For centuries, Table Bay was the first port of call for visitors arriving at the Cape from other parts of the world. Now, airline travel has moved the main point of entry to the airport on the Cape Flats about 25km (15 miles) away. Many of the flights land with the rising of the sun, and whilst waiting for check-in time at one’s accommodation, a visit to Cape Town’s original port of call may be just the right place to unwind after a long intercontinental flight.
Languishing for many years as a dirty, smelly working harbour with an underutilised Victorian section called the Victoria & Alfred Basin, Table Bay’s waterfront was shunned by all except those who worked there. Over the past fifteen years, all this has changed most dramatically with the creation of the V&A Waterfront development.
At this Southwestern corner of Africa, land and oceans have collided and blended into the magnificent scenic vista of today. This is also a place where people and cultures have collided and interacted over centuries and are now blending and harmonising to make up the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town.
Along the way, between the modern airport and magnificent waterfront, landscapes reflect South Africa’s diversity and past. The road to the city heads straight towards Table Mountain, now low on the horizon, its allure powerful even from this distance. Perhaps you saw the Cape Peninsula mountain range as you came in to land at the airport, but in any case, you will sense and see this bold reminder of Africa, not fully tamed by man, from most parts of the Cape Peninsula.
Where the airport road links up with the N2 motorway, squatter camps on both sides of the road contrast radically with the airport and modern industrial building lining the road a few moments previously. These are homes for some of the poorest and newest residents of Cape Town. Many of these inhabitants have come from the Eastern Cape and are hopeful of finding employment in Cape Town. These areas, next to the freeway can be prone to flooding in our wet season and also to damaging fires that spring from shack to shack. Plans are afoot to improve early fire warnings, as are plans to provide better permanent housing in these areas. Weaving down the freeway between the townships and the city centre, large taxis carry commuters.
Apart from Table Mountain and sharp pointed Devil’s Peak looming ever larger ahead, the other two landmarks are the rather utilitarian shape of Athlone Power Station and the more inspirational Athlone Stadium. Only operational during peak demand periods, the services of this small power station have largely been replaced by South Africa’s first nuclear power plant, north of Cape Town. For many years South Africa with about 6% of the population of Africa has produced over 50% of all the electricity of Africa - a consequence of our great mineral and fossil fuel wealth as well as the great personal wealth and first world demands of a number of our citizens. Massive fossil fuel plants produce most of this substantial power supply in Mpumalanga Province and probably do their bit to contribute to global warming in the process!
To the left the outline of the more modern Athlone Stadium is a reminder of dashed hopes of South Africa’s Olympic Bid for 2004, but the dream will now be fulfilled with the World Cup in 2010.
Further along the way, Cape Town starts exhibiting some of its wealthier profiles with golf courses coming into view. Past the Black River, the freeway takes a semi-subterranean profile as it bores up the slopes of Devil’s Peak. Old Victorian homes of Mowbray and Observatory (site of Cape Town’s first observatory) flank the sides. A right turn and Groote Schuur Hospital comes into view. This hospital made headlines in 1967 when the world’s first heart transplant took place here, led by Chris Barnard and his team of pioneers.
Taking the right branch of the freeway towards the V&A Waterfront, the Eastern Boulevard suddenly crests a spur of the mountain and Table Bay, famous Robben Island and the city centre of Cape Town are revealed below. The half-deserted areas to the left, before the freeway gets elevated above the city, make up old District Six. Homes were levelled by bulldozers during the height of the apartheid era and residents sent to so called modern townships near the airport and other places far from the city.
Beyond, the dramatic front face of Table Mountain can be climbed, but more usually, visitors take the modern rotating cable car to the top for unsurpassed views of the city below, Table Bay, other Cape Peninsula Mountains, the vast Atlantic Ocean and the distant mountains facing the hinterland and rest of Africa.
Although this part of the freeway does speed up connections to the western suburbs of Cape Town, it has been criticised as cutting the city off from the sea and Table Bay. Arguably, this was also effectively done by the construction of the large Duncan Dock harbour beyond a massive area of reclaimed land. Much of the modern city is now built on this area known as The Foreshore. Cape Town Castle is visible on the left between the old Good Hope Exhibition Centre and the railway station. This castle bordered the beach when it was constructed in 1666!
Approaching the waterfront, one passes a new convention centre and internationally branded hotels. For many years this was an area of open parking lots and a slightly run down areas as one might find close to a city harbour. This has benefited from the development of the V&A Waterfront. The road turning right into the V&A Waterfront is clearly marked. This first part is awaiting further development. Recently a canal was constructed from the waterfront to the convention centre and retail space, offices and restaurants are planned to line the canal, with water buses plying back and forth. At the first circle turn right towards the grain elevator. A left turn at the next circle will lead into a parking garage. A good starting point, two levels above, is the comprehensive tourist information office with lovely views across the harbour.
The waterfront is a brilliantly planned conversion of the old Victoria and Alfred harbour. From a run down and slightly derelict area, a vibrant precinct with shopping centres, restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, arts & crafts, entertainment and attractions such as the Aquarium and Maritime Museum has emerged over the past few years. It is also the ferry departure point for Robben Island. This is located just outside the Information Centre - in the Nelson Mandela Gateway Building. The waterfront is such a large development that it is worthy of a journal in its own right. Although slightly removed from the city itself both in terms of location and reality, it is a most comfortable place to while away the hours, whilst you wait for check-in time at your bed-and-breakfast, guesthouse, or hotel.
This is Africa, but some say much of Cape Town and the Western Cape, in look and feel, has a semblance to many other new world, first world places. Scratch the surface though and you will uncover some of the rhythm and intrigue of the "mother continent" in this, the "mother city".
The journey from the airport to the waterfront takes just a few minutes, but the views of the Cape along the way, created over hundreds and thousands of years, are but a glimpse of the diversity awaiting to be explored.
And what about the V&A itself ? Visitors may arrive at the airport, but sooner or later they will discover the delights of Table Bay and the V&A Waterfront. As you look around, you will appreciate why for many visitors, it has regained its status as the first port of call.