12 February 2013
“Flat Kathy, how would you like to meet some dashingly handsome officers at the Castle this morning?” Reggie asked me, with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
“Oooh! I’d love to!” Naturally, I was intrigued. I mean, what girl wouldn’t be?
“But I didn’t know there is a Castle in Cape Town?”
“Oh, so is the Castle also near Cape Point?”
“No, it’s right in the middle of Cape Town, where the historic city centre used to be.”
As we drove through to the Castle, Reggie gave me a bit of a history lesson:
“The first European settlers arrived in Southern Africa around the middle of the 17th century. Perhaps you’ve heard of Jan van Riebeeck? He was a Dutchman, who arrived at the Cape in April 1652, with three ships, one of which was called Goede Hoop, which means ‘Good Hope’ in Dutch. The Dutch East India Company (or VOC) wanted him to establish a replenishment halfway station between Europe and the East at the Cape – a place, where the ships could stock up on fresh water, fruit and vegetables, livestock, cereal crops, and other supplies. Jan van Riebeeck built a fort out of mud, clay and timber – this was the ‘Fort de Goede Hoop’. So that was the first ‘fortress’ here.”
“And is that the Castle we’re going to see?” I interrupted.
“No, the original fort didn’t last,” Reggie shook her head. “In 1666, a couple of years after Van Riebeeck left the Cape, work started on a new Castle, with five corners, which are called bastions. Built entirely out of stone, brick and cement, construction was completed in 1679. So it is almost 350 years old – which makes it the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa. Can you imagine? In Europe, the old cities go back much further in history, but here, European settlement only dates back to the mid-17th century. The Castle of Good Hope, as it became known, was the centre of life at the Cape – civilian, military and administrative – and it remains until today the seat of the military in the Cape.”
By now, we had arrived at the Castle, and Reggie took me to meet her friends at the Defence Reserves Provincial Office of the Western Cape. She has taken photographs and written a couple of articles for them, which were published on her blog and in a military magazine. She introduced me to her friends, and we had a positively delightful chat over some refreshing tea and a couple of chocolate cupcakes.
“And now, let me show you around the Castle, Flat Kathy,” said Reggie, after we had said goodbye to her nice friends. We went up onto the Castle walls. From here, we had the most amazing view!
“This semi-circle of mountains creates the unique silhouette of Cape Town, the famous one you see on all the postcards,” explained Reggie. “On the left is the pyramid shape of Devil’s Peak, and to the right of it is Table Mountain – which looks almost completely flat and level, but isn’t really when you’re walking up at the top. A little further to the right is Lion’s Head. The lion seems to be looking towards Table Mountain, and if you use your imagination, you can see that Signal Hill, on its right, is the long back of the lion.”
Hmm…. I squinted against the glaring sunlight. Oh! Yes! She was right! It did look like a lion! But it had become soooo hot in the sun, that I was starting to wish I had a pair of sunglasses and a hat!
Reggie continued: “You can see that this semi-circle of mountains creates a kind of a bowl, with the ocean behind us. That’s why they call this area ‘the City Bowl’. Sjoe, it’s hot up here.” She must have been reading my mind. “Are you thirsty, Flat Kathy?”
“Ohhh, yes! Very!” I replied, nodding vigorously.
Just then, a very friendly looking gentleman approached us.
“Hello Captain,” Reggie said. Ooh, a Captain! My ears perked up.
“Fancy meeting you up here, Reggie” he remarked, as they shook hands in greeting.
“I’m just showing my friend around the Castle,” she replied, and politely introduced me as Flat Kathy from Nova Scotia in Canada. Captain John, for that was his name, looked a little surprised, I thought, but perhaps he hadn’t met many Nova Scotians before.
“Well, when you’re done showing your friend around, why don’t you pop around to the Mess for a cup of coffee, or something cold to drink?” he offered. I liked him already! What a kind gentleman! I poked Reggie in the ribs, whispering, “Say yes! Say yes!”
“Yes, we’d love to, we’ll see you in a little bit,” she nodded, much to my delight.
We took some more photos of the Castle from above, and then made our way down to the front courtyard.
“This is where the Cape Town Military Tattoo is presented every year,” explained Reggie. “It’s held at the end of October or the start of November, and it is one of the most spectacular and thrilling events you can imagine.”
She stopped in front of a large door; a plaque next to it identified it as the entrance to the Officers Mess of the Cape Town Highlanders and the Officers Mess of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes).
“Why are they called messes?” I asked, puzzled.
Reggie giggled. “I asked the same question the first time I came here,” she smiled at me. “To be honest, I still don’t know where the term comes from. But it’s basically a dining room and meeting place, on formal and informal occasions, of officers who belong to these regiments. These places are steeped in history and tradition, and it’s quite an honour to be invited inside. So we need to be on our best behaviour.”
She waggled her index finger at me, pretending to be all serious: “So behave, Flat Kathy!”
We walked up a creaking staircase, at the top of which were two large, heavy and imposing doors. “The one on the left goes to the Cape Town Highlanders’ Officers Mess, but we’re going to the Dukes regiment’s mess on the right,” Reggie indicated.
We stepped through the door into a long narrow room, whose walls were covered in paintings and portraits. A very long table ran almost the entire length of the room, and along the centre stood about a dozen trophies and plaques, evidently commemorating special awards and events. It was dark and cool in here, and I could almost feel the weight of history. At the far end of the room, another door opened into a small bar area.
“Hello Colonel, nice to see you again,” said Reggie, as she entered the bar. A distinguished-looking gentleman in military uniform sitting on one of the bar stools, replied to her greeting with a friendly smile, and introduced himself to me as Lieutenant Colonel Bryan. He was chatting with two beautiful young ladies, who happened to be visiting the Castle: the one, German-speaking, came from Hannover in Germany, and the other, from Argentina, spoke with a Spanish accent. Reggie impressed me by greeting them in German and Spanish! Captain John offered us some refreshingly cold lemonade – ohhh, did that go down well! I was soo thirsty!
While we were enjoying our ice-cold drinks, the Colonel regaled us all with some very funny stories of military life, and we had a great time. Suddenly, two people entered the mess; it’s not open to the public, so Captain John went over to explain that they shouldn’t be up here, but they ended up joining us for a bit of a chat. It turned out that they were a couple of friendly Canadians from Alberta! I so badly wanted Reggie to introduce me, and kept prodding her with my stick, but she seemed to be feeling a little shy. Silly girl!
When they had left, Captain John asked whether I wanted some pictures taken inside the Dukes Mess. Ohh! I felt so honoured! So he took a picture of Reggie and me sitting in a very special chair “where no mere mortal may sit”. It was so exciting!
I had also spotted a set of very heavy iron chains hanging from a peg in the bar area.
“What are those for?” I asked.
“Oh, Flat Kathy, those are for disobedient soldiers; they get put in chains,” Colonel Bryan said, gravely, and with a very serious and stern expression on his face. I could tell that Reggie was very relieved that they couldn’t lock those heavy iron chains – I don’t think they knew where to find the key!
Reggie and I politely thanked the two dashingly handsome officers for their hospitality and for the honour of inviting us to the Officers Mess. Then we said goodbye to them and the two lovely young ladies from Germany and Argentina. While we were taking some photos in the front courtyard, I saw the two Canadians, whom we had previously met upstairs in the Mess. They were sitting on a bench in the shade, right outside one of the museums.
“Go on, introduce me,” I nudged Reggie.
“No! They’ll think I’m nuts!” she whispered.
“But why?” I demanded, peevishly, and stamping my foot for extra effect. “They’re the first Canadians I’ve seen here in Cape Town – I want to meet them.”
“Oh, alright,” muttered Reggie, straightening my new braids, which the wind had blown askew again. I could tell she was procrastinating. It took a bit more prodding, but finally, she took a deep breath and walked over to them. I gave them my very best and brightest smile, as she said, “Hi, I hope you’re enjoying your visit to Cape Town? I believe you come from Canada? My friend, Flat Kathy, comes from Nova Scotia in Canada.”
“Oh, really?” replied the woman, looking a bit startled. Why are people always so surprised to hear that I’m from Nova Scotia? I don’t understand it. Are there not many aspiring world travellers who come from there?
Reggie soldiered on bravely with her explanation. “Yes, a couple of blogfriends of mine sent her over, because they want her to see a bit of Cape Town. When she’s been to all the important places like Cape Point, Kirstenbosch, Stellenbosch and Table Mountain, Flat Kathy is going to travel to her next destination. Perhaps Denmark, or New Zealand, or Taiwan, or something like that. She hasn’t made up her mind yet. She wants to see the whole world.”
You know, I think she’s getting better at this – she must just keep practicing her introductions of me. Her audience was smiling back at us by now, and we ended up having a perfectly lovely conversation about the places they had been to, and the things they still wanted to see in South Africa. We wished them a wonderful trip, and said goodbye.
“You see, Reggie, you mustn’t be so shy,” I lectured her, sternly, as we walked back to the car. “It’s quite alright to walk up to a perfect stranger and say Hi. How else am I supposed to meet people and make new friends, if you don’t make the effort to introduce me to them?”
She gave me an odd sideways look, and then sighed. I’m not sure why. Anyway, I thanked her most graciously for taking the time to show me around the historic Castle of Good Hope. It had been an unforgettable and thoroughly enjoyable visit.