We’re up early for another tour this time of the west coast, north of Cape Town. I gorge on too much breakfast, making a pig of myself in the twee Morning Room and half an hour later, we’re picked up by L and her partner M. The latter is a native Afrikaner who grew up on a farm – he looks like it too, with fat leathery hands and a cap screwed tight onto his head. He looks like he’s in his mid 40s; she looks a bit older.
“I’m from Rhodesia,” she says briskly. “I’m embarrassed to call it Zimbabwe.” If that sounds a little severe, though, she turns out to be really quite a cool person. A little bit bossy, a little bit funny, but very friendly, she makes more effort than anyone to make sure we feel welcome in her adopted county.
She has decided to largely ignore the plans for today, opting instead to take us to some of her preferred tourist spots. First up is an ostrich farm, where the cartoonish birds are raised for slaughter. Most of the carcass is used and – to my ignorant surprise – the hide is especially important as ostrich leather is some of the most durable in the world. The meat is eaten; the feathers used for dusters; the egg-shells whittled down for jewellery or decorated as ornaments. It all reminds me of a long-lost primary school project on Native Americans. We feed a couple of ostriches (which owing to an unfortunate incident with a goose as a toddler is a little traumatic) and even get on the back of one at one point, although it’s tethered in a stall. It’s friendly enough, but if you piss off an ostrich enough, it can rip your belly open, raptor-style. They can also run at a sustained 40mph, so you wouldn’t be able to get away from them either. The best tactic, apparently, is to hit the deck as they can only kick forward, not down. I guess punching it in the balls would be the next move after that. Our next stop is the !Khwa Ttu [sic], San culture and educational centre. We’re taken out a little into the bush, to a mock campsite to learn a bit about the traditional San (traditional bushmen) lifestyle. While watching a guy start fire and fashion bone into a bracelet is only so interesting, listening to them talk the native dialect – all clicks and pops – is really cool, as are the imitations of the animals. As a young San man, those sounds are important; you need to know what’s sneaking up on your tent at night. Out here, there are all kinds of wandering beasts, from lions to snakes to the eland, the biggest antelope in the world, which based on its skull alone must be an intimidating bastard up close.
We drive to the coast for lunch at On The Rocks at Bloubergstrand. From here there’s supposed to be a great view of Table Mountain, but today the whole thing is covered in cloud. Unsurprisingly, seafood dominates the menu in most of the posh-to-middling restaurants in the Western Cape so I order mussels to start and line-caught yellowtail for main. It’s nice. I don’t think much more about it.
Chins wiped, business cards handed to manager, we are whisked away to meet some beach conservationists. An hour passes in a gloomy beach hut as we are given a Powerpoint presentation on the ecology of the region. It’s pretty dire stuff and, with a belly full of food, staying awake is a genuine challenge, which is a shame for the student giving us the talk. Having already stuttered to a stop and confessed of nerves in front of her audience (just the four of us) my yawning and Wee Mo slouching bored at the end of the table no doubt don’t help.
By the time we get back into the car, we’re a bit fed up but have to stop in at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) before we can head for home. Something in my stomach doesn’t feel quite right.
We’re met by V who has worked at the centre for seven years. Initially starting as volunteer, she’s now a fully qualified vet. She shows us around, introducing us to a poorly penguin and a demented cormorant. Many of the birds in here have been poisoned by some kind of pollution, but a significant number are injured by seals.
“So the penguins eat fish, the seals eat the penguins and the sharks eat them?” I ask.
“Yeah,” says V, “I wish there were more sharks.”
Like everyone else we’ve spoken to, she hasn’t been shark cage diving (M actually laughed at the prospect earlier) instead leaving it to the tourists. Struggling for much to say while she is jostled by a huddle of penguins trying to get some of the fish she has in a bucket, we ask about the king penguin we saw at the aquarium yesterday.
“Oh that’s a really sad story. It lived up in Namibia with its partner for 27 years, then it was transferred here. Unfortunately the partner got sick and died when they were in Cape Town – she died right here, we were all in tears.”
But what about the mirror?
“They put that in to keep in company. They need to be quite strict though and limit it – they can become quite obsessed otherwise. But you saw how much he looks forward to Mirror Time…”
Crushed under the gloom, we are ushered back to the car. As soon as we get in, though, I realise that the odd feeling in my stomach isn’t heartache, but a growing sense of being unwell. M asks to be dropped off and by the time we’ve got the outskirts of Cape Town, everything inside me is wrenching to get out of the nearest exit. I’m rotten on the inside, but don’t have the heart to tell the ultra likeable L.
Pulling into the hotel car park, every little movement is potentially deadly. When a security guard asks us to sign in I think I might cry; when L insists on a hug goodbye, there’s a very real chance I might be evacuated completely.
Finally I collapse into the toilet, and there I stay for the rest of the uncomfortable evening.