The Mother City

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October 7th 2010
Published: October 14th 2010
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We arrived safely to the Mother City after an over night bus from Windhoek, some 1200km. It was not nearly as bad as we expected, although we were delayed by 4 hours. We were met at the bus station by our dear friends Kate and Kerr who braved the wild weather to pick us up. South Africa has really turned on the weather, it is cold and wet and windy.

For a few days Table Mountain was covered in cloud on and off and the sea battered the coast. Even in the dreary weather, Cape Town is truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The mountain backdrop, emerald green vineyards and the wild Atlantic coast with golden sand beaches make it an appealing place to stay. But, South Africa is all about contrast - black, white and coloured, rich and poor, mansions and townships. The disparity between rich and poor is more stark here than other African cities we have visited. While we sit in trendy caf├ęs, people rummage through the rubbish bins.

No visit to Cape Town would be complete without a visit to the City Bowl, walking along the flower markets of Alleppy Road, the curio market at Green Market Square and the pedestrian mall of St George Street and the colourful area of Bo-Kap (the Cape Malay district) where minarets rub shoulders next to brightly coloured houses with the ever present (although at the moment obscured by cloud) backdrop of Table Mountain.

We caught up with more friends for dinner. I met James in the UK 12 years ago and we had not seen each other since. It did not matter though, we had a fabulous evening sampling the famous wines of the Western Cape, eating mussels and sweet strawberries for dessert. Poor Kate and Kerr had to drag us away at 2am.

The sun shone for one glorious day. Brunch at the Old Biscuit Mill the next day perked us up a bit. It has been transformed into a trendy organic market with hundreds of food stalls and halls set up for lunch. Freshly squeezed lemonade, wild mushroom kebab and rosti with poached eggs, bacon and hollandaise sauce was just what the doctor ordered. After brunch we drove over Chapman's Peak towards Sun Valley and then to the vineyards of Constantia. We tasted wines at two of the Constantia Valley wine farms, including a sample of the Eagle's Nest Shiraz which won second best in the world.

It was a quick trot over to Kate's uncle's house to meet for the rugby. From there we headed to Newlands stadium to watch the Sharks play the Stormers in the Currie Cup. Unlucky for Kerr who is a big Sharks fan, the Stormers completely dominated the game. It was nice to go to a local game and listen to all the Afrikaans chants, drink the local brew and eat biltong.

The foul weather continued for the arrival of Matt's parents escaping the awful weather in NZ and hoping for some sunshine. We stayed in a really cool hotel down at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It was a former jail set up in the 1901 for convicts from England to work on the construction of the breakwater at Table Bay. The prisoners were segregated based on race. The blacks were seen as less able to respond to rehabilitative programmes and it was believed, were more likely to need punitive treatment than whites. Therefore they invented the treadmill (think of the circular treadmill used by mice) which the blacks had to climb from 9-5pm non-stop. If you went too slow it lacerated your shins. This was the punishment for laziness and petty jail offences. Unbelievable.

The only thing to do on such a miserable day was to go for a drive with a stop at Noorehoek, a little farming village with great cottage restaurants, delicatessens and curio shops. As we drove along the coast we passed Fish Hoek and we saw some whales frolicking in the surf, their huge tails crashing down on the ocean.

Our tour to Robben Island was cancelled and it was too windy to head up Table Mountain. Instead we went to the District Six Museum. District Six was a mixed community of freed slaves, labourers and immigrants. The first to be 'resettled' were black South Africans, forcibly displaced from the District in 1901. In 1966, it was declared a white area under the Group areas Act of 1950. Over 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were demolished. They were forced out to live in terrible conditions and faced a bleak future. The museum poignantly demonstrates the humiliation, anger and sadness of families forcibly evicted from their homes and communities. Unfortunately District Six is just one of many communities that were forcibly removed during the era of pass laws and apartheid.

The weather cleared slightly so we walked around the centre city towards the castle of Good Hope. The castle was built between 1666-1679 to defend the city. The cloud cleared for a short time to reveal Table Mountain hovering above the castle.

There is nothing else to do on wet days but visit museums. Our next visit was to the Slave Lodge. This is one of the oldest buildings in South Africa dating from 1660. Up until 1811 more than 1000 slaves were held in damp, insanitary and overcrowded conditions in this very building. The museum depicts the slave trade, what the slaves endured and the period of emancipation. There was also a major photograph exhibition on the national hero, Nelson Mandela from his birth through to his retirement, the struggle that they faced, the achievements that they made and the disappointments that occurred along the way.

The sky cleared briefly the next day and the wind finally died down so we raced up to Table Mountain. The famous Cape Town landmark is 1086m high. The local name Hoerikwaggo means mountain in the sea. The clear skies allowed breathtaking panoramic views over the city but this was quickly replaced by misty fog that, in the end, engulfed the whole city. It was lovely and calm, not a breath of wind but bitterly cold.

Robben Island, the infamous prison where political prisoners were incarcerated during apartheid including Nelson Mandela was something we were really hoping the visit. Luckily the ferry was running. It took about 30 minutes and once we arrived we were then driven around the island with a tour guide who was the PAC (Pan African Congress) General Secretary during the 1980s. He had many stories on his political struggle to tell as well as stories about some of the more famous prisoners who he calls comrades. The island historically has always been used to incarcerate people, once as a leper colony, then for the sick and insane and then as a maximum security prison. Political prisoners were held here from the 1960s after the massacre at Sharpville, including of course Mr Mandela. Prisoners included black, coloured and Indian males but the authorities attempted to divide them along racial and political lines. White and female prisoners were incarcerated on the mainland.

Following the tour around the island, we were then taken around the prison with a former political prisoner. Our guide spent 7 years here. He was caught re-entering South Africa following military training and was severely punished, suffering hideous and barbaric acts of torture during his 6 months in solitary confinement. We were showed where Mandela spent 18 years, the lime quarry where they worked, without glasses resulting in snow-blindness for most, without shoes or protection from the harsh sun. It was a fascinating insight into a harrowing experience.

Goodbye Cape Town, next stop the wine-lands and the Garden Route.

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