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January 23, 2013

A Cape Town tour guide who knows the streets well

Cyril Johnson talks us through the Chiappini frescoes. All photos by Stuart Buchanan

"This is not a walking tour – it's an exercise tour!"

I looked up at the others who had gathered outside the Dutch Manor Hotel in the Bo-Kaap, giving a nervous laugh at the thought of what I'd gotten myself into.

We were here to embark on a walking tour of the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood, which starts from the distinctive Dutch-style hotel, built in 1812. The interior creates the impression that you've travelled back in time, with unique antique furnishings and four-poster beds. Back outside on the street our tour guide, Cyril Johnson, was giving us an introduction to the Dutch Manor Hotel, and to the tour.

"This road used to be my bedroom," he says, pointing down at the hard tarmac below our feet. Before Cyril was a tour guide, he was homeless, and spent 15 years living on the streets. In many ways, he knows these roads better than most.

Doing what he could to earn money here and there, Cyril befriended the staff at the Dutch Manor Hotel, who were used to seeing him in the area. They hired him as their gardener, but after general manager Yanic Smit sponsored his course to become a qualified tour guide, showing people around the colourful streets of Bo-Kaap has become his main vocation.

He wasn't exaggerating about the exercise, either. Bo-Kaap, or the Cape Malay Quarter as it's also known, snakes its way up Signal Hill, along narrow cobbled streets. On a hot summer's day, these steep roads will certainly get you puffing in between stops.

Cyril combines interesting historical facts about the area, with the things he's learned from being on the street. For instance, he explains how Jan de Waal started the first housing development in the area in the 1760s, and how the particular style of architecture means that people tend to utilise their front porch for a variety of activities. Hanging up washing, hosting weddings, funerals, or just getting together as neighbours for a good chinwag – Cyril has seen it all first-hand.

Cyril knows these streets, and their colourful houses, well

Bo-Kaap is a warm and welcoming neighbourhood at the best of times, but walking with Cyril, that sense of community is even more visible. He greets most of the the passersby by name, and some of them even refer to him as "Mister President".

"I'm the president of the bergies here," he jokes ("bergie" is the local word for homeless people in Cape Town). Many know his inspirational story, and are happy to see him guiding flocks of tourists up and down the streets as he imparts his hard-earned wisdom.

We stop at Atlas Trading, the famous spice shop nearby, as well as the Bo-Kaap Museum, the Chiappini frescoes, and the Tana Baru Muslim Cemetery, and a few coffee and curio shops in between.

Atlas Trading is one of the yummiest-smelling stops on the tour

"I'm very grateful to be off the streets now," Cyril says. "I've been running this tour for over a year now, and am constantly learning about new things to add to it.

"I lived here for 15 years but never knew the history of the area until now. It is by far my favourite place in Cape Town."

Nicky is an expat visiting from Australia. "I loved the walking tour – being able to see the colours up close and smell the cooking wafting through the streets beats the bus any day," she says.

Patricia is visiting from Canada, and got off at the City Sightseeing bus stop to explore the area further. "I enjoyed the walking tour very much – it's such a unique part of Cape Town, and I learned a lot from Cyril," she says.

If you don't mind a brisk walk, and want to really get to know this fascinating Cape Town neighbourhood, call the Dutch Manor Hotel on +27 (0)21 422 4767 and book a walking tour with Cyril Johnson. Tours run daily at 11h00 and last about an hour-and-a-half. And spend a night at this quaint little hotel while you're at it – situated opposite a City Sightseeing bus stop, their central location is ideal for exploring the city.

Back at base, Cyril proudly displays his official tour guide badge

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