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A walk through the Company Gardens…

I often visit the Company Gardens in central Cape Town simply to take a relaxing stroll under the canopy of oak trees and soak up the peaceful scenes of children feeding squirrels, old men relaxing on benches, and locals going about their business.You certainly don’t need a guidebook or a history lesson to enjoy this leafy centre of calm in the heart of Cape Town. That being said, I will provide a history lesson anyway, simply because the story of Cape Town, and indeed the European colonization of South Africa, can be traced directly back to this small, fertile patch of earth

When Jan Van Riebeek landed in Cape Town in 1652 to establish the first permanent European settlement in South Africa he did not come to explore, conquer or colonize – he came to garden. Van Riebeek’s employers, the Dutch East India Company, were making huge profits bringing spices from the East Indies (present day Indonesia) to markets in Europe. The voyage from Europe, around the southern tip of Africa and on to the East Indies took six to eight months, during which time sailors often developed scurvy, a rather unpleasant condition with symptoms including suppurating wounds, bleeding gums, loss of teeth, fever and, ultimately, death. At an early stage the disease was linked to a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables (the key lay in a deficiency of vitamin C), so Van Riebeek was dispatched to Africa’s southern tip with the 17th century equivalent of a pair of Wellingtons under instruction to secure a source of fresh water, exchange tobacco and trinkets for cattle with the locals, and get planting. There is a pear tree in the Company Gardens which is believed to have been planted by Van Riebeek and his men – propped up with steel supports and surrounded by a small fence, the tree certainly looks its age, but every spring it still sends out green shoots as it has done for over 350 years ago.

While you are wandering about the gardens be sure to track down the Slave Lodge, St. George’s Cathedral, the Iziko South African National Art Gallery, and the South African Museum (which also houses a planetarium). You may also want to pause at the statue of South African military commander Major General Sir Henry Timson Lukin, the Delville Wood South African National Memorial (this is a replica of the original memorial, which is situated in northern France at the site of the battle of Deliville Wood, an engagement in the WWI Battle of the Somme in 1916 in which South African 1st Infantry Brigade were able to hold the town despite suffering losses of 80%), or the statues of Jan Smuts and Rhodes.

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