Albert instead of (the correct) Alfred. This is an enormous shopping centre which, together with an assortment of tourist-orientated offerings (including a cruise on "Steamboat Vicky", a craft modelled on the "African Queen"), is clearly aimed at the more moneyed Capetonian.
Also at the Waterfront is the Two Oceans Aquarium, an above-average example of its kind. An amusing Jaws-like video showing near the shark tank depicts the fearful facial expressions and screams of swimmers rapidly exiting the sea due to something menacing they've seen in the water. The next shot is of
a chair bobbing in the swell, with the message that chairs kill more than 70 times as many people annually as sharks do.
However Cape Town's most iconic symbol, and one of its biggest tourist attractions, is Table Mountain, a stunning counterpoint to the city and ocean. A visit to the mountain top needs some luck, to avoid the cloud white-out known locally as the "Tablecloth" and the high winds that stop the cable-car running. The views from the top are superb, not just of Cape Town but also its suburbs such as Camps Bay, with its pristine beaches and turquoise waters (I'll later pass through Camps Bay on the bus and also notice its vast population of half-naked hotties).
Off-shore, I see the infamous Robben Island, a reminder of a history that has perhaps been overshadowed by talk of a Rainbow Nation and the introduction of democratic rule in 1994. I visit the District Six Museum to get a glimpse into the lot of non-whites in the apartheid era. District Six is an area near Cape Town city centre that housed a community of coloureds and blacks up until the mid-60s. Then, as a consequence of the
Group Areas Act, it was designated a whites-only area. Thousands of residents were forcibly evicted and resettled on the outskirts of the city. The area itself was essentially bulldozed, one exception being the church that now contains the museum. The museum is a series of before and after pictures and stories, detailing the cohesion, spirit, and vibrancy of the community that was wrecked by apartheid. One ex-resident writes how his homing pigeons left his new home and didn't come back - on his next visit to District Six, he found them waiting amongst the ruins of his old house.
Though apartheid may no longer be officially legitimised by the statute book, it still pervades South African society as perniciously as before the heady days of 1994 when Mandela and the ANC came to power. It's clear that the country has acquired a black middle class but it's only a narrow one and there are few signs that the majority of the black population has benefited significantly in the last fifteen years. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the sheer yawning chasm in educational and training standards that decades of apartheid produced between blacks and whites, to the
depressing levels of corruption in the government today. I'm surprised by the explicitly racial nature of much of the political banter. Whites accuse blacks of incompetence and point to the affirmative action that the ANC has promoted, saying such a policy is bound to put unqualified people in positions of responsibility. Blacks accuse whites of having colonial attitudes. Bizarrely, there's obvious xenophobia of black South Africans towards black immigrants from neighbouring countries (notably Zimbabwe), who locals accuse of taking "their" jobs. This is all presided over by Jacob Zuma, a man who once slept with an HIV+ woman and claimed that the shower he took afterwards reduced the risk of him becoming infected. It's astonishing that a country with mineral wealth, an agriculture-friendly climate, and tourism potential both realised and latent, should have a future threatened by things entirely under human control - societal divisions and sexual habits (an eighth of the population is HIV+, leading to a life expectancy of 50).
On the other side of Table Mountain from Cape Town can be found Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a world-famous site that is most pleasant to potter around in. Its lawns, statues, colourful plants, and views are all rather
Flowers and Cape Town
As seen from Table Mountain
relaxing, and it's clearly a popular spot for Capetonians to come and sprawl on the grass. The gardens hold many examples of plants from the Cape floral kingdom, which is by far the smallest of the world's six distinct floral kingdoms but has a higher density of plant species than anywhere else, even the Amazon jungle. I also read that geraniums originated on Table Mountain.
However the big news in Cape Town is the coming of the 2010 World Cup - the first time the tournament will be held in Africa. This is not just a source of pride to South Africans, but Africans in general - a continent-wide feeling that I've been touched by all the way through this trip, and which I can't imagine being replicated anywhere else on earth. This will be the first truly global sporting event to take place in Africa in modern times and, even if local commentators are getting a bit carried away with their on-pitch expectations for African teams, there's widespread hope that successfully hosting the tournament will cause the world to see a different side to the continent than the famines, civil wars, and corruption that the Western press focuses
Though the opening match of the World Cup is still six months away, my stay in Cape Town happens to coincide with the draw, itself an event attracting the great and the good - and David Beckham - to the city. The power of FIFA has resulted in a local byelaw stipulating that no competing events can be held in the city during the draw period - meaning the suspension of the annual Obz Fest street festival as well as a World AIDS Day march. The same byelaw will be in force during the tournament itself. This is just one example of how the World Cup won't necessarily benefit locals (another being the vast police presence that will be visible during the World Cup, which will no doubt then melt away afterwards leaving the same high levels of violent crime currently to be found in the country).
The day of the draw starts early, and at 7:30AM I hear the first raucous blaring of a vuvuzela
- the South African trumpet-like instrument beloved of all football fans in this part of the world. Vuvuzelas
will be one of the iconic images and sounds of the 2010 World
Cup, without a doubt. Long Street has been set up with a stage and three large TV screens, the latter to relay events from the conference centre where the draw will take place. Even in the morning there are plenty of people strolling around, and all the bars and cafes are setting up temporary booths outside to sell soft drinks, hard liquor, and snacks. Football jerseys are popular garb, with South African ones the most numerous, and Brazil second. I see a guy in an Iraq top, no doubt a great conversation starter, as well as a few disconsolate Irish fans. I don't see if there's any contact between the latter and a guy wearing the number 12 shirt of Les Bleus
, but the Irish are no doubt amused by Charlize Theron, at a practice draw, taking France out of the hat but saying "Ireland". I will read on subsequent days that tickets for Brazil's and England's matches are the most popular saleswise, though surprisingly more tickets have been sold in the US than any other foreign country.
At midday, the entertainment starts on the stage and by mid-afternoon the whole street is heaving. My hostel is fortuitously situated
As seen from Table Mountain
directly opposite one of the big screens, but the benefits of residency are minimal as the hostel's balcony seems full of people I've never set eyes on. All along Long Street, any available vantage point has been commandeered. Vuvuzelas
randomly pierce the hubbub of noise. Stiltwalkers tower above the street-level throng. Acrobats put on impromptu shows, their subsequent requests for tips resulting in showers of coins from several storeys up. Whole oceans of beer are being consumed in the early summer heat, revellers creating further entertainment with their tipsy behaviour and decorated hard hats (another South African speciality called a makarapa
). I also see an African celebrity, the Egg Man aka Gregory da Silva from Benin, who wears an enormous headdress of eggs and assorted Africana and occasionally pretends to speak on a telephone.
Come the evening, attention switches to the giant TV screens, as the draw ceremony kicks off in the city's main conference centre. Matthew Booth, central defender in the South African side, is one of the attendees and a highly popular figure - what appears to be loud booing when he's introduced is actually people shouting "Booth!". Genuine booing is reserved for when France is drawn
Housing Blue Mountain Backpackers, among others
from the hat, though all Irish fans should comfort themselves with the fact that England will knock France out in the second round.
Once the draw is over, attention returns to the pursuit of engaging in a damned good party. I visit the bar that has been my regular watering hole throughout my stay in Cape Town. It's a friendly and boisterous atmosphere, albeit almost exculsively a white one (apart from the bar staff), though my usual companions of hookers and hardened drinkers are now massively outnumbered by horny German and Dutch teenagers. I'm reminded of a story I've seen in the papers, that there's concern that the country might run out of condoms during the World Cup. This night I also learn, much to my annoyance, that the local KFC closes at 1AM. A wee small hours kebab staves off the threat of a hangover.
Thus a country famous for its beautiful game will now wait to be the centrepiece of the Beautiful Game. For me, with Christmas approaching, all that remains is to find my way home. Only four blogs to go ...
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