In the footsteps of a Cape crusader
Daily Express, 29th December 2012
I’ve visited South Africa many times in the last decade but I haven’t been to Cape Town for more than 30 years.
Back in 1981 I was an MEP on a goodwill mission and the country was still in the grip of Apartheid.
I remember attending the South African parliament in which not a single black representative was present.
The only voice that spoke up for the hapless majority was the amazing Helen Suzman.
They have named a wide and splendid boulevard after her in Cape Town. By golly, does she deserve it.
It’s not just at political level that things have changed.
The revamped V&A Waterfront (V for Queen Victoria and the A for Alfred, her second son, who helped construct the harbour) is now one of the city’s most vibrant and visited areas.
As I sat eating breakfast at Quay Four, the legendary seafood restaurant, it was wonderful to watch Cape fur seals bobbing in the harbour.
After breakfast my wife and I took the ferry to Robben Island. Thirty years ago there would have been no question of tourists visiting the place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.
Today it is a World Heritage site and you have to book your place on the boat well in advance. It is a moving experience. Our guide Toyer Smith was a former inmate who at 17 was sentenced to six years imprisonment in 1976 at the time of the Soweto riots. He is surprisingly devoid of rancour.
We stopped at the entrance to the limestone quarry where prisoners would labour for hours under a blazing hot sun.
In 1995, when Mandela was president of South Africa, he had a cataract operation and the surgeons discovered remnants of the limestone dust in his eyes.
Of course there are some things in Cape Town which remain little changed even after three decades. The city has plenty of stylish new hotels but for me returning to the Mount
Nelson Hotel and enjoying another of its legendary afternoon teas in the lounge was a reminder that even in the new South Africa some traditions still count for a lot.
The hotel gardens are also as lush and magnifi cent as ever. Few gardens can match the sheer grandeur of the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch, situated on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. The World Heritage site is home to one of the world’s greatest botanical collections.
If you want to experience the full majesty of the Cape’s fl oral kingdom (one of only six such fl oral kingdoms in the world), drive 100 miles south-east to Walker Bay and the Grootbos Nature Reserve.
We stayed in the magnificent Forest Lodge, overlooking the ocean and surrounded by a milkwood forest.
During the day we walked or drove through the Fynbos, the area’s natural shrubland which is renowned for its biodiversity. Grootbos alone is home to more than 15 different species of protea.
This region is not called the Whale Coast for nothing. From June to November you can see the Southern Right Whales in Walker Bay. You don’t even have to get on a boat since they swim so close to shore.
One of the best places to spot them is on a cliff-top walk from Hermanus.
Another local pastime is diving with great white sharks, whose abundant presence in these waters has led to the nearby small town of Gansbaai being known as the shark-diving capital of the world.
I donned a wetsuit and snorkel and was lowered into the water from a boat in a 13ft-long metal cage, the same length as some of the sharks I saw swim past.
Some great white sharks may be observed off South Africa’s famous “Shark Alley”
To watch a great white shark speeding toward you with its mouth gaping open before veering away at the last moment is an awe-inspiring experience to say the least. Apart from the sheer fun of it, there is a serious scientifi c purpose. Information can be collected about the size, sex and scar markings of these protected mammals.
Some great white sharks may be observed off South Africa’s famous “Shark Alley” and the next year as far away as Australia.
On our way back to Cape Town we visited the African penguin colony at Stony Point, Betty’s Bay, one of only three land-based colonies in South Africa. However there was one more place I was keen to return to before we caught our flight home, Table Mountain, where we took the cable car to the top.
The visibility was superb. We could see the great pink structure of the Mount Nelson Hotel in the foreground, the V&A Waterfront just beyond, then in the distance Robben Island and Cape Point. It offers one of the most amazing 360 degree views in the world and is another treasured memory of this beautiful country to take home with me.
Abercrombie & Kent (0845 485 1141/www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers seven nights in Cape Town and Grootbos Private Nature Reserve from £1,995pp (two sharing). Includes return flights from Heathrow, three nights at Mount Nelson Hotel (B&B), three nights at Grootbos (full board) and car hire.
Cape Town Tourism: www.capetown.travel Stanley Johnson’s book Where the Wild Things Were (Stacey International), £9.99
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