The city from the air
Cape Town was founded in 1652 as a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company.
Table Bay formed a natural harbor for ships, and the city became a major staging point for ships sailing from Europe to the east.
Because of Table Mountain, the city had to expand along the coast.
Cecil John Rhodes -- the same person who founded the Rhodes scholarships -- lived in Cape Town and
bought up huge portions of the slopes of the mountains. These he left to the people when he died,
and so the city now surrounds a gigantic national park, within easy reach of most of the population.
From where I lived, I could reach the park easily, and I often went up there to look at the buck
grazing on the mountainside. There was an old Napoleonic blockhouse up there that I loved to go to,
so I could sit on the cannon. The mountain was behind me, and the sea in front of me,
and that was what the city meant to me.
The Cape Town Castle:
A large fortress was built by the Dutch in the middle of
the 17th century to protect the city. Once it stood on the coast, but so much land has been reclaimed
from the sea that it is now far inland, and completely surrounded by the city. I liked the
idea of that fortress smack in the middle of town, and I liked the look of the walls as the bus went by them: the bus-route runs right along the bottom of the old moat at one point.
Cape Dutch House:
The Dutch when they settled Cape Town brought their distinctive style of architecture,
but modified it for the pleasant Mediterranean climate that Cape Town has, building the houses with
tiled floors around open courtyards. This is one of the most famous Cape Dutch houses, Groot Constantia, and is still,
as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries, the center of a wine farm. The wine produced here, the famous Constantia wine, was in high
regard in the late 18th century. The style is so perfect for Cape Town that lots of brand new houses are still built in it, though the area where I lived, which was more working class, had few of them.
Adderley Street is the major street in Cape Town.
Once it was called the Heerengracht, and a canal ran down the middle of it.
The land has risen so much that the old ground-level can only be reached by
a maze of underground shopping malls that exists nearby. The statue of Jan van Riebeek, the
Dutch governor who founded the city, stands at the end of the street, on the original shoreline. As a child I almost
always travelled by bus, and this street was where I always got off, when I was going to the city center.
Most of the really big stores were on it, and if you went towards the mountain, you reached the Cape Town gardens,
where we used to feed the pigeons and the squirrels. A native-born Capetonian never thinks of North or South;
everything is oriented by whether you're going towards the mountain, or away from it.
The View of the city from Signal Hill
Signal Hill was used as a lookout post for attacks from the sea, and had a signal tower, from which it
derived its name. At noon each day, a cannon was fired from Signal Hill. I wonder if it still is... it was so much a part of my life
that we even timed things by the bang.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
The area around Cape Town is so rich in varieties of plants that a botanical
garden on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain was founded in 1913. The gardens are in such an exquisite
natural setting that we often used to go there for afternoon tea.
The Wine Country:
The climate around Cape Town is perfect for wine-growing, and wine (and brandy) were the most common
drinks in our house, much more so than beer.
Only a few miles from Cape Town the vineyards begin, and go on for mile after mile. The vineyards sometimes had really good restaurants attached,
and we'd go there for a meal, served with jug after jug of the estate wine.
The Rhodes Memorial:
So important was Cecil John Rhodes in the development of South Africa, that a memorial to him
was built on the slopes of the mountain. This was one of my favorite places to go when I was a child:
the walk up the mountain side is beautiful, and we would collect pine cones and eat the nuts as we went. And at the
memorial there was a tea shop, where my mother and father would buy us scones with strawberry jam and cream.
Proteas Though proteas seem exotic elsewhere in the world, they are commonplace in the
Cape Town region, and are often seen growing wild along the road. I never gave them a thought as a child. They were just part of the wildflower population.
The end of the Cape Peninsular is another nature reserve, and here there are many troops of baboons, who are so used to the presence of human beings --
from whom they can scrounge food, in violation of the park rules -- that it is virtually impossible to drive to Cape Point without running into them. Everyone who lives in Cape Town has a
jaundiced view of them: they often wreck the cars of people who are thoughtless enough to leave a window open.
This was my favorite beach. It lies on the Indian ocean side of the peninsular, so the water is warm;
and the beach of white sand goes on for mile after mile. As a child I loved coming here and standing in the surf as big waves came at me,
with the mountain on my right and the open sea ahead of me. It seemed that things went on forever there.
The Cape Peninsular has the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and the warmer currents of the Indian Ocean on the other.
When we wanted to swim, and did not want to take the long trip to Muizenberg with its warm water, we would go to
the enclosed swimming bath at Sea Point. The water was taken straight from the
Atlantic Ocean, but it was warmed by the sun: only the intrepid swam in the icy water of the sea itself.
The coast and my favorite beaches
Almost everything in Cape Town seems to be at an angle: the streets are often steep, and the
mountains sometimes fall sheer to the sea. Anyone who wants
to drive anywhere usually has no choice but to take roads that cling precariously to hillsides.
The views are spectacular, but you had better have calm nerves... One of my favorite Sunday afternoon treats was a drive along the coast.
Cape Town Sunsets. The sunsets are so often spectacular on
the Atlantic side of the peninsular, as the sun sets in the sea. I often saw them going home from the
beach, the sun setting as we rode the bus home.
At the end of the peninsular is Cape Point, with its two lighthouses and a cross put up by Vasco da Gama,
who in 1487 finally found a sea route to the Indies. We always knew in our hearts that this was the
end of Africa, the southernmost part of the continent... The fact that Cape Agulhas,
across the bay, was somewhat more to the south never mattered to us.