Early in January 1999 my husband learned he needed to have his right shoulder replaced. He was 45 years old, and arthritis meant he’d already undergone two hip replacements. The bad news was there was no surgeon in Zimbabwe qualified to tackle this procedure, so we had to travel outside the country for the operation. The good news was that one of the world’s top shoulder specialists lived in Cape Town, a city we’d heard so much about from people who’d been there. At that time Zimbabwe was still six months away from it’s descent into the tragedy it is today, so it was easy to make the appointment with the surgeon, arrange the expenses with our medical aid company, book the air tickets and contact a friend who’d been transferred there a few years earlier to request accommodation. It took six weeks to get everything arranged, and early in March we boarded the flight from Harare to Johannesburg, and then on to Cape Town.
Our friend Pete was waiting for us at the airport. After we’d collected our luggage we drove to his house. The drive along the highway from the Airport to Cape Town was our introduction to the city we’d be calling home for the next ten days. The highway was in excellent condition, and ran through areas of scrub that flowed away the verges of the road towards distant mountains. However ten minutes later we came across shanty towns that had been erected next to the highway.
They were a shabby reminder than ten years after gaining independence the contrast between the rich and poor has perhaps worsened. The shacks making up the shanty towns were made of every kind of material known to man – corrugated iron sheets and rusty metal sheets combined with wood, cardboard and wire to form an extremely uncomfortable shelter than a family called home. Even more appalling was the fact that many of the shanty houses had run wires to the overhead power lines. This dangerous link was apparently sanctioned by the electricity board – Pete told us that the municipality and the government were failing to keep pace with the demand for houses for the poorer members of society, and preferred to leave the shanty towns intact! A refuse collection service run by the local authority was operating to help keep the shanty towns habitable. We saw a number of shanty towns along the main highways during our stay in Cape Town.
Pete lives in a suburb called Somerset West, and his home was a practical and extremely modern cluster home in a compound of about 30 residences. This style of living is very popular in South Africa, because of security and reduced overheads. The complexes are very well maintained because each owner contributes towards the upkeep and maintenance of the complex. Some complexes offer communal playgrounds for all the resident children, tennis courts and swimming pools. Owners are usually able to keep pets too, because each house has its own private garden. It’s also a perfect way to live in Africa if one needs to travel or go on holiday – neighbours will keep an eye on the house while you are away. My husband and I were so impressed with this way of living that the following year we bought into a cluster complex my then employers were marketing in Harare. When we sold our house in 2003 we reinvested the money in a second cluster home. If one wants to live in Africa security is very important, and a cluster home complex offers the best level of security for residences.
Pete’s a bachelor, so that night he prepared a barbecue in his Weber braai unit. His girlfriend Pat came round to help with the cooking, and we had a wonderful evening. The view from Pete’s house was superb. Somerset West is built on a hill overlooking the city, and the view from his verandah offered the classic Cape Town view – the sprawling city at the foot of majestic Table Mountain, the lighthouse and the Atlantic Ocean. His house had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living room, state of the art kitchen and outside laundry/storeroom. He told us he spends most of his time on his verandah or in his garden.
The next morning we had our appointment with the surgeon, who was a Greek Zimbabwean – Basil Vrettos. After his examination and x-rays he booked us into a private clinic, scheduling the operation for 8.00 the following morning. When we asked husband should go to hospital that evening, Mr Vrettos told us to rather book in at 6.00 the following morning, urging us to spend the day relaxing and walking around Cape Town. He told the operation would take four hours, and that the hospital stay would be just three days! We were delighted. Pete had taken leave to be with us during our stay, so the three of us headed into the city.
Although Cape Town is a city, it’s more organized and environmentally friendly than Johannesburg, and as a result doesn’t sprawl in all directions. Driving into town Table Mountain was clearly visible, and to welcome us that morning it was wearing what locals call The Tablecloth. Although this is simply the white cloud blown over the mountain when a south easterly wind blows, it’s very impressive, and there’s a wonderful tale that has evolved around this phenomenon. A less famous mountain near Table Mountain is called Devil’s Peak, and it’s claimed that a pirate called Van Hunks was living out his days on the slopes of this mountain. One day he met a stranger, who challenged him to a smoking contest. Van Hunks, who was extremely partial to his pipe accepted the challenge, and the tow men spent several days puffing away on their pipes. As the smoke clouds gathered a wind blew them down over Cape Town. Van Hunks won the contest, and the defeated stranger revealed himself to be the Devil. This is how Devil’s Peak got its name, and the cloud of smoke became known as the tablecloth.
Back to our itinerary. We drove to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, one of Cape Town’s most popular tourist attractions. We walked towards the restaurant area, and saw some cape fur seals frolicking around one of the piers. They were so interesting to watch, and seemed to have no fear of the boats and the noise in this very developed section of the harbour. We found a wonderful restaurant right next to the sea, and ate an excellent lunch of calamari, prawns and French friends all washed down with beer and wine. We then walked off our lunch, window shopping in some of the 400 stores that make up the waterfront. We also walked around the craft market and visited the museum before venturing into the Two Oceans Oceanarium, so named because two oceans meet at Cape Town – the icy cold Atlantic Ocean and the warm, tropical Indian Ocean. Later we drove along the coast and stopped at the point where the oceans meet. One would expect to see a distinct change or some indication that designates this meeting point, but there was nothing apart from a wonderful view across the blue ocean waves.
The oceanarium offers a unique display of all marine life. We stood in awe, watching the endangered African Penguins mingling with Rockhopper Penguins and Oystercatchers in a room designed to perfectly mimic their natural habitat – even their water is piped in directly from the sea. There’s also a massive room where visitors look down upon a colony of seas. This room is actually part of the sea, and contains massive barnacle crusted rocks and sandy beaches complete with sea shells. The most exciting moment for me was walking through a clear Perspex tunnel, while sharks and other massive sea species glide silently and stealthily around you. You can watch the sharks being fed while standing in this tunnel, giving you the rather alarming impression that you’re in the sea with them as they eat. We were also able to handle starfish and sea urchins – the oceanarium is renowned for educating children about their natural world, so they have a lot of conducted tours for school parties. I will never forget being told that an octopus is actually an incredibly intelligent creature, and many of the octopi in the oceanarium recognize staff members! Hasn’t stopped me from eating them!
The following morning I dropped my husband off at the hospital, and spent the next couple of days driving between Somerset West and the hospital. The operation went very well, and the nursing care was excellent. My husband had his shoulder capped rather than replaced, because Mr Vrettos said the damage from the arthritis didn’t warrant removal of the shoulder bone. Three days later he was discharged from hospital, the only evidence of his ordeal being the sling on his left arm. To celebrate we decided to visit Table Mountain.
Towering one kilometre above the city, Table Mountain is accessed via cable car, and the journey to the top is spectacular. The car rotates 360 degrees all the way up, affording occupants a unique view of Cape Town. More than 600,000 people travel to the top of Table Mountain every year. Several hikes are available for those fit and energetic enough to climb the mountain – but it takes at least six hours. The top of the mountain is three kilometres long with a lot of clearly signposted natural pathways for visitors to follow. The vegetation is incredible; there are more than 250 different kinds of daisies as well as several plant species that survive and thrive in the unique ecosystem of Table Mountain. There’s a rare wild orchid and the silver tree, which produces the silver protea. The animal life on Table Mountain is varied, including baboons, porcupines and the Table Mountain Ghost Frog. We didn’t see any of these animals, but I did loose my heart to a creature called a rock dassie. It looks like a rabbit-sized guinea pig, and amazingly its closest relative is the elephant. They’re incredibly tame, and have no fear of people. I really wanted to take one home, but husband ignored my rather pathetic pleas! Table Mountain may be one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations, but it’s still a relatively natural site. There one restaurant on the summit as well as a post office where mail is sent bearing the Table Mountain postmark. At the foot of the mountain is a souvenir shop, and I bought a little fridge magnet in the shape of a wine bottle filled with tiny stones from Table Mountain. Today that magnet sits on my fridge door here in Greece.
I should mention a couple of other mountains here. Signal Hill is a relatively flat topped hill with a complete view of the city and the ocean. There’s a cannon on this hill that is a legacy of the British control over the Cape at the end of the 19th century. Originally the cannons were fired to announce the sighting of a ship. Ship sailing to India from Britain would stop over in Cape Town to restock their supplies before continuing their voyage. Today the cannons are fired at noon every day – except Sundays and public holidays. Another name for Signal Hill is the Lion’s Rump. This is because it’s actually a natural extension of a mountain called Leeukop, an Afrikaans name meaning Lion’s Head. From a certain viewpoint this mountain does indeed resemble a lion’s head.
We visited the largest bird sanctuary in Africa, the World of Birds. Home to more than 3000 species of birds visitors walk through the enormous aviaries and experience what it would be like to see these birds in the wild. I recall an enormous hornbill with an affinity for visitors – he would sit on his thick perch calling people to scratch his head. He was at least the height of my torso, and very brightly feathered with an alarmingly large curved beak. The birdlife included eagles, swans, herons, guinea fowl, flamingos and a variety of rare birds from all over the world. World of Birds cares for injured birds, and is a breeding centre for endangered species. The centre is also home to a number of different mammals, and we watched meerkats, squirrels, mongooses, foxes, genet cats and a huge tortoise relaxing in large, very comfortable enclosures. I cannot bear the sight of caged animals, so for me walking through the aviaries and animal enclosures was like being in the wild bush.
No trip to Cape Town is complete without a visit to one of the region’s wineries. South African wine is world famous, and the Cape’s vineyards are well wroth seeing. A number of wine routes are available, but we don’t really being part of a crowd, and because we had an excellent guide in the shape of Pete we took our own route through the Paarl and Constantia districts. We stopped at two excellent wineries. The first one we sat on the verandah of a gracious, old Dutch Gable-style house complimenting glasses of wine with an assortment of delicious cheeses. The second vineyard was called Meerlust, and the reason I remember the name is because of the setting for our wine tasting. They seated us at a gnarled Rhodesian teak table in the wine cellar. Surrounded by hundred of massive kegs of wine we tasted some truly superb merlots, cabernet sauvignon, pinotage and chardonnay. There was also an excellent rose and some fine port. Pete, husband and I bought several bottles to take home with us. On our way back down the winding leafy roads we stopped at a restaurant that was originally a station master’s office. The old building, complete with railway track, was a real piece of vintage memorabilia to the Cape’s rich and varied history.
That evening we went to watch the first international cricket match at Paarl. Sri Lanka was beaten by South Africa in front of 9,000 spectators. A number of players in both teams are still active in today’s cricketing world – Muralitharan, Kallis, Gibbs and Boje are names I remember. It was a day night game, meaning the second innings was played under floodlights and started at about 8.30 pm. There was a lunar eclipse that night – I’d never seen one before, and it was quite impressive, even when viewed without binoculars. Sitting on the grass, drinking wine and eating sausages and syrupy sweet koeksisters (a plaited pastry that is fried and then dipped in syrup) while watching an international cricket game under the stars… even if one isn’t a cricket fan it’s a special experience.
My one regret is that we didn’t get a chance to visit Robben Island. Once used as a leper colony the island is 12 kilometres off the cost, and clearly visible from Table Mountain. During the 19th century Robben Island claimed many ships laden with treasures, and coins have been washed ashore from the shipwrecks. In the latter part of the 20th century Robben Island was notorious as a prison, and one of its most famous inmates was Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in a cell on the island.
We left Cape Town a couple of days later after husband had got the all clear from Dr Vrettos. Having been born and brought up in Zimbabwe I’ve visited several cities in South Africa. Cape Town is absolutely unique, and it’s a city that I would dearly love to call home one day. The combination of the sea and the mountains with the wonderful history make Cape Town a varied and interesting place to visit. Cape Town is completely different to other South African cities like Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria because it’s a truly international city. People from all over the world have chosen to make their homes there. The original settlers of the Cape include the Dutch, the French and the British, all of whom have left their own mark on this wonderful city. We have friends who live in Johannesburg, and they tell us they’re there for the money (Johannesburg is the financial hub of South Africa). Johannesburg residents complain that the people from Cape Town are very laid back because their lives are less stressful. I would agree with that supposition, and I’d go so far as to say I’d choose quality of life over quantity any day. Cape Town is a magnificent vibrant city.