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· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa ·

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Scarborough Daze

If you have toured Cape Town you may remember Scarborough, an eclectic village of about 400 homes in ‘Schusterskraal’, a bay on the Atlantic coast, the last settlement before the Cape of Good Hope. It is surrounded by nature reserve with the Cape Peninsula National Park to the south and the Baskloof Nature Reserve rising on the steep hills behind. To the north is the imposing peak of Misty Cliffs. Schuster's Bay, Scarborough

We moved to Scarborough from the city centre about six months ago. Maybe it is because our first child is on the way, or that we keep embarking on schemes to paint, upholster and curtain (could the two be connected?) but for once, as I settle down to write this quarterly newsletter, my mind is not turning to townships or wonderful journeys or famous statesmen, but to our little village, a rather ‘alternative’ place.

Bordered by the sea and rugged, rocky hillsides, Scarborough spreads across the bowl of land behind the milkwood trees that grow over the beach dunes, and below the steep slopes that rise 250 metres around it. Following trails through the milkwood trees you come to the broad white sandy beach, that turns at one end to a long, rocky point stretching out to sea. The dark kelp beds that sway in the waters around the point are a rich breeding ground for crayfish (rock lobster) and mussels. This is where locals dive for Christmas lunch. An area of wetlands is presently being restored and separates the village from the Peninsula National Park to the south. A new boardwalk runs among the reeds to the beach.

The popularity of kite surfing brings the pretty sight of parachute-like canopies to the bay. Only when you look closer do you see the small figures attached to the parachutes flying fast and impossibly high off the waves. Further out to sea, black dots, skulking like the Great White Sharks that also live in these waters, lie patiently on their longboards waiting for the biggest rollers to break, and lift them with the thrill known only to dedicated surfers. Looking out to sea there are often fishing boats and, sometimes, great hulking tankers and cargo vessels charting their way around the Cape. Beyond, the distant, stretching horizon follows the curve of the earth, shades of blue marking the line where the sea touches the sky. Next stop would be the Falklands.

For a long time this enclave was a ‘weekend’ spot. One hour from the city centre, Capetonians considered it far too far away to commute, but a fun place for a holiday shack, a retirement home or an artist’s studio. Kite-surfing in ScarboroughOver the years attitudes to distance have changed and the pretty settlements along the Peninsula’s beautiful Atlantic coastline have, one after another, become suburbs – beginning with Camps Bay in the 1960s, then Llandudno and Hout Bay in the 1990s and more recently Noordhoek and Kommetjie. Prices in these areas have risen dramatically, and the roads have become busy; shopping centres and popular bars have suddenly appeared. Scarborough seemed like the last bastion in Cape Town for hippies and like-minded people: folk who call their children ‘Zen’ and ‘Amber Energy’. A refuge of haphazard homes and holiday shacks, a haven for surfers and free thinkers.

For better or worse, people like us have started to ‘discover’ Scarborough in the last few years. It attracts those who value mountain, beach and sea, community living, ‘interesting’ characters and no fences; a place where you can see the milky way at night because the community won’t let the council put in street lights; people who think that these things outweigh the inconvenience of distance from the city centre.

We bought an overgrown plot with a wooden house January '02 and began building in September. I fully expected a ‘nightmare’ build and I half cherished the hope of a story akin to ‘A Year in Provence’. But we had such a wonderful builder that everything went pretty much to plan. There were plenty of characters to enjoy – like Zaza and Elvis the hefty stonemasons and Sam the electrician, who wired lights to the most unlikely switches, but no disasters to cook up a good story, not even if I exaggerated them a bit.

We knew that the environment would bring us joy. Who can measure the sense of wellness that comes when you pause to look out over the ocean, to watch a golden sunset turn orange and the sea to silver, or linger as a mighty storm looms over heavy seas and marches slowly in? We are blessed, too, by the many ardent fans of indigenous flora in the village, and we have caught their appreciation of the wonderful protea, reeds and heathers that grow in their gardens and across the mountainsides. For our part we have chopped down the dense bushes that covered our plot and planted pincushions and wild sage, jasmine and honeysuckle, a silver tree and wild peach. We watch the trees and shrubs growing strongly, the groundcovers and creepers spreading out. (Perhaps this pleasure is a worrying sign of middle-age).

But, more than anything, we enjoy the people we greet as neighbours. They are very different from one another, but all have a sense of purpose and passion about them; the Italian who is an international fashion photographer; a young Slovak chef who makes wonderful Gnocchi and teaches mosaic crafting; a couple who run a shop selling jewellery and clothes Scarborough Sunsetimported from Guatemala and Nepal. Their home has wonderful drapes and glass fittings. We employed our neighbour to make us beautiful camphor furniture with woven panels of Himalayan Ceder. He lives in a small castle, complete with castellated gables, a turret and spiral staircase. They saw such a house in Scotland, painted it and then built a copy in Scarborough. As a side line they make a wood paint based on powdered milk (he tried to set a world record for interior decorating by painting a climbing hut 6,000m up in the Andes, but a snow storm drove him back).

Down the street are an English family who moved to Scarborough from Brazil. They say it has done the world of good for their party-loving teenager! Also, a London-based international investment consultant who comes to Scarborough as a ‘bolt hole’ to kite surf and ride his Harley Davidson. Others nearby include a baboon specialist; a world-famous guitar maker; a retired sea-captain who runs a shipping radio station (from home!); two Everest mountaineers and a professional surfer (he and his 4 children all have dreadlocks, bleached hair and go nowhere without surf boards). I recently met a chap in the village who is presently in Norway base-jumping off fjords. He does it wearing a ‘squirrel suit’ that makes him look (and fly) like Batman. His ‘day-job’ is filming surfing.

It is great fun and we feel very fortunate. For some of the ‘original’ Scarbarians the village is becoming too crowded and ‘yuppie’. Some are selling up and moving to places inland, up in the mountains. Others have to move because the mellow atmosphere lulls them into a stupor – we met someone who lived here but finally moved away when he realised he could no longer be bothered to answer the telephone when it rang. We are aware that one could easily retreat into village life. Scarborough is sufficiently alternative and charming to forget everything else. At its furthest extreme you could end up like ‘Mountain Mike’ a chap who lives a mysterious, reclusive life in caves above the village.

Yet, even though one cannot get reasonable TV or radio reception, the realities of South Africa are still very close. The early morning bus drops off domestic workers in the village from the overcrowded township of Masiphumelele, ten kilometres away. Other labourers and domestic workers can be seen walking down the long hill to the village. An unknown number of people – probably more than a thousand – are living in shacks among the trees on Redhill, four kilometres from Scarborough. Unlike most ‘informal settlements’ this area is a true squatter camp: the shacks have been built on private land designated as nature reserve, and there are no amenities to speak of. There is no electricity, sewerage or rubbish collection. People fear that among the ‘nice’ domestic workers in Redhill there are also ‘crooks’. The settlement has been established for many years and a cloud of uncertainty hangs over its future. Also in Redhill a group of Malawian carvers live in huts, making wooden sculptors to sell to tourists. If you Curios for sale near Redhillhave driven in the area you may remember the huge carvings they sell on the roadside.

There are lots of places dotted around South Africa like Scarborough, as there are in other parts of the world – talented, somewhat eccentric, well educated communities in rather remote, beautiful surroundings. But even in these idyllic enclaves the issues of poverty and development are never far away. One can pretend they do not exist and ignore them, and ignore the living conditions of the cleaners and gardeners and workman that appear each morning to maintain the village. But the realities remain.

I said at the beginning of this letter 'my mind is not turning to townships... but to our little village'. In truth, they cannot be separated. Living in such a wonderful environment gives us so much to share, and recently when we had 15 children from Masiphumelele at out home they were thrilled, and loved playing on the beach. But paradoxically it seems that the more privileged the environment the harder it becomes to engage and really empathise with the experiences of those living in poverty.

Desmond Tutu used to say that apartheid imprisoned us all, the wealthy as much as those in servitude, because the separation cuts us off and makes us afraid. In the new era there are no rules separating communities, but there are economic and social realities that make our experiences and outlook radically different, and these can be just as divisive. I ran past Redhill on Sunday, and the thrilling, sweet, powerful sound of close harmony rang through the trees as many people gathered for a service in a clearing, swaying to their upbeat hymns. Their worship was an expression of the depth of their community, and an experience that brought me joy. South Africa has successfully managed impressive change at a national level, but building bridges at a local level remains a great challenge.



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