Bonna Nelson - April 2012
Beaches, Lions, Mountains & Wine
My Cape Town, South Africa, Adventure
Bonna L. Nelson
“How about a cup of Rooibos tea or a glass of Pinotage?” I asked our guests before my trip to Cape Town, South Africa (SA). In preparation for one of my “bucket list” trips, I immersed myself in all things South African – the tea, the wine, the music, the books....
Rooibos, pronounced “ray-boss,” tea is made from the leaves of the native SA Rooibos plant. When brewed, the red tea has a natural, sweet taste and tantalizing aroma. I had a cup every morning during my three-week trip, and I am drinking a cup as I write this story. After all, I wouldn’t be able to finish if I was drinking the Pinotage!
In my pre-trip research I learned that South Africa is famed for its wines, and I was glad that a trip to a few vineyards was on our itinerary. I sampled some of the wines before I left home, and at tastings at vineyards near Cape Town, and continue to enjoy it at home. My two favorites are Pinotage, a red wine, and a Chenin Blanc/South African Chardonnay white wine blend. Pinotage is a grape that is unique to South Africa, a blend of pinot noir and cinsaut grapes. My friends love the white wine for its exotic cheetah print on the “herding cats” label.
As for music, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album made the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo famous. The South African group has recorded over thirty albums since, and has come to represent the traditional culture and music of SA. World music enthusiasts, like me, enjoy their vocal harmonies and mix of Zulu, Christian choral, and African storytelling styles.
No amount of reading could prepare me for the astonishing scenic beauty and warmth that is Cape Town, SA. The joyful people, amazing mountains, endless beaches, delicious wine and food, interesting museums, exotic markets and wild animals are the irresistible attraction. The city, which is one of the most multicultural in the world, is located on a peninsula of soaring, rocky heights and lush valleys, not far from where the Atlantic and Indian oceans converge.
I have frequently traveled with Notre Dame of Maryland University (NDMU) International Studies Programs. Travelers include professors, students, alumnae and friends of the university. I enjoy the trips because I am an alumna and because there is an interesting mix of ages and interests and an academic focus – perhaps on history, religion, archeology, or culture.
The academic focus of the trip to Cape Town, SA, was nursing. I traveled with NDMU’s Global Nursing Program. Of the thirteen in our group, ten were nurses, including the professor, Barbara Friend, who was our trip leader. The nurses had a total of 167 years of nursing experience, and nine of the nurses were taking the trip for RN or MSN course credit, with volunteer work and site visits included on the itinerary. With two doctors, husbands of a student and a traveler, I knew that if I, the only non-medical person on the trip, had a medical emergency, I was in good Company.
We collected medical supplies and items for the pediatric and geriatric populations that we would visit during the trip. The volunteer sites that we visited and donated to included the largest pediatric hospital on the African continent, treating children from some of the poorest areas of Cape Town and beyond.
We also visited an orphanage, a community health clinic, a senior home and a pediatric orthopedic facility. The experience was both heartbreaking and heart warming. One day we cleaned toys in a playroom and visited and played with the children in the orthopedic center. Some of the nurses helped with medical testing at other sites. Several of the sites were located in the Cape Flats townships, the Cape’s poorest communities of tin shacks and sometimes no indoor plumbing or electricity, leftover apartheid sins.
Reverend Vernon Rose, our Yale- and Duke-educated SA trip coordinator and host, met us at the airport when we arrived and quickly had us zooming through a brightly lit nighttime Cape Town to the Fountains Hotel where dinner and our rooms awaited us. Dr. Rose wears many hats, including professor, pastor and college tour and student exchange coordinator. The SA native seemed to know everyone in Cape Town.
Dr. Rose and his wife kindly entertained us at a “braai” (SA for barbecue) held at their home, so we could experience how the SA black middle class live (nicely). They treated us like family with old-fashioned hospitality in their home, at restaurants and jazz clubs, and a three-hour African church service.
“Welcome to my beautiful country and please call me Vernon,” Rev. Rose said in the morning before our first walking tour of Cape Town. He introduced our driver, Simon, and security guard, Parks. Between them, they speak eleven languages.
Our walkabout took us to historical, business and market areas of Cape Town. We passed enticing outdoor markets and fascinating modern and historic architecture. Our first major stop was the District Six Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of apartheid and its effects on local people of color. They were forcibly removed from their homes, which were then demolished, and sent to impoverished townships outside of town. It was a fitting beginning for our trip, an emotionally moving and eye-opening experience.
Cape Town sits in a valley between the romantic, sometimes cloud-covered, flat Table Mountain and Table Bay off the Atlantic Ocean. The modern city has a fantastic waterfront with fine shopping, arts and crafts, an aquarium, entertainment, pubs and restaurants.
From the harbor we took a seven-mile boat trip to Robben Island, which is known as the island of tears, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for political reasons for close to 20 years. We saw his sparse cell, his garden and the lime quarry where he worked. And yet, he overcame. The tour is led by former prisoners.
More highlights of the trip to SA included a walk around the world-famous Kirtsenbosch National Botanical Gardens at the foot of Table Mountain. The gardens are famous for their floral beauty, collection of native “fynbos” vegetation, over 9,000 species of plants, landscape variety, animals, birds and trails.
We rode a cable car up and down the 3,560-foot Table Mountain for a breathtaking 360-degree view of Cape Town. We drove up and down mountain ranges and to pristine sandy beaches, including Boulders Beach, home to the African penguin colony. We toured the 17th century Castle of Good Hope and walked a labyrinth at St. George’s Cathedral.
Outside of Cape Town we traveled to the Fairy Glen Game Park for a ranger-guided wildlife safari. We drove close to four of the “Big Five” animals, including lions, elephants, black rhinoceros and buffaloes. The fifth, the shy leopard, is rarely seen except at night.
We were in an open safari truck rolling across the plains and close to the jungle, surrounded by animals including hartebeest, wildebeest, elands, springbok, ostrich, and colorful birds. My favorites were the herd of magnificent zebras galloping across the grassland and the opportunity to hold an ostrich egg.
Most of the resident wildlife, as in the U.S., were over-hunted over time by natives, European colonialists and tourists. Now they survive in public and private parks, game preserves and refuges.
The trip to wine country passed rolling pastoral scenes in fertile valleys surrounded by majestic mountains. We toured a vineyard at AtyldGedacht Wine Estate and enjoyed the wine tasting that followed.
At the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, we lunched on farm to table food from the estate, matched with their wines. While some bought wines, I wandered over to the Cheetah Outreach Preserve for an opportunity to pet a cheetah. Awesome!
We were comfortable with the 70 degree spring temperatures and enjoyed feasting on fresh seafood including calamari, prawns, mussels and fish, as well as an abundance of local vegetables accompanied by SA wines. The nurses felt that they had accomplished their service learning work and research, and were ready to prepare reports and make presentations to their classes and hospitals on return. We made SA friends, trip friends and memories that we will keep forever.
Bonna L. Nelson is a Bay-area writer, columnist and photographer. She resides with her husband, John, two dogs, two kayaks and a power boat in Easton, Maryland.