Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Day 15: A Table and a Prison

Oh, Cape Town and its crazy weather!! Woke up this morning to reasonably bright skies (by Cape Town standards); maybe we could get up to the top of Table Mountain today? :) As we left our apartment to head downstairs, though, it was raining HARD. Depressing! We picked up the car from the parking garage, and…the rain had stopped. How do people live like this? ;)

The first ferry to Robben Island (home of Mandela’s prison) wasn’t until 11am, so we spent the first part of the morning poking around Green Market Square – a large outdoor market featuring ‘classic’ African goods (carved masks, beadwork, and the ‘original’ African sandal, made out of old car tire…). I was very tempted by a cool looking game involving seeds and a board of ebony wood; the instructions indicated that the purpose of the game was “to pass the time” and “make people happy”.

We barely made it to the 11am ferry (I think we boarded at 11:02…) and so we headed on the rough seas to Robben Island. That island is farther out than I expected, and although it is in Table Bay, the water doesn’t seem much calmer than out in the ‘real’ ocean.
I’ve never been to Alcatraz, so I have no comparison, but I can’t think that anyone would have had much chance of escaping from Robben Island. I think the South African government agreed, as the prison itself didn’t look particularly forbidding – not really what you would expect to house their most ‘dangerous’ criminals.

Upon arrival, we all boarded buses for a tour of the Island: Robert Soubhoukwe’s solitary prison house (one of the first revolutionaries, before Mandela), the houses of the prison guards, and a quick stop for what was billed as the most beautiful view of Cape Town, which was pretty spectacular!
Our guide made an effort to discuss the way the countries of all the tourists on the bus impacted the history of Robben Island – either as a political prison or before. He was pretty flattering toward Canada, citing the largest anti-apartheid marches in the world (outside of South Africa) in Vancouver. He was less flattering about the loud and annoying Aussies who were on the bus with us. He cited their country’s impact as the importation of Eucaplyptus trees which devastated the island environment….

Seeing the political prison, and Mandela’s cell in particular, was moving. We also saw enlarged versions of actual prisoner ID cards – they had to carry these with them at all times.

Our guide in the prison itself was a former political prisoner at Robben Island, and he spoke candidly about his experiences in the prison. I suspect that he was less candid about what brought him to Robben Island. He was a part of the military wing of a banned political party. He claimed that his role was to guide fighters smuggled in from Botswana(?) to caches of weapons in South Africa. Personally, sounds to me like “I worked in a strip club as a coat-check girl”, but I didn’t challenge him on his claim.

Even before it was a prison island, Robben Island was used to isolate other populations...

We got back to the mainland with a view of the top of Table Mountain, which we’ve learned is a rare site in Cape Town (especially in winter!), so we raced across the city in a cab to the cable car – it was open!!

The cable car ride is….interesting….even for someone who doesn’t have any issues with heights. Toward the latter stages of the trip up, it felt like we were moving nearly vertical, and I really got a sense of just how high the top of Table Mountain is (1000+ metres). The views from the cable car and the top, though, made any small coronary episodes on the trip up worth it! The views of the city, the harbour, and the surrounding mountains and ocean are phenomenal! Absolutely beautiful!!
There are also numerous Dassies scampering around the top of the mountain. Dassies look rather like short, groundhogs, or large guinea pigs. Their nearest relative in the animal world is the elephant?!?

Wandering around the top of Table Mountain gives more breathtaking views no matter where you turn.

Then we were forced inside by the cold and rain. Surprisingly, the café at the top doesn’t offer the best views, but it didn’t really matter, all the windows were fogged up anyway.

Jessica was frozen from the cold winds at the top, so she jumped in a cab back to the hotel. Shaun and I decided to brave a walk back to the hotel. The views of the mountain made it worth it, but the endless fumes from passing cars detracted from the experience (I don’t know what is different about their car fuel, but the exhaust reeks!).

Henry and Shamiel, the super friendly concierges at our hotel, recommended Africa Café for dinner. We ate in the Zulu room, and were served a communal feast (only communal among the three of us). Sadly, I didn’t feel eating with my hands was really suitable, as the dishes included rice and couscous, without anything like injerba or naan to scoop it up. Jessica is braver than me or Shaun; she didn’t touch her fork until dessert!

As we were preparing to leave, six or seven of the staff (cooks, servers, hosts) paraded into the room singing traditional African songs, dancing, and keeping the beat on a hand-held drum. What a perfect way to end the evening!! :)

1 comment:

  1. those views from the top of table mountain are amazing and the second one with all the green is now my desktop background - my favorite by far. i am so please the cable car was finally working and you were able to make the journey up to the top.