There's no doubt about it: I've been spoiled for South African travel of late, with trips to both the north west border *and* the furthest south, within a short month. Amelia of Mahindra fame, the soon-to-be-doctor, also known in the Indian way as Amelia Madam, met me at Cape Town airport sporting her new "practical crop", as she calls it. After a night at the international student medics' residence at Tygerberg Hospital, we meandered east along the beautiful coast to L'Agulhas, named from the Portuguese, the 'Cape of Needles' so feared by seafarers.
Rhenosterkop is an old settler farm dating to the 18th century which has been bought and renovated by SAN Parks. In 1979, the apartheid government made the farm a national monument, though it's easy to miss the plaque. It is a set of dwellings that would have (and perhaps still does) engendered pride in those for whom the ideology of the robust pioneer spirit was so important. The original homes were made only of local materials and timber salvaged from shipwrecks, of which this coastline boasts many.
After a sunset wander around the famous lighthouse, we went for dinner in the Struisbaai harbour. Here we negotiated with the wind and attempts by a group of red-faced bikers to pick us up (but of course! -- any women unaccompanied by men must be there for the taking!) Later we found our way down the long dark gravel road to Rhenosterkop, on which we met a better match - a regal spotted eagle owl. It graced us for some time on the road in the glare of our headlights, at one point bobbing its head at its own shadow.
It must have been a hell of a lonely and challenging existence. A bit of online research tells me that our cottage (Number 2) was a shepherd's house dating to circa 1930s. When this particular shepherd was a child, apparently he tried to fly by attaching flamingo feathers to his arms and jumping out of a tree. He was crippled for the rest of his life and was called Jan Mankie. Today the cottage is quiet, comfy and very cosy, even as the the hard edge of winter draws in -- and fully equipped for disabled access, which I'm sure Jan Mankie would have approved of.
We hiked for several hours through the limestone fynbos. The park is a shelter for all sorts of endangered plants, frequented by shiny sunbirds. Over 100 fynbos species are found only in this area, and 29 of them are rare or threatened. The Lemon Buchu is amongst the latter, in its last remaining substantial habitat; it is almost fluorescent green, leaping out against the lavenders and greys of the two oceans that meet in the distance. Amelia Madam is not accustomed to looking out for snakes on the streets of London, so good thing she had me around to spot the Skaapsteker (Psammophylax rhombeatus, allegedly of a 'gentle disposition'), as well as a large, vibrant and much more poisonous puff adder.
Back at the harbour, we consumed seafood platters with voluminous quantities of batter and sauce, whilst watching the returning fishermen and billowing stingrays hovering in the shallow waters. We bought an icecream from two ladies who sell sweets to holidaying children in a blue van from a bygone era. Struisbaai has the longest natural beach in the southern hemisphere, a total of fourteen kilometers. We only caught a small corner of it, together with a scarlet sunset.
This southernmost tip of Africa has long been a global corner. Ships and voyagers have died all along this coast since the 17th century, a time when elephants used to roam these parts too. The ships were from Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Britain, on their voyages to and from the east. Amongst the vast array of finds displayed in Bredasdorp's Shipwreck Museum, sandwiched amongst some silver cutlery and Indian coins, is a small and patient Buddha which receives no mention by the curators. A long journey it made, and we debated its possible origins.
We stopped in neighbouring towns. In Napier we found some ex-Rhodesians from Bulawayo on the side of the road selling stamps and honey. Their now-grown children weren't interested in stamps, they said. I seized an incongruous postcolonial opportunity to buy a first day cover (dated 1982, during the bad old days of South Africa's 'homelands') featuring black boy scouts in the Transkei. Whatever next! A few doors down, we met an eccentric purveyor of pewter chessmen and collector of militaria. His bunker-esque basement holds everything from Queen Mary and Jan Smuts to the SADF and the Third Reich. I wondered what Amelia Madam made of his multiple references to the British royals.
Our next much-awaited destination was Arniston, named after the British East India ship which ran aground on the 3rd May 1815, bizarrely exactly 199 years ago to the day on which we arrived. The entire fishing village, with its atmospheric whitewashed fishermen's cottages is a heritage site, known interchangeably as Kassiesbaai and Waenhuiskrans.
I found our accommodation on Gumtree, and our hostess B. was at first perplexed that we were whites who wanted to stay in "the coloured aria". She must have repeated this phrase at least 3 times the first time we spoke, and must have been even more perplexed when this made me laugh out loud. After several preliminary phonecalls, B. met us on the side of the road in her green Corsa before we followed her into the newer part of the small and slightly shabby 'township'. Her great-grandfather was a Khoi man who married a white woman, and her grandfather was the first man to own a fishing boat in Arniston. Notable features in her house include the only picture on the wall - a black-and-white photograph of the village at a time when it was populated by only the coloured community, a statement of identity and belonging. And an innovate soap dish in the shower made from a Flora margarine tub with crafted drainage holes, nailed to the wall.
After a brief but glorious early morning swim on 'the coloured beach', we drove inland to Franschhoek through canvases of hills and valleys which made me realise that artist Pierneef's landscapes are not stereotyped but entirely accurate in both detail and spirit. Lest we romanticise too much, though, (another famous artist) Kentridge has pointed out that the nationalist work of early white landscape painters such as Pierneef "emerged only after "puffs of gunsmoke" had silenced debate over who controlled the land"(*full article here).