It’s not every day I am asked to go to South Africa with just a measly weeks notice; but that is how it transpired! With such a last minute trip, I didn’t have time to get used to the idea I was going. Even once I was sat in the plane, looking out over Cape Town’s most famous natural landmark, it still didn’t feel like it was really happening.
Table Mountain was first sighted by Europeans in 1488, by Bartholomew Diaz while he charted the coast of Africa. It was named Cape of Good Hope as it was seen as a promising trade route to India, although he originally named it Cape of Storms for reasons that become obvious when you see the number of shipwrecks around it!
I had left a miserable English summer for a southern hemisphere winter that was beautiful – a little bit cold but very sunny! My first view of Cape Town was breath-taking; a city perched right by the moody Atlantic ocean and dwarfed by the 1000m Table Mountain. My very first morning I woke up and pulled open my curtains to the most amazing sunrise I’ve ever seen in my life! This certainly motivated me to get out of bed each morning to throw open the curtains, but alas, it was never repeated.
After a long week at work, my first weekend I visited a market at the Old Biscuit Mill in the heart of Woodstock suburb with a colleague. We enjoyed the huge variety of street food, flowers, coffee and cakes. Cape Town is known for its high quality and large variety of food and I certainly wasn’t disappointed!
In the afternoon I met some other friends and we drove to Constantia Valley, a wine region on the other side of Table Mountain. It feels like another world, not just because of the quiet after the city’s bustle, but the weather on the other side of Table Mountain changes drastically. We tasted some delicious wines, sitting by a roaring fireplace. Afterwards we went to an amazing tapas style restaurant back in the city called Fork where I tried Kudu, a species of antelope, among many other things. Delicious place.
On Sunday I went on a safari trip out to Aquila Game Reserve, a 10,000 hectare area in southern Karoo. It was quite a drive from Cape Town, but the scenery was incredible. During the tour we saw rhino, buffalo, zebra, hippos, ostriches, giraffes, Springbok, elephants and lions – the lions were the only animals behind a fence. Although, after hearing how dangerous the hippos are, I began to wish they were also behind a large, thick fence! The reserve has gone to massive efforts to re-introduce wildlife into the Cape region, as well as putting great emphasis on wildlife conservation education. It was freezing sitting in an open jeep, but I really enjoyed the experience.
During my second week of work, one evening I had cocktails by the sea with a colleague; we enjoyed the spectacular views and watched the red sun sink slowly into the ocean. Once the sun had set and the temperature dropped, we enjoyed an amazing Thai meal, with some fresh oysters that were a quarter of the price compared with England.
Friday that week, we enjoyed a drink and another sunset at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront – a recently restored and buzzing area filled with shopping and entertainment for tourists and locals. Named after Queen Victoria and her son Alfred, it is still a working harbour, though I imagine it’s fairly unrecognizable from how it used to look. There are boat cruises, but I didn’t go on one this time.
We enjoyed a stroll around, visiting a local handicraft market and taking some cheesy tourist photos, then had a meal at a South African restaurant that served various kinds of meat. I had a Boerewors, a popular sausage in South African cuisine, based on an older traditional Dutch sausage.
The next day, I picked the most glorious day of my three week trip to do a walking tour of Cape Town. The sun was shining and it was about 24°C; not bad for a mid-winters day. The tour took me and a small group of others around the city to learn about the rich history of many different cultures. We saw the magnificent City Hall, many vintage edifices and art deco buildings, domineering statues and the Company’s Gardens – built in 1652 by Dutch settlers where fruit and vegetables were grown for passing sailors. I even saw a piece of the Berlin wall erected in one street, given to Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. We passed the original Slave Lodge and the esteemed parliamentary buildings, then made our way to the Bo-Kaap area, the original Muslim settlement of Cape Town, famed today for its quaint, colourful houses. No one really knows the reason the houses are so brightly coloured.
At lunch time, a friend picked me up and we took the easy passage to the top of Table Mountain – in the rotating cable car rather than the treacherous and steep walking paths. Granted, even the trip in the cable car was very steep and had me a little nervous, and I’m not even afraid of heights.
The day was absolutely perfect – hardly a breath of wind and clear views for miles. The mountain weather can be very temperamental, often too windy or cloudy to see anything, so I count myself very lucky to have had such a nice day.
At the top there is a restaurant, as well as numerous trails to walk along and observe the impressive display of nature. It sounds silly, but I kind of expected the top of Table Mountain to be just flat rock, so I was pleasantly surprised. The Cape Peninsula has the highest known concentration of plant species. There are only six floral kingdoms in the world, and this area constitutes one kingdom (Fynbos or Cape Floral Kingdom) all on its own – the only one occurring entirely within one country. South Africa actually boasts the third highest level of biodiversity in the world!
That night I went round to my friend’s place for a real South Africa Braai (barbeque) – very popular in the summer months I hear. We enjoyed ostrich steak – famed for lower in calories, cholesterol and fat than other meats – and Springbok sausages. Springbok is almost like venison, so also very lean and healthy.
The next day I did a tour of the Cape Peninsula with my driver. We started at Hout Bay Harbour, an active fishing harbour about 20min drive from Cape Town. Hout translates as ‘wood’ as Dutch settlers described it as one of the most beautiful forests ever seen – which they then chopped down to use as timber. Here I went on a boat out to see the huge numbers of Cape Fur seals on Seal Island. It was incredible how calm the sea in the harbour was, and a mere ten minutes out the seas were a lot rougher with waves crashing over the unfazed seals and terrifying some of the tourists. The majority of seals here are young, restless males who are waiting until they reach breeding age – around 8 to 12 years. It is not a breeding ground here because the waves are so rough that the poor seal pups would be washed away.
From there we drove through Chapman’s Peak Drive, a road cutting into a base of solid granite rock and hugging almost vertical cliffs – it’s known as one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world. We drove past the Misty Cliffs, where mist is always lurking no matter what time of day or year.
We arrived at a very windy Cape Point, where I took the Flying Dutchman Funicular up to the lighthouse, for some spectacular views of sheer cliffs and rugged coast line. It’s not actually the southern-most tip of Africa as a lot of people think, nor is it where the Atlantic meets the Indian ocean, but it is still an incredible sight to see. It is an amazing area for birds and wildlife, and I saw several baboons in the midst of the tourists trying to get a bit of food.
We drove down to the most South-Western Point of the African Continent for a quick photo opportunity. I had to nudge a few tourists and an ostrich out of the way to get this photo!
The final stop was Boulders Beach, a sheltered cove between Simon’s Town and Cape Point. It is world famous for the thriving colony of penguins, and is one of only a couple of mainland based African penguin colonies in the world. Over 2,200 of the little performers were all over the beach, in the sea and nesting slightly more in land. I made a little friend on one of the footpaths.
My final weekend I took it slightly slower. On Saturday I visited the city again and went inside the Slave museum which is housed in the old Slave Lodge – one of the oldest buildings in Cape Town. It provides a detailed account of the long history of slavery in South Africa, creating awareness of human rights issues with detailed exhibitions. After a couple of hours there I met my friends and they took me for a drive around the coast and we did some shopping and had a drink in the trendy harbour town of Kalk Bay.
On Sunday I visited the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, apparently some of the best gardens in the world – beautiful misty grounds that feature numerous varieties of flora from the Cape Floral Kingdom. It covers 528 hectares that blends seamlessly with the side of Table Mountain. Everywhere you go there is a different area with its own unique vegetation – my favourite area was full of dinosaurs and ancient plants called Cycads. They are 340 million years old, the world’s oldest seed plants and older than the dinosaurs, and they are under threat from obsessive collectors. They have twice been stolen from Kirstenbosch.
One of the last things you see when leaving the gardens is the flower named after Nelson Mandela, planted alongside a small statue of him. And this was one of the last things I saw before leaving Cape Town that Sunday. A colourful city with a rich history and friendly people, incredible scenery with a very outdoorsy lifestyle, and delicious food. And still so much to see. I can’t wait to go back!