South Africa Wheeling
By Clive Anfield © 2000   

Clive Anfield at Cape Point South Africa.I am a T8/T9 paraplegic and recently I travelled to Cape Town to check things out as part of the research for the RollingSa accessible tour venture. Alas, so much to see, so little time… Anyway, I have written a bit about this trip of mine so that you can see that travel in South Africa is very possible for the wheelchair  traveller.

The first day was a bit overcast, so we headed off to Cape Point via Hout Bay and Simonstown. Hout Bay is a small fishing village that has increased in size due to many people preferring to live in this peaceful setting and commute to and from work in the city approximately 20 minutes drive.

It boasts many small restaurants and pubs that supply the freshest seafoods plucked from the sea, from shellfish to fish and the prices are really good. The ones we chose seemed to be fairly accessible to the wheelchair.

From there,  we were off to Simon’s Town where the South African Navy has its headquarters. On certain days the public is allowed to board certain Naval vessels, but we were out of luck that day.

Near the harbour mouth we noticed a small crowd gathering, and upon investigating we realised that they were looking at two Southern Right whales that had swum peacefully within a stones throw of the gathering crowd. These whales migrate annually from the cold Antarctic to breed in the warmer Cape waters and to fatten themselves up for the trip back. Many can be seen during the winter months frolicking peacefully all along the Cape Eastern coastline.

After a while the novelty of seeing these whales had worn off and so it was back into the car and off to Cape Point. This is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, and on certain days it is possible to see the distinct line of the blue colder waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the green warmer waters of the Indian Ocean. Over the past few hundred years, many ships have run aground in this area, due to the rapid changes of the weather and the fog that comes up out of nowhere. There are many shipwrecks visible from the shore to bare witness to this.

There are two options to get up to the best lookout points, either by the walkway, which is very steep, or by a funicular train which takes you to the top. This funicular is wheelchair accessible and the people manning it are very helpful. There is a wheelchair toilet at the bottom but not at the top, so make sure you go before going up or you will have to wait till you get down. At the top, there are many pathways to the various vantage point and there is a curio shop and a small cyber café.

The Point is also on a nature reserve where there are a huge variety of flowers, birds and animals. The Cape Protea is one of the most obvious flowers during the winter season. They are protected and so cannot be picked.

Baboons are also obvious here as you can see them sitting along the roadside or feeding on the plant life. They can sometimes become a bit of a nuisance by snatching food out of you hands or handbags, so it is wise to keep a watchful eye when they are around. There is always someone around to ward them off.

Day 2 was also a hectic day as we went to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, which is definitely geared for tourists and wheelchair accessibility is first class.

At least the sun was trying to come out ­ the day was a bit warmer with less wind.

There are hundreds of shops selling clothes, curios, jewellery etc, as well as exhibits and restaurants and pubs. Some of these places are a bit pricey, but overall it is possible to find something to suit your pocket.

The aquarium was very impressive with many types of sea life in huge tanks.

In the maritime museum you can learn about the early sea traders and settlers that came many years ago as well as the many shipwrecks as most of them had been documented. This place is a definite must ­ it has some fascinating displays.

There is also the Planet Hollywood bar and the Hardrock Café, but most action at these venues is at night.

From the waterfront we took a ferry, which is accessible, to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held captive. Although Robben Island is mainly known to have housed Nelson Mandela, it was used as a banishment area for leprosy sufferers, the sick and the mentally disturbed for nearly 400 years. Robben Island has now been proclaimed a world heritage site.

We took one of the guided tours through the prisons where the prisoners were kept, as well as their recreational areas, which was very interesting. Although this area was not very accessible the guides were very helpful with assistance. From here we got onto a small bus and took a trip around the island, which is only 575 hectares in size. The bus has ramps that fit on the back of the bus and you can stay seated in your chair or get onto one of the bus seats.

Along the coastline are a few decaying wrecks of ships that had run aground in the past.  Surprisingly enough, there is also an abundance of wildlife surviving on this desolate weather beaten island, such as reptiles and antelope.

Penguins are also plentiful and a special walkway has been erected so that it is possible to walk along and look down onto the nesting birds without disturbing their habitat. The tour takes about four hours in total and whilst waiting to board the ferry back to the mainland it is necessary to get a memento from the curio store, just to say “been there and done it”.

Day 3 took us on the wine route to do some wine tasting. There are many vineyards to visit, but we chose the more commercialised ones as we were informed that they are more geared up with facilities for wheelchairs. The “wine route” starts from about 20 kilometres from the centre of Cape Town and extend for hundreds of kilometres, so it is wise to choose one or two or three, and then head directly for the chosen ones as it is easy to get sidetracked with all the farms offering their wines. It is an awesome sight to see vineyards as far as the eyes can see.

At these farms, you do the wine tasting thing for ridiculously low price. All of the farms open to the public have trained guides to answer questions and recommend wines. You are advised just to swirl the wine around your mouth to taste and then spit it out, but hey who wants to waste good wine then? Be warned that swallowing all these wines can be a very intoxicating experience, and don’t plan to do much the next day! When you have selected a wine of your taste it can be purchased or shipped to the address you wish. Guaranteed you will find one that you prefer from red wine, white wine, sparkling wine and even brandy (Cognac).

Day 4 was a much slower day ­ a result of too much wine the day before! We went into Cape Town central and just strolled along watching how the other half lived. We never visited any museums in the centre of town, but we could still marvel at the architecture of the era. Although Cape Town is a developing city, many of the old buildings have been restored to their original splendour or are in the process of being restored. During the Christmas season (middle of December to middle January) it is possible to witness one of the many parades by the Cape Coloureds in their bright outfits and musical instruments dancing and singing jubilantly down the roads. This period also brings out the many street musicians or buskers that play all sorts of music. All these festivities are guaranteed to get you into a party mood to convince you to visit some of the pubs and nightclubs scattered around within close proximity of each other, so there is no need to drive or take public transport.

Day 5 was the most perfect day as the sun was shining and there were no clouds. From the hotel suite we could see the top of Table Mountain and when my travelling partner and myself looked out of the window we both knew where we were going.

Getting to Table Mountain was easy but parking was more difficult as there were hundreds of people that had the same intentions as us. After finding parking and buying tickets for the cable car to get to the top, we still had to wait as the queues were long and we were meant to go to the end of the line. It seemed that this might take hours for our turn, but a cable car official approached us and advised us to come with him, as there was a different access route for wheelchairs which avoided the stairs. This was a definite bonus as it was not even 5 minutes later that we were boarding the cable car to the top. This cable car actually revolves so that you can get a 360 view of the beautiful surroundings as you go up or down.

At the top of the mountain it became clear that Cape Town is really bigger that what had I thought ­ it really is a spectacular view. From one of the vantage points it is possible to see Robben Island from a different perspective as well as marvel at the coastline and the beautiful beaches.

A small restaurant at the top of the mountain offers light lunches and beverages as well as a curio shop, but I thought that the prices were a bit high compared to similar items at the bottom.

There is a footpath laid down and it is possible to get around with a wheelchair but it does get a bit bumpy, so it is advised to go slowly if  you don’t want your beverages to exit via your nostrils.

There are also accessible toilets at the top of the mountain. I also realised that I should have used sun block on my face as the strength of the sun was underestimated - only a few days later did my nose repair itself.

Coming down we had no “preferential treatment” and had to wait in the line for the next available cable car, but this did not seem to take too long.

That night we went back to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront to visit a few more pubs and to see a show in the Imax theatre, which was really outstanding.

Day 6 took us back to the waterfront for a last look around and to see anything else that we missed previously as this was the last day.

We then decided to take a ride on one of the yachts as we were told the wheelchair is no problem, so off we went. This was very peaceful as the wind was light and the waters were calm. After a 2-hour journey sailing around Robben Island we re-entered Cape Town harbour and only then did I realize how well the dock area had been restored.

Anyway, after lunch it was time to head off to the airport to catch a plane home and boy was I glad to be home, as I thought I was going on holiday and was busier than on a normal day, but what the heck - I will definitely do it again, and soon.

If you are interested in finding out more about accessible travel in Southern Africa, I am currently the technical advisor to RollingSA, a company specialising in accessible tours in this region. You can visit the website for more info (http://www.rollingsa.co.za) or contact me directly (athome@futurenet.co.za).

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