The reports were flooding in: there was snow on Table Mountain. Somewhere up there, under that impenetrable cloud, was a winter wonderland of white powder drifts.
Well, if not drifts, then a thick layer, like marzipan on a wedding cake. At the very least a thin layer of marzipan on a wedding cake made of inedible sandstone. Okay, perhaps not a thin layer, but definitely a smattering. We could say with some certainty that some of the mountain had been fractionally dusted. Alright, fine, there was a blob of cold white stuff on a rock near the upper cable station which may or may not have been a vanilla soft-serve dropped by a tourist, but we were going with snow.
Down on the streets of Cape Town the sheer glamour of living under a winter alp was palpable even if the snow itself wasn’t. For one chilly morning we were no longer suburban nobodies freezing in our cars. No, we were people from a Peter Stuyvesant advert from the 1980s, people who went skiing in St Moritz wearing sky-blue-and-baby-pink tracksuits, who gave each other high-fives in mid-air as they ski-jumped over an Audi Quattro which had a woman in a bikini and heels on its bonnet. You couldn’t expect anyone in Cape Town to drive properly while there was snow on the mountain.
Once the snow melted and the rain returned, however, it got harder to explain the bad driving, or why the Audi was now trying to out-drag a station wagon through a flooded intersection, relying on nothing but optimism and 30-year-old brakes. It’s not as if Capetonians aren’t familiar with rain, but still we panic, as if raindrops were gobbets of magma vomited down on us by a vengeful and dyspeptic sea god. Indeed, if there is one thing that unites Cape Town drivers of all races, creeds and classes, it is automotive retardation in the wet: the first sign of a cloud, and we turn into yodeling knuckle-dragging meatheads.
Gautengers enjoy rolling their eyes at Cape Town drivers, almost as much as they enjoy rolling their cars off Cape Town passes.
The trouble is, it’s not just snow or rain that make us drive horribly. It’s also sun, and moonlight. Oh, and air, which is always roaring in your ears and making you lose focus on the phone in your lap. And don’t get me started about steering wheels. Have you ever tried to drive a car with a steering wheel? It’s freaking impossible.
Gautengers enjoy rolling their eyes at Cape Town drivers, almost as much as they enjoy rolling their cars off Cape Town passes. But our ineptitude behind the wheel isn’t entirely our fault. For starters, we are poorer than Gautengers and are therefore forced to drive cars rather then self-guiding German upholstery. (Apparently some of the newer makes have brakes attached to their wheels, rather than just an anchor that drops through a trapdoor, but I can’t confirm these rumours: my car is the same age as Justin Bieber, and makes very similar noises.)
Another contributing factor to the chaos is the balkanised nature of Cape Town. Thanks to a vibrant system of class discrimination, we have separated into partially federal, mostly feral fiefdoms. The Afrikaans citizens of De Nordern Subbips don’t mix with the Anglophile residents of the Gween And Leafies in the south; neither would be seen dead There By The Vlaktes. This means that no journey ever takes more than 20 minutes, and driving loses its expansive, epic spirit. Horizons narrow, scales shrink, and soon it all begins to feel rather bucolic. Cape Town drivers are, in effect, that old tannie in the Overberg village who shuffles out to her 1972 diesel Mercedes and drives at walking pace down to the church bazaar to while away another few hours as she waits for death.
But these excuses, much like my car, only go so far. The simple truth is that Capetonians are just bad at driving, which means that we are exactly like most drivers in most South African cities: aggressive, or timid, or oblivious, or all three. Worse, none of us realise how stressed we are by our cars, perhaps because we don’t spend any time on functioning public transport. (Londoners whine about the Tube, but, compared to the stress levels of an average South African commute, the Underground is a cartful of snoozing Hobbits, clip-clopping through meadows towards an ale-drinking jamboree.) We even think it’s normal, this daily crouch in our fuel-injected foxhole, surrounded by hostiles piloting semi-guided missiles…
Luckily, my car, like Bieber, seems to be just months away from a full and final crack-up. And once I have donated its body to science, I am going to take the bus. I, and the one other person who uses the MyCiti bus service, will sit in state and survey the madness unravelling in the streets below. Then I will look up to the mountain and think of St Moritz.
First published in The Times and TimesLive