No coats on the Cape


AT Gate Eight, Terminal Four, Heathrow Airport, the crowds had the sight of sun in their eyes. This was the full to capacity plane to Cape Town. We would arrive next morning and spend hour after happy hour saying "Imagine! It's February!"

The Irish accents had recognised each other as if by radar from way across the departure lounge and there was that mixture of disappointment that people from home had discovered the same escape route, and relief that fellow tourists might not all be Germans and English around the swimming pool.

"And what brings you pair all the way to South Africa, might I ask?" a man in an ill advised tight jacket and with an even worse advised jocularity asked a couple of Dubs. He struck deeply unlucky: these people were Old Africa Hands. They had been popping down to Jo'burg and dropping into Durban for years now. They had friends here and business contacts there and no they had never had to stay in a hotel in all their time coming to the place, there were always people with a villa or an apartment or a place in the wine area. Listening to them made everyone feel inadequate, particularly those who had no friends, no contacts, had been lent no property. How humble to be staying in a hotel or guesthouse.

But never underestimate a man in a tight jacket Who has been put down in public.

"Oh, you've been coming for years have you? Most of my friends wouldn't. Took a stand during apartheid; we wouldn't have felt easy about the regime.

Some discomfiture in the know alls and a rustling of approval in the spectators.

"Ah, well - when I say years I mean the last few years," said the Old Africa Hand, annoyed with the turn things had taken.

"Like only since 1994 when they had the proper elections do you mean?"

"A bit earlier when we could see the writing on the wall." He was fighting back but he was discredited. We all settled back into thinking we were fine: tourists, visitors going to commercial establishments, hiring a car rather than picking one up from somebody's fleet.

And we filed obediently down the long tunnel to the plane for 12 hours of eating and drinking and watching movies and sort of sleeping until it was time to get out and see the palm trees and the people in short sleeved shirts and the Italian ice cream shops, all incontrovertible proof that we had arrived in a place where we could say "Imagine! It's February!" quite happily for the next two weeks.

AT noon every day here you would be lifted three feet in the air by the sound of a cannon being fired. Usually in my case it coincides with a nice sleep by the swimming pool in the glorious guesthouse under Table Mountain, just as I am about to give serious thought to the business of lunch.

It would make you think wistfully of the lovely pealing bells of the Angelus at home, which wouldn't frighten anybody. But everyone has their own tradition and this unmerciful crash comes from the time when watches weren't as reliable as they should be and the busy traders and burghers needed someone to tell them the correct time at least once a day. It's fired from a place called Signal Hill, so I decided we'd better drive up and have a look at it.

It's a mass of flowers on the way up; huge, blue agapanthus flowers and a scarlet bush that I don't know the name of yet - but I will by next week. And I'm not a bird expert but there seemed to be a lot of over relaxed guinea hens and other game type birds wandering around like chickens in a farmyard so obviously nobody goes up that way with a shotgun in the name of sport.

And there's a big car park on top of Signal Hill because once there you have to turn round and come down again, having examined the gun and had a good look out, which is, after all, what the place is for.

In the olden days lookout people used to hunt the horizons for ships and when one was spotted a series of signal flags went up. Then the local tradespeople down below wouldn't be taken unawares and could have all their produce out to sell on the street and the tankards of ale ready for those who would be dying for it.

IT'S only a year since I was here last. They couldn't possibly have built a thousand new apartment blocks along the shore line. But in some areas the hum of the bulldozer is heard at every corner and the places look smarter, posher, each with cunningly angled balconies to catch as much sea view and spectacular sunset as possible.

There's a whole new industry called facade refurbishment, which is clever of those who saw a niche in the market. When the new BayViews or Shore Vistas go up, the old Bay Views and Shore Vistas look a bit tatty and the next best thing to tearing them down is to paint them a bright colour and install a few palm trees and wrought iron window boxes.

Because there has been such a huge rise in the self catering business, there is also a great number of places that will sell food for you to cook at home. At first, everyone goes to Woolworths in Seapoint which, though it sounds a bit domestic, stocks almost everything you would need to cook in a month of adventurous eating. Then, people become more daring and they go to the market at the end of Grand Parade and buy samosas, huge and delicious at three for a rand. A rand is about 12 1/2 pence these days.

"We can't afford to go home," a woman from Limerick, who has been here for three weeks, said. "We go ballistic if we have to pay £2 for a bottle of wine. That would only be for a very special occasion."

Irish people? The place is coming down with them, she says. There was a time when it was a big deal going out to South Africa but not any more. Nowadays people come out to Cape Town for a bit in the winter the way their parents' generation went to Kilkee. It was as simple as that.