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