Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 24, 2017
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Cape Town charms

An MD and his wife explore all of the Western Cape’s highs and lows

The Western Cape is a marvellous wonderland that lets the imagination run wild with windswept oceanscapes, arid deserts, nearby wine lands, hints of African safari and traces of Europe in Cape Town. San Bushmen, the Khoikhoi, Dutch and British have inhabited the province. She has borne witness to immense happiness and hardship. There are countless people involved in her history: Diaz, Da Gama, Van Riebeeck its Dutch colonial founder, Rhodes the British Victorian villain or visionary, and more recently Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). During our most recent visit, we were awed by the magnificent topographic setting of Table Mountain in Cape Town, which is bounded on three sides by the Southern Atlantic and Indian Ocean. We ventured to the mythical tip of Africa at Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. It’s no surprise that humans found this a space for rest and renewal for millennia.

Cape Town is a city swallowed up by its topography, from the green and verdant British colonial structures hugging mountain slopes to the California-like, glass-and-steel low rises edging into rocky watery outcrops to the colourful, but sadly infamous Cape Flats township shacks.

It’s hard not to feel transformed by this great city, a magical and unusual land filled with contrasts between mountain and sea, African bush and desert, extreme social class divides and race.

Cape Town’s geography and architecture seems to be a microcosm of the history of South Africa itself. Visiting the City Bowl, one is awed by the majesty of the Old Dutch and colonial British European style of the grand structures: City Hall, the Slave Lodge Museum, the Great Synagogue.

The centre of town is lined with bucolic pedestrian walkways and the lovely Company’s Garden has been replenishing ocean seafarers since the 17th century. Everyone’s voices were hushed walking amongst the gracious cycads, palms and ancient pine trees. Sir Cecil Rhodes bequeathed Kirstenbosch Gardens (sanbi.org/gardens/kirstenbosch) on the southern slopes of Table Mountain the largest and most diverse botanical gardens of the Southern Hemisphere. Here one finds Van Riebeeck’s infamous thorn fence intended to prevent the migratory black Khoikhoi from venturing into the fledgling white Dutch colony of 1620. The gardens were created after all the native timber was cut down for shipmen’s fuel and mast poles.

The leafy and Provencal vineyard of Constantia (constantiavalley.com) seems stuck in time with Cape Dutch châteaux facing mountain slopes. Then there’s the suburb of Clifton with its glass condos for the rich and famous meandering down mountain sides to the South Atlantic’s sheltered beaches and the suburb of Camps Bay (campsbaytourism.com), a cross between South Beach and Malibu with high-end bars and bistros serving gastronomic delights while impoverished teenaged Zulu dancers perform on the roadside for Yuppie delight.

The soaring Cable Mountain is only a cable car ride away. Its presence never disappoints and only becomes more wondrous as its tablecloth of mist envelops the mountain’s crest in the late afternoon adorning the entire city with a playful mystery.

There is Bo Kaap, the colourful Malay district, the haunting desolation of District Six, the once thriving intercultural part of town now only acknowledged by a museum, and the Caribbean Haute Bay, a former fishing village that has been swallowed by Cape Town’s sprawl.

Beyond Cape Town

During my visit, I found myself pondering the Western Cape’s present-day chapter: how has she fared since Nelson Mandela’s tear-filled revolutionary proclamation for the end of apartheid at Cape Town’s City Hall over 20 years ago?

While apartheid is over, Cape Town still feels like a divided city based on social class. There are warnings galore about danger and crime, and many urban myths about venturing into the Cape Flats during the day or night. Visitors have to be mindful all the time, applying logic and commonsense as you would travelling in any developing country. Sadly, you only have to experience the Western Cape’s self-imposed sunset curfew to realize that not all is safe and peaceful.

When we finally left Cape Town, we headed to the remarkable wine country, which is as authentic as France or Italy. Beautiful glistening vineyards amidst towering mountains…

On the edge of the city and every town are the Townships with an unimaginable landscape of shacks with a sad, but vibrant life of their own. We were told life is better in this other world than during the days of apartheid.

In Franschhoek (franschhoek.org.za), a gracious and prosperous former Huguenot colony, there is a small town filled with large atmospheric country inns. We hiked amidst the cypress and lavender to Richard Branson’s vineyard where we met Derrick, a young black waiter with fine British manners wearing a torn pair of shoes. He didn’t know where Toronto was except when we told him it is where Drake lives. Derrick was delighted and insisted we give Drake his SA regards.

We then travelled on Highway 62 — a kind of South African Route 66 — through the Little Karoo at the edge of a great desert and visited frontier towns like Montagu with its thermal pools and Barrydale with its hippie eateries. We even stopped at Ronnie’s Sex Shop, a cowboy bar in the middle of nowhere.

The temperature was in the mid 30s when we arrived in Oudtshoorn (oudtshoorn.com), an isolated Victorian town in the desert. It’s also the ostrich capital of the world. The grand old agricultural town is a trip back in time with wide boulevards and the aging British manors of turn-of-the-century ostrich barons.

North of Outdshoorn is the Swartberg pass. It’s the highest pass in SA and runs into badlands on the way to Prince Albert, an oasis of a Cape Dutch town. We travelled southward to the Garden Route encountering a baboon family scurrying across the road and eventually the wild Indian Ocean breaking along the coast filled with windswept beaches. There were hints of dolphins and ancient jungle forests where wild elephants previously roamed.

The Garden Route takes one through atmospheric towns like Wilderness with its freshwater lagoon and 12-kilometre-long beach, Knysna with its estuary, oysters and old-growth forests, and Plettenberg where South African affluence meets surfing culture. It culminates in Tsitsikamma National Park (tsitsikamma.info). Here the proportions of nature’s bounty and fury intensify with the crashing waves amidst isolated mountainscapes at Nature’s Valley and Storms River mouth.

One is transformed by this magical and unusual land filled with contrasts between mountain and sea, jungle and desert, extreme social class divides and race. If you are looking for an adventure filled with history and lessons for humankind, make your way to the Western Cape, South Africa.

For more info on travel to the region, visit Cape Town Tourism (capetown.travel) and South Africa Tourism (southafrica.net/za/en/articles/overview/western-cape).

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