Cape Town is different. While it sits at the toe of the African continent, visitors to this city might be forgiven for thinking that they have arrived somewhere else entirely. It doesn’t look very African and despite many attempts to make it seem more like an African city, you might easily mistake it for a lesser known part of Europe on arrival because wherever you go you will hear foreign languages being spoken. There's also these looming mountains everywhere making it look like it could be the Alps.
Even the climate is different to the rest of Africa’s. They actually have discernible seasons in Cape Town, unlike my province where there is only Summer and Summer Light. In Cape Town the winters are cold, wet, windy and miserable and the summers are hot and dry. Very dry. I was amused to learn that they don’t have electrical thunderstorms in Cape Town, so when those folks come to other parts of Africa and they hear thunderclaps they think that Armageddon has begun and they need to seek out the nearest bomb shelter. But as quirky as it is, Cape Town is certainly high on the wish list for many because it really does have a lot to offer its visitors.
My wife, like many South Africans, had never been to Cape Town. You may ask why? Well, for starters, it’s not around the corner from the most populated regions of South Africa. For us it’s a 3400km round trip by road. This puts it out of the “weekend getaway” zone if you want to drive because it’ll take you at least 2 days driving each way. Flying is an option, but it’s not cheap as it presents other logistical expenses, such as car hire and transfers to our local airport. In many cases once you have factored in all the expenses it becomes more attractive for the average South African to take a 10 day packaged holiday to places like Thailand or Mauritius than to visit Cape Town. This is not an exaggeration and it’s precisely what many people end up doing.
When we first met in 1989 my wife Nikki and I weren’t allowed to travel overseas because of the travel ban on South Africans under the apartheid state. We were born into a generation that does not qualify for ancestral citizenships as our families have been here since before WW1, so destinations like the UK and most of Europe were not possible. We were allowed into some countries, like the USA and Canada, but the costs of getting there were largely prohibitive for the average young person, so we tended to not travel at all. We decided to start a family which after the fall of apartheid in 1994 and the removal of travel restrictions meant that we had no money for such luxuries as world travel anyway. We spent the next 3 decades rearing 2 boys and chasing our tails financially. When we did go away on holidays they were always to nearby places and often these trips had to be co-ordinated with school holidays and available leave days for Nikki. Not that easy.
Now that the boys are grown up and mostly independent, I was determined to get her to Cape Town, so I started planning early in 2019 for just how I was going to do this. My original plan had been to do the coastal drive, stopping overnight along the way and making the most of it by poking our heads into the many towns that make up the “Garden Route” (one of the very few areas of the country that I have yet to see). That idea wasn’t met with much enthusiasm, especially after our mechanic, her cousin, started relaying to us the dangers of driving through the Eastern Cape town of Umtata. I’ll be honest, even I was put off after he described what it was like. These tales of horror matched with similar ones I read on a local 4x4 community forum. The general consensus is to avoid Umtata and the N2 road between it and East London at all costs.
The problems there range from poor road conditions, to drunken pedestrians, cattle in the road and of course the inept and inexcusably shocking driving by long range taxi bus drivers. I definitely didn’t want to spend 4 days of holiday time being stressed out behind the wheel (or stressing out Nikki), so I started looking at the costs of flights to Cape Town and car rental.
South African Airways has a budget airline called Mango. If you’ve ever travelled here you’ll see their bright orange aircraft at all the major airports. The prices of tickets weren’t too bad when compared to the cost of fuel for my aged Hyundai Tucson and road tolls, so it definitely made more sense to fly and then rent a cheap car instead of driving. Ultimately I did just that and booked us tickets for the last week of November, which is kind of the end of spring here, beginning of summer. Accommodation was taken care of by Airbnb. We were going to spend 2 nights in Gordon’s Bay, which is a small town on the eastern side of False Bay about 50km from Cape Town where we would visit my aunt and cousins, and then another 5 nights in the Cape Town City Bowl, practically at the foot of Table Mountain.
About 2 weeks before we were scheduled to travel news reports began to emerge on the impending collapse of South African Airways. Like all the other state-owned enterprises in this country, SAA has been ruined by kleptocracy of the worst order. Total corruption within the upper echelons of the company has meant that they are unable to pay their workforce on time, nor offer them any kind of inflation combatting increases in wages. The workers had had enough and the week before we were supposed to travel a crippling strike by ground staff began, causing the prompt cancellation of all SAA flights internationally and domestically. Needless to say I was properly panicked and began thinking of alternatives. There are a number of independent airlines in the country, but given the demand for flights, it seemed impossible that they would be able to pick up the slack left by the national carrier in the wake of the strike. For some reason that I am still not entirely certain of, but can only ascribe to divine providence, Mango, despite being a subsidiary of SAA, wasn’t affected by the strike at all and all their flights remained on track. We left Durban on a Saturday morning as planned and arrived in Cape Town 2 hours later. Sure beats a 2 day drive!
When you leave the Cape Town International airport by road you can either head West towards the city or East towards Somerset West. Sounds kooky, doesn’t it? But that’s just Cape Town for you. Up until the advent of satellite navigation I have had terrible trouble orienting myself in the city. I had always just assumed that Table Mountain faced south, but this is totally wrong. It faces North-West, which is why you can stand on the shores of Blouberg in the north and get the iconic image of Table Mountain with Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak on either side of it. Locals will always tell you to use the mountains as landmarks to avoid getting lost, but it doesn’t help when they look different from different angles. Table Mountain doesn’t look very table-like until you are looking at it from the North, so approaching the city from the East can be a little disconcerting if your sense of direction is already bamboozled by Somerset West signs sending you east!
The other big difference with Cape Town is that they are effectively 2 hours behind us as far as daylight goes, yet they’re in the same time zone as the rest of the country. This is great in summer because as the sun only sets around 9pm it gives you a lot more time in the evenings to do things if you work a normal 9 hour day. Get home at about 5pm, head out to the beach and you still have 4-5 hours of good light to do whatever catches your fancy. It does totally mess with our East Coast heads though. On the first evening we were visiting with my family in Gordon’s Bay I asked Nikki if she knew what the time was (she doesn’t wear a watch). She said it must be about 6pm. I told her it was 8.30pm and after the shock wore off she became immediately super hungry because we hadn’t eaten much that afternoon! So around an hour or so later after bidding family good night, we went in search of a take-away joint for something to eat. The usual chain outlets like KFC and Steers all seemed to be closed, but fortunately we found a place called Zebro’s open (barely!) and went in to place an order.
It was here that we discovered the famous Cape Town “Gatsby” sandwich. Now I use the term “sandwich” loosely because it is essentially a very long baguette filled with strips of grilled chicken, various sauces and other fillings including “slap chips” (french fries if you have no idea what that is). And it’s cheap as chips too! They had two options on their menu board, regular and large. Nikki was initially going to order a chicken burger and have one of these on the side, but then we asked them how big the regular one is. A person working in the grilling area picked up this bread roll that looked about as long as a golf club and showed it to us. Ooohhhh…we said in unison! We ordered one regular and took it back to our little Airbnb apartment. It was delicious, but even between us we couldn’t finish it, or even get close.
Early the next morning we went in search of breakfast and took a stroll along the Gordon’s Bay beach. A very pleasant scene!
Right next to Gordon’s Bay you will find the Strand, which is the Germanic word for beach. It was here that I felt most like I was at home on the East Coast. The area is typically “beachy” with a long strip of high rise apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants and of course a promenade upon which you will find scores of people enjoying the sunset by eating ice cream and drinking wine. It is definitely more relaxing and enjoyable to watch the sun set over the sea than to have to get up before dawn and watch it rising. People also tend to look at you funny if you drink beer or wine at sunrise.
The Strand really captured my heart and if we ever relocate to the Western Cape I think this is probably where I would like to set up. I can picture myself living in a beachfront apartment and enjoying the sunset from a sea facing window on a daily basis. Having grown up next to the Indian Ocean I am at my calmest when I can look at a body of water often. Living inland definitely isn’t for me. Neighbouring Gordon’s Bay is very quaint, but seems a little sleepy in comparison to The Strand.
On the Sunday my aunt took us on an outing to Willem Van Der Stel’s Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West where we walked around the amazing gardens there. It is typically Cape Dutch in the architecture. On the estate are some enormous camphor trees that were planted there by the Governor in the very early 1700’s. These were proclaimed as national monuments in 1942.
After our family visit was over we ventured West towards the city. Our Airbnb was a wonderful modern loft apartment in Upper Buitenkant Street and from the sofa we could watch the cableway making its way up Table Mountain. It was the perfect location for our unplanned daily outings.
There are some “must see” things in Cape Town, even if they are very touristy and you find yourself wondering what on earth brought you there.
The first place we headed for was the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Basically the city of Cape Town has commercialised parts of the quayside and turned them into a large shopping mall with an abundance of restaurants. There are masses and masses of them catering for every taste. The drawback to this development (which happened in the mid 1980’s) is that there are scores of tourists everywhere. We even saw Russian sailors in uniform roaming around the space, shopping bags in hand.
The next day we did the peninsula, driving from Hout Bay, through the iconic Chapman's Peak Drive, to Cape Point and then on and around the False Bay side, taking in Simon's town, Fish Hoek and then on to Muizenberg Beach. This is a very pleasant drive, especially the Chapman's Peak section (which you now have to pay to drive through as it takes a lot of work to maintain it). Hout Bay is very scenic, definitely a place photographers should visit at either end of the day for great light and subject matter. You'll encounter seals swimming in the small harbour too.
Going through the actual Chapman's Peak Drive we encountered a few groups of local kamikaze cyclists who tore through the bends like they were being chased by the beast of the Abyss. I couldn't help but think that if any of them were a tad late on the brakes or miscalculated a bend they would most certainly come to a sticky end. We also came across a couple of more sedate British touring cyclists at one of the many lookout points who offered to take our picture with the Hout Bay starting point in the background.
Chapman's Peak Drive is a marvel of engineering and definitely a must do if you visit Cape town.
Once we had wound our way through "Chappies" as it's affectionately known by the locals, we pressed on towards Cape Point, which is the southernmost point of the city (not the continent - that honour belongs to Cape Agulhas, which is about 170km away). The only other time I had been here was on our epic 2013 Namaqualand To Namibia Safari. On that day I didn't get to the top because a squall came through just as we were getting close and this forced us to beat a hasty retreat to the car. It's not a short walk from the car park to the lighthouse at the top and there are many steps to climb. Poor Nikki got about 50m from the top and her legs gave up. She should have ridden up in the funicular. However, having missed it the first time, I wasn't going to do the same again given the perfect weather this time, so I left her to recuperate in the shade of a bush while I went up to the top. I'm glad I did because the view from up there is spectacular, although not all that easy to photograph well.
There are a couple of penguin colonies in the Cape Town area. We had heard about one of them near Simon's town, so as this was on the way back we decided to stop off and have a look. Apparently we were in the wrong place because we didn't see the boardwalks or fences that have been erected to stop this colony from invading the local residential properties. I also heard that you have to pay to see them and nobody asked us for any money, so we just snapped away.
Our final stop on this long, but very interesting drive was at Muizenberg Beach, famous for its bright coloured beach huts seen in travel brochures the world over. To be honest, Muizenberg is stuck in the mid-20th century. The beachfront looks very jaded and while the huts are certainly an interesting feature, the rest of the place is desperately in need of an update. Unless you absolutely have to visit those huts I'd not bother with this stop.
The really absolute must do on a trip to Cape Town is of course the ride up the cableway to the top of Table Mountain. I had been up here once before in 1983 with my Dad and my brother while my Mom waited at the bottom. There was no way she was going to get into those cable baskets. In those days they were pretty scary as they were mostly open cages. Thankfully the new ones are quite fancy and they rotate as you make the trip. For me the scariest part is just before you get into the dock at the top and you find yourself looking over the other side of the edge of Table Mountain, realising just how high above the ground you are! Fortunately Nikki's sister had talked her into going up via text messages because she doesn't like heights and having been stuck midway on a zipline at a company outing a few years ago, the thought of hanging out in mid air doesn't appeal to her much at all. She is glad she did though, because once you're up there the scene below is breath taking.
We had many other adventures and outings over the week we were there, including walks in the CBD of the city, which is something we can't do in our home town anymore for fear of being mugged. On the whole we felt very safe, but there were some bad elements around. One morning as we walked from our loft to The Castle Of Good Hope (about 1.5km away) we were accosted by a young white youth looking for money. As we always do with beggars back home we just ignored him. On the way back we saw somebody passed out on the pavement with his backside hanging out of his pants. Walking past him I recognised it was the same guy from earlier. He must have obviously got somebody to give him some money so that he could get his fix. It's such a sad thing to bear witness to but this misery is found all over the world.
One of the outings I had intended to do, but then decided against was the visit to Robben Island. Apparently it's a 4 hour tour of the island, plus of course the ferry ride on choppy waters. As a South African I don't really need to be reminded of the injustices of apartheid - we live with them every day. Maybe one day I will take the trip across the water, but on this occasion I was content to see the silhouette of Table Mountain, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head from up the coast at Bloubergstrand.
Before we knew it our time in this beautiful city had come to an end. The trip has definitely left an impression on us and we are itching to go again, next time with the whole family.
Photography gear notes: all images were made with an Olympus E-M1 (2013 model) and Olympus 12-100mm f/4.0 PRO lens. This is an excellent travel kit, giving you great versatility and outstanding image quality.
Edited by Dallas