Monday, 5 January 2009

Cape Town: my beautiful, tattered old tart has grown young

I'm always overjoyed to visit Cape Town, because this is where I spent some of the happiest years of my life - I lived there for eight years, had my first child there, made lifelong friends, had brilliant jorls, and so on. But, although the city is still as beautiful and blue and sparkly as it ever was, and although it remains one of the most remarkable places I've ever been, I came away this time feeling surly about the fact that it wasn't 'my' Cape Town any longer.

Look, I'm not going to moan about the tourists (I am one now!) or the traffic or the street kids or the wind. But I am going to complain about the theme-parkiness of the best bits of Cape Town. Heck, if I wanted Disneyland, I'd go to Florida.

When I first moved to Cape Town in 1984 with my boyfriend - now my husband of 20 years - I had only been there once before, and then only for a few days as a Jo'burg teen. Within weeks of arriving, I was quite smitten. It was all so, well, foreign. I had difficulty believing I was still in Africa. The smells and sounds were entirely new to my highveld senses, and to this day I can't take a lungful of salty, kelpy air, or hear the bleat of a seagull, or the boom of the Mouille Point foghorn, or the echoing report of the Noon Gun, without swooning with pleasure. Unemployed for a few months, and with not a care in the world, I gobbled on Cape Town like a starved puppy. I spent the happiest hours tramping around and soaking up its long and chequered history, which seemed to me romantic and bitterly sad in equal parts. Every building, every street, every door, every statue, every raggy peak and winding road and pebbly beach seemed saturated with wonderful stories of the Fairest (and unfairest) Cape: ships and slaves and spices and sailors and long-forgotten sea shanties...

Later, when I'd found a job and settled down, and - excuse the mixed metaphor - the scales had fallen from my high horse, I began to take heed of the vicious and dark underbelly of this extraordinary city. Cape Town in the late 1980s, the darkest days of apartheid, was a brutal place, but, as an idealistic and rather earnest young thing, this only heightened the excitement. I thought I was really at the cutting edge as I mingled with intrepid (white) reporters from the Cape Times, sniggered at the hordes of flak-jacketed, drunken foreign correspondents who swarmed into the city and fucked everything in a skirt, and got drenched in purple water by a police cannon in Greenmarket Square. I clenched my fist as I watched Nelson Mandela deliver his speech from the balcony of the City Hall hours after his release, wore badges and T-shirts, got outraged and generally had the time of my life hating apartheid and - to my shame - doing nothing constructive to actually lend a real hand to the struggle.

Anyway, I digress. Cape Town - at least the touristy well-heeled areas I visited - seems clean and well ordered and pleasant, and no doubt the mayor Helen Zille has had a hand here. But my gripe is this: Cape Town's historical soul seems to me to be ebbing away; it has lost some of its essential seediness. The harbour, which I first knew as an idle, clanking dockyard where seals were smelly and real drunken sailors lay, stunned, across the tables of the old Harbour Café, and where the Penny Ferry still operated as a real service, and where you could buy fried fish and slap chips from from an old train carriage, is a cookie-cutter shopping mall with as much romance as a limp Vienna.

Long Street, where antique traders, booksellers, tailors, shoe-menders, bottle stores, seedy clubs and the odd brothel jostled, is just depressing, with its pretentious delis and bars. Greenmarket Square, which was buzzing with artists and craftspeople selling leather sandals and Kenyan kikois and tinkly mobiles and wire bicycles and painted T-shirts, is wall-to-wall wooden giraffes and Chinese-made sarongs. The Bo-Kaap is all cobbled and gentrified. Cape Point is crawling with vicious baboons. Constantia's Old Cape Farm Stall, which sold the best wholewheat bread and smoked snoek paté on the planet, has been replaced by a refrigerated Woolworths food shop.

I didn't get a chance to visit the flower sellers' arcade in Adderley Street, or the Atlas Trading Store, or the Zorina Café in Loop Street, home of the world's best Cape Malay-style mutton curry roti, but I sincerely hope they are still there.

The good news: there are still some places in Cape Town that haven't changed a bit, and that do what they do so well that - snivel - it's enough to bring a tear to the eye. I didn't get a chance to visit all my old haunts, but here are the places that I hope never change. Kirstenbosch is inexpressibly beautiful, with its craggy mountain backdrop, winding paths, ferny caves and wonderful, dusty fynbos scents. The open-air restaurant, although packed to the gunwhales in season, remains excellent and serves a damn good breakfast - I can recommend the smoked salmon.

Hout Bay harbour has mercifully escaped any major chichi-fication, and you can still enjoy watching a working harbour going about its business, while inhaling the eye-wateringly fishy smell drifting from local processing factories. Mariner's Wharf, at the entrance to the harbour, is heaving during tourist time, but this long-lived fish and chip outlet still serves really good fried hake and calamari, in big, hot cardboard boxes. (Which, for the full experience, must be eaten while sitting on the edge of the pier, with greedy seagulls wheeling overhead.)

Chappies (Chapman's Peak Hotel), at the foot of breathtaking Chapman's Peak Drive, below left, has resisted pressure to encase itself in glass and serve cocktails and sushi, and here you can still enjoy great tyres of butter-tender calamari, and Portuguese-style steak that is so good you'll faint.

One thing about Cape Town that impressed the pants off me was the fact that Cape Town beach-walkers pick up after their dogs. I walked the length of Hout Bay beach and back, and five times I saw dog-walkers whip Checkers packets out of their pockets, scoop up the steaming mounds, and deposit them in bins.

Which just about sums up the difference between Cape Town and Joeys: both have their share of shit, but at least Cape Town seems to make the effort to pick up after itself. Sure, Cape Town has lost some of its houding [Afrikaans for 'attitude'] along the way, but I have the sense that its good people won't allow it to to lose its soul completely.

And as for my sense of loss? Dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

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Muriel said...

Too right, Juno, too right. I live only an hour away from the city but don't get there that often - and last time I did, I was gobsmacked by the changes (and that was only what I saw out of a speeding car's window). Lower Woodstock, for instance - where I lived for six years in the late '80s - is now a landscape of architectural office-building masterpieces, and the Greenpoint traffic circle - a genuine landmark back then - no longer exists. But goodness me is that stadium a wonderwork. FIFA 2010 may make it all worth it?

The Muse said...

I just love this piece of writing. Very pleased that I have found your blog.
Kind thoughts

Juno said...

Thanks Kate. You made my day.