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Accidental Cape Town

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.


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