The beauty of be­ing there

There’s a sense of deja vu on the streets of Cape Town and its sur­rounds

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - GRAEME BLUNDELL

CAL­I­FOR­NIAN nov­el­ist Ross Mac­Don­ald once sug­gested any reader ‘‘ap­proaches the bor­ders of place and crosses them as a ghost passes through a wall, at the risk of our own re­al­ity’’.

He was sug­gest­ing, I think, that when you read books or watch movies about some­where or live through seem­ingly end­less tele­vi­sion cov­er­age, you think you have al­ready been there.

Mac­Don­ald was a crime writer and no other form of fic­tion so vis­cer­ally catches the mood and his­to­ries of cities, their dis­tinct tone. So I’ve come to Cape Town with South African crime writer Deon Meyer’s Dead at Day­break in my bag.

It’s an in­ven­tive and provoca­tive Cape Town police pro­ce­dural, its fo­cus partly on the spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral scenery but piv­ot­ing on the com­plex­i­ties of post-apartheid life.

Meyer is a white South African writ­ing about a so­ci­ety that is still try­ing to find a way for all of its peo­ple to live together.

Twenty-two years af­ter Nel­son Man­dela’s tri­umphant exit from Vic­tor Ver­ster Pri­son on Fe­bru­ary 11, 1990, any vis­i­tor to Cape Town quickly finds an in­tense, beau­ti­ful work-in-progress, which is some­thing Meyer cap­tures with star­tling res­o­nance.

In Cape Town, the new ex­plodes with colour, en­ergy and a lovely sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion. The in­deli­ble marks of a blood­stained his­tory are ev­ery­where in this old city: flags, street names, stat­ues, mu­se­ums, me­mo­ri­als and pho­to­graphs. And po­lit­i­cal tension does still hover like a slum­ber­ing gi­ant.

As Meyer’s hero, ex-cop Zatopek ‘ ‘ Zed’’ van Heer­den, says, fin­ger-wav­ing ac­cu­sa­tions come from all across the coun­try — ‘‘about cor­rup­tion, mal­prac­tice, ap­a­thy, slow re­ac­tions and ir­reg­u­lar re­sults’’.

Owen Jinka, from Roots Africa Tours, picks us up at the air­port on a cold, over­cast day.

Qui­etly ef­fi­cient, his com­pany is a spe­cialised tour op­er­a­tor formed by mem­bers of disad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties when they re­alised there were large groups of tourists keenly in­ter­ested in the new South Africa from a black per­son’s per­spec­tive.

I am with a small group and over the next two days our amenable and eru­dite guide changes his usual routes as we dis­cover more des­ti­na­tions we’d like to see. This kind of flex­i­ble tour is the per­fect way to grasp some­thing about a place’s heart in a short time.

Jinka tells us up- front as we drive from the air­port in his small air­con­di­tioned van that crime is al­ways a con­cern in South Africa and Cape Town is no ex­cep­tion. How­ever, rea­son­ably vig­i­lant trav­ellers should en­counter no prob­lems, he as­sures us.

‘ ‘ The scare sto­ries gen­er­ally ex­ceed the re­al­ity and it’s no dif­fer­ent here to any other large city; there are some places to avoid and some ar­eas in which you should be care­ful,’’ he says.

Af­ter his warn­ing, Jinka starts his lively chat­ter, less a spiel than a con­tin­u­ously evolv­ing con­ver­sa­tion. It’s ap­par­ent that any melan­choly he feels about the past is now firmly sit­u­ated in the scheme of things and is no longer de­bil­i­tat­ing. In fact while I’m vis­it­ing it’s an­nounced that Cape Town has won the ti­tle of World De­sign Cap­i­tal for 2014, mark­ing 20 years of democ­racy, beat­ing Bil­bao (in Spain) and Dublin.

One of the rea­sons given for the hon­our is the re­build­ing tak­ing place in low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties as ar­chi­tects, engi­neers, town plan­ners and de­sign­ers at­tempt to cre­ate a sus­tain­able city that fos­ters so­cial in­clu­sion.

Jinka’s tour hap­pens in a flow of laugh­ter, though when­ever there’s the pos­si­bil­ity to talk pol­i­tics and cul­tural his­tory he is full of frank opin­ion, his­toric res­o­nance al­ways hang­ing in the air. The first ques­tion from the back of the bus is, of course, about the last­ing ef­fects of the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

While the soc­cer tour­na­ment trans­formed parts of the city’s in­fras­truc­ture, Cape Town suf­fered from the world cup. ‘‘Peo­ple sim­ply lost a lot of money; it was dis­as­trous,’’ says Jinka. He says that, un­like cricket or rugby, soc­cer is a work­ing-class game and the lux­ury apart­ments and fancy ho­tels were all but ig­nored in favour of youth hos­tels as back­pack­ers crowded into the city.

‘‘The town was in­vaded by the pint- and- pie boys, sleep­ing on couches,’’ he says with a wry grin.

Over the fol­low­ing two days we see the sleek new Green Point Sta­dium, which fea­tured so promi­nently in tele­vi­sion cov­er­age of the tour­na­ment, from many dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives as we criss­cross Cape Town. The huge 15-storey saucer­like con­struc­tion rises like an aban­doned space­ship dropped from a Star Wars movie with a translu­cent ex­ter­nal skin made from wo­ven fi­bre­glass that re­flects the sun at dif­fer­ent times of the day. ‘‘It’s a bit of a white ele­phant,’’ says Jinka, a lit­tle amused by it all, though puz­zled by the seem­ing wastage of re­sources when so many are still home­less.

We drop our bags at the Cul­li­nan Ho­tel at the city’s edge near the touristy V & A Waterfront, which is known as Mil­lion­aires’ Mile for its shop­ping malls and up­mar­ket restaurants. The area was named af­ter Queen Vic­to­ria (who never vis­ited Cape Town) and her sec­ond son, Al­fred (who did, in 1870), and is the de­par­ture point for trips to Robben Is­land, where some of South Africa’s most fa­mous po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers — no­tably Man­dela — were ex­iled.

Ta­ble Moun­tain, the diva of Cape Town, dom­i­nates the city and the weather. ‘ ‘ Your friend could be sun­bak­ing in one part of the city while you run around un­der an um­brella,’’ says Jinka. ‘‘You can’t be in Cape Town and not do what you want to do; the weather is just so oblig­ing.’’

But no time for me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal pon­der­ings as we head off to the cricket at the his­toric New­lands Cricket Ground where the first recorded match in Africa took place be­tween of­fi­cers in the Bri­tish army in Cape Town in 1808. It’s a gor­geous ground. Ta­ble Moun­tain looms over the wicket and the next-door brew­ery ex­udes a heady aroma of hops as we catch a ses­sion in the first Test be­tween Aus­tralia and South Africa.

Serendip­i­tously, it’s one of the few good dis­plays by the tourists in what turns out to be a dis­as­trous game for Aus­tralia.

That night we dine at Baia restau­rant on seafood plat­ters with a slight Por­tuguese colo­nial edge up­stairs at the V&A.

The food, like the city, is as­sertive, ro­bust and full of tricks. The help­ings are huge and the typ­i­cal local joke in such tourist places is, ‘‘Where’s the plate?’’

Next morn­ing, Jinka col­lects us for a full day’s tour of the Cape Penin­sula down to the Cape of Good Hope, the sym­bolic meet­ing point of two oceans, even though the ge­o­graph­i­cal point is far­ther

south, at Cape Agul­has. As we drive, the views of the sea and the moun­tain are stun­ning, the great tow­er­ing mass of rock with its strange shape guard­ing the an­cient bay.

One of Meyer’s local char­ac­ters calls it ‘‘a sen­tinel of calm, con­stancy, piece of mind, res­ig­na­tion’’ as she jogs be­side the sea. ‘‘Some things al­ways re­mained the same.’’

We pass through the chic sea­side sub­urbs close to the city cen­tre on the sculpted beaches of Sea Point, Camps Bay and Clifton. Our guide is vastly amused by the size of the garages and the mas­sive security gates. He points out houses that might (or might not) still be owned by Will Smith, Sting, David Beck­ham and El­ton John.

The col­li­sions of cul­ture, celebrity and ge­og­ra­phy are heady as well as dis­con­cert­ing. Jinka just smiles wryly.

Soon we are driv­ing along the oh-so-dra­matic Chap­man’s Peak, which is cut into a near-per­pen­dic­u­lar cliff face soar­ing high above the sea, and even­tu­ally down to Cape Point, ly­ing within a beau­ti­fully main­tained na­ture re­serve where the air is thick with seag­ulls and cor­morants.

The nav­i­ga­tional land­mark, named by Bar­tolomeu Dias in 1488, is also teem­ing with back­pack­ers, tourist buses and ir­ri­tat­ing bikies who refuse to move un­til they have pho­tographed them­selves against the Cape’s light­house from hun­dreds of an­gles.

On the way back to Cape Town, Jinka changes tack and the lit­tle van takes us to Vic­tor Ver­ster Pri­son, now called the Groot Drak­en­stein Pri­son, a memo­rial site in the lovely Winelands re­gion of the Western Cape, near Paarl.

There’s a splen­did statue by artist Jean Doyle com­mem­o­rat­ing Man­dela’s his­toric re­lease. Sil­hou­et­ted against the sky, it’s grand and pow­er­ful, and im­ages of the in­ter­na­tional live tele­cast come flood­ing back.

‘‘It hasn’t been easy since Nel­son said ‘Let’s for­give and for­get’,’’ Jinka says. ‘‘We could have been So­ma­lia or Zim­babwe, but we have free­dom of the press; our me­dia has be­come our op­po­si­tion.’’

Like any­one you speak to in this cau­tiously op­ti­mistic en­vi­ron­ment, Jinka is only in­ter­ested in an­swers and mov­ing on from an old, hated city where the past was al­ways just around the cor­ner, wait­ing in am­bush.

That night we eat at the el­e­gant Five Flies in the le­gal precinct, housed in the former Nether­lands Club and orig­i­nally a bank, one wall cov­ered by mainly an­tique clocks, all of which ap­pear to have com­pleted their mark­ing of time and are now for­ever silent. They sym­bol­ise the time Man­dela spent in pri­son; there’s a huge pho­to­graph of the former pres­i­dent on an­other wall.

The food is French-in­spired and agree­ably high- end. The local wines from Stel­len­bosch, Paarl and Constantia, es­pe­cially South Africa’s own va­ri­ety of pino­tage, are strik­ingly earth­y­tast­ing and vel­vety.

The next day Jinka takes us on a tour of the city and Ta­ble Moun­tain —‘‘that big rock’’ Jinka calls it, against an elec­tric- blue cy­clo­rama of sky.

We bounce along the cob­bled streets of Bo- Kaap, the Malay quar­ter, with its brightly coloured houses from the 17th and 19th cen­turies and the first mosque in South Africa.

He shows us Church Square and Slave Lodge at the top cor­ner of Ad­der­ley Street, bear­ing wit­ness to the tur­bu­lent past of the Cape of Good Hope, where slaves once waited un­der a ‘‘slave tree’’ while their own­ers at­tended church. And we pause at the Ed­war­dian Cape Town City Hall, where Man­dela ad­dressed thou­sands from the bal­cony af­ter his re­lease from pri­son.

Then we take a leisurely tour of the Cape Winelands, vis­it­ing the Cape Dutch towns of Stel­len­bosch and Fran­schhoek. That night, back in Cape Town, we dine at Gold Restau­rant on Strand Street in the cov­ered court­yard of a 17th-cen­tury house. The menu fea­tures beau­ti­fully styled dishes that meld African and Cape Malay cuisine, amid the un­ex­pected prospect of ac­tors bran­dish­ing tall Mali pup­pets and fe­male singers with soar­ing voices belt­ing out tra­di­tional and won­der­fully kitschy African songs.

Their sweet per­fume fills the space like an East­ern of­fer­ing of in­cense.

Meyer’s hard-boiled de­tec­tive — emerg­ing from decades of hate and frus­tra­tion at the end of Dead at Day­break, his case solved af­ter a ter­ri­ble shootout in a run­down ware­house — would have had a great night. Graeme Blundell was a guest of Qan­tas, South African Air­ways and South African Tourism.


Nel­son Man­dela statue at Groot Drak­en­stein Pri­son near Paarl

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