All entries for Wednesday 08 February 2006

February 08, 2006

Travel Report: Bathtime in the Western Cape

Follow-up to Travel Report: A tale of two dorps from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

The boers are bouncing back

The fat Afrikaner's gymnastic display could be best described as anachronistic. Somehow the physical capabilities of his childhood, perhaps as a six or seven year old, had surrealistically time-warped their way into the frame of a fifty year old bouncing blubber mass. Monty Python could have envisaged this spectacle, but only at the extremity of their comic imagination.

Each time he hit the surface of the trampoline, the springs threatened disaster, but somehow they recovered in time to propell him upwards. As if that were not enough, with a wild laugh he shifted his position gracefully in mid-air, to land with a perfectly calculated (vast) bottom-first thud. This should have been the end of him, and perhaps also a large chunk of the surrounding landscape. But no, he again recovered with ease to reassume his improbable sport.

And it seemed that no other person in the vicinity had noticed. Was this normal behaviour? Is there perhaps a South African national trampolining contest, not the domain of lithe young girls but rather of grossly over-weight Boers? Most amazing was his exit. He just stopped bouncing, springing up to a standing position with cartoon-like physics and stepping off the apparatus lightly. He walked away with the casual regard of one for whom such an exertion was no more than a daily exercise. Or perhaps the assurance of a former olympic gymnast.

I sat there transfixed. And then the political analogies began to roll. One could, at a stretch, compare the political fate of the Afrikaners to the bouncing blubbery body. This of course would be deeply unfair and simplistic, but so was their regime, so they get what they deserve. The Afrikaners were never a mass, but rather were a minority with a disproportionately loud and shrill voice. They do however bounce back rather elegantly. For example, consider the new reformed Afrikaner nationalist party, the Freedom Front Plus (plus what?) Modern, liberal, inclusive – so long as each race stays in its alloted territory and worhsips the Lord. Just at the point at which the collapsing body of the AWB three legged swastika hit the bottom of the trampoline, it piroueted upwards and onwards, morphing easily into the 1930's font of the FFP's boy scout style badge (Baden-Powell, hero of Mafeking, is spinning in his grave).

As I said, the analogy is quite unfair. They have moved on significantly. But it's worth making for comic effect alone. And besides, there's some injustice remaining when a minority party attracts less than twenty people to a pre-election rally, but is still allowed a ten minute slot on the national news.

The Victorian House

So you want to know how you can get to see this astonishing spectacle for yourself? Well despite it being one of the seven wonders of the modern world, you won't find it advertised in a travel brochure.

One of the lesser known secrets of successful anthropology is this: if you really want to understand a culture, go to the place at which its people relax. Find somewhere at which they drop their guard. Sit on a shady bench, blending in with the scenery. And observe.

After riding south on the N7 for an hour and a half, my damaged wrist was too painful to continue. The tablets had reduced the swelling, but the effects of riding a light bike in a powerful cross wind had made things much worse. I passed Calvinia with its dam and water skiers, onto Citrusdal. Just outside of the town, I stopped at a petrol station, refilled, and re-examined my copy of the Lonely Planet guide. Amongst its recomendations nestled the classic South African health spa known as Baths. I called ahead and booked a large apartment for a small fee. The spring water pools and spa baths beckoned.

The road to Baths heads away from the town and into the foot-hills of the Cederberg Mountains. The tar ends at the entrance to the "resort". Once beyond the well-manned security gate, the road becomes a sandy track, even a little challenging as it raises to a slightly steep ascent. Along the track there are well-spaced camp sites, at this time occupied by a diverse range of happy campers, including one of the lamentable overland safari trucks that carry sardined European students up and down the continent.

I parked between the modern stylish restraunt and the reception. The manager apologised for having to give me an apartment on the top floor of the old Victorian House. I got a little worried by his tone.

The temporary pessimism proved entirely unwarranted once I had ascended the track a little further up the valley. The house was quite wonderful. Had it been occupied at some stage by Karen Blixen? It looked at first like a movie set. But it was entirely genuine, as a photograph from the early days of the spa proved. This really was a colonial Victorian house in original condition. And I had a large top floor apartment with great views of the hills. Surrounding the house were a few more modern building. But of them all, the Victorian House was certainly the finest. And then I realised. The manager wasn't apologising because there was a problem with the room, but rather he was sorry for having to give one of the most luxurious, expensive and big apartments to a single man on a motorcycle. I didn't complain, especially at under £30 a night.

Baths Victorian House 2

Baths Victorian photo

I walked down the steps to collect my luggage. Reclining on a iron and wood bench upon the first floor veranda, I found one of my neighbours. He looked utterly relaxed and at home, as if the view through the elaborate iron lace work bannisters had long been the focus of his gaze. He beckoned me to sit next to him and converse. I did just that, for at least half an hour.

Baths verranda

My neighbour's name was Bernard, the second of such on this journey (there also being a Bernard at Vanrhynsdorp). He was from the outset an intriguing character. A proud representative of the Cape Coloured people, with an accent and vocal character rather like that of Nelson Mandela. I exaplained my origin and journey, with some highlights of the tour so far, as well as a demonstration of my injury (holding both wrists up together showed that the right was significantly larger than it should have been). Two things became immediately apparent: 1) here was an intelligent, cultured and learned man; 2) with a genuine love of Englishness. The rest for now remained a mystery.

Baths, hot and cold

What does the term "health spa" mean to you? Perhaps a place for the healthy? Maybe a place to become healthy? Or at the very least a place in which to hold the intention to try to be a little more healthy than usual? The health resort of Baths has an entirely different ethic. By lunch time the ritual of the braii (barbecuing on a massive scale) had already begun. The delicious smell of boerwors sausage filled the air. But all was not lost. A procession of sparsely dressed people had also commenced. They were heading to the eponymous baths of this place.

And a fascinating sight it was too. There were many elegant people. There were even some very attractive ladies. And as a natural complement, there were the shockingly large white men in swimwear. The hip problems and lameness may well have just been a coincidence. However, I could not help wondering if a small reduction in the intake of meat might result in a loss of weight. This could then reduce the stress placed on their leg joints, thus making the walk down to the pools a little less painful. I'm not a doctor, so that's just a theory. Of course it makes no difference to their achievement of the most important goal in life. Each one of these tragic characters was accompanied by an attractive and skinny blonde wife. I was entirely mystified.

I overtook the limping Afrikaners, swam for some time, and noted that they never did seem to reach the pool. Odd that. The water remained the preserve of a good mixture of smiling, happy and healthy looking families, representing various hues of the rainbow nation. The adults sat around in the shallow end, chatting mildly. Occassionaly someone would embark on an adventure to the far reaches of the deeps, only to turn back at the half way point. The children were far more lively, this being a great place for them to play. A couple of spritely teenage girls undertook a hip-hop interpretation of synchronised swimming, which was both amusing and to be applauded for its creativity.

Occasionaly groups of people would suddenly emerge from the water, collect their towels, and disappear through an archway. They returned approximately ten minutes later looking redenned and somehow more awake. Despite being entirely happy floating around, my travel writing imperative nagged me into investigation. On walking through the archway, I discovered another world, perhaps akin to entering a Victorian secret garden. But not a garden as expected, instead another large swimming pool lay in the middle of it. There was, however, a subtle difference. This pool looked hot. I can't say exactly what the visual que for this judgement was, but there was a definite heat about it. I dabbled a foot to discover just how hot.

The ambient temperature out of the shade, this being the middle of the afternoon in summer, had to be over 35 celsius. To go from such atmospheric heat into hot water was a simulation of the inevitable fate of a Western Cape rock lobster. My skin turned red. I was in fact a little dizzy. But it was good whilst it lasted. After a rather pathetic three minutes I dragged myself up the steps, walked swiftly back to what I now understood to be the cool water pool, and jumped in. Now I understood the "health spa" claim – a very Victorian kind of health treatment.

It would never happen in Kelsey Park

After a few minutes in the cold pool, I was back to a normal temperature, although now with a slight sunburn. I returned to the shady bench, to be joined by Bernard, who was now at the pools with his family (his wife Maureen, daughter Bernice, son-in-law Robert, and grandaughter). We talked more, a little about South Africa, but mainly about England. Bernard and Maureen had spent several weeks in the UK on holiday. They had planned to tour Europe, but were so impressed with their first destiation in Kent, that they didn't go any further. This proved to be an ideal base for visiting London. When I enquired as to whereabouts in Kent, the reply initiated a rather eccentric behaviour from me – but I couldn't help it! With the nasal voice of a Network South East rail conductor:

"Bromley South, Beckenham Junction, Peckham Rye, Brixton, London Victoria".

I know Bromley well. Emma's parents have a flat in Beckenham. I asked if Bernard knew Kelsey Park: yes, lovely place. It is a small world.

We talked more of England, and in particular, English history. I was interested to know why so many South Africans, even those who are not of direct English descent, seem to love our grimy dark land. In Bernard's case, it seems to represent a time before the grand error of apartheid. He remembers at school an education in English, before the Afrikaner takeover. An international and broad education system was sadly snatched away from the non-white people, who had to be isolated and re-educated in the name of industrial apartheid. And then came the separation from the Commonwealth, the dissapearance of the Queen's face from the currency, the years of abandonment. I made the nearly acceptable excuse that this started during the worst economic crisis of British history (1948), but even so, I felt a little guilty. Bernard didn't mind. I think he would quite like to see the return of the Queen. I said that the British people would happily let them have the future King, so long as we no longer had to suffer him.

Regardless, or perhaps because of history, Bernard invited me to join his family for a braii (barbecue) that evening. I first had to cancel my booking for the very good restraunt, disappointing the owner who must struggle to compete with the traditional South African form of feasting. But it was too good an offer to turn down. The food was excellent, especially the spicy sausages. I sat for some time on the veranda with Robert, also a biker, and discussed sport, business (emergency service sirens, which must be doing well in SA) and bikes. Just like the rest of the family, Robert proved to be good company, and offered further insight into life in South Africa today.

Bernard returned, and we talked more. His wife was a teacher and psychologist, now retired. Their daughter, a leading clinical psychologist with the University of Cape Town, researching the effects of alcohol on pregnancy, and presenting her results in the USA. And Bernard, who at first I took to be a very down-to-earth guy, it transpired, is a retired advertising executive, having worked for one of the world's biggest firms! He sold me two things: a positive feeling about South Africa, and the idea that Bromley is the best place in London.

Life in the Cape seems to be good. This must be largely the result of the friendliness of its inhabitants, despite everything.

Baths Victorian House 1

Baths paw paw tree

Part 7, Big skies into Cape Town