Part 4 of a 2008 South African travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Owl be seeing you
He sits directly in my path, staring. There’s no way to get around him, and going through him is beyond consideration, considering the multiple sharp, hooked weapons he’s carrying…including the one pointed directly at me. His head rotates…left, right, left again…and then he re-fixes his gaze on me as he lets out a low ululation. A warning, perhaps. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Eventually, his lids droop, and he seems to fall into a wary semi-slumber. Or is he just faking it? Maybe I can step over him, if I move quickly…
Danger on the streets of Cape Town? No, an owl, with talons the size of my fingers, and a beak that could scythe a St. Bernard…or my ankles. Here at World of Birds, we’re in the raptor cages, and the predators are sizing us up. They can’t get away, but as we stare back, it occurs to me that neither can we.
Billed as one of the most species-rich bird sanctuaries on the planet – and I believe it – we’ve driven here after several hours of lunch to look at birds. Birds of all colors, sizes, shapes, and diets. Riotous tropical breeds, silly-looking pastiches of chicken/peacock/paint accident, brooding kings of the air…they’re all here. Some talk to us, which never fails to be slightly creepy. Hawks stand guard over stumps littered with little morsels of (I think) rodent. But despite the glowering owls, the only actual danger to our persons comes from the otherwise chatty parakeets, who savagely nip and snap at any finger that comes within a few inches of their cages. Most of the birds roam free; some are skittish, while others are content to scamper over visitors’ feet. Above, even more birds rest on the “ceilings” of the cages. Are they looking for love with their enclosed brethren, mocking their captivity, or just hanging out, hoping someone will toss them a Mouse McNugget?
We could probably spend more time here, but closing time approaches, and how long does anyone not ornithologically-obsessed want to stare at birds…or be stared at by them, as if we were food?
In which we mimic olives
We drive back to Cape Town via the swanky coastal “Cape Riviera” route, and the views are as striking as the towns are lavish. Alas, Table Mountain is still obscured, but the horizon on everything else is limitless. Bands of showy houses cling to steep hillsides, albeit behind gates, bars, and walls bristling with security. I suppose this is where one would want to live in the Cape Town environs, because the views are hard to surpass.
The late afternoon and evening are ours in which to do as little as possible, and we live up to our mandate by marinating ourselves in our hotel’s top-floor “endless pool,” with its spectacular views stretching north, east, and south. The thought of dinner, after such an extravagant lunch, never occurs.
Castles made of hope
At breakfast the next morning, we appear to have finally transitioned from post-work detox to true vacation, the evidence for which is provided by the glasses of bubbly on our table. Hey, it goes with the oysters…
Villiera Méthode Cap Classique Brut “Tradition” (Stellenbosch) – A little sweet, almost tasting as if there’s muscat in the mix (I don’t believe there is). Simple and quaffable, but no more.
We slurp our bivalves, sip our sparklers, and enjoy the truly impressive views. Lion’s Head – which, to be honest, looks more like Gorilla’s Face to me – has become a familiar old friend. And Table Mountain? Is…is that…?
Hey, yes! The “tablecloth” is being pulled from the plateau. There’s still obfuscation, but it’s a misty, less opaque sort, and fluffy white rivulets seem to flow and drip from the top, disappearing as they descend. Could this be the day, at last?
While we wait for a full unveiling, we walk through a few bustling neighborhoods to the Castle of Good Hope, a colonial fortress that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Shaka Zulu miniseries. The walk itself is interesting, because for the first time we really feel like we’re in Africa; along several stretches, there’s not a white face to be seen, and the formerly-noticeable deficit of street-level restaurants is quickly forgotten in a riot of sizzles and searing aromatics from dozens of open doorways. If only we were hungry…
The fortress has been expanded beyond the usual tourist walk-through, with small single-subject museums (including one covering colonial military history in South Africa, a problematic topic at best), specialist shops (e.g. a military figurine store), and of-the-period recreations of various everyday functions. It’s really quite interesting, and would be more so were we more interested in old furnishings, but to be honest we rush through it. Because, as we can see quite clearly from anywhere in its open courtyard, Table Mountain is now in full view.
Turning the table
The line to board the bottom-to-top cableway to the top of Table Mountain is not as long as the guidebooks warn, though it moves slowly enough that time becomes a consideration that needs monitoring. Not for us, but for some on-the-clock tour groups within earshot; one French busload has just enough time to ascend, take some pictures, and then get back in line for the descent.
But that’s no way to travel, and while we’re not staying for the apparently fabulous sunset views, we do intend to explore a little. The gondola itself provides a fun twist…literally so, as the floor rotates 360 degrees while the car traverses its route, negating the mad tourist rush to prime positions at the rear windows (in fact, those are the worst places to be, since the view of the city and ocean below are not restored until the very end of the trip). Soon enough, we’re at the top, wandering a strangely mystical landscape of wind-etched rocks and scraggly vegetation.
The name does not lie; it’s flat up here. There are discontinuities and breathtaking ravines (unprotected in almost all cases; the clumsy and the vertigo-afflicted will want to be very, very cautious), but from certain perspectives the sensation of being in a broad valley, rather than atop a dramatic and lofty formation, is inescapable.
We’re interested in a hike, but require a little fortification before we set forth, and wolf down and extremely mediocre lunch at the inevitable café, fighting off aggressive, food-snatching birds the entire time. Well, at least the views are nice, and at least the birds don’t consider us food.
Hansa Marzen Gold (Norway) – Wait a minute. We were just in Norway. As a matter of fact, in Bergen, where this beer is allegedly made (though I’ve no idea if this particular bottle was actually brewed there; it seems unlikely). I’m glad I didn’t taste it there, and I wish I hadn’t tasted it here. It’s horrid, like Miller Genuine Draft but with less flavor. Ugh.
Savanna “Dry” Cider (Elgin) – As dry as the label promises, with a fine bitter edge. Not great, but quite drinkable.
After lunch, we wander in a loop; it’s too casual to be called a hike.. There’s not much wildlife – too exposed, too many people – other than a lot of scooting, darting lizards, whose rock-top sunning must be interrupted several hundred times each day, and there’s not all that much vegetation either, though what there is clings low to the ground, wiry and fierce. But the views…oh, the views. In two directions, the open ocean, one including the descending funnel of Cape Town, the back of
And yet, there’s something remarkable going on up here, exposed on four sides and with nothing but a flat expanse of rock and open sky in any direction: there’s not a breath of wind. Where did the tempest go?
Prithee, maketh not a scene, good sir
Taking a post-descent taxi back to the hotel proves a little more difficult than the trip that got us here. There’s a line of taxis along the road, but most of them are in fairly dire condition. However, our attempt to skip to the nicest of the bunch starts a fight between the cabbies. Or rather, a “fight.” As soon as we attempt to open the door of our chosen car, the drivers in the rest of the line gather ‘round to protest to our guilty-looking driver. But their protests are neither yells, nor curses, nor imprecations and condemnations. Rather, they take this form:
“Come on, you must do the right thing here.”
“Don’t be unfair.”
“You must wait your turn, please.”
…and so forth. This is fighting? Can we export some of this back to the States?
On the way back down, in a car – the right one, this time – that seems held together by masking tape and chewing gum, we spend a little more time looking around than we did on our eager ascent. The neighborhoods of Cape Town’s higher elevations, including the Cape Malay-dominated Bo-Kaap, seem much more interesting than those on the waterfront. Alas, we won’t get the opportunity to explore them on this trip.
There’s wine in the lobby again. It’s not all that good, but at least it’s free.
Blaauwklippen 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Stellenbosch) – Dried-out black fruit with structure. Boring.
Blaauwklippen 2006 Merlot (Stellenbosch) – Blueberry softness. Boring.
Another restorative plunge, this time in our hotel’s hot tub, prepares us for dinner. Though we’re missing the sunset from Table Mountain, the sunset on Table Mountain is lovely, and we watch from our steamy, panoramic perch as long as we can, until we risk turning into prunes.
Speaking of which, we’re hungry again.
Raats on the table
I suppose by some measures, Jardine is “hip.” It certainly presents itself that way, and more than a few local reviews describe it so. But aside from the trendy-feeling bar downstairs, and a few diners who look a little overdressed for the room, it’s not, really. A small number of well-spaced tables, an attractive but not overdesigned interior, a small open kitchen, a (relatively) short but clever menu and wine list…before we’ve even eaten a bite, we can tell that this is a restaurant where the focus will be on the food, not the scene. And we’re eager to begin.
I start with thin strips of cep marinated in smoked garlic, then dotted with cubes of foie gras, little morsels of ox tongue (crisp-soft in the manner of pork belly), and a few greens. It’s an inventive and flavorful dish, the usually-rich porcini here providing contrast to the actual richness of the animal products, after which the greens serve as palate-cleansing freshness. All the while the aroma of smoked garlic hovers in the air. Next up is twice-fried crispy duck – they like their crunchy fat here – that’s still tender and juicy in the interior, like some sort of hybrid between French and Chinese preparations of the bird, with even more greens (they like their greens as well) and some other accompaniment that I neglect to write down and can’t quite remember…in any case, it’s the duck that stars on this plate, and it brooks no competition.
The care devoted to the wine list allows me to sample a glass and then a bottle from the same winery, wines that represent two slightly different takes on the same idea:
Raats 2008 “Original” Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch) – An unoaked cuvee. Appealing, sunny fruit, showing hay, gum, and fresh apricot. The texture’s overtly creamy, and while it retains a certainly lightness of spirit, the wine would be improved by a little more acidity. There’s a long, pure finish, and despite the absence of crispness, I really enjoy this wine.
Raats 2006 Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch) – The difference between this and the “Original” is the élevage; some of this wine is barrel-fermented, a “world-classing” technique to which my initial reaction is dismay. Chenin shouldn’t need makeup to achieve greatness. And yet, here’s the first volley in South Africa’s attempt to prove me wrong, and I’m already wavering. There are the expected elements of cream, butter, and a more luxurious texture, but there are some surprises as well. For one thing, a salty, iron-rich minerality is brought to the fore. And while the finish is even thicker than in the “Original”, there’s a clear sensation of a greater quantity of balancing acidity. It’s all very mysterious. I still think I’d rather drink the “Original”, but this does make a compelling case for itself.
Neither of us is hungry for dessert, which means that – per custom – I’ll take mine in liquid form. There are some local choices, but I’ve already tasted most of them (this is one area in which South African wine lists are a little disappointing; the country makes a lot of sweet wine, yet the same labels show up over and over, even in wine country). Thus, my eye is soon drawn to some French entries, including some I wouldn’t normally choose due to the expense. But at ten-plus rand to the dollar? Yes, please.
Laubade 1964 Bas-Armagnac (Armagnac) – Warm chocolate and caramel fading into a late-evening fire, plus rich brown sugar. Melting and intense. Fantastic.
From one Table to another, this has been a fabulous day. And not once was I threatened by a ravenous owl.
Copyright © Thor Iverson