African Gateway - with a Backdrop of Elegant Old World Charm and Unsurpassed Natural Diversity, Cape Town Has Played a Pivotal Role in Continental Politics

By olsen, eric p. | The World and I, November 2000 | Go to article overview

African Gateway - with a Backdrop of Elegant Old World Charm and Unsurpassed Natural Diversity, Cape Town Has Played a Pivotal Role in Continental Politics


olsen, eric p., The World and I


"This cape is the most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth."

----Sir Francis Drake, 1580

"I have a question for you, my friends." Our tour guide broke into an expansive, if somewhat practiced, smile as he reviewed the small group gathered at water's edge on South Africa's Robben Island. "What is the most beautiful city in the world? Let me hear your answer."

A long silence greeted this, the mother of all leading questions. Someone in the back mumbled something about Sydney or Paris. I rummaged my memory for recollections of Hong Kong and San Francisco. But the truth, we realized, was right before our eyes. For across the peaceful, six-mile passage rose the sandstone crown of Table Mountain, a broad and gentle giant welcoming sojourners for centuries into the waters of the Indian Ocean and cradling one of the world's most spectacular cities, Cape Town.

The tranquil picture I knew was not altogether typical. Windsurfers make the pilgrimage to Cape Town from all over the world. Shipwrecks litter the ocean floor. But this May morning a delicate breeze and a radiant sun only added a brilliant incandescence to the scene.

Modern Cape Town, a city of four million on the extreme southern perimeter of the African continent, is a gateway to arguably the ultimate ecotourism adventure the world has to offer. A modern, cosmopolitan city with world-class tourism facilities, Cape Town can easily engage wayfarers with an admixture of sights, sounds, tastes, and experiences. But beyond the city and the rim of chiseled mountains presiding over South Africa's premier wine district lie the magnificent wilderness parks of South Africa and the storied lands of Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The Kalahari and the thundering veil of Victoria Falls are not romantic dreamscapes on the margins of plausible destinations but accessible locales with outfitters ready to jump to coordinate an itinerary.

Founded by Dutch traders in 1652, Cape Town is the most European of African cities. Stately Cape Dutch architecture, elegant parks and ocean promenades, and exotic African markets coexist in a remarkably forward-looking society that is wrestling with the legacy of the harsh racial politics of the recent past.

As my eye took in the celebrated massif, first encountered by European eyes in 1488, I well understood the logic of the appellation Cape of Good Hope to the adjacent horn, which hooks the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans in an often violent nexus. In the revolutionary half- century that preceded the discovery of the sea route to India, Portuguese navigators had inched their way down the African coastline. Seeking commercial fortune--and the whereabouts of the legendary Prestor John, fabled ruler of a vast Christian kingdom somewhere in

the Far East or Africa--the bold navigators pressed on past primeval jungle imbued with fantastic legends of mythological life-forms. Bartholomeu Dias first set eyes on the cape but was turned back from his quest to India by a recalcitrant crew. Vasco da Gama followed in 1497, crossing the Arabian Sea and arriving near present-day Calicut in a voyage that would open the floodgates of commerce between parochial Europe and the markets of the East.

For the next 160 years, until the arrival of the Dutch and the founding of a permanent settlement, seafarers sought the distinctive profile of Table Mountain, visible from nearly a hundred miles at sea, as a familiar and welcoming halfway point. Outbound ships hastening past the mountain, impatient to turn a profit, would often leave communications under inscribed stones for ships returning to Europe. These so-called post office stones are still found in excavations in the Company Gardens in the center of Cape Town.

Little remains to recall the age of exploration save the majestic mountain. And few reminders are left of the indigenous Khoikhoi, a diminutive people, peaceful and pastoral, ethnically related to the Bushmen of the Namibian and Kalahari Deserts. …

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