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Jo'Burg Days: Cape Spring

"...in spring, the Cape shines with a brilliance found nowhere else in Africa. Diaphanous curtains of rain sweep across the mountains but after a shower the clouds blow away and the reflected blue skies on the rain-washed streets lend an air of magic to commonplace scenes.'' Barbara Durlacher's words make you long to immediately pack your bags and head out to see the places she has described.

The light in the Cape has a particular quality. The huge oceans around this dog-toothed peninsula and fierce, scouring winds from the southern oceans blow away dust and pollution and leave the air sparkling clean. The result is that in spring, the Cape shines with a brilliance found nowhere else in Africa. Diaphanous curtains of rain sweep across the mountains but after a shower the clouds blow away and the reflected blue skies on the rain-washed streets lend an air of magic to commonplace scenes.

Less stressed than Johannesburg, the leisurely lifestyle of the Western Cape is unmatched in style and grace. Elegant Cape-Dutch homes nestle amongst vine-clad foothills; five-star hotels boast international clientele and smart suburban restaurants attract a crowd of young people.

Things have changed in the last few years, a younger, livelier crowd has ousted the former stodgy residents, and there is a thread of vitality and energy pulsing through the city, electric to the touch. The Waterfront has brought unprecedented prosperity to the city, and the huge International Conference Centre and several five-star hotels have injected new ideas into the old port. But it is all for the better, Cape Town and its residents are benefiting hugely from the change and the old suburbs lying in the comforting embrace of the mountain remain unchanged despite the busy life on all sides. However, there are many new housing estates and traffic congestion results in heavy delays.

In Constantia great armloads of arums grow along quiet streams, and small pockets of rain-daisies bloom in corners drawing the eye with their brightness. But an increased demand for wine has resulted in new vineyards on the slopes of the Constantiaberg and Tokai mountains, destroying isolated clusters of indigenous forest, and old pine plantations have been cleared, dramatically altering the ecology.

Country-lovers still ride their ponies through Tokai Forest where years ago I searched for mushrooms and couples walk their dogs along the bridle paths, overtaken by strings of young riders led by a teacher. Carefully picking their way along road verges despite the heavy traffic, the riders leave it to the well-trained animals to carry them home ignoring the danger of a noisy vehicle frightening a horse into bolting.

Further along the coast stands of coastal bush are being cleared for more development, but services are failing to keep up with the swiftly encroaching urbanisation. Sewage, lighting, public transport, schools and clinics are slow to catch up, and when they are provided, the ensuing dense housing destroys the quality of life residents desire. But, come summer, the surfers will be out again, breasting the waves at Muizenberg, hugging the curls of the right breaks at Kommetjie, and sailing their Hobiecats off Fish Hoek beach.

Further inland the older towns remain unspoilt. Stellenbosch retains its charm, the town centre enhanced by new frontages more in keeping with the gracious Georgian buildings. Hermanus, the centre of the Whale Watching boom, has cashed in with colourful open-air beach-side restaurants, flea-markets and African crafts. A ‘town crier’ in 18th century dress, blows his horn and shouts the whereabouts of the great marine animals; the tourists love him. But the real essence remains, and away from the tourist’s and hustle and bustle, quiet neighbourhoods slumber in the sunshine waiting for their up-country owners to return for the languorous summer.

We visited during the ‘Green Season’ when the countryside was verdant with growing crops. Wheat grew lush and green in the Swartland, orange groves glowed with citrus, vines were in bud, and the meadows and abandoned farm lands were bright with wild flowers. The famed gardens of Kirstenbosch nestled under Table Mountain, with Castle Buttress an impressive backdrop. In Clanwilliam, the Ramskop Wild Flower Reserve between the Cedarberg and the dam was filled with indigenous flora and fynbos. In the suburbs and small towns of the ‘flower route’ the gardens and carefully tended street verges flourished under the showers of rain. The Cape was a picture of beauty and delight, the vegetation recovering after mountain fires and the proteas glowing with colour. Bursting with nectar, they are the chosen habitat of the iridescent sunbirds.

A short visit to the little town of Darling, green amongst its enfolding hills, delighted us further. The townspeople take great pride in their little village, host of many delights. A great draw-card for visitors is the redundant railway station, now converted into a small theatre/restaurant and shop. It has been christened “Evita se Perron” [Evita’s Platform”] and it has become a venue for performances of the popular satirical works of the well-known South African character “Evita Bezuidenhout,” played by her amanuensis, Pieter Dirk Uys. The village has become a favourite with visitors who attend the performance and then spend a night or two enjoying the peace, tranquillity and the interesting bistros.

There are many examples of late-Victorian colonial architecture in the village, complimented by characterful new homes. Along one road we glimpsed a charming wild garden alongside a tiny stream. A resident said it belonged to a young man living in London, whose parents had a house in Darling. He loved the place so much he had bought the empty plot and turned it into a unique asset for the village.

Two visits stand out. The first was our overnight stop at John Duckitt’s farm “Waylands”, a few miles outside Darling. John is a descendent of Hildagonda Duckitt, the author of the first South African cookery book, “Hildagonda’s Where Is It?” and recently, to commemorate the family’s two hundredth anniversary, a great gathering was held at Waylands. Just prior to the celebration, by chance John and his brother found an ancient copy of the famous recipe book, and presented it at the gathering. It is now in safe-keeping; one of the only known originals of this famous book still in existence.

We slept in the old family homestead, with high ceilings, thick walls, and long cool stoeps front and back. The date on the front gable was 1892 and doors and windows were all mosquito-netted. The house seemed caught in an early 1940’s time-warp, where furniture, books, pictures and fittings had not been changed since John’s parents married. It has great potential for a clever renovator and restorer, although it would be difficult to modernise without destroying what is already there. We built a roaring fire of vine-stocks in the open fireplace and huddled under mounds of blankets, but despite every effort it was quite one of the coldest nights ever.

The neglected garden was filled with old fruit trees, flowers and birds, with a reed fringed dam where the yellow and red weaver birds were busy nest building. The place had charm and potential, and in the farmyard stood older barns, but strangely there seemed little life or activity, it was if it had been left high and dry by a receding tide.

Another visit was to Somerset West and the beautiful historic house “Vergelegen” which has many historical associations with the earliest settlers. In the spacious garden are three enormous camphor trees, planted in the early 1700’s by Willem Adriaan van der Stel, son of the first Governor of the Cape. The trees are still magnificent. The house burnt down in the early 1920’s and was rebuilt with great skill. King George and Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses stayed here during their Royal Visit in 1947 and Queen Elizabeth particularly wished to see it again when she visited South Africa in 1997. President Clinton and Hilary have visited, and it is said to be a favourite of Nelson Mandela’s. No wonder as the ambience is very special.

Daffodils dot the lawns alongside the camellia walk at the bottom of the mossy, garden alongside a lively stream and nearby bush is being cleared for a stand of yellowwood. The trees are slow growing, but lovely in their dark green beauty and they will enhance the slumberous charm. The rose garden and lavender walk and the front of the house with its old Dutch-style central path and tulip borders give so much character to this famous old dwelling; it was the greatest pleasure to visit here and enjoy all it had to offer.

On the slopes of the Helderberg Mountains near Somerset West we passed a huge artificial strawberry, a reminder of the tasty fruit grown in the area. This farm is also famous for its scarecrows, which stand in various poses amongst the rows, so lifelike it is difficult to distinguish the workers from the dummies.

Earlier in the holiday we had visited Lambert’s Bay with its famous Bird Island, the breeding place of 30 000 gannets and seabirds and once the site of several large crayfish factories. The imposition of strict new quotas closed down the cold-storage facilities, but the buildings have been converted to potato chip factories, and on entering the town, the pervading smell of fish has been replaced by a miasma of hot oil.

Driving back towards Cape Town along the sandy beach road, we passed Verlorenvlei, a secluded lagoon, where thousands of migrant birds breed, but the other famous bird site in the area, Rocher Pan, is dying. This is due to the local potato growers utilising an underground aquifer to irrigate their crop. The three-year drought in the Cape has emptied this underground reserve and the pan is drying up and fewer birds are frequenting the pan. Strangely, Milnerton Lagoon surrounded by dense suburban housing and an oil refinery, and bordered by a busy golf-course, still sports a flourishing population of herons, pelicans and assorted waterfowl who have adapted to the noise and activity around them.

The Cape has much to offer besides glorious beaches and fine swimming. There are excellent museums and art galleries, a lively theatre scene, luxury shopping centres, world-class golf courses, excellent roads and magnificent scenery. Visit in the winter to avoid the violent South-Easters, extreme heat, crowds and seasonal price rises. Hotels and restaurants offer many specials between May and September and are anxious to promote their establishments. The Cape has hundreds of possibilities from five-star to B&B and a wide range of good quality accommodation, and there is much to stimulate and interest the visitor, and few places offer more for those who enjoy the sea, mountains and the many facets of nature.


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