February? Time to fly to Cape Town

Sunday Times
Published: 6th February 2005

The effect of the clean air of South Africa, and the heat and the light and the sumptuous landscape, was instant. Gone was the cough, back was the energy, and there was virtually no jet lag; it was as though I’d somehow wandered through the back of the wardrobe and found the antithesis of London waiting for me there. The dirty grey bowl that hangs over our capital in winter was replaced by a dome of blue sky during the day and stars at night. What is more, everyone speaks English and drives on the left- hand side of the road. It’s a glorious alternative reality.

The vast white beaches of Plettenberg Bay, a few hours east of Cape Town, make those of the Hamptons look like sandpits. With only a two-hour time difference, and an overnight flight to get me there, my feet were digging into the hot sand on day one — and without that weird sense of being somewhere else very strange that often plagues winter holidays.

“It might be hard for you to understand this, being an outsider, but South Africa holds the souls of its sons and daughters in an almost inescapable grasp,” wrote the South African Rian Malan. It’s not difficult to understand at all. From my hotel room at The Plettenberg, perched on a promontory, I could see the white crescent beaches fan out one after the other, with the surfers and the fishing boats and the expensive houses nestled behind. Nearby is a nature reserve, where the rubbery shapes of seals turned and swirled in the thrash of the foam, herding dark shadows of sardines towards the beach; and radiant seagulls stood white-bibbed, ready to plunder the shiny fish that floundered on the sand.

Friends of mine caught sardines in a rock pool with their bare hands, then put them in a pair of trousers with the legs knotted up; we had them for lunch with lemon. So: one moment trudging through interminable darkness and rain in Britain; the next, bare-knuckle fishing on a beach on the far side of the world. Cape Town days begin at about five in the morning and don’t end until 8.30pm. And when the sun does set, it descends colourfully and lavishly, and soon replaces itself with a myriad stars.

Wherever you go in South Africa, there are stories, great windows swinging open onto other worlds, and all the while you’re in a landscape bewitchingly grand and beautiful — what an Afrikaans poet referred to as “heartspace and the danger of beauty”. My driver from Plettenberg Bay to Walker Bay, on the way to Cape Town, was in a constant state of rapture about everything he saw.

“Look at that buzzard! Look at that gorge — you can canoe into there and see crowned eagles with the biggest wingspan in Africa. Oh my God, look at those storks!” He told me about the time he took a Chinese group to see the eagles, and one of them pointed to his mouth and said: “What taste like?” Judging by my driver’s thunderous expression, the Chinese chap was lucky to escape his ecotour alive.

For my driver, though, chaperoning tour parties wasn’t enough; he longed to vanish into the bush with his backpack for months on end. Again and again, I met South Africans who craved more freedom, as if the sense of Africa’s possibilities haunted them. This huge, empty continent had space and silence, and the Cape was only a taste of it, only a beginning.

In Walker Bay, about an hour along the coast from Cape Town, the beach is strewn with huge rods of seaweed — kelp the colour of tinned figs, with roots like dreadlocks. My guide, Tulani (in English, it means “silence”), took me to a cave where the remains of Bushmen have been found. Strolling into the deserted bay, where the foam races in ferocious frills, it wasn’t hard to imagine Bushmen on the sand, shooting seals with cobra poison and waiting for them to be washed ashore.

Of all the people I met, Tulani had the best stories, some folk tales from his splendid Zulu grandmother, who attended his graduation wearing formal Zulu dress of 50 years before, while everyone else wore suits. When the principal announced (in Zulu, for the sake of the grandmother) that Tulani was the best student of the year, she stood up and performed a celebratory dance before clasping his certificate to her breast, even though she couldn’t read what it said.

It seemed young Tulani was as proud of her as she was of him — “but she doesn’t like cars,” he told me. “She believes your car is going too fast if you can’t carry on a conversation with somebody outside.”

Tulani was a guide at Grootbos Nature Reserve, a 2,500- acre ecoresort where guests stay in chic cottages, eat exquisite food and get whisked on assorted excursions. September and October are best for whale-watching, as they are for nature drives in the fynbos, the fragile shrubs that flower spectacularly in the South African spring. The reserve also has a 1,000- year-old milkwood tree, which winds exuberantly in and out of the earth like a Loch Ness monster, some 230ft of looping and rooting in all. No doubt Tulani’s grandmother would have a story about that.

The cape is not the primeval wilderness of so much of the continent, but there’s enough for you to sense Africa battering at the door. In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “All I wanted to do now was to get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”

Cape Town is the mother city, sitting on her mountain throne, the ocean spread out before her. Here you can stay in five-star hotels and have what must be the best English tea in the world at the Mount Nelson hotel — fruitcake with cheese, raspberries, bilberries, blackberries, scones, quiches, quinces. Red hibiscuses poke out their tongues, and guests sit beneath palm trees drinking tea and eating sandwiches with no crusts to the tune of a distant piano. Yet for all the history and elegance of this thriving economy, you never feel far from raw beauty — in the small towns around the Cape, the houses seem lightly sketched in, as if mankind is the newcomer.

Even among the frenetic shops and restaurants on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, I saw a seal peaking its nose up in the harbour. On the drive to Cape Point, the most south-westerly fingertip of Africa, we passed wild ostriches, their tiny heads taking in the breeze, kestrels, buzzards, starlings and a superfit tortoise racing across the road. And we were told about the baboons that go down to the beach to prise limpets from their shells.

In Camps Bay, a California-style beach area just 10 minutes from the city centre, the wind whipped up the sand into what looked like a desert storm, and the palm trees danced a wild dervish as a man and his dog ran joyously across the beach — both nearly lifted off their feet, and loving it.

Visiting the townships throws open another window. In Langa, I sat chatting to the motherly Ma Neo at her pristine B&B, and a series of well-dressed young men, looking distinctly embarrassed, came in and addressed her in their language, Xhosa. She seemed to be telling them to wait. Both were polite, and apologised for intruding. Eventually, I asked her what they wanted: “Oh,” she said, a big smile breaking out. “I give out condoms. I have them piled up in bowls in my bedrooms here.”

“For nothing?” I said.

“Oh, yes! I used to be a nurse. I get them at the hospital.”

When Ma Neo first began taking white guests, three years ago, neighbours would keep dropping by out of curiosity.

“You see, we never saw white people in the townships, only in the city centre. And even there — well, in the past, if a bus came, the top was for ... us, and if the top was full, you weren’t allowed to get on, even if the bottom was empty.” She blinked with wonderment.

Out in the Cape wine country, day after day unravels, each one perfect, like some endless array of pictures from a calendar. The mountains are topped with green, the sun dapples the pavement cafes in Stellenbosch and the shadows fall grey and gentle on the white walls of the gabled houses, with their neat green doors and window frames. Everywhere, there are stretches of vineyards.

At the restful and romantic Boschendal winery, butterflies scud over the bay leaves and the rhubarb. Hens scuttle around with their anxious little chicks and, on the lawn, beau- tiful children picnic with beautiful mothers while the men sample fine wines from the bar. You feel you’ve wandered into some nostalgic period movie at the moment just before everything goes wrong.

The pleasures of Cape Town are more varied, with its fine food, its townships, its stylish houses (in Clifton, the cliff- hugging houses even have their own funiculars to the beach). Above all, there is a sense of longing and anticipation — that this is a new, vibrant place, a launch pad for elsewhere. For all its first-world hotels, the carnival atmosphere of the waterfront and the gorgeousness of Constantia with its Lutyens-style mansions, the real delight of being in the Cape is that it’s only a beginning. Now you can get started on the rest of Africa.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Rainbow Tours.

Getting there: British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), South African Airways (0870 747 1111, www.flysaa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) all fly nonstop from Heathrow to Cape Town, with fares starting at about £520.

Airline Network (0870 700 0543, www.airline-network.co.uk) has flights from Birmingham, Norwich, Edinburgh and 11 other UK airports with KLM via Amsterdam; from £536.

Or try Trailfinders (0845 058 5858, www.trailfinders.com).

Getting around: Holiday Autos (0870 400 4447, www.holidayautos.co.uk) has a week’s inclusive car hire from £165, picking up and dropping off at the same location. The drop-off charge between Cape Town and George is £70 (payable locally). Or try Hertz (0870 844 8844, www.hertz.co.uk), or Europcar (0870 607 5000, www.europcar.co.uk).

Where to stay: the Mount Nelson (00 27 21 483 1000, www.mountnelson.co.za) has doubles from £293; afternoon tea is £8.70pp. The Plettenberg (through Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 0002, www.plettenberg.com) has doubles from £334. A good source of properties along the Garden Route, with doubles from £35, is the Greenwood Guide (£13.95, www.greenwoodguides.com).

Tour operators: Rainbow Tours (020 7226 1004, www.rainbowtours.co.uk) has a 12- day self-drive trip from £1,945pp, including flights to Cape Town and back from George (via Johannesburg) on British Airways, four nights’ B&B at The Plettenberg, three nights’ all-inclusive at Grootbos Nature Reserve, five nights’ B&B at the Cape Cadogan boutique hotel, a Cape township Meet the People half-day tour and car hire. UK regional connections start at £55.

Or try Carrier (01625 547010, www.carrier.co.uk); Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk); or, in Ireland, Slattery’s Travel (066 718 6220, www.slatterys.com).