Accidental Cape Town
Published: May 2009
By Rian Malan
His wife wanted comfort without electric fences. He wanted urban Africa, minus the sterility. So Rian Malan left Johannesburg for a fishing village on the Indian Ocean side of Cape Town—and found pure bliss
In the final analysis it was all the contessa's fault, she being my wife, a chic and glamorous Latina who grew up in Coral Gables, studied at Brandeis, left the U.S.A. in disgust during the Reagan era, and lived for many years in Paris only to wind up in Johannesburg, a vulgar city of new money, low culture, and rising crime. She learned Zulu and tolerated the city for a year or two but never quite saw the point of all the guns, guard dogs, and paranoia, the ugliness of the city in winter, the harshness of the light, the veld burned gray by frost and cold, and the houses on our street grimly disfigured by steel burglar bars and electric fences. When our neighbor was carjacked in his own driveway, she put her foot down. "I hate it here," she said. "It's this country or me."
She wanted to get out of Africa, but for me, leaving was unthinkable; my interests and obsessions are entirely African, and my roots in this country are more than three centuries deep. I love Africa, even love Johannesburg, in spite of its problems. On the other hand, I love my wife, too, so we drove down to Cape Town in search of a compromise.
And here I must confess that I was ashamed to tell friends I was even contemplating such a move. Cape Town may be the most beautiful city on the planet, but we Jo'burg dudes see it as something of a fool's paradise, a last refuge for white colonials driven out of black Africa by the winds of change. The first such settlers were rich Belgians displaced from their coffee estates in the Congo by the troubles of 1961. In their wake, as empires toppled, came white hunters from Tanganyika, tobacco barons from Southern Rhodesia, tea moguls from Nyasaland, and a band of aristocratic white Kenyans led by the Honorable Mrs. Patricia Cavendish O'Neill, daughter of the Countess of Kenmare, who set her beloved lions free on the Serengeti and retreated to an estate near Cape Town in the early seventies.
The trickle became a flood in 1980, when Robert Mugabe rose to power in neighboring Zimbabwe. The flood doubled after 1984, when Johannesburg and its surrounds were convulsed by a bloody anti-apartheid struggle, and doubled again in the early 1990's, when South Africa seemed to be sliding into a race war. We were spared that fate by Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, but their triumph precipitated a new influx of paradise hunters, lured this time by the perplexing (to outsiders) victory in our epochal 1994 elections of the conservative and mostly white-led National Party, which regained leadership in Cape Town and the Western Cape province.
For apprehensive whites, this was an amazing development: history seemed to be allowing whites to eat their cake and still have it, offering them the chance to practice democracy in Africa while continuing to livein a society where power was in the reassuring hands of "people like us." Thousands pulled up stakes in the hinterland and flocked to the Mother City. Immigrants arrived. Investments poured in. The economy boomed. Cape Town mutated almost overnight into one of the most stylish tourist destinations on the planet, thronged by aristocrats, film stars, and Eurotrash. Michael Jackson came shopping for real estate. Margaret Thatcher's son Mark settled here, as did Earl Spencer, brother of Princess Diana. By 2001 Cape Town had become, for me, a place where fools sat on sea-view terraces, sipping white wine and congratulating one another for finding a corner of Africa that was somehow immune to the chaos engulfing the rest of the continent. The contessa wanted to join them. I had reservations.
It's difficult to explain, but moving to Cape Town struck me as an admission of defeat. "This isn't really Africa, you know," Capetonians are always saying, and they're right, in a way. There are streets in downtown Cape Town that resemble New York or London, and in summer the city is overrun by camera crews shooting international TV commercials. The Atlantic seaboard is sometimes mistaken for the French Riviera. Out in the nearby Winelands, the oak groves and pastures are somehow European in their gentleness, and the arid west coast easily doubles for Spain. As for the better suburbs, frame your shot to exclude dramatic mountain backdrops and smoke from the shacks where poor blacks live, and you're in an upper-middle-class anywhere: Connecticut, Marin County, Surrey, or Neuilly.
Look at this, I told the contessa. It's totally unreal, a citadel of delusions, a generically Western whites-only moon base in Africa. No way, I said; my friends in Johannesburg will laugh at me. I wanted a log cabin in the wilderness near Cape Point, where we could live a simple life of spartan purity among trees tormented into strange shapes by howling gales, uncompromised by such bourgeois comforts as electricity and running water. You're nuts, she said, so we looked at Franschoek, in my childhood a lovely valley of whitewashed cottages with plots out back where one could keep dogs and grow vegetables. Three decades on, it was still lovely, but it had somehow become more Provençal than even Provence. African farms had mutated into wine estates with names like L'Ormarins and Haute Cabrière, and the main road was lined with restaurants serving pretentious French cuisine. The contessa was enchanted. This is even worse than the moon base, I sneered. Our marriage was apparently in deep trouble, but we were saved by St. James.
St. James is a suburb on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape Peninsula—the wrong side, in the estimation of real estate agents who kept trying to steer us to the Atlantic seaboard, where you pay millions for a water view. So what?Sea is sea, and on Cape Town's Atlantic side it's always freezing and thus of little use other than as a backdrop for parties on terraces. The sea at St. James was something else entirely, a giant horseshoe of sparkling blue, ringed by mountains, warm enough for swimming in summer and full of interesting sights besides. On the day we first came, the bay was full of whales. There were surfers on the reef at Danger Beach, swimmers in the breakers. There was a real fishing harbor nearby, with real fishermen, real fish stink, and real winos on the dilapidated boardwalk. There was even a slum, a once-grand holiday resort now running to seed and populated mostly by French-speaking Africans who had fled Zaire when the dictator Mobutu was toppled by rebels in 1997.
Intrigued, we returned the next day for a closer look, parking on the far side of Muizenberg, a mile north, and walking south along "millionaires' row." Here, capitalists with vast gold and diamond holdings once maintained stately summerhouses on a beach so huge and empty, you can still ride a horse for four hours in the direction of the sunrise and not come to the end of it. The great British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes established the vogue, buying a cottage here in 1899. He was followed by Williams and Rudd, his right-hand men. Then came Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, South Africa's richest man, soon to be joined by Sir Herbert Baker, a society architect whose houses of sandstone and Burma teak were all the rage among Johannesburg's smart set. Sir J. B. Robinson stayed with his daughter, Ida, the Countess Labia, who built a rococo palace next door to another mining magnate, Sir Abe Bailey. On a midsummer's day in the 1920's, the concentration of wealth in this mile of rock, sand, and mountainside would have rivaled anything outside the United States.
By the time we arrived, it had all vanished. The great capitalist dynasties had died out or moved their bases of operation to London. The grand houses along Beach Road had become sad Baptist seminaries and the like, and the waterfront hotels were slum tenements. Also lost to time and emigration was the Jewish community that once thrived in the warren of crooked alleys and old stone houses away from the seashore. Bernard Bendix's electrical shop had become a speakeasy. Alf Rohm's kosher dairy stood empty, and the store next door was a Congolese barbershop, gaily painted in the French national colors and surmounted by the inscrutable slogan THE MOLOKAI IS ONE. Beyond Rhodes's cottage we came to St. James, a place from the time before cars, where Edwardian houses stood on terraces cut into the mountainside, reachable only by steep lanes overhung by rioting bougainvillea. In its day, St. James was to WASPs what Muizenberg was to Jews, a very English, very colonial outpost populated by merchants and bankers who would trip down the lanes of a morning in pin-striped suits and take the steam train into Cape Town, a journey of about 40 minutes. Their wives cultivated English gardens and croquet lawns, and were at pains to stress that they did not live in Kalk Bay, the enclave adjoining, because Kalk Bay had Creole or "Cape colored" people in it, once considered very déclassé. Today, Kalk Bay is fashionable (at least among white bohemians) for much the same reason: it is one of the pitifully few racially mixed communities to have survived apartheid largely unscathed.
This was at least inadvertently the doing of a policeman named Tommy Carse, who came to Kalk Bay in 1940 to keep watch over the mostly Cape colored fishermen who lived there, working the bay in small wooden boats. Carse was white, but his heart was open. He started writing down old men's stories about disasters, miraculous rescues, whale hunts in open rowing boats, and the community's battle against storms and corporate trawlers. He eventually published a book that in turn became a state-sponsored documentary about a magical little village with cobblestoned alleys, where Cape colored fishermen lived simply but happily under the guardianship of their benevolent white superiors. It won awards at Cannes and Edinburgh and was seen by 80 million people worldwide.
Twenty years after Carse moved in, the mad scientists of apartheid arrived in Kalk Bay and were disturbed to find people of various races living in attached houses, and even, God forbid, intermarrying. Arguing that this was counter to the laws of nature, they decreed that all those with dark skin or curly hair were to be banished. The citizens of Kalk Bay took to the streets with protest placards, cut down the whites only signs on their beach, and threatened to let the whole world know that the community immortalized by Constable Carse was about to be destroyed by heartless racists. The government backed off, and the Cape colored fisherfolk of Kalk Bay lived on to be far more sorely threatened by gentrification, or more exactly, by people like me, yuppies who cringe at the thought of being mistaken for foolish colonials on the run from African reality.
I was not alone. The local real estate agent, Dalene, told us she had 27 buyers lined up with cash in hand, but there were no Kalk Bay properties for sale at any price. She did, however, have something in St. James, an ugly modern house high on the mountainside, with awe-inspiring views of mountains and sea. Standing on the veranda, we could see all the way from Cape Point northeast to the brooding peaks of Groot Drakenstein, almost 90 miles in the distance. The contessa thought a neighborhood so quaint could not fail to rebound again. I thought its charm lay in the fact that much of it was in decline, and thus mercifully free of delusion and vanity. We bought the place and saved our marriage.
Before we came to live here, I had always sensed something odd about Cape Town. For a visitor, the city is maddeningly difficult to come to grips with, a place of enclaves, each introverted and provincial in a different way, inhabited by people who seemed quietly abstracted and self-absorbed, as if their minds were on higher things. "Pretty place, stupid people," says my friend Adrian, who avoids Cape Town when possible—an astute summation, but not exactly right. After living a month or two in St. James, it dawned on me that the people among whom we had settled were less stupid than stupefied, so overwhelmed by beauty and so profoundly humbled by nature that displays of wit had come to seem superfluous.
Curious changes take place in your brain when you move to Cape Town. You get up in the morning, scurry out to make your fortune, and come face-to-face with an awesome sight—the sea, a storm, clouds streaming over mountain crags—that reminds you of your utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Your ambition starts flagging. You buy fewer and fewer newspapers, and grow less and less interested in what's happening across town, let alone in the larger world. In due course, visitors from more exciting cities start yawning at your dinner table, appalled by the banality of your conversation. The other night we spent hours analyzing the strange behavior of a great white shark that patrols our stretch of coast, nudging canoeists but never eating them. Then we moved on to another pressing issue: What are whales actually doing when they stand on their heads and wave their giant flukes in the air?
Our visitors rolled their eyes. You could see they felt sorry for us, but the feeling was mutual because they had no conception of the unbearable bliss of fine summer days when the water is warm and the figs are ripe and you are woken at dawn by a murderous sun rising over the peaks across the bay. The day begins with breakfast on the terrace and a plunge into the cool green depths of a rock pool at the foot of our mountain, followed perhaps by a cappuccino in one of Kalk Bay's sidewalk cafés. By now it's nine and time to work, often difficult on account of the ceaseless drama outside my windows: tides rising, whales blowing, birds diving, shoals of fish passing through, and in the early afternoon, the boats coming back to Kalk Bay.
We whistle up the dogs and walk down to meet the boats, joining a great convergence of gulls, seals, fishmongers, and housewives coming to witness the daily landing. Crewmen sling their catch onto the wharf; hawkers cry the prices; dealers step forward to bid and haggle. On a good day, there will be great piles of yellowtail, red roman, and Cape salmon, but these prize fish mostly vanish into the hands of the restaurant trade, leaving the rest of us to bargain for snoek, a barracuda-like predator that comes in huge runs, sometimes driving the price down to a dollar for a yard-long fish, and another 50 cents to the garrulous old fishwife who guts it and tosses the innards into the harbor, to be snatched up by boiling seals. By now we're hot, so it's time for another swim, then the climb back to our mountainside aerie, where we smear the fish with the juice of figs and lemons from our garden, set it to grill on an open fire, uncork a bottle of wine, and watch the moon rise over the bay.
The next day is much the same, and the day after, the heat-stricken rhythm of it broken only by furious southeast gales and the coming and going of visitors who want to see things and go places. We take them to Boulders Beach, to swim with African penguins, or to Perima's, a funky little restaurant where Gayla Naicker serves the best curries in Africa, but after a few days they too subside into bewilderment. Why travel to tourist attractions when you're in one already?In season, tour buses park on the road above our house, disgorging foreigners who gape at the view and then turn their binoculars on us, clearly wondering what entitles us to live in such a place.
As our first summer wore on, I began asking myself the same question. The contessa saw it as a Calvinist problem and suggested I seek therapy, but for me, it was like withdrawing from an addiction. I'd spent much of my life thinking and writing about the terrors and ecstasy of life in Africa, always half-convinced that we were heading for some sort of catastrophe: race war, revolution, economic collapse, famine, extinction by AIDS. I just didn't know how to live in a place where no one seemed particularly worried about anything, even when there was a real crisis to agonize over. "Our currency is plummeting, sir!" a wino called out as I passed the other day. "Could it be that some of it will fall my way?"
He was white, the grizzled bum beside him was not, but they seemed to get along fine. The school over yonder was integrated, as were the beaches and bars along the seafront. Sure, almost everyone is poorer than he'd like to be, and the eyes of Kalk Bay coloreds still grow hooded when they talk about the insults of apartheid, but memories are fading, and nobody's going to war about it. The only truly unhappy man in my little world is Bishop Kitenge, the glamorous personne d'élégance who runs the Congolese barbershop in Muizenberg, and his pain is rooted in frustrated ambition: he wants to go to America but can't get a visa. "I must be star," he says, struggling a bit with his English. "I must go to Miami, and open beautiful salon. I love America!"
And that's about it for the bad news from St. James, other than an isolated incident in which some kids broke into my pickup, and the night the contessa woke up screaming that a leopard was in the garden. I fetched a flashlight and probed the darkness, and there it was, a leopard-spotted feline eating our dog food. Turned out to be a genet rather than a leopard, but still—a wild creature from the mysterious mountain that looms above and behind our home.
In winter, when the bay turns gray and cold and the fishing harbor is stormbound for weeks on end, we turn away to the mountain, bundle up in scarves, boots, and waterproof jackets, and take the dogs along a footpath that leads onto a bleak, misty plateau, part of a national park that runs 50 miles from Table Mountain to Cape Point. You can walk and climb for hours up there, with absolutely no sense of being in a city. If a storm catches you, you might even get lost and wander in circles until you die. Some days, the clouds part, sun pours down, and we find ourselves suspended in light between two oceans, the slopes around us strewn with wildflowers, and snow on the peaks of Groot Drakenstein, 60 miles away. Then the weather closes in again and we turn back for home, where we huddle around a fire sipping Cape brandy while rain taps against our windows.
The contessa believes this is how the Cape will always be. I wonder. I lift binoculars to the barrier of mountains that separates us from the African hinterland and think of all the trouble out there—the grinding convulsions of what the Economist calls "the hopeless continent." It seems inconceivable that the Cape should remain untouched, but here we are, sun-drugged and stupefied. Summer has returned, and the snoek are back in the bay. We grilled one on the fire last night, and fell asleep to the sighing and gurgling of whales, happy fools in an improbable African paradise.
Last year, the British Broadcasting Corporation invited its viewers to name "Fifty Places to See Before You Die." Cape Town was ranked number five overall, and the most beloved city on the entire planet. Herewith, eight things to indulge in when you get there.
1. Climb Table Mountain
One of the great wonders of the natural world, an awesome monolith of flat-topped sandstone and granite, rearing 3,560 feet above the breakers in Table Bay. A cable car will take you to the summit, from which you can see 70 miles in all directions, but the view is best savored after a grueling climb. Pack a rucksack, tackle the path up Skeleton Gorge, and leave with memories that will haunt you forever. www.tablemountain.co.za
2. Visit the Winelands
Good wine is absurdly cheap in the winelands north and east of Cape Town—less than $2 for a drinkable Shiraz from the arid Swartland, about double that for a fine Merlot or Cabernet. At the top of the scale stands Vergelegen, judged in 2001 (by the French, no less) to have made the best Bordeaux-style red blend on earth; a bottle sells for just $12. "It's heartbreaking," says wine maker André van Rensburg, who argues that lingering prejudice against South Africa causes Cape wines to be drastically underpriced. His pain, your gain. Tastings from $2 per person, lunch for two $22. Laurensford Rd.; 27-21/847-1334; www.vergelegen.co.za
3. Commune with Wildflowers
Locals converse earnestly about Fynbos, the seventh floral kingdom, found naturally only around the Western Cape. The mountains are covered with proteas. Peace lilies choke the marshes. Purple geraniums cloak the wastelands. Jerusalem for Fynbos fanatics is Cecil Rhodes's old Kirstenbosch estate, where the National Botanic Institute presides over 1,300 acres of Fynbos gardens. Kirstenbosch; 27-21/799-8783; www.nbi.co.za
4. Dine in Sea Spray
The Harbour House Restaurant was once a fish factory, standing so close to the sea that it seemed suspended above the water. Now epicures dine there on fish caught the same morning, bought off the boats in the adjoining old harbor. After dinner on a stormy night, repair to the bar downstairs, take a seat beside the fire, order a 20-year-old Cape brandy ($4), and wait for high tide, when giant seas heave up in the floodlights, racing toward the picture windows in a great tumult of ice-white spume. Dinner for two $30. Kalk Bay Harbour; 27-21/788-4133
5. Stand on the Very Tip of Africa
The road to the continent's edge passes through Clifton, where film stars and supermodels disport themselves in summer, then winds for miles along the French Riviera-like coast before climbing over to Hout Bay. The famed corniche around Chapman's Peak is currently closed to traffic, so you have to detour to Noordhoek, beyond which the road skirts misty cliffs and crosses bleak plains before coming to brooding Cape Point, where Africa dives into the tumbling seas of the South Atlantic. Cape Point Information Center; 27-21/780-9204; www.capepeninsula.co.za
6. Eat Atjar and Blatjang
Dragged to the Cape as slaves or prisoners, Malays and Javanese unpacked their spices and transformed local food from the boiled ho-hum into Cape Malay cuisine. Explore this culinary subculture at the Cape Malay (93 Brommersvlei Rd., Constantia; 27-21/ 794-2137; dinner for two $26), a hotel restaurant that serves your basic boboties (meat pies), bredies (stews), curries, atjars (chutneys), and blatjangs (sweet sauces). More ambitious is the Quarterdeck (Portswood Road, V&A Waterfront; 27-21/418-3281; dinner for two $35), a seaside boîte whose menu represents the entire Cape Malay canon, from kool frikkadelle (clove-seasoned meatballs) to boeber (a milk pudding). Purists might wish to stagger on to Perima's (Belvedere and Lansdowne Rds., Claremont; 27-21/671-3205; dinner for two $20), where chef Gayla Naicker creates what she insists is the mother of all curries.
7. Stay in a Guesthouse
Modeled on the French pension, these institutions are often located outside the congested city, closer to places of beauty. Colona Castle (1 Verwood St., off Old Boyes Dr., Lakeside, Cape Town; 27-21/788-8235; www.link.co.za; doubles from $150, including breakfast) clings to the mountain near Muizenberg; its Italianate terrace commands views of False Bay. Montague House (18 Leeuwenhof Rd., Higgovale, Cape Town; 27-21/424-7337; www.montaguehouse.net; doubles from $120, including breakfast) is a marvelously incongruous Afro-Elizabethan fantasy, with suites named after Shakespeare's plays and a garden filled with grapefruit trees and frangipani. Roggeland Country House (Roggeland Rd., Paarl; 27-21/868-2501; www.roggeland.co.za; doubles from $150, including breakfast and dinner) is an 18th-century farmstead at the foot of the Klein Drakenstein mountain.
8. Tour the Other Cape Town
Board a bus filled with earnest counterculture types in sandals and dashikis. Drive out to Langa township, where tribal initiation ceremonies are conducted in the shadow of a power station and cattle graze on the freeway shoulder. Visit crafts projects, nursery schools, traditional healers, and the tin shacks of desperately poor but friendly people. A sweet, safe, and nonthreatening way of catching the afterglow of South Africa's Nelson Mandela miracle. Full-day tour $28, including lunch. Cape Cares Tour the Pinnacle, Burg and Castle Sts.; 27-21/426-4260; www.cape-town.org