The best kept secret in the universe has to be that Capetown is the world’s most beautiful city. San Francisco and Sydney are impressive, but this South African jewel is simply stunning, so stunning that I think I may have to move here. Over the past week we’ve done a great job of exploring the city’s natural environs, mostly on our own steam and once with Oprah’s people. We leave tonight and I am reluctant to go. There is so much left to explore, so much left to discover.
We first approached Capetown from the north as the sun was setting. Table Mountain sat stolidly in the distance and loomed over the gleaming city like a protective parent. Having grown up in a Rocky Mountain valley, Tom contends there is comfort in the mountains, that they have a cradling effect which lends a sense of peace and safety to the soul. Personally, I find my peace in the ocean, but now, in this place where mountain meets sea, I’ve begun to understand what he means.
The home we chose for the week, SaltyCrax Backpackers/Surf Lodge, is located in the suburb of Table View, which as the name implies, boasts a spectacular view of the mountain. Every time we emerge from our little neighborhood and the mountain appears on the horizon, Kieran shouts, “There’s the Table Mountain. They call it that because it looks like a table, right?” as if each new view is the first time he has seen it. This is Capetown in a nutshell: a surprise around every turn, beauty from every angle.
On our first venture down the peninsula, we took the famed Chapman’s Peak drive, which scales the western edge of the mountain and then crossed from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean side. We battled the crowds that had gathered in Simon’s Town for the Naval Festival and made our way to Boulders Beach, home to one of the world’s few mainland penguin colonies. The small, noisy birds were once known as jackass penguins because of the distinct “hee haw” noise they make but were recently given the more delicate name of African penguin. After spending some time with them, the kids decided the former name is more accurate. Eager to play with the flightless avians, they approached them with the usual sweet talk and extended hands, but in return got only pecks (McKane bled) and retreat. We reminded the kids that they were after all wild animals, not pets, but there was no changing their minds, “Nope, they call them jacka…es because they’re stupid.” Far more cuddly yet equally hard to pin down were the rock dassies that scampered in and out of the shrubbery they shared with the penguins. We had told Kieran that these overgrown guinea pigs are the closest living relative of the elephant, but once we learned why, we decided to keep the reason to ourselves. If you’re really interested and over 18, you can do a little research of your own.
The following day we drove back down the Boulders side of the cape all the way to the National Park that covers the southern tip. My heart skips a beat as I recall the scenery here, where ocean meets ocean and land meets sea from countless angles. The ground throughout the park is covered with over 1,000 varieties of plant peculiar to the Cape region known as fynbos, the Afrikaans word for “fine bush.” They are naturally low growing and as such afford unobscured vistas for miles in every direction. As we drove, we peered out at the cold, ominous waters of the Atlantic Ocean on our left and the warm, swirling waters of the Indian Ocean on our right. We drove to the farthest reach of the park, Cape Point, or “the southwesternmost point in Africa” and scaled the steps to the lighthouse. Here, where over the centuries intrepid explorers have rounded the continent and countless ships have met their demise, we gazed out across blue skies to take in the southern coast of South Africa in one direction and conjured images of Antarctica to the south and South America to the west. The kids were more impressed by the baboons who prowl the parking lot below, but their mother will forever hold this most spectacular of views in her mind forever.
Just two days later we ventured up to Table Mountain to tape our segment for The Oprah Winfrey Show. We met our field producer, Lionel, and his assistant, Blaise, at the base and rode the cable car to the top. Now we were deprived of our usual view because we were perched on top of it. The forecast for the week had been for low wind and clouds every day except this one, and we soon found the wind to be daunting and the temperature cold. At first we worried our visit would be cut short since they ring the “hooter” and scuttle tourists down when the fabled “Cape Doctor” wind grows too strong, but luckily this didn’t happen until it was time for us to descend. In hindsight, we can’t imagine visiting the mountain under quiet conditions, because the show Mother Nature put on for us was well worth the temporary chill. The “tablecloth” was laid as clouds raced across the mountain top and cascaded down the northern slopes. Lionel filmed Kieran and Asher racing across a small bridge, mouths agape in an effort to “eat the clouds” as they blew by.
After an hour of exploring, the little kids were ready for a break. I took them into the restaurant while Tom and the big boys suited up for their big abseil. Tom and I thought about duking it out for the right to accompany Dax and McKane, but I deferred without a fight since I got to abseil in New Zealand. For a moment I considered making Dax stay behind to watch Kieran and Asher, since he would be bungy jumping later in the week, but I realized that doing so could be dangerous since we were a few hundred meters up and he’s prone to distraction.
A few hours later and we were back down at the base prepping for our interview with Oprah. The kids panicked when the make up artist curled my hair, but she assured them it was “just for body” and that the curls would fall by the time we shot. Whether they did, I’m not sure. (You’ll have to let me know how I looked.) They positioned us and before we knew it, Oprah was asking us questions from a box on the floor. Having made many trips to South Africa herself, the last being just a week before, she told us she had been photographed in the precise spot where we were standing.
Our time in front of the camera was a blur and suddenly we were back in the van, with our driver/bodyguard, Theo, descending the mountain toward our hotel. We collapsed with exhaustion from our 15 minutes of fame (it might be more like 4 when the segment actually airs), frantically emailed our producer in Chicago to make sure we hadn’t failed her, and tried to recover our energy for the following day. She called and assured us that we had performed admirably, so we slept well, some of us dreaming of future Hollywood careers.
The next morning we returned to reality and our lives as travelers. We packed up the van…I mean the two cars the rental car company had brought for us to use until they swapped the Namibian microbus for Uncle Vito across the border in Keetsmanshoop (say that fast three times!)…and drove to the waterfront where were scheduled to join a tour of Robben Island, the windswept patch of land across the harbor where Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s most famous political prisoners were jailed. Our boat, the Susan Kruger (when I die please do not name a barge or a tugboat after me), plowed through the choppy ocean waters and afforded fantastic views first of the distant island and then of Table Mountain and the city in the background.
While there is no denying the power of the place, I had a hard time focusing on the suffering that occurred there. The prison buildings were small and clean, while the cells inside had windows that let the radiant Cape sunlight spill in. We’ve visited many other prisons–Alcatraz in San Francisco, Fremantle prison outside Perth, Australia, Hoa Lo in Hanoi–each dark, dreary, and haunting. Robben Island was none of these. As with the rest of Capetown, the physical beauty of the place overwhelms the bleakness it was meant to inspire. Even the prison staff recognized this during the facility’s tenure. When the inmates’ speed in mining lime from the southern coast of the island was slower than desired, the warden decided it was because they were spending too much time gazing across the water at Table Mountain. He then moved them inland where the view was restricted to stone and trees.
At least on one account, the inmates were able to fight back and recapture some of the beauty the warden tried to deny them. When a wall was built in front of the B block cells inhabited by Mandela, thereby eclipsing his view, he successfully appealed to have a garden installed. The pink bougainvillea planted for him inhabits the courtyard to this day.
I do not mean to diminish the importance of Robben Island in South Africa’s history nor the gravity of what went on there. Apartheid and its legacy are complicated subjects we’ll address in an upcoming post. I do, however, want others to understand that even those made to bear the burdens and injustice of the system in the confines of this isolated prison took comfort in the natural splendor of their surroundings. I don’t know many places where this would be true. And given that fact, how much more fulfillment must it bring to those who are free to explore it.
Oh, Capetown, we will most definitely be back. The only question is how soon.
Technorati Tags: Abseiling, African Penguins, Boulders Beach, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, Capetown, Family travel, Fynbos, Jackass Penguins, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Robben Island, Rock Dassies, Table Mountain