The Call of the Cape

Cape Town has always held a special place in my heart. It was the place where I first tasted independence, that somewhat scary but ultimately rewarding experience that comes when you have the freedom for self-discovery. As my university town, I grew up, figuratively anyway, in the shadow of Table Mountain. Having not been back for 15 years, I was determined to squeeze it in to our South Africa travel plans somehow, and it was well worth it. Although we only had three days there, we jammed it full of highlights, caught up with friends and family and indulged in both the nightlife and the spectacular natural beauty of the land.

We arrive at dusk. Cape Town is settling into its evening jewels as we make our descent. The omnipresent mountain, with its craggy sides and the flat top that gives it its name, is a darkening backdrop to this illuminated water-side city. In the western sky, the sun has set into the ocean, and the horizon is a smouldering palette of pinks, oranges and greys. It’s beautiful, even from on high.

Like many places in South Africa, Cape Town is a town of stark contrasts. There is natural beauty in abundance, a lively food scene and enough historical attractions to keep even the most ardent student of history happy but there is also poverty and desperation, and the traffic is horrendous. You can skim the surface here – enjoying the bars and beaches, wines and African crafts, and we mostly do. But, you can also scratch below the glittering façade and see what everyday life looks like for its varied population. Our social activist teen pushed us in that direction and by moving out of our comfort zone we gained a richer and more rounded experience of the town.

To start though, we visit the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, nestled at the eastern base of the Table Mountain. It is spring and the gardens burst with colour. Pretty streams and old baths, an ancient cycad forest and the tree canopy walkway occupy our time and attention. Various sculptures dot the landscape and the sound of laughing children on school excursions float in the air that feels fresh and full of optimism.

We are drawn, of course, to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a pivotal attraction point in Cape Town. We sit in the sunshine against the backdrop of Table Mountain, eating lunch and listening to live music – a four-man percussion and rhythm ensemble playing an upbeat tune on xylophones and drums. It feels uniquely African, and joyful. Here we explore the wonderful arts and crafts markets and shop up big to bring a piece of Africa home with us.

The Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Arts – Africa) grabs our attention and inspires more than a little awe. The building itself is spectacular –  a mesmorising architectural feat that transformed soaring old concrete grain towers into a space that is full of light and sound. Looking back, I have a sense of floating in the space.  The main exhibition is a showcase of William Kentridge, a prolific artist whose underlying political commentary is unsettling. (He did much of it during the apartheid years, calling out the absurdity and cruelty of this horrific political regime).

In stark contrast to all of this, we visit Imizamo Yethu – an “informal settlement” directly across the road from one of the richest suburbs in Cape Town – Hout Bay. Here, crammed into a small space on the side of the mountain, we pick our way through narrow muddy pathways that wind through what are primarily ramshackle tin shacks crowded together, like birds huddling in the wind. Our guide explains that people create their houses from whatever bits of materials are to hand, presumably putting them up wherever there is an available shard of space. Residents share inadequate sanitation supplies, and cold water taps provide hydration and washing opportunities. We are welcomed into homes that shine with care and hope despite the dire circumstances these poor people have been born into. The view from the township is one of space and luscious green grass, for across the road the horses of the rich stand in wide spacious paddocks, complete with stables that offer more comfort and luxury most people here have. No wonder people get cross.

My favourite part of this tour is a visit to the pre-school. The kids are exuberant and lively, with smiles that glow from lips to eyes. They demand our hands to play jumping games, and spontaneously deliver hugs and high fives. The number of children crammed into this small space would give Australian regulators nightmares, but there is no doubting the passion of the teachers and staff as they care for their high-spirited charges.

As in all communities, even one that is demonstrably poor, there are people who are doing better than others. The pub is thriving and the local internet café boasts a steady stream of business. Dogs roam the street and neighbours call out to each other. Some people are lucky enough to have traditional houses – made of bricks, with proper front doors (apparently the work of an Irish charity). The local church provides succour, handing out care packages from charities and showcasing some of the local arts and crafts. I spend big as a way to give back. At the end of the tour our guide thanks us for our bravery… they are words that floor me.

Cape Town itself, the city centre, is vibrant and full of life. Business is booming and the streets burst with people going about their business. But, lulled perhaps into a false sense of security, we nearly get mugged while standing outside the main train station looking somewhat confused and cashed up. Years ago, a taxi driver taking us to a similar place in Rosario, Argentina gave us a stern warning. “Cuidado, cuidado” he said, making a strange wavy movement with his hand. Watch out. Beware. Crooks about. So, it’s a lesson we know from old – in places with rampant income inequality, you need a bit of cuidado about you, especially at train stations. The intervening years of suburban complacency have clearly dulled our travel-senses. I ward off the “aggressive beggars” with the large painting I had purchased at Green Market Square earlier in the day.

The night life in Cape Town doesn’t disappoint. We bar and restaurant hop through the heart of the city which teams with life.  The Gin Bar – a light and airy space with a wide selection of gin-cocktails; The Commissary – an intimate, low lit restaurant above a graffiti covered stair well serving excellent food and great wine; The Shortmarket Club – somewhat more sophisticated and high end for dessert. Through it all we felt safe and sated.

To round off the trip, we hike up Table Mountain. Yes, you can take the cable car or walk up easier pathways that wind step-like around the back of the mountain. But in the company of a local, who may well be part dassie, we opt for a frontal assault. Despite dire warnings of steep rock climbing and difficult navigation, our friend shrugs. He runs up here, apparently, and perhaps he is telling the truth because on our 4-hour climb we pass people doing exactly that. Still, there were some hairy moments for a little soul like me who is a tiny bit afraid of heights. Chains had to be used and there was some tentative shuffling across a narrow ledge to reach the end. But we made it and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city so ripe with hope – if only more could be done to provide willing people with economic opportunity.

On the way home we stop at UCT – our old uni campus – and sit on Jamie stairs and reminisce about those long ago days of heady freedom, with just a few assignments, a part time job and exams to cope with. What a privilege it was to have attended this beautiful campus and what a gift it was to make life-long friends who still travel with us along this journey we call life.

The Lion and the Buck

It’s the eyes you notice – yellow intense slits that look right through you and pin you to the spot as surely as a butterfly laid out before a lepidopterist. Even though we are technically safe in our land rover, it’s an open plan version with no glass windows and only air separates us from the wild animals. A belief that the lion sees us as one with the land rover – an elephant sized, not very tasty rock-like-thing – contributes to this sense of security. But still, we are wary. If it had a mind to, the lion could kill us all without breaking a sweat.  Fortunately, he is more interested in lovemaking this fine spring day. The female of his affections lies not far away, and we infer a close intimacy between them, a sense of partnership and care.

We see a lot of the lion this trip. Two males, two females, and they are majestic. Lithesome and fluid in a way that only felines are.  Early one morning we come across one of the lionesses, lying alone under a tree. She is surrounded by several hyena. The hyena are considering an attack. Gathering in groups, calling to each other, casting sly glances in her direction, they skitter about the dry plains unsure as to the best course of action. The lioness feigns indifference, an epitome of stillness, but she is alert, keeping an eye on them and her escape route. For reasons known only to themselves, the hyenas give up the idea and move on, a rambling pack of rangy chattering carnivores, not as pretty or as powerful as a lion, but an essential part of the ecosystem. 

Into the scene wander some kudu, slowly munching on the available leaves in the parched landscape as they make their way to the water hole. The lioness is instantly alert, moving like water she pads across to a copse of trees, lowers herself below their eye line. Will they come this way? She lies in wait… and we too wait in breathless anticipation with her. The air is still. A vulture circles way up high.  In the end, something alerts the buck and they scramble away, snorting warnings to others in ear shot. The lioness shrugs, takes a long drink and ambles away, passing not a meter from us, with barely a backward glance.

Nature at work. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand, and we can imagine the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating our experience.

I think a lot about the order of things on this trip to the African bush. What luck to be born a lion, what poor luck to be born an Impala, to live in constant wariness of hungry passing carnivores. But, of course, neither the impala nor the lion has the capacity for self-reflection in this way. This is a uniquely human trait, a result of the evolution of awareness of self (which we share with some animals – the other primates, dolphins, elephants, some birds) combined with expressive language and episodic memory that gives flight to imagined alternative realities.  It is this that has led human animals to create gods, cities, Nikon cameras, pop-tarts and machine guns. And, more positively, being able to imagine someone else’s lot has led to the development of universal health care, the abolishment of slavery and a charter of human rights.

Is awareness a gift or a curse? The impala may be skittish but is probably content with its lot – not knowing any different. Not subject to ruminations or worry, which seems to be the downside of it all. Of course everything fights for its survival. Even as we watch on a night drive, a leopard fights off a hyena to protect its hard-fought-for prey. But conscious awareness, this seemingly rare capability, feels precious. More precious than humans grant it, most often blunt to its suggestive power and harnessing only what is required to blindly justify cognitive biases and the intuitions implanted by ignorant ancestors. The Buddha extols an Impala-esk mentality as a way towards inner peace. To practice acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable unfairness is the only way, apparently, to mitigate suffering. But I think there must be something in balancing the gift of awareness to shape a world where the luck is more evenly distributed, with accepting that we live in a world of self-interest, and that we can only do our bit.

There are other lessons to be found in this largely unspoilt landscape of eat or be eaten. Balance is another concept I reflect on during our travels. Balance is everywhere – central to life, its primary operating system. But despite our human desire to assign agency to everything there is no mind sitting behind the desk keeping tabs and tallying columns in this nature-driven accounting system. Life is just balance in action.  When things are out of balance, life flails. Too many elephants leads to overgrazing and too little food, which leads to starvation and death, which allows the food to regrow and elephants to recover.

I reflect to on compassion and cruelty. These also seem to be quite specific human traits, although perhaps not entirely. We fear the lion, but the lion won’t kill for pleasure, and the impala are safe from a frenzied attack by a narcissistic lion with a fragile ego. We ourselves are safe from that lion because there is abundant buck for the lion to chase, and he is not hungry nor sees us as food. It is humans who are the wild card, who can’t be trusted in matters of cruelty. Why is this so? It is depressing to think on it. Perhaps this is where it is best to take heed of the Buddha’s advice not to dwell in the mental landscape of things you cannot change. But it would seem to me that there is much we can learn from watching the animals, our distant brethren, out on the African savannah, if only we would apply our conscious awareness to do so.

Game Hunters

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There is something faintly absurd about rattling around the largely unspoiled African bush in a rickety, open land rover in search of wild life, when it would be much more convenient and reliable to see the animals at the zoo.

A game drive is an exercise in patience.  For 90% of the time all there is to be seen is the grey scrub-like bush and surprisingly lush Mopane trees desperately clinging to life in the red dust.  Although no doubt there are plenty of animals magnificently camouflaged just beyond our sight, the odds of seeing something is slight.  The area the animals wander in is huge, their number limited and to be in the same place at the same time as something more remarkable than an Impala is unlikely.

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And yet somehow, almost always, there is something marvellous to see.  And when you do, when you come across a leopard or an elephant, it is an adrenaline fuelled thrill.  It occurs to me that this is perhaps what hunters feel, and that perhaps we are modern day hunters, armed only with a Canon and an iPhone, and without the flawed ego that requires the kill.  The big five – named that way for being the hardest animals to hunt – remain in our sights because they are elusive and majestic to see.  When we find one of these marvellous African animals moving freely we are breathless with excitement and nerves, awed by their beauty and power.

We are spoilt here, in this beautiful parcel of land grand-hearted people strive with difficulty to maintain against the tide of human self-interest.  Here where the efforts of the passionate have carved out a little piece of Africa that is, almost, as it once was.  Here on the border of the Kruger, where they do battle with poachers, we rattle about in our dusty land-rover desperate for a glimpse of a rhino before they are wiped out completely.

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And that is what game drives are about, for me.  Appreciating the importance of these creatures in their natural surroundings.  Looking into an elephant’s eyes, or being pinned to your seat by the steely glint of a lioness and knowing that they have as much a right to this land as human beings do.

A Scatterling from Africa

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Ever since our trip to South Africa last year I have been feeling vaguely homesick.  Is it homesickness, this wistful longing I have for South Africa?   After all, South Africa is not my home nor has it been so for nearly two decades. Give it a couple of years and I’ll have lived in Sydney longer than any other town, including the one I spent most of my formative years in.  And despite the requests from my children, we are not about to pack up the house and move back to Johannesburg.  No, my home is right here in this beautiful land girded by sea.  A place I love.

Yet something in me still pines strongly for the land of my childhood, for the place where I come from.  I would say I was “root” sick, but in Australia that has all sorts of nasty connotations.

And that is the thing.  The idiosyncrasies of your adopted culture trip you up and make you constantly aware that you don’t quite fit in.  Culture codes, that you absorb like language when you are immersed in it from birth, have to be learned from scratch.  And, like a second language, you are never as fluent in it as your first.  Regardless of how well you adapt, there are little things that always mark you out to be a stranger.

When you are plucked, or in my case, when you pluck yourself, out of your beginnings and plop yourself somewhere else you stand out like guinea fowl amongst the cockatoos. Literally a foreigner in a foreign land.

Australia might look largely the same as South Africa, and we might share a lot of similar values, at least at a surface level, but below the surface the currents that tug and pull on the cultural landscape are different, and they leave a different shape.  A shape you don’t quite fit into.

Not only do you have to navigate the linguistic quirks of your new abode, when you come into a new country as an adult, you have no natural, inbuilt cultural reference points, no shared formation memories with your contemporaries.  You don’t understand what it means to hear Jimmy Barnes belt out Khe Sahn Road at a charity benefit.  You weren’t there the first time.  And you don’t know what Australia was like in the middle of the Vietnam war.  And while you might have enjoyed a similarly defining moment at your first Johnny Clegg  concert, when you grew up and realised life is not all rock and roll, it’s not the same experience.   Your reference points are entirely different.

Watching Searching for Sugarman reminded me of that.  Reminded me of my youth and my South Africaness, those two things being intractably intertwined.  Of crazy university days and of growing up, properly, in the shadow of a mountain shaped like a table, whilst my country wrestled with its changing shape.  It reminded me of beach-side bike rides and first kisses and watching Mandela lift up the Rugby World Cup.  But more than anything, it reminded me that there was once a time where I did feel like a fitted in, naturally, without effort.

I think this visceral connection to our origins, our roots, to the place where we were formed, is a harkening back to a time where we knew we belonged.   Despite having lived nearly half my life outside of South Africa, it seems I am still South African.

I suspect that is why people stick together in their little enclaves in Australia, land of the immigrant.  It is something we deliberately tried not to do.  No St Ives or Double Bay for us.  We wanted to be absorbed, wanted to feel Australian.  But perhaps that was a mistake?   Good coffee and great deli’s aside, the unsuspected Italianness in our suburb is yet another reminder that we are have cut ourselves adrift from our roots.

Perhaps we are just programmed to feel most comfortable with our tribe of origin?

Does it matter?  It didn’t use to, but as I get older I wonder about the ease at which I abandoned my country, my culture?  I feel I underestimated the damage that can do to your sense of place in the world.  No wonder people hold fast onto their traditions when they are in a foreign country.  They are holding on to their sense of themselves.

Maybe that’s why we get such a sense of pleasure from watching the Springboks trounce the Wallabies or hearing Trevor Noah on QI or visiting The Lucky Tsotsi or making a trip to the South African shop to buy biltong.  It reminds us of where we come from.  And that makes us feel whole.

Moholoholo

Moholoholo Logo

Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre nestles beneath the towering crags of the Drakensberg, in the dry bushland of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa. It is a place where passion for the welfare of Africa’s incredible wildlife is palpable. You get the strong sense of a small team of committed individuals striving to make a difference in the face of both poaching and the threat of human progress (land clearing, power lines, mining, farming etc).

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When we arrive, they are overwhelmed by visitors. While waiting for our guide, Oscar, to finish seeing to busloads of tourists, founder Bryan Jones gave us an impassioned speech about the importance of efforts like Moholoholo and the fierce battle they face to protect the animals of Africa.

He is spitting mad, having just returned from Namibia, where “they” have killed hundreds of vultures, by virtue of poisoning the carcass of a poached elephant.  Clever birds that they are, vultures have learned to follow poachers, knowing there will be a kill at the end of the line. Hoards of circling vultures alert the scouts, who are then able, with a bit of luck to capture these cowardly criminals red handed. It seems an edict has gone out from the criminal enterprises that make money off the wanton death and desecration of Africa’s animals, “Kill them all, kill everyone of those vultures.” And so, in act of moral depravity so starkly vicious, these bastards poison the carcasses of the animals they slay, leading to an onward spiral of death to all the scavengers that serve to keep the bush clear of disease.

The poor vulture also faces a more local threat, where witch doctors steeped in out-dated tradition peddle vulture heads as a way to see the future. After all, an animal which can soar with the gods can surely see all that was, and all that is to come.

You can see why education is such a passion for the Moholoholo team.  When it comes to helping animals, Moholoholo‘s main aim is rehabilitation, but animals who are unable to be re-released into the wild are housed at the centre, and used to educate the public.

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A visit to Moholoholo is a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with a range of wildlife. We got into cages with massive eagles who had lost a wing flying into power lines, vultures who could no longer fly, a lonely ground hornbill who thought it was a human being.  

A highlight was being able to stroke a cheetah. A breathtakingly wonderful experience, but when she turned and looked at my little boy like she was sizing him as a mid morning snack, the hairs on my arms lifted and I was reminded that, despite the collar, this was a wild animal and the instinct to hunt never goes away.

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Moholoholo is also home to a family of lions (rescued from a circus), who had grown too big and wild to handle. They could not be rehabilitated because they are no longer afraid of humans, making them deeply dangerous (as one volunteer recently discovered). Oscar, overflowing with knowledge and highly entertaining anecdotes, hand fed the male of this pride through a wire fence, reinforced with chicken wire. It was quite something to see a lion devouring meat, its mouth with pointed teeth dripping with blood soaked saliva just centimetres away from our faces. There are very clear sign posted warnings not to stick your fingers through the wires. Oscar remarks, “We had to put the chicken wire up as well. Despite the signs, people still try and touch the lion. They’ll lose a hand.” I can well believe it.

Lion at Moholoholo

The tour ends with a visit to a baby rhino. They mewl, baby rhino, did you know that? This little fella had lost his mom (I think to natural causes) and one of the wildlife parks had asked Moholoholo to raise him. When he is old enough, he will be returned to the wild to experience the joy of Africa’s bush for himself, and face the dangers that come with that. Let’s hope that some progress has been made in the war against rhino poaching before then, otherwise he may well end up being one of the few surviving rhinos in the world.

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More photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/101901043@N02/sets/72157635579771284/

The Rhythm of the Bush

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Breeding heard of elephant
Breeding heard of elephant

Life here in the African bush has a regular cadence. A rhythm of peaceful relaxation and calm introspection, driven by the light of the day and the distance from everything. There is no urgency, no plan of action. We climb into the Land Rover, all open to the wild and trek around the park, peering through the grey and yellow and brown landscape in search of animals so well suited to hiding. It is strange how the animals, all so different – with grey elephants and black and white zebra and tall speckled giraffes – all blend in so well to the bush. It makes the task to spotting them that much more difficult. I image we hurtle past lion and rhino without seeing them, rocks and stones in the distant grass.

Today we saw zebra though, gorgeous, hanging out with the impala. In the distance we watched a large herd of elephants carefully shepherd their babies into the Kruger. We caught sight of giraffe, although not as close as yesterday where we saw them in the riverbed, up close and personal. There is rhino about and leopard, apparently, although we are still to sight them. I am holding onto hope! A leopard in a tree, that is the holy grail of spotting at Ingwe.

Another joyful aspect to being out here, away from electricity and light and noise is the stars. Last night the moon was late to rise and the sky was clear and we drove into the middle of the bush and turned off the lights and lay on the top of the landy and stared and stared at the stars. The milky way spilling across the deep black night. We could point out the Southern Cross and Orion’s Belt and that very, very bright star (is it Alpha Centuria, perhaps?) to our children, but after that our limited knowledge of astronomy ran out. There were a million more stars to see, if only we knew their names, bright and clear in the dead quiet dark of the bush. Sometimes people say staring at the stars makes them feel insignificant. I don’t feel like that. It feels to me like we are part of some magnificent wonder, some incredible creation of indescribable beauty. A tiny part of some tremendous whole and I find it deeply refreshing right in the heart of me.