As Long as there’s Tea, there’s Hope!


Saturday 10 July 2010:  3 years 10 months on . . .

I have previously only visited the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town in the darkness of night.

As a Matie, a Stellenbosh University student, I attended a number of formal dinner dances in the Ballroom there, notably the annual Debutantes’ Ball. Thirty years ago, in 1980, as a house committee member of Helshoogte Residence, I also organised a formal residence birthday ball there – complete with the then well-known Hylton Ross Orchestra. Besides academic studies, Maties also become students of dance – the Sakkie Sakkie – disparagingly referred to by English-speaking South Africans by many different terms including that of “windsurfing”!

However, my first visit to the Mount Nelson, as a Standard Nine pupil (as we called it then) of Hottentots-Holland High School in Somerset West, was danceless. That was way back in 1973, and in that year, our teachers had decided that dancing was a sin that God, Himself, frowned upon! (I was invited to say goodbye to the then matrics on behalf of our our Std 9 class.)

The 1973 annual matric dance in the school hall was cancelled. Instead the class was bussed to the Mount Nelson for a farewell dinner. As eighteen year old boys and girls we were about to face the world and, as eighteen year old MEN, we were about to go to war against the SWAPO terrorists in Angola – but definitely no couples and no dancing allowed at our farewell function! We had been well-prepared for Life! (The following year, in 1974, our class was bussed to dine at the Houw Hoek Hotel otherside Grabouw!)

The word “pupil”, used to describe a child who attends a school, was subsequently substituted – by government decree – with the word “learner”.  The term “standard ten” – a pupil’s twelfth year at school – has since been replaced with the term “grade 12”. Even a “teacher” has become known as an “Educator”. In fact, despite being repeatedly warned about the folly of their ways, the new government replaced the whole education system that we knew with a new system called Outcomes Based Education (OBE).

Last year, they decreed that, once again, we had “teachers”, and, just this last week, have thrown out OBE! And, I guess, couples and dancing are no longer sinful because I see a lot of that – and much more – happening all around me now!

But, in an ever-changing world, the Mount Nelson Hotel – known affectionately as The Nellie – still remains. Situated at the base of Table Mountain at the top of Orange Street in Oranjezicht, Cape Town, she is a monument to an era long gone by.

And, when you approach her from Orange Street through those imposing tall white pillars and colonnade and see her in the daytime, as we did when we were in Cape Town recently, she is pink from top to toe!


We had been invited to High Tea by my niece, Michelle (who helps balance the books there!), and her husband Sebastian. An institution as old as Nellie herself, High Tea is served every afternoon at two thirty in the Terrace Room.

It had snowed on Table Mountain during the previous evening, and it was very cold in Cape Town. A fire was burning in the fireplace and the pianist at the end of the room was tickling away at the ivories – all those haunting melodies from down the ages.

Seated in the comfortable padded high back sofas and couches, our waitress gave us the run-down on the various teas of various tastes and fragrances, all infused in the glass teapots in front of us and poured into the fancy china cups and saucers.

And, in between every course of tea (and sometimes during the course of tea and many times more than once in between each course, and before each course, and after each course) we each headed off to the treats table! It was laden with sweets and savouries of every kind and never appeared to empty – from the cucumber and salmon sandwiches through the lemon curd pies to the cheese and strawberry cake and the carrot cake.

Thank goodness the treats table was at the other end of the room to where we were seated – at least we were getting some exercise to assist with the digestion of the layer upon layer of decadent delicacies.

And, until 5pm, the pianist played and the fire burned, tea was quaffed, eats were eaten, stories were told, some played bridge, some chatted, and people came and went. In 2010, we were reliving that tradition that was one of the reasons for having built Nellie in the first instance – simply a place to enjoy afternoon tea and a treat with family and friends!

After tea, Michelle (or should I rather say, Sebastian!) arranged for us to tour the hotel – a home of the rich and famous. We went from the ordinary R7000 a night single hotel rooms through the average R10 000 a night double rooms to the R15000 a night luxury suites, like the one used by actress Charleze Theron (together with the one next door for her Mom) when they are in Cape Town. When you switch it on, the TV rises in a cabinet from the floor at the foot of the bed!

Some of the suites, we were told, are booked by regular patrons two at a time for a stay of two or more months.

We could only afford an afternoon, so then visited – just to look at – the newly R24 million renovated spa – a row of houses recently acquired that even necessitated the closing of a street by the City of Cape Town.

To end off a truly magnificent and memorable afternoon, we had a parting drink in the hotel’s Planet Champagne Bar. We each ordered a cocktail – some specially concocted for the 2010 World Cup. I ordered a Dutch Flower– possibly a good omen as we wait for the final on Sunday between the Dutch and the Spanish? The rest had a Frozen Daiquiri, a Virgin Daiquiri, 1 Golden Goal and 1 Mojito!

But, for the adventurous, the menu provides anything from a R17 Castle to a R7999 bottle of Dom Perignon.

Thanks, Michelle and Sebastian, for a wonderful treat.

As Queen Victoria said, “As long as there’s tea, there’s hope!”