Surprises & Fresh eyes

The last time I travelled on a train in South Africa was over 40 years ago. I have travelled on trains in France and Switzerland and I am a firm believer in train travel. But taking a suburban train into Cape Town raised all sorts of concerns – I’ve seen what’s been written on CapeInfo and local media about our trains (quite horrifying!) and seeing graffiti-ridden trains and trains with no windows parked at stations hasn’t helped.

The train ride from Somerset West to Cape Town was a pleasant surprise. A first class one-way ticket was R12.00! The train was on time and ran like clockwork – the journey was 1.5 hours which is not bad at all. It was clean; the ride was smooth. Security on the train was evident and one did feel safe. I was surprised… just a pity that the rolling stock is so badly designed.

It would be so easy to upgrade our suburban rail service to match the quality and experience of the Swiss and French trains – just change Metrorail’s management. They may have made headway, but they just don’t understand how to attract customers who have a choice of transport modes.

Cape Town station was a disaster. It was due to be redeveloped 20 years ago, nothing happened and it’s more of a mess than ever before. It’s a disgrace to Cape Town.

Celebrating the City
I haven’t been to the Waterfront for over a year so an early morning meeting at City Lodge started an interesting day.

I arrived early and noticed an old building outside the Waterfront which had a very large red circle attached to the window with the message “This building is Good”. It was an initiative by the Institute of Architects. Well done! Now wouldn’t it be great if they published a list the public can refer to. We challenge them to let us have a list to add here.

The canal at the entrance to the Waterfront looked a bit of a cesspool – what a disappointment!  Across the road, Auto Atlantic has become an Audi dealership and the building is getting some corporate branding.  So gone are the days of buildings that try to respond to a Waterfront architectural ethic.  Crass commercialism rules; architectural good  neighbours do not exist!

The meeting was with CMH, a listed auto retail group with an annual turnover of almost R9 billion!  It was to discuss a marketing partnership and new ways of reaching appropriate audiences.  They are a refreshing company to deal with.

Delights of a Working Harbour



It’s probably what’s on the water that delights most for any visit to the Waterfront.  This visit was no exception.  Parked, ermm… moored… in front of Cape Grace was the Tatoosh.  Rumoured to belong to one of Microsoft’s co-founders, Paul Allen – one of three “yachts” he owns.  One of the others was in Cape Town earlier this year when Bill Gates addressed a conference.

Yes, that is two helicopters on top of this 303-foot “yacht”.  It also has a real yacht and an array of other water toys on board.

So it was a delight to meet Phillip Couvaras, new GM at the Table Bay Hotel the next day and discover his enthusiasm for what gives the Waterfront its unique attraction.  He’s truly fascinated by all the maritime comings and goings and shares it with the hotel’s guests.  A poster in the lobby about a tall ship moored in front of the hotel resulted in more visitors to the ship than they had in any other port!  Well done Phillip.

Joy, Delight and… Uniqueness

My office was behind the right hand window of the top floor in 1989!  When we moved in, it was occupied by pigeons.  What joy and delight to see this beautiful old building coming into its own.  In the 1870’s it was the port manager’s home and office.  Neil Markovitz of Newmark Hotels was the client who knew exactly what he was doing, with architect Gawie Fagan and interior designer Francois du Plessis.

Dock House



A new – a very fitting – lease on life for the historic Dock House – the most exclusive accommodation at the V&A Waterfront.  Newmark Hotels also owns the V&A Hotel, the Waterfront’s first hotel.

BMW Mausoleum

The next stop was the BMW Pavilion.  Oh gasp and shudder… where have all the people gone… long time passing….  Memories of queues for IMAX, the buzzing Bistro and 500,000 visitors a year are just a memory.  There are a few nice cars and for the rest it looks like a new and used motorbike lot.  Even the Minis have gone.

This does nothing for the Waterfront and certainly nothing for the BMW brand.   Being stopped at the door by two Waterfront security guards was hardly a warm welcome.

Victoria Wharf

I’d heard bits about the new fashion mall that was added to the front of Victoria Wharf so I was keen to discover what the hype was all about.  Entering Victoria Wharf from the old parking area is probably the most unwelcoming entrance I have ever experienced.

You feel as though you are about to be churned into the belly of a monster.  Yes, it’s much the same as the old entrance, but the “Argie boys” (newspaper sellers) and flower sellers are gone.  It’s a bleak combination of wind lobby and giant revolving door with a touch of inhumanity.  That’s so easy to change.

Upstairs, the once busy Playa had two tables.  It was never like this before at 10:30 in the morning.  And the new mall must be cause for concern.  There was not a single soul in sight… a completely empty mall! Nor were there any stores to excite nothing unique to Cape Town.

Of even more concern was the lack of friendliness.  The Woolworths security officer lolling at their front door didn’t bother to return a greeting and this seemed to repeated over and over again.  What sort of warmth are we offering as 2010 approaches?

Tourism numbers are down in the economic crisis but a more commen lament from old friends was that the Waterfront’s management has been virtually absent since David Jack’s retirement.  All the hype about new developments by the new owners was just that… hype.  Wasn’t R3 billion of new development before 2010 mentioned?

The last stop was the Cape Grace Hotel.  It was always a fountain of friendliness and peace in a bustling Waterfront.  It carries memories of a remarkable family that built it – Charles, Chippy and Cynthia Brand – and its remarkable first GM – Euan McGlashan.  Alas, that is just a memory.  Gone is the friendly greeting at the front door, although at least one staff member there is the same.  Inside, staff friendliness seems to have disappeared too… not a single greeting!  The building is in the final stages of a makeover where understated elegance has made way for mirrored pillars and mirrors wherever else there is an empty wall.  It’s not the same.

One response to “Surprises & Fresh eyes”

  1. Thank you for taking us on a journey of our own city Carl – you have seen it with fresh but critical eyes, after the absence of a year.


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