Sunday, 31 May 2015

May 8: Table Mountain

Now that I am back at home and connected properly, the posts regarding Africa will recommence at the rate of about 2-3 per day. So in a month, you'll be caught up!

We had reserved a whole day to explore Table Mountain, but one lady we ran into on a tour told us you could only spend an hour or so up top before getting bored. Hah, I said.

We headed out via Cape Town’s very good bus system to the cable car base, which was pretty easy (though the bus timetable wasn’t anywhere near correct). Because we bought cable car tickets on line a few weeks ago, we bypassed the long lines and walked straight onto it (Note: when you buy a ticket on-line, it’s valid for 14 days from the date you specify when you buy it. We specified a validity date as the first day we got to Cape Town, meaning we could pick any day we wanted to go up).
Visa... it's where you want to be
The inside of the car rotates 450° on your way up, so you get lots of cool views.
Vertical walls
Imagine ziplining that
It’s a shame the ride is so quick (about 6 min to climb 600 m, almost 10 m/s), because it’s really fun.

At the top station, there are rock hyraxes EVERYWHERE. You have to leave the station area to get rid of them.
Living life on the edge 
Nice teeth
Well, the views from 1,000 m above the ocean just a couple of kilometers away are stunning.
Looking south towards Cape Point 
A nice if high 'falutin area 
The 12 Apostles
We learned, however, that the top has hazards (other than falling 1,000 m to your death, which actually happens with some regularity); for instance, there are poisonous plants such as the blister bush, which makes poison ivy seem benign.
There are also snakes, which I will get to later.

We opted to walk to the “high point” of the mountain, MacLear’s Beacon, about 3 km from the top cable car station. Much of the hike hugs the cliff edge, some right on the cliff edge. Around here, I should mention I don’t like heights.
Downtown. Robben Island
Looking northwest
The city bowl. Our balcony is visible, if you know where to look

Wide panorama north up the coast
Most of the hike, however, is dead flat, and interestingly, crosses marshes and springs full of frogs.

Bogs? On the top of a mountain?
There are critters up here, most notably cool lizards.
Cute sparkles
Surveying the domain.
And snakes. Did I mention the snakes? Say hello to a baby version of the deadliest snake in Africa, the puff adder. According to Wikipedia:
This species is responsible for more snakebite fatalities than any other African snake. This is due to a combination of factors, including its wide distribution, common occurrence, large size, potent venom that is produced in large amounts, long fangs, their habit of basking by footpaths and sitting quietly when approached

This dude wasn’t big, meaning he was just a baby, but they can kill you just fine staring from birth. Up here, “watch you step” takes on special meaning.
Evil nasty & small
According to the guides up there, someone has to walk the popular paths every 30 minutes to make sure none of the 6 venomous snakes found up there (including the puff adder, spitting cobra, Asiatic cobra, boomslang and others) are on the paths to bite the tourists.

We walked the complete length of Table Mountain (watching for snakes the whole way), and this is the view at the other end.

Cape Flats
People have been walking up here since…1892?
Old monument
And before they invented the cable car…

Dramatic artsy shot

…you walked up. Many people still do. Many of them. Like these guys…
Just one of the dozen routes up
…aiming for this gap.

A slot in the rocks
In fact, there are trails and rock staircases all over the mountain, climbing it, traversing it, and circumnavigating it. Riding in the cable car just gave me the willies about some of the “hikes” that I could see, including one set of +2,000 steps climbing the mountain almost right underneath the cable car. There are numerous technical rock climbing walls, plus you can rappel (they call it “absailing”) off the mountain, too.
We enjoyed our hike and the 5 hours we spent up there. Our friend turned out to be wrong.

Today’s Africa Travel Tip: Security Guards, Part 2

So in my last post, I mentioned that security guards were everywhere.

Our apartment (and it’s a regular apartment building) sits on Greenmarket Square, home to a daily crafts market and a whole lot of beggars. We have a 24/7 security guard, and sliding locked exterior doors. Both of which are a joke.

One guard has been a guard 58 years. He’s been in this building almost 30 years. Guess his age. Another? A university student who was so asleep one night when we came home that we couldn’t wake him up. On our first arrival to our building, we walked past them, said hello, and got on the elevator. They didn’t care, nor want us to check in, nor even ask us where we were going. One day, we found our guard a block away from the building buying a coffee. When we got home, the sliding security door was wide open. It’s often open with no one around.

The CCID Public Safety guys don’t seem to do anything at all, other than walk around a lot. I watch one of them help the market guys tear down every day.

If “perception is reality”, then all the security guards are for is to give you the perception that you’re safe. Thus, you are safe. Thus, people walk around the downtown core day and night because they perceive that they are safe because the guards are there.

A whacked system, but it works. I suspect that if you’re in an area with no visible security guards, you will feel less than safe. Perception is reality.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

May 7: Robben Island and the Waterfront

The day did not start well, despite the beautiful sunrise on Table Mountain.

Table Mountain aglow from our balcony
I lost my clip-on sunglasses (I hate clip-ons). We left the house without our guidebook. And I went to the wrong bus stop. But things got better fairly quickly, as we made it to the Waterfront area by 9:15 AM, in plenty of time to buy tickets for the 11 AM sailing to Robben Island. So we had more than an hour to kill, which we did readily in the V&A Waterfront area, a space with cool old buildings…

Harbourmaster's House. 1904
…cool new buildings…

V&A Market's Alfred Mall 
V&A Market
…making a merging of the two in an active, working port, a fun experience.

Yes, they have a ferris wheel 
Made for John Lennon's death, and has been shown around the world 
The Pinotage. There's also a Merlot. 
The breakwall 
Cheezy frames are scattered around the city. 
The footbridge to the Clock Tower and Mandela Museum 
Working fishing boats.
We got to ride the Dias…

A movie set!
…which if you have seen the movie INVICTUS, is the ferry the rugby team uses to go to Robben Island, too.

The 45 minute ferry ride was fun, passing container ships and LNG tankers.

The Glomar Penguin, last out of Tokyo in January
…before coming to the island…

A slight rise in the ocean
…which has great views back to Cape Town.

The iconic Table Mountain
The island also has endangered terns, who nest on and around the road, and the baby terns that walk onto the road, meaning the busses have to be very careful to avoid them.

Terns nesting 
The terns
After exploring about 5% of the island (including the leper graves, because it was once a leper colony), the bus tour starts you on the process of understanding the prison, including a visit to the limestone quarry where Mandela and other labourers mined rocks for no reason other than to make them work at hard labour, often mining them just to make piles that they could move from one end of the quarry to another. Prisoners (including Mandela) developed eye problems from the bright light reflected in the white quarry.

Note the pile of rocks on the right
That cave was their toilet. Five years after the prisoners were released, many, including Mandela, returned to build that pile of stones, which is an African healing tradition.

We saw where Robert Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement – but with all the comforts of home, except being kept away from anyone else for 6 years, unable to speak to anyone. The guard dogs of the prison were kept next to his house.

Puppy homes
When we finally got to the prison itself, our tour guide was gentleman who was a political prisoner at Robben Island, jailed at age 21, for being part of the ANC political movement. Captured upon returning to South Africa after training in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola, he was sentenced to 25 years, and served 6, being released with the end of apartheid.

He led us through the prison, explaining what prison life was like for the 4,000-odd political prisoners held on the island.

Entering the prison
60 prisoners were held in his communal cell, with lights on at 5:30 AM and off at 9 PM, three shitty meals a day (the menu was on the wall), outside work 5 days a week (he cut seaweed for no reason), one outdoor day a week playing soccer or tennis, one lockdown day a week.
His cell block 
Home to 60 
His bunk was the corner bottom one 
Glass was added in the late 1970's 
Before the bunks? A mat and 2 blankets 
The menu, one for blacks and one for coloureds
Hot water was only made available in the mid-1970’s, the metal bunks and window glass were added in the late ‘70’s. Because the prison was only for political prisoners, they spent all their time discussing politics. The leaders, like Mandela, were kept in their own block, in private cells.

Mandela's outdoor courtyard. He grew tomatoes 
Mandela's window onto the courtyard
Our guide told us that the best thing that happened was to put all the political prisoners in one place, where they debated and unified plans, theories, strategies and the core of what eventually became the South African constitution when apartheid ended. The created non-violence strategies for ending apartheid which they were able to communicate to the outside world.

Mandela lived in this one cell -- with no bed, no toilet (that was the brown pot), no sink (that was the metal bowl) a thin pad and two blankets as a bed -- for 18 years. It’s 2 m by 3 m, which is smaller than my bathroom, and today, it's exactly the way it was when he was imprisoned there.

Home for 18 years

Mandela and the other leaders could only interact with other inmates on Saturday, sports day. The logic at the time was that by isolating the leaders, they couldn't influence others. In fact, by isolating the leaders, the leaders unified, and were able to better lead.

The downside to visiting Robben Island is that you can only do so on a bus tour. They used to let people on the island to wander around and discover the place for themselves (and there are interpretive signs all over), but people were taking souvenirs, damaging the buildings, and making a mess of the endangered animals that live on the island (like the terns, oystercatchers and penguins). So now, you take the ferry to the island, get on a bus, get escorted around on a guided tour, get escorted through the prison, then get on the ferry and go home. There’s not even time for lunch if you take the 11 AM ferry. Sigh.

The prison entrance
The ferry ride home was just as pretty as the ride across.

Iconic still
Once back at the wharf, we continued exploring. 

The drawbridge swings... 
...for a passing yacht 
Tugs and fishing vessels come and go 
A baby cannon 
Ever-present Table Mountain
We saw Nobel Square, dedicated to the 4 South Africans who have won the Nobel Peace Prize (Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, De Klerk - who ended apartheid with Mandela- and Luthuli).

Add caption

The Waterfront area has a couple of awesome modern buildings from an architectural perspective. The first is the Water Shed, a modernized old dock building transformed into a spectacular indoor market, with small stall spaces for retailers.

The entrance 
Former dock cranes juxtapose with new architecture 
A new and as yet unfinished 2nd floor 
View to the stalls below 
The open air mall 
The view down the 2nd floor
The second is a converted old pumphouse, transformed into the best food court and eating space I have ever seen, which my photos just do not do justice to.

The exterior 
The inside, or at least, a small part of it. It smelled great
The V&A Market itself is JASM (just another shopping mall – though at 450 stores and 120,000 m2, a very, very big one) but at least it’s a pretty one, and the fact that it’s in the middle of an active, working harbour is very cool.

The top floor of one of the 6 wings 
A crew working outside in the drydock
Robben Island is pretty amazing, more so because you get to hear first hand from former inmates what life was like as a prisoner.

They forgot to mention reconcilliation


Today’s Africa Travel Tip: Security, Part 1

If you’re coming to Cape Town, which the article I read yesterday said was the 8th most dangerous city on the planet (this article ranks it #4, worse than Kabul and Mogadishu), you might be worried about security. Well, the Cape Town Central District has green clad “Public Security” staff at the rate of probably 2 guys per block in the downtown core. The V&A Waterfront has security every 200 m.

Generally, there are security guards everywhere. They guard the ATMs on the street, most every consequential building’s entrance, every mall, every market, and are everywhere. All nightclubs have them. Interestingly, few are armed. They all have radios and most have nightsticks.

Now, many don’t give you massive confidence that they’ll do much, but they’re there. They won’t stop the incessant street beggars (who, for the record, work one block each. You get pestered for a block, then cross the road, and a new guy starts). In fact, I’ve never seen a security guard do anything (which is probably good, actually). But if you need info, they’re good guys to ask.

More on what they do and don’t do in the next Africa Travel Tip.