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Monday, August 31, 2015

Vacation: Cape Town

After Kruger National Park and driving for ourselves, it was surprisingly nice to head to the opposite end of South Africa. In Cape Town, we not only could explore without a car but managed to never even take a taxi.

Cape Town is a wonderful city. We spent four nights there before moving slightly north into the Western Cape Winelands. While there, we visited Robben Island, the V&A Waterfront, Table Mountain, Simon's Town and Boulders Beach, Long Street, the Castle of Good Hope, Camps Bay, and District Six. In the interest of easy transportation, we went full tourist, using a hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tour to get between most of those places.

Robben Island was, without a doubt, the highlight of the entire trip for me. It is an island that first served as a leper colony-making it my second island leper colony visit after Chacachacarie in Trinidad-then as a prison. It is most known for holding political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma during Apartheid. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site and well worth the visit.

As our boat arrived on the island, we were treated to an incredible animal siting: a seal successfully attacking a cormorant. We were unsure whether the seal would be victorious as the cormorant kept popping back to the surface, however, after ten minutes of attacks, the seal had its dinner. We disembarked and were shuffled onto tour buses. The tour buses drive around the island, explaining the historical significance of various buildings, the stories of select inmates, and even allows stops to get out for photo opportunities at a viewpoint of Table Mountain and at the most famous Lime Quarry on the island.

Listening to the history of the island and hearing the guide talk gracefully about the latent racism present in its history stunned me. Because the residential community of guards was small and the government was so afraid of the political prisoners kept on the island, after a few years of keeping political prisoners on Robben Island, they banned black guards from working there. Basically, the white guards did not want to be forced to interact socially with blacks and this was a strong enough belief at the time in South Africa that it affected prison policy.

The Lime Quarry prisoners like
Neslon Mendella worked at, including
their only shelter: the cave in the
Similarly, when the government first began incarcerating black male political prisoners (white political prisoners and black female political prisoners were kept at other prisons on the mainland), they continued to house criminal prisoners there as well. This changed because instead of the political prisoners being intimidated by the criminal prisoners, the criminal prisoners began believing the ideology of the political prisoners. This, of course, was very dangerous for the Aparthied government, so the criminal prisoners were removed.

Hearing the various “crimes” political prisoners were incarcerated for still stuns me. I simply do not understand how the rest of the world was able to ignore Apartheid in the wake of the Holocaust. As intellectuals and academics studied and created the steps of genocide, they blatantly ignored the fact that South Africa was employing multiple steps toward genocide: the creation of homelands and moving black citizens into districts, requires all blacks to carry cards and buy permits to travel outside of their homelands or district, etc. The number of people being imprisoned as political prisoners was astounding.

As the bus tour concluded, we were sent into the actual prison, where we met Derick Basson. Mr. Basson was incarcerated at Robben Island from 1986 until the political prisoners were released in 1991. His prisoner number was 1986 as he was the 19th inmate brought to Robben Island in 1986 (To put that in perspective, Nelson Mandela's number was 46664 as he was the 466th inmate of 1964).

Mr. Basson spoke extensively about life in the prison. He acknowledged the changes in treatment of inmates over time, such as the closing of the lime quarries that prisoners had been forced to work in for decades. He shared information about the food and clothing made available to political prisoners, which was different for those that were 100% black versus those of mixed heritage.

"Human dignity is everything"
                            ~Derick Basson

There is something enthralling about watching an eloquent man speak quietly and passionately about such a difficult time in both his and his country's past. It astounds me that someone could feel so strongly about the concept of equality and human dignity that he is willing to revisit the very cells of his incarceration, to share anecdotes of everything including the discomfort of cavity searches on a daily basis. According to Mr. Basson, he is willing to continue to live on the island, although now in the former guard housing, and face his past in hopes of preventing similar inequalities from being accepted in the present and the future.

I found visiting Robben Island more powerful than visiting the concentration camp Dachau. Like Robben Island, Dachau held primarily political prisoners. Although it had gas chambers, extermination was not part of its history. I left both with a similarly powerful conviction that I must be as a strong and just member of the human race with the ability to stand up against such horrible possibilities. And yet, it seemed more real at Robben Island. Maybe, because unlike Dachau, the buildings are still standing and even usable. Maybe because the island held political prisoners for the first decade of my own life. Maybe because I live in Lesotho and am more closely in tune with the news reports that highlight post-Apartheid racial challenges in South Africa today. Maybe because of Derick Basson and his life story as just one of many men still alive who lived in the cells we sat in. Regardless of why, visiting Robben Island was an experience I think most of us could use to remind ourselves the value of humanity and human dignity.

In the words of Derick Basson, “ Human dignity is everything.”

On Monday, we visited the Castle of Good Hope, which is actually a fort and not a castle in the European sense of the word. The fort was built by the Dutch in the 1600s and has been surprisingly well maintained over the last 400 years. As Americans who have visited many forts, Kathy and I were surprised by the amount of freedom a self-guided tour allowed. As litigious Americans, we found ourselves atop the fort, no guardrails to protect us from our own stupidity.

The fort makes a big deal about its torture chamber, as Dutch law required torture during interrogation during the 1600s. Signage notes that each “procedure” was carefully documented. As we left the fort to explore its small adjoining orchard, the menacing doors of the main entrance were closed behind us. We had scooted ahead of a large tour group at the torture chamber, so perhaps they were being locked in for some living history?

We explored Long Street briefly and found the perfect little tapas and wine bar for lunch before heading up to Table Mountain. We arrived and got off the bus. Two minutes later, we were on the bus again, headed to Camps Bay. Table Mountain was closed due to high winds. When we reached Camps Bay, we learned what locals do on beautiful, sunny holidays (It was National Women's Day-a work holiday in South Africa); they go to the beaches. The entire town was packed. We explored a bit but were mostly overwhelmed and headed back towards Cape Town.

Atop Table Mountain
Tuesday morning was once again clear and the wind forecast had diminished, so we rushed to Table Mountain. This trip was more successful, although we were heavily jostled by Chinese tourists and had the pleasure of watching a man attempt to confront some pushy tourists. It was unsuccessful as the Chinese tourists immediately acted as if they did not understand despite having spoke English only a few minutes earlier. Once the funicular reached the top, we set out on the longest trail around the top of the mountain. As we got away from the crowds, we enjoyed the views of both Cape Town and the beaches we had visited the day before. It is truly a stunning view.

We stopped being tourists and played shoppers for the afternoon. We popped in and out of various shops at the V&A Waterfront. We also found a place with local micro-brews where I was able to enjoy my first porter in 14 months!

Wednesday was a full day. We checked out of the wonderful hotel we had been staying at (Thank you Marriott Rewards and Protea North Wharf Hotel, we love you both!) but kept our luggage there for the day. Then we boarded the Metrorail to head south to Simons Town and Boulders Beach. Boulders Beach is heralded as one of the strongest nesting grounds for the African Penguin nee Jackass Penguin. We enjoyed the trip and I took far too many photographs as every minute there was a siting better than the 200 before.

On our way back into Cape Town, I shot our hostel in Stellenbosch an email asking if they could pick us up at the train station as we would arrive shortly after dark. We zoomed from the train station to the hotel and back, then waited for our train to Stellenbosch in the winelands region of Western Cape. Of course, leaving the city at five meant the atmosphere at the train station was profoundly busier and more rushed than when we had done so at ten am to head to Simons Town. We got our train and even managed to get seats. We breathed a communal sigh of relief and settled into the incredibly full car.

Half an hour later, the train stopped. Not like it stopped at the station, let folks embark or disembark, then continued. It stopped at a station and did not start again. We watched the commuters around us as they ignored the issue, so we too ignored it. After twenty minutes or so, we started moving again. We made it as far as the next station, where the train stopped again. This time, as we sat there, we watched people jump off our train to board passing trains-sometimes hopping the tracks and just jumping onto the space between two cars. Kathy and I looked at each other, uncertain as to our best option. I checked the train timetables to see if there was another train coming that we could get on, however, the Metrorail website said there was not.

After another thirty minutes, we were still sitting there and my leg was numb thanks to the weight of my backpack-which was holding all our heavy stuff-on it. I moved to one of the empty seats where I could set it down and ended up next to an Afrikaner. We ended up chatting and Saint John I, as Kathy and I have affectionately named our helpful new friend, took us under his wing. He called Metrorail and figured out what train options would work for both him and for us as we were traveling further than he was. He even connected us with other passengers headed to Stellenbosch.

We eventually switched to train going almost all the way to Stellenbosch. By this time, it was completely dark. We got off at the last stop that train was visiting, which was Saint John I's stop. According to his earlier phone call, we arrived four minutes before the train we needed. However, after ten minutes, we had seen no signs of said train. He again called Metrorail and reassured us that in the worst case, he would drive us to Stellenbosch. While he was on the phone, he disappeared. Despite our current trust in Saint John I, I was nervous that we were stuck somewhere we did not know, after dark, without the number for a taxicab or anything else.

Saint John I eventually returned with his friend from church, Saint John II and the news that the train was in fact still on its way. Saint John II was only traveling one more station with us but offered us a ride from there to our hostel in Stellenbosch. We said goodbye and gave profuse thanks to Saint John I. Soon, the train arrived, with only one car lit up. The dozen of us still there boarded and sat down. Before the train departed-it was waiting for one more train that might have also carried lost souls from our train-a Metrorail security guard came in and asked if there were any tourists present. Our new posse of Stellenbosch travelers pointed to us and the guard ensured we knew what we were doing. We could not help but laugh at them for being two hours too late.

Twenty minutes later, we were in Saint John II's Mercedes, headed to Stellenbosch. As I checked my email for the hostel address, I noted an email from Nico, one of the iKhaya Backpackers staffers, frantic with worry that we had not arrived yet. I called him to both reassure him and confirm directions and soon Saint John II was carrying our bags into the hostel. Ikhaya had upgraded our room, giving us a private apartment, which we were ready for after such adventure. We ate our lunch leftovers and crashed.

The plan for Thursday had been Shark Cage Diving, because seeing Great White Sharks in the wild is on my Africa Experiences list, however, gale force winds and a small craft advisory canceled our trip. Thus, we spent Thursday exploring Stellenbosch. It turned into a life maintenance day complete with haircuts and pedicures.

Our last vineyard and amazing
cheese tray!
Friday, we checked out of the hostel and headed out on a Wine Tour with Afrivista Tours. It was only us and 3 female med students from the UK. We visited four vineyards, had lunch, and enjoyed a cheese plate at our last vineyard. It was an amazing day during which Kathy and I realized we have now visited vineyards on three continents together. Three more and we will have done it on them all! New life goal is set!

Our tour guide dropped us off at the bus stop in Paarl, where we caught our overnight bus back towards Lesotho and the next part of Kathy's Africa Adventure.  

Table Mountain from Robben Island. Visit this album to see more photos
from Cape Town, Kruger, and Lesotho.

Wine Tasting

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