” Coming Up For Air.” Revisiting Cape Town, South Africa
Twenty odd long years between visits is, as George Orwell once said,is a little like ‘coming up for air.’
In a different time, when the world was younger than today, my parents brought me from England to this city that clings limpet- like to the bottom of the African continent. Then I was just a boy, teetering on the edge of adolescence.
It was here, in the brooding shadows of Table Mountain, I entered the world of a South African education that was altogether foreign to me. Things were a lot different then.
Apartheid was at its zenith and the schools I attended were there for the benefit of the privileged white population. Trains, buses in fact everything was rigorously segregated, even the queues in the post office were divided by a thin plywood wall lest the different races come in contact with each other.
I received what I now consider to be a questionable education, however I excelled at sport and led the life of a privileged boy, accustomed to having anything he wanted.
I discovered the wonders that this, one of the most picturesque of cities on the planet had to offer as seen through the naive eyes of a 13 year old. The beaches, the mountains, the days at Newlands watching the cricket, or attending the titanic rugby matches played between the Springboks and the All Blacks where we stayed up all night outside the ground in the hope of securing a ticket.
I fished with my father on the rocks at Kalk Bay, met surfers who led me astray and fell in love for the first time. Life for me, apart from the draconian education system that bored and terrified me all at once, bordered on bliss.
In my late teens I began to suffer from incurable curiosity, which led me to leave this place to discover what lay beyond the mountains that enclosed the city like a formidable fortress, not thinking at the time that I would be middle- aged before I returned!
I once knew a rather famous jazz trombonist, Eric Allendale, a giant of a West Indian, who wrote those memorable tunes, “Build Me Up Buttercup and Baby Now That I’ve Found You ” with the group The Foundations. He was a wise and thoughtful man who once told me never to return to a place that has memories for, what you seek will no longer be there…. how right he was!
I disregarded Eric’s advice from long ago as right now I type this in my niece’s apartment that sits under in the brooding shadow of Table Mountain.
The weather is perfect, even though the city is currently in the depths of winter, and the Mountain stands as majestically as ever. A gentle South – Easter (known by the locals as the Cape Doctor) blows off Table Bay bringing with it a biting chill that keeps me indoors while I ponder my itinerary. Everything needs to be planned carefully as I am still on crutches and wearing an unwieldy ‘moon boot.’
I deliberately chose not to try and find old school or university friends; for they are now but faint voices, vanished and gone. This journey of mine is simply a wander down familiar lane ways to seek out something that perhaps was never there.
The city itself has grown and prospered in my absence creeping up the slopes of the mountain and spreading south to Cape Point.
I rouse myself and brave the cold to wander ( read, hobble) to Cape Town’s main station through brand new inner suburbs where once, down –at- heel post war houses stood, now gentrified and populated by aspirational families forging the ‘new South Africa’.
I caught the metro line which took me to Kalk Bay gazing through the grimy windows at an angry sea pounding away at the rocks lining the tracks where, as a boy I spent hours at low tide scouring the rock pools in search of star fish.
The train passes the ‘natural’ rock swimming pool where, as boys we swung from a rope to drop into an icy pond that sadly is now a multi story car park. The field where games of cricket were played is part of a sprawling suburb and the open bush land through which we used to walk to school is now covered by a giant shopping centre.
I avoided hopping off the train to walk past my old school or the family home (which I believe now is a large bed and breakfast establishment) preferring perhaps to maintain and preserve the memories (good and bad) I have of these places.
I almost broke the cardinal rule by trying to seek out my first love. What was I hoping for? That she would be the same, untouched by the passing of time? I found her house and stood across the street like a sad voyeur hoping perhaps for a glimpse of her. After a while a mother and small child emerged and set off down the road. My love, like so many friends from that time had moved away and simply got on with their lives and I played no further part in their day to day existence.
As I wandered away to the station for my return journey I stood on the platform and watched the small boats in the charming harbour of Kalk Bay, tossing and straining like horses in harness and thought of that wonderful but rather solemn quotation, “Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest of all is, what might have been.”
My visit to this city was short, and soon it was time to leave her beauty behind me, for even now, she is a captivating mistress. Reaching back three decades will always somehow be fraught with disappointment, for the expectations never quite match the current reality.
Eric Allendale was right in that regard, and as Paul Simon once wrote,
” Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and when not travelling or cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals. His latest offering, Asset, is due for release in late 2017.