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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Twelve nights as a tourist at home

Karoo reality: Lola the pet dog at Gamkapoort Dam: Pic Steve Pike
 Tourists tend to get a distorted view of Cape Town, but I got a refreshing perspective when I became a tourist in my own city recently.
Hosting friends from the US for 12 nights during the July school holidays, we showed them our local haunts. We also used the break to indulge as holidaymakers and explore our surroundings.

# There's always something new to see in your backyard

On day 1, we eased our friends Tom Landon, Beth Macy and their 13-year-old son Will out of jetlag by taking them to our favourite suburb, Muizenberg. We walked along the coastal path past Baileys Cottage to St James, the giant swell from spring tide lashing the route along the way. We spotted a few baby sharks, not in the ocean but in Kalk Bay, in a tank at the Save our Seas Shark Centre, a place of interest I have never visited before. We ate fish and chips at the Brass Bell, watching a group of gung-ho surfers getting barrelled at a break a few metres from our table window.

# The resilience of Robben Island

Madiba's prison cell on Robben Island. Pic: Tom Landon
Our laid-back friends from Virginia had one non-negotiable on their trip: a pilgrimage to Robben Island. On day 2, we took the Sikhululekile to the island, which has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. We got choked up with emotion thanks to our superb tour guide, Yasien Mohamed. The tour, which cost R220 for adults (R110 for children), became the subject of conversation throughout the holidays as we tried to figure out whether we had blinkers on that day, whether we were just lucky, or whether the new CEO is shaking things up at the scandal-ridden World Heritage Site*.
We walked to the station by following the fan walk through the city. We caught the Metrorail train to Steenberg Station, giving our visitors a feel for the natural working rhythm of city life.

# Spoilt for choice: Neoprene or lycra

The mountain or the ocean?
We headed for my weekend hangout, Surfers Corner, on Day 3. Will stood up within an hour of getting into the water, with the help of a learner soft board from the Surf Shack. Amped and stoked, Will spent the rest of the holiday like us - dreaming about his next surf.
So day 4 became a surf morning too, for half of us. The others took a break from the ocean and tight neoprene in favour of the mountain and moulded lycra, heading instead to the Tokai forest for a bike ride followed by a quick tour of Groot Constantia, the grand old dame of wine estates.

# Even locals can be fooled by the weather

Half-way up Platteklip Gorge in a black South Easter

The alarm clock beeped at 6.45am on day 5. It was a calm, clear day – perfect for our scheduled overnight hike on Table Mountain (Hoerikwaggo trail.) We got to the Cableway for a leisurely ascent, but the service was closed due to the wind (huh? We thought). Forced into the unthinkable, we had to climb the steep, scary face of the mountain up Platteklip Gorge. Instead of shedding clothes as we climbed, we piled on our inadequate, thin layers as we looked up to face a menacing veil of black south easterly cloud streaming down the mountain crevice. Our iced-up hands clung to the rocks as we navigated our way precariously upwards. We reached the top more than two hours later, but could see nothing through the thick cloud. Fighting the bitter cold, we trudged on. Eight and a half hours after our journey began, we arrived at the eco-friendly Orangekloof camp above Hout Bay.
Only then did I decide that the foot sores and stress of the day (being know-it-all Capetonians who don’t need mountain maps, we also got lost briefly) had been worth it.

# It can be safe to sleep outdoors near the city

Orangekloof tented camp, a safe haven
We made cowboy-style spaghetti bolognaise on the communal stove. Fortunate to have the camp to ourselves, we shared a precious bottle of wine around a bonfire before collapsing on mattresses in luxury double tents (R200 a person). Here we were, close to the city and amid a spate of mountain muggings (we kept this from our US visitors till later), sleeping out in the open, with no doors or fences. Priceless.
On day 6, we walked through the shopping labyrinth at Greenmarket Square. We toured Newspaper House, Beth – a journalist at the Roanoke Times - delivering a talk to our newsrooms. We explored the devastation of District Six and pointed out the socio-economic contrasts between returning home along the M3 and the M5.
Later we headed out on the N2 for a night in Greyton, staying at a friend’s house. The town was blissfully quiet, like everyone had gone into hibernation for the winter.

# Sex sells, even along the R62

Ronnie Price is the face of the R62 sex shop. Pic; Beth Macy
 Travelling along the R62 on day 7, we popped in for a beer at Ronnies Sex Shop, which is safe to take the kids though they may giggle at the Pompstasie sign on the exterior wall. Chatting to Ronnie Price in his wheelchair (I didn't ask how he broke a leg), I learnt that the sex shop - actually a restaurant and bar where you may leave your signature underwear behind - had opened 13 years ago, “for fun”. “Sex sells,” said Ronnie before grinning for the camera. A sign of the times, his shop was littered with Karoo anti-fracking stickers and graffiti.

# It’s wild fun taking a sedan into 4X4 country

Gamkapoort Dam: The curvaceous Klein Karoo. Pic: Janet Heard
We pushed on through a treacherous 21km stretch up Seweweekspoort pass, dodging humps and bumps along the way, my city sedan groaning in sympathy with my edginess.
After zigzagging for another 25 km along a hazardous dirt road that had recently been eroded by floods, we reached our destination, Gamkapoort Dam, in the dark. I patted my car. We settled into our two-bedroom, Eskom-free cottages (R125 per person a night) which are managed by Fox Ledeboer, the legendary unofficial water bailiff who lives at the bottom of the hill, and Anne Reid, who lives at the top.
The next morning, the Karoo winter sunlight reflected, refracted and shimmered over liquid and rock in front of our cottage. I forgave my husband Steve for insisting that we trek for a day along unforgiving roads to show our US friends an obscure place way off the tourist radar. With no cell reception and aware that the closest shop was in Ladismith 90 minutes away, we spent three nights in the Swartberg among the oddly shaped cacti and giant thorn trees. We walked, cycled, kayaked, ate, drank and stared into the stillness of the illuminated Klein Karoo.
En route home along the N1 on day 10, we stopped in at Matjiesfontein for lunch in the pub, then back to the Mother City.

# There’s more to the Noon Gun than the big bang

On day 11, Beth and I separated from our clan to vist the gorgeously kitsch Tretchikoff exhibition at the Iziko National Gallery. We strolled through parliament gardens, toured Lavender Hill “where Ellen Pakkies lives”, and ate a tasty Breyani for lunch at another place I had never been to, the Noon Gun Restaurant at the summit of Bo-Kaap.

# Where there’s a Will there’s a wave

A stoked Will catches a giant ripple at Surfers Corner. Pic:Tom Landon
 Before waving goodbye to our friends on day 12, we returned to Surfers Corner for Will to ride one last wave.

*An article about Robben Island appeared in the Cape Times on Wednesday July 20, link: