It had been ten years since I had visited Cape Town, the city where I had lived for 38 years of my life. Had it not been for my Mum’s pending 80th birthday, I would have stayed away for many more years. Why? It’s a feeling as if I have ‘graduated’ from that country and am now a better fit to the UK and Europe in general. Add to that the shaky and corrupt politics of South Africa as it is now together with the crime rate and Syria begins to look like a much more attractive holiday destination. Sadly for Cape Town, the weather patterns have changed over the previous years such that the rain they had been accustomed to every winter was simply not there. The dams supplying water to Cape Town were 20% full such that the shores of the main supply dam were recently used as a desert scene in a movie! So, given all these factors, I was not keen to go there on holiday for two weeks or indeed for any length of time.
The flight to Cape Town with British Airways was a very much ‘take it or leave it’ experience. To say that British Airways staff go the extra mile for customer service would be unfair to those on other airlines that actually do. We arrived in Cape Town to a customs hall packed with travellers of all nationalities waiting to be vetted through to the delights beyond. In their wisdom (or lack of it), Cape Town ‘International’ airport had provided three customs officials in total to cater for the three hundred or so passengers waiting to have their passports checked. There was nothing to do but wait in the queue that snaked around and back on itself time after time. We kept seeing the same people coming towards us on the other side of the barrier as we completed each circuit.
On exiting customs, I made a beeline for the bottled water and purchased a 6-pack of 2-litre bottles which, for some reason, surprised the checkout clerk. She had obviously never encountered a paranoid ex-South African before. I pictured Frank and I fighting over the last drops of water half way through our holiday, but I knew that somewhere along the way we would find another shop selling bottled water. I had rented a car through Avis, as I usually do, and was very glad that I did. The queues outside other popular car rental companies were frightening, but thankfully the awful reputation of Avis had ensured that we were only a few customers away from the desk when we arrived. I had booked a car with extra space, that being a Toyota Avanza. Had I known that it resembled a clown car with its tiny wheels and tiny engine, I might have bumped myself up to a higher level of car. Also, like a clown car, there were parts dropping off it like the interior air vent and the luggage compartment cover mechanism. It had obviously seen lots of use or had been stolen and returned a few times. It was strictly a no-frills vehicle, but it had air-conditioning and that was all I needed in the 27 degree Cape Town summer heat.
We didn’t turn right onto the motorway towards Cape Town as I would usually have done, but instead turned left onto the motorway towards the Strand and Gordon’s Bay – a route I had driven so many times during my time living in Cape Town that I could probably have done it with my eyes shut – something that some other drivers were clearly doing judging by the way they were driving. The motorway eventually gave way to a single carriageway that snaked up the mountain and over DuToit’s Kloof pass. As I neared the summit, passing a VW Golf shrouded in oil smoke, I remembered my little 1965 Mini pulling up that pass so many years before with the worn out constant velocity joints knocking against the floor as they struggled to transfer the drive of the engine to the wheels. It had sounded the same as someone knocking repeatedly on a door. Now, 30-something years later, in the little Toyota Avanza, we were practically flying over the pass. Seems that I misjudged the car and its capabilities. So what if the engine was revving at almost 4000 revs per minute at only 120km/h!
We made it to Sandbaai in good time, stopping at a cottage industries roadside restaurant along the way. There are things that are particular to South Africa that always bring back so many memories for me and I look out for them when I first get there. Things such as ‘biltong’ (dried and preserved meat), droeëwors (dried boerewors sausage), melktert (milk tart topped with cinnamon), koeksisters (plats of dough fried and soaked in syrup – SO SWEET!), mosbolletjies (brioche-type bread with aniseed) and of course ‘fruit dainties’ – minced dried fruit in squares or other shapes coated with sugar. Well the fruit is healthy if not the sugar! We stocked up on whatever we could get our hands on at the roadside shop and resumed the journey. The first glimpse of the sea is always exciting, even as an adult, bringing with it a sense of anticipation. I had seen that sight so many times during my childhood and in later years, as we would go camping at Onrus River every other year.
As we opened the car doors, we were greeted not only by the sunshine and blue sky, but by the amazing combination of scents that brought my childhood memories back to me all at once. There is no other place I know where the smell of the sea is quite so pronounced as it is in and around Cape Town. Perhaps it is the seaweed and other rotting sea vegetation on the rocks or the sea water itself as it crashes against the rocks, releasing a delicate sea spray into the air. This was combined with the scent of the local trees and the cut grass which all combined to welcome us back to the country. That was the first time I felt glad to be back. Sandbaai is situated between Onrus River and the larger tourist destination of Hermanus. All originally small fishing villages, they have now grown so much that I scarcely recognised them. One thing I noticed with alarm on returning to the country is that the number of people seems to have doubled since I left there in 2001. Although probably not double the number of people, there had been a massive influx of refugees from north of the South African border in the intervening years, so perhaps that accounted for some of the population explosion.
My dear Mother, although turning 80 within a few days, still looked ten years younger than her actual age and her mental faculties were still very much intact – unfortunately for me, as it wasn’t long before she was commenting that I should cut down on the biltong and koeksisters if I wanted to experience better health. I hastened to explain to her that my increased girth is a sign of prosperity (at least in some African tribes) and that I had no issues at all with my health. Having once again established our boundaries about which topics to avoid if we were to have a peaceful time in Sandbaai, we enjoyed a very pleasant four days in the area. My sister echoed my thoughts about returning to live in South Africa, as she was also enjoying the memories of days gone by. She said: ‘Yes, I could come back and live here, but I wouldn’t want to’. That sums it up for me.
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