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May 09, 2012

We experienced the unexpected Cape Town

Peanut seller outside St George's Cathedral, near the entrance to the Company's Garden

Mary Tebje and Adel Grobler, Cape Town Tourism's United Kingdom and United States representatives respectively, recently visited Cape Town to become reacquainted with the city. This is the first in a series of three blogs, which reveals their journey to some of the city’s unexpected hot spots. 

For two expats it is always a pleasure to visit Cape Town, but this time we were not in the city to spend time in familiar haunts, but to be explore the ‘Unexpected' city, and Cape Town Tourism gave us an itinerary to make sure we definitely went off our beaten tracks.

While our friends and family had recognised most of what was included in the itinerary, they had never considered visiting some of the places or trying their hands at some of the activities. We were duty-bound to report back, in detail, on our experiences.

Fortified with buttermilk rusks and cups of rooibos tea, we walked through the cool and shady Company’s Garden, which was filling up with school children and tourists taking photographs of the ubiquitous grey squirrels. It was all so familiar, but we wondered how often the uniquely Cape Town museums and art galleries were visited. The South African Museum, Bertram House, South African Jewish Museum and St Georges Cathedral are some of the places to tempt those with the time to stray and explore.

Later, we were off to the V&A Waterfront. What is there not to like about the V&A Waterfront? Still a working harbour and famous as the place from which to catch the ferry to Robben Island, we were shown a different side to this busy shopping destination. Our lovely guide, Alida, made it clear to us that we were going to explore the links between the land, sea and people. We had the opportunity to see the unexpected, diverse layers of the V&A. We had a look at the original fortification that protected Cape Town in the early 18th century in the Chavonnes Museum, built by the Dutch East India Company and named after the governor of the Cape Colony Maurits Pasque de Chavonnes. We wondered whether he looked as grand as his name. We studied the nearby Claudette Schreuders’ bronze creations of the four South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in Nobel Square: Nkosi Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, F.W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.

Something new that is being trialled are ‘pop-up’ shops - a great way to give access to local talent to sell their wares, many using reclaimed materials given a new function or fascination. The locals really do incorporate design in their daily life, as is evident in the tiny shops. 

We were disappointed that we did not have time to sleep at the Aquarium, however, secretly pleased that we would therefore not be invited to dive in the huge tanks for a new perspective of the occupants!

What brings all these V&A Waterfront gems together is the heritage trail and we recommend making use of it. Make sure to get the V&A map at the information centre, which will offer a clearer perspective.

Later, at the Mount Nelson Hotel, we were served Khayelitsha cookies. Famous for its ‘blush’ of rosy-pink walls, the hotel also has historical links to the sea. In 1890, the owner of the Union-Castle linea converted a private residence into a luxury hotel for the exclusive use of first class passengers, who were among the tourism pioneers and early travellers to stay in the Cape. All around the hotel are old Cape Town street maps, travel posters and frames filled with stern-looking Victorian generals resplendent with busy beards and military regalia – reminiscent of a time when travel was exclusive and exotic locations out of reach for most people. 

Our ‘Unexpected Cape Town’ tour was only warming up, and already we were overwhelmed with new experiences. But it was about to get better. That evening, we headed off, with Michael from CoffeeBeans Routes, to dine with Sheila and listen to Cape Town jazz at her home. It felt awkward visiting someone’s home whom you didn’t know, but Sheila, Tete, Lateli and Itumeleng soon made us welcome. The evening was unexpected for so many reasons including the musicians and the conversation over the home-cooked meal of local vegetable dishes and ‘chicken a-la Sheila’ with our group of expats and a family from Gauteng, who all went back for second helpings. We slipped away to chat with Sheila who introduced us to her sister-in-law and 90-year-old father, who we thought looked like a younger Nelson Mandela! 

The flavours and fabric of Cape Town were slowly being revealed. Beneath the smart exterior of a busy, cosmopolitan city, we had discovered the many layers that make up the modern city and its people. Next on the list of our 'Unexpected Cape Town' tour included a walking tour with Deon, our guide on ‘Sex and Slaves in the City’. 

Essential cooking ingredients in the Bo-Kaap

At times the tour was uncomfortable, but only because the subject matter was difficult and the attempts at theatre did it no justice. This tour successfully exposes the dark chapter in Cape Town’s history of slave trading, the ways in which the slaves lived and died and how important they were to the survival and prosperity of the new colony. Records exist of the first slaves who were imported from Bengal, Angola, Mozambique and Benin, including Eve, a five-year old girl from Madagascar. A number of buildings used by the slaves, and their masters can still be visited, including the Slave Lodge, St Stephens, Slave Church Museum and Slave school.

It was time to return to the cobbled Bo-Kaap streets as we had an important lesson to attend: cooking a real Cape Malay curry. Our host and cooking star, Jasmina welcomed us with a delicate glass of faloodah – a traditional, lightly rose-scented milk drink. A life-long Bo-Kaap resident, Jasmina was keen for us to get our hands full of chickpea flour, while regaling us with stories of her family, cooking traditions and how we had all been making our curries incorrectly!

While I struggled to fold my samoosa, the flavours and names of the local ingredients – jeera, barishap, koljander and dhania  – washed over me and were all part of the enthralling story-telling of the Bo-Kaap and its residents.

Our small group of cooking ‘guests’ were as different as the spices Jasmina had introduced us to, but we could not have felt more welcome in her home and around her kitchen table, and it was a pleasure to experience such warm authentic hospitality. 

Despite having just eaten lunch, we had no hesitation and tasted the fruits of our labours – samoosas and chicken curry with roti – all washed down with a glass of homemade lemonade. We were dispatched with recipes and spices to cook this wonderful food at home, although we may need a satellite link to Jasmina’s kitchen!

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