South Africa

A memorable tour

Bountiful wildlife and dramatic landscape beckon visitors to the 2010 World Cup, belying a people’s long, brutal struggle

Seals, Great White Shark, boat tour out of Simon's Town. Seals, Great White Shark, boat tour out of Simon's Town. (Derrick Z. Jackson/ Globe staff)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

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Without cracking a smile, Ntozelizwe Talakumeni said, “You are now the prisoner. I am the prison warden.’’ An hour later, I was in awe of how he did not crack at all.

Two decades ago, during apartheid, Talakumeni was a political prisoner on Robben Island. Today he is a tour guide there, showing Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, the brooding hallways, and the barren courtyard immortalized in photos of Mandela talking with Walter Sisulu, a fellow prisoner jailed for his leadership in the African National Congress, and of inmates breaking stones into road gravel with hammers. After 45 minutes of directing us, Talakumeni invited me into an office and calmly chilled my spine with piercing vignettes of his detentions and imprisonment.

He was beaten and shocked with live wires of electricity, he said, and police dangled him by his ankles outside a window six stories over the street. “Somebody could offer you the best meal and you would not know how to enjoy it,’’ he said.

I asked him how he survived mentally. “We knew what we were fighting for. When you have a purpose you can control the emotions. We looked at it as if we were developing our political careers.’’

That is clearly not the most carefree way to lead off an article on the dizzying array of natural and historical enticements in the Western Cape. But if you come to this city - and many of you will next year for soccer’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa - you must take the disarmingly beautiful ferry ride to Robben Island, with Table Mountain receding in the background and penguins floating in the water below, to appreciate how far South Africa has come in the 15 years since its first multiracial elections ended apartheid.

High prices no longer required to view Kruger’s riches. M4 .

Before we even got to the prison, we were taken on a bus ride around the island to learn lesser-known but critical aspects of the fight against apartheid. The bus stopped for a few minutes at a small house that was built for Robert Sobukwe, who led the mass resistance to pass laws that ended in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre where police shot and killed 68 peaceful protesters.

“He is a forgotten man now,’’ bus guide Yasien Mohamed said of Sobukwe. “But he was the only person deemed so dangerous they built his own house to isolate him. He was apartheid’s most dangerous man.’’

During apartheid Mohamed himself went into political exile in the Netherlands for several years, raising funds for the struggle at home. As the bus passed by a large limestone quarry, he pointed to it and declared, “There is the birthplace of our reconciliation.’’ Prisoners, including Mandela, were required to move stones back and forth in the quarry for no purpose except punishment. Many prisoners, including Mandela, suffered permanent eye damage from the brightness and lime dust.

“But while they were out there,’’ Mohamed said, “they were singing and strategizing. They borrowed from Martin Luther King, who borrowed from Gandhi.’’ Mohamed reminded us that Gandhi spent two decades in South Africa as a young lawyer and activist for Indian rights.

“We call them the Three M’s: Mohandas, Martin, and Mandela,’’ Mohamed continued. “So you are actually standing on a campus. It may not be Oxford, but it is the University of Limestone Quarry.’’

Once you have graduated from Limestone U., there are more stones to study. Two and a half hours north of Cape Town, the Cederberg Mountains reach about 6,600 feet in altitude. On one day, we hiked to a beautiful point high above the citrus fruit and rooibos tea farms for which the area is famous, then soaked in one of the area’s hot springs.

My wife, Michelle, and friends were staying in a guest house on one of those tea farms, which was being managed in a community trust under South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment program.

BEE, originally touted by the government as a vehicle to bridge the gap between rich and poor, has come under fire by critics who say it has enriched only a handful of politically connected elites. And even on this farm, there are grumbles that the pay and annual profit shares remain too low. But one thing that has changed is the dignity of the work. Gert Bezuidenhouth, 34, grew up in a citrus farming family in this area under apartheid. He was teased badly as a “plaas japie’’ and “moegoe,’’ terms which add up to being a dumb farm boy. He was bullied so much for the fresh fruit he would bring to school, he dropped out at 17.

“Today when we come to town, with tea, or peaches, apricots or pears, we get respect,’’ Bezuidenhouth said. “People see us now as having skills, something that should be passed on to the youth.’’

On another day, after a drive through dramatic mountain passes, we hiked out onto an orange sandstone plateau on the Sevilla Trail. Tucked into these mountains are about 1,000 sites under huge overhangs and within shallow caves, where people have painted images of elephants, horses, and eland, as well as humans dancing, hunting, and farming. According to the book “Cederberg Rock Paintings,’’ by John Parkington, an archeology professor at the University of Cape Town, the age of the paintings varies wildly, from less than 200 years old to perhaps 10,000. The majority are at least 1,500 years old.

Parkington wrote that you are “looking at the latest products of a very ancient tradition that began with the stirring of interest in paint and pigment some 100,000 years ago here in the Cape. The Cederberg is one of the richest open-air art galleries in the world.’’

The way to these “galleries’’ was pretty enough, with carpets of low-lying white and yellow winter wildflowers and guinea pig-like rock hyrax, nicknamed “dassies,’’ darting in and out of crevasses. When you come upon the paintings, you are frozen, trying to imagine who put them there and why. After a few seconds, your brain starts to make the dancers dance and the horses trot. Today, local schoolchildren help protect the sites and remove graffiti.

After the stone prison walls and the rock paintings in the high dry country, we changed pace, taking a long route back to Cape Town by descending to West Coast National Park. It is not the safari land of Kruger way to the northeast, but it was a pleasant place to break up the drive, with beautiful ocean views, ostrich crossing the road, iridescent green-headed and red-collared sunbirds darting from tree to tree, and eland grazing in the distance.

The park is known for a profusion of flowers in the spring and for the fact that it surrounds the Langebaan lagoon, an important refuge for migrating wetlands birds. Given how many birds we saw in the winter, one can only imagine their numbers in summer.

If you always wanted to see penguins waddle in their natural element, head an hour south of Cape Town on the road to the Cape of Good Hope. Just south of Simon’s Town is Boulders Beach, part of Table Mountain National Park. True to its name, the “beach’’ is strewn with boulders, with penguins coming in and out of the surf. Short, sandy paths allow you to walk among penguins and peer down into the cavities in the sand where they are raising young. One penguin came up to me and pecked at my camera bag. Mostly, they sit still and let you consider how they, far from the wild subzero images in IMAX movies, seem perfectly comfortable in a balmy tourist town.

But if you insist on a wild IMAX-level experience, drive back to Simon’s Town and Apex Predators to see if they have openings for their dawn boat tours. They go several miles out into False Bay to Seal Island, an outcropping where hundreds of seals sun on the rocks and roll in the surf. This many seals attract lots of great white sharks. These particular great whites get so excited about the seals, they sometimes explode completely out of the water.

I saw one partial breaching. But the real deal was when they lowered a cage into the water. The crew attracts sharks to the boat with a seal dummy and a dangling hunk of tuna. When the infamous dorsal fins drew near, we took turns in the cage in wetsuit and snorkel. It was a lifetime moment to see this animal, the source of so much terrifying lore, in open water. Seeing it twist and turn as it came by the boat, seeing it open its mouth slightly to tease at a tuna that it quickly realized was not prime food gave you sense enough of its power.

The most amazing moment of witnessing its primal beauty was when it made a perfect, slow motion, perpendicular pass of my cage. First came the snout, then the gills. Then the body. Then more body. Finally the dorsal fin arrived. Then more body. And more body. After what seemed like five minutes, the tail fin finally passed by.

I thrust my head above the water and screamed at the captain. “That’s a big fish!’’ I had just seen a 15-footer, around two tons.

Just as you have to go to Robben Island to feel the power of this land’s history, a date with the great whites is a supreme way of feeling the power of its sea.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at


If You Go

Robben Island

Book the ferry from the Cape Town harborfront well in advance.

Cederberg Mountains

A region full of hikes and pleasant inns.

West Coast National Park

Internationally important for migratory wading birds and a magnet for flower lovers in spring.

Boulders Beach

Part of the Table Mountain National Park, which stretches from the dramatic plateau overlooking Cape Town down the peninsula to Cape Point.

Apex Predators

You will want to be a prisoner in a cage as great white sharks swim about you.