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Accidental Cape Town

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.


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