In Mandela country

Rita Perera recounts a South African experience

Well, why not South Africa we decided when offered a choice of destinations---most others seemed somewhat tame in comparison and the spark of adventure was still not quite dead in both of us at nearly 80! Of course, the fact that our son offered to accompany us made all the difference.

We had a passing thought when we arrived at Cape Town airport that Sri Lanka had much to learn in easing the travails of tourists arriving in our country. It took us only about 30 minutes to get off our plane and speed away to our hotel, in a comfortable metered vehicle. The driver, Zain, an Indian, spoke good English and was well informed about the sights en route before we arrived at our hotel , which was dominated by its overwhelming back drop of the Table Mountain. However, it lacked the ‘tablecloth’ of misty cloud, which was said to sometimes cover part of it.

After a quick change, we took a road taxi to the water-front, bustling with tourists and locals. We relaxed at a shady open air cafe while our son checked details of our intended pre-booked visit to Robben Island. This was going to be an important highlight of our itinerary, to see where Nelson Mandela and his fellow ANC members were incarcerated for almost 30 years, during the apartheid regime of the then South African government. But, there was no longer any apparent trace of such strictures, as people of different races jostled in the almost carnival atmosphere of this tourist hub of Cape Town---with street performers and side-walk cafes and even pubs catering to every whim of foreign, as well as local visitors. There was even a replica of the London Eye !

Next day, we decided that a long peninsular tour of the Cape, with Zain, was a good first option. He gave us a comprehensive commentary, pointing out the important landmarks interspersed with an almost sociological survey of the areas where different categories of non-white people still lived in the hidden from view townships, where predominantly black, coloured and Indian people lived. These were still essentially ghettoes, though attempts were being made to gradually improve the standards of their housing.

In stark contrast, the coastal and scenic areas that hugged the coast abounded in luxury houses, apartments---some with their own cable cars and even mini rail tracks for easy access and equipped with luxuries such as swimming pools etc. The beach scenery of the Atlantic breakers was stupendous.
We took a short detour to Hout Bay, where we boarded a boat that was about to depart to watch seals in their natural habitat. Only one boat was allowed at a time and we managed to get two seats on the crowded vessel. The sea was somewhat choppy but it was a worthwhile 25 minute ride to see literally thousands of seals ---some cavorting and swimming near the surface, others sunning themselves on exposed rocks, oblivious of the many camera- happy observers capturing their antics.

From there we travelled along the magnificient Atlantic coast to a narrow protected ledge of a high cliff from where we saw dolphins sending up spumes of spray. We passed through land cultivated with grapes producing South African wines and many ostrich farms while Zain regaled us with ostrich lore. The male ostriches’ comparatively thin legs get red when they are in heat and gradually paler as it wanes. Since they have comparatively small feet in comparison to their heavy bodies they have a mincing gait. They are in high commercial demand as every part of their bodies---feathers, skin, meat, eggs are of optimum value.

Finally, through wonderfully scenic seascapes, where the Atlantic ocean , which seemed to stretch endlessly, with its waves breaking on the shore against massive rock boulders interspaced with sandy bays and beaches, we finally reached Cape Point. In the swirling waters beyond, the Atlantic Ocean met but apparently didn’t quite merge with the Indian Ocean, due to the differing temperatures of each; the plankton on which different varieties of fish fed were apparently of varying shades of blue and green. However, our travels were confined to the rugged coastline and the statues of the two notable seafarers Bartholomew Dias and Vasco Da Gama were evidence of their brave vision and seafaring skills. The former died in his attempt but the latter made it to Goa on the west coast of India and the far-reaching results of his efforts still resound, probably in all our lives! As Adam Smith recorded in 1776 in his book ‘Wealth of Nations’, ‘The discovery of America and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.’ Lunch at the Cape Point restaurant situated almost at the very tip of the rocky coastline between the two oceans was a fitting climax to an eventful journey!

On our return we went to Boulder’s Bay, but were disappointed we saw so few penguins---though one of them waddled around as if to show off their unique attributes to the many camera-happy school children and sightseers who abounded.

We came back to Cape Town on another scenic route passing the other side of Table Mountain. By then fatigue had taken its toll and we could only pay scant attention to Zain and his commentary on the impressive diplomatic and ministerial residences we drove past.

The next day was Sunday and we relaxed and thought a visit to the Aquarium opposite our hotel was a quiet option. It had wonderful displays of marine life with two lectures ---one on penguins especially their feeding and other habits. The second was in a huge auditorium facing a giant-sized tank, which tried to re-create a natural sea environment, where shoals of fish of all sizes and colours as well as other marine species, such as turtles swam freely and were fed.

When we returned to the hotel the cable-car ride to the top of Table Mountain had been booked (it was only possible when there were no high winds). We changed quickly into warm clothes to withstand the cold temperatures on the top of the mountain, especially as we had opted for dinner in the cafe at the summit too.

The ride up in the revolving cable car (which I had been secretly dreading, due to my fear of heights) was quite smooth. The wide windows gave a panoramic view of a lit -up Cape Town and the surrounding areas –even Lion Rock seemed dwarfed in magnitude. We had plenty of time to meander around at the summit, with its well planned viewing areas, all clearly marked and giving brief details of their historic and geographical significance. Most of the narrow pathways were easy to negotiate, though we left those with steps and no railings for the young and more agile.

Luckily, our trip to Robben Island had been pre-booked in London---as many tourists who tried to get tickets on the spot were disappointed. The sea was somewhat choppy and the journey took more than half an hour. Robben Island itself was much larger than I had imagined it to be. The video on board gave us a potted history of the island prior to Mandela’s imprisonment. It had been inhabited by the Khoi people, who probably were the very first race to live in S. Africa. They were followed by the Dutch and then the English. Robben Island was first used as a habitat for leprosy patients, then for the mentally ill, before it became a penal settlement and finally a prison for African National Congress members and for Pan African Congress members and their leaders. One of the latter was held in solitary confinement for his full term of imprisonment!

We stopped at the quarry where Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners were made to work for over eight hours every day, in the hot, burning African sun with no vegetation whatsoever, as shade! To date, this exposure caused their tear ducts to dry up and they lost their ability to cry! Their only retreat was a cavern in the midst of the quarry to which no guards ventured. They were able to retreat here periodically during the day and pass on their knowledge to their fellow ANC prisoners. So, unbeknown to their warders, it acquired the status of a University, albeit sited in prison, where scholars of different disciplines could share their knowledge with their fellow ANC members---some of whom didn’t even know to read or write !

The final and to us the most interesting part of our visit to Robben Island were the cell blocks, where the ANC members were imprisoned for 28 years. A former ANC prisoner was entrusted with providing us with an authentic account of this part of our tour. We were taken to the drab cell blocks--- each had four grey blankets as bedding, a small box fixed to the wall to keep their belongings, a little barred window and of course heavy locks to prevent, even any thought of escape. However, the indomitable character of Nelson Mandela is evident in the autobiography he started writing secretly, his voluminous, ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’, parts of which he is said to have hidden, buried in a little corner outside his cell, probably undercover of cultivating a few plants...which was one of his favourite pastimes. Later as a great concession, two tiered iron beds were said to have been installed---authentic remains of which were on display.

On our return trip to Cape Town we were shown another video which recorded the tumultuous joy displayed by the ANC prisoners, who were released at the end of apartheid, and the rejoicing of all their relatives and families, who no longer had to make their painful, monthly visits to see their loved ones. Nelson Mandela was released a little earlier, so he could negotiate the end of apartheid and head the new government of South Africa.

A visit to South Africa wouldn’t be complete without even one visit to a game sanctuary. Zain arranged a one night trip to a game sanctuary just one and a half hours drive away, where we could go on two ‘game’ runs to see the Big Five.

So to Fairy Glen, so named by a former Scots animal lover, we headed past varied scenery--- vineyards, farms, huge rock formations and through a 7 km long road tunnelled through the mountains. We were given a spotlessly clean modern chalet, constructed with local materials. The manager gave us preferential treatment throughout. Helping us in and out of the Landrover, on game-runs etc and having quiet digs, John rising to his quips at the lack of prowess of the Sri Lankan cricket team!

We were driven to the recesses of the mountainous forest reserve, but we opted out of the walk through its narrow, somewhat hilly paths. There were a few rock paintings / drawings on some flat rock surfaces attributed to its pre-historic original inhabitants, but we resisted venturing into more inaccessible areas. However we saw plenty of springbok and zebras grazing in the meadows on our way back. Dinner was a sumptuous buffet with all sorts of everything and three types of dessert. Next morning was the main game run lasting three hours. There were plenty of different varieties of birds and large numbers of ostriches. They watchfully guarded their eggs but Dion our guide was brave enough to risk their wrath and bring us an egg to touch and feel its weight. Apparently they made good omelettes and one egg was equivalent to a dozen or so ordinary eggs!

There were plenty of animals moving around freely in the grassy plain --- herds of springbok and different varieties of deer. Giraffes and zebras, rhinoceros and wildebeest. Elephants were visible on hillocks some distance away. Nearer our campsite were two lion enclosures with three lions in each---they were up to all sorts of playful activities but we kept our distance !

On our way back to Cape Town, our son joined a small group to see for himself, what real progress South Africa had been made in the lives of ordinary people in the years after apartheid. We had sensed that beneath everything, though it was all cloaked with a thick veneer of luxury and affluence it was probably a mirage, where the marginalised still lived in townships out of sight of the main high speed motorways and affluent cities. Lofty ideals don’t necessarily ensure freedom or equality ---- certainly not better standards of living for everyone in any country!

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