One of the most poignant aspects of the Castle of Good Hope is an unassuming wooden cross commemorating the South Africans who fell at the Battle of Delville Wood during World War I.
The cross was barely given a mention on the guided tour that we participated in. This is a great pity as it honours the memory of many South Africans who perished in the engagement, which was the costliest of the World War I campaign for the South African forces.
Visitors may not realise that as part of the Empire - and later the Commonwealth - South Africans served with the Allied Forces during both world wars. The Battle of Delville Wood was part of the larger Battle of the Somme, and the South African troops of the 1st Infantry Brigade were tasked with holding the wood (which was strategically located on higher ground) in the face of a fierce onslaught by German troops. The carnage was almost unimaginable, with some sources claiming that the South Africans eventually suffering 80% casualties, yet still managed to hold their section of the wood.
Official statistics indicate that out of a total complement of 3,155 at the start of the battle, 457 were killed, 1,476 were wounded (of whom 120 had died of their wounds within three months) and 483 were either missing or captured as prisoners of war. For me, losses on this scale are unimaginable, so to put this loss into context, according to Wikipedia, "on the Western Front, units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualties had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained". Just to remind you ... they lost anything up to 80%, which speaks volumes as to their commitment and sheer determination.
The South African Miliary History Society movingly describes Delville Wood as follows: "'The six days and five nights during which the South African Brigade held the most difficult post on the British front - a corner of death on which the enemy fire was concentrated at all hours from three sides, and into which fresh German troops, vastly superior in number to the defence, made periodic incursions only to be driven back - constitute an epoch of terror and glory scarcely equalled in the campaign. There were positions as difficult, but they were not held so long; there were cases of as protracted a defence; but the assault was not so violent and continuous . . The high value the enemy set upon [Delville Wood] is proved by the fact that he used his best troops against it ... The South Africans measured their strength against the flower of the German army, and did not draw back from the challenge."
In over two decades of visiting Cape Town, I'd never got around to visiting the Castle of Good Hope: I can't quite explain why, as I love castles, but somehow this one had never quite managed to make it to the top of the list. After an abortive attempt to visit last year (when I was stymied by its unexpectedly early closing time), we finally made it through the gate on our last visit - and I'm so glad that we did.
The Castle of Good Hope is technically a 'fort' rather than a 'castle' - the difference being that it was solely intended as a military structure, and was not intended as the residence of an influential person (such as a king or a nobleman). Semantics aside, it is a fascinating structure with a curious pentagonal design and an equally interesting history.
The first twist is that when you enter the Castle is that your eyes are assaulted by a blaze of colour. South African buildings are very seldom painted any colour other than white, and the sunny brightness of yellow plaster more commonly encountered on Maria Teresa structures in Central Europe is both a surprise and a delight. And all this against a backdrop that is an uninterrupted view of Table Mountain in all its glory ... a photographer's delight (if only the Tablecloth hadn't descended a few minutes previous)!
Unsurprisingly, the Castle is the oldest surviving European structure in South Africa, and was established by the VOC as a replenishment station for the Dutch East India fleet. Construction began in 1666 on the site on an earlier fortification established by Jan van Riebeeck, and has subsequently been through several rounds of modification to achieve its current configuration.
Despite bristling with artilliary, it is reported that a shot was never fired from this castle. Whilst that may be the case, this was nonetheless a serious military garrison, and also served as a jail (most notably in the Anglo Boer War).
Guided trips of the castle are included in the admission price, and are well worth doing. The highlight for most tourists is the 'torture chamber' which was used to jog the memories (reliable or otherwise) of hapless prisoners. Unlike similar exhibits in Europe, there's not much in the way of torture equipment on display, but when the tour guide closes the door - plunging the torture chamber and adjacent holding cell into almost pitch blackness - you can imagine how easily terrified prisoners would have confessed to anything.
The tour includes the Castle's highlights, including the Dolphin Pool and Fountain, the prison cells and (still active) army recruiting office. However, it's worth taking a little extra time to explore aspects that are either not included in the tour or which are glossed over - including the simple wooden cross commemorating the Battle of Delville Wood and the small museum on the Boer War. This is interesting, as it documents the lesser known phases of this war in the Cape Colony, rather than the more commonly recounted history of the war in the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
Try to time your visit to the Castle to coincide with the Presentation of the Keys ceremony (after which you can complete the military experience by listening for the firing of the Noon Gun from Signal Hill.
One charming and unexpected aspect of the Castle of Good Hope is a small courtyard featuring the elegant Dolphin Pool and Fountain. This was restored in the early 1980s, based on drawings done around 1790 by Lady Anne Barnard. Anne's journals and drawings provide a unique perspective on life in the Cape Colony around the turn of the 19th century, and she herself had a strong personal link to the castle, having served as official hostess for banquets and parties held there by the Governor of the time.
Unfortunately capricious Cape Town's south easter is notorious for picking up and relocating litter, so the elegance of this spectacle is often marred by floating debris (one reason why this photo has been cropped so closely).
The firing of the Noon cannon from Signal Hill is a Cape Town institution and takes place at 12:00 each day (except Sundays and public holidays). The cannon shot served as a time signal for boats in the harbour and can be heard across the city, which can be quite alarming if you're not expecting it! Obviously the precision of the timing was critical, and the cannon is triggered remotely by the South African Astronomical Observatory's master clock.
You can observe the shot at Lion's Battery, a short way down the side of the hill (and not on top). Aim - if you'll excuse the pun - to get there by 11:30 to catch a presentation undertaken by the South African Navy.
The cannon used is believed to have been used in the Battle of Muizenberg in August, 1795 and were moved from their original position at the Castle of Good Hope to Signal Hill in 1902.
To my mind, Water's Edge beach in Seaforth in Simon's Town south of Cape Town is the perfect family beach in the peninsula area ... sheltered, with limited wave action and located on the warm(er) False Bay side of the peninsula, with some reasonable snorkelling and interesting rock pools to explore. It's very similar to Boulders Beach (about 1km walk further down the coast) but, unlike Boulders Beach - which is a nature reserve for which you have to pay an entrance fee - Water's Edge is a public beach.
The southern edge of the beach abuts The Boulders penguin reserve, and particularly in the late afternoon, you can see penguins congregating on the rocks, preparing for a hard evening's fishing. And if you're here very early in the morning, chances are that there will be a penguin or two wandering on the beach ...
So why do most visitors - even those that visit the penguins a few tens of metres away - not know about it? Well, mysteriously in recent years, the sign board indicating the entrance to the beach has disappeared, and rumour has it that it has been swiped by locals keen to keep the beach for themselves! Is this true? Well, I couldn't possibly comment, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility, and certainly nobody seems to be in a particular rush to reinstate it!
So how do you find it? Well about 100m north from the entrance to The Boulders penguin reserve, there is a small cul de sac on the seaward (eastern) side of the road, limited by a slightly weatherbeaten high fence made of wooden planks. The beach is accessed through the gate in this (which is unlocked during daylight hours).
You can even stay in the stunning period Water's Edge House overlooking the beach - probably not the sort of secluded hideaway you might seek for a honeymoon destination, but beautifully appointed for a family holiday!
Just don't tell anyone that I told you ...
I know that many overseas visitors (particularly those from countries which drive on the right hand side of the road) are nervous of driving in South Africa, which is a tremendous pity, as potentially you miss out on so much of the scenery. A particular case in point is Cape Town and surrounds, which offers mindboggling beautiful series of drives, each more scenic than the last!
If you only have time to do one drive, then I would recommend devoting a day to the circular peninsula route, which gives you a whole range of different perspectives on this stupendously gorgeous part of the world.
The route around the peninsula (which can be driven either way) is as follows. From Cape Town, take the main highway (M2) towards Muizenberg, and at the end of the highway, either take Ou Kaapseweg over the mountain, or go down the eastern (False Bay) coast. If you take the eastern route, you have an option of following the main road that hugs the coast through a ribbon of little towns such as Kalk Bay, or the less busy and exquisite Boyes Drive which contours the flanks of Table Mountain and is elevated above the coast, giving you stupendous views. At the time of writing (2010) I would recommend the Boyes Drive route as the coastal section of the road was undergoing major roadworks.
Both roads will eventually take you down to the entrance to the Cape Point Nature Reserve, where you turn west, cross the peninsula until you hit Scarborough and take the road up the Atlantic seaboard through Kommetjie. Once you get to Noordhoek, you again have two options: either take the iconic Chapman's Peak Drive, which will bring you up past Llandudno to Camps Bay, or turn inland and come over Ou Kaapseweg.
Sounds complicated, but once you look at a map, I promise that it will make sense!
How do I know this route so well? Quite simply, every parent brave enough to travel with children knows only too well that trying to keep small kids in some sort of sleep routine so that they don't become sleep deprived and make the entire trip a misery for everyone concerned is a huge issue. Having been there, done that and got the T shirt, for what it's worth, I've found that the best way to do this is to take them for a long drive in the early afternoon in the earnest hope that they drop off and have some sort of nap. I am happy to report (based on extensive field trials) that the Cape peninsula is ergonomically designed for this purpose! I have lost count of the number of times that I have driven around the peninsula - sometimes twice - in order to give small, cranky people a rest.
The beauty of this strategy - provided that your little darling(s) play ball and do what they're meant to do - is that you also get to experience some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world, so even if you end up doing it regularly, the chances are that you will feel grateful (rather than resentful) for the opportunity to repeat the experience!
White sandy beach and clear waters ... Even they offer a massage service on the beach as u r sipping ur drink to make ur time more enjoyable ...
The best is, even in hot weather, the sea water is always kinnda chilly, not cold, but also not so hot as Mediterranian Seas, so, makes u very refreshing under heavy sun heat ... :)
As u decide to visit the Table Mountain, first thing u gonna pay attention is the weather condition, as if its much too cloudy its not worth, as u wont be able to see anything w covered view downhill to the city below ... Also consider in case its too windy, the operation of the cable car will be banned due to security reasons ...
Table Mountain is actually a part of National Park where u can take amazing photos of Cape ...
Famous for the tablecloth of clouds that pours endlessly down its slopes when the south-easter blows, this is a mountain of many moods and offers walkers and hikers a range of routes that vary from strolls to rigorous hikes.
One of the "must visits" of Cape Town City ... :)
'Iconic' is one of my favourite words (as those who have read my travel pages will know) and there are few locations in Cape Town that better deserve this adjective than the Chapman's Peak Drive!
The 9km route, with its 114 curves is the road on which you'd like to test drive a high performance car early in the morning when there are no other motorists around! Indeed, when you visit, the spectacular setting may seem more than a little familiar from car ads that you have seen in the past!
There are a couple of stopping points along the drive which allow you to get out an admire the stupendous views - however, be warned that in high season, these (and indeed the road itself) can get pretty crowded.
The road is on the western side of the Cape peninsula, so the sun sets into the ocean, making late afternoon a wonderful time to do the drive. I would suggest driving it from south (Noordhoek) to north (Hout Bay), as this allows you fantastic views of Hout Bay itself, but frankly it's so wonderful that you'll probably want to drive it more than once!
The tariff is not cheap - R30 one way for an ordinary car (again, as with many tourist attractions, there is a R7 discount if are clever enough to have bought a Wild Card - see my South Africa travel tips). However, there is no doubt that it is worth the money.
Chapman's Peak is frequently closed for maintenance and repairs, as well as for events such as the Two Oceans Marathon and the Cape Argus cycle race. I would therefore suggest that you consult the website below to avoid disappointment.
For those with a taste for absolute trivia, Chapman's Peak was the backdrop (excuse the pun, which you'll understand just now) for South Africa's most famous series of comparative adverts. The first of the series was for Mercedes and was based on a real life incident where a motorist drove over the side of the Chapman’s Peak road over the cliff and survived (obviously a glowing testament to Merc's safety). Later, BMW ran an ad showing their car driving along the same part of the road (without going over the edge), whose pay off line was, “We take the bends”. And to top it off, Land Rover produced an ad showing their vehicle driving up the cliff which the Merc went down! This series is still taught as a case study to marketing students more than 20 years after the event! (For more on South Africa's sometimes inspired advertising, follow this link
If this has whetted your appetite for scenic drives, then I suggest that you also consider doing the drive around the peninsula including the Ou Kaapse Weg pass across the peninsula, the drive along the east coast of False Bay through Gordon's Bay and Betty's Bay (which is also the first section of the Garden Route) and (for my money), the best of all, the short but glorious Boyes Drive along the eastern side of the peninsula, which provides panoramic vistas over False Bay (and can also be incorporated into the peninsula drive).
Yet more reason to hire a car for your visit to Cape Town!
... well, perhaps the person you are talking to didn't just have a holiday in South Africa!
One of South Africa's most rapidly expanding tourism sectors is 'medical tourism' ... which is also one of the fastest growing 'niche tourism' sectors worldwide.
The country's state healthcare system is a disaster, so anyone who can afford it has private healthcare insurance (known as medical aid), consults private medical practitioners and uses private hospitals. The private hospitals are equal to any in the first world, and the cost of procedures is considerably lower than if patients were seeking equivalent treatments in Western Europe or North America, making it a cost-effective alternative even when you factor in the cost of flights and accommodation.
South Africa's particular 'specialities' are plastic surgery and dentistry, and local practitioners are generally of a very high standard and well thought of by their international peers. This is not surprising given the practice that they get on their domestic clientele: there are many suspiciously young looking 'mature' women wandering around suburban shopping malls and every second child - and quite a lot of adults (myself included) - have braces on their teeth!
The advantages are twofold: high quality medical services at an internationally competitive price, and the opportunity to retreat to a secluded environment where you can enjoy a luxury holiday whilst you convalesce. Many clinics have arrangements with exclusive retreats such game lodges, where you can let your scars heal before venturing home: hence the rather inventive brand names of some of the service providers (I am particularly amused by 'Surgeons and Safaris'!).
My personal take on the issue is that even though the mirror is getting ever less kind, I'd rather spend the money on another trip than on plastic surgery (but then I'm probably more focused on maintaining a youthful spirit than a young appearance)! However, if this idea appeals to you, then I cannot overemphasise the importance of doing your homework. To start with, it would be extremely unwise to not thoroughly check the qualifications of a practitioner before deciding to embark on surgery: see the website below for guidance on how to do this. Also I would strongly recommend the following website which features a briefing produced by the American College of Plastic Surgeons on having plastic surgery overseas, which provides an excellent checklist of questions that you need to ask and issues that you need to consider before having surgery overseas:
OK, this is very obscure, and probably only for people like me who have a 'greater than average' interest in the history around the first heart transplant ... but if you fall into this group and/or want to do something that you can guarantee that 99.99% of tourists to Cape Town won't do, then read on ...
Obviously a heart transplant is only possible if a suitable donor heart becomes available, and this corner, at the intersection of Main Road and Queenspark Avenue in Salt River (only a couple of kilometres from Groote Schuur hospital) is where poor Denise Darvall was critically injured.
The Darvall family were on a Sunday outing to visit friends, and stopped here to pick up a cake from a well known bakery (which no longer exists). She and her mother were hit by a drunk driver who was rushing to return to the bakery where he worked: her mother was killed, and 24 year old Denise was diagnosed as being brain dead on arrival at the hospital. Ironically, one of the people who passed by the scene soon after the accident took place was Anne Washkansky, the wife of the man who would ultimately receive Denise's heart.
The ultimate hero of this tale was her father, who had just lost his wife, and was then asked to sign over his daughter's organs for transplant, with her most emotive organ - the heart - to be used in a procedure that had never before been attempted (one of her kidneys was also transplanted). One can only imagine the mental anguish that this poor man - who ironically suffered from a heart complaint himself - experienced, and it is to his eternal credit that he agreed to give consent within five minutes of being asked. When Louis Washkansky died 18 days after the transplant, he commented that he now considered that his daughter was really dead, and he himself died just over a year later.
To get to this location, turn left out of the main entrance to Groote Schuur (the one that you use to visit the museum): this is Main Road, and you follow it for a few kilometres in the direction of the CBD. Once you're done, you can continue along Main Road, which will take you into the CBD close to the Cape Town Castle - it's not a particularly attractive drive, but it is interesting as it takes you through a vibrant (if somewhat gritty) area that has a lot of small businesses (including clothing manufacturers) and factory outlets (including the Queenspark factory shop - see below) where you might pick up a bargain, and also saves you having to get back onto the highway.
On a completely unrelated note, which will only be of relevance to South Africans - most of whom I suspect won't give two hoots either - there is now a Queenspark factory store on this corner (Queenspark being a well known South African clothing chain). I have not been able to find any evidence to support this theory, but I am surmising that the rather unusual name of the chain was derived from the name of the road? If you have information to support or disprove this theory, please let me know!
Ask people to name a famous surgeon, and chances are that they will only be able to come up with one: Dr Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first human heart transplant. It is therefore not surprising that a museum has been developed in the hospital where this momentous event took place: what is a complete revelation is what an absolute cracker of a museum it has turned out to be!
Everything about the history of the first transplant is fascinating. Firstly there is the ambitious, charismatic and libidinous Chris Barnard himself – best described by his brother Marius (also part of the transplant team) as ‘a surgeon who wanted to be a playboy’. Barnard was the son of an impoverished minister assigned to the Coloured community of dusty Beaufort West in the Karoo and both he and his brother rose to prominence despite their ‘poor white’ background.
As a result of his achievement, Barnard went on to become an international media celebrity and - albeit rather toothy - sex symbol who would most certainly have been an excellent candidate for a reality TV show had he lived in this day and age. Sadly, in later life, he would become better known for his love of the high life, his obsession with youth and celebrity and his womanising. Chris not only had problems maintaining his relationships with women, but also with his brother. Chris and Marius’ very different personalities lead them to frequent conflict – and ultimately become estranged – in later life, and his brash, publicity-seeking personality also caused him to clash with many of his medical peers during the course of his career.
Add to that the human drama of two families united by tragedy: the family of Louis Washkansky, the upstanding and terminally ill man who bravely volunteered as a guinea pig for the transplant in a desperate bid to live, and the heroic Darvall clan, whose bereft father agreed to let his brain-dead daughter’s organs be used in an untried procedure, despite having lost both his daughter and his wife in a hit-and-run incident only hours before.
As if this wasn’t a potent enough mix, the whole drama played out in the stark period of Grand Apartheid. Barnard’s achievement raised South Africa’s scientific profile at a time when it was the pariah of world politics, and one of the sad outcomes was that the National Party government later manipulated the rather gullible Barnard as a stooge to shore up their tarnished international reputation (most notably in the infamous ‘Info Scandal’). The second heart transplant Barnard conducted also involved the transplant of a donor heart from a Coloured man to a white recipient, which further raised questions about racial segregation.
Although liver transplants (which had been successfully conducted well before the first heart transplant) also require an organ from a dead donor, the debate around the medical definition of death was a particular stumbling block for heart transplantation. Ironically, perhaps the single factor that allowed Barnard – rather than one of his more experienced American rivals – to perform the first heart transplant was South Africa’s clearer legal definition of death which focusing on (the absence of) brain function and made no reference to whether the heart was functioning or not.
It is only possible to visit the museum on a guided tour which takes two hours, including a couple of short audiovisual presentations. The tour walks you through a section of the original Groote Schuur hospital building where the transplant took place, and the highlight is the operating theatre where the transplant took place, which has been eerily reconstructed.
The use of display material throughout the exhibition is outstanding, and my only regret that I didn’t have longer to peruse these fascinating documents and photos which narrate an absolutely fascinating tale. Some of the original hearts involved in those early transplants are on display, although visitors are asked not to photograph these as a mark of respect to the families of both donors and recipients.
If you are particularly interested in this fascinating episode in history, it is also possible to visit the site where Denise Darvall was knocked over, although this is not commemorated with any sort of memorial.
This is one of only a handful of museums that have ever touched me to the point of tears and I shamelessly blubbed my way through much of the tour, maybe because I had a young cousin with a heart defect who died before she could find a surgeon able to help her. My challenge to you? “How could you possibly leave this museum and not have an organ donor card in your wallet?”
Visitors to Cape Town who use the airport as their point of entry will probably be familar with the elegant proportions of Groote Schuur Hospital on their right as they head into the city on the highway. It is an impressive building in its own right - and even more impressive when you consider that this was the location for the first human heart transplant ever performed.
More about the stupendously wonderful Heart of Cape Town museum - which occupies part of the original hospital building - in the travel tip below (and the associated travelogue), but firstly a bit of background to the hospital itself.
Groote Schuur (meaning 'big barn' in Afrikaans) is Cape Town's major teaching hospital. It was established on a large tract of land bequeathed by Cecil John Rhodes on the flanks of Devil's Peak: the University of Cape Town was established on another section of the same enviable piece of real estate.
The hospital was only built in 1938, and has since been enlarged by building additional wings. It is a state-funded hospital - and, given the sadly shambolic state of South Africa's public healthcare system, is therefore woefully underfunded, underresourced and overcrowded. Most South Africans who can afford it have medical aid (private health care coverage) - if only to cover hospitalisation - and would try to avoid using state hospitals if at all possible.
Following on from my prevous travel tip, this is the second statue of Jan Smuts in Cape Town - puzzlingly located less than a kilometre from the other.
This statue is located outside the Slave House, just by the entrance to Company Gardens, and is artistically much more to my liking than the Jan Smuts statue outside the national art gallery. I think that it beautifully captures Smuts' whippet-like physique and wily sense of alertness, even at rest.
Smuts may not have been quite as racist as his National Party contemporaries, but I think that even he would have raised a disapproving eyebrow at the black guy leaning casually against the base of his monument!
The Cape Town museum is located at the end of the Corporation Gardens just next to Parliament, and is a great natural history museum that doesn't seem to get the credit that it deserves.
The building has an attractive historic exterior and the interior space is well planned, with professionally presented temporary and permanent exhibits. I particularly like the marine mammals exhibit - complete with obligatory whale song in the background. These species are obviously not represented in the Two Oceans aquarium, and hopefully will prepare you for what you are lucky enough to see in real life as you tour the coastline!
There is also a small section on South Africa's dinosaur and mammal-like reptile heritage (see my tip on the James Kitching museum in Johannesburg for more on these weird beasties). I always enjoy the fun set of dinosaur footprints on the floor where kids are encouraged to literally 'walk with (or was that 'like'?) dinosaurs' - simple yet so effective, and can keep them busy for ages!
As ever in Cape Town, it is a smart idea to have a 'fall back' option for when the weather turns nasty, and this is ideal for children and adults alike.
The Company Gardens are a pleasant spot, and it's worth lingering there for a few minutes to people watch - I speak under correction, but I have never heard of any security problems (bar the odd pickpocket) during daylight hours. The first section of the path from the CBD is lined with oak trees that are populated by a very friendly squirrel population, and it's fun for kids to feed them with peanuts - either bring your own or buy from the hawkers there.
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Castle of Good Hope
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