Well, after a mammoth 18 hours of travelling, from 4pm on Saturday, when I boarded my flight in Cape Town, to 11am yesterday, when I landed at Heathrow, I arrived back in a rainy and freezing England yesterday. After a shower, cup of tea, takeaway curry and a good night’s sleep, I feel that I have now returned to my normal self and I just plucked up the courage to check my google reader – *gasp* – well over 500 posts to catch up on! This will take me some time!
In short, I had an amazing time. Absolutely amazing. South Africa is a stunningly beautiful country and waking up in the morning to blazing sunshine IN MARCH is enough to make any English person quiver with excitement. Leaving the airport I had my first experience of the real South Africa – a township, stretching as far as the eye could see, runs along the side of the motorway for miles on the way to Somerset West, where my friend lives. I couldn’t believe that in a country that appears so Westernised, there are literally millions of people who, just because of the colour of their skin, are living in shacks made of whatever they can find, mostly corrugated iron and bits of wood, huddled together in such close quarters that personal space must be an alien concept to them. The poverty was eye opening, and humbling, and really rather painful for me to confront. My friend works in a township school, and for the first five days of my stay, I went with her into a more local township where the church she is part of started a school ten years ago. The children in her class were absolutely beautiful, and so bright and excitable. Though many of them are orphans and live in conditions I would find unbearable, they all turn up for school every day, well turned out, with their little rucksacks and big smiles on their faces, ready and willing to learn and have fun. They are so affectionate and lovely, coming up for cuddles, and to play with your hair, and to look at your things, and write you little cards – they are really just the loveliest little children. I was so thankful to have the opportunity to spend time with them and learn from them just what the most important things in life are; certainly not material objects, but having hearts filled with love for other people, and an infectious spirit of fun and enjoyment in life that isn’t hampered by difficult circumstances.
Other than working in the township school I did do a number of touristy things. A local old Dutch house with stunning gardens was a favourite place; it’s called Vergelegen and was rather like a National Trust property, complete with cream teas, which I indulged in twice, despite the use of whipped rather than clotted cream which usually I find unforgiveable. Their saving grace was that the scones were excellent and also very big so I could accept the inferior cream in the face of such good scones. I was also very fortunate to be able to visit Robben Island, which is where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were kept from the 1960s until the 1990s, and is the third biggest penguin colony in the world, apparently. It’s a short ferry ride from Cape Town and I was just totally blown away by the place. We were given a tour by an ex political prisoner who was imprisoned for seven years in a room with forty people and was forced to sleep on a mat on the floor – no beds were issued until the 1980s – and his account of life there was so moving I nearly cried. It humbled me so much to meet a man who cared so much about justice and gaining freedom for his people that he was prepared to spend seven years on Robben Island to gain it. He said it was worth it to now be able to live where he wants, sit where he wants and go where he wants in a country that is no longer segregated by race and hearing that really hit it home to me how demeaning and painful it must have been for black people to literally be prevented from moving freely around and even talking to people just because they were born the ‘wrong’ colour.
I never think about race because I am fortunate to have never come across it as an issue in my own life, but being in South Africa and seeing how racist and segregated the country still is, despite it no longer being an ‘official’ policy, really made me appreciate how much racism is still an issue in the world, and how far we have to go to achieve even a measure of equality of opportunity and treatment for people of all skin colours. In Somerset West where I was staying, there are so many gated developments where rich white people live, literally cut off in a little island of safe wealthiness where they are protected from the ugliness and poverty of the outside world. Streets away is the local township where black people live in squalor, and black people from this township work in the gatehouses of these gated developments, protecting the inhaibtants from intruders. The irony of this disgusted me, and I certainly couldn’t live so hypocritically, with literally the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. For me, it is such a strange way to live, and yet for them, I suppose, it is just normality.
Cape Town itself very much reminded me of New York; lots of skyscrapers, wide streets, and new development, but it has the added beauty of being surrounded by mountains and the sea. It is a breathtakingly beautiful city, that doesn’t appear to be quite real, somehow; the tall skyscrapers rise up against the backdrop of Table Mountain and I just kept thinking it was all superimposed. No other continent but Africa could have such a city, I think! The V&A Waterfront is where most of Cape Town life appears to happen; it’s a complex of shops, restaurants and hotels by the harbour and they’ve done a great job of converting all the old Victorian shipping warehouses to create an aesthetically gorgeous space that is buzzing with people and music and dancing and ships coming in and out; it’s a really magical place. I could have sat there watching the world go by all day, listening to the groups of African traditional singers and musicians and being baked by the scorching sun.
I also travelled round the coast to Cape Point, the southernmost point of Africa, which was beautiful, and I visited Boulders Bay, home to a colony of adorable little penguins and HUGE boulders you have to climb across to get anywhere; as I am far from athletic I now have a big scab on my leg to prove that I climbed them! The beaches there are so clean and white and empty; they stretch on for miles and have a wonderful pale, bleached light about them. I also saw some amazing old towns filled with 19th century colonial villas with clapboarded walls and ornate iron verandahs and balconies; I could almost hear the sounds of horses’ feet and the swishing of ladies’ skirts as of olden days. My favourite seaside town was Kalk Bay, where I ate the BEST BREAD EVER from a place called Olympia Bakery, and I also really liked an old Afrikaans town called Stellenbosch, which has excellent local wine and beautiful colonial houses. Plus, I went to an amazing bookshop by the beach in a small town called Gordon’s Bay, where I found a couple of old 1930’s Dorothy Whipple books as gifts for people for 10 Rand each (about 6p)- it just goes to show, you can find the most unusual things in the most extraordinary of places!
South Africa is a country I will definitely be going back to; I barely scratched the surface and I would love to explore more of the landscape and to meet more of its people. It’s such an interesting place to be; on the one hand, wild and untamed, with mountains dominating the landscape and acres of uninhabited veld and empty beaches straggling along the coastline, and on the other hand, streets of quaint Victorian colonial houses and newly built boxes vying for space alongside townships and shopping malls. I just couldn’t ever quite get my head around it. I was sad to not have time to do things like go on safari, or go hiking up a mountain, or sleep out under the endless star filled African sky; one day, I will have to return to have some more adventures. Despite its unpleasant sides of racism, poverty, and crime, it is still a wonderful, beautiful and vibrant place, filled with passionate and lovely people who adore their country and want to see it changed. It inspired me, enlightened me, and encouraged me and I don’t think I’m the same person I was two weeks ago before I went. As my friend said when I arrived – this country gets under your skin. It really does.
Photos will follow at a later date; unfortunately I had my camera stolen while I was there, and so I am waiting for my friend to send me over her photos. Thankfully it was stolen on the second day of the holiday so I didn’t lose many photos and I have so many I’d love to show you! Images I have used for now are just stock ones from online. I also read a few books on the plane so some reviews will be coming over the next week or so too. Now I have to go and catch up on all your lovely blog posts over the past two weeks!