Day #9,473: One of the things that struck me most about Africa- this being my very first international trip- was the lack of warnings. No ‘Stay Back From Cliff!’ or ‘Slippery, No Running!’ or ‘May Cause Cancer!’ South Africa requires you to be adult about things; it expects you’ll make sane choices and leaves you to deal with the consequences if you don’t. Which is why when there is a South African sign, adults pay heed.
As soon as the green walking man signaled our turn to Go, the locals next to us WENT. As in, women in suits and heels took off running across the street. Mr. M & I exchanged a brief & confused glance but stepped off the curb and started walking. Our honeymoon very nearly ended when an impatient motorist came within inches of running us down. Like Spiderman told Peter Griffin (wait… doesn’t everyone get their life wisdom from Family Guy?): Everybody gets One.
Having used up our one save, all subsequent Cape Town streets were, indeed, crossed quickly (read: me running at top speed… the onset of the green walking man may well have been the starter gun at a sprinting race). And all subsequent signs were prudently respected.
Once we made it down to the V&A Waterfront (alive!), we boarded a ferry to Robben Island, the infamous prison that held Nelson Mandela- the first president of democratic SA- for twenty years. The half hour ferry ride over was beautiful. We watched Cape Town recede in the distance and certainly appreciated why it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The tour of Robben Island- at least at the time- consisted of two parts: a bus tour to give an overview of the island and a walking tour to see the inside of some of the buildings. From the ferry, we were loaded directly onto our bus, and a slight man with a quiet voice and a bit of a stoop boarded and quietly talked to the driver in a language I didn’t understand. The electric hum of anxious tourists began to compete with the roar of the old diesel bus. And the slight man at the front of the bus faced us and began to talk.
He told us about the history of Robben Island. The first political prisoners were brought to the island in 1961 for advocating racial equality; all were black. The last political prisoners were ferried back to the mainland in 1991, and six years later, Robben Island became a World Heritage Site for the role it played in South Africa’s rejection of the apartheid regime. We drove to the blinding white lime quarry where the prisoners were forced to do hard labor and where Mandela came up with many of his political manifestos.
We drove by the house where Robert Sobukwe, one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, was kept in total isolation, 24hrs a day, for six years.
As the bus passed another row of barracks, the man pointed out the cell that had once been his. He knew how many bars his door had and how many cracks were on his ceiling. He knew the smell of ocean that the morning breeze brought through his tiny window and the shadows that would appear each night.
All of the guides and drivers at Robben Island are ex-prisoners or ex-guards. Their reasons for returning were varied: some couldn’t find work after being imprisoned for so long, some needed closure, and some felt returning was necessary for the rebuilding of the nation after apartheid. The man quietly described how difficult it was willfully returning to the island day after day when just a few years before, he would have given anything just to leave. He wiped at his eyes, overcome with memories.
I cried and hugged him as we got off the bus, but it wasn’t enough. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but continue to tell the story.
After returning to the mainland, we decided to visit Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. We drove up to the Lower Cable Station and parked our rental car amidst a line of others pulled off along the side of the road. As soon as we got out, an enterprising man approached and informed us of the “fee” for parking along the side of the road, which he would accept in cash, and which we all understood in reality to be the fee for him not slashing our tires. Not needing a sign to spell that one out, we promptly paid up, the man winked at us, and we returned a couple hours later to find the man gone and our ride in perfect condition. And so works Africa.
I nearly peed my pants as the gondola lifted away from the earth and clutched Mr. M with a death-grip the entire way up.
The views from the top of Table Mountain were stunning. We walked an easy trail around the top of the plateau to see alll the way around the city, which hugs the mountain base.
It was so beautiful. I need to learn to have faith that a little fear always yields great things.
Following our trusty guidebook in the hopes of trying pan-African cuisine, we went for dinner in an art gallery-slash-restaurant aptly named Africa Cafe. It ended up being one of the most magnificent dining spaces I’ve ever seen.
The entire two-story restaurant is decorated with local art made from recycled trash (called Township Art, after the miles and miles of poor, underdeveloped urban areas- called townships- that surround Cape Town). Billowing ostrich-like chandeliers made from strips of plastic liter bottles… mosaic landscapes crafted from packaging scraps… and a three-dimensional, life-sized leopard made from wire and colored beads.
I love that township art uses materials thought to be worse than worthless and transforms them into things of beauty. It seems like such a metaphor for the rebirth of the country itself, no?
Africa Café is like an amazing dinner at the home of the coolest friend you have. There’s no need to order, as communal plates of every dish are brought out for the table to try.
At the end, the lovely girls are happy to bring you seconds- or thirds, or fourths- of anything you especially enjoyed. Mr. M & I are solid eaters and could barely get through the initial sampling. Rooibos tea from South Africa, Madagascar prawns, East African spanakopita-type pastries with coconut cream and spinach, a rich bean stew from the spice island of Zanzibar, Kenyan coffee with dessert. Dinner lasted for hours and was positively exquisite.
Two weeks later, back home and studying for veterinary school exams, I called Mr. M who was away on business. I was bummed to be back in the real world and missed him and spending my days chasing adventure. He told me to go to his dresser and to open up the top drawer. And inside, I found this:
Another little sign from the heart of South Africa.
Details of the Day:
Truth be told, I’m nervous putting up practical guidelines because I know the city has changed dramatically since the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Nonetheless…
At the time, our hotel warned us that it wasn’t safe to drive ourselves after dark to the Cape Heritage Square area where Africa Café is located. We didn’t notice any particular seedy feeling, but we also went straight from our taxi into the building. I can only imagine Shortmarket Street and the surrounds were gussied up before the World Cup, so, as Africa itself would tell you: you’re an adult, use your best judgment.
Dinner cost around $40 for the two of us, including a massive tip, which was an absolute steal for the evening. Although a quick search online shows that Africa Café now has a website and quite the following on tripadvisor (how the times have changed!), so prices have likely- and rightly- gone way up.
Tips & Tricks:
Apparently, you can hike to the top of Table Mountain, but it’s a Serious Climb. Complete with baboons. Given the choice between baboons and gravity-defying cable cars, I’ll always choose the latter. For reasons that shall be saved for another post, I have a very healthy respect for the creatures… and their 2-inch canines.
One last tip that may not need to be said, but… Cross Quickly.
**For a great movie and a wonderful take on the musical environment of South Africa before the fall of apartheid, see the documentary out now called “Searching for Sugar Man.” It tells the tale of 1970’s American folk musician Rodriguez, who was virtually unknown here in the U.S. but helped inspire the people of South Africa to rise up against their government and overthrow apartheid. It’s an indie flick, so sadly, it may not be offered where you are, but if it is- go! **