Like a lot of places I’ve visited in the past 9 months, I wasn’t sure what to expect in South Africa. That’s been part of the practice of travelling, the unknown and new experiences that always lie ahead, and learning to accept what comes our way. Being OK with what is. I was familiar with Nelson Mandela, Apartheid, and the South African economy (now part of the BRICS club – Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) but not much else.
We were on our way to Johannesburg, then Cape Town for about a month, then back to Johannesburg. We chose Johannesburg for strategic reasons. We could fly there non-stop from Asia (Singapore) and when we were ready to move on we could fly non-stop from there to South America (Sao Paulo, Brazil).
When we arrived we were delighted to discover that we could drink the tap water, eat salad, and not have to download another language to our translate app again.
Our apartment in Cape Town was on the 5th floor, with 2 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a huge living room, dining room and fully equipped kitchen. It overlooked Green Market Square, a cobblestone tourist spot where vendors push their African tourist crafts. From our living room window we had perfect views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. There were tons of great restaurants, cafes and used clothing shops, all within the surrounding 3 or 4 blocks. Even though the apartment was the most expensive so far on this trip, it was a bargain at $50 per night. The reason we got a 2 BR was that Laurie’s parents were going to visit us there.
One of the first things we did was buy a day ticket on the open top, double-decker tourist bus. We rode it for about 2 hours straight, getting a lay of the land, learning about the history and geography of Cape Town. We ended up at the V&A Waterfront, a sprawling tourist center with malls, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and local outdoor entertainment, right alongside a fully working shipyard, dry docks, and marinas. We took in a comedy show one night, and similar to going to the cinema in various countries we’ve been to, it started with the national anthem, complete with the words on the screen for us to sing along.
After admiring Table Mountain from distance for 2 days we decided to climb it. We had the name of a reputable local guide, Peter, and made a plan. He met us at our apartment, tapped for an Uber, and we were off. Peter was a very nice man, a few years younger than me, who gave us an orientation at the base of the mountain that included handing out mace, whistles, fake wallets and fake iPhones – just in case we were held up – as in robbed. We decided to take the long route up the mountain since we had all day, and it took all day. It was cool in the morning when we started, then it got warm, then foggy, cloudy and cold on top, and then really hot on the way down. It was about 8 hours including a relaxing but cold lunch break at the top. We had the expansive summit pretty much to ourselves as the cable car was closed for its annual 2 week maintenance. The summit is usually mobbed. After the hike, Peter invited us to join him on another hike next day, for sunset. This time it was Lion’s Head.
We met at the base of Lion’s Head around 4 PM the next day. Peter guide had already assembled a large group of about 14 people. We brought up the rear with another guide, Sheldon, who we found out during the hike was a city guide, not a hiking guide. Laurie and Sheldon and I had a great time talking on the way up. He has a vast amount of stories and historical facts about Cape Town and South Africa. At a rest stop below the summit we decided not to go any further as it was already getting dark. A few minutes later we watched a rescue helicopter dropped off a rescue team right at the summit. Something had gone wrong but we knew it wasn’t our group as they were still on their way to the top. A little while later the copter was back evacuating the injured person. The 3 of us decided not to wait for the rest of the group. We sent them a text message and headed back down in the dark. Sheldon let us know what his schedule was for the historical walking city tour that he does 5 days a week. We planned to connect with him and do the tour in the near future. We made it down safely and Sheldon drove us back to our place at Green Market Square. A week later he led us, along with Laurie’s parents on a walking tour of the area where we were staying. It was great to learn the history of the area and it was a good preparation for our upcoming visit to the Apartheid Museum.
Green Market Square is a funny place. Every day at 6 AM a group of people haul heavy iron framing, white tarps and battered sheets of plywood into the square. They set up dozens of stalls. Local shop keepers hire people to run the booths and stock them with various African handicrafts – everything from paintings, carvings, and clothing to jewelry, drums and belts. The price and quality of the stuff is suspect. I shopped for a new belt there and was quoted $35 and the vendor wouldn’t budge on the price. A few days later I bought a nicer quality one at a market just outside of downtown for $7. The market can be a little noisy, but not disruptive, when they’re setting up early in the morning and taking down everything, everyday, at around 6 PM.
One of the most remarkable things about Cape Town and the immediate area around Green Market Square, are the street people. There is a small population of homeless, mostly young people, begging for food. We were warned various times not to give them anything. Here’s why. They ask for food, not money. You go into a store and buy them food, and once you’re gone the store owner buys back the food from them at half of what you paid for it. The kids get drug money, the store owner sells the same food over and over to tourists. Of course I found a solution. On time I called them on it, and asked if I could actually buy them lunch at Burger King. A few of them took me up on the offer. I felt better, the kids actually ate, and the tourist police even pulled me aside and gave me their approval and thanks. Another striking thing about the kids was their similarity in demeanor and dialogue. Same cadence, tone, mannerisms and pitch. It was kind of eerie.
One of the things I’ve been wanting to do is kayaking and Cape Town is the perfect place. We found a kayak touring company and booked a sea kayaking trip with Kaskazi Kayaks. It was Laurie and I and the guide. A customer of the kayak shop also tagged along. This place manufactures their own boats which were really nice. On a beautiful sunny day, we paddled out into the Atlantic for a few hours and enjoyed views of Table Mountain, Cape Town and passed by dolphins and seals.
Cape Town is a striking place, an old European feel to the city with spectacular views of the mountains right there, all surrounded by an equally nice coastline. You could easily spend a week there without traveling very far out of the city. But when you are ready to venture out there’s plenty to do and plenty to see. Laurie’s parents were here and we were ready to show them around some more.
South Africa is famous for wine and there’s a winery, Groot Constantia, established in 1685, in Cape Town. I think it’s the oldest in the country. Of course we took a trip, tour and tasting there. South Africa also has its own exclusive variety of wine – Pinotage. It’s an invention, a hybrid of 2 grapes, not a mix of 2 wines. A week or so later we took another trip out-of-town to the famous Stellenbosch wine region where there are dozens and dozens of wineries to visit. We picked Simonsig upon the recommendation of one of the staff at Groot Constantia. We had a lovely afternoon with the sun shining, birds singing, and wine being tasted.
Another day trip, and one of the highlights for me, was to Cape Point. This is the southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean is to your right and the Indian Ocean to your left. The drive to and from is a magnificent display of rugged mountains and coastline. On the way there we stopped at Simons Town where there is a colony of penguins. Midget penguins actually. They’re only about 18 inches tall and they put on a good show. Once you make your way to the visitor center at Cape point there is a steep, but fairly short walk up to the top of a hill with great views. On the hike up there are vantage points to stop and take in the sea, the rugged coastline and the steep terrain. At the top of the hill you see a sliver of land that continues on for another 20-40 minute walk. We decided to go for it and hiked all the way out to the end. The views were amazing. If you ever go to Cape Town, and you should, this hike is a must.
Another day we ventured out to Aquila Private Game Reserve for a day trip safari. A short 2 hours drive from Cape Town and you’re in a huge game reserve with Lions, Elephants, Hippos, Rhinos, Springbok, Blazebok, Zebras and more. See pictures of the safari here.
We ended our stay in Cape Town with a township tour. A township is an underdeveloped shack settlement area, a byproduct of the segregation and apartheid policies. On recommendation of one of our Airbnb hosts we chose Uthando for our township tour and we were not disappointed. Unhando is a non-profit that serves hundreds of independent, well-managed, innovative and inspiring community development projects and charitable organizations in various townships. They do this in part by offering tours.
The township we visited was Khayelitsha, the largest in Cape Town, which we were told had 1.1 million of the total 4.5 million residents of Cape Town living there. If the facts are straight the population of this township has almost tripled in size since 2011. On our tour we visited a kindergarten, a garden project, an arts & education center, and a dance school. We talked with the folks who run the various projects, got to interact with the children, learned some drumming skills, and much more. The people we met and stories we heard were truly inspiring. It is one of 4 places we interacted with on our trip so that really touched me. You can read about the other 3 here.
After our time in Cape Town we travelled back to Johannesburg for 2 nights to get ready to head to South America. Since we didn’t have a lot of time we decided to focus on the Apartheid Museum. We spent 4 hours there. It’s a great museum, spacious and well laid out, informative and interesting. It’s worth learning about Apartheid and its history along with the life of Nelson Mandela.
Africa was a great experience but it’s a huge continent. We got just a little taste of it by visiting 1 country, South Africa. The people are friendly, hard-working and inspiring. There may be another African trip in my future to places like Namibia or Zimbabwe, but for now I’m feeling blessed to have had the opportunity to travel for a year and spend a month in South Africa and meet so many wonderful people. Next stop is Brazil. Stay tuned.