Monday, July 6, 2015

Calling on Cape Town--What an Incredible Introduction!

Tuesday, July 6, 2015: Cape Town Calling

            Occasionally on a holiday one comes across a day when everything just falls perfectly in place and you are made to feel as if you enjoyed every second. That was the sort of day we had today. Indeed we made the discovery that Cape Town’s beauty is not all hype. It is a gorgeous city—blessed by natural scenery, the perfect location and ingenious urban planning that has allowed the city to develop naturally amidst a stunning backdrop.

 Superb Breakfast at Victoria and Alfred Hotel:

           The breakfast buffet in the lobby of our hotel was stupendous. Not just were we dazzled by the Continental offerings: fruit, yogurts, cereals galore, cold cuts, cheeses, an array of baked goods and preserves but when we were seated at a table overlooking the Waterfront, a waitress informed me that we could choose a cooked breakfast from the menu. Gosh! I was glad I had restricted myself to a croissant with preserves for starters. I opted for the Florentine: English muffins with scrambled eggs, spinach, smoked salmon and hollandaise sauce. It was substantial and it was delicious and I could barely finish it. If this is the kind of breakfast I can anticipate for the next two mornings, I shall be waking up early to do justice to it! Oh and there was sparkling wine too—just in case you wanted to have a champagne brunch—well, sort of

 Obtaining Tickets for Robben Island:

            The ability to take an excursion to Robben Island, off the Cape Town mainland, was the reason why we had broken off from the rest of our party that had elected to stay on at the Victoria Falls for another day. Hence, Llew and I were on our own as we raced off to get tickets for the ferry that runs only three times a day to the island from the V&A Waterfront. Because this is a very popular attraction, we had our fingers crossed in the hopes of getting tickets. Furthermore, in the winter, much depends on the weather. If the sea is too choppy, the ferries do not depart.

            With a lot hanging on luck, we approached the ticket booth in the lovely structure on the waterfront that houses a small exhibition on the country’s Long Walk to Freedom. Although tickets for the 9.00 am ferry were all sold out (we were at the booth by 8. 30 am), we could have bought tickets for the 11.00 or 1.00 pm ferries. We chose the latter as we thought it would be best to complete the next item on our agenda and then return to the waterfront at 12.30 pm to board our ferry. Overall we paid 300 Rand each (approximately $25). This included the cost of the ferry ride to and fro as well as entrance to the island prison and the services of trained tour guides. With our tickets safely in our pockets, we left, feeling highly elated that we had managed to snag them at such short notice.

 The Hop On, Hop Off Red Bus Tour:

            Perfect planning and boarding locations all in the vicinity of the waterfront left us with adequate time to get to the Main Boarding Dock for the Hop On Hop Off Red Bus which I do believe is one of the greatest boons to the international traveler with budget time in any big city. At just 270 Rand per head for a 2-day Pass, we were equipped with tickets that would take us to the spots that Cape Town Tourism refers to, jocularly, as the Big Six—those six highlights that are Must-See Spots. We were handed earbuds for the commentary that plays in a continual loop and introduces the visitor to the history and culture of the city.

            With just a few minutes to spare, we were able to board the very first bus of the day which departed at 9.00 am from the First Stop. Seated on the upper deck at the very front, we had picture window seats that afforded brilliant views of the city on a glorious day. Indeed, we had fully lucked out with the weather and could not have asked for a better day. It was a bit chilly but we were well-clad in layers (as advised by all the guide books).

 Off to Table Mountain—One of the Big Six:

            We stayed on the bus through the first six stops during which we were spun around the dockside, the harbor, the commercial downtown area, the old colonial artery called Herrengracht, etc.—each street was filled with historic sculptural figures before we arrived at Stop 7—the stop for the climb up Table Mountain which is South Africa’s third most famous attraction (after the V&A Waterfront and Kruger National Park). We had the good sense to buy our tickets for the Cable Way Ride from the Hop On Hop Off bus driver—this eliminated a long wait in the queue at the venue. The drive up to Table Mountain was also lovely with beautiful Cape floral vegetation providing beauty and interest at every twist and turn.

            The Bus Stop was right opposite the Cable Car Dock and within minutes we were inside one of the pods and being whisked up the mountain. Table Mountain is so-called because it has a flat, mesa-like top. It is an unmistakable land mass that is visible from almost anywhere in Cape Town. In about 20 minutes, we were at the very top after a lovely ride that took us higher and higher up the side of the mountain as the city with its glorious coast line receded behind us. Having recently done an almost identical trip up the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, I have to say it was still an exciting experience.

            Once up on Table Mountain, the visitor can spend as much or as little time as desired. You can circumnavigate the summit on a beautifully paved pathway that is landscaped skillfully to blend in with the granite rocks that compose the mountain’s mass. We walked along it and took so many pictures as each vista was equally stunning. Because the day was so clear and not obscured by the cleverly named “Tablecloth”—a cloud mass that often hides the summit as well as the landscape below—we could see all the way down the Horn of Africa to the point where you have the confluence of two major oceans—the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic.  This is the famed Cape of Good Hope that was named by the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias in 1488 when he became the first European to catch sight of it. Although he merely skirted the Cape and found his way to the other side of the continent of Africa en route to the East, the Portuguese neither claimed South Africa for Portugal nor colonized it. Had they done so, it would have become another Brazil. Today, it is possible to travel by road for about an hour to get to what is called “Cape Point”, the southernmost tip of Africa…but I am not sure that we will find the conveyance to get us there. Hopefully tomorrow…fingers crossed.

            Be that as it may, we were fully enthralled by the sights offered of Cape Town and the Eastern and Western Cape stretching all the way to the famed vineyards that have put South Africa on wine-lovers’ maps. We also saw Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated and where we would be headed very shortly.

            Many pictures and about an hour later, we took the Cable Car down to the base of the mountain and jumped right back into the Hop On, Hop Off bus that happened to have just arrived to drop passengers off and pick us up.

 A Lovely Tour of the Cape:

            With an hour and a half to go before we were required to show up at the Waterfront for our ferry to Robben Island, we decided to stay on the Hop On Hop Off bus for the entire route until it returned us to its starting point.

            It was simply the best idea for the tour we received and the commentary provided was so enlightening and the scenes we saw so beguiling that we were well and truly seduced by the glory of this city. From the urban neatness of commercial centers we moved to the outer affluent suburbs where the houses are so striking and the new wealth of the people so impressive that we were amazed at every stage. We passed breathtaking Camps Bay which reminded us a lot of Bondi Beach in Australia and other coastal settlements such as Bantry Bay (its namesake is in Ireland) and Sea Point with their lighthouses and hang gliders and other visual delights before we arrived again at the starting point.

Indeed Cape Town is all about new money and we could completely understand why it is now one of the BRICS nations poised to make a mark on the world financial scene. And yet, there is so much thought and respect for the eco systems and the environment in this region which one just does not see in Indian cities such Bombay and Delhi where haphazard development has ruined everything. The drive provided a fabulous overview of the city and its environs. Once again I felt very grateful for the Hop On Hop Off bus services which are such a boon to foreign visitors in global cities. 

 Exploring the V&A Waterfront:

            With about 45 minutes to spare before we boarded our ferry to Robben Island, we used time wisely by touring the V&A Waterfront. This fascinating area with a long and colorful history had fallen into terrible disuse. But then Cape Town was inspired by San Francisco and Sydney and decided to convert the area into a major tourist attraction by constructing the sort of art, entertainment and gourmet center that would make it a magnet to visitors of every age. 

            And indeed they have done so brilliantly. Table Mountain presents a grand backdrop for an area that is studded with boutique hotels, specialty restaurants, gift and souvenir shops, sporting facilities such as water skiing, canoeing, etc. entertainments such as helicopter rides, whale-watching, Cape rides, etc—you name it, they have it. What’s more, there is an equivalent of the London Eye—a giant ferris wheel that is called the Cape Wheel. It is easily visible right outside the window of our hotel room and at just 100 Rand a ticket (about $8), we decided that we would take a ride in it—a first time for both of us for although we have seen this wheel in many cities, we have never actually ridden it. But the ride would have to wait until the end of the day for it ran until 7.00 pm.

            Having contented ourselves with a good look around the Waterfront, we felt deeply grateful for the amazingly convenient location of our hotel and its easy access to every attraction. Indeed we could walk everywhere and did not need to rely on local public transport to get from one spot to the next.

 A Poignant Tour of Robben Island:

            At 12.30 pm, we joined a long line of people eager to board the 1.00 pm ferry for the 45 minute ride to Robben Island. It was while on the ferry that we learned that the Dias, the name of our boat, is the oldest ferry still in commission today and that it was the same one used to ferry prisoners as well as their rare visitors to the island. The ride was gorgeous. As the city receded, we were treated to lovely views of Table Mountain and the beautiful buildings that make up the urban landscape. After about half an hour, Robben Island came into sight.

            At the island, we were placed in tour coaches each of which was equipped with a tour guide. Our guide was a lovely young black South African woman who introduced us to the Island and its historical beginnings as a leper colony before it became a penal colony. As the bus spun around the vast island, we were grateful for the transport provided as it was simply too sprawling to be covered on foot. We realized that it was in the early 20th century that it was first used to house political prisoners although criminals were also housed here. As part of the tour, we passed by the maximum security prison buildings that were built by the prisoners themselves, the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd (which belongs to the Church of England) as opposed to all other land which belongs to the state. We also stopped at the Limestone Quarry where prisoners were subjected to 8 hours of hard manual labor that involved breaking limestone chunks. It caused the prisoners terrible health hazards such as damage to their eyes and lungs from the stone dust as well as bleeding of their fingers for oftentimes digging was done with bare hands. Ironically enough, the stones they broke were not used at all. They were merely transported from one place to another on the island as the only idea was to subject the prisoners to perpetual untold hardship.

            At the final building, we got off the bus and were placed in the hands of another guide who turned out to be a former prisoner himself. It is worth noting that the prison was closed down in 1991 and, a few years later, turned into a museum and a memorial to those who lost their lives there. Mandela was a prisoner here from the 1960s until 1982. The guide who took over—the former prisoner--informed us that he had been incarcerated for having participated in the Soweto Uprising of the 1974s in Johannesburg. He had been in the prison for a few years and had known Mandela himself. It was his job to take us around the building, introduce us to the various sections where prisoners ate, slept, had their individual cells, were allowed to get out and walk for an hour per day in open courtyards. In one such courtyard, Mandela managed to write his book and was also able to smuggle it out of the prison through his Indian friend Mac Maharaj (who was later appointed as a Minister in Mandela’s first Cabinet). We were told about the beatings and other tortures to which the prisoners were subjected and the ways in which they were kept subservient to the wishes of the regime that segregated them on the basis of their grade as A,B, C or D prisoners in order to create dissension and jealousy among them. We were also informed about the stringency of the diet and meagre provisions to which prisoners were entitled. Finally, it was the efforts of the International Red Cross that improved diet and sleeping conditions for the prisoners and also allowed them the luxury of metal beds and mattresses. 

            Needless to say, the piece de resistance of our tour was the visit to the actual cell that Mandela had occupied for several years—Cell Number 7 in F Block. We saw the thin mattress on which he slept on the floor, the tin plate and mug from which he ate and drank, the bucket that served as his toilet. It was indeed quite pathetic and it filled me with sadness. It is indeed such a manifestation of the greatness of the human spirit that it can withstand so much hardship and deprivation and not become embittered.

            At 4.00 pm at the end of the tour, we boarded another ferry called the Sea Princess—a sleeker, newer, faster vessel, for the return ride to the mainland. It had been a wonderful introduction to the work of Mandela and his creation of a new, apartheid-free South Africa based on the concepts of Freedom, Hope, Reconciliation and Forgiveness--and it is these principles that have enabled South Africa to become a Rainbow Nation—a visible symbol of the manner in which people can live in harmony together towards common goals irrespective of their race or skin color.

            On our way back to the mainland, we saw a nice variety of wild sea life. Apart from seagulls that were plentiful, we saw dozens on black cormorants, gleaming seals lounging sluggishly in the sun and even, get this, two huge white whales who frolicked in the water, much to our delight.

 A Lovely Canal Cruise:

            Having arrived at the Waterfront at 4. 45 pm, we had precisely 15 minutes to walk to the Embarking Pier for the City Canal Cruise which is part and parcel of our Hop On Hop Off Bus tour. Needless to say, we raced off to get to the Pier on time and managed to board the last boat of the day by the skin of our teeth.

            The cruise was truly charming. For anyone who has taken a canal cruise in Bruges in Belgium or in Amsterdam in Holland, this would feel like a repeat treat. Progress through the canal is very slow so that passengers can feast their eyes upon the lovely apartment condos that have sprouted on the canal banks—clearly South Africa’s yuppies have a taste now for the good life and they are out to grab a piece of the pie while the economy is still thriving. We passed by a number of slow bridges, mainly in the commercial area with its many skyscrapers. And always, there was Table Mountain seemingly breathing down on visitors and providing a focal point of perspective.      

            The Canal cruise ended at a hotel called The One and Only which apparently opened to much fanfare in 2009 and whose spa is the last word in luxury

 A Ride on the Cape Wheel:

            It was about 6 pm by the time our boat docked at the V&A Waterfront right opposite the Victoria Wharf mall which was the site for those wishing to take a ride on the Cape Wheel. But before we boarded, we got side tracked into entering the mall in search of a bottle of wine. We found a good South African organic Cabernet Sauvignon and with that and a bar of Lindt dark chocolate with hazelnuts, we planned to have ourselves a pre-dinner drink in our room.

            The Cape Wheel was fun especially as we boarded it while the city lights were slowly being turned on and darkness fell. As our enclosed glass pod climbed higher, we were treated to one of Africa’s spectacular sunset—all swirls of dazzling red and steel grey. We took many pictures as we switched sides in the pod. My growing fear of heights put me in a tizzy for a few minutes but when I saw that although it was very high off the ground, the wheel did not turn fast at all, I felt less apprehensive. Indeed, there was nothing fear-inducing about it. It was a great first time experience and one we would gladly repeat again.

Home Again…well, Hotel Again:

            The end of the Cape Wheel ride brought us back to our room in the hotel where we shared a bottle of wine and nibbled on trail mix which I had carried from home to keep a rumbling tummy at bay. In about an hour, our friends arrived from the Victoria Falls and as they checked into our hotel, Llew and I strolled down to the food court at the Victoria Wharf for fast food in the form of Chicken Shwarma and Lamb Wraps from an Egyptian chain called Anat—but sadly that was the only disappointing part of our day for both items were absolutely tasteless. Our friends joined us in about half an hour and we spent the rest of the evening in their company recounting our day to them as they told us about their extra day at Vic Falls. It turns out that we were both happy with the way our respective days went and could not feel more satisfied.

            There was nothing more to do but return to our hotel for hot showers and a cool bed. And that was precisely what we did as we called it a night. Byt the end of our incredible day, we had covered three out of the Big Six Must-Do Items: Table Mountain, the V&A Waterfront and Robben Island. If we plan meticulously and used good time-management, we'll probably be able to squeeze in the other three tomorrow--A Tour of the Constantia Nek Vineyards, Cape Point, The Historic District including the District Six Museum... 

          Until tomorrow, cheerio…        


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