Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Highlights of Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town has long ranked high among the cities I wanted to spend time in and, after a week exploring it and its environs in early 2019, my judgment was proven to be strong.

While a future article will deal with sites and sights within a few hours drive of Cape Town, here I’ll focus on the things I enjoyed most in what’s known within the country as the “Mother City” owing to its status of being South Africa’s oldest.

Table Mountain

I had a free ticket for the CitySightSeeing hop-on, hop-off bus that I took through the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront through the heart of Cape Town. It gave me perspective on distances and an idea of what I wanted to return to later on foot.

The bus eventually let me off at the base of Cape Town’s most famous landmark: Table Mountain. The lineup to get into the cable car to take you to the top of the mountain took more than an hour before the five-minute ride to the summit, but the cost was included in my package. There are different hiking routes to the top of Table Mountain, and I would have preferred that method of ascension, but unfortunately time didn’t permit it.

There were great views of Cape Town, the ocean and the surrounding landscape all around the perimeter of Table Mountain. I climbed part of the way down and then back up Platteklip Gorge before continuing my walk for another 1.7 kilometres to the far end of the mountain and Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain at 1,086 metres. I was alone for much of the walk, which was nice since I hate being around crowds while soaking in nature.

I spent two hours exploring what I could and got in line to go back down in the cable car at 4:30 p.m. It was a process that took 105 minutes due to all of the people sharing that same goal. I had a 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation, which I obviously wasn’t going to make if I took the hop-on, hop-off bus back into the city. Luckily I met a British couple who agreed to split a taxi with me back to Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Karibu Restaurant

I was late for my reservation, but the restaurant thankfully held a balcony table for me, as this was one of the most interesting meals I had during my more than two weeks in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Dinner started with a biltong salad, featuring slivers of cured meat with lettuce, plum tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pumpkin seeds and peppers topped with a piquant dressing. That was followed by a side order of potatoes as part of a massive main course meat platter featuring ostrich, warthog, kudu, venison, springbok and impala, washed down with a couple of Windhoek Draughts. I hadn’t eaten most of those animals before, and I was impressed with almost all of them.

Robben Island

Robben Island, located 6.9 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, was used to isolate political prisoners, criminals and lepers from the late 17th century until its use as a prison came to an end in 1996. It’s most famous for holding former South African president Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

A 30-minute ferry ride from Nelson Mandela Gateway on Cape Town’s waterfront and over somewhat rough seas took us to Murray’s Bay Harbour on the east coast of Robben Island. A short walk took us to buses, from where we could see a variety of sites, before a former inmate took us on a walking tour of the prison.

Our guide told us moving stories of his years as a political prisoner at Robben Island that put a lump to my throat. It’s one thing to visit a historical place, it’s another to be able to chat with someone who has experienced that history.

It was an emotional 2.5 hours taking everything in before it was time to take the ferry back to the mainland. It’s no surprise that Robben Island has become a very popular attraction, and you’re advised to buy tickets well in advance to ensure you don’t miss the opportunity to take it in.

District Six and Langa Township

A local guide named Nelson from Camissa Travel & Marketing met me at a restaurant near my accommodations at Burgundy Apartments and drove his van to Cape Town’s District Six neighbourhood, which was once home to 60,000 people and is now barren due to the forcible evacuations of its former residents during the apartheid era in the 1970s. The former multi-ethnic area plays an important part in the history of Cape Town and apartheid, and Nelson effectively related its role. District Six was named a national historic area in 1996.

We drove on to Langa Township, a 487-hectare suburb of Cape Town that was established in 1927 and is now home to 80,000 people. Langa, which translates from the native Xhosa language into English as “sunshine,” was an area designated for Black Africans even before apartheid and is the oldest such suburb in Cape Town.

A young Langa resident named Simo took me on a walking tour of the area that included a visit to his ramshackle apartment that he shares with several other people. He told me of life in Langa and how he’s hoping to earn enough money from working as a guide to pursue further education. Simo pointed out local businesses, schools and customs during our walk, which ended at a memorial that was unveiled by the government in 2010 to honour those who lost their lives opposing apartheid. Nearby were apartment buildings with colourful murals covering full walls.

The visit to Langa ended with a lovely lunch in the home of Akila, a professional chef who quit her job to look after her mother and daughter and now earns money by hosting visitors in her home. She made a large meal that included a garden salad, a Thai pasta salad, butternut squash, chicken stuffed with cheese and spinach, roasted potatoes and, for dessert, a pavlova with strawberries and blueberries. It was as good as anything I ate in high-end restaurants in and around Cape Town.

A walk around Cape Town

I was able to cover quite a bit of ground (and fit in several beers during two pub visits) during an afternoon walk around the city of approximately 450,000 people that covered:

the very picturesque Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the most heavily touristed area of the city, with a variety of shops, craft markets, restaurants and attractions; 
the Canal District;
Grand Parade and City Hall, which features a life-size statue of Nelson Mandela waving from a balcony;
St. George’s Cathedral;
Houses of Parliament and the neighbouring The Company’s Gardens;
The South African Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust Centre;
the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of brightly coloured houses;
and Long Street, which features a number of lovely vintage buildings housing a variety of restaurants, bars and stores.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Canal District
City Hall
Long Street
 World of Birds

The largest bird park in Africa is in the Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay. It features more than 3,000 birds and small animals of 400 different species over four hectares in more than 100 walk-through aviaries. It wasn’t difficult to spend an hour observing the beautiful birds as they flew and walked around the grounds.

Two Oceans Aquarium

This aquarium is dedicated more to education than entertainment — with no performing dolphins, seals or whales — and is more aimed at children than adults. I’ve been to bigger and better aquariums, but this one had enough interesting things to hold my attention for an hour.