Subject: Widdowsons' Trip to South Africa - Part II - Capetown

We flew overnight to Heathrow (an amazing number of heavily armed British police; there must have been a flap on about something), and overnight again to Capetown. Transport to our hotel met us as arranged. Capetown airport is on the Cape Flats, inshore from False Bay and on the far side of Table Mountain from downtown. The freeway on the way in gives a good and depressing view of Mitchell Plains, the Cape Coloured township. ('Township' is the term used for separate non-white housing areas.) The much larger black township, Khayelitsha, is further out.

Our hotel was the Breakwater Lodge, plain and reasonable at about US$56 per night. It is a converted prison, which was used to house the involuntary labour building the breakwater. It is about a mile south of downtown Capetown, in the Victoria and Alfred (not Albert) Waterfront, an up-scale, heavily patrolled, and totally secure shopping centre. It is a good place to start South Africa and recover from jet lag. Alfred was Victoria's son, who initiated the breakwater by tipping the first load of fill.

On the principle 'Don't give in to jet lag; keep moving until local night-fall', we set out to explore the V.& A. waterfront. Pedestrian crossings here are combined with speed-bumps, a good idea. It is a working harbour, although this is secondary to the restaurants and shops. The water is clean, as indicated by the cape fur seals swimming in it. A small platform has been provided near the Robben Island ferry, where they can haul out and come and go as they wish. A young one had grievous propeller wounds. A signpost has pointers to various spots, Vancouver, B.C. at 16912 km is the furthest. The South Pole, by contrast, is only 5000 km away. We were a long way from home.

We had lunch at a stall, but unfortunately we were their first customers, and their chips were cooked as the fat warmed up. A red-winged starling accepted a few, but then pointedly wiped the grease off the sides of his beak. Then it started to rain and we adjourned to a bookstore. We had a bird book, but needed something for the wild-flowers. Here we had a problem, as the South African flora is so diverse you need a library, with a different book for each area. In the end, we were able to put a name to more birds than flowers, even though Tom is a botanist by training. Books are extremely expensive in South Africa.

Our daughter Katherine and her husband Don were due to meet us, but their flight out of Miami was cancelled by Hurricane Floyd. They arrived in the evening, only slightly delayed, as Don had kept in touch with South African Airlines through the Internet and was better informed about substitute flights than his travel agent. Don had lined up the B.&B.'s and car rental for the first part of our trip, all through the Internet.

The next morning, looking for a reasonable place to eat breakfast, we ran into the Harbour Master. While quite an important official, he was very friendly and pointed us towards Vicki's, where we had breakfast for the rest of our stay in Capetown. After breakfast, we headed toward downtown. Walking was not recommended, although it is not far. We took a city bus, after a wait, while we turned down offers from the 'unofficial' ones. The city transit company had gone bankrupt a year or two ago and were only gradually restoring the routes. The main street is Adderley, aimed at Table Mountain. Capetown looks like any other modern city these days. Bulldozing the lively Cape Coloured quarter and transporting its people to Mitchell Plains was surely one of the most ill-conceived notions of the previous regime. At the top of Adderley are the Company Gardens, where the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) raised vegetables for the fleet, now a fine park. There is a prominent statue of Cecil Rhodes, not perhaps the nicest person, but certainly one whose tracks you find all over southern Africa. At the Cultural History Museum, we saw the very first books published in Afrikaans, ironically by Cape Coloured slaves and printed in Arabic script. Major components of the Cape Coloured blood-lines were political prisoners exiled by the Dutch from what is now Indonesia. For our return to the Breakwater, there was no sign of the city bus, so we took an unofficial one. We had an anxious moment at the back when we passed our fares forward to the driver and everybody seemed to make change for themselves in complex ways as they passed them on, but it all worked out O.K.

Next morning, the weather improved, cold wind but clearing. We arranged at the tourist bureau for Rikki's Taxi, which took us at 8 rand/person to the Lower Table Cable Station. The view from the top was breathtaking -- Capetown, Robben Island, the coast north towards Langebaan, the mountains of the interior, Cape Flats, the Cape, and the coast south from Capetown. Tom was very confused until he realized that he subconsciously was orienting himself by the sun, and the sun was now in the North! An easy couple of miles over the limestone plateau took us to the cairn at McLear's Beacon, the high point at 1086 meters. This was our first encounter with fynbos, the astonishingly diverse flora characteristic of the Cape area. It is so called because many of the plants, like heather and rushes, have fine, narrow leaves. There are 250 more species of flowering plants on Table Mountain than are found in all Britain! The most conspicuous flowers belong the endemic family Proteaceae, with wider leaves: examples are the sunshine cone flower (Leucodendron strobolinum) and the king protea (Protea cyanoides). At McLear's Don and Tom took video footage of an orange-breasted sunbird displaying from a high spot, while his lady gathered nesting material from a tomentose plant -- women's work? This was the first of many, many different kinds of sunbird (nectar feeders) we saw on the trip. Back at the cable station, we had lunch and watched the dassies. These look rather like large guinea pigs, but actually their closest relative is thought to be the elephant.

It was easy to catch a regular taxi back from the Lower Station for 10 rand/person. At the Victoria and Alfred, Don and Katherine window-shopped for tanzanite, about which they are knowledgeable, while Tom studied a clever chess set, which obviously contained a good deal of political comment, most of which got by him. The black king was Nelson Mandela, the black queen Winnie M., and the black bishop Desmond Tutu. Obvious. The white king was F. Klerk, naturally, but the white queen was a female impersonator ?? (Maans told us later that he was famous for his impersonation of an Afrikaaner woman.) The black pawns were MK types in camouflage, carrying AK-47's, looking as if they had just come down out of the trees, while the white pawns were policemen who looked as if they had stepped out of 1984. We finished with a fine seafood dinner at Morton's, relatively expensive by South African standards.

Next morning was another beautiful day. After breakfast at Vicki's, we found that Rikki's taxi was not operating on Sunday, so the hotel phoned for Seal Point Taxi. This delivered us to Kirstenbosch Gardens for the agreed 70 rand, even though the meter said 79. Kirstenbosch, some distance around the northern corner of Table Mountain, was owned by Cecil Rhodes. The avenue of camphorwood trees he planted there are now quite impressive, the hedge planted by van Riebeeck in 1660 to keep the rascally Hottentots and their cattle out of 'his' gardens, less so. One could spend a few weeks here, learning the South African flora, notably many, many Proteaceae and fields of composites, salted with modern sculpture. The endemic Cape clawless otter, now on the brink of extinction, is represented by a realistic bronze in a lily pool. When the time came to go home, we found that Sunday afternoon meant a complete absence of public transport and taxis. The lady in the office was not very helpful, apparently thinking that anybody stupid enough not to arrange their transport in advance on a Sunday afternoon deserved to walk. Fortunately we had kept Seal Point Taxi's card, they were answering their phone, and they came to get us. Dinner was OK at the Treadmill, attached to the Breakwater. (No, they do not put you on one if your credit card maxes out).