Reunion in South Africa
Sep 1995 - Feb 1996
It only took an overnight flight from London to Cape Town to put the world between Diane and myself again, and send us back to our corners with no idea how the future might play out. The odds were stacked against us on account of the geography, it must be said, but I wasn't ready to give up on what we had started in Russia and Scandinavia just yet. Nor was Diane, as it turned out. By the time my plane had crossed the English Channel and plunged into African air space she had already included Cape Town in her flight plan back to New Zealand later in the year, and essentially put into action the sketchy plan we'd discussed on the lawns of St James Park just a few days earlier.
Nothing went according to script when Diane stepped off the plane in Cape Town and we saw each other again for the first time in weeks. Neither of us knew what to do. We had been in touch constantly since the end of our tour of Russia and Scandinavia using all the technology available to us at the time - phone, fax, hand-written letters - and Diane had even brought her flights forward multiple times to make this day possible, but when it finally arrived we were both struck numb by uncertainty and inaction. We didn't have an itinerary to dictate our next move or a holiday atmosphere to escape reality, even for just a little while. Diane's reliance on me as the only person she knew in a country otherwise shrouded in instability gave her the jitters, and I must have cut a forlorn figure with my bunch of flowers staring indecisively at the floor as my nerves failed me. We met as strangers again and all my hopes of just a moment earlier crashed on the shore and disappeared into the sand. For a while anyway. We were better than this. So instead of going straight home we took an extended drive around the Cape Peninsula, giving ourselves time and space to regroup, and I was bombarded with more questions than I could properly answer without taking my eyes off the road. But by the time we reached my apartment in Claremont several hours later it seemed that all the force and energy behind our anxiety was spent, and suddenly we were back at the same point where we had left off in London a month ago. And just like that, all was well with the world again.
But it didn't end there. Diane was cast further in the deep end when I was sent to London on a business trip within days of her arrival in Cape Town, and I had little choice but to ship her off to Mom and Dad in Margate on the other side of the country for a week. The irony of me being back in London and her staying with my parents in South Africa was not lost on us. But in a year that kept on throwing surprises, Diane's sojourn in Margate worked out just fine and it wasn't long before she was in the swing of things on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, a meaty braai in the balmy outdoors of Mom and Dad's backyard, tea and milkshakes at Sheila's Croc Farm in Southbroom, or simply giving Dad the friendly ribbing that he probably deserved.
I proposed to Diane on Sunday the 24th of September 1995, just two months after we first set eyes on each other in the lobby of our London hotel at the start of our tour of Russia and Scandinavia. I lured her unsuspectingly and under the guise of spending a lazy Sunday afternoon in Kirstenbosch Gardens, and made the proposal of marriage that had cemented itself in my head during my business trip to London. I have no doubt that I made the proposal without any of the appropriate poise and aplomb suited to these occasions, and the less said about the delivery the better, but Diane's response was swift and positive, thankfully, despite the small wreath hurriedly woven from a nearby fern tree that had to serve, temporarily at least, as an engagement ring.
We celebrated our engagement at Maria's Greek Café in Cape Town with friends and acquaintances who required very little coaxing for a fun night out. And a good time was had by all, despite my impromptu speech which trailed off into oblivion halfway through for no apparent reason and which had to be rescued, and completed, by Diane. We decided to have our wedding early next year in New Zealand, so this engagement party essentially served as something of a wedding party and celebration for our South African cohort who were unlikely to make the big trip over.
One engagement ring and one visa extension later and we were able to resume normal duty again for a while. Diane fell into step with the outdoor lifestyle of Cape Town quickly and easily, and we spent as much time as possible under the African sun and preferably on one or more of the magnificent mountains of the Cape Peninsula. It wasn't unusual for us to make the three-hour climb to the top of Table Mountain every other weekend, or even straight after work during the long summer evenings. And there was little that could compare to the hikes up Lion's Head on full-moon evenings. The hour-long trail started at the base of Lion's Head and led you in a slow and diminishing spiral skywards, offering spectacular views in every possible direction, and culminated in a series of chains set in rock to assist with your final push to the summit. Then the light spectacular kicked off with a glowing sunset as the sun slipped below the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and the few moments of twilight that followed gave you just enough time to rearrange your blanket and turn around to watch a full moon loom up ominously behind Table Mountain in the east.
Hiking the mountain ranges of the Cape Peninsula were some of the best times of our lives, and we have yet to live anywhere where you can step out of your back door into such natural splendour. We were invariably accompanied by Deon 'Bok' Pienaar, mountain goat extraordinaire and all-round good guy who had already forgotten all that we still had to learn about the mountains of the Cape. Deon and I shared a love for these mountains and we both remember, with a kind of fond horror, the time that he and I took a massive leap of faith across a gorge between two boulders on Table Mountain somewhere that would have made Carl Lewis proud, but which left us both a bit shaken by the enormity of our recklessness and imagined invincibility. We returned to climb Lion's Head again many years later, with Deon of course, and the impression that it made on our kids made them question why we'd ever left Cape Town in the first place. We wonder this ourselves sometimes.
The Kirstenbosch Gardens of Cape Town were situated close to our home in Claremont and was one of our favourite go-to places to escape the madding crowds. The Gardens are nestled against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and have a history that dates as far back as the mid-seventeenth century, although it was more formally established in 1913 as a botanical garden to preserve the indigenous flora that is unique to the Cape Peninsula. From a hiking perspective, the top end of Kirstenbosch Gardens also served as a portal to a steep hiking trail called Skeleton Gorge that led upwards through wet rainforest and a series rock faces and wooden ladders to the top of Table Mountain along its eastern escarpment, and on towards Devil's Peak if you had a full day on hand and were in a slightly suicidal mood.
Cape Town was the only place where we ever owned a proper wicker picnic basket, complete with Gingham lining and all the other trimmings you find in these kind of things. It had been a generous gift from my work colleagues at our engagement party and we made proper use of it on the long Sunday summer evenings at Kirstenbosch Gardens, where patrons were often treated, free of charge, to musical concerts hosted by the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra.
It was Table Mountain, of course, that held centre-stage for most of our hiking adventures in Cape Town. There were numerous ways and means to get to the top of the mountain, including a convenient cable way which was usually our preferred means of getting down again, but nothing could compare to the adrenalizing Chain Route trail up the rugged western face that required nerves of steel, the experience of a Deon 'Bok' Pienaar, and a little bit of crazy.
The name Chain Route is something of a misnomer as there were in fact just three chains to assist with your ascent to the top. All three chains were indispensable of course, but it was the third and final chain that separated the mice from the men. A narrow crevice five metres long, five metres deep and a little over a foot wide had formed when a large section of rock, and probably through the process of wind erosion had separated from the rest of the mountain near the top, not unlike the cleft hewed by the novice lumberjack who, in splitting his first log, only manages to hack the very edge of it. There was nothing but a sheer drop on either side of the crevice and the third and final chain dangled somewhere in the middle of it, menacingly, as though it knew it was the only means by which you could get out of that mess. We had to scramble up these final five metres one person at a time, pressing against both walls of rock with whatever parts of our bodies could find purchase in that narrow space, ignore the howling wind that tore through the crevice and use all the strength we didn't know we had to climb up the chain, prise through the fissure above, and step with elation and relief out onto the top of the world.
There are plenty of beaches to choose from on either side of the Cape Peninsula, on the warmer Indian Ocean side or the cooler Atlantic side, depending on your mood. The sugar-white sands of Clifton Beach at the base of Lion's Head was one of our favourites, and served as a popular venue for our summertime volleyball evenings, and, when the madness took us, a dip in the icy Atlantic Ocean. An extraordinary combination of prevailing winds and ocean currents rendered the seawater at Clifton quite warm during the winter months but ice cold - below 10° Celsius - during even the hottest of summer days, and could turn the unsuspecting bather who imagined they'd stepped out onto the Côte d'Azur for a quick dip into an instant glacial form as soon as they reached knee-deep in the blue and inviting surf.
Our apartment was situated in one of the southern suburbs of Cape Town called Claremont, just a stone's throw away from the infamous cricket grounds of neighbouring Newlands that was nestled beneath the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. There was always a large turnout for the cricket at Newlands during the summer months, partly on account of the cricket itself and partly - perhaps mostly - on account of the adjoining Newlands Brewery, South Africa's oldest brewery that has been in operation since 1820. It wasn't unusual for Diane and I to spend a lazy summer afternoon on the lawns of the Newlands cricket grounds and watch, in this instance, Shaun Pollock and his band of merry men settle a score against the English cricket team following their rain-affected World Cup semi-final clash a couple of years previously.
Cape Town has a colourful and chequered history that dates back to initial recordings by Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias in 1488. The town of Franschhoek (French Corner) about an hour due west of Cape Town in the Mont Roche Nature Reserve, for instance, has a monument dedicated to the French Huguenot refugees who arrived in the Cape in 1688 after fleeing anti-Protestant persecution in France, and to whom the centuries-old wine and farming industry of Cape Town's hinterland is forever grateful.
Our apartment in Claremont was a relatively small one-bedroom man-cave which was the first property I'd ever owned, and which I'd bought at a time when housing was still considered a place of shelter and accommodation. I had managed to refurbish it with new carpets, curtains and solid oak furniture since assuming ownership in 1992, but it had started to experience another, more feminine reformation since Diane crossed the threshold in 1995. What was cosy for one resident became even cosier for two, but the real qualities of the apartment was its location and the spectacular view of Table Mountain and Devil's Peak from the lounge and bedroom windows that had cemented my resolve to buy it in the first place. It was just a short walk to the Claremont village centre and shops, to the train station that got me to my work in the city in under twenty minutes, to the Newlands cricket and rugby grounds where parking was otherwise impossible, and it was central to just about everything else in the Cape Peninsula.
Mom and Dad had retired to Margate on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal in a three-bedroom cottage which accommodated numerous family visits over the years, particularly at the end of year when we all tried to get together for the Christmas and New Year holidays. For Diane and I it meant a couple of hours by plane from Cape Town to Durban, and then by hire car the remaining trip to Margate via the Hibiscus coastline. KwaZulu-Natal was the heart and soul of Zululand and had far more of an African look and feel than the Mediterranean vibe of Cape Town. It was a happy place, and Diane and I have many fond memories of our time spent in Margate, and in Durban, and at the Blue Marlin Resort in Scottburgh who should have offered us shares for the number of times we filled their coffers with our holiday funds.
Diane and I occasionally made the ninety-minute day trip from Margate to Durban in a rickety shuttle bus that had seen better days, and which had broken down with a puncture on our very first trip. We would invariably spend the day in and around Durban's beach-front promenade, known locally as the 'Golden Mile', a wide stretch of golden-sand beachfront strewn from one end to the other with surfers and sun worshippers, hotels and restaurants, aquarium, waterpark, and the ever-popular Minitown, a scaled-down and working version of the complete city of Durban and its harbour and airport. On one occasion we sat down to have our portraits sketched in pencil by a local artist. The outcome was quite accurate, it must be said, but the drawing was lost during one of our many international moves in the years that followed and sadly we have never been able to find it again.
The subtropical climate of Margate and the surrounding towns and villages on the South Coast has always made it one of the most popular holiday destinations in the country, with plenty of beaches and attractive golf courses to lure the most discerning of holiday-maker as well as simple golf tragics like myself. This was Diane's first foray into the dangerously addictive world of golf, and her willingness to engage as my personal caddy during a round at the course in Southbroom can only be attributed to her naivety and the newness of our relationship. She still has a keen interest in the sport, especially when David became a sub-zero handicap player in the years that followed, but she has never offered, or even entertained the thought of offering to caddy for me ever since.