Johnny's Journeys: Cape Town
Written by Johnny Fugitt
Africa: Part 1 of 4. Historic Cape Town
“This cape is a most stately thing, and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.”
Sir Francis Drake (1580)
Cape Town’s history is rich, conflicted and timely. So much has happened in the last 30 years that bygone eras are remembered by many, not simply imagined from the stories of generations past.
Influenced by the Dutch and British, the colonization of Cape Town mirrored, in many ways, the colonization of the New World. Cape Town’s Castle of Good Hope (more fort than castle) is reminiscent of outposts such as Fort Ticonderoga in upper New York. Slaves were imported to Cape Town from places such as Madagascar, Mozambique and Indonesia to provide agricultural labor that built Cape Town into a bustling trading hub.
My base for exploring historic Cape Town was the centrally-located Taj Hotel. Catty-corner from the hotel sits parliament, where, among other famous moments in history, the ‘Architect of Apartheid’ and Prime Minister of South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd, was assassinated in 1966. Directly across the street from the hotel, next to Parliament, is St. George’s Cathedral where Archbishop Desmond Tutu led peaceful protests against apartheid. The Taj’s concierge scheduled a tour of parliament for me and I learned much from a guided walking tour. I enjoyed learning about Cape Town’s history, but the tour, provided by the hotel, can also be tailored to highlight the city’s culinary landscape, architecture or art scene.
I attended a Sunday Evensong at St. George’s Cathedral where the topic was forgiveness and the promotion of racial harmony. Mandela was quoted numerous times and his presence permeated Cape Town as his image and words were seemingly everywhere (granted, I visited during what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday). In hearing of the dreams and challenges of moving South Africa forward as a peaceful, united nation, I wondered if these were the sorts of religious teachings given in the US on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement.
Unbeknownst to me prior to this trip, Cape Town isn’t actually right at the Cape. I rented a car for a somewhat hair-raising drive around mountain-clinging asphalt bends to the southwestern tip of Africa. With stunning reliefs, beautiful beaches, and exotic wildlife (like penguins!), it was a lovely trip. Starting from a lighthouse standing tall about a mile away, I walked towards the Cape where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
Safety standards in much of the world are not what they are in the US (which are often excessive, anyway), but the safety implements of a portion of this trail actually seemed contrary to the hiker’s wellbeing. Most of the trail was simply dirt and sand. A portion of the trail – that nearest a tall cliff – had a wooden walkway. There was no handrail, only a rail about six inches above the wooden path. The only interaction one could possibly have with this rail is to trip over it. I guess if one is going to fall off a cliff, one might as well do a few cartwheels on the way down. I didn’t fall for this South African booby trap, and made it to the rocky, windy Cape. To honor the scurvy-ridden sailors who sailed around this continental corner over the centuries, I planned to enjoy an orange upon the completion of my trek. The many signs warning about baboons made me reconsider. I enjoyed the orange upon my return the parking lot, keeping an eye out for the much-publicized primate pickpockets.
Back at the Taj, I explored another layer of Cape Town’s history. There are deep Indian influences in South Africa from the shared British influence, generations of Indian immigrants and centuries of traders who stopped at both countries along their voyages. You may also remember that Gandhi spent many of his formative years in South Africa. Outlets of the India-based Taj Hotels may be called upon throughout the world, with many inhabiting historic addresses and landmark properties. Outside visiting one of their marquee locations in India, Cape Town was the perfect place to experience this brand. The rooms reflect traditional British service and luxury, while the spa offers Indian-inspired treatments - a necessity after long flights from the US. We all need a little break while on vacation – whether that be a moment to ourselves or a few minutes to rest our soles. The Taj Club, with afternoon hors d’oeuvres and drinks, is a comfortable way to unwind between civic excursions and dinner. Bombay Brasserie, the hotel’s signature restaurant, sacrifices neither approachability or authenticity by elevating Indian cuisine. Try the tasting menu – the Basil ‘Tulsi’ Prawns, no doubt fresh from the sea, were superb.
Issues of safety are well-known by travelers to South Africa. I learned much of this reputation comes from Johannesburg on the other side of the country. Normal urban precautions are, of course, recommended for Cape Town – like not leaving vehicular valuables in sight – but I traipsed through the city both early and late and never felt threatened.
There’s something about those less-recalcitrant colonies and their friendliness. We like to poke fun at Canadians for their politeness. I’ve never met an Aussie I didn’t like, and I found South Africans to be quite friendly with a demonstrated zest for life. I met a small group on a morning trip up Lion’s Head who welcomed me, as a lone hiker, into their caravan. As I purchased what appeared to be the most authentic South African brand of coffee beans at the supermarket, the middle-aged cashier shared that her grandfather used to drink the same brand.
There are plenty of other museums and sights in and around Cape Town. Robben Island, with the famous prison upon it, is imperative. Table Mountain is iconic. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is highly praised and landscapes of the city are breathtaking. If you’re like me and need a break from all the usual spots, a simple stroll down Cape Town’s streets is sure to uncover interesting tidbits of culture, history, nature and beauty.
Complimenting its many layers of history, Cape Town has become a modern city. I’m going to circle back to that after chronicling Victoria Falls and an African Safari. These closing words from Mandela, while not intended necessarily for the traveler, became the motto for the rest of my trip: “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”