Captivated by Cape Town

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March 11th 2012
Published: March 11th 2012
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(Don't forget to check out Barbe's last "Overland" blog, posted on Saturday.)

The night we arrived in Cape Town was also our last night with the overland group, and Chris and Lourens, our guide and driver, wanted to do something special. We had gotten up the earliest yet (4:30 am) from our last night of camping near the Namibia border so that we could make the 8-10 hour drive in good time. So maybe we were not all at our best from lack of sleep, but the excitement did start to build as soon as Chris announced, about a hundred km's out, that he could see Table Mountain. There was a lot of affection in his voice, and we slowly learned why Capetonians have such strong feelings about their city. Plus he was finishing almost three months on the road, having guided both a north-bound and a south-bound group from South Africa to Uganda and back.

And the many mountains that make up the greater Cape Town area really are magnificent, when you can see them. The "special" event they had planned was to take us all up the cable car to the top of Table Mountain to see the sun set. It was not until the next day, when the whole top of the city was enshrouded in cloud and fog, that we realised what a rare event this was. The cable car itself is a suitably touristy attraction, with an hour-long line up. You can hike to the top, but you better allow a good half day, and be sure of your weather, because you'll get hopelessly lost if it fogs up. But the wait was well worth it. You get a panoramic view of the entire Atlantic side of the Cape, and particularly of the imposing "Twelve Apostles" looming headland cliffs (there are actually 17, but whose counting?). We could also see Camps Bay very well, the small out-of-the-centre community where we had booked to stay the next 5 nights. I had not realised it was so close to the city-centre, less than a $15 cab ride, and the top of the mountain gave us a good bird's eye orientation to the city.

That night we stayed at the Lady Hamilton hotel, a modest and centrally located spot that was included in our tour. Because we would have to be changing hotels mid-day, we decided not to fill up the next day too much. I really wanted to go to Robben Island, the site of the prison where polical prisoners were kept during the worst of the Apartheid era, nicknamed "The University", not just because of the Poli Sci 101, that many inmates could get from the leaders of the struggle, but because anyone, including guards, could learn to read and write as they never had in South Africa's "separate and unequal" public schools.

You have to allow about 3 hours for the full tour, including the 1/2 hour boat ride to the island from the waterfront. Boats leave at 9, 11, 1 and 3, but it seemed as if the two morning sailings were bought up well in advance by tour groups. We got on at 1 and probably had the warmest sailing of the day. This was after spending the morning wandering the Victoria and Alfred waterfront sightseeing extravaganza. Yes "Alfred" is not an error. Although Queen Victoria was married to Albert, the harbour is named for her 2nd son Alfred. Otherwise the whole thing was quite a culture shocking fiesta of spending that was in sharp contrast to most of what we have seen throughout Africa. Dar, Nairobi and Lusaka are bigger cities, but none of them compares to the economic activity going on in what is the cultural capital of South Africa.

Once at the island you board a bus to take a very knowledgeably guided tour of the island and the infrastructure needed to guard a few hundred freedom fighters, including two churches for the guards (whose ministers no doubt also served the inmates), a whole town for the staff, and military installations that guarded the entire city during WWII. (With the Germans occupying the Suez Canal, Cape of Good Hope regained some of its former status as a route to the east.) Tours of the cell blocks themselves were guided by former political prisoners, who clearly still have the passion for politics.

That night we moved to our accommodations in Camps Bay, and felt we really could relax. The Bloomberg is a set of 9 "self-catering" apartments, with a pool overlooking the ocean (well ok, we had to look over the Camps Bay police station, but we were on the 3rd level over a bungalow station, and who could ask for better security). About a km of the strip is full of bars and restaurants that really start hopping about an hour before sunset, and after Tuesday it was hard to find a seat at that hour. There was a supermarket, so we could cook ourselves, but after 3 weeks of camping food, who wants to? The beach is also beautiful, but few people go in the water (or not without a wetsuit), because of the cold, and because the surf really is treacherous. But Camps Bay has a "tidal pool", with salt water and blocked from the waves by a concrete wall (but also apparently low maintenance self-cleaning), which we discovered is popular all over South Africa's coast. We spent a lazy day just hanging out there on Wednesday.

Camps Bay is also close enough to the city centre to be featured on both the red and blue lines of Cape Town's other tourist marvel, the "Hop-on Hop-off Bus". For about $10 a day you get unlimited access to two routes taking in the best historical and natural sites of the city. Red is more central, while Blue gets you a little further afield. More cities should be doing this. Especially for the Red route, I would not want to be worrying about parking a car, but it can also get tiring to walk so far. On the red line we got to some craft markets areas, to the train station to get our ticket for the end of the month, and to the District Six Museum. This exhibition, housed in an old church, commemorates an entire neighbourhood that was moved and bulldozed to conform to Apartheid's new separate housing poliocies of the 60's. The neighbourhood had previously accommodated lower income people of all races, including many politially active East Indians, "coloured" people, and black Africans. One wonders whether it was more their political activism than their race that motivated the move. For those of living in Halifax and hearing about the edvents of Africville, the displays in this museum were eerily similar, right down to the very active movement for rehabilitation and restitution. We also walked around the "Bo-Kaap" neighborhood where the city's very old but still active Malay (read Muslim) community resides. We heard the evenig call to prayers from a couple of small but colourful mosques dating to the 1800's.

On the Blue line the next day we headed for the city's famed botanical gardens. Kirstenbosch is a microcosm of the entire Cape ecosystem, where there are more native plant species than in all the British isles combined. Unfortunately it was too hot that day for a very leisurely stroll. Next we went to "Groot Constancia", the oldest wine making region in all of South Africa, with vinyards dating to the the 17th century. And all in the eastern shadow of Table Mountain. Did I mention that the wines of South Africa are amazing, cheap (often less than $2 a glass in a restaurant), and that we've been drinking them since Kigali? Then we visited a bird sanctuary that houses, in aviaries, many injured specimens from all over the Cape - and a few from both South America and Asia that are really far from home! Then the bus ride back to Camps Bay took us along the Atlantic shore from Hout's Bay. One of the remarkable features of this drive, which has many steep inclines, is the number of cyclists that take advantage. We were really impressed with how fit, energetic and adventurous many of the Cape residents are. Living in Halifax has made me too afraid of the
Lime Quarry on Robben IslandLime Quarry on Robben IslandLime Quarry on Robben Island

Where Political Prisoners Were Forced To Work, and "University" Met
traffic for any serious cycling. But most of these roads had good wide paved shoulders.

On our last full day in the Cape Town area we picked up our rental car and headed for Cape of Good Hope, about 60 km's from the city proper. Again a beautiful drive full of ocean and mountain vistas. And of course one cannot help but be inspired by the historical and natural wonder that is the meeting of the two great oceans - Atlantic and Indian. This is not the southern-most point in Africa (more about that in a future blog), but is traditionally and in people's imagination this is the turning point at the bottom of the continent. And the wildlife apparently know it too, with th cold water species of the Atlantic giving way, gradually, to the warm water ones of the Indian. We were back in Camps Bay for the sunset on our last night, with fittingly a light "table cloth" of cloud over the mountain, and a "mushroom cap" over signal hill.


Additional photos below
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Nelson Mandela's CellNelson Mandela's Cell
Nelson Mandela's Cell

No Bed, Only a Pile of Blankets, for Many Years

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