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april 10th, 2004 -> Cape ’d Crusaders : south africa

Note to Readers: Please do not declare a jihad against me for my use of the word ‘crusade.’ The title is a play on words relating our time in Cape Town to Batman’s nickname. No reference to the 11 th and 12th century Christian campaigns to rid the Holy Land of Muslims is intended.

As we traveled through Africa, I often thought of reaching Cape Town, looking up at Table Mountain, and thinking about the great mass of Africa – so much of which we had just passed through - expanding behind it. I had romantically assumed that: 1) Cape Town looks south, and that 2) it was the southernmost point of Africa. Wrong on two counts. Cape Town and its harbor face – oddly – northwest. Behind Table Mountain, the Cape Peninsula drops reluctantly into the South Atlantic. And neither Cape Town nor the tip of the Cape Peninsula is the southernmost point of Africa. That honor goes to Cape Agulhas – the official meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans – which lies 176km southeast of Cape Town.

Cape Town was first settled by the Dutch in 1652, when Jan van Riebeek established a colony whose primary aim was to re-provision Dutch ships at the half-way point of the long journey between the Netherlands and the Far East. The Dutch were far from the first to round the Cape, however. The legendary Portuguese mariners, Bartholomew Dias and Vasco de Gama, sailed past in 1487 and 1497, respectively, planting their tiny nation’s flag on vast holdings in Africa and Asia. Only in 1798, after more than 150 (nearly unbroken) years of Dutch control, did the British wrest the Cape colony away for good (or bad, depending on who you ask.)

Cape Town is beautiful. I liked it immediately. Though the discovery of gold and diamonds in the late 1800’s would lead to the meteoric rise of Johannesburg as the commercial capital of South Africa, Cape Town remains the nation’s most lustrous city. It sits in the bowl of a natural amphitheater formed by Table Mountain, Lion Rock and the ocean. A string of seaside villages, bays and beaches stretched to the southeast. At Cape Point, the tip of the peninsula, throngs of tourists scampered up past baboon brigands to look out across the South Atlantic. There were great hiking trails everywhere. On the weekend, the extraordinary Botanical Gardens were full of families and friends picnicking among giant aloes and fruiting trees. The city had both natural beauty and urban energy – a rare combination in cities of this size.

We had been very lucky with our accommodation. Nori had found a perfect little place near the waterfront, but it was fully booked. The owner recommended that we call his friend, Jacqui, who also rented out rooms. Jacqui’s home sat on a quiet road between Main and High Street, in the ritzy suburb of Sea Point. The shops and restaurants of Main Street were minutes away. The Waterfront was a ten-minute walk. She pampered us like VIPs, though her rates were very reasonable. Our new friends (Manisha and Akshay, whom we met in Namibia) also stayed a few days. She cooked a fantastic ‘braai’ (Afrikaans for barbecue) for us and our friends (including the Brazilian honeymooners whom we had also met in Namibia.) Breakfast was an elaborate affair. She wanted us to have the best experience in Cape Town possible, and spent a lot of time explaining where to go and what to see. At her suggestion, we had an amazing meal at Panama Jack’s – a wharfside shack that had expanded into an incredible seafood restaurant. Only locals and a few tourists in the know were there.

The very touristy, but undeniably attractive V&A Waterfront sprawled along the harbor. The multi-story mall and its glass-roofed atriums were a world away from the flyblown markets of East Africa. It was so big that there were several businesses with two locations. Adjacent to the mall was a large area of restaurants, many centering their menus on the abundance of fresh seafood. Buskers danced, sang and ate fire. The V&A is also a working waterfront. Tourists making their way to the Robben Island ferry pier must often wait at the swinging bridge for boats to pass. Sea lions cavort in the water next to the fishing boats. One morning, we headed to the Waterfront early and caught the ferry to Robben Island (you must book in advance), one of South Africa’s most famous – and poignant – tourist attractions.

Nelson Mandela was Robben Island’s most famous inmate, but he shared the gaol with hundreds of prisoners: both political and criminal. A former inmate took us through the prison, showed us the block where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, and told us stories of his own imprisonment. Few of the tourists were black. Many were white South Africans. I was waiting for our guide to drop the bomb: to lambaste the apartheid government, to pillory the whites. I actually wanted to see them cringe the way I do when I watch “The Color Purple” or “Amistad,” or the way Aussies do when they watch “The Rabbit-Proof Fence.” But it never came. The guide let the grim prison and the inmate’s framed photos and personal recollections do the talking. This was, I realized later, Reconciliation: a gift to South Africa from Nelson Mandela himself.