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Diamonds and penguins

February 3, 2010

“We’ve found quite a few diamonds on the beach. We don’t look for them, we just stumble upon them. Sometimes one of the kids will bring one up from the bottom when they’re diving for crayfish. But we never take them. I always tell my kids to put it straight back where it came from, because if they catch you … whoa, you’re done for. And they are always around to check, with guns, on boats, cars, even helicopters. They even count how may crayfish you have taken by looking in your fridge and the bin for shells.” Annie is describing Brazil, a beach in the northwestern corner of South Africa, where she sets up camp for 6 weeks every summer with her family. And when South Africans go on a camping trip, it’s not a small affair with a tent and a billy can. Annie will bring everything she ‘needs’, including, most likely, the kitchen sink. We’ve visited campsites that are effectively temporary villages, where everyone has their own toilet, shower, satellite TV, fridge-freezers and enormous generators to power all these essentials.

Every year, the same people go back to the same place, so that many South Africans grow up knowing their campsite neighbours as well or better than their bricks-and-mortar neighbours, and will often continue the tradition with their own children.

Annie, who we meet in the small, Northern Cape town of Springbok (which, incidentally, is the only place in the region that we failed to spot a springbok), goes to Brazil for the fishing and crayfishing. She has to apply for a permit months in advance, because the area is owned by De Beers. So she and her family have to undergo security background checks, credit checks and physical checks before and after reaching the site. Diamond ‘stealing’ on the beach is a definite no-no. I find it strange and difficult to understand how this glassy, hard, crystal formation of carbon is so desirable in our culture that people are willing to kill each other for it. You can’t eat it, it’s pretty enough but so are hundreds of other gems, it’s not even particularly rare.

Springbok is set in a rocky hilly landscape at a kind of junction with the Namib and Kalahari deserts. It’s a place of goats and kokerboom (quiver trees), where every telegraph pole carries a bird’s nest and huge rocks lie in piles as though dumped there by a giant road-building scheme. At night, we’re shivering inside our sleeping bags; during the day, it’s stifling.

We journey south towards greening pastures and bountiful vineyards. Through a country that is currently obsessed with Zuma’s Henry VIII-style wife collection and the forthcoming World Cup (and whether or not people are buying tickets). And then, rounding a bend, suddenly there is Table Mountain, like a poster on the windshield.

Cape Town is stunning – naturally beautiful like Sydney with its plunging cliffs and natural bays, its hilly tree-lined streets and gorgeous Victorian architecture. Table Mountain, which is ensconced within a tablecloth of cloud most of the time, towers over the city’s few ambitious high-rises. And, just outside the city, the Cape of Good Hope by Cape Point – not the official southernmost tip of the continent, but nevertheless a potent landmark for explorers and travellers – is a wildlife haven hosting ostriches and baboons, zebras and mongooses, plus sharks, whales and dolphin offshore, where the chilly Atlantic Ocean meets the warm Indian Ocean.

We journey to the Point and then try to seek out Vasco da Gama’s cross. The 15th-century Portuguese was the first to make it all the way from Europe to India by sea, realising that it was possible to sail around Africa’s southern cape. We’ve met up with da Gama in a few places, including Cochin in southern India and so I wanted to visit his cross. Finding it was slightly disappointing – I was expecting a centuries-old Portuguese navigational cross, but found a nice neat Christan marker from the 1940s. It was down to his discovery, I guess, retrospectively, that the Dutch set up their East India Company in the 1650s, leading to a Boer expansion that would colonise the indigenous Bantu and Xhosa peoples.

Around the eastern side of the cape, we have a delicious fish and chip lunch in pretty, historic Simon’s Town, a wealthy area of boutique hotels and chic shops that was reappropriated from the black community in the 1980s. Nearby, the beaches play host to a breeding colony of African penguins, also called jackass penguins for their peculiar braying sound. We spend the afternoon watching them waddle around like smart waiters with their hands in their pockets, and they swim around our feet when we paddle in the sea. Fantastic!

Cape Town feels safe. It’s young and vibrant with art shows and live music, markets and innovative designs, cafes, stores and people. It’s a properly cosmopolitan city with great wine, food from around the world and people of every colour, religion and language. But I only saw white people sitting at tables in the cafes and restaurants of this African city, whereas the servers almost entirely black people. It will take time.

Some things are taking too long, though. Just outside of the beautiful city, we come across the township of Khayelitsa, a slum area where people live in the kind of cardboard and corrugated metal lean-tos that wouldn’t look out of place in Bangladesh or Nairobi. Here, there is an ongoing (for the past decade) toilet issue. Hundreds of households have no toilet facilities. The issue came to a prominent head a few months ago, with the council agreeing to provide either communal toilets or facilities for individual households but without the surrounding walls. The community chose the latter and those who were able to afford it, built enclosing walls around their toilets. Many cannot afford it. There were objections to the council’s plan to give financial aid to the poorest residents on account of this being unfair to those who had already shelled out for their walls. As a result, many people have no toilets at all, many have unprivate privies, and some have community toilets. It means that around the corner from the shiny billionaire’s mansions, people are shitting in buckets in their tiny shacks and emptying them into drains some walking distance away.

The residents are a mixture of recent migrants from elsewhere in the state and continent, and those who were forceably moved there and to the Cape Flats (now a notorious crime area) when their own neighbourhoods were declared ‘whites only’ areas during apartheid. One of these areas was Cape Town’s District Six, a culturally vibrant collection of Victorian terraced housing in the centre of the city. Long-neglected by the city’s council, the housing was overcrowded and sanitation was poor, when the government decided to completely relocate thousands of inhabitants elsewhere and demolish their houses. The community and cultural loss was immense, the injustice at taking a neighbourhood away from its people because they were not white is still deeply felt. On top of this though, the clearance was so artistically shortsighted. These houses, with their original detailed facades, delicate ironwork and careful mouldings would have enriched the city architecturally and supplied irreplaceble residential buildings in the heart of a culturally diverse city. It’s like destroying London’s Soho, New York’s Greenwich Village, Sydney’s Paddington or Glebe.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Attila's wife permalink
    February 3, 2010 9:52 pm

    What fantastic beach companions on the Cape!

  2. November 20, 2011 9:07 pm

    Could be this blog’s best blog on here.

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