A Lounging Leopard & A Bushbuck – Done Rare
Kruger National Park / Thursday 23 July 2015
It’ll be a Southern Hemisphere summer holiday with the boys this year – this time with Aunty S, making it a foursome.
Back in 2012, the year S did his ‘A’ Levels, we were having a ‘life after the As and NS’ conversation. I asked where he would like to celebrate his 21st birthday and pat came the answer – South Africa. And I said ‘sure’. There were a few “this isn’t going to happen” moments over the last 3 years…but here we were, boarding our flight to Kruger via Johannesburg, yellow fever certs, anti malaria meds, and much camera gear in tow.
V won the Lightest Packer award – his bag was all of 10kg. Mine was double that, with S and S in between.
It was a long red eye flight…V was the envy of all of us – he slept for most of the 10 hours, in an almost impossible hyperextended neck position that is so him …nothing has changed in 24 years.
I slept for about 4 hours, watched the very Bollywood Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (preferred the first), and enjoyed the starlit sky, and later a beautiful sunrise just before we landed in Johannesburg.
Collected our bags then wandered around a bit to find the South African Airlink desk to drop our bags off for the flight to Nelspruit. Two very helpful porters took our bags and us to the correct counter…then asked us for 400 Rand (more than SGD50) – they got that – less one zero. Trying their luck with just-arrived tourists not too sure of the exchange yet??
After a very good Lavazza and a quite healthy breakfast (for some of us) of spinach, avocado, egg and toast at the Airport Craft Brewers (too early for alcohol), it was time for the flight to Nelspruit.
It was a small Embraer – 3 seats to a row. The inflight magazine had particularly interesting articles on matrix organisations and leadership – the subject of many conversations at work in recent weeks. We were “free to take the inflight magazine” with us – and so I did.
After a perfect landing at Nelspruit, we were met by our driver, Gerald George (originally from Cape Town), for a 2.5 hour drive (that was actually 1.5 hours) to the Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge, stopping on the way for GG to get his lunch (a hot dog with very crumbly bread that GG struggled to unwrap with one hand while driving).
Once we got into the game reserve area the tarred road became sandy tracks, clouds of dust obscured vision each time a vehicle passed by.
Then we were there – Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge, being greeted with nice cold towels and a welcome drink. The manager, Lauren Wyndham, was there to meet us – some brief paperwork and then The Safety Briefing. The main thing being, no wandering around on our own after dark. We’re in the middle of a game reserve, there are no fences, and if a leopard wanted to get from here to there, it just may cut through the lodge if that’s the shortest route. There once was a leopard on the front porch!! So, if we wanted “to move between our suites” after dark or to go for dinner, we had to dial 9 to call for a ranger who’d escort us. We may have looked slightly worried as she then assured us that they hadn’t lost anyone.
It was a lovely buffet lunch with a view of the watering hole and some waterbucks. The grilled beef was absolutely delicious – went back for totally unnecessary seconds. Service was fabulous, with Thuli, our very attentive ‘staffer’ (!), holding our chairs and folding our napkins each time we got up to get more food. Also quite unnecessary!
Lauren introduced us to Rod, her photographer husband whom I’d written to, to say we were there for the photography. Rod said our Ranger during our stay would be Pravir who himself is a photographer. Excellent!
We had an hour or so to freshen up before the evening drive. But first, afternoon tea (iced coffee for me) where we met Pravir. Another safety briefing…he’d let us know when we could stand to take pics in the vehicle, when we could use a flash, he’d warn us when to mind our heads as we drove through the bush, etc. etc. We were quite pleased that it would be just us four with Pravir and our tracker, Ronnie – who was perched on a seat right on the front left bumper, at bonnet level.
Right outside the entrance to our lodge, Ronnie held up his hand – a signal to stop. Fresh leopard tracks! It’s beyond me how they see tracks while driving along these dry and dusty dirt roads. Another Ranger then radioed in and we made our way to a tree not far away, on the way stopping to photography a trio of giraffes – they posed quite nicely for us.
We then got to The Tree. There was fresh kill (probably a bushbuck) high in the branches, one glazed eye of a very dead bushbuck gazing at us. And at the foot of the tree lay the owner of the kill – a leopard! We were barely 10 feet away. We spent a fair bit of time watching this magnificent cat loll, totally unperturbed by our nearby presence. She seemed to be bothered only by some flies which she flicked away with her tail, getting increasingly irritated. Pravir said she probably hadn’t eaten yet as she would be breathing a lot more heavily if this was post-prandial. Maybe she was saving it for later.
As Ms Leopard was showing no signs of moving, Pravir suggested moving on. So we did…came across some zebra, and got up close with a white (a mispronunciation of ‘wide’ in reference to this species’ wide mouth) rhino. That was slightly worrying as I was sure if it decided to charge, there was no way the safari vehicle would’ve been able to ‘outrun’ it! While we sat watching, the rhino decided to pee (it was practically a waterfall-like episode), poo and generally mark its territory. I remember thinking that this is a very well hydrated rhino – we should all aim for crystal clear pee like that.
But the most surreal part of that first drive was going back to the ‘leopard tree’ as darkness fell. Ms Leopard was now up in the tree enjoying her meal – in the silence of the night, we could hear bones breaking, flesh tearing and being chewed, and with the flashlights being shone into the tree, we could see blood dripping. At the bottom of the tree, a hyena lay in wait, picking up scraps that fell from above. Pravir said that as more of the kill was eaten, there was a higher risk that the remaining carcass would fall off the tree. If that happened, it would be meal over for the leopard – and it would be the hyena’s lucky night.
As it turned out, the kill remained secure high in the branches, though the hyena did get some large morsels and there was some bone crushing happening on the ground too.
Not a bad first drive at all, especially as leopards are particular hard to sight, being quite shy cats. Even Pravir was impressed by this sighting.
So 2 out of the Big 5 today. The rest tomorrow? It’s an early start tomorrow and Pravir suggested we leave earlier than the scheduled 6.30am start time to try and find the lions whose tracks had been picked up some distance away.
Dinner was at the ‘boma’, around a fire (it was cold, and we all got hot water bottles as well!) where the guests dined at separate tables with their Rangers…#awkward if you didn’t really like your Ranger. Fortunately we liked Pravir.
It was an early night, after a lovely hot shower. If there were any wild animals outside our villa, I certainly didn’t hear them.
Education by Elephant
Livingstone, Zambia / 26 July 2015
I pretty much floated back from the falls. We got back from Zimbabwe (!) to find Sindhwa waiting on the Zambia side to take us back to the Royal Livingstone. The next ‘plan’ (as they seem to say here – or more accurately, ‘ere’ – as they tend to drop their ‘h’s; noticed it with Pravir too) was an elephant back safari.
It was a short drive and we got back to the hotel just after 1.30PM. We had a 2.30PM pickup for our elephant adventure so thought we’d have lunch on the deck (where they serve more snack-y stuff) by the Zambezi as we presumed that would be faster.
It was a beautiful day – perfect for a Pimm’s. At about 2.10PM our food still hadn’t arrived …we asked and were informed that it’ll take about 20 minutes. Aiyo! We asked the waiter (nicely) if he could PLEASE ask if the kitchen could rush it a bit, then went to the Bushtracks desk at the hotel to see if we could delay the pick up – we couldn’t.
The good waiter pulled it off and we got our very yummy burgers and sandwiches at 2.17PM (the Pimms came earlier, thankfully) – and in silence, we wolfed it down, with occasional giggles at the speed with which we were going. Despite this, V’s record of a Subway foot-long in 4 minutes still stands. We were done by 2.25PM – 5 minutes to spare! Just as we were finishing, a Brit couple at the next table summoned the waiter – to complain (in quiet undertones, but the sound carried) that they were there first, and we not only got our order but had also almost finished our lunch (because we were racing through it to make the 2.30 pickup?) Fortunately, in the next minute or so, the waiter came running across the lawn with their order. Peace reigned for about a minute before it was discovered that they’d served the guy the wrong order – he’d asked for chicken but got fish…we suspect his chicken sandwich might’ve ended up at our table as we’d ordered chicken too. Oops! I suppose it would be annoying if we were in their shoes but I thought the chap was being unnecessarily condescending to the Zambian waiter, which was probably worse than being outright rude – maybe.
Anyway, we had to run, even if we had eaten some of their lunch. Thanked the waiter profusely, left a nice tip, and rushed to the front porch for our pick up – who was already there and looking for us! The past 2 pick-ups had both been late – this one, which needed to be late, was early.
We had one more pick up from the Avani, the Royal Livingstone’s sister hotel. We had a group of Aussie tourists hop on and by the time we got to the Lodge, we knew that one of them had a daughter who’s a travel agent so she got “a good deal” and that at the reserve she just was on (in Zambia) she’d seen multiples of all manner of wildlife – including “about 20 lions”. Sigh.
The Thorn Tree Lodge is in the middle of a reserve, and on the banks of the Zambezi. We were warned not to go too near the water’s edge – crocodiles! Once the other guests had arrived, there was a safety briefing and signing of indemnity forms. The Aussie group was going for the ‘walk with lions’ – wonder what their indemnity form said.
Our ranger said he’ll be walking in front of our elephants, who’ll be walking single file. He’ll have a (loaded) rifle as there are wild elephants on the reserve who might be a nuisance. Our (not wild) elephants are used to rifle shots but if they did get spooked and ran, we were to hold on tight and we MUST NOT try to jump off our rides – “it’s a long way down.” All this was said in such a deadpan manner; there were some nervous giggles. Oh, and the other thing that spooks the elephants is when people walk behind them – so keep within their visual fields at all time (if we weren’t on their back i.e.).
Then our rides were brought out – some of them were HUGE! S and I immediately said (to each other), “We’ll take one of the smaller ones ok?” The boys didn’t have any such issues and got on the rather large 32-year old male – Marula. Marula was rescued as a baby in an anti-poaching mission in Zimbabwe, and brought to the Thorn Tree reserve. S and I volunteered for the slightly smaller Liwa – she’s known as the glamour cow, a real social butterfly!
Some elephants had 2 riders (plus the mahout) while others, the smaller ones, just one rider. These elephants did not have howdahs – they had saddles. When we mentioned this to our mahout, Fabio, that this was the first time we’re riding elephants this way, he said the view is a lot better this way. I had to agree, though in the first few minutes, we (or I) were concentrating on holding on and not falling off. Fabio did say, however, that they have howdahs for those with hip or knee problems – “for older people” he said…glad he didn’t think we were old.
After a while, we got into the rhythm of things and I managed some one-handed photos. We passed the ‘walk with lions’ area and saw some lions in the distance from our perch – Fabio was quick to say, “Different operator.” Apparently this walk with lions thing is a walk with the captive-bred cats before they are released into ‘independence’. There are mixed views – on the one hand this is touted as a conservation project – breeding the lions in captivity to ward off extinction – their numbers are dwindling – there are fewer than 25,000 today, less than a quarter of the number 50 years ago. The money collected from willing tourists for the thrill of walking with lions goes toward conservation – which makes the tourists feel good about the whole experience. The controversy lies in whether the lions released are truly released or if they are released into farms that serve ‘canned hunting operations.’
But for now we were getting an education on elephants from our very knowledgeable mahout, Fabio. I’ve heard that elephants are ‘sure-footed’ but I didn’t know that they had only one pair of footprints – the back feet always stepped exactly where the front feet had been. Fabio explained that this is to be sure they’re stepping somewhere safe – if the front feet had ‘tested the ground’ and it was ok, it was good for the back feet too, thus one pair of footprints.
I didn’t know that elephants usually die from starvation as a result of losing their teeth in old age. No teeth, can’t eat, so they considerately take themselves off to an ‘elephant graveyard’ to die quietly without troubling the rest of the herd. Fabio said that false teeth for elephants have been made in Thailand and possibly Sri Lanka, allowing some elephants to live a bit longer.
I also learnt that both male and female African elephants have tusks. Tusk-less females are a result of some genetic condition. Like humans and their hands, elephants also have a preference for one tusk over the other. Unlike humans where the preferred hand/arm may be more developed (like Federer’s tennis arm), the preferred tusk is usually shorter and the tip is less sharp – more worn out.
The social structure of elephants is fascinating – they are very tight families. Babies are fed until the tusks get in the way, and then the mums shoo them away. Baby boys stay with their family until they are about 14 or 15 years old when testosterone starts to do its work, and they start chasing their sisters for a bit of fun. Their parents will have none of this, and send the boys away to join the bachelor herd, with other boys. There is a fair bit of fighting for domination in these bachelor herds and the less dominant boys may strike it out on their own. Two cute babies followed us as we ambled along (taking about 4 scurrying steps for each slow step the adult took), and as Fabio told us about the bachelor herd, the elephant in front of us veered off course in a hurry to nudge the baby boy away from his sister. This father elephant then made sure he remained between the siblings. Quite remarkable!
Fabio told us some of the commands he uses for Liwa – some in English, some in the local vernacular. Just as I was wondering how it was that Liwa wasn’t following his commands as he said them, Fabio said, “She knows I’m not talking to her now.”, and Liwa promptly curved her trunk backwards towards Fabio’s hands, asking him for a ‘treat’ – for being good? 🙂
There was one moment of ‘slight worry’. One of the babies had stopped to feed, blocking Liwa’s path. She seemed to get annoyed and tried to push the baby out of the way. The baby wouldn’t budge and the elephant she was feeding from shoved Liwa (with us on her!) back. Some annoyed trumpeting as Fabio got everything under control again…and S meekly said, “Er, maybe let the baby feed?”
It was back to peaceful swaying after this, after stopping for some family shots on our elephants, by the Zambezi – as Fabio said, this was the Kodak shot. Also saw that the boys’ elephant was quite a bit bigger than ours – I wasn’t complaining. The hour or so passed by really quickly. As we got closer to the Lodge and our ‘dismount platform’ Fabio asked us to take our feet out of the stirrups and stretch – or we might fall over when we get off. Excellent advice. As I got off I felt like my inner thighs had been put through some FTI stretches. Most of us came down the stairs from the dismounting platform walking like cowboys.
Then it was time to thank our rides and the mahouts. The elephants sat down and we got to feed them with some crunchy popcorn-like feed. We could sit on their knee as we did so – V did, and midway Marula decided to stand up – V got up in a hurry too. S and I chose to feed Liwa standing (us standing, Liwa sitting i.e.). S went first and was throwing the feed at Liwa’s mouth from a bit of a distance – not that Liwa missed catching any of it with her mouth. Feeding done, all our rides got a stroke and pat on the trunk (the texture was harder than I expected it to be) – “because they will remember you,” said Fabio; then they were back to their quarters and we were back to the lodge, with instructions to wash our hands and grab a drink.
To our surprise, within minutes, a video of our ride was playing on the TV screen. It was very well edited, with captioning, music, great transitions; it captured everything from the start till the feeding of our elephants. Even V was impressed. The young man who put this together was Brighton Mapulanga – I told him that it was really well done, and asked how he did it so quickly…his modest reply – “I used FinalCut. Would’ve been better if I had more time.” I told Brighton that V, the media student from Brighton, was also impressed – think he was pleased. Needless to say we got the video and the photo CD, and Liwa’s and Marula’s footprint on a canvas to be framed. Think we all had fallen a little bit in love with elephants 🙂
We piled into our mini van for the trip back to the hotel. The Aussies had had a good walk with the lions and we exchanged snippets (Aussie lady more than me) before I settled in for a little snooze. The driver then called out to us in the back – a herd of wild elephants was crossing the track right in front of us!
We were tired by the time we got back, and even zebras at the little roundabout near our hotel didn’t cause too much excitement (the hotel is also on a reserve) – though two zebras right outside our room raised the excitement level a bit. I hadn’t yet seen any of the famed baboons -we were told to keep the sliding doors of our bedroom not just closed but locked, as the baboons on the property knew how to open sliding doors.
Dinner was a local buffet at the Avani – impala, crocodile and ostrich were on the menu; the birthday boy was the most adventurous. Ate far too much (surprise surprise) and decided that we’d have a slow morning tomorrow before our 11AM pick up for the airport. As a bonus, S and I managed to squeeze in a massage – with a view of the sunset over the Zambezi 🙂
Cape Town Comparisons
Cape Town, South Africa / 27 July 2015
Had a relaxing morning today, slept in, had breakfast in the sun on the patio, wrote postcards, left an envelope at the Bushtracks desk for Lucas, our Zimbabwe guide – as we stupidly didn’t take our wallets with us when we went to Victoria Falls and couldn’t tip him – and as a farewell, we were treated to another rainbow, curving over the smoke that thundered in the distance. Sindhwa was there on the dot at 11AM for our pick up to the airport. He did a bit of the tourist spiel on the drive to the airport, and once again we got shown the ugliest building…must be quite a landmark!
Today would be ‘travel day’ – from Livingstone to Johannesburg to Cape Town. There seemed to be some mix up with the flight’s seating. 3 of us were in a row in the last row of the plane. S found someone else sitting in his seat across the aisle. A few more people found that they were holding boarding passes for seats in Rows 27 and 28, when the last row of the plane was 26…one of the chaps said his seat might be in the loo. As it turned out, the aircraft had been changed, but not the seat numbers, especially for those who’d checked in online. So S ended up sitting somewhere upfront – which wasn’t a bad thing as he had the pork noodles which apparently was yummy; by the time lunch got to us in the back, we were left with the ‘vegetarian option’ which wasn’t great.
There was a short-ish transit at Jo’ burg – enough time to try the ‘real products’ of the Airport Craft Brewery (and not healthy avocado and spinach sandwiches) – good ale, but far too much – half a glass later, it was time to board our flight to Cape Town.
The last time I was in Cape Town was 9 years ago in 2006 for the International Diabetes Federation conference held at the newly opened Cape Town Convention Centre. I’d taken a few days off around the conference to do the touristy stuff. As it turned out those 10 days or so are etched in my memory as probably the best 10 days of my life. The conference itself was superb – both in organisation and content. I recall attending every possible session, taking copious notes, and meeting some of THE names in DM prevention and management. The social side of the conference was just brilliant too – probably because the delicious South African wine flowed generously. The welcome reception with food being cooked on the spot, face painting in the wings and lots of good conversation was held at the lovely Spier Estate just outside Cape Town.
That time in 2006 was a stand out one as it seemed like an oasis of a very happy ‘me time’; it had been some time since I’d travelled alone, and I found myself enjoying it thoroughly. New friends were made – some of whom are friends till today. D & A who run the guesthouse I stayed at, twentytwo, continue to remain in touch and I’d made plans to meet up with them on this trip. There were loads of new experiences – Robben Island and the District 6 museum, in particular made a profound impact – and so, I made sure these were included in our current itinerary – certainly didn’t want the boys and S to miss these.
So, it was an interesting range of thoughts as we flew into Cape Town…would it be the same, after the stratospheric standards set by the last trip? I had no doubt it wouldn’t be the same – it couldn’t be – but I was thrilled to be seeing Cape Town again, this time with my favourite people – and if the past few days were anything to go by, this next week would be a blast.
Our guide, George Meyer, was waiting for us at the airport; George, as it turns out had something in common with S – he used to be in corporate banking then some years ago decided enough was enough, time to do what he really loved – showing people his beloved country (ok, so this last bit is not what S is doing but you get the idea). He declared that Cape Grace where we were staying is one of his favourite hotels – because of its whisky bar!
It wasn’t a long drive to the Waterfront and our hotel, especially with G providing us with all manner of information. Things looked vaguely familiar to me but when we passed the Convention Centre, it all happily ‘fell into place’ – to the left to Oranjezicht and twentytwo, to the right to the waterfront.
We were all quite tired by the time we got to the hotel; as the lady who checked us in said, “And you’ll be with us for 6 nights”, it sounded like a luxuriously long stay…especially compared to our 2 nights each at Kruger and Livingstone. 6 nights also allowed me to unpack properly and put things away in the cupboard (we each had one!), and not live, untidily, out of my suitcase…much to S’s unspoken relief I’m sure.
We had room service dinner, with a wonderful view of the marina and Signal Hill – it was too dark or cloudy to see Table Mountain. The wonderful Sheena of Country Holidays Singapore had managed to get us a complimentary upgrade for both rooms – so we had a Marina and Table Mountain view – fantastic!
We all had an early night – we needed to be ready at 9AM tomorrow – to ‘rock and roll’, as George said.
Something Old, Something New – and a lot of Blue
Cape Town, South Africa / 28 July 2015
We woke up to a beautiful day – clear blue skies, not a cloud in sight – and a wonderful view of the Table Mountain (without its table cloth). Opening our balcony door, we realised that blue as the skies may have been, it was cold outside. Fortifying ourselves with a huge breakfast at The Signal Restaurant, it was time to rock and roll with George, who was there before 9AM. Non sequitur – while at breakfast, three guests walked in – they were the tallest people I’ve ever seen, 7 feet at least I’m sure. They looked like they belonged to a basketball team and/or an East European mafia gang.
George ran through the plan for the day before we set off. Unfortunately, Table Mountain was closed for 2 weeks for its annual maintenance so that was a no-go, much to our disappointment. In 2006 I had ventured to Table Mountain on my own at the end of one of the conference days. I recall rushing back to twentytwo, changing and getting a cab to the cable car ticket office at the foot of the mountain. The cable car ride up was exhilarating, with 360 degree views of the city and the sea. The view from the top was even more brilliant with the setting sun over the water, and clouds over the lower ridges, Robben Island in the distance. There was a young man from Puerto Rico whom I got to talking to after I saw him standing on the edge taking a selfie – probably one of the early selfies, before the term was coined, and definitely before the advent of selfie sticks – he stood on some rocks, the setting sun behind him, taking a pic of himself using a compact camera pointed at himself. I recall having a glass of wine as the sun set, the sky a glorious red – and meeting this family of four – Nico Burgers, a farmer from outside of Cape Town, and his three children, Mia, Elsie and Pieter (I think those were their names). It was a good conversation about family and life in general, the kind that only strangers can have.
But here I was in 2015 – and Table Mountain closed for maintenance. First stop – Signal Hill – which was in our direct line of sight from our Cape Grace room. At each bend as we drove up to Signal Hill, we were practically glued to the window taking pics of the wonderful view. At the top, there was a yellow NatGeo type frame for a touristy photo opp (this wasn’t there before). Robben Island could be seen 7km away in Table Bay, and within the City Bowl, the colourful Bo-Kaap houses were clearly visible. The hill was also the take-off point for hang gliders and we spent some time photographing the take-off and the elegant gliding towards the Bay.
Next stop was Table Mountain, well the foot of it, at least. There was serious maintenance going on, even on the road leading up to it. This was an unscheduled stop – or as G educated us, a sho’t left. ‘Sho’t Left’ is derived from ‘taxi lingo’ – if someone wants to go somewhere that’s close by, he says “Sho’t left, driva” – meaning, “I want to jump off just around the corner”. To G, the bottom of Table Mountain was a sho’t left from Signal Hill 🙂 Maintenance or not, it was still beautiful, the sky an impossible, polarised blue.
CAPE TOWN DRIVE THROUGH
It was a scenic drive down through Clifton and Sea Point. As we drove down Kloof Road, G told us that skateboarders (or long boarders as they are called here) have been known to hurtle down this road. One did so in the nude, to raise funds for anti-rhino poaching. As he sped past a speed camera, clad only in a red rhino horn, the camera went off and he got a speeding ticket. In the end he only got a ticking off and didn’t need to pay the fine.
A drive through the city then, with G pointing out the sites – the 19th century Kimberley Hotel which used to the Kimberley horse carriage stop before it became a hotel, Parliament House, the Botha and Smuts monuments; and we saw the City Hall balcony from which Mandela made his first speech on being released from prison, on 11 February 1990. [you can watch the speech here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Qj4e_q7_z4%5D There was a crush of 60,000 people covering every inch of the Grand Parade grounds in front of City Hall then. Mandela’s final words of his speech were the same he used during his trial 26 years earlier –
“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
DISTRICT SIX MUSEUM
Next stop – the District Six Museum – something ‘old’ for me. What was new for me was that tourists and locals were walking around quite unconcernedly, cameras in view. In 2006, our Cape Rainbow Tours guide warned us to keep our cameras in our bags and not walk around with them. This was not just at the Township tour but also when we got out of the minibus just outside the District Six Museum. There was no such warning this time, and in fact, G’s only advice when he met us yesterday was to “be sensible”. He’s also assured us that the waterfront area where our hotel was, is extremely safe – this was not so in 2006 – I was warned to be careful everywhere I went, not to hang my cameral around my neck, etc. etc. Today, G’s grouse was that a police vehicle had parked in the tour bus lot outside the museum, and that he would be writing to the Minister. Two policemen walked by but the vehicle did not seem to be theirs so G had to drop us off while he looked for parking.
The Museum was far more crowded than it was 9 years ago. There was a large group of elderly white Europeans, part of a tour group. Their guide was a very eloquent young black lady. Her narrative drew me in and I stood on the edge of the group with S, listening. She was talking about the ‘pass system’ that the non-whites had to use – she said she couldn’t just wake up one morning and decide she was going to Jo’burg – she would need to get a pass first – and there were no guarantees she would get one. She also said that if she and her “lovely ex” lived during that time, their child, she and the father would have to have lived in different areas – I gathered that her ‘lovely ex’ was white, which would make her child ‘coloured’.
She went on to say that the West largely ignored what was happening in South Africa (in terms of treatment of the blacks/coloured) – trade was good, South Africa being famous for its diamonds, gold and copper. While there had been some feeble protests from the West since the 1960s, no real action was taken, trade continued and some of the communities actually prospered. Some African countries had already imposed sanctions on South Africa, but these were like water off a duck’s back. It was only in the 1980s when the Western superpowers got serious about sanctions, as a result of which the population suffered. As our eloquent guide said, “Life was good with the trade, then there were sanctions.” She then looked at each of her squirming guests in the eye, and in a tone dripping with sarcasm, said “Thank you.” Ouch!
After World War II, District Six was a happy cosmopolitan neighbourhood – Blacks, Cape Malays, Afrikaans, Whites and Indians living together. Almost 10% of Cape Town’s population lived here. With the advent of Apartheid, where the 20% whites ruled, District Six was declared a whites only area and the 60,000 or so residents, “removed”. The government gave several reasons for this – the area was a slum and vice den, it was full of drinking, gambling and prostitution – and interracial interaction bred conflict, so the races had to be separated. The residents knew though the the white government wanted the land that was in a prime location – near the harbour, mountain and city.
In 1966, District Six was declared a White Group Area and bulldozers razed the homes, over a period of 15 years. But in the face of public outcry, especially international outcry, the area was never developed. A few nice houses were built on the edge of the area – and years after the end of Apartheid, residents were offered a paltry sum for their land. Those who held out are now slowly getting back the titles to their land in prime location.
I surreptitiously tried to get a photo of an elderly white tourist sitting on a bench that said “Whites Only”, but he got suspicious and I didn’t want to get beaten up with his walking stick.
The exhibits seem to have been well preserved – the street map on the floor did not appear faded, and one could still read the notes written by former residents, marking their homes. Besides the tour group, there was a group of school girls, seated on the floor and paying rapt attention to an elderly gentleman with a kind face – he seemed to holding them in thrall with his stories. G pointed out an exhibit on the ‘passes’ – in particular, he pointed out a pass belonging to a young man – Ebrahim M.N. It was the elderly story teller! He’s also written a book which we bought from the little museum ‘shop’ (more of a corner). Mr Ebrahim was busy with the students – would’ve loved to have got the book autographed otherwise.
As we left the museum, we passed the ‘eloquent lady guide’ that I mentioned earlier. G said hello – I later asked him about her. She’s an African American and not from Cape Town.
CASTLE OF GOOD HOPE
And with that, it was on to the Castle of Good Hope – something ‘new’ for me as I only drove past it on my last visit. As we got there, G told us his Christo Brand story. Christo Brand is a friend and former prison guard who had guarded Mandela on Robben Island, as an 18 year old prison guard in 1978, and continued to be his guard when Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and then Victor Vester Prison. Christo and Mandela had struck an unlikely friendship, and Mandela encouraged him to write a book. He did and the book, of which G has an autographed copy, was published last year – “Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend”. When Christo’s son was applying for a job, Mandela offered to write a testimonial for him (!) – how incredible would that be, to have a testimonial by Mandela! Some years later, when Mandela was showing some foreign dignitaries around Robben Island, he saw Christo’s son at work there (it was an engineering job); he excused himself from his guests, walked up to the young man, shook his hand and said, “I see you got the job.” :))
The Castle of Good Hope was where G did some of his military service as a castle guard, and so the visit was full of memories for him, showing us where (and how!) he stood on guard. At the Castle, we joined a guided tour; the guide was a young chap with Rastafarian dreadlocks. He asked where we were from, and when told, he said in a singsong accent, “Ah, so you like to sing and pour.”…I said we prefer the pouring to the singing.
The Castle of Good Hope is a Dutch East Indian Company fort built in the 17th century – it’s the oldest remaining colonial building in South Africa. Today it’s the Cape’s seat of the military. We spent the most time in the torture chamber. Our guide provided vivid descriptions of the various tortures which included thumb screws, being hung by one’s ankles from a height then being dropped on one’s head, being chained to the walls and whipped etc. etc. – all while a castle officer sat at a wooden desk and recorded each punishment in detail. And the crimes? These ranged from slaves refusing to work or trying to run away, to the heinous crime of not being Christian. Little really has changed today – different religion, different tortures. In an adjacent room, prisoners awaited their turn while listening to the sounds of torture coming from the next dungeon. The reason for this was that Dutch law required a prisoner to confess to his crime before punishment could be meted out – so, having prisoners listen to the sounds of torture, might have been a time-saving measure to cut short the time-to-confession. Both rooms, with their doors shut, were almost pitch dark and would have been freezing. Castle of No Hope might have been a better name. As I thought this, our guide pointed out the inverted horse shoe at the door – to signify that if in that room, one was out of luck.
As our guide spoke, the mostly white tourists did much shaking of heads in disapproval/disgust, some even looking angry. Then, our guide in his singsong voice, seemingly to put his guests at ease, very sagely, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, all this happened in the past; this is history, we cannot change it. We must forgive – but we must not forget.” And he went on to say that today they are known as the Rainbow Nation, everyone living together in peace – this was Mr Mandela’s vision.This was a Jamalesh of Jinka moment for me – a very profound pronouncement when I least expected it. [If you’re interested in the Jamalesh of Jinka story, you’ll find it at The Epic Ethiopian Expedition blog.]
In contrast the ‘eloquent lady guide’ at the District Six Museum was quite obviously different – while the Rastafarian Castle guide was all Zen and in sync with Mandela’s vision, not a shred of anger or bitterness about him – a true example of a ‘shared vision’, the African American District Six guide was more ‘militant’ and had no qualms making her guests squirm, even if they had no direct connection to events past.
There was one more dark stop – a room that was pitch dark if we switched our torches off. The door had a sign, saying “Do Not Shut The Door”…because there’s no door handle! This room was used to store wine and alcohol but it was too damp; so a drainage thing was built and the room used to store ammunition – gunpowder and the like. It was so dark though that the soldiers assigned to get the ammo, had to enter the room with open-flamed torches….not the best idea when there was gunpowder around. The drainage wasn’t effective and soon the ammo store was converted to a coal storage room.
We were out in the bright sunlit castle grounds after this. There was a school trip going on and after all the stories of torture and being in the country of apartheid, it was heartwarming to see schoolboys of all hue playing together, and just being kids.
We managed to catch the Key Ceremony where the castle guards collect the key from the ‘head guard’ to symbolically open the front door of the castle – complete with the tolling of a bell and firing of the noon cannon.
Today was supposed to be a “Half Day City and Signal Hill Tour” ending on the Victoria and Alfred (not Albert!) Waterfront for lunch “at mid-day” according to our itinerary. It was already past 12.30PM and there was still Bo-Kaap. We assured G that we had had a substantial breakfast and weren’t hungry…we also wondered how anyone would get all this done in half a day without rushing around crazily. G, fortunately, is that special breed of tour guides who’s all about “the guests’ experience” and not about “the stated itinerary” – and at no time did we feel rushed.
In 2006, my Rough Guide to Cape Town said of Bo-Kaap, “There’s a deceptively quaint feel to the area…this is not really a place to explore alone” and that it’s best to join a tour operated by a resident of the area – which is what I did. My guide then was a Cape Malay lady with whom I felt safe exploring the back alleys of Bo Kaap – though my camera kept going in and out of my bag – it’s a wonder I got any photos! My guide bought me a very delicious samosa (G pointed out the shop selling the best samosas…it was the same one!), and all in all I had a wonderful afternoon. There was a moment of trepidation when we walked through a little park in 2006, there were men lying around in various states of stupor – some were drunk, some were obviously wasted via other means. My guide though showed no signs of anxiety and chatted with several of the quite happy, if drowsy, men. I thought it best to keep my camera in the bag.
Today, Bo-Kaap seemed a lot brighter, the houses looked like they’d received a fresh lick of bright paint in all colours imaginable. Cars lined the kerb – very different from before – and nice shiny new cars too, not the beat up ones that I recall from before. There were also a couple of trendy restaurants that I am sure weren’t there before.
There were definitely more tourists, all wandering about with their cameras and selfie sticks – I didn’t see any guides. There were far fewer locals though. In 2006, children played in the streets, some walked in groups to their madrasah. At the Bo-Kaap Museum, the NY Times 36 Hours’ crew was filming. One of the docents persuaded us to watch a documentary on Bo-Kaap – I mentioned to her some of the differences I’d observed, especially the fact that tourists seem more free to wander around. She said yes, there had been improvements, but not to let our guard down too much (!).
We found G a few doors down from the museum with the lovely Hamida, who runs cooking classes out of her Bo-Kaap home. A group had just left and she invited us in to have some of the leftover samosas – delicious! Hamida was such a warm character, we all felt at home immediately – and made plans for a cooking class, time permitting, before we left for home.
V & A WATERFRONT
Needless to say we were way behind schedule by this time – and yet, were not hurried by G, despite his having another appointment that afternoon. At the waterfront, G walked us through the mall and pointed us in the direction of the restaurants before leaving us for the day
A late lunch was had at the Karibu (which means Welcome in Swahili) – the lamb was fall-off-the-bone tender – yum! We visited Exclusive Books and found the Christo Brand book – yay! The NY Time’s 36 Hours crew was now at the Waterfront – must try and catch this episode – maybe we’ll be in it!
It was a lovely afternoon to wander around, t-shirt weather. Postcards were bought, many a photo was taken, and we listened to various performers on the waterfront – some were very good. We (I) contemplated a helicopter ride but got outvoted. So we took a slow walk back to the Cape Grace where everyone greets you with a “Welcome Home” – nice!
The rooms came with a complimentary afternoon tea – V said he was going to the gym – the rest of us had no such compunction. The afternoon tea delivered the works, from scones and sandwiches to cakes and creme brûlée. We were so ridiculously stuffed – definitely no dinner for us.
What a long day! If this was supposed to be a half-day itinerary, I wonder what tomorrow which is scheduled as a “Full Day Cape Peninsula Tour” will be like…
Fynbos, Stormy Seas and the Best Meal Ever
Cape Town – Cape of Good Hope / 29 July 2015
t was another 9AM start today after a big breakfast. Champagne was on offer too at breakfast but we gave it a miss.
There was a big storm last night. I slept through it but S woke up in the middle of the night – the rain was beating on our French window in horizontal sheets! This morning, Table Mountain was completely obscured by clouds and even the local staff were shaking their heads and saying “Terrible weather” and advised us to dress warm. It may have been wise to bring winter jackets after all – at least that was what S and I thought. The boys seemed fine, or at worst, “a bit cold”!
We needed to get to the Seal Island boats by 9.45AM and so we left Cape Grace at 9AM sharp after George went through the day’s plan quickly. Along the way, our very knowledgeable George gave us a tutorial on Cape flora – in particular, fynbos, which is the natural vegetation of the Cape – much like the English ‘heath’. Four plants (or plant families) make up fynbos – protea (which we’d seen regularly at Cape Grace on our room service trolleys; the king protea is South Africa’s national flower); erica (which is the ‘heath’ family); restios (reed-like plants) and geophytes (bulbs). [George, if you’re reading this…hope I’ve got this right!]
George told us about a big fynbos fire a few years ago that destroyed a vast area on the coast. But the more interesting fact was that fynbos need fire to procreate, and without these regular fires they would go extinct! Controlled fires, of course, would be preferable. The fire George spoke of was not controlled and in danger of jumping across roads and destroying property.
When we got to the wharf, G was told that our original boat was not going out to sea as it was too choppy – and we’d been transferred to another boat (presumably bigger) run by another company. There was a quartet of elderly coloured men performing and I wondered if they were the same as the slightly younger group I encountered in 2006. As additional entertainment a man hung from the side of the wharf with some entrails (yes, entrails) held in his mouth, for a seal to pluck (from his mouth).
It was COLD and windy – we decided not to be heroic and sat on the inside seats on the boat – I still needed to wrap the pashmina around my face. The waves were huge and it was a rocky ride – the boat did manage to get fairly close to Seal Island, but getting up to go outside to get some pics was a supreme challenge, for balance-challenged me, at least. At one point I had my back wedged against a wall-like thing and one foot wedged against the inside of the boat to maintain balance. The hundreds of Cape Fur Seals were totally unbothered by the storm around them – and no Great White Sharks were seen (they’ve been known to appear here to grab a seal meal).
I decided that the photography from this heaving boat was not going to be promising and made my way back to the seat without falling over (or falling on anyone else). Big waves are not my cup of tea (even if it’s just a storm in a tea cup…ha ha…couldn’t resist that), and they strike real fear in me – I must have drowned in a stormy sea in a past life. A couple of us were a bit green by the end of this ride. As S said, “I preferred the cruise down the Zambezi.” Well, this was certainly different from 2006 when it was blue skies and calm seas. Roller coaster ride in a fridge? Check!
To recover, we did a bit of retail therapy in a nearby shop. I was quite sure the shops weren’t there in 2006 – there were just some makeshift stalls then.
CAPE OF GOOD HOPE
Time for our drive to the Cape of Good Hope. It was a lovely drive via Chapman’s Peak, which G said was closed to traffic a few days ago due to rockfall…I looked up and hoped the metal nets (now empty) were strong enough to catch any falling rocks. Chapman’s Peak Drive which stretches from Hout Bay to Noordhoek is also the part of the route for Cape Town’s version of Tour de France, the Cape Town Cycle Tour – which is the world’s largest timed race. The infamous Lance Armstrong has taken part here too. G’s son also participated, at some ridiculous young age (12, I think) AND he finished – wow!…though he was finished by the time he finished, G said.
The scenery is breathtaking, and we stopped for some windswept photos. I recall stopping at almost this very same point in 2006, taking some very similar photos but with blue cloudless skies and a calm sea. There was a shark spotter then, none now. George pointed out a distant black object on the Noordhoek beach and told us the story of the SS Kakapo which ran aground one stormy night, mistaking Chapman’s Peak for Cape Point. As the story goes the captain was consumed with embarrassment and refused to leave the wreck; some say he lived there for the rest of his years!
On to the Cape of Good Hope. Contrary to popular belief the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa – that would be Cape Agulhas, 2 or 3 hours away, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. But also contrary to popular belief, there is no visible divide or difference in ocean colours at Cape Agulhas where the two oceans meet. George told us he once had a client whose KPI was to visit the southernmost tips of all the continents – she was bereft when she found out that the Cape of Good Hope wasn’t one of them. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in town long enough to visit Cape Agulhas…she must’ve felt the way we did, seeing 4 out of the Big 5!
Given today’s weather, the Cape’s original name, Cabo das Tormentas, or Cape of Storms, was far more appropriate. The wind whipped our hair, scarves and us in general, with no let up, as huge waves pounded the vertical cliff face and rocks. Secondary school lessons came alive as George spoke of Bartholomew Diaz and trading routes. The Cape of Storms was later renamed Cabo da Boa Esperanza to reflect the hopes that the Portuguese had once this route to the East was discovered.
The obligatory photo was taken with the Cape of Good Hope sign, as were a few more windswept ones with scarves flapping horizontally, before we got back into the warmth of the car for the short drive to Cape Point. Along the way we saw Cape baboons – on the last trip I didn’t see even one! These baboons were so intelligent, George said, they’d figured out the sound of a car door being unlocked as its owner walked back to it – and would get into the car before the owner got there!
Cape Point is the most south-western tip of the continent (this wasn’t good enough for aforementioned tourist – only southernmost tips would do). Braving the gale force winds, we took the funicular, The Flying Dutchman (named after a ghost ship, not the deejay), 200 metres up to the old lighthouse. It was so bitterly cold and windy, I thought I’d give the climb to the lighthouse a miss (since I’d done that in far more ‘facilitating’ weather before) and told the rest to go…but I ended up huffing and puffing my way up as it seemed warmer to do so, rather than to stand and do nothing. The view was spectacular, especially with the stormy sea – it was all very dramatic and atmospheric – why visit a lighthouse when it’s sunny, right? In 2006 I walked down – no walking down today. It was back to the Flying Dutchman. Our hair (and possibly faces) were so rearranged by the wind that George burst out laughing when he saw us. It reminded me of another windswept, freezing time (complete with a snowstorm) at Thredbo.
As we drove out we saw a baboon race to an open car door of a parked car (which had people in it) and steal some chocolate which was in the door pocket. One of the passengers did a brief tug of war but sensibly gave up and the baboon sat a few feet away enjoying the treat. We also saw wild ostriches – a first for me since the last time we only saw them on a farm. And we saw another rainbow.
It was then time for lunch – we drove through the pretty little Simon’s Town on the the way. We were famished by the time we reached our lunch venue, the Harbour House at Kalk Bay. The setting was perfect. We had a table by the window, and a fire place with a roaring fire nearby – outside, the sea and wind raged.
George explained that we have a lunch ‘budget’ – anything over, we pay. And how much is this budget? ZAR2400 (about SGD240!) – we’d already discovered that food and wine is relatively inexpensive in South Africa, so SGD240 was way over the top, I thought. So we ordered away…
Zach, the waiter, was extremely helpful and his recommendations were spot on. We shared the starters – some super delicious grilled prawns, tuna sashimi done very differently and an A+++ rocket, crispy roasted butternut, beetroot, onion and feta salad. For the mains, V had the chef’s special – yellowtail, S had grilled cape crayfish, the other S had pork belly and yours truly had the most divine, to-die-for Mozambique style Tiger Prawns (pan fried in garlic, piri piri, lemon and bay leaves, with chips and a tomato and red onion salad). My mouth waters just writing about it. We had a really yum Pinot Noir with all of this. We had no space for dessert but were persuaded (quite easily) to try one to share. We had their fabulous chocolate torte, topped with caramel popcorn, with vanilla ice cream on chocolate brownie crumbs. We all declared that without a doubt this has been the absolute BEST meal of this trip. We asked Zach if we could take the chef back to Singapore with us – he passed the message and persuaded the chef to come to our table. She was such a sweet, shy, unassuming lady – lovely! We told George what a wonderful meal it was and he got to talking with Zach and some of the other staff – apparently they work in teams and there’s no “chef” as such, just team leads – so no prima donna chef types. All that food, one of the more expensive vinos, and a generous tip – and we were still within budget. Zach asked if they could all come back to Singapore with us 🙂
MORE SHO’T LEFTS
The plan today included Boulders Beach for the penguins and the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens. Given the time (we’d taken more than 2 hours for lunch), George, in his inimitable fashion, told us he was thinking of “something else” and that we could see penguins at Stoney Point tomorrow (another sho’t left) instead of backtracking to Boulders and not having much time there. Given the weather we decided to give the gardens a miss too.
Instead we had a lovely drive through quaint little towns, with George pointing out various landmarks, almost always accompanied by history, his own experience or both. The man is a walking encyclopaedia!
We drove through Muizenberg (named after Muys – Muys’ Mountain), a seaside town with several claims to fame – the Battle of Muizenberg (which resulted in the first British colonisation of the Cape), Rhodes’ holiday home where he died, the home of surfing. And freezing temperatures or not, the sea was full of surfers! I was cold just looking at them. George very kindly – and patiently – stopped for us to get some pics of the surfers and the colourful beach huts.
The next unscheduled stop was the Rhodes Memorial just outside Cape Town. It was an uphill drive, and we got out at the Memorial, the driving wind made it almost impossible to walk and/or hold the camera steady. The view was grand, and in the fading light with the wind howling around us, the memorial with its Doric columns and lions seemed all the more imposing and dramatic.
As we drove down the hill, we saw several Capetonians jogging uphill – such dedication! And again, a new image for me.
As a final surprise and sho’t left, George drove us through what used to be District 6 and which is now a mostly empty expanse of land with only a few houses at its edge. An old church, surrounded by nothingness, still stands; George said it gets crowded on Sundays. Those responsible for razing District 6 to the ground thought the better of bringing down the ‘house of God’. There’s a mosque that also remains standing.
And with that it was home to Cape Grace. What an atmospheric day it has been!
To end the day, we’d made plans to meet up with Dominic and Allan of twentytwo, where I stayed in 2006. The initial plan was to meet at the hotel, but that got changed and we were invited to twentytwo. This suited me perfectly as this meant the rest of the gang would be able to see where I stayed when I was last here.
The hotel’s limo was available and so we arrived in style (which was a bit of a giggle) at twentytwo. The house was, as D said, ‘same but different’ – new paintings/pictures on the wall, room numbers on the bottom of doors (they have to be different!) – as guests “kept forgetting which room they were in.”
It was an evening of much laughter, safari stories, wine and a little bit of dinner – we were still full from lunch. Before we knew it, it was past midnight. Our limo (!) wasn’t available and A kindly got an Uber for us. Back at the hotel, we all pretty much fell into bed.
Tomorrow – the Winelands.
Raising a Glass to the Long Walk
Cape Town / 30 July 2015
Another cold morning today – though I didn’t really mind as today no boat trips were on the itinerary, and seeing the winelands in this weather would be a different perspective for me. Today we had breakfast in our rooms, which allowed us to sleep in for a few minutes more.
As we drove out of Cape Town on the highway, we passed housing blocks on the left with a mural of Joe Slovo on its walls. Slovo was an anti-apartheid activist who later became the first Minister for Housing in 1994 (according to the mural). So on the left of the highway was this Joe Slovo housing project, and on the right, the ‘Cape Flats’ – a vast shantytown that stretched as far as the eye could see. In 2006, many of the shacks were tapping electricity from the main electricity poles. Today, there were more electricity poles and the supply seemed a bit more organised. I went to Khayelitsha in 2006 – one of the poorest areas of Cape Town. The ‘township tour’ included a ‘safety briefing’ – basically about not taking cameras out – and a visit to some of the ‘apartments’. Just the day before, a group on a guided tour had been mugged! The room we visited was about the size of my KE Hall room – and housed 8 people. The children were a delight, striking many a pose; the adults, understandably, were more guarded and looked like they couldn’t wait to see the back of us. The township tour wasn’t on the itinerary this time – I wonder what changes I would’ve seen had we gone.
The first detour (sho’t left!) for today – Cape Town Film Studios. George, by now, knew that V was a media student and S, a media student-to-be. It was just a slow drive past the studio fence (the minute we stopped a security guard came to wave us away), but George, in his usual fashion, provided us with a wealth of information; we hadn’t heard of the period drama Black Sails but it’s apparently popular in Europe and some of G’s European guests were very excited to see the pirate ships that are part of the set for this drama, which is filmed here. The Halle Berry/Oliver Martinez shark movie, Dark Tide, was also filmed in Cape Town. Cape Town is an increasingly popular shooting location for international film companies…maybe V can apply for a job here…I’d be visiting regularly 🙂
First (scheduled) stop – the Waterford Estate, in the Stellenbosch area. It was a lovely drive through country lanes, passing the Stellenzicht Estate – I couldn’t remember if that’s the one I visited on my last visit. G kept us entertained with stories from his corporate banking days and how he landed in a fancy new small plane that was being delivered to one of these estates – the pilot was a young man, who’d just qualified and this was his first time piloting this particular plane. There were some heart in mouth moments, but it was a perfect landing, the investment remained intact and the young pilot now had bragging rights.
At the Waterford Estate, we were treated to wine tasting paired with chocolate – all very chi chi – I enjoy my wine but I’m hard pressed to identify bouquets, legs and the like – not very posh like that! And I don’t understand the whole swirling and spitting concept or those whose spittoons accompany them to dinner – seems like a waste of good alcohol.
The estate was founded via a partnership between two families, Kevin and Heather Arnold, and Jeremy and Leigh Ord. And the names of some of the wines reflected this partnership – Kevin Arnold Shiraz, and Heatherleigh Family Reserve. We spent some time taking photos on the beautiful estate before we made our next sho’t left – G drove us to the nearby Blauuwklippen Estate – the vineyards date back to 1682 while the Manor House was built in 1789 – it looked in good shape, obviously maintained with love and care. The Cape Dutch Manor House, George said, was built in the traditional ‘H’ shape.
The quaint little Stellenbosch town was our next stop. The Governor in the 17th century, Simon Van Der Stel, named the town after himself – obviously a healthy self-esteem. In the early 20th century, Stellenbosch was a British military base which was a bit of a ‘punishment posting’ – thus the phrase, ‘to be Stellenbosched’ was coined.
Stellenbosch’s main claim to fame is that this was where Pinotage (a portmanteau of Pinot Noir and Hermitage) was created – almost accidentally, as the first professor who was experimenting with this combination forgot about the seeds he’d planted, which were later rescued by someone else.
We visited the oldest shop in Stellenbosch, Uncle Sam’s Shop or Oom Samie se Winkel, and while we were browsing in there, George popped in to a cafe next door and got us each a very delicious jam and coconut tart. We did a quick walkabout in Stellenbosch, peering into some of the heritage homes, one of which I’d visited in 2006. G drove around the block and we got picked up outside the Vida coffee shop.
On to our next stop – lunch at La Petit Ferme. When we had mentioned that this was our lunch stop to Dominic and Allan last night, they both heartily approved. La Petit Ferme is a restaurant, winery and guest house overlooking the lovely Franschhoek valley. As S said, it looked like a place Aunty R and Uncle B would take us to.
Our all anticipating George had arranged for a table by the fire for us. S continued to be the most adventurous of us and had rabbit (he’d earlier had crocodile and impala). I had a slow roasted aubergine wrapped lamb – yum! We started out lunch already feeling a bit full, so today it felt (to me at least) all a bit excessive….not that it stopped me/us from sharing a rooibos and vanilla creme brûlée for dessert! Before we got back on the road, we went for a short walk across the lawn for a view of the Franschhoek Valley.
Next stop – more to drink at the Boschendal Estate. At this point, I thought that maybe the spittoon wasn’t that bad an idea after all. We were all a bit stuporous (post-prandial no doubt), and the very enthusiastic sommelier worked hard to ‘wake us up.’ He asked us about the ‘bouquet’ of one of the wines we had – I said, “Grapefruit” and he responded with a very excited “Yes!!” – I studiously avoided eye contact with S who knows my views on sniffing wines and making serious declarations; I daresay she shares these views. Anyway, with my correct identification of the bouquet, our reputation with the sommelier possibly went up a notch – or maybe not.
I decided on the small talk option and asked where he’s from. He declared that that’s a very good question, and asked us to guess, starting with me. I said ‘Cape Town’, S said ‘Durban’ or ‘Jo’burg’ (though he only allowed one guess each – he was taking this seriously). The boys fresh from Victoria Falls, guessed Zambia and Zimbabwe between them and possibly offended him. As it turned out, he’s from Durban. S said later that he was going to say Ethiopia…that might’ve gotten us thrown out of there.
The Boschendal Estate goes back more than 300 years, and the wines we tasted were excellent. Even more excellent that we were presented with 4 nicely packed bottles of Boschendal wines, 2 red and 2 white. Nice touch!
By now, the sun was out, though the temperature was still ‘bracing’, and the puddles from the earlier rain sparkled, reflecting the blue skies. Yesterday, when George dropped us back at the Cape Grace, he said he might have a surprise for us today. When we were at twentytwo last night, Dominic said we wouldn’t be far from the Drakenstein Correctional Centre – Nelson Mandela’s ‘home’ in the Paarl Valley for the two years before he walked to freedom on 11 February 1990 – and that we should try to go see it. This morning when G picked us up, S mentioned this to him – as she spoke, G started to laugh and said, “You guys are too good.” – needless to say, this was the surprise G had up his sleeve for us! By now the lovely George knew what interested us – history and Mandela were definitely high on the list, and at appropriate moments, he’d play excerpts from some of Mandela’s speeches – that truly added to the ‘atmosphere’!
And this was our next stop! As we drove, G recalled South Africa’s first democratic election – 27 April 1994 – also his birthday, which was the cause of him almost missing voting – a result of a loud birthday party, that sparked ‘neighbourly complaints’ and a visit from the police. Fortunately, in the spirit of the impending new era, G was let off and managed to cast his vote in SA’s first democratic election – he pointed out the voting station to us. What an incredible day that must’ve been.
The former Victor Verster prison is still a working low-security prison. After Robben Island, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor before he came to live in a house in the prison compound here. That ‘Madiba House’ is now a heritage site – unfortunately, not open to visitors. We spent a fair bit of time photographing the Mandela statue outside the gates of Drakenstein – I imagine that was how he would have looked as he walked out that February day in 1990 – striding forward, smiling, his signature Amandla fist pump.
A rugby match was going on next to the prison – between prison warders and the police teams. We watched for a while before we got back into the car for our drive back to Cape Town. What an absolute bonus this sho’t left was!
And so we got going. Of course, as we’ve come to learn, there’s never a direct route back with George; he took us through some lovely country roads, the setting sun rendering everything shades of yellow and gold – with the mountains in the distance, it looked like Ansel Adams in colour to me. Beautiful!
As we got closer to Cape Town, we saw a huge moon rising…quite remarkable – the setting sun and the rising moon, all in one vista. It was a tired but happy foursome that George delivered to the Cape Grace. We had a light dinner in the room; the boys I think visited the gym – hats off to them – all I could think of was shower and sleep.
Early start tomorrow – whale watching at Hermanus.
In Lieu of Whales
Hermanus / 31 July 2015
It was a very early start today, with a room service breakfast that was delivered on the dot at the requested time of 6.15AM. The waiter who served the breakfast was a cheerful young man – we chatted a bit while he set up the trolley. He said he lives in Khayelitsha – he leaves home at 3AM to get to the Cape Grace to start his shift at 6AM!
The very punctual George was there before 7AM. As we got on the now familiar highway, we were overtaken quite recklessly by minivans – George said that these vans function as taxis from the townships. They return from the city empty, and it’s a race back to the townships to pick up more passengers. In the evenings, the race happens in reverse. On the opposite side of the highway, we saw some of these vans on their trip from the township to the city – they were packed to the gills. I wondered if our waiter this morning took one of these vans.
After the rains of the last two days, the day appeared freshly washed. The golden colours that we admired on our drive back yesterday evening, today happened in reverse with the rising sun. It was a beautiful day and George was hopeful that our boat would be able to go out to sea – his last two outings were cancelled due to rough seas. We were keeping our fingers crossed, especially as G didn’t get any calls from the boat operator to tell him of any change in plans. I haven’t seen whales, neither had the boys. S had gone whale watching in Australia – but only saw dolphins. So this would be a first for all of us.
Then…a few minutes outside of Hermanus, G got a call saying the cruise was off – the seas were too rough. He was obviously upset, as were we, but there was nothing we could do to change the sea condition. As we were near the drop off point for the boats, we stopped there while G went into the office to sort out the itinerary. The boat we would have taken was moored in a lagoon – despite being in a relatively sheltered area, the boat was rocking crazily. Beyond the sea wall, huge waves slammed the rocks and rose high into the sky. Seeing and hearing the sea, we agreed that going out to sea would NOT have been a good idea; and I suspect those of us who were green after the Seal Island cruise were secretly relieved that we were staying on solid ground.
We watched as a team of divers went through their morning exercise routine…the push ups needed some practice but they were a cheerful lot, waving to us as they jogged by in their wet suits, an enthusiastic little dog running with them. We spent quite a bit of time there, mesmerised by the waves – the blue skies and sun’s rays were deceptive – it was cold, the wind making it all the colder; it was probably about 5-7C.
We then walked along Cliff Path, and Gearings Point, supposedly one of the best spots for land-based whale watching – but we were out of luck. There were a whole lot of interesting sculptures though, and we enjoyed being out in the sun. A memorial on a bench along Cliff Path caught my eye – it had a picture of a teenage boy and from the plaque, I gathered his name was Kieran Schulz. I later looked his name up – Kieran Schulz was the 14 year old son of a South African actor, Waldemar Schulz. He and his family were at Hermanus for the Wine and Food Festival two years ago, when Kieran fell 18 metres off a cliff, hitting the rocks in the water below. He died of his head injuries soon after. How terribly sad…
There were more mesmerising waves crashing into the rocks, and between us, we must’ve taken hundreds of photos of waves. We walked across some rocks to Bientang’s Cave, a little restaurant carved out of the cliff – it was closed unfortunately, or we would have stopped for coffee. G decided against a further trek across the rocks given the wind, the slippery rocks and all our camera gear…I was relieved (fear of drowning, remember?).
We instead stopped for coffee at a cafe at the Village Square – we had a brownie, a very yum gluten-free vanilla cake and…Milo! Great for a cold day. There was time to kill so we walked around the square and the various market stalls. Chanced upon an art gallery and bought a small painting of waves and rocks. The artist was there and he showed us some of the pieces he was working on – using discarded Zimbabwean currency he’d found – some of the notes said “One Trillion”! Hope the MYR doesn’t go that way!
Lunch was at Lemon Butta at the Village Square. We had a good table by the window – and yet another fab meal. The super cheerful waitress enthusiastically approved all our food and drink choices. For starters we shared a tuna sashimi (done quite differently and served on flatbread), grilled calamari and fishcake. V had a humongous king clip for mains and I had sinfully delish king prawns with garlic butter. George was hoping there was the traditional malva pudding for dessert but they didn’t do that, so for today – no dessert (thankfully).
As we sat at our table, all of us were scanning the seas for a glimpse of whales. There might have been some blowhole activity but it was just too far to be certain. Across the road from our window, stood a lady with a signboard. She was there the entire time we were there, not even moving despite the cold wind. Her board said, “CIB Stratco Offsite 2015” – so she must’ve been standing there waiting to direct participants of this offsite. Poor thing!
Next stop – penguins at Stoney Point on Betty’s Bay. This was a new stop for me, as was Hermanus before this. Betty’s Bay was the site of a whaling station till the 1930s; the platform is all that remains now. I was reminded of a documentary I saw when I was 6 or 7 years old, one of those documentaries that were shown before movies at the cinema – the vivid black and white image of the huge mammal being cut open remains stuck in my head. That whale lay on a platform just like this one.
This penguin colony is a lot ‘wilder’ and less touristy than the one at Boulders Beach that I visited in 2006. Stoney Point is home to close to 4000 Jackass Penguins and there were penguins galore. We didn’t have to rush – so we got hundreds of penguin photos to go with the crashing waves ones.
The drive back to Cape Town was…you guessed it…via the scenic route on Clarence Drive. It was a route with truly magnificent views of the deep blue False Bay watched over by the Hottentot Mountains. We stopped for photographs at a spot that George said was one of his favourites; we continued to keep our eyes peeled but whales weren’t to be. We’ll just need to come back.
There was one more unscheduled stop at the top of a winding cliff-hugging road – here too there were memorial plaques on the low brick wall. Possibly people who wanted to continue to enjoy the view!
We got back to the Cape Grace as the sun set – another African sunset, painting everything gold. George had earlier told us that today was a blue moon day – the second full moon in a month. While we were in Hermanus, I got a text message from my sister saying the same thing – that it’s a blue moon day, and that we three sibs will be looking at the moon from three different continents.
We had arranged to meet our friend Marius Coetzee from Oryx Photography today. Oryx had organised the NatGeo-like Ethiopian trip that we’d gone on in 2013. We thought we’d check out The Library at the hotel, and the complimentary port and sherry served there, while waiting for Marius. V said he was going to the gym (again!); the rest of us trooped down to The Library – just being in an area called ‘The Library’ caused us to speak in hushed tones. Then at 8PM Marius walked in with a booming “Hello ladies!”; he was accompanied by his lovely wife, Vanessa, and his brother. We spent a good hour or so chatting with them over sherry and port.
Dinner was room service once again. We didn’t see any whales but I imagined that this would be what a beached whale would feel like, I was feeling So Full.
…And we forgot to go outside to look at the blue moon.
“This is The Island! Here You Will Die!”
Robben Island, South Africa / 1 August 2015
Today was a brilliant cloudless, blue-skied day – our last full day in Cape Town promised
to be as lovely as our first full day here on Tuesday. Today was also Robben Island day, something we were all excited about. In 2006, the visit to Robben Island was the absolute highlight of my trip. At that time I didn’t know that the tour guides were ex-prisoners, so when our very articulate and eloquent guide went into a great deal of detail when speaking of prison life, referring to “we” and “us”, and ending with, “And how do I know all this? I know this because I was prisoner number…” I almost fell off my seat. [I wish I could remember his number or name…I’m sure I’ve written it down somewhere…no blog at that time!]. Today, it’s a well known fact that the tour guides (most of them anyway) are ex-political prisoners, so that element of surprise at least won’t be part of this trip.Second time around, the excitement was more about seeing this with my travel companions, especially the boys.
After breakfast in the room, we met George to walk to the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The Gateway was opened in 2001 so I must’ve gone through it in 2006 but it didn’t look familiar to me at all, which was a bit odd. I also don’t recall going through any security at that time. There’s a museum at the Gateway, which we browsed through quickly while George held our spaces in the long, snaking queue. Today, as in 2006, tickets to Robben Island have to be booked way in advance.
It was a full ferry – actually there was more than one ferry leaving at 9AM. It was a smooth ride, crossing the 7 kilometres to the flat island in Table Bay in about 30 minutes. The first obvious difference from 9 years ago was at Murray Harbour where we disembarked. In 2006, we were greeted by stark grey walls with one black and white picture of prisoners getting off the boat, just outside the main gate – as the guide said then, “Just like all of you.” Today, the length of the wall was covered with pictures, with the overarching words, “Freedom Cannot Be Manacled”; the pictures were of early tribal prisoners (mostly the higher ups and leaders of the Xhosa tribe), of prisoners walking out to freedom, and a quite stunning black, white and blue depiction of the journey from imprisonment to freedom (well, that was my interpretation of it!). Unlike all of us stepping off the boat, the prisoners were also told, “This is the island, here you will die!”
We joined the crowds off the ferry to get on the buses. I wanted to sit somewhere in the front as the last time I was in the back and had to strain to hear our guide. S and I got seats in the front of the bus while the boys were further back. An elderly lady from New Zealand sat next to us – conversation fizzled out when she brightly asked, “Mother and daughter trip?” I was sure she meant the mother was me though S (kindly) wasn’t so sure.
Our guide didn’t look old enough to have been a prisoner on Robben Island – and we were right. He said he wasn’t an ex-prisoner but introduced a kind-looking elderly gentleman sitting across the aisle from us. His name was Eddie Daniels and he was in prison with Nelson Mandela from 1964 to 1979! Eddie was there as a guide to a school group (lucky kids!) and it was sheer providence that we had boarded the bus that he was on. Our guide told us Eddie’s story of how Mr Mandela cleaned Eddie’s waste bucket and took care of him when he was ill. All through our guide’s story, Mr Daniels didn’t say a thing, other than to nod in agreement when our guide asked him if he had got the story right.
As the bus trundled along, our guide tried to spot penguins (just so he “could get the penguins out of the way”) – the island is also a penguin colony. In 2006 I saw a grand total of one penguin; today some people on the bus saw one – I didn’t see any. Besides being a penguin colony, the island used to be a leper colony – in the beginning, lepers could move freely on and off the island, but soon it became a leper prison. It was also a prison to mentally ill patients. Men and women were separated (even the very old leprosy patients) as it was believed that ‘proximity’ would breed more lepers. And so we drove past the leper cemetery, the church, the former school; it was no longer efficient for the few children living on Robben Island to go to school there – instead they travelled to the mainland daily. This was a much preferred option (for the children), as holidays were declared everytime the sea was rough and the boats couldn’t make the trip across Table Bay.
We stopped briefly outside the fence around the Robert Sobukwe house. In 2006, the guide’s telling of this story transported me to another time. I couldn’t imagine anyone spending six years in solitary confinement – as he did after being incarcerated for protesting against the (dumb) pass laws. The fear with which the ruling whites viewed him was evident – they even passed a new law bearing his name, “The Sobukwe Clause”, which allowed the Minister for Justice (Justice?!) to ‘renew’ his prison term each year at his discretion. Even the guards on the island feared him – and as our guide then said, the treatment Robert Sobukwe received was far harsher than that meted out to Nelson Mandela.
Despite it all he managed to communicate with the other prisoners using elaborate hand signals; on his solitary walks in his compound, and as Mr Mandela and the others walked past outside his fence to the lime quarry, he would pick up handfuls of soil and look his comrades in the eye – ostensibly to remind them of the soil they were fighting for. Oh, and just because he could, he obtained an Economics degree from the University of London while in solitary.
When Robert Sobukwe was eventually released from Robben Island, he remained under house arrest at Kimberley – the diamond mining place, deemed suitably remote to prevent Sobukwe from doing any further ‘inciting.’ This time he acquired a law degree, and practised for a few years before he died of lung cancer.
I wondered then, as I did now, why Sobukwe with his call for a ‘non-racial’ South Africa rather than a ‘multiracial’ South Africa, who said there’s no plural to race (there being only the human race), and who from most accounts was more ‘feared’ than Mandela, did not get more equal billing with Mandela.
Eddie Daniels spoke to us too – of his time on Robben Island, of Mandela encouraging him to study – “to know the language of the oppressors.” He said the quarry was their classroom, and it was there that the prisoners would get together in little groups to discuss the various subjects they were studying.
In 2006, our bus could go right into the quarry and we could peer into a cave dug out of the limestone. Today there were bollards at the entrance and we couldn’t get ‘up close.’ This time the guide said that the cave was used for ‘group discussions’. In 2006 our ex-prisoner guide said that they used the cave as a toilet, thus ensuring that their white warders wouldn’t come in – and so, they used the cave to talk politics and plot what they would do when they were released. Then as now, it wasn’t difficult to imagine why Mandela and many of the others developed ‘snow blindness’ from working long hours in the blinding sunlight in the white limestone quarries.
Ending his little talk, Eddie Daniels thanked all the various countries represented on the bus – for their help in ending apartheid. He spoke without rancour, and actually said he gained a lot from his time on the island – I still haven’t got my head around this…this group of men are of a different ilk, for sure.
Mr Daniels at age 86 was quite a charmer too (unlike the elderly New Zealand woman mentioned earlier) – he asked, “How is Singapore?” I said, “Hot”. Pat came his reply, “It must be very beautiful as it has beautiful people like you.” !!!!
For the prison tour we had Sipho Nkosi for our guide – he was a prisoner from 1986 to 1991. He spoke of the different rations the different groups of prisoners got – the coloured and Asiatics getting slightly better rations, for example jam/syrup, which the Bantus or blacks didn’t get. The blacks had to wear shorts while the others got trousers. And so these crazy rules went on.
We saw the famous ‘yard’ where the prisoners exercised and on occasion were allowed to play tennis. The ever innovative prisoners used to hide messages in tennis balls and ‘accidentally’ hit them over the wall to prisoners in the next block. Sipho also told us about how Mandela hid part of his Long Walk to Freedom manuscript in tins in the garden. Another anti-apartheid activist, Mac Maharaj, helped smuggle the manuscript out of Robben Island. There was a stewardess called Penny Maharaj on one of the flights we’d taken…I wonder if she’s a relative.
Seeing Nelson Mandela’s cell where he spent 18 years of his life was a high point for all of us…even if we couldn’t have contemplative Clinton-esque or Obama-esque moments inside the tiny cell. We couldn’t linger but managed a few contemplative moments outside the cell looking through the bars, before we were herded along and out of the block through the door at the end of the corridor.
It was a slow walk back to the boat, via the museum shop, and a quiet boat ride back to Cape Town. As we disembarked, we were greeted by the photos that were taken on our way out – we got ours (for 40 Rand – about SGD4 – not bad at all). And we saw Mr Daniels again – he greeted us with a “Hello Singapore” as we shook his hand 🙂
George was waiting for us and was very pleased that we had enjoyed ourselves and had met Eddie Daniels. After a quick pitstop at the Cape Grace, it was on to lunch at the Round House which was a former hunting lodge and guard house in the 18th century. It was a tapas style lunch with Malay chicken curry on the menu – plus chopped green chilly requested by S (surprise surprise). AND they had Malva Pudding on the menu – we ordered 3 Malva Puddings – one for G and 2 to share between us, and a chocolate torte to share. Only 2 puddings came – we were so stuffed we thought that 1 between us would do, so we were going to cancel the order for the 3rd…then V took a mouthful, went “Mmm” and said “Maybe don’t cancel the order?” This from the most non-dessert person in the group…so you can imagine just how good that pudding was 🙂
Lunch over, we did a quick stop at Camps Bay – more crazy surfers here. Then, as it was a lovely day, and we still had our tickets for the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, G suggested we do a short walk there. We did the ‘route less travelled’ – from one of the back entrances – it was far less manicured than the areas near the main entrance (which I’d seen on my last trip).
We had a sunset to catch from The Wheel on the waterfront and G had a date with his wife for which he couldn’t be late. As it were, our half-day itinerary had once again become a full day programme. G dropped us off at the Waterfront and we wandered around trying to time our ride on The Wheel so we’d catch the sunset (at 6PM) while we were on it – we were told that our ticket would take us round four times. We did manage to catch the sunset and aerial views of the Waterfront as the lights came on.
Wandered around the mall for a bit after that, and popped into Exclusive Books. Over lunch we were talking about books and S mentioned James Michener’s historical novel ‘The Covenant’ set in South Africa; G hadn’t read it. S also said she hadn’t seen it in bookshops for ages…so when we saw it at Exclusive Books we thought that would be the perfect gift for our perfect guide.
Dinner was a slightly subdued affair at an Italian place on the Waterfront. At one point I looked up and saw a large yellow moon almost directly in front of me on the horizon. As I looked up every few minutes, the moon got higher and higher in the sky…the earth seemed to be rotating faster than usual!
We all were a bit tired and weren’t looking forward to having to go back and pack…end of holiday blues…eased slightly with sherry at The Library.
One Full Circle, And Then Some
Cape Town, South Africa – Singapore / Monday 3 August 2015
We had an 8.30AM pick up this morning, and had breakfast in our rooms while we completed the last bits of packing. George was as punctual as always, and we got a few pics with him and our home-on-the-road for the last week. G surprised us with a gift – which had many of the things we spoke about in the last week…Mrs Ball’s Chutney, Rooibos tea, Marie biscuits (to go with the tea), a little bottle of Amarula, recipes for the stuff we didn’t have time (or space) to eat…a really thoughtful and unexpected farewell gift! We gave him the book we’d got, and I think he was very pleased with it 🙂
As we drove to the airport we were treated to a final sunrise over the bay – beautiful. And from the airport, a clear view of Table Mountain (without its table cloth) as we said our goodbyes (or ’till we see you again’s) to George. We were all sad to leave, but what an amazing trip it’s been, right from our first stop at Kruger to the magnificent Smoke that Thunders, and then the beautiful Cape Town and everything around it.
There are so many stand-out memories and conversations, so many new things I’ve seen and learnt…the white in white rhino doesn’t refer to the rhino’s colour, but is a mistranslation of the Dutch ‘wide’ (referring to the rhino’s wide mouth); our random conversations on the difference between ‘assume’ and ‘presume’ and the slightly more serious conversations on short- and long-term plans. The changes I saw in Cape Town were startling, in a happy way. I felt safer walking in this city than in some places closer to home.
Seeing the Victoria Falls – a vision seared into my soul – and finding rainbows even when we weren’t looking. All the ridiculously yummy food, and the meal made in heaven at the Harbour House. The lovely George with his terabytes of data and information, and seeing D and A again at twentytwo.
But of course, the best part was doing all this with my favourite people. When I got home, in an attempt to see if I could find the name of the Robben Island guide in 2006, I chanced upon an email I’d sent S from Cape Town in 2006 – I’d ended that email with “I hope I can come back to Cape Town with the boys one day.” I am so very glad and grateful that that wish came true, and we saw all that I’d wanted them to see, and a whole lot more.
Post-script: I sent George a photo of our Robben Island guide in 2006 – he came back with the name Sedick Levy – that was him! The name was immediately familiar. And with the wonders of the internet, I found an interview that Mr Levy had done – in this interview he talks about the quarry and using the cave as a latrine so the warders wouldn’t come in – it was almost word for word how I remembered him telling us about it! In some inexplicable way, I felt like this trip and then remembering Sedick Levy completed my South African trip from 9 years ago.