Our week was characterized by the long awaited arrival of our friends from the US, Dana and Terry Tarr from Amherst and Kathy and Larry Bame from Pennsylvania. Living and working in South Africa has been wonderful, but since Rich and I have a job to do here, we actually have not gotten too far out of Stellenbosch. So, we were delighted at the opportunity to play tourist with our visitors and to find ourselves at various moments experiencing what it means to be in and out of control of what was happening.
Every visitor to Cape Town, South Africa is awed by the vista of a modern coastal city with skyscrapers, a bustling harbor, and a superdome nestled up against the Hottentot coastal range which itself is dominated by a towering 3500 foot mountain. The flat top of Table Mountain serves as a playground for the weather, with coastal south easterly breezes laden with moisture being pushed up the mountainside and meeting the cold temperatures of the summit. The result is a magical cloud layer called the Table Cloth which forms and dissipates and blows and swirls, covering and uncovering the mountain several times a day. Our group of six caught a gondola up the side of the mountain late in the day, hoping to see a sunset from the top and taking advantage of the break in the cloud coverage that had played peek-a-boo with the summit for most of the day. The sheer rise of the gondola, the slow rotation so that each of the dozen occupants would get both the mountain and ocean vista, and the beauty spread out on all sides is enough of a reason to go, but it was our exploration of the table top itself that was magical. We had time to circumnavigate the top, pausing to play with several dassies, the resident guinea pig like mammals whose closest biological cousins are the elephants, the flowering fynbos and proteas, and jaw-dropping views, before the tablecloth dropped down on the mountaintop again. The clouds blew in quickly with mists swirling around us, covering our paths and making each of us an island onto ourselves. A horn signaled the park services desire for all of us to return to the visitors’ station for transport back down the mountain.
We wanted to explore the wild peninsula south of the City. We started with a stop at Boulders Beach on the eastern shore of False Bay, arriving unbeknownst to us during the peak in the mating season for the resident African penguins. Several videos we took might not pass censors but we really enjoyed our up close and personal with the private lives of these adorable creatures. They made each of us laugh with their ungainly ways on land and their grace and beauty in the ocean. We learned that “Jackass,” the common name for the penguins was quite appropriate as the males vied with each other by braying and flapping their stubby wings while sticking out their chests.
On to the Cape! At the Cape Point Lighthouse, we climbed the equivalent of 105 stories (two of us had pedometers) up to the lighthouse on top of the cliffs at the edge of the peninsula. There it was either the beautiful views or the constant winds of 40 knots (46 mph) with higher gusts that took our breaths away. We enjoyed watching a family of ostrich and a trio of eland graze side by side close to the walkway. Baboons made themselves scarce, which may have been due to the fires that had plagued the peninsula in the last few weeks (more on this below).
A brief ride further and we were at the Cape of Good Hope, “….known for the stormy weather and rough seas encountered there, the Cape is situated at the convergence of the warm Mozambique-Agulhas current from the Indian Ocean and the cool Benguela current from Antarctic waters.” We took the requisite photos next to the Cape sign and paused to admire the windsurfers in an adjacent bay with white sand – Rich caught one surfer in flight.
After a delicious lunch at “The Green Room” in the sleepy surfing village of Kummetjie, we headed north through Chapman’s Peak. We were unprepared for the two thousand feet sheer drop off to the glorious bays and white sand beaches below and for the spectacle and beauty of this wilder more remote side of the peninsula. We also had not appreciated the scope of the damage done by the wildfires of the previous weeks (more on this below).
One of our most profound experiences was our visit to Robben Island, just offshore of the city of Cape Town, with a glorious view of Table Mountain. Scenic views, however, are not what the island is known for. Most Americans are aware that Robben Island was the site of incarceration of Nelson Mandela for most of the 27 years he was a political prisoner under Apartheid. But what we did not know was that the island had been used as a site for outcasts for at least 300 years. A 19th century writer wrote: “Who can be unmoved on first hearing of its inhabitants – the lawbreakers, the lunatics, and the lepers! Few places so small and insignificant looking can boast of having played so important a part in the history of a vast multitude of people. I make no apology, therefore, for calling the attention of the reading public to the Island’s early history, I claim for it more than a momentary passing attention. I call for respectful and reverential regard.” And two centuries later yet another writer had this to say: “In its small wave beaten boundaries, Robben Island holds the memories of a nation and the legends of the greatest and weakest of South African leaders. It carries the scars of four centuries of human suffering and triumph.”
Our ferry rode some wild waves out to the island in the bright sunshine of a Sunday morning. The mood was light. We started with a young guide, Gcobani, (translated from Xhosa to English as “be joyful”) who told us of the early history of the island as we toured by bus. Graveyards, hospitals, churches were all that were left as witness to the period when the island was home to men and women, characterized as outcast because of their mental or chronic illnesses such as leprosy, epilepsy, diabetes, or cancer, who were brought involuntarily to the island. We were driven past a bare, bleak, walled compound circled with barbed wire that was home to the criminals (murderers and thieves) brought to the island to serve out their sentences. We said goodbye to Joy as we arrived at the much more extensive compound – a maximum security prison – constructed to hold the most “dangerous” of men – those who were determined to end apartheid. Five towers each with an armed guard, an outer fence 15 feet high, an inner electrified fence, a pack of guard dogs who patrolled the 3 feet between the inner and outer fence, and a deliberate program set up to isolate, break down, and demean men – all this was not enough to contain the ideals of the men inside. Our inside tour guide was former political prisoner 366-04-86, who had himself spent six years as a young man on the island. He was one of the many whose crime was to fight for a vision of the future for South Africa did not include the indignities to the non-white population of the country. Even at 22, he had felt he could not stand by and watch while black children were murdered in Soweto on their way home from school. He showed us his cell block, his bunk, and the list of his crimes and described his food and uniform and daily schedule, but what was perhaps most unsettling was his response to the question of why he would choose to spend his life here on the island that as a young man he had so desperately wanted to leave. “This is the last place I would ever want to be,” he said, “but it is the only place I can find employment.” For political prisoner 366-04-86, the ideological chains that bound him to Robben Island from 1986 to 1992 have been replaced by economic ones. The ferry ride back through even wilder seas was a quiet one.
Finally, I need to bring this long post to a close with a tragic yet inspiring story of how first Cape Town and now Stellenbosch, have suffered the past few weeks from voracious wild fires, and the men and women who brought them under control. Given the dryness of the season, the summer’s worth of heat that has parched the forests and brush, we are told that the fires are a normal part of the cycle of the land. While they are not welcomed, they are expected. The fires are fought by land with firefighters – many of whom are volunteers fighting in the >100oF heat, and by air with helicopters, whose pilots drop gallons and gallons of water on the infernos. The fires around Cape Town and the south coast were extraordinary in their range and vigor. After almost a week of burning, threatening not only brush and forest, but homes, resorts, and even the American Embassy outside of Cape Town. One helicopter pilot lost his life – and damage is estimated to be in the billions of Rand. Please do watch this video (or click on this link), to view “Cape Town on Fire”: https://vimeo.com/121350729
In downtown Cape Town, the trees are wrapped with red banners, in symbolic support of the men and women who are risking their lives. An international 60 km bike race was reduced to 40 km because the fires had made cycling through some parts of the tour unsafe. The 1000 professional riders dressed in red to support firefighters. One Norwegian team showed their support of the South African firefighters by finishing the abbreviated race, and then laying down their bicycles, putting on their running shoes, and running up and down Lion’s Head and finally–to ice the cake–then RUNNING up Table Mountain (3,500 ft). In what is reported as the world’s largest solidarity ride, 34,000 local amateur bike riders rode to support the fire fighters. One could see a sea of red firefighter hats, with “thank you” written across the top. As I write this, our local fire in Stellenbosch is still out of control. The fire is burning uphill in Jonkershoek, where Rich and hiked the waterfall trail several weeks ago (see blogpost Week 20). Three helicopters were firebombing the blaze, with 3000 hectares of forest already destroyed. An experimental farm was destroyed and the sports science institute evacuated but we were told all the animals in the farm were removed safely.
We wish to dedicate this blog to all the firefighters everywhere who, like my own brother Rob, put their lives on the line in a sacrifice that can never be measured in salary be it Dollars or Rand. You represent the best of us and we can’t thank you enough!
 Encyclopedia Brittanica (online)
 G.F.Gresley, Cape Illustrated Magazine, 1895
 C.Smith, Robben Island, 2005