Stuart George

On the Waterfront: Travels in South Africa

There are in fact two “Waterfronts” in Cape Town; the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, where you can eat oysters, watch seals at play and enjoy a splendid view of Table Mountain; and the real Waterfront in the township of Khayelitsha, the largest of Cape Town’s townships (at least one million people, I am told). I spent Wednesday night at the house (or perhaps I should say shack) of a remarkable lady called Khuthazwa Vicky Balman. Vicky, who I believe is the same age as I am (29/30, though I have heard reports that she might only be 25), is originally from the Eastern Cape and in 1989 came to Khayelitsha (the only place that she was able to live in) to study engineering, but was unable to pursue her studies because of financial hardship. A few years ago she opened up her house as a small café/restaurant for tour operators to visit when bringing people into the township, and then in 2000 started her bed and breakfast business, now proudly billed as “South Africa’s smallest hotel.” And it is small: there are two bedrooms for guests, whilst Vicky, her husband and two of her four children sleep in the third bedroom. There is however a proper shower and toilet, which is unheard of in Khayelitsha; until very recently even Vicky’s guests had to go outside to use the toilet shared with her next door neighbour.

I arrived at Vicky’s in the afternoon, having booked a taxi (for R110) from Cape Town to take me to Khayelitsha. My taxi driver – a Cape Malay, as white as I am – was absolutely terrified, and admitted that he had no idea where we were going, never having been to the township in his life. We turned off the N2 into Khayelitsha and I suddenly understood his nervousness. As far as the eye could see were tin and wooden shacks, with every road completely indistinguishable from any other. I must admit that as we crawled along slowly in the taxi I began to have doubts about what I was doing: I was sat in the back of a large white taxi with a large rucksack next to me, in the middle of a sprawling township with a desperately poor population.  Remarkably, however, Vicky’s B&B is signposted, so we watched out for these signs like hawks until we finally arrived. Once I met Vicky herself, I was completely at ease; she is an extremely bright and affable person. She is of course very well known in Khayelitsha and the locals assume that if there is a whitey wandering around the place then he must be staying with Vicky. And Vicky’s husband Ntishane has a seriously mean scowl, until you introduce yourself and his face then breaks into a huge grin. None of her guests has ever been robbed.

Most people do the sensible thing and visit Khayelitsha on a tour, spending an hour or so visiting Vicky and being shown around her neighbourhood. I suddenly became part of this freak show, as various Swedes and Americans visited and were astonished to find that I was actually spending a night in the township. One of the Swedes asked if I was frightened of the Africans outside. I replied that I wasn’t, but that I considered Swedes to be extremely dangerous people. Even Scandinavians have a sense of humour. And so do Africans. Vicky gives a short pre-rehearsed speech to the people who visit her house, and when I heard this speech for the third time that afternoon I pretended to fall asleep, causing her to giggle uncontrollably.

I had a very peaceful night’s sleep and woke up in the morning planning to escape ASAP. But then the fun really began… No sooner had I wandered onto the pavement outside and sat down than I found six children on my lap, determined to inspect my white physiognomy in close detail. They stroked my arms, because mine are so hairy; they stroked my hair, because it is much softer than their own; they rubbed their faces against my chin, because I hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. And one of the little buggers even had the audacity to investigate my nasal hairs by putting his finger up my nose. So you have been warned: if you venture into a township by yourself you are in grave danger of having a finger put up your nose. I spent all morning playing with these kids, skateboarding and kicking a football. They also became obsessed with my watch (a ten pound Casio watch from Argos), pressing every button they could to make the alarm sound. Very predictably, the battery went flat the next day and I had to buy a new watch.

My stay in Khayelitsha concluded with a visit to the local shebeen (bar), called – of course – the Waterfront. The locals claim that this is the real Waterfront, not the modern shopping precinct in Cape Town. It is named after a single tap that served 3,000 people (sic) and that once stood where the bar now is.

I decided to get a taxi back from Khayelitsha bus station rather than terrify another Cape Town taxi driver. So off I went through the streets of Khayelitsha, carrying my backpack, accompanied by two “bodyguards” (both aged 14) dispatched by Vicky to accompany me to the bus station. A couple of people shouted at us – and I don’t think that they were being friendly – and even my bodyguards looked nervous at one point. But I got there in one piece, paid R6 to get back to Cape Town (remember that it cost R110 to go to Khayelitsha), and staggered my roommates at my hostel that evening with my township adventures. I still haven’t met anybody else who has actually spent a night there, but I am firmly of the conviction that anybody who goes on a tour of a township rather than actually staying is a pussy.

So what else have I been up to, apart from having fingers thrust up my nose? Well, as I wrote in my last e-mail I have visited a lot of wineries, mainly around Stellenbosch, but I am in Robertson again staying with Roelf and Michelle du Preez at Bon Cap. They are an extremely nice family; when I eat with Roelf, Michelle and their three young children I have to kiss all of the kids goodnight. When Roelf had a young French winemaker over for the harvest the poor boy would start to look very nervous at the end of dinner. The children are an endless source of amusement to me. Whenever they drop something or make some sort of error, they shout “shit!” very loudly. I can’t think where they picked that up…

Michelle is very persuasive and said that I should spend a few days with them to enable me to have a good look around the area, which has caught my attention as Friuli did in Italy. It’s not a particularly well-known area, but the wines are sometimes marvellous. I visited Graham Beck and Springfield on my last visit, with the latter particularly enjoyable. Abrie Bruwer is a wine writer’s dream; he produces an endless stream of witty comments. We drove around the estate and I asked him how many hectares of vineyards did he have: “Enough.” There is no point in asking him the time either; he doesn’t wear a watch. He gazed across his lake and told me “I’m a fisherman by trade, a winemaker for a hobby.” And what looked like pieces of winery equipment on his desk were actually hubcaps for his beloved 1950s Chevybakkie (pick up truck). Abrie is a great character.

I have also been fortunate enough to meet Charles Back. The description of him in the 2003 Platter Guide is absolutely perfect: the romantic winemaker on the one hand, and the number crunching businessman on the other. I was shown around by the Fairview winemaker Anthony de Jaeger and tasted a new Spice Route wine, blended from shiraz, merlot, pinotage, and grenache, and made with a no expenses spared philosophy. I’d like to tell you more about it but I’m sworn to secrecy, as the wine is not released to the press until next year!

I’ve also visited to Meerlust (where I met my fellow Friulano Giorgio dalla Cia); Welgemeend (Louise is great fun, and gave me a bottle of 1974 Uitkyk cabernet sauvignon! It drank well, also!); Villiera (I tasted some South African LBV Port with Jeff Grier); Klein Constantia (I was shown around by Daphne from Kent); Rust en Vrede (more about Cobus in a moment); Hamilton Russel (the best wines that I have tasted in South Africa, and a truly beautiful estate); Bouchard Finlayson (not a patch on its neighbour); and only this morning I went to the enormous Robertson Winery to see the 1 million litre tanks currently under construction (14 metres high!). The scale of the operation is mind boggling, but the wines are remarkably good quality and value for money. Because of so many visits I found myself drinking some remarkably good wines with my dinner each night. The Bulgarian waiter in my usual restaurant (next door to where I stayed) would stare in disbelief as I enjoyed a 1994 Welgemeend Estate Reserve with my ostrich steak. He never charged me corkage, so he had a few glasses too.

I’ve also been to Robben Island and I have walked on top of Table Mountain (burning my legs horribly in the process). It is a staggering piece of geology; did you know that it is six times older than the Himalayan range? The views are of course amazing, and only from the top of the mountain can you truly appreciate how Cape Town is wrapped around its base. Some of Klein Constantia’s vineyards creep up the mountain to a height of 300m, for instance. I managed to watch a provincial cricket match at Newlands, too, for the princely sum of R5 (about 45p). The rugby stadium is mightily impressive, as well. (Pity about the Boks on Saturday).

The wildlife here is astonishing. I drove through the Huguenot Tunnel to get to Robertson and when I finally emerged into daylight again there were baboons running across the motorway. At Hermanus – where Hamilton-Russel and Bouchard-Finlayson are – I saw a 50-foot Southern Right Whale blowing its spout only 50m from where I was stood onshore. Further out to sea there were many other whales splashing their tails about or even “breaching,” jumping out of the water to do a huge belly splash. It’s quite a sight.

I mentioned Cobus Joubert earlier, didn’t I? He is the immensely likeable marketing manager at Rust en Vrede. When we met I happened to mention to him that I knew Michelle du Preez and that I was planning to spend a few days with her and Roelf, but the logistics of getting to Robertson were quite awkward. Cobus actually went to College with Michelle, disappeared to phone her and came back with a broad smile on his face. His family has a winery at Tradouw, about 60 miles east of Robertson, and the weekend I was due to visit Michelle the Tradouw-Joubert Winery was having a launch party. So Cobus took me from Cape Town to his family’s farm on Saturday, where I tasted the wines, then enjoyed a live concert by DNA Strings (not bad for an Afrikaner band!). Cobus introduced me to his mother. “You’re sleeping with me tonight,” said Mrs Joubert. “Not literally, I hope,” I replied. She smiled at me: “You never know your luck.”

I spent the night at his parent’s beautiful house and enjoyed a magnificent breakfast on Sunday morning, the highlight of which was an enormous omelette covered in asparagus. Then two people – complete strangers to me – who were also staying at the Jouberts’ offered to drop me off at Michelle and Roelf’s on their way back to Cape Town. I was supposed to meet R and M at the party but we kept missing each other and I was starting to wonder where I was going to sleep for the night. In the end, it turned out to be a doddle.

In fact, everything in South Africa is a doddle. The diversity of the country – in racial, linguistic, and geographical terms – is breathtaking. And I haven’t even left the Western Cape yet.

Learn more about Vicky and Khayelitsha at www.vickysbedandbreakfast.com

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  1. It’s great that you were open to spending the night at Vicky’s. It was a surprise to me to see how people are scared to spend a night in a township. I was involved with a similar project in Khayeltisha. I would recommend it to anyone, as did you.

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