It’s December 1998. The towering wooden doors of Ratanga Junction swing open for the very first time, and thousands of Capetonians are introduced to their first-ever full-scale theme park.
It was a realm of twofold mystery – not only was it given its own mythos, landscape and je ne sais quios, but it was also planted firmly at the heart of the new, anxiously-anticipated Century City development.
For nearly nineteen years, the park has thrilled young and old alike with radical rides, wild shows and its inherent sense of deep-jungle disaster.
Now, nearing the end of its life, the illusion has all but dissipated, leaving behind the hulking shell of a once magnificent playground. It’s gone from a gem of Cape tourism to the eyesore of the N1, and its days are numbered.
As a child, wandering through the winding maze of the park was like exploring one of your favourite adventure films. Live crocodiles, exotic birds and snakes authenticated the experience, lending to generations of unleashed imaginations.
Indiana Jones himself would have grunted in approval.
Today, few of the critters remain, and several popular rides have disappeared with them. The magnificent Crocodile Gorge water ride has been out of action for several years, and the Diamond Devil Run rollercoaster has been mutilated into something far more hideous – a parking lot.
Rumours of the park’s closure have persisted for years, and in 2016, the Daily Voice reported that it was set for its last ride.
The whispers were quickly quelled by the Rabie group, the property developer that had acquired Ratanga from its original custodians back in 2005.
Its financial journey has been – forgive me – a rollercoaster ride, beginning with fears of white elephant-hood that were quickly allayed by early success.
It did ultimately become profitable, vindicating Adrian van der Vyver’s dream. Today, however, the flood of daily visitors has given way to more of a trickle – one that’s limited to school holidays and selected long weekends.
A Cape Argus April Fool’s joke once suggested that Ratanga’s jewel, the Cobra, was to be relocated to the top of Table Mountain. Such was the cultural significance of the ride throughout the Western Cape.
Its imagery permeated the neighbouring Canal Walk mall, cementing a symbiotic relationship that has long-since evaporated.
Ratanga Junction was every Cape Town child’s dreamland – it was a portal to another reality, one where giant meerkats and marooned colonial pilots operated fantastic and beastly machines.
The wildest place in Africa now cowers in the shadow of a Virgin Active, a Hillsong Church and several office buildings.
Its R179 entrance fee promises the grandeur of old, but delivers a half-arsed fart in the wind that entertains only the most nostalgic millennials and those too young to remember the glory days gone by.
It’s likely that we have less than a year of the theme park left. Now, in the wake of its ultimate downfall at the hands of corporate redevelopment, let us remember it as it once was – the coolest, freakiest and most exhilarating attraction that the Mother City has ever seen.