19 June 2024

The majestic Table Mountain, Cape Town
My Mountain high in Cape Town
From being thought of as a dubious destination, South Africa is now sitting pretty as a 'safe' choice. Frank Barrett tastes some of it's heady delights.
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he first glimpse of Cape Town’s Table Mountain is one of those solid-gold travel experiences to rank alongside that first sight of the Taj Mahal, New York’s skyline or Sydney Harbour Bridge. Table Mountain is big, much bigger than photographs suggest, and nearly always decorated with strands of wispy cloud like a bad Bobby Charlton comb-over. A great city must have a big sight – and Cape Town definitely has one of these. But if people had it on their ‘places I must see before I die’ list, it was seldom near the top. It was avoided during the apartheid years, and people were later deterred in the Mandela era because of anxiety about crime.

The talk of danger, however, has noticeably subsided over the past few years. So much so, in fact, that the country is heading for record tourism figures this year. The Cape Times has even reported how the country has benefited from an anxiety about travelling to other parts of the world in the wake of 9/11. ‘We are seen as a “safe” destination,’ marvelled the Cape Times. Cape Town is emerging as the star performer in the South African tourist industry, blessed with perfect weather during our winter, superb beaches, great hotels, fine restaurants and shopping malls. And the South African rand continues to offer outstanding value – prices are universally cheap.
The elegant Mount Nelson Hotel
Like Australia, South Africa’s infrastructure runs smoothly. As you drive into the centre of Cape Town from the airport – on the left side of the road – there is little to suggest you are at the foot of Africa, a full 11-hour flight from London. Until you pass the vast shanty townships that crowd in on both sides of the motorway – symbols of the African poverty that has recently moved to the top of our news agenda. The taxi, however, speeds on and within minutes you are cruising through smart suburbs.

And when you motor up the drive leading to the Mount Nelson Hotel, beneath Table Mountain, you are approaching one of the world’s great hotels. The ‘Nelly’ has been the epicentre of Cape Town life for more than a century. I dumped my bags in my room and within minutes was heading towards the cable car station for a ride to the summit.With the Atlantic on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, Cape Town is subject to strong breezes – a blessing in the high heat of summer. The danger of high winds is a nuisance for the cable car, however, as it has to close when it gets too blowy. At concierge desks, wind speed is usually the main talk of the day – when the cable car is operating, you should take your chance.

The inside part rotates, so you get a 360 degree view of the city as you whizz to the summit. You’re so high up you feel that on a clear day you might see the South Pole. You do, however, have a fine view of Robben Island, five miles out in the bay, the prison whose most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela. Later, on the drive out to the Winelands, we stopped at the Drakenstein correctional institute that was once Viktor Verster prison. It was from here on February 11, 1990, that Mandela made his famous long walk to freedom. The warder’s house that was his final place of incarceration will shortly become a museum. Less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, the small town of Franschhoek is the centre of South Africa’s burgeoning wine business – dozens of places offer the chance to sample local vintages. I would like to be able to pass on some tasting notes but my handwriting becomes indecipherable at this point – I fear I may have drunk not wisely but too well, so you’ll have to do your own research.
My final morning began at the District Six Museum near the centre of Cape Town. District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867. Established as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants, it was a vibrant centre with close links to the city and port. But with the coming of apartheid, it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act. By 1982, the life of the community was over – 60,000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas known as Cape Flats and their houses bulldozed. The apartheid government of South Africa, like Hitler’s Nazi regime, documented its cruelty
with thoroughness. The detail of identity cards and the bizarre structure of spurious homelands is explained in chilling detail. District Six remains a blank in the city centre but is being reborn. After the museum I was taken on a tour of the townships of Langa and Guguletu to see how the effects of forced resettlement are still reverberating.

By comparison, the trip to Robben Island was rather jolly. From the boat you get the best view of Table Mountain – probably the only good thing in the lives of the political prisoners held in the notorious island jail. A bus takes you round the island sights – past the kennels of the prison dogs which each had more space than inmates in their cells, and the quarries where prisoners worked at the backbreaking business of pounding stones. In the prison buildings you are shown round by a former inmate. Benjamin was sentenced to 20 years for being a member of the military wing of the African National Congress. His cheerful tales of human resilience in the face of daunting odds turned what could have been a dour outing into an uplifting experience. If you’re not sure whether you’ll like South Africa, try a short break to Cape Town. I guarantee you’ll be back for more.

Original article published in Mar 2003. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
‘You want to know how to describe South Africa?’ my neighbour on the flight from London said. ‘It’s Australia without the jetlag.’ With a two-hour time difference from the UK, jetlag is certainly not a problem and getting there takes about half the time involved in flying to Sydney.
Relax in the Mount Nelson Hotel
"A great city must have a big sight – and Cape Town definitely has one of these."
"It was from Robben Island on February 11, 1990, that Mandela made his famous long walk to freedom."
The District Six Museum
Robben Island
Franschhoek is the centre of South Africa’s burgeoning wine business
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