24 July 2014

The View from the Cape

There’s quite a bit to report from Bunia (futbol matches with special appearances by goats! Officials requesting bribes! Continuing experiments in cheese making!), but that will all come in due time. For the moment, I would rather wax poetic about my most recent R&R, in which my sister and I met in up Cape Town (my job is so difficult, no? I live in a tropical paradise and then they give me money to run around Uganda and Paris and South Africa. Pity the poor aid worker)

In the true fashion of our family, we went for more active and engaged than restful and relaxing, the Sister’s jetlag be damned. This was especially true during the first stretch that we spent in Cape Town itself (including one memorable day when we got up at 0600 to climb a mountain and didn’t stop moving until we arrived back from after dinner outing after midnight). Rather than languish at the tourist-trap Waterfront (basically a clean, large shopping centre with nicest mall restaurants I have ever seen. It felt nice and safe and sanitised and was probably chalk-a-bloc with pick-pockets.), we wasted little time in throwing ourselves at the city and all it had to offer. It was during this time that we discovered, somewhat to our irritation, that the denizens of Cape Town have a very loose understanding of what incorporates their city. The best example of this occurred when we planned the aforementioned fancy dinner at a lovely restaurant that it turns out was hell and gone from Cartagena. It was rather like how the Inn at Little Washington is considered in DC or The Fort is in Denver (for those of you who don’t get either of those references…I’m sorry. I’ve got nothin’). The cabbie got mad lost on the way and we took a super long, very scenic drive over Chapman’s Peak. Sadly, it was less arresting in the dark.
We spent much of our time running amok along the beach and through the town and climbing nearly every hill we could find, be it Lion’s Head or Cape Point, the very tip of the Cape of Good Hope. Our trek up Lion’s Head began early on that particularly long day I mentioned, and it was as unnerving as you would expect, given that we opted to take challenge ourselves and take the ‘unadvised’ route up (sometimes, I worry that we will push our boundaries right off a cliff). It was prettier, certainly, but also involved nothing short of bouldering, though they thoughtfully provided chains, staples, and ladders slippery with dew. But the view was awfully lovely. We also managed to make our way to the top of Table Mountain, though in that instance we elected innovation over exertion. The Swiss-constructed funicular was possibly the spiffiest gondola in which I have ever ridden – it is water-stabilised for the high winds and boasts a rotating floor so that you might enjoy the full 360 view without ever having to move yourself. From the top of the mountain, you have the most incredible views – Lion’s Head out to Robben Island, the full expanse of the 12 Apostles, the sun-kissed city stretching out from your feet. It was easy to imagine that you were gazing all the way out to Cape Point. The following day, we realised what we had only glimpsed the day before and explored the Cape of Good Hope all the way out to its terminus, the southernmost point in Africa.

During our many sojourns, we saw an impressive array of local wildlife, including ostriches and eland, the world’s largest antelope. We sailed around Seal Island (which apparently populated almost exclusively by young males. So…we visited a seal frat) in Hout Bay. We were also promised pescetarian baboon troops, though they didn’t materialise. The Sister especially enjoyed the colony of endangered African Penguins, where recently hatched ‘baby blues’ (so-called because of their dark as-yet-unwater proof down) were equal parts adorable and awkward. My personal favourite were dassies, which look rather like a marmot but are in fact more closely related to elephants. Perhaps it is the knowledge of this rather lofty kinship that make them so hilariously belligerent. Every dassie (rock hyrax, the Sister would probably and rightly correct me – she’s a biologist) we encountered stared us down as if to ask us to go ahead and make his day.
Per the locals, however, the real treat of the Cape Town outdoors is not fauna but the flora. At nearly every site we visited, we were encouraged – berated, coerced – into admiring the glory of the fynbos, a family of some 7,000 plants that are unique to the Western Cape region. Indeed, the magnificent Kirstenbosch botanical garden was in established in 1913 and is the only such garden in the world devoted to promoting and conserving a country’s indigenous plant life (it even had a very sad grave yard for extinct plants). I am in no way trying to disparage their efforts (the continual emphasis on the plants even led me to declare that the protea subset of fynbos are my new favourite flower group, so well done, pro-protea propaganda machine!), but I think we were both surprised by the zealousness with which SA approaches conservation.

Not all of our adventures were outside, of course. Cape Town is a terrifically cosmopolitan city (I kept claiming we weren’t really in Africa) and we visited museums and stately gardens and storied breweries. I loved the sense of living history there. Take Robben Island, for example. The Island, most recently the off-shore prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, has played a role in the development of Cape Town from the very beginning, serving variously as a prison, leper colony, whaling camp, etc., and sometimes all of these things at once, but was not closed until 20 years ago. In fact, our tour was given by a former inmate! It was a powerful, deeply moving experience, but also a profoundly odd one, which seemed to sum up our historical experience of Cape Town writ large.
I came away from our numerous museum excursions with the sense that the immediacy of the subject matter impacts how it was presented. I don’t think I appreciated before how much a good museum exhibit depends on reflection and dispassion. By which I don’t mean to suggest that a good curator can’t care about their subject matter. But by and large, even the best museums we visited seemed to devolve at some point into an art installation of long-repressed rage and pain and, in many cases, shame. We did manage to learn a huge amount – like the fact that slaves were actually imported to Cape Town from East Africa and South Asia. But it was not always easy to glean that information. The Slave Lodge – which started out really promisingly, in terms of high quality museums – included a room of (beautiful, fascinating) anatomy-themed origami (it was somewhat topical – the pages were inscribed with the names of slaves who had been imprisoned and/or executed and the often dubious charges against them) and then had us pass through another room in which a undulating rainbow wall of record covers encased a grand piano (no idea whatsoever what this had to do with the slave trade or apartheid). The museum finished with an exhibition of Egyptian art.

Upon further reflection, it might just be that the South Africans are terrible at museums. The one we went to about the French Huguenots – to whom the Dutch offered asylum from religious persecution in France, but only if they would truck down to Cape Town to make wine – should have passed all the benchmarks for time and distance and lack of emotional trauma. After all, happened a few hundred years ago and created an industry in which the country is justifiably proud, but the museum itself was a hodgepodge of old furniture and discursions on religious wars and piracy in a bizarre mix of Afrikaans, English, what looked to be Portuguese, and ‘French’ with a suspicious amount of umlauts. To its credit, the brewery gave a great tour – we learned our preference for ales over lagers likely stems from being cold-weather women. If only their beer had lived up to it…

On the subject of good and bad alcohols, though, our adventure was not confined to Cape Town, and we soon found ourselves in the wine country, which was as lovely as could be expected and filled with some truly delicious wines (as well as some that were less delicious and woefully under-bodied, but I’m choosing to forget those. Tia claimed it was because South African wines don’t really suffer. The soil is too rich, the weather too mild, and the viticulturisits and vintners insufficiently verbally abusive. To be Truly Great, apparently, a grape must have known hardship and pain. It should have character and depth and probably write angsty poetry or smoke like chimneys with pained French ennui. The grapes that make the Truly Great wine must go to their dark, squishy fates with clear eyes and brave hearts, enduring their suffering with noble stoicism. These grapes must have lived. This does not, in any way, describe South African grapes. It might get a nit bippy (Butterfield family-ism for chilly) in the wine country, but on the whole, these grapes are lekker, brü, which makes for a laid-back, totally drinkable wine, but nothing unforgettable. I was fine with that). There was also a ginger husky puppy and some of the best feta cheese I have ever eaten. If ever I have a destination wedding, it will be with the sole purpose of dragging my friends and family to the South African wine country.
The Sister could probably address our wine country experience with a great deal more colour and deftness than I can (I think my reflections during these few days boiled down to Pretty vistas! Good wine! I love cheese!). The woman is wine-wise. In other things, as well, but we’re focusing on this particular skill set. She also probably thinks that I’m insane. All of my tasting notes (I did not bother to take any at all, so I should probably be more gracious that she even condescended to write mine down) were bracketed with increasingly skeptical quotations and other indications of incredulity. If I remember correctly, she at one point even set down her glass emphatically and hit me with a tremendously Spock-ian fascinating. I am now worried that my taste buds are broken. Case in point:

The Sister                                                                            Me

Dark chocolate, red fruit, balance,                              –strawberry picking and watermelon ice cream-
smoke, tongue coating

Currant black cherry dry red plum                              -“meditation in a room w/ green sashes through

good ruby colour, light body not a ton of minerality,           the windows”-
tobacco comes in late

Lemongrass cement crisp apple peaches tangerine        -Swimming in a lake – BUG.
better balance good mouthfeel                                  (As though she wouldn’t know which of us that came                                                                                                 from)
At any rate, the wine tour eventually gave way to the final leg of our trip, which was spent at the eastern coast of False Bay. During the rambling drive down, our terrifically lovely guide gave us lessons in scandalous South African slang (babbelas is a hangover, lekker is cool or good, shame means pretty much whatever they want it to, independent of its actual definition, skelm is doing something on the sly. None of these are pronounced the way you think they should be) as we made many a stop for photos and even stumbled upon a troop of those fishing baboons (at which point we rolled up all the windows and locked the car doors, because they are apparently shameless kleptos). We ended the day with a decedent dinner at a totally empty restaurant with wine that tasted like star-gazing. It was equal parts delicious and eerie, and who doesn’t like their fine dining experiences to veer toward the creepy?

We did a number of things while in Gansbaai – tasted a few more wines, explored coastal cliffs, wandered amok in a lighthouse that was technically closed for repairs after flirting shamelessly with the lighthouse keeper who may or may not have been the long-lost member of ZZ-Top, chased a coy pod of Southern Right Whales (they would have been framed by the sunset and it would have been amazing, but it was not to be. They would pop out of the water and vanish as soon as I pulled my camera. This happened time and time again. Cheeky, cheeky buggers). The undisputed highlight of this last leg of the trip, though, was the sharks. That’s right – Great White Sharks.
There were whales! It would have been glorious
The shack in which we had a pre-dive breakfast (this was not a Congo shack. This was a beach shack. So think Scooby Doo, not National Geographic) had a sign about the ocean being salty because it was filled with the tears of misunderstood sharks. I laughed, until the skipper gave a nearly incomprehensible security briefing, in which the only phrase I understood fully was “it’s very important you follow these instructions, because we’ve had a few close calls with the sharks already”. Fabulous. The crew seemed to get a kick out of pointing out that, statistically, we were apparently more likely to be bitten by Luis Suárez than by a shark.

Our group loaded on to the Apex Predator (ha) and set out over some enormous swells. It was thrilling, in the way a poorly maintained rollercoaster is thrilling, and we definitely got wet (protected from the spray indeed). Tia and I harboured a suspicion that they were a more aggressive in taking on the swells than, say, a whale-watching expedition would be; a side-perk of adventure tourism, perhaps? The crew was also feeding some sort of very large, clearly predatory seabird for our amusement. We eventually pulled up to the infamous Shark Alley (thank you, Discovery Chanel!), centred between Geyser Rocks (another seal frat house) and Dyer Island, a penguin colony. You could easily see why the sharks like it here – it’s a veritable smorgasbord of blubbery delights. It’s actually a bit of a wonder that they condescend to pay attention to the tourist baits at all. At any rate, the skipper maneuvered to the other side of the seal colony, releasing the chum bucket (yummy!), and dropped anchor. There was another boat in the distance, this one without the distinctive diving cage. One of the crew pointed out that there were already fins circling.
The dive master called for the first set of people to prep for the Cage. I was more than happy to let others pave the way (a trepidation that was apparently shared throughout the boat – no one volunteered), but the Sister was not (bless her) and so we began stuffing ourselves into the provided wet suits. We even beat in the gung-ho dude with the spiffy underwater camera. With rough bonhomie, crew members pulled our hoods overhead and secured a weight belt around our hips. We eased ourselves into the water and shuffle right for the next person. There are up to eight in the cage at a time. As the swells move the boat – and the cage – we tried not get swallow a mouthful of chummy water. This turned out to be trickier as the day wore on.

There were definite benefits to going first – first and foremost, the sharks weren’t yet bored (read into that what you will). Almost as soon as we got in the water, we were shouted at to dive and look left, right, down, at the bait, at the bait! There is no snorkelling gear, so you simply take a big, rapid breath and vanish into the quiet stillness, hopefully in time to watch a massive silvery presence glide by, passing through streams of sunlight in the water, like shy performers flirting on the edge of a spotlight – sometimes two or three, teeth casually bared. They only seemed to have the vaguest awareness of those of us in the cage, uninterested in the interlopers so close that we could touch them (which would get you kicked out of the cage – nobody wants blood in the water!). The sharks took no more notice of us than of the school of fish pecking at the bait – less so, actually. We weren’t nibbling on their entrée. In addition to seeing more active sharks than any other group, we first brave few also got to spend quality time with the largest shark of the day – a watery diva some 2.6 meters long. She didn’t too interested in the bait at all; unlike like the younger, smaller, friskier sharks that seemed to try and sneak up on it before furiously pouncing. She made several deliberate passes – silent, huge, awesome in the most biblical sense of the word – until she apparently decided she had had enough of being teased. We lost the bait several times throughout the day, but for me, this was the most impressive for its speed and decisiveness. There was no drama; she never fought with the line, didn’t sink her teeth into the massive hunk of tuna and drag it and the boat or crash into the cage (unlike one of the other sharks in a thrilling episode for those in the cage, which we were not. I was glad for this. The Sister expressed regret. Be careful what you wish for, Dude). She came around from the right, as she had time and time before, but then darted up faster than I think anyone one of us was prepared for and snatched the bait in full. It was clean and utterly without mercy.
When out of the Cage, we were regaled with shark facts by the crew. SA apparently has a few other indigenous species of sharks, but they are found farther out to sea because the water was warmer there. Which seemed…counter-intuitive. The Whites can tolerate the cooler temperatures it because they actually regulate their body temperateure to 14 degrees above ambient sea water temperature. Other fun shark facts for you? GWS can reach speeds of 60km/h and detect the electromagnetic field of other animals in the water column through a tiny gel filled pored located on their snout known as ampullae of lorenzini. They are believed to assist in the sharks’ long distance migrations by detecting the earth’s magnetic field.

After everyone had gotten a chance (at least all those who weren’t too scared or sea sick), they offered those who wanted it seconds. The Sister was all over it, and you know that I couldn’t sit back (despite feeling a little green myself – just sitting in a rocking boat is both soothing and…gastro intestinally fraught). Being back in the water actually helped, though I felt much colder the second time around. There were also fewer sharks, prompting the dive master asked us who scared them all away. One of handful that remained happened to be a particularly food-motivated youngster. It was small and quick. So small and so quick that the shark baiter (clearly, his official title) barely got the tuna out of its way before it crashed into the Cage. Which it did, open-mawed, right into the Sister. The cage did its job and then some, effectively brindling the shark, but it was a kind of awesome moment – wow, look at that – gah! Teeth – holy cats this is amazing – God! The Sister’s hand! And wow…I didn’t know you could plaster yourself that far back in the cage. That’s right – the Sister was snogged by a Great White Shark, right in the ampualle of lorenzini. I was just impressed that she managed not to curse underwater and inadvertently half-drown herself.
We ended the day – our last full one in South Africa – with a traditional braai (barbeque) at our guide’s brother’s. There were toasties and springbok sausage and steaks cooked over a eucalyptus fire, complemented by Namibian beer and finished with melktert (which our guide memorably described as a dessert that tastes like nothing, but in a really good way!). I also enjoyed spending quality time with his precocious daughter, discovering along the way that doing a farm puzzle over and over and over again starts to have a sort of performance art air about it.

Our hosts had also invited another family to join us, the patriarch of which oversaw breeding (growth operations? I can’t recall how we referred to it. I’m thinking of him as a mollusc pimp) at a local abalone farm. He very kindly offered (I’m using the term loosely. Pressured/bribed by Jamie and family would be more accurate) to take us on a clandestine tour at 11p (you couldn’t take tours during normal working hours, because their techniques were subject to corporate espionage. That made the whole experience so much better). Aided in no small part by the late hour and generous consumption of Namibian exports, the abalone farm was like something out of the X-Files. There were long rows of bags growing gelatinous creatures that would skitter away as soon as you shown your flashlight on them, watery crates that stretched out into the night full of precious cargo destined for Japan… Upon our return to the guesthouse, we discovered we were locked out an almost had to break in. It was a weird day. Fabulous – that goes without saying – but odd.

Finally, it was time to go back to the airport and make my tearful farewells. Within a day, I was in Uganda, where there was a terrorist threat against the airport. My hotel would only turn on the wifi when I asked, and then only for an hour. I went to church for the posted 11am English service, only to find out that that the 9am Lauganda service hasn’t even made it out of the sermon. The offering also included a banana bunch it took two men to carry and a live chicken. I lay in my weekend provisions at Edith’s Glossary God be Merciful Store and the teller referred to me as muzungu. Welcome back to Africa!