A camel trains drifts out of Axum, Ethiopia, on the way to market

A camel trains drifts out of Axum, Ethiopia, on the way to market

Inspiring Blog Latest

A tourist in South Africa

Robben Island entrance

“Please stand away from the edge and let go of the handrail the cable car floor is about to rotate.”

What?! A Rotating floor on a cable car – this is a revolution (pardon the pun). Now I understand why no-one else was rushing for the prime front window position as normally happens on a cable car – once again I’ve underestimated the extent of the South African tourist industry infrastructure.

I feel like in South Africa I’ve stopped being a traveller and transformed into a tourist. The two small exceptions to this have occurred in two suburbs.

In Johannesburg where we entered South Africa we stayed in Soweto and apart from an organised bike tour (see Steve’s story in the 'inspiring people' section of the site) we spent most of our time just hanging out, getting, to some extent, to know that interesting neighbourhood and being the only white people on the train.

The second exception is the time we’re spending now, at the end of our trip, in Cape Town’s funky bohemian student neighbourhood Observatory – aka Obz – but more on that later. Right now let’s get back to the cable car heading up Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain – surely the most beautiful city mountain in the world.

Now that I’ve recovered from the shock of having my front window taken away from me I, like millions of others each year (local and international), am busy gawking at the stunning scenery; the city nestled around the bottom of the mountain on one side, on the other South Africa’s rugged, ancient, mountainous coastline with huge wildlife inhabited rock faces rising straight up from the bright blue sea.

That sea, for the record, is positively teeming with marine life. You could spend a small fortune penguin, dolphin and whale watching or even cage diving with great white sharks. Or you could take the cheaper option I took and simply hang out at the beach and try your luck.

At surf spot Jeffrey’s Bay there were jumping whales in the distance and pods and pods of dolphins that would turn up like clockwork, really quite close to the shore, every sunset.

At the Cape of Good Hope I saw a seal surfing in the green room of the crushing waves only a metre or so from me where I stood on the sandy shore and I was also lucky enough to see Great White Sharks repeatedly ‘breaching’ (jumping up, breaking the surface and doing a belly flop). Is it any wonder tourists – in particular German and Dutch tourists – flock to this country in droves and take advantage of the well kitted out and abundant backpacker accommodation.

According to a newspaper article I read here last week, tourism in South Africa is growing at three times the world average and has become one of its most important business sectors. To be honest we were caught out quite badly by this tourist wave.

In the Stellenbosch wine region (Australia’s wine region has much to learn in terms of capturing tourist dollars) we had hoped to hire a car and visit Thandi Wines www.thandiwines.com - the first black-owned winery in South Africa.

Unfortunately, the day we tried to hire a car there was no automatic not already booked among the half-dozen or so different rental car companies in the town. Sadly, our inability to act like the rest of the tourists here and plan ahead meant we missed out on profiling what seems to be a very exciting social enterprise.

Thankfully, we learnt our lesson after that. We had read in the Lonely Planet that visits to Robben Island, the former political jail which held Nelson Mandela, often sold out. We booked over the phone (with the help of our lovely hostel, Bohemian Lofts Backpackers). As we walked through the posh redevelopment of Cape Town’s docks up to the Nelson Mandela Gateway ferry terminal I heard a couple of tourists reading the signs saying “sold out for today” and being very disappointed; thinking back to our experience in Stellenbosch I felt their pain.

In a country, and even a city, filled with memorable tourist experiences a visit to Robben Island is in a class of its own. While still in the small museum that surrounds the ferry terminal I was already being impressed despite myself.

A large part of the museum is given over to an exhibition about football (soccer) in prisons during apartheid. The cynic in me was instantly thinking, ‘oh it’s just a weak tie-in with last year’s World Cup in South Africa’. But I was wrong – there was nothing weak about it.

The Makana Football Association was named after a Xhosa warrior-poet - one of the first political prisoners to be banished to, and die, because of Robben Island - and was only established with the intervention of the International Red Cross.

I got goose bumps as I read that in upholding FIFA rules the association “sharpened organisational and resistance strategies while simultaneously teaching and practicing democratic principles”. The proof: A host of people involved in the league have gone on to be the leaders of modern South Africa including current president Jacob Zuma who was in the referee’s union.

On the island itself, yes there is a gift shop and yes there are lots of tourists and lots of lines and the feeling of being herded from one thing to the next – quickly. Our group of 30 or so was only given five minutes to all file pass and take photos of Nelson Mandela’s tiny former cell.

However, the experience of being shown around the prison itself by a former inmate – an organiser of the Soweto Uprising – that is truly an honour. To see his eyes as he looked up at the censor’s office, the burial place of many letters from loved ones, and said: “This small office caused a lot of pain”. To hear the break in his voice as he answered my question about whether it was hard to come back here as a guide: “very hard”. And, to hear him say: “but this process has healed me, I’m healed now”.

Most of all I hope I never forget the tears in my eyes when he talked about South Africa’s Rainbow Nation. How so many of the inmates were embittered and wanted revenge but wiser heads prevailed. He said: “My team tell people that you saw one (former inmate) and he did not bear a grudge. My team, my friends, we’re all free – free to go home.”

As I write this I am not home yet but I feel closer than I have felt for a very long time. Observatory reminds me very much of a neighbourhood I love in Sydney called Newtown. Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel so much a tourist here.

The other reason, I’m sure, is because Observatory is not clinically perfect like the beautiful but touristy V & A Waterfront or the pretty suburbs under Table Mountain. I overheard one side of a conversation the other day – it was a guy shouting from the balcony next to mine to the street: “Hey man I need a place to stay for a few days, no – I’m asking you can I stay with you, shame, did you still want that joint? What book are you reading at the moment?”

This neighbourhood is not clinically perfect but it is damn cool. In a funky, tiny little bar called Tagore’s that attracts alternative jazz bands that get reviews in the national press, the offbeat riffs – described quite loudly by one girl in the audience as “orgasmic” - were accompanied by the offbeat crowd. Black, white, brown, locals and visitors from other suburbs and from overseas, two young friends; one sporting a small afro and tailored black jacket, the other a baseball cap on his ash-blond hair and a bomber jacket. What with the jazz music and the old fashioned trilby hats some in the crowd were wearing, rightly or wrongly, I suddenly felt like I was transported through time and space to Sophiatown – the multicultural, arty, suburb razed to the ground by the apartheid regime because it stood against everything apartheid stood for.

The dream of the racially tolerant and equal rainbow nation is by no means achieved, but still, finding that little Sophiatown of my imagination inside those funky-ly wallpapered walls, like I said: cool.

More Inspiring Blogs