‘The raiding party came at us with the sun behind them, sneaking through the giant palm fronds, while others circled behind the restaurant and began forcing the windows open and climbing inside…’
THERE’D been no shortage of warnings before we went to South Africa and so I blame myself for being so unprepared when the attack came.
“Keep your belongings close to you and watch your back,” someone had said. Still, when it happened, I was as much astonished by the tactics employed as I was the sheer barefaced cheek of it all. No doubt we’d been lulled into a foolish sense of security by the wine and fine seafood at the Black Marlin restaurant, overlooking idyllic False Bay, where two oceans meet and whales spout near enough to the shore that you can see them as you eat — but the first I knew of anything amis was when a plate broke and a woman began screaming.
The raiding party came at us with the sun behind them, sneaking through the giant palm fronds, while others circled behind the restaurant and began forcing the windows open and climbing inside. Their ringleader, a fearless, muscular chap, took up a command position on the roof. In the courtyard, beneath the shade of huge canvas umbrellas, we ate and laughed, our senses pleasantly dulled by the South African bubbly we had cracked open to celebrate our visit to the Cape of Good Hope less than an hour before.
We’d happily snapped pics at the most famous point on the continent, overlooking the shark-infested Atlantic breaking over the tips of wrecked ships. All at once, they struck the table farthest from the group, grabbing whatever they could — silverware, salt and pepper shakers. A woman screamed, something fell and broke and a waiter leapt to her assistance, bravely putting himself and a broomstick between her and the thieves — and the entire group erupted into fits of hysterical laughter and flashing cameras.
It’s not every day a troop of baboons invades lunch. It was about the closest we came to crime during nine days of guided tours around the paradise of Cape Town and three days of safari in Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga. The next closest thing was being presented with three fist-sized chunks of barbecued tuna on a spit at a Mozambiquan restaurant on the downtown dockside deck of the Victoria Albert shopping centre in Cape Town.
“That’s a crime,” my wife said. See, portions tend to be generous in South Africa and I felt guilty leaving most of it.
We’d flown some 11 hours from Amsterdam, a marathon made bearable by the lack of timezones to be crossed — there’s just an hour in the difference between Dublin and Cape Town — and the excellent inflight service. Better still, as we came in to land, we were told they’d run out of disembarkation cards. Then, as we queued at immigration control, they waved us through with a smile. It was clear we’d like South Africa — but we had no idea how we’d soon fall head-over-heels in love with it.
A short coach drive to the luxurious Winchester Mansions Hotel () revealed an awe-inspiring Table Mountain, sunset-tinted fog rolling over its plateau like a gargantuan waterfall. We were greeted with champagne and sandwiches, bags brought to our rooms and regrouped in the intimate bar for tall, colourful and very strong cocktails at a song — just 38 rand, or about €3 — and gazed wondrously at the dying embers of an astonishing African sunset.
‘Music, laughter and love of life are at the centre of Cape Town culture; some of the best bands hail from the township we’d passed on the way from the airport…’
The great thing about guided tours is that you see so much more than you would if you had to go organise it all yourself. On our first day we had a complete orientation of the city — highlights of which were surely a cable car to the summit of Table Mountain, where the views are nothing short of spectacular; and a stop at the District Six Museum, dedicated to the citizens of a once-vibrant section of the city bulldozed into oblivion by apartheid authorities. A sobering experience, turned on its head when one of our party, a jazz singer, asked if he could play the piano in the middle of the museum — and soon staff and visitors were toe-tapping to a cheery ragtime beat. But then, music, laughter and love of life are at the centre of Cape Town culture; some of the best bands hail from the township we’d passed on the way from the airport.
Long, warm days followed of comfortable trips soaking in resplendent vistas from the Cape of Good Hope to Hermanus, where we saw colonies of penguins, and north to Kirstenbosch, where the startling blood-red earth erupts into lush fields of wine-making grapes — most notably at Nelson’s Creek winery, the first worker-owned winery in South Africa. We visited the township of Imizamo Yethu, and we buried our hands in the hot fur of slumbering Cheetahs at a sanctuary in Nyaru.
A week in, we flew to Mpumalanga and went on safari through Kruger National Park. Believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the majesty and the malignant stench of a giant male African elephant in heat, shaking his enormous ears not six yards from your jeep.
Our final days were given to ourselves and this writer and his wife soaked up the sunshine at Camps Bay, for more sunsets the memory of which, to this day, makes the heart long for the friendly faces, food and music of the rich, red soil of South Africa.