Muizenberg – Mostly Harmless

There is a lifeguard sitting up on Boyes Drive, wearing red shorts. He spends his day looking for sharks in the waters off Muizenberg Beach. Down below; are about a dozen surfers looking for good waves, a thousand screaming kids, a few gallons of (not so waterproof) factor 33 floating on the surface and some really huge ladies wallowing in the shallows. So frankly, the sharks must be scared.

Muizenberg Beach has been attracting crowds for decades. Hippies, yuppies, Rastafarians, surfers, students, pretty young girls and their mother’s domestic workers, they are all here. The mix of people is colorful and eclectic, the snobbish cattle parade seen on so many Cape Town beaches is absent. People spotting on Muizenberg Beach is like a satisfying main course, as opposed to Sandy Bay’s titillating asparagus starter. The sand here is clean, the water a delicious turquoise blue and the water warmer than it is along the Atlantic seaboard. Allison Kelly, Blue Flag coordinator and Cape Town City Council officials have in fact granted Muizenberg Blue Flag status in the pilot phase for 2005. The Blue Flag is given to beaches that are found to have superior amenities, cleanliness and environmental and safety standards. There is work to be done before full Blue Flag status can be granted, but the False Bay Tourism and Business Association is planning to have all the necessary requirements in place before the end of the year.

Muizenberg is great place to play when the sun is out. The walk between Muizenberg and St James is stunning and one I tread regularly. Crashing waves fill the air with cool sea spray and the occasional train rumbles past as you meander past some of Cape Towns most historic buildings. The first and oldest that you pass is the Posthuis. Once a drop off point for sailors on their way to and returning from the east, it is now a museum housing historical artifacts and amusing anecdotes of times passed. The Natale Labia, SAPS museum, Rhodes Cottage and Paper Mache House all feature on the stretch between Muizenberg and St James, but don’t get too distracted as there is a good chance that there are whales to be spotted as you stroll. The trail ends at the St James tidal pool, handily close to the St James Station. The train line between Muizenberg and Simonstown is spectacularly scenic, and the train provides a great way to get around when the roads are clogged with sun-seekers.

Muizenberg has unfortunately been famous for more than its beach and recreational facilities. Once one of the most prestigious seaside towns in South Africa and a retreat for the well heeled, it became a sad and derelict shadow of its former self as urban decay set in in the late sixties. The ultra seasonal and static tourism that the area was experiencing at the time, as well as the vast amount of absentee landlords created a vacuum in the area that was filled by undesirable residents. There is change in the air now though, the homeless and druggies are moving out and developers are pulling in. Muizenberg has awoken from a long hibernation and is slowly waking. Although this period of slumber has not been good for the local economy or its civic-minded residents, it has been instrumental in preserving aspects of Muizenbergs former glory. Beautiful old buildings that may have been knocked down to make way for ugly apartment blocks had the area been thriving, have quietly survived and are now protected by the Historic Society. Those that have historic significance may be well be renovated and rejuvenated by developers, but not demolished.

The Majestic Mansions, which house the famous Majestic Café, are situated on Beach Road. The interior is decorated with sixties coca-cola posters, photographs of early Muizenberg and sweaty hotdogs under glass counters. The Majestic was established in 1937 and its value and friendly service are outstanding. I am a regular customer at the Majestic, I love the burgers, avoid the hotdogs but absolutely adore the building. With its garish red and white trimmed façade and zigzag details, subtlety and introspection are gloriously lacking. The Balmoral next door is a more sophisticated old lady. Although less showy than the Majestic Mansions, she is elegantly exquisite. Her symmetry is perfect and the beautiful arches are mirrored in the surfboard balconies. The Muizenberg Civic Center opposite the Balmoral is a testament to the diversity of architecture to be found in Muizenberg. It is obviously not pretty, but the pure absurdity of its seventies pop roof makes it an inexplicably essential part of Muizenberg’s structural landscape and a popular landmark.

The buildings fronting the beach are inspiring, magical and slightly surreal. You can almost see the pink Cadillac’s and big collars that must have been parked outside these buildings, back in Muizenburg’s golden days. This strip has been a favorite for film crews wanting to capture scenes from days gone by.

I stayed in Muizenberg when I first moved to Cape Town, in a beautiful old home typical of the houses in Muizenberg village. It had high ceilings, stained glass windows, Oregon pine floors and big sturdy burglar bars. In the house next door a group of fanatically religious types graciously kept themselves to themselves while across the street a bunch of smiling and not at all sinister guys from central parts of this continent, ran an informal but prospering pharmaceutical business from home.

The “pharmacists” are gone now, a trendy looking young couple bought the house and are busy plowing love and money into it. Muizenberg is coming full circle. The grandeur and majesty that seemed lost is now being found. Part of the charm of the place for me though, has always been in its faded opulence and withered richness. I am excited and happy about the change and positive growth, but I might sometimes miss the simmering, steaming character and delectable diversity that is after-all, mostly harmless.

* This is an edited portion of a story I wrote for The Property Magazine

Polo – Like a Pro

I had not been on a horse since my early twenties, when I had the dubious pleasure of working as a stable hand in a small town near Antwerp for a few weeks. One cold, damp winter morning, a highly acclaimed show-jumping horse I was guiding into the stables spooked and charged off, dragging me through the frozen mud and snow.

I wasn’t too confident then, when I met Johan du Ploy at Kurland near Plettenberg Bay for my first polo lesson. He suggested we first watch a game together, so we joined the spectators spread out along the grassy banks of the perfectly manicured field. They were sharing picnics and politely calling out greetings and encouragements, behaving in a manner best described as genteel – in stark contrast to the fast and furious action on the field.

‘Polo ponies are not actually ponies,’ Johan explained as we sat on the sidelines and watched the game unfold, mallets swinging and hooves thundering up and down the pitch. ‘The term “pony” is used,’ he continued, ‘as the game of polo originated in Tibet and was played by Mongols who rode the small ponies endemic to the region. These days we use only thoroughbred ex-racehorses,’ he concluded with a glimmer in his eyes, while pointing out some of the horses he had had a hand in schooling.

All polo ponies need to be schooled specifically for the game. The schooling takes about a year and involves teaching them to turn tightly, be ultra responsive to the rider’s input and to be at ease with the other ponies on the field, the cracking of the mallets and the low-flying balls.

Johan, who spent several years in Argentina and now plays for the Tshwene Polo Team based in the Plettenberg Bay area, is involved with several aspects of the game. Besides playing professionally, he breeds and schools polo ponies and also gives polo classes to both complete novices (like myself) and those with more advanced skills.

‘Come on, the game’s almost over and the ladies are waiting for us,’ he said, jolting me out of my serene spectator status. Noticing the whites of my eyes enlarging as he introduced me to my horsey companion for the afternoon, Screaming Queen (at this point I might have let out a small whimper too), he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ as he passed me my helmet.

Once Johan started unpacking the gear, I realised that setting myself up as a regular polo player was going to take more than just the purchase of six ex-racehorses. The list of gear is prodigious: helmet, mallet, special riding boots, spurs, the specialised polo whip and polo gloves.

The first thing I wanted to get my hands on was the mallet that made such a satisfying crack in the hands of the professional players. Looking rather like a large croquet mallet with a bamboo shaft, it tends to be between 1.2 and 1.3m in length, depending on the player’s preference as well as the polo pony’s height. The interesting thing is that you strike the ball along the longer length of the mallet rather than with the leading edge as one would with a croquet mallet. This, I hoped, would make connecting the ball with a stroke while on a moving horse substantially easier for me. The ball used is similar in size to a hockey ball but lighter, and the riding boots have extra support on the outside edges, which is necessary as one of the techniques used by players is to push the opponent off his or her chosen line by riding alongside and leaning into them.

How you hold the mallet is very important as a good grip makes a tremendous impact on your accuracy and power, in the same way your grip on a golf club can make or breakyour swing. According to Johan, the mallet should always be held in the right hand, freeing up your left hand for control of the reins and whip.

Once on my pony (she turned out to have a gentle nature despite her name) I was impressed at how she reacted quickly but smoothly and seemed not to care that I lacked the grace in control that her regular riders possess. The next step for me was to actually hit the ball with my mallet while remaining on Screaming Queen’s back. After the fifth or sixth attempt I managed a good strike. The basics of the swing involve raising the mallet up behind you, swinging it in a smooth, broad arc and following through fluidly, once again all similar to a golf swing.

It is important to rest your left hand (with the reins) on the pony’s neck as you strike the ball so that stray movement in that arm will not result in the pony moving off course. Polo ponies have their manes cut short and tails tied up so as not to impede your hands, mallet or whip.

We spent most of the lesson riding up and down the field practising the basic strokes both on the near and off-side of the horse (that’s the left and right side respectively). As a novice, I practised all my strokes at a walk, but more experienced riders would be able to practise these at a slow canter on the first lesson. As players’ abilities increase, they are introduced to techniques that are more advanced, and the all-important skill of understanding and anticipating the flow of the game. Horsemanship obviously plays a big role in this sport and accomplished riders would find even the basic swings simpler to master. That said, even I managed a few whopping thwacks of the ball, and anyone who has punished a golf ball with a big, meaty driver or smashed a tennis ball past an opponent will understand the satisfaction in that. Genghis Khan obviously did; he is said to have been a skilled polo player who used his enemies’ heads as practice balls.

Although polo is rated by insurance companies as the most dangerous of contact sports, and I understand that charging about on half a ton of rippling muscle is dangerous, I must say there is a remarkable sense of respect on the field. The game is played with passion, but also with chivalry. I gained a lot from my lesson. Not only did I conquer my fear of anything equestrian, I also learned that horses’ names can be misleading and discovered a game of immense skill and power, with a rich and colourful history and a sense of tradition and honour that is often lacking in sport today.

* This is a story I wrote for The Signature Magazine

Camps Bay – For the Very Privileged

Camps Bay really hums in December. Restaurateurs that have gained weight and lost hair in the quieter winter months may start to smile again as those Cinnamon Sorbet swallowing sun worshipers finally arrive. Summer brings with it a sun that lingers longer in the sky, allowing sunset cocktails to be enjoyed at a later and more convenient hour while restaurants that seemed vast and dressed in cool minimalism during the winter months mutate into crowded cocktail lounges, as the ultra stylish and eclectic summer clientele become part of the décor…

The exclusive lifestyle facilitated by the various upmarket boutique hotels, inspiring homes, wellness facilities and world class eateries has given Camps Bay an image similar in status to many somewhat clichéd but infinitely desirable international locations. While places like The Cote de Azur and St Tropez spring to mind immediately, many consider the Californian Coastline the most comparable location in that it offers the same temperate climate, pristine environment and laid back atmosphere. No doubt those gently swaying Palm Trees fronting the bikini-clad clean white beach and crystal clear deep blue ocean beyond, have a part to play in this likeness.

Sipping designer cocktails in one of the trendy venues along the promenade on a balmy summers evening is the quintessential Camps Bay experience. As the sun slips into the ocean and the sky begins to darken the beautiful bodies on the beach drift into designer labels and join the rhythm and beat of the Camps Bay nightlife. A multitude of stylish restaurants, cocktail bars and nightclubs line the beach and offer tastes, sights and sounds to satisfy all desires culinary, visual or aural.  People (including celebrities such as Michael Kane and Robert De Niro) from the furthest corners of the globe come together in Camps Bay to relax, socialize or celebrate. Conversations in Spanish, English, French or Italian flow and mingle with earthy Afro Jazz beats, clinking champagne flutes and distant crashing waves. Camps Bay is a place to celebrate life, and a way of life to celebrate.

* This is an excerpt from a story I wrote for Cape Scene Magazine