Whenever we talk travel with other backpackers, vagabonds, journeymen, jet-setters, and fellow nomads, someone inevitably wants to know what your favorite place is. This is an impossible-to-answer question, but we can usually manage to provide a list of best memories or a “top 10” of most beautiful cities (in our own humble opinion). Time after time, Cape Town was almost always featured on this lofty list. Wild African animals aside, this was the city that had brought us to South Africa, and made the epic journey to get here all the more of a “holy grail” trek. With tempered expectations, because we REALLY wanted to love this city, we circled North around Table Mountain and entered Cape Town with the Atlantic Ocean on our right, and the sun sparkling on its waters and glittering in high-rise windows. Did it live up to our expectations? Yes, Cape town is all that.
What really makes Cape Town astounding is its natural beauty. The only city I can compare it to is Rio De Janeiro, because they both feature stunning beaches and majestic mountains, with near perfect climates. Table Mountain stands strong and center, sloping down through a modern city to a curvy coastline. We experienced clear views of its rocky, plateau summit, as well as the image of a blanket of white, orographic clouds, shrouding the top, and dripping over the sides as slow-moving fog – appropriately referred to locally as the “tablecloth”. The aerial cableway to the flat top of Table Mountain and our subsequent hike, exceeded our expectations. We were surprised to find a complex series of trails through a rich landscape about 3 kilometers long, with a diverse cape fynbos flora, including many species of proteas, South Africa’s national flower. The dramatic rocky cliffs are home to many lizards, raptors and rock hyrax, called dassies by the locals, and provide the most dramatic backdrop to a city nestled in a bowl below.
Cape life is all about the beach, and the pull of the ocean is never far from any of Cape Town’s assorted neighborhoods. With hours at our disposal, we could have easily walked the length of the city on its coastal edge, along promenades, stealing views of the ocean between upscale homes or peeking over a cliff’s edge. However, we decided to consult our guidebook and Trip Advisor in order to not waste anytime on less than perfect beaches. It was Dan’s birthday, and we had reunited with our friend, Gavin, the night before at hipster Mexican restaurant called El Burro (still salivating at the memories of fresh salsa, carnitas tacos, and mind altering margaritas). While Gavin was picking up his girlfriend, Meriem, from the airport, we were off to explore the sandy shores before a later rendezvous. Our first stop for some much-needed sun absorption was at Clifton beach, a beautiful series of four coves, separated by giant boulders, situated in a lovely, and surely pricey neighborhood. The entrance to the beach was via steep stairs and million dollar beach shacks. We were secreted in a moon-shaped cove, laying in warm sand, and occasionally dipping our feet into frigid waters. Beautiful locals strolled by for us to admire their toned physiques, and we inched around on our own walks spying glamorous photo shoots and being impressed by Adonis look-alikes and their beach volleyball skills.
By lunchtime, we were headed to a deliciously fresh sushi/seafood restaurant in Camps Bay to finally meet Meriem and begin our first toasts of the day. From here, we followed each other caravan style along a windy coastal road to Llandudno beach (the featured title photo image). Dan christened it one of his favorite beaches, as it was obviously community oriented and a hotspot for surfers. As the wind picked up, it was evident that today was NOT the best day to ride any waves, as the tumultuous ocean caused two surfers to break their boards in half!
By evening time, we were all feeling the effects of sun exhaustion, but headed to Long Street for one final dinner and birthday hoorah. We went to the Royale Eatery where we ate the best burgers of our South African trip, which were only bettered by the unforgettable peanut butter/Jack Daniels milkshake! Seriously, the BEST shake of our lives!!! Long St. with its appealing Victorian and Cape Dutch architecture and trendy businesses became a familiar road while we were in Cape Town. Here we ate many a meal, sampled local brew, shopped for African music, and perused many a bookstore. The whole vicinity was a good area for shopping, cafes, people watching and style inspiration.
Our next day was jam-packed with an all-day tour. We woke early on Sunday to head to a Methodist church in Langa township, as part of a Camissa Travel tour to better understand the black african social and economic experience within the Cape Town townships. When we first sat down in the back pews, the church was relatively empty, but by ten minutes into the initial singing and prayers, this house of worship was filled to capacity with a dressed-up parish, ready to passionately absorb a Christian sermon. Overall, I found our experience more enlightening than our Soweto tour, as we were actually invited into some apartment homes to see the small quarters (one or two-room units, some with a shared bathroom for the entire floor) that many families had to live in, and thus had more interaction with the locals. While walking through the neighborhood, we saw butchers selling pig heads and offal in the streets, meat brais on the corner, and people hustling to hawk art and beaded jewelry to the rare tourist in their hood. As we were guided through the streets, I alternated from feeling like an intruder on a peep-show, poverty tour, to feeling secure that our visit was indeed helping to bring much-needed funds into an economically challenged community. Stella and Gabriel once again attracted the most attention, and soon had a posse of young children joining us on our walk, hand in hand with our kids, and curious to stroke Stella’s hair. Our main guide, Samantha, who was also one of the owners of the tour company, was an amazing fountain of information. She was able to clearly outline the pros and cons of the townships and answer many of our questions about what we had observed throughout our South Africa trip. I.E. – An obvious con would be the overcrowding and severe poverty within the townships, that meant swathes of the neighborhood homes were being made of corrugated metal and wood scraps, and that there are obscenely long wait lists for government built and subsidized housing. The pros were that there was a growing middle class of educated and professional black Africans who made the deliberate choice to live in established neighborhoods within the township limits. Here, they were contributing to neighborhood safety and after-school groups, that aimed to keep youth away from criminal activity and assist in educational growth. It was apparent that many townships instill a strong cultural identity, sense of community, brotherhood and belonging. We learned about the struggles and inequality still faced within South African politics, a country that only abolished apartheid in 1994. The biggest issue of the day, which we often heard discussed on radio or as newspaper headlines, was the contested increase in university fees and a continued emphasis on teaching in the afrikaans language, which severely limits access and opportunity for higher education among poorer, less privileged black South Africans. Perhaps, what surprised me the most, was the continued separation, albeit chosen, of blacks and whites. It often felt like we were in a white, European bubble, as we hopped from one tourist town to the next, sitting in cafes with other Caucasians and staying in guesthouses filled with like guests, although run by whites and a small minority of black Africans in service-related roles. It was rare when we witnessed an interracial couple, although more apparent among younger couples, and equally uncommon to see children of mixed heritage. In fact, even an area like Long St., which showcased the most social mixing, still had bars that were clearly defined and frequented by those sharing a racial identity. I don’t know – maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe what seemed like unspoken segregation is just the leftovers of what will eventually be a natural, but slow meeting of two different cultures and ethnicities on common ground. This is not Brazil, where there has been a mixing of African, European and Indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. The legacy of apartheid is still painfully remembered, and will take time to overcome.
So, after our sobering and educational morning, we headed to the waterfront to meet up with Gavin and Meriem for Part two of our tour day – an excursion by boat to Robben Island. Here is where many South African political prisoners were held, including Nelson Mandela for 18 out of his 27 years in jail. This destination has become a pilgrimage to honor those who suffered greatly in their effort to overthrow an unjust government and racist system of inequality. It was a beautiful journey to a hot and arid island, during which we saw seals and a small shark at the water’s surface and were treated to a rare sighting of humpback whales frolicking in the ocean (rare because of the time of year). We all arrived ready for a solemn and educational experience, but left feeling disappointed by our tour. Our required tour was disorganized and the guides were difficult to hear or understand, and seemed to lack the passion to impart interesting tales and historical details that would have helped to dispel our ignorance. I found the overall experience to be bereft of emotion, which was especially surprising considering the significance and relevance of this island in South Africa’s history. If it weren’t for the whale sighting and a couple of good photo ops, I would honestly consider this excursion to be a complete bust. Upon our return to the quay, we quickly improved the day with some cocktails, dinner, a nighttime spin on a ferris wheel, and good conversation. The children were enamored of Meriem, drawing her pictures and fighting over who got to sit next to her.
Our final highlight of Cape Town, visited on a second return after several days of side trips, was a visit to the most beautiful national botanical gardens that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Kirstenbosch is a botanists utopia, a place for children to pretend, and for adults to be reminded of the incredible beauty on our planet. Gabriel and Stella have become avid birders under the tutelage of Dan, and can recognize the difference between a ground hornbill and an ibis, and identify many a feathered creature by name. Together they hunted a variety of species, checking off any new sighting in a pocket-sized bird book that traveled with us at all times. Gabriel was eager to photograph some ducks on a lawn and practice his budding photographer skills. I took the opportunity to create some quiet and distance from my kin, to probe for new and unique plants and flowers, to catalogue in my own mental database. We stayed until the sun dipped behind Table Mountain, putting the large gardens in shadow, and until we were informed that it was most definitely, closing time. Like the botanical gardens, we eventually left Cape Town before we were really ready, still wanting more time to ponder its depths and beauty, because yes, Cape Town is all that.