A guilt-free escape from bad weather and boring food

Baboons on Christmas Day? Will my son remember it when he grows up? I will
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The Independent Culture
WE CAME home in darkness and cold. Lost to us the big skies, the warmth and sunshine. Home to little streets, terraced houses and the silence of Christmas roads. How forbidding and sad London looks in the early dark, a city trudging cold and tired into the last days of the year. At such moments I wonder why I am living here. And I come up with just one answer: work. Just the work. What a grim admission.

Sorry, Londoners, I try to like the city of my birth but it really is a struggle, especially after Christmas in Cape Town. The taxi driver tried his best to console us on the way in from Heathrow. He said the weather was mild compared to last week. Nine degrees and holding. But what did he know? The day before as we flew out of Cape Town it was hovering around 30 with the sun glancing on the blue water at Camps Bay and the beach crowded with the children of the southern summer.

Paragliders sailed over rim of Table Mountain, their shadows like the wings of giant hawks swooping down the mountain towards the green suburbs. Out on the bay ferries were plying tourists back and forth to Robben Island on a calm sea. The political prison where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail has become a tourist mecca. When I first came to the city in the early Eighties Mandela was still in residence and tourists, or any kind of visitors, would have been arrested for approaching the island. How things change.

Having spent several weeks working in the dust and squalor of the squatter camps around Johannesburg, I was ready for Cape Town. I know that the city's critics deride it as an island of privilege in a country weighed down by the legacy of apartheid.

Driving in from the airport the traveller cannot fail to notice the vast squatter encampments which are separated from the city by the imposing bulk of Table Mountain. And, yes, some of the local whites are unbearably smug about their good life between the mountain and sea. Worse still are the new European arrivals who have bought vast houses and established themselves as a kind of imported gentry. "Eurotrash" the locals contemptuously call them.

But none of my reservations can take anything away from the seductive beauty of the Cape. It is the landscape that draws me back time and again; landscape and, of course, the friendships forged in the darker days of the South African story. A Canadian friend who had gone to Kenya for Christmas gave us the use of his home on the slopes overlooking Camps Bay. Most days we took to the road exploring the beaches and coves of the Cape coast: Noordhoek with its great expanse of white sand and blue water, Scarborough and Witsands where the light sea mist drapes the rocks and dunes in late afternoon, and Hout Bay where we spent Christmas Day.

It rained in the morning and Fr Thornton's plans for an open air mass were hastily abandoned. And so we crowded into the tiny church, to listen to the elderly priest's pious exaltations and breathe in the smoke of incense which his helpers liberally swept along the aisles. Being not remotely pious and an individual of some imperfection I always feel guilty when I go to mass. It is a sense that everybody around me is "good" and that I am not. I am also an infrequent observer of Catholic ritual. My friend Father Dick, an Irish priest whom we met for Christmas lunch, said it didn't matter as long as you made the effort. But I am pursued by Catholic guilt and it took several bottles of good South African wine to rescue me from my sombre meditations.

I am happy to report that for the first time in my life I ate Christmas lunch at a restaurant. And also for the first time I did not eat turkey and ham. Such bravery at the age of 37! The small Italian restaurant on the beach was serving baked lamb and baby chicken. It was a long and happy lunch, one of the best Christmas days I can remember.

There was only depressing moment. An elderly German arrived at the restaurant accompanied by a large white dog. The man was old enough to have had an interesting past and his political opinions suggested a strong right-wing inclination. He told us the dog was a cross between a wolf and a husky. And then a black beggar approached. The dog growled menacingly. The German barely restrained the beast and shrugged the beggar away. "If you want mone,y go and ask Mandela for it," he barked.

It is the standard reply of the disgruntled white who cannot bear the reality of a black ruled South Africa. Blacks knocking on white doors looking for jobs hear it all the time. It suggests, at the very least, a remarkable absence of humility on the part of the former ruling class. What do they think South Africa would have been like without Mandela and his gift of reconciliation and forgiveness? After several glasses of wine my capacity for indignation was ripe. I was about to read the riot act to our German friend when Father Dick pulled me back. "It is Christmas day, let it go", he said.

He was right. Christmas day is not a time for arguments. And so we climbed into Dick's car and headed for Cape Point in search of baboons. I had told my nearly-three-year-old that the Cape was full of monkeys and apes. The prospect of a meeting thrilled him greatly. But so far they had been noticeably reluctant about showing themselves. "Where are the baboons Dad?" came the insistent question every evening as we drove home after another apeless day.

Just outside Simonstown on a narrow stretch of road between mountain and sea we encountered a large family group. They sat in the road and stopped the traffic. The bolder ones climbed onto cars and began to beg for food. A bus full of Chinese tourists stopped directly ahead of us. Hands appeared out of the windows. One of them trying to stroke the head of a male baboon. We honked our horn furiously. A baboon's bite is particularly ferocious and they are, however, familiar with humans, still wild animals. The Chinese were puzzled by our concern. It reminded me of an incident when I was living in South Africa in the early Nineties and a group of Chinese visited a lion park outside Johannesburg. Two of the group got out of their vehicle and posed for a picture with the lions. The result: two dead Chinese tourists. But my son was delighted by the spectacle on the road ahead of us. Baboons on Christmas Day! Will he remember it when he grows up? I'd like to think he would but I suppose not. I will though.

On the night before leaving for home we travelled out to the winelands for a barbecue on the farm of my friends, Richard and Silvanna. Richard is a cameraman whom I came to know while living in South Africa. We still work together from time to time. But these days most of his efforts are taken up with fruit farming. It is as far away as you can imagine from battlefields and squatter camps. A saner life.

His farm sits below the Great Drakenstein mountain near the town of Franschoek. There are rows of peach and nectarine and apple trees. There are horses and some ducks and even some baboons and wild boar who raid the fruit orchards at night. As dusk came on Richard lit the firewood and the great mountain above us melted into shadow. His four young boys disappeared into the fruit groves with our son. And we adults relaxed and opened some wine and spoke of old times on the road. It was Christmas all right but not like I'd ever known it.

Fergal Keane is a BBC News special correspondent