Cape Town was just the ticket for a break and catching up on culture

Sometimes one needs a break from routine to do something a little different. We’ve just had that – all four weeks of it – and am happy to say we feel better for it and are raring to go again.

It all started when my sister in Johannesburg dangled a bit of bait in front of my nose and invited Mrs Chiel and me to join her for a week at her Bantry Bay timeshare apartment in Cape Town. We’d see a few shows and movies, eat out at a restaurant or two, visit members of the family and friends, and generally enjoy a busy time.

It would be a far cry from camping in the bush, seeing big game in the wilder parts of southern Africa, braaing under the stars and generally not knowing what we’d be doing from one day to the next.

So we said yes, we’d love to join her, and three weeks ago set off for Cape Town, taking the N2 national road and being awestruck by the fire devastation around Port Elizabeth, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna and the Wilderness, but more about that later.

While in Cape Town we saw three movies, Dunkirk, at the Imax Theatre in Brackenfell – the film described in some reviews as an “immersive cinematic experience”; Viceroy’s House, the story of Lord Mountbatten overseeing the split-up in 1947 of British-controlled India to independence, and the breakaway of Pakistan; and Churchill, the story of the part played by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the build-up to the Normandy landings (D-Day) at the end of World War 2.

They were all good, one way or another, with Dunkirk top of my list, and Viceroy’s House close behind. Churchill, however, was a bit muddled, but it was good to see General Jan Smuts taking a key role as an adviser to Churchill in the British Prime Minister’s imperial war cabinet.

We attended the legendary South African musical of the 1950s, King Kong, at the Fugard Theatre, about a boxing champion, which showed its age a bit. Also the Bishops (Diocesan College) Classic Pops concert held in the City Hall.

What a great evening that was with orchestra, choir, brass band, string ensemble, marimba, jazz and wind bands all performing before a packed and enthusiastic audience with free glasses of quality Cape wine and snacks served at the interval. Quite a night.

Top of our list, however, was the Heart of Cape Town Museum exhibition at the old Groote Schuur Hospital, highlighting the world’s first heart transplant led by Dr Christiaan Barnard.

For those old enough to remember the day, it was on December 3 1967, that the heart of a young woman, Denise Darvall, who had earlier been involved in a horrific car accident, was removed and transplanted into the body of Louis Washkansky by a team of doctors, nurses and technicians.

It made sensational international news, especially because top surgeons around the world had been working on the same procedure and to think that they had all been beaten to it by a South African team of medical practitioners, albeit highly skilled ones, was almost beyond comprehension.

The museum is open seven days a week with up to five guided tours a day and experienced guides take you through the story from beginning to end as you move from one room to another, ending up in the operating theatres where Darvall’s heart was removed, taken to another theatre next door, and placed in Washkansky’s chest.

There is lots to see and many fascinating stories are told. Very little is left to the imagination. It doesn’t only focus on Barnard, although he is the one who led the operation. Nothing is spared in the telling about his character and personality and how his fame led him through the world of high society, marriage problems and love trysts.

The operating theatres appear as they did on that day in 1967 with lifelike dummies constructed by Madame Tussaud’s in London, dressed as they would have been at the time while leaning over the “body of the donor” in one theatre and over the recipient in another next door.

Seeing how it all happened all those years ago was a deeply moving experience. It was hard to believe how much work had gone into preparing for the event and effort that went into it.

Washkansky died 18 days after the operation and of course, is credited with being the first human to live so long, but hundreds more transplants have been done in South Africa and Paul Thesen, from Knysna, lived for another 35 years after two transplants and became the world’s longest survivor. — robinrosst@

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