One winter, the weather was unremittingly grey and grainy, a constant patter of damp over days and days. So, I decided to go south.
I decided to go because I could. Because there was no child, spouse or cat who needed tending right at that moment. Because deadlines allowed. Because it was grey and I had had enough of grey. And because I had like a million airmiles. Where better to look to the future than on The Cape of Good Hope? So that’s where I went.
I knew enough of the area’s history to know that the name is a little misleading. In fact, it is a triumph of marketing over experience. The first Portuguese sea-captain who went to try to find a way from Europe to India without going overland — Bartolomeu Dias in 1487 — got as far as this Cape when a mutinying crew and bad weather drove him home. He reported to his King, that, oh yes, it was perfectly possible to reach India once you had rounded The Cape of Storms.
With the sensibility of a modern advertising executive, King Juan the Second realised that this name wasn’t going to fill his sailors with wild enthusiasm. With brio, therefore, in 1497, he despatched Vasco da Gama on a return match to go around the Cape of Good Hope. Got it? None of this nonsense about storms, if you please, Señor da Gama. Just be hopeful and go out and find India. Vasco da Gama did as he was told. Weathered a few storms around the now much more appealingly named Cape, of course. A new name wasn’t going to change the actual weather.
When I got there, what did I find? A rocky promontory, certainly, a pure sense of exhilaration that, if you could keep on looking around the curve of the earth to the south, the next land-mass that you would see would be Antarctica. Here, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet under the clear air. A sea breeze — no, let’s not be euphemistic like the marketing labels of Portuguese kings — a hard south-easterly gale blows most days, creating apocalyptic storms. The wind threatens to knock you from your perch above the ocean in your next heartbeat. An open-mouthed astonishment at the landscape — this is as alien as the moon for those of us brought up on buildings: fynbos to the horizon, and ostrich and baboons breaking the flatlands.
A profound respect, I’m thinking as I weave up the lighthouse steps, clutching at my water bottle for moral support and my only gravity anchor. The Europeans who first saw these impossibly beautiful shores were raw with scurvy and had endured slightly more difficult travel arrangements than I had with British Airways. But they got here, and went on. And so did I.
The Cape of Good Hope — I think it is its true name; you really did have to have good hope to pass by here in the fifteenth century on your way to India — is a perfect antidote to greyness, in whatever season you find yourself.