Snout of Africa, Part II – Cape Town

Table Mountain, overlooking the Waterfront. Cape Town, last week

It was dark, and nobody else was up in the hotel when we left the hotel – apart from the legion of black workers that made it tick. Travelling back north towards the airport, the sun was trying to break through the misty clouds over the hillsides. What little traffic there was on the highway had slowed, as police lights rotated in the morning dusk ahead. Anticipating a potential lion attack, or anything even vaguely safari-ish, it was a disappointing, yet bizarre sight: a pick-up truck had gone over the left hand side guardrail, down the ditch and was on its corrugated nose like a cigar in an ashtray. Nobody was hurt, as everybody seemed to be wondering how on Earth he had done it without anyone being near him.

As mentioned previously, as well as the stadia being improved for the FIFA 2010 World Cup (copyrighted and trademarked, naturally), the infrastructure had an upgrade too. The airport was clean, modern and easily navigable. However, the local British Airways internal flight that had been booked for us at short notice, was not. It was a short stop to Port Elizabeth, then onwards to Cape Town. Our passengers were a mixed lot; a guy who had what looked like a Flymo strimmer wrapped in bubble-wrap, that he insisted sat next to him. Or the bloke who had six fishing rods, and two kids that saw his arse when he wasn’t allowed to sit in emergency aisle with obviously dangerous obstacles (and fishing rods). And lastly the black guy on our aisle that stared, rather unconvincingly, at us throughout the flight, with a pink, woollen ski hat perched on his head. As the flight went on, it rose further, until by the time we landed in Port Elizabeth he looked like a baby’s bottle full of Coke.

Port Elizabeth, from the air anyway, looked like landing in the set of The Sullivans. It looked at least 50 years older than the rest of the developed World, and a land where time and modernity was yet to pollute a purer, easier time. As our winged bus was stopping to literally let people off and on, a line of rather robust young women made their way past, prompting my colleague to remark “if I was in a bar with any of this lot, the only line I could think of would be “Excuse me, love, what d’you bench?”” Their shovel-sized hands could have swiped the face off his skull with a single swing.

Cape Castle

We were entering the land of the giants, or so it felt. The scale of Cape Town strikes you, as soon as the decent begins – the breathtaking, awesome sight of Table Mountain rears over the city, and the coastline that stretches for miles in both directions beneath it. I was informed that the weather was about to turn, so if I wanted any snaps, take them today, as it’s unlikely to be so pleasant for the rest of the weekend.

After dropping bags off, we had work to do. Our first stop was Cape Castle, the oldest fort in South Africa, that nestles in the heart of the city that has grown around it. Built between 1666-79 by the Dutch, it still operates as a military house to this day, though the soldiers defending it didn’t look that fierce. After a meeting there, we headed back to our hotel at the Waterfront complex, a collection of hotels, restaurants and shops that have regenerated an old, disused harbour and is the central location to meet for middle and upper-middle classes. We stayed close to the hotel that evening, as the day had been long enough, and the following day was going to be longer.

Table Mountain, from Cape Castle, before the clouds descended.

We awoke to no mountain. In fact, we couldn’t even see the legs of the table, as it was covered with a grey tablecloth of cloud. The weather had descended, and the wind and rain was lashing off the cape with some force. And it settled in for the remaining time we were in South Africa. The ferocity of the weather was not what we had in mind, even knowing what a Mancunian summer can be like. It was foul, and the rain fell at all angles, rendering any attempts to stay dry outdoors redundant.

But, even when hurrying was a necessity, the pace of Cape Town life was clear – our colleagues from Johannesburg that had joined us, were constantly lamenting the lack of urgency that the costal life had infected everyone with. Although, it was a change of pace that I grew to appreciate. After what seemed an interminable wait, we were to dine. A local steakhouse was chosen, and whilst thought about selecting the warthog or bison, I went for a decent beef fillet. When I say ‘decent’, what I received was possibly the finest steak I have eaten. And it was under a tenner. The food I had eaten in the country was excellent and cheap, and the wine was exceptional. And price-wise was incredible value for money, even in the only-eat-in-when-on-expenses type of restaurant we were in.

The best steak I’ve eaten. 100%.

However, as the wine flowed, the linguistic barriers became higher. My colleague has 6 jokes and, according to Unicef (long story), 3 of them are “ok” – one of them is the line that “statistically, 6 out of 7 dwarves are not Happy.” Whilst this in itself is not very funny, but correct, listening to a colleague try and deliver this line for about 20 minutes became in itself possibly the highpoint of the trip.

By this point, the accent, in its 100% natural habitat actually softens considerably, to the point of being bizarrely soothing. Until, of course, the laughter is cut in half with a well placed, and succinct ‘Fack orrfff!” But our hosts were wonderful people, and their company suggested that a return to this intriguing country was well worth considering.

But, whilst corporate Cape Town tells you little to many other cities around the World, it is the local knowledge that shows you what is going on. Whether that is the up-the-stairs-behind-locked-gated-doors of cool streetwear store Shelf Life, or the bars and restaurants of Long Street, having a host that knows the streets helps enormously. Whilst it doesn’t have the danger of Jo’burg, you still have to keep your wits about you.

So when I found myself in a bar called Cabana late at night, I was a little uneasy. Not because it was what would be described locally as ‘multi-cultural’, but that it was heaving, and my rump-shaking/grinding to R’n’B is not what it ever was, could be, or ever will be once the locals got going.  Plus I hate R’n’B. You can smoke in Cape Town bars, and this one was heavy with a layer of forehead-height smoke and the sense of drunken fun that could give way to menace in a snapshot.

I very much doubt it. Cape Town, last Saturday

Sensing this, we left after a single drink and made our exit swiftly and anonymously. Outside, a girl was being restrained by security, kicking and screaming for her phone which she had left in the bar. They weren’t buying it, and she was drunkenly swearing her way in to the arms of the waiting police vans, wearily watching the same episode that happens on most high streets on Saturday nights all over the place. “I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes” my female colleague informed me.

“Really, why is that?”

“Cos you can’t be sure she’ll be seen again…”

This tough justice is the line the local enforcement have had to take, in order to balance the economic growth, with that of a simmering crime level. As I said, it isn’t dangerous as it is portrayed in the European media, and to visit in summer I can imagine is a joy. The people – intelligent, charming, and excellent hosts – added to breathtaking scenery, wineries within an hour and beaches that I can only imagine are a joy to lie on, have put this city firmly on my revisit list.

And, knowing that the following day we had a punishing 15 hour flight from Cape Town to China, leaving became rather difficult to comprehend. In the course of 5 days, my opinion of this country had changed and returning is now a definite, not a possibility. 100%.

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