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December 07, 2009

A sailor’s memories of Cape Town

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In May 1954 I joined the British Merchant Navy as an apprentice deck officer. My first ship, which I joined in Birkenhead, was the SS City of Colchester, an American Liberty Ship in the Ellerman & Bucknall Steamship Company. My first voyage was to South Africa, and my first overseas port, apart from bunkering in Las Palmas en route, was Cape Town.

I still remember the beautiful approach to Cape Town, with Table Mountain, complete with its tablecloth, towering dramatically above the city. We berthed alongside in the Victoria Basin and stayed there, unloading cargo, for nearly a week.

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Early in our stay the other apprentices and I were befriended by a Cape Town resident named Vincent Smith. If my memory is correct he worked for a chain of cinemas, and he was well informed and an excellent guide and host. He was kind enough to drive us all around the Cape Town area, both along the coast and inland to the wine-growing areas. Most of the accompanying photographs were taken on outings with him.

At that time apartheid had been in force for several years and I still recall the signs, which seemed to be everywhere, enforcing the colour bar. On one occasion another apprentice and I went to a cinema, which I think was called the Gem, on the outskirts of Cape Town. We had given no thought to where it was located and were surprised to find that we were the only white people in the cinema.

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Particular places that I remember include a restaurant/bar called Delmonico’s, quite near the docks. It had a ceiling representing the night sky and proved to be a regular drinking place. Another favourite place was the Blue Peter restaurant at Bloubergstrand. It had the most stunning views across the bay to Cape Town and Table Mountain.

After a few days we sailed on to Port Elizabeth and East London. However, we enjoyed a further stay in Cape Town about three weeks later, picking up more cargo on our way home.

That was the last time I saw Cape Town until about five years ago, when I was there again on holiday. I found that the parts I was most familiar with, between the docks and the city centre, had changed beyond all recognition. However, the changes were all for the better and I still found Cape Town a beautiful city with many happy memories.

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