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Historic Cape Town

Cape Town was born in 1652, the day Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck laid claim to the land for the Dutch East India Company.

travel Updated: Mar 31, 2011 15:55 IST

After 21 years, Mahatma Gandhi left the shores of South Africa permanently for India, on board SS Kinfauns Castle, from the port city Cape Town, located at the southernmost tip of Africa. 

Landing there almost a century later, I pleasingly discovered that modern Capetonians continue to remember him with respect. They believe that his concept of non-violence or "satyagraha" was a major source of inspiration for their leaders like Nelson Mandela who referred to him as a "sacred warrior".

Cape Town was born in 1652, the day Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck laid claim to the land for the Dutch East India Company. This city has a strong connection and empathy with India. In the 18th century when the British took over the Cape, they brought in Indians to work in plantations as indentured labours, most of whom never went back and their descendants today call Cape Town home.

Importation of humans then was not new to the land; earlier the Dutch transported slaves from West Africa and Indonesia, introducing a torturous regime of drudgery in the region. Over the years, as the non-white population soared, the worried white masters introduced racially discriminatory laws (better known as apartheid) to restrict these natives' life and virtually every movement.

Despite intense global activism against it, those repressive laws were in force till 1994, when free democratic elections were held for the first time in the history of South Africa, and Mandela was overwhelmingly elected as the nation's first 'black' president.

Since then Cape Town began booming as a rather sought-after travel destination in the region, not just because of its unrivalled natural grandeurs, but equally for showcasing the contributions from its early settlers - the Dutch, British, Indonesians and Indians, immediately apparent in its diverse architecture, lifestyle and religions.

Strategically lying halfway between East and West, the metropolis is set in an amphitheatre of spectacular mountains and oceans. While the flat topped Table Mountain, flanked by the Devils Peak, Lion's Head and Signal Hill guards the city from one side, thundering waves from the Atlantic and Indian Ocean keep splashing the other.

Its modern-day menu card includes plush accommodation, eclectic variety of cuisine, endless shopping opportunities and hordes of things to do and see that richly reward even a conservative visitor. With enough adrenal rushing activities, from abseiling to paragliding, as well as more relaxed outings to expansive beaches, vineyards and many city museums, quaint markets and trendy shops, the city easily fills an extended visit.

It's not possible to see and taste everything that Cape Town has to offer in one visit, however a tour of the Table Mountain, Cape of Good Hope and Robben Island is near mandatory for first time visitors.

With a cluster of dramatic cliffs and eroded gorges, the 1087 metres high Table Mountain is a landmark synonymous with the city as Eiffel Tower is to Paris or Big Ben to London. It dominates the city's skyline and offers breathtaking vistas from the top, which can be reached in minutes by its world famous revolving cable cars, that provide passengers a 360 degree glimpse the surrounding panorama. Once there, be prepared to be surrounded by patches of fluffy balls of clouds, which according to a popular legend, are the result of a smoking contest between a Dutch pirate and the devil, both of whom have been smoking ever since.

It's a divine treat for your eyes when you move south along the sea board to the Cape of Good Hope, a part of the Table Mountain National Park, to see the southernmost tip of Africa at Cape Point where the two pounding oceans are said to converge. It's an exhilarating experience to stand at the finger like promontory, as if you are positioned at one extreme end of the world watching the different colours and shoreline of the two vibrant ocean-currents, which generate such strong and circulating winds that it becomes difficult to hold on to your caps and sunglasses.

The city's physical environment display many records that remind the world the nation's dark apartheid period. For example, the 1885 built Neoclassical styled Parliament House where the discriminatory laws were legislated; the St George Cathedral, the doors of which Desmond Tutu kept hammering to make him the country's archbishop; the colossal City Hall from the balcony of which Mandela, in February 1990 delivered his historic speech, immediately after release from 27 years in prison; and the colourful Bo-Kaap quarter where some of city's non white population were confined.

However, the most significant of them from that time is the Robben Island which lies a few kilometres away from the shoreline. It dots the nation's former maximum security prison, once the home for all top anti-apartheid political leaders including Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and Zuma. After the demise of apartheid, the prison was closed and now, a UN World Heritage site, it stands as a symbol of triumph over evil forces .

A half hour catamaran journey from the city's trendy Victoria & Albert Water front drops you at the this potent symbol of apartheid where ex- political prisoners take you around the premises. Amongst various sites, you will see the house of Pan African Congress founder Robert Sobukwe, who was kept in isolation for decades; Nelson Mandela's tiny cell, where things such as his bucket toilet and the mattress roll on which he slept on the floor for 18 years still remain, and the lime quarry where he and his fellow mates spent countless hours of hard labour.

The guide narrates lots of interesting stories and what's amazing to know is how Mandela and others kept their morale and intellect intact, despite that level of physical and psychological torture. When freed after imprisonment, all of them were fresh in mind to lead their people, build a new nation and pledge to provide a better life for all, irrespective of race and religion. In fact it was Mandela's key manifestation in his 1994 election campaign.

Today over 3 million Africans, Asians and Europeans have made Cape Town their home giving its rich urban potpourri a strong cosmopolitan character. You will experience cultural clichés changing from one suburb to the other and spot among them quirky mix of historical and modern buildings such as Cape Dutch houses, Moravian churches, Georgian mosques, Victorian terrace houses and Islamic minarets representing the new nation's extraordinary tapestry of race and culture.

Best way of reaching Cape Town is flying South African Airways (


) from Mumbai. There are no shortages of hotels to suit budget, however staying at Taj Cape Town (


) in the heart of the city means you are in the centre of all the iconic sites that tout Cape Town's blend of fascinating history, exotic culture, soulful art, lively entertainment, delectable cuisine and buzzing street life.

At Taj, do not miss dining at their Bombay Brassiere Restaurant, after rejuvenating yourself by a Jiva Spa that offers a spectrum of authentic, traditional Indian wellness treatments. There are plenty of multi-cuisine restaurants in Cape Town, though if Indian food is your choice, then drop in at Bukhara (


) or Raj Indian Restaurant (


) where the decor, ambience, service and food are of high standard. For more information on Cape Town, please check Cape Town Tourism at