In central Cape Town a bloke giving directions says, “Turn left at the robot.”
Left at the robot, you say?
I imagine a bored cyborg stood at the corner waiting for the dawn of the machines. Eventually he will rust and kids swing on his arms. The bloke tells me robot is Afrikaans for traffic lights.
Cape Town, in southern South Africa, is a small, windy, attractive city filled with robots. It’s also one of the few cities with a mountain wedged right in the middle, like someone parking a sixpack in an ant colony.
When an Aussie travel agent promises you a hotel room with “views of Table Mountain”, ask what else it’s got going for it, because there is no avoiding the bastard. And it doesn’t look like a table either. Table Mountain may be flat, but it looks more like someone’s sliced the top off a big witch’s hat in an act of highly specific road rage. If some nancy boy from a reality-TV show came round my house and made me a table like that, I’d… well, I wouldn’t thank him for it, that’s all.
The top of the mountain is 10 degrees colder than ground level, about 500 knots windier and only worth getting up there for the view (unless you really like grass and small lizards and falling over rocks). Sometimes, weird climatic conditions up here create a single cloud overhead, like the one that used to follow Charlie Brown about when he was depressed. Locals call it “The tablecloth”. Those who’ve just spent good money on the cable car and can’t see jack, call it “a freaking nuisance”.
But on a good day the views are great. In the distance is Table Bay and Robben Island, the old prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years, mining lime with his bare hands, and living in a cell about the size of a wardrobe. Down below you can see practically the whole of Cape Town, partly because you are a thousand metres up, and partly because there’s not much of it.
The centre of town is like Perth crossed with Brisbane, with added street-stalls selling CDs and house phones. It’s one of the few African cities you can walk around without too much fear of being mugged (if you walk around Nairobi at night, for example, the chance of meeting a man with a rusty blade and crazy eyes currently hovers around 100 per cent). Just like Perth, there aren’t many real skyscrapers (although if you frame the shot just right, you can make it look like New York), and some of those aren’t trying very hard. The South African Life Assurance Corporation building must have last been cleaned back when Mrs Mandela was hoping little Nels would amount to something.
One of the things to remember about Cape Town is that it isn’t Johannesburg. Johannesburg has the highest crime rate on earth. It makes Sydney’s troubled suburbs look like an Amish picnic. Jo’burg’s contribution to the world is the phrase “carjack”. The relationship between Capetonians and, er, Jo’Burgians is like that between Sydney and Melbourne, but worse. Cape locals say the letters “GP” at the end of a Jo’burg licence plate really stands for “Gangsta’s Paradise”.
Which is not to say Cape Town’s crime stats are all that great. The doors on my hire car automatically lock at the start of every journey. Many houses have a big security sign screwed to the front wall promising you an “armed response”. One of them even has “armed and medical response”, so they can shoot you and get you all better again.
The roads can be pretty criminal, too. If locals want to pass someone, they drive right up their backside until they are forced onto the hard shoulder. Utes bomb around with at least two blokes sat casually in the back tray having a chat. Once, I pass a crash-site featuring a similar ute, with the two blokes from the back now lying casually in the road, dead.
At robots, people weave between cars, selling papers, peaches or rubbish bags, or just holding up signs asking for work. If they’re feeling salty, they walk up the hard shoulder into incoming traffic pushing a shopping trolley, or carrying something big like an old carpet or 15 melons. In car parks, “official stewards” offer to watch my car for a tip. I pay up, knowing how “watch” could easily turn into “take away”.
Cape Town is also full of God and burnt meat. I pass a church where the sign says, “God spoke, Bang, it happened.” TV programs have blaspheming edited out, which makes you realise how many times Americans say, “Oh, my Gaaard”. Friends is filled with long dramatic pauses followed by unexplained laughter. At least it makes me realise why my deaf grandad was so angry all the time.
You haven’t really been to South Africa unless you’ve had a braai. A braai is a barbecue invented by carnivores in the Iron Age. There are no tongs (they belong to the Tong Age, which was before the enlightened Barbie Master era); just a big iron double-grill, in which meat is helplessly trapped and cooked over flaming coals for a very long time. Eventually you are presented with a section of black chicken, a very long, curled sausage that looks like something produced by a huge artistic dog, and a bottle of Castle lager.
To see where rich (mainly white) South Africans hang out, head west to Camps Bay. This area, famous for its beach, is a sort of Bondi without all those untidy surfers. One local tells me, “It’s all show. Everyone here is up to their ears in debt.” Practically the first car I see is a Ferrari, driving slowly past the palm trees along the beachfront. The beach is a curved oblong of white sand that looks like it’s raked twice a day. On it, people shelter from the strong wind behind orange umbrellas, updating their tans.
The upmarket restaurants over the road are full of sharp-faced blondes tittering into their mobile phones while toying with an Asian salad, and beefy dickheads with sandy eyebrows barking on in a clipped accent about nonexistent overseas business deals. “This satellite can download an entire tetrabyte [sic] every day,” says a red-faced Boer at the next table. “How could I pass that up?”
The other end of the spectrum is the townships. The black and coloured (mixed race) townships contain 2.4 million of Cape Town’s total population of 3.8 million, and have got a terrible reputation. If Joe Tourist wanders into a township wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt, occasionally stopping to hold up large-denomination notes to see what they are, he may not make it out again. It’s the danger-level equivalent of invading a meeting of militant feminists and shouting, “Who’s going to do my ironing?”
In 1993 American volunteer Amy Biehl drove three friends back to their homes in the black township Guguletu. Unfortunately, her white face was spotted by a mob of angry blacks, who dragged her from the car, beat and stabbed her. Today, a little cross shows where it happened. Amazingly, following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which rather a lot of rapists, murderers and bent cops got let off, two of Amy’s killers now work for the foundation set up by her parents. This is a bit like Ivan Milat heading a commission on backpacker safety.
Now that apartheid is, like, so yesterday, the atmosphere in the townships is calmer, although you’re still advised to get a guided minibus tour. Thanks to the new government, those in tin and cardboard shacks now know that, eventually, they will get their own home with running water, and maybe even a job. In a black township like Guguletu, the crime rate is surprisingly low, because the community likes to administer its own, traditional justice. Captured criminals are taken to the community leader, where the sentence can range from being made to walk down the street naked, to the somewhat harsher “get beaten to death”. Our guide says he’d witnessed the latter only the previous day.
Another tribal tradition still practiced in black townships is the rite of passage from boy to man, at 18.
In western society, your dad might help you celebrate your birthday by taking you down the brothel, then the pub, where he slurs bitter advice about women as you try and drink a straight double-whisky. In some African tribes, however, you are sent away to the bush where you build a shelter and wait for some ham-fisted elder with a blunt cutting instrument to circumcise you. You then have a month to stay alive and recover from your wounds. Even today, some kids die because of a lousy, unsterilised foreskin-removal. In Gugulethu I see sad patches of scrubland masquerading as “bush”, where 18-year-old lads sit outside plastic-sheeted shelters, looking massively pissed off.
As the name suggests, Cape Town is at the tip of Africa, just north of the Cape of Good Hope. The drive south takes you past Simon’s Town, which is worth mentioning for its work in the penguin community. A nature reserve called Boulders is your chance to see a beaut colony of tiny African penguins, all busy trying to stay upright in the wind, messing around in the sea or marching up the beach for a lie down. On the next beach over you can see extremely fat South Africans doing roughly the same.
An hour further on is the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, which features more grass and rocks, the odd snake, and baboons sat in the road picking fleas off each other. Tourists are warned to keep their windows up in case the apes climb in and start wrecking things, or worse, back-seat driving.
Finally, I come to the end of the great continent of Africa, where there is, for your convenience, a car park and gift shop. Here, the land stops and the cold Atlantic to the west and warm Indian Ocean to the east finally crash into into each other. It is the most disappointing event imaginable.
When two mighty oceans meet, nothing happens whatsoever. There is no join. There’s not even a helpful sign. It’s just some sea and then some more sea. I know this because the thick fog lifted long enough to show it.
A waiter in the handy tourist restaurant says they get fog at the Cape “about three days a year”. So that’s nice. But he has his own problems. The day before, a gust of wind took all the notes out of the till and blew them over the electrified baboon fence into the bushes. From time to time scared-looking staff jump over the fence and grab money from a tree before jumping back again. If you ever see a baboon wearing a new suit and smoking a cigar, you’ll know why.
In the car park Japanese are reduced to filming each other because there’s no view. Fat tourists are jumping in their hire cars and tearing off back through the nature reserve in a fog-fuelled fury. The funicular railway up to the old lighthouse breaks down. I sit in the unmoving plastic carriage while the fog closes in. After five minutes I wish someone would turn the page. It feels like one of those sensory deprivation exercises they put combat pilots through.
Eventually I get out and climb the hill to the lighthouse. It is windy and cold. Somewhere out there are two oceans looking like one ocean. I take a picture of the fog where it would have been. A Swede give me the benefit of his Scandinavian sense of humour. “Nice view, eh? Ha ha.” I punch his face in.
No I don’t. I get in the car and drive back to Cape Town to find a pub.
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