“A snake came to my water trough…” DH Lawrence
A morning stroll over gentle Elsie’s Peak for magnificent views of the curling Atlantic surf, down to Cape Point, proved I hope the most auspicious introduction to Cape Town. Since among the leathery, yellow green Protea plants and bright tipped wild flowers my hostess suddenly stopped dead. Not three feet away a bejewelled puff adder pulled its fat gold-black body across the dry earth right in front of us, back into the secret scrub. It sent an electric thrill through us both, at a vital touch of danger in paradise.
Despite the student riots that week then and the burning cars at Cape Town’s University, UTC, with demands for free Tertiary education from the much criticized administration of President Jacob Zuma, in a ‘Fees must fall’ campaign, the press reports of 60 rapes a month in the nearby district of Phillipi, or ‘those stories’ of Africa that always keep you sharp, or vaguely nervous, so far my touristy experience of exhilarating Cape Town has been of a coastal paradise. If with twinges of guilt at joining the beautiful and select in what sometimes feels like a manicured Urban Golf Course, over yet another glass of delicious South African wine. Along the well mettaled roads, among the smartly streaming cars, afternoon traffic jams and many signs of considerable wealth are the black Big Issue sellers, the fly by night traders, the beggars, the corrugated township huts and those already lost to ‘tik’, Crystal Meth. Yet in the Pick and Pay supermarket at Constantia, black, white and colored pensioners were having a very jolly time at a local get together.
That sense of a paradise though, troubled or not, was confirmed today by a visit to one of Cape Town’s true jewels in her glittering and always colourful crown, the lovely Botanical Gardens at Kirtstenbosch. Opened in 1913 on farm grounds that once belonged to that very incorrect Empire builder, Rand Lord and chairman and go founder of De Biers, Cecil Rhodes, the sculpted beds, scented walks, manicured lawns, ragged gorges and winding forest paths, nestling in the haunches of mighty Table Mountain, are where the wild and well-watered find a perfect harmony.
Rhodes, who planted the Camphor Avenue here, now grown to deliciously shadey proportions, is so iconic, like History itself perhaps, good or bad, that I was surprised to find he died at only 48, with the probably apocryphal words – “so much to do, so little time”. When you know a little more of South Africa’s rich and anguished history, how recent Apartheid was and how recently abolished too, you cannot help but think how much has been done and lived through in so little time. How even that pales into insignificance too though in terms of the gigantic sweep of Geological Time you can glimpse at Kirstenbosch.
They’ve expended much time and great skill too developing the National Botanical Gardens, with its various beds, Arboretum and Concert Lawn, stocking it with a cornucopia of those rare plants that make the Cape quite unique as a botanist’s treasure chest. The gardens boast two and a half thousand species of indigenous plant. Though the likes of Rhodes are hardly figures happily talked about now, with a “Rhodes must fall campaign” too, and that militant trend much criticized and feared too by many white South Africans towards the ‘de-colonialisation’ of African history and culture, echoed in recent protests at Oxford University too, by seeking to remove signs like the Neo Classical Rhodes Memorial. Indeed, just today, Rhode’s statue at UTC was removed, to little concern from white friends here.
‘Sweet waters’ is the original name for Cape Town, and that astonishing cloud topped monolith, six times as old as the Himalayas, is the City’s secret and its true mystery. You can feel it when that bank of cloud that locals call the Table Cloth spills off the mountain’s edge, like the beginning of some Olympian banquet. Up there it clings to the defiantly hardy plants and the indefatigable shrubs, ensuring three times the normal condensation, so constantly feeding the myriad springs that rush down its slopes towards the chilly sea. It is part of the reason for the astonishing variety of flora and fauna at tranquil Kirstenbosch and the lushness of Cape Town too. “I’ve never seen so many birds feeding together” said the guy with the shotgun Camera, as butterflies, Canary, long tailed Sugar birds and dazzlingly flourescent Sun birds darted, dipped and feasted around us.
There is something else at Kirstenbosch that might make it a microcosm for the whole of South Africa too, part of the fence and hedge established in 1660 right across indigenous cattle routes by the settler and Commander of the Dutch East India Company Jan Van Riebeeck. The very early beginnings of Colonialism and Apartheid. You half expect Donald Trump to burst from the foliage. Except that appalling and unnatural division enshrined as a social ideology and in Law by the Afrikaaners only in the twentieth Century is ostensibly gone in South Africa, and at Kirstenbosch what remains are a new explosion of well labeled plants, flaming choral trees and magnificently curling and splitting trunks – saffron, wild fig and giant mahogany. Ominously identified too in the Garden of Extinction are the 1500 species now in danger on our impossibly small Planet.
I was really won over though by Kirstenbosch’s brand new ‘reptile’. The “Boomslang”, or tree snake, is what they call the brilliantly designed little walkway now curling through part of the canopy, like the city twisting about the giant mountain, and opened in 2014. According to one knowledgble white old timer, who comes here every week, the walkway has increased the Botanical Garden’s visitor rate by 60%. As we listened to the strange quack of mis-named Egyptian Geese, he told me too about the Jan Smutts gorge above us, the famous Boer general had taken up his beloved mountain at the age of 80 to meet the British, who had used the nascent cable car. He was informed and friendly, also telling me how he had played with snakes as a child. In such serene surroundings then I voided wearing my Liberal credentials too heavily when he started talking about ‘them’ having no idea of design, over a book recently produced about Table Mountain and the ‘ugly’ Xhosa name on the cover. I found it rather beautiful.
The day before I had invited myself up to that visual banquet among the Gods, taking the slick modern revolving cable car to the top of Table Mountain. So among tourists as multi-cultural as you can imagine, with many from China, we had all looked down, not only at the city’s astonishing views, but the forbiddingly arid splodge of Robben island, lying ominous in the turquoise bay. It was of course where Mandela spent eighteen of his 27 incarcerated years, breaking rocks in the limestone quarry. In the Press meanwhile the Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the well respected Indian Finance Minister, had just announced new funds for Tertiary education. The recent corruption charges leveled against him have now been dropped. Meanwhile, today protests in Pretoria again turned to violence, with calls for President Zuma to resign. Perhaps, with opposition voices crying ‘not on our watch’ this is a critical moment for South Africa.
The country’s challenges remain vast, with only 1% growth, perhaps a 35% unemployment rate and 738 corruption charges pending against Zuma alone. Though he has just withdrawn opposition to the release of the ‘State capture’ report which may expose the true levels of corruption. The white Jewish journalist John Matison, who worked for Mandela, is not alone in saying then that the likes of Zuma have morally bankrupted Mandela’s vision of that Rainbow Nation, if beyond the symbolism, and with such vast differentials, it ever really existed.
You would not think that dream dead strolling through the sweet smelling Camphor walk at Kirstenbosch, nor visiting the ever popular Robben Island gateway Museum. Where wall plaques testify so movingly to the spirit that endured so much and yet answered hate, intolerance and fear with dignity and forgiveness. So creating a conscious monument not just to oppression but the vital possibility of human hope. That lies not just in the hands of blacks but all South Africans, and perhaps most especially reformists whites in positions of huge economic power. It is precisely the problem of easy ‘de-colonialisation’, too though, or a few wearing T-shirts like ‘Kill the Whites’, since it invites a pointless and dangerous forgetting.
Yet life’s stings are everywhere too, and I was still in search of my African adventure and our auspicious, if secretive friends. So stamping my feet loudly, I left the path in Kirstenbosch and set off across a little stream, then climbed one of the many stepped earth walks that ring the gardens toward the wilder edges of the mountain. There it was, one of the Lords of Life, as DH Lawrence put it in his poem The Snake, just to my left and making off fast through the tangled tree roots. Perhaps four feet long, it was only a juvenile, yet with the strong yellow brown markings of the Cape Cobra, barely flexing its hood in warning at my ignorant passing.
The thrill at that living reality was the same as the sight of our puff adder, and the gorgeous, intense vibrancy everywhere here. Where, again in Lawrence’s words, you would be a fool to miss your chance, or have any pettiness to expiate. As for old and lost arguments, there are still those voices that cling to some kind of fighting nostalgia about what happened in South Africa, but they are generational and will pass away, in the great sweep of time.
Of course there is another presence in Kirstenbosch now though, among the memorial benches to passed locals who loved the place, a little bust of sweet faced Nelson Mandela – ‘Madiba’. He opened a walk here flowering with pepper bark trees, ‘Mandela’s Gold’ they named the flowers in his honour, their bright yellow buds filled with a pointed purple magic. The pepper bark is a traditional healing plant here and that was always Mandela’s triumph. It was not just his though, but De Klerk’s too, though the astonishing inspiration of Mandela remains both his courage and then suffering, but that he could rise from it all speaking of reconciliation. It is far more than that though, like laying careful walkways and tending well watered gardens, so trying to map the future with a Constitution that is universally admired and will hopefully prevent Zuma copying the pattern of so many African leaders.
Never tempt the fates, nor the snaky auspices, but there is something about friendly, vivid Cape Town though and that joyous and dignified voice of Mandela too that makes this place still potentially so visionary, not just for Africa but perhaps the endangered World. Now we all need to hear the voices. Whatever that future holds there are few more serene and inspiring places to contemplate it all than in the magical gardens of Kirstenbosch.
The photo shows the new “Boomslang” walkway at Kirstenbosch national botanical gardens, Cape Town, South Africa.