On Safari: The All Good Cape

On Safari: The All Good Cape

Dr. Lester Fisher, Dir. Emeritus of the Lincoln Park Zoo, with Barbara Shaffer
at the Cape of Good Hope as we began our safari in southern Africa.
I like to begin all southern African safaris in Cape Town, despite it being rather distant from game viewing areas and in spite of its constantly rising costs. As one of the most beautiful cities in the world it portrays so much of what young, modern Africa is becoming.

We spent four nights and five days in The Cape before heading to Botswana for game viewing. It was warm for March, several days in the lower 90s. But fortunately one night of heavy rain turned everything on, like a light switch, and the last of The Cape’s summer flowers and fragrances filled the peninsula.

One day was for the city itself. As with any world class city, I had to pare down the attractions to fit our time. I begin with a walk through the Company Gardens which is laden with history, sated with beauty and ringed with museums.

Nothing exciting was happening in any of the museums except the Slave Lodge, which had a special exhibit about Mandela. The Slave Lodge is one of the more sobering museums in the city, but without some understanding of how slavery affected and was a part of South Africa for so long, you really will never understand the present.

From there we visited what I think has become my favorite Cape Town museum, District Six, but this time I learned how important a guide is, and how fascinating and surprising the experience can be there.

District Six is a “living museum” whose guides are actual persons who were among those evicted from this historic quarter of Cape Town during the most pernicious period of apartheid, the 1960s. Residents who were fourth generation Capetonians were given sometimes less than a week to leave before the home their great-grandparents had built was bulldozed to make into an all-white section of the city.

Prior to the bulldozing, the area was classified as “coloured” meaning it was of mixed races. This could be white and black or Indonesian and Indian, or Malay and white. But it was a close knit, historic, politically dynamic and highly educated community, thrust suddenly into the dustbin of history.

The guides are what make the museum so incredible as they describe not just their lengthy history before the eviction but their lives afterwards and then after the end of apartheid. The story is usually a three-part drama that ends in pretty hopeful and inspiring ways.

But this time the guide we got, a politically active ANC undergrounder at the time he and his family were uprooted from nearly a 100 year history in the community, spent most of his time complaining to we visitors of the current affirmative action policy of the South African government.

Very interesting.

Obviously, the several centuries of apartheid that plagued the Old South Africa is going to take time to remedy, and I doubt there are many who feel that affirmative action is a wrong course of action. But the guide, a District Sixer and therefore a coloured, felt that affirmative action was displacing the opportunities of his family at the expense of blacks. “I’m not anti-black,” he insisted; “I’m just anti black behavior.”

That cliche has rung the world round and been exposed as hyperbole of the greatest sort, and it was a bitter sweet experience for me personally, who has been to the museum so many times, to see this crack in the hopefulness of the New South Africa.

Another day was spent at the Cape of Good Hope, and I can’t remember once before when there was no wind at the top of the Flying Dutchman that overlooks the sea that Dias and de Gama rounded centuries ago. But that was our fortune to be sure! Hardly a breeze, in fact, no clouds and one of the most spectacular views in the world. That day is the day we see the jackass penguins (recently politely renamed “African penguins”) at Boulders, and they’re absolutely some of the funniest things in existence. I like to sneak into the parking lot several blocks from the national park, the “swimming beach” and watch the kids swimming with them!

Another day was spent at Kirstenbosch, with free time to ride up Table Mountain and view the city from Signal Hill. What an amazing place Kirstenbosch is, and how indescribably beautiful. I say that because it isn’t just the gardens themselves which are spectacular, but that incomparable setting below Table Mountain. We nearly cried as our guide was walking us through pastures of bloom and stopped to say hello to an old man who had carried the ashes of wife to a certain point in the gardens that she so loved.

And finally we spent a day in the wine country. You’d be surprised that there really isn’t time to visit more than say two wineries. For one thing, the drive is so spectacular that you don’t want to get off the highway, with the jutting Cederberg mountains framing one beautiful vineyard after another.

I chose vineyards that don’t take tour buses. (We were driving ourselves around in rental cars.) That way you can get incredible attention and detail from the vinter as the wines are described, and real interaction when there are only a small number of people sampling the treasures. I particularly like Rustenberg Winery with its 19th century Victorian garden that is so spectacular as well!

True animal people as we are, part of the day for the wine country was spent at the Eagle Rehabilitation Center associated with the Spier Winery. Nearly half of the Cape Vultures, an endemic species, have been lost to poisoning, and that’s one (but by no means all) of the center’s missions. We got there in time for the 4 pm raptor demonstration and watched a number of beautiful birds flying around, landing on our arms and heads!

The Cape is so wonderful that I just could never see stepping into a game park in southern Africa without first stepping into this wonderland!