Discovering a New Continent

Cape Town (14 – 19 May 2014)

Having so much free time earlier this year made me terribly restless. Why not go see more of the world instead of moping around at home? But where shall I go? All that travelling last year had allowed me to see four continents. Besides Antarctica, the continent that I had not set foot on yet was Africa. I could of course do the safe thing and visit Europe again. Or I could finally satisfy my curiosity and visit Africa. Which part of Africa then? As usual, having too many choices confuses me.

An ex-colleague had told me about Thompsons Holidays with whom she had booked her safari tour a few years ago. She enjoyed herself and said that I could try them. After some research, I decided to book a tour of Namibia with Thompsons. It was a group tour I had booked myself on but I decided that I was going to try to be sociable for once. I imagined the wide open spaces of Africa and thought that I would die of loneliness travelling alone in that sort of place.

Since I had to fly into Johannesburg in order to get to Namibia,  I decided to see South Africa too. I suppose I could have stopped over in Joburg but Cape Town sounded like a better choice for my introduction of Africa. Table Mountain also looked like a nice place to visit for some reason. So I made the detour.

I had chosen to stay at the Rouge on Rose because of the fantastic reviews on Tripadvisor and the fact that it was in the colourful and interesting Bo-Kaap area. This little area used to be a township of the Cape Malays and is today a centre of Cape Malay culture in South Africa. The Cape Malays were I had learnt not really all Malay. They might as well have been called the Cape Muslims. The foundation of the group was Malay but there are Cape Malays who may have non-Malay Muslim heritage from India, Pakistan, Indonesia or even Morocco.

In any case, coming from Tanah Melayu myself, the area hardly felt Malay to me. But I loved the colours of the buildings there.

Bo Kaap

Bo Kaap

Bo Kaap

Bo Kaap

There is a small Bo-Kaap Museum in the area which has a small collection of Cape Malay artefacts and pictures. It was not a substantial collection but I suppose it was a place to go to have a look at something Cape Malay after having seen all the colourful houses.

The Rouge on Rose is one of the colourful houses in the Bo-Kaap area and definitely worthy of all the praises heaped on it on Tripadvisor. It is a boutique hotel and very well run by a mother and son pair. I mostly saw the mother Ursula (I refer to her as Big Mama for her strong no-nonsense motherly personality) and she was fantastic to talk to. The rooms were to my surprise huge and comfortable and breakfast was delicious. I felt quite proud of myself for making such a good find.

My room

Being at the centre of Cape Malay culture however also means that there are a number of mosques in the area. Every morning at about 6 am I would be awakened by the call of the muezzin.

Nevertheless, I would not consider Bo-Kaap an entirely safe place. The area felt a little unsafe even in the daytime. My hotel however was at the edge of the area and so I did not have to cross it to get to other places. At night someone would be stationed at the junction outside the hotel to guard the area.

I was wandering around Bo-Kaap one late afternoon when I was practically followed back to the hotel by this dodgy looking man. He kept calling out to me but I refused to answer until I was safely at the gate of the hotel. Then curiosity got the better of me and we started this little conversation. I found out that he was from Zimbabwe and he told me, after I had told him where I was from, that he had been to Singapore before except that he got deported almost immediately upon arrival. He had gone there to seek refugee status. It never occurred to me that anyone would want to be a refugee in Singapore and I was a little surprised that he had even heard of Singapore, that little insignificant piece of rock somewhere out there. The man then asked me for a gift but I rejected him with as bright a smile as I could muster. He did not press the issue however but wished me a good holiday with a good natured smile. He did seem like a nice man.

Big Mama was however not too impressed with what I had done and gave me a mock spank for having spoken to that “stray”. She had warned me never to speak to strangers and not trust anyone. It may sound harsh but she meant well. Big Mama did not seem like someone who would mince words.

I had not forgotten Big Mama’s advice of course. It was just that having reached the hotel gate I felt safe and so thought that it would be fine to find out what he was all about. The situation was totally different however on Sunday afternoon when the city seemed to have shut down completely. I was on my way back to the hotel from the V&A Waterfront and decided to take a route that I thought would be the shortest. I had left the waterfront area no more than two minutes when this man came up to me and asked for money. I sort of freaked out and almost screamed like a little girl. It was absolutely quiet where we were and I was not sure that I could have defeated him in a fight. I turned back immediately and walked very quickly back to the waterfront. I am not sure why I did not run. The man seemed quite upset with my reaction and followed me for about a hundred metres or so. I could vaguely hear his protest about my behaviour, that he just wanted to talk to me and I was in his country, but I did not feel like I could trust him at all. Maybe I had overreacted, but it was better to err on the side of caution I think.

Actually Africa had always seemed as dangerous as, if not more than, South America to me even before I had even gone there. I learnt that South Africa itself was not doing too well and unemployment was a big issue. About a quarter of its people was jobless. Unemployment is never a good thing and desperation can easily make one turn to crime. As I travelled through the city, it was not hard to see groups of men sitting around by the road waiting for work. Anyone who needed some ad hoc work done could hire them. The men sitting around on the streets however all seemed to be black. After all these years there was still much inequality in the country for various reasons.

Big Mama was quite disappointed with the state of affairs not just in her country but the entire continent. She challenged me to name one country in all of Africa that was actually doing well and I was stumped. She also told me that she was a victim of crime. A group of Nigerian men had tried to rob her of her Rolex watch but the feisty woman somehow managed to fight them off without losing her watch although she was injured in the process.

I was also quite shocked to hear from Big Mama that the current South African president did not consider education to be important at all. Apparently he was only educated up to, was it, eighth grade, and since he could become president he believed that education was not all that important after all.

As with almost every other country in Africa, South Africa’s history is filled with stories of exploitation and suffering. The same old story played itself out in South Africa: peoples from an alien continent came, robbed the locals of their lands, then enslaved the locals and treated them worse than animals. Sub-plots of that old story can fill entire libraries, but a quick summary of South Africa’s version of that story can be discovered at the Slave Lodge. The building was used as a slave lodge by the Dutch East India Company between 1679 and 1811. Now it is a museum showcasing the history of slavery in the country and in Cape Town particularly.

Slave Lodge

There is a video shown in the museum that talks about the role that the building had played in enslaving the local people. I will never forget that scene where a little child was taken away from her mother like a calf from a cow. The mother was devastated. The kidnapper was expressionless.

The Slave Lodge also hosts temporary exhibitions. There was one on the music of the Apartheid during my visit. They reminded me immensely of the negro spirituals I had heard as a teenager as both types of music served the purposes of rallying, informing and encouraging a downtrodden people. There was a lively one that sent out a strong message of protest. One song, “Meadowlands”, was written in response to the forced relocation of black South Africans to the township called Meadowlands. Even the name of the township sounds so very wrong.

To me the Apartheid is an important event in world history because it symbolises the cruelty that human beings are capable of wreaking on each other. In this case it was mainly on the basis of skin colour and a misguided sense of superiority that one race had over another. It is also to me a representation of how a group of apparently churchgoing people could act all pious in church but be shamelessly racist at the same time. Even the Pharisees who had caused Jesus to be crucified might have been better behaved.

Cape Town hosts one very important monument commemorating the events of the Apartheid. Robben Island was first used as a prison island by the Dutch. During the Apartheid many political prisoners were kept there. The most famous of these was Nelson Mandela. Nowadays the island is a museum and can be visited on guided tours.

The tour starts from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront where visitors queue up to board a ferry to the island. The ride takes about 40 minutes. Once on the island, visitors are split into two groups for the two parts of the tour. One starts at the cell blocks and the other starts with the island bus tour and then the two groups switch over after their respective tours.

Nelson Mandela Gateway

Entrance to Robben Island

Robben Island cell blocks

Inside one of the cell blocks

The guides of the cell blocks tours are former inmates of the prison. I had the same feeling about him as I had with the North Korean lady I had met on my Panmunjom tour who had escaped to South Korea. He is a living monument and having him around made the tour feel more special and alive.

The guide

The cell block tour also included a quick visit to Mandela’s former cell. The block looked really new and modern and I wonder if it had always been like that or did they have it renovated for tourism.

Cell block where Mandela was kept

Mandela’s former cell

The other part of the tour was a ride on a bus to see some of the other buildings on the island.

Leper graveyard

Robert Sobukwe House (where the man was kept in solitary confinement)

Limestone quarry

Guest House (former Commissioner’s House)

View of Table Mountain from Robben Island

I do think that I had made a worthwhile visit, but I wish the tour had been conducted better. Although I am not expecting the cell blocks guide to be a great orator I thought that he could have gone into greater detail on what life was like as a prisoner on Robben Island. I do remember him talking about how some disobedient prisoners were punished by having dogs set on them. But when not being punished, or working at the limestone quarry, what did they do? How did they interact with each other? What did they eat? Were they allowed any leisure time? As for the bus tour, the guide tried her best to entertain us. It was however just a ride through the island. There was no chance to visit the buildings properly. I also thought that my whole visit to the island felt somewhat frantic. The tour seems to be more suitable for people who are already quite familiar with the history of the Apartheid.

Putting aside all those stories of oppression and poverty however, South Africa is gorgeous. Its natural wealth is astounding. The Cape Floristic Region which is entirely within the country is the smallest floral kingdom in the world in terms of geographical expanse but probably the most diverse. The region consists mainly of vegetation referred to as fynbos. The species here most familiar to me are the proteas and aloes.

The floristic wealth of South Africa can be enjoyed at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and Table Mountain National Park which consists of the areas around Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula.

Kirstenbosch is located at the foot of Table Mountain but is not part of the national park. It is noteworthy for only cultivating indigenous plants.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

I booked a tour of the Cape of Good Hope through Big Mama and got to see more of South Africa’s gorgeous landscapes and wilderness. It was a pity though that the tour did not include a walk through the fynbos as it looked so gorgeous and inviting. I will want to ramble through the fynbos some day.

Maiden’s Cove

Africa is of course more famous for its animals than its plants and there were plenty of chances to see them during my Cape tour. The seals of Hout Bay are something of a tourist attraction.

Feeding seals for tips at Hout Bay

Hout Bay

A baboon along the way

For the first time in my life I saw wild baboons and ostriches. We were warned by our guide that the baboons would leave us alone unless they could smell food on us. The ostriches were also quite harmless although when I saw some running in my direction I got a little worried. Fortunately it was not me they were interested in.

Ostriches running wild at the Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

I found the whole “The Most South-Western Point of the African Continent” claim a little contrived. Not that I doubt its scientific accuracy, and indeed I am not qualified to refute it. However, it felt like a claim the authorities had come up with because there was nothing more substantial to lure tourists there with. In any case I think that the scenery there was good enough reason to warrant my visit.

Cape of Good Hope

Lighthouse on Cape of Good Hope (I was almost 10,000 km away from home.)

Penguins on Boulder Beach

Danger however lurks in the gorgeous blue sea around the Cape area. There have been a number of tragic episodes of fatal shark attacks in years past. The stories told to us by the guide were quite gruesome. They invariably ended with mangled bodies being fished out of the sea.

I met a couple from Germany while on the Cape tour. The husband, P, was of Indian origin but had been working in Stuttgart for some years now. He met and married a German lady, U, while over there. They were staying just across the road in Bo-Kaap and that evening after the tour I joined them and P’s colleague B for dinner at the Africa Cafe. It was a colourful restaurant near Bo-Kaap serving traditional African dishes. The food was tasty although nothing as exotic as I had expected, or hoped. The servers even entertained us with a surprise African song and dance performance in the middle of dinner. It was quite an enjoyable evening.

Dinner at the African Cafe

Entertainment at dinner

Later that night we walked around nearby for a bit hoping to find a place to get some drinks. I still do not think that it was a good idea wandering around so late at night although the streets were rather crowded then, being a Saturday night, and I did see a few police cars around. There were four of us but I really wonder if we could have won a fight with desperate robbers if we were to meet any. I wonder what Big Mama would have said to our little night walk.

And then there is Table Mountain of course. It is possible to get to the top of the mountain without having to kill oneself with a hike up by taking a cable car. I have heard of people hiking up in an hour and a half, like P and U, but I think I would have needed at least five.

Cable car going up Table Mountain

Table Mountain top

There is not a lot to see on the top of the mountain itself but the view from up there was quite awesome.

View from Table Mountain

View from Table Mountain

There were a number of dassies running about on Table Mountain and apparently they are the closest living relative of the elephant. A check on Wikipedia however revealed that this claim is not accepted by everyone. In any case, it is still related to the elephant even though it hardly looks like an elephant.


Lower slopes of Table Mountain

I did come to Cape Town expecting a modern city but I had not expected to see so much natural beauty. I am grateful that Big Mama had suggested the Cape tour to me because it was that natural beauty that really made the country stand out for me. South Africa is so much more than Mandela and the Apartheid.

Lion’s Head

Camps Bay

Sea Point (The strong wind from the sea bounced off the buildings and bent the trees)

South African Nobel Peace Prize laureates at V&A Waterfront

V&A Waterfront

Houses of Parliament

The African Madonna in Anglican St George’s Cathedral

View of Table Mountain from the sea