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Trip Report: Madikwe, Garden Route, Cape Town, Vic Falls (Part 4: Cape Town)

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Sun 27 Nov: Franschhoek-Cape Town

Today we were visiting the Cape Peninsula en route to Cape Town. The road now followed the coast on the other side of False Bay to the way we had come from Hermanus. We passed through some sort of Sunday market in Muizenberg which seemed to be attracting hordes of locals looking to pick up a bargain or just to enjoy the wide sandy beaches. We continued onto Kalk Bay though, a relaxed seaside town full of cafes and curio shops. This was a fishing town before it was “gentrified” by Cape Town locals wanting to get out of town for the weekend and there is still an active harbour. We saw fishermen unloading their catches, closely watched by a couple of seals. I found much amusement in my wife’s disgust at the children who were enjoying feeding the seals and then wiping their hands on their T shirts. We also had the tastiest tuna mayonnaise sandwiches I have ever eaten, from a small café which adjoined an antique shop. I can never have one of these back home now that I have tasted the ultimate!

We moved on from here to Boulder Beach to see the penguin colony that had settled here 20 years ago. They were enjoying the sun, lying back on the rocks and going for a dip when it got too much, not too different from the weekend sunbathers there in fact! They really are quite strange looking creatures and seeing hundreds of them standing there on the beach, facing the camera-flashing tourists, it was almost funny. Even funnier was the hordes of Chinese tourists who would stream off their coaches, descend down to the penguins and take it in turns to have their photo taken, before disappearing again to the next location. Often it meant a queue would build up behind them until space was freed up for someone else to squeeze in. Being Chinese ourselves we were keen to avoid people associating us with these groups so often we would let them get on with it whilst giving looks of sympathy to other tourists waiting!

We continued round into the Cape Peninsula National Park and followed the single road towards Cape Point. It was quite amazing driving through such an empty landscape, with open sea on both sides. We parked up at the bottom of the hill and followed the crowds up the steps towards the old lighthouse. This was the used until the new one was built lower down the cliffs around 1919, simply because quite often sea mist would roll in and shroud the lighthouse completely. There are many shipwrecks in this area as a testament to that. However the views from the top are stunning, allowing you to see for miles in all directions on a clear day. You really do feel you are at the end of the continent, at the meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (even though it is not the most southerly point, that is Cape Agulhas). Our arrival at the top was only spoilt by finding the Chinese tourists there again, this time taking it in turns to be pictured next to the signpost showing distances to major cities!

After getting our fill of the view, we followed the path round to the newer lighthouse. That this path was built at all is amazing as it is literally along the cliffside, giving magnificent views across the bay (and headaches for anyone suffering from vertigo). The newer lighthouse is the most powerful one on the South African coast and even though we were looking down on it, it still stands 87m above sea level on Dias Point. At least here we had a bit of peace and quiet to enjoy the scenery!

It was getting to late afternoon and so to enjoy the setting sun we made our way back down and started driving along the Atlantic coast. We passed through many small villages perched on the mountainside with towering backdrops all making for some great postcard photos. There are many beaches on this side as well which are perfect for kitesurfing such are the strong winds blowing inland. The highlight though was Chapmans Peak Drive that had recently reopened. This road follows the coastline but is carved out of the sheer cliffs, in some cases actually being cut through the rocks (so that you go through an underhang). It gets really windy here though, as we found out when we stopped at the top. The car was literally shaking from side to side as it was buffeted by the wind, pity those who bring their maps or hats out with them! We stopped off at the Twelve Apostles for photos and could see the spray being blown off the waves, as though the water was smoking! It is a wonderful way to see the sunset and possibly the best way to arrive into Cape Town. We saw picnickers at the top of Kloof Nek Road and agreed it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday evening, with not a thought about work the next morning.

We arrived at the Cape Cadogan Hotel at the top of Kloof St and were wowed by the décor inside. It is a boutique hotel in a Georgian building and inside it is very contemporary but with touches of originality. All the rooms are different and ours had a garden courtyard with views of Table Mountain. After Etali, it was the most luxurious and extravagant place we stayed in and we loved every minute of it. The service cannot be faulted either, we were regularly asked if we wanted drinks or if they needed to help with reservations.

We decided to try seafood from a different angle and went to Tank for dinner. This Japanese restaurant is located inside a courtyard full of other good looking places to eat and frequented by an equally hip crowd. We were shown to our table by one of the many attractive waiting staff and admired the modern setting that would not look out of place in New York or London. The food was equally outstanding and, again, surprisingly cheap. If this was supposed to be the best Japanese restaurant in Cape Town (according to the guide books) then we could happily eat here every night! Maybe it didn’t have the variety of other places we have been to but what it had it did extremely well. I could see we were going to enjoy Cape Town already.

28 Nov – 2 Dec: Cape Town

Having heard warnings about the changeable weather at the top of Table Mountain, we decided on our first day to go up there whilst it was clear. It’s so difficult to not feel it’s presence when you are in Cape Town, it’s the unmissable point of reference wherever you are in the city. And it’s size is a lot more impressive than I expected, completely dominating the city skyline. We never got tired of seeing it and could understand what the locals meant when they told us they miss it whenever they are out of town.

However we were taking a more unconventional route to the top. I enjoy mountain walks and I managed to persuade my wife that there wasn’t any better place to do one than here. Not only that but we were heading for the “back” route from Kirstenbosch Gardens. We picked up a map from there and entered the Gardens. These are a major attraction with their varied fauna and prime position at the foot of Table Mountain. It seemed there were many older people who enjoyed coming here for nothing more than a gentle stroll and a cream tea. However we made our way towards the back and the start of the climb up Skeleton Gorge.

The slopes are covered with tall trees and the start of our walk was through a canopy of greenery. Slowly this started to get steeper although there were steps built into the ground to ease the path. The sun was out but the trees provided a cool shade for us. Eventually we started to come across rocks that got larger and larger, some of which we had to climb over. Our progress slowed and we then reached a series of wide wooden ladders where the rocks were too large and steep to climb over. This was quite good fun and added to the sense of adventure. We could also see we were rising higher as we could glimpse the distant buildings down below. Eventually we broke through the canopy of trees and the path levelled out once more. My wife was getting tired so I told her to turn around and take a look. The view was breathtaking from up here and we could see the expanse for many miles across Cape Flats, across to the mountains on the other side. In the foreground was Kirstenbosch but by now it was a tiny speck. Framed by the mountain, it was a view entirely worth climbing up here for. The guide book had said this side was the more spectacular climb and I have to wholeheartedly agree. My wife took it all in and completely forgot her tiredness as a look of amazement spread across her face – what a relief!

We reached an innocuous looking round brick table with a map on it and realised we had reached the top of the trail. From here there are further signposted walks spreading out all over Table Mountain, taking anything from 1 hour to 5 hours. Ideally we would have gone on across to the cable car station at the front of the mountain but as our car was still in Kirstenbosch we had to go back down, this time along the innocent sounding Nursery Ravine. As we made our way across to the start of this we met another couple who were doing the reverse trek to us. As we chatted I casually asked whether it was an easy walk back down compared to Skeleton Gorge. Unfortunately he told us that it was not much easier – my wife’s face dropped on hearing this! We soon discovered he was right and if anything it was probably harder since there were far more rocks and it felt much steeper as it was exposed to the sun. Making up for it was the magnificent views down below, including the large reservoir next to Kirstenbosch that was glowing a vibrant blue. It was by this landmark that we measured our progress down and as it steadily grew from the size of a puddle into a lake we were looking forward to a well earned drink back at the Gardens café.

Eventually after much struggling and tentative stepping we emerged into the lush greenery of Kirstenbosch again, 5 hours after setting off. Looking back up it was incredible that we had climbed up and down the mountain that now faced us, especially as we could see the route we had taken. We took a few photos for posterity, and I certainly felt it was one of the highlights for me on the trip, something unique and exhilarating to have done. I would recommend it highly to anyone wanting to see a different, less travelled side to Table Mountain (we only saw 7 people in those 5 hours!) but be prepared for it as it can be quite difficult at times. I can’t wait to return to do the other walks along the top!

The next day we went for something more relaxing – Robben Island and the V&A waterfront. After the solitude of Table Mountain the hustle and bustle of the waterfront was a different experience. It is spread out over a large area, linked by pathways that cross and re-cross the waterways so that just wandering around is a pleasure. Yachts were also on the move, giving the place a real vibrancy. There are enough shops here to please the most picky gift-buyer, mixed in with plenty of outdoor performers to keep the kids and shop-weary tourists entertained. Added to the feeling of security (there are CCTVs all around so activity continues on well into the night) and you can understand why it is a main attraction, even if it is slightly diluted from the real Cape Town.

Special mention here for the aquarium, which was packed with schoolkids when we went but has to be the best one I have been to. The variety of marine life inside was amazing and I enjoyed watching them as much as the kids did! Everything was well organized and each tank had interesting life inside, from the tiny seahorses to the giant crabs. The seal feeding was also amusing, seeing them queue up for fish and squid, whilst also performing tricks as thanks. I didn’t partake of the chance to swim with the sharks though… A nice bonus was they allow unlimited entry for the day (they stamp your hand), so you can go out and have lunch then return in the evening if you haven’t seen everything yet.

We caught the ferry out to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela has imprisoned for 28 years from 1964-82, along with other prominent figures in South African history, such as Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan African Congress and outspoken opponent of apartheid. Arriving at the harbour is a sobering experience, especially when you see the large blown up pictures of what it used to be like there. The guided tour takes you around the island and you learn about how it has been in use as a place of exile for almost 400 years. This is followed by a visit to the prison itself, led by a former inmate and culminating in seeing the tiny cell where Mandela spent all of his time here. It is a moving experience and one which brings living in SA into perspective.

That evening we went to the Africa Café for dinner, a touristy place but an unmissable chance to try out cuisine from all over Africa. They have differently themed rooms and we were in the Egyptian room, complete with hieroglyphic painted walls. Our waitress explained that we would be given a range of small dishes to try and then we can choose which ones we want to have more of. Little did we know how much we would get – she must have brought out at least 15 dishes from as far north as Morocco and Egypt, through Congo and Ethiopia, down to Mozambique and South Africa. Each one was delicately tasting and there were quite a few we wanted to have more of. Unfortunately we had no room left in our stomachs from trying out all of the dishes! He evening ended with all the staff getting together and singing traditional songs for us as they went from room to room. Their voices sounded beautiful and worked together harmoniously in a way us Westerners can never really recreate (the closest I can think of is maybe a barber shop quartet!). I do envy the natural musical tradition in Africa, an art which is increasingly lost in the Western world.

We wanted to see more of the real Cape Town so the next day we booked a guided tour of Bo-Kaap. This has a rich, and at times sad, history but it is one of the few areas which still retains a strong sense of community and pride in its past. We met our guide at the Bo-Kaap museum and firstly she gave us a talk on the history of Cape Town. It was fascinating to learn all about how things have changed, in particular the many different influences from the Khoi and San people originally, to the Dutch, Malay and Indian, and eventually the English. This is most evident in the buildings in the area but also in the cuisine and language. The museum itself is in one of the oldest houses in Cape Town. Next we went out into the surrounding area, renown for the steep and narrow streets and colourfully painted houses. The area is now predominantly Muslim and there is a real sense of everyone looking after each other. Our guide seemed to know everyone we came across, young and old, and we really enjoyed the one big family atmosphere around here. This even extends to neighbours co-ordinating the colour of their houses to complement the rest of the street, hence the wonderfully vibrant pastel shades that will be familiar from guide book photos. She also bought some Cape Malay snacks for us to try and these were so tasty we went back for lunch after the tour (at the famous Biesmiellah). The tour gave us a really good background to what life used to be like here and we learnt more about South Africa in those 2 hours than we had in the 10 days before! Again highly recommended for educational value and also for meeting locals whom you may not come across otherwise. Our guide was also excellent and answered all our questions, a great advert for the tourism industry.

We took the opportunity to see Greenmarket Square, which is filled with market stalls and has a liveliness about it. It was nice to wander around here seeing the many arts and crafts, some locally produced and others from further afield. I met one guy from Kenya who was surprised and pleased when I told him I had been there before and we chatted about places I knew there. There was a real warmth and friendliness from the stallholders, something I had not expected having been to similar places in Asia and South America, and even in North Africa. There was no pressure to buy, in fact most stallholders seemed too laid back! We also visited the Pan African Market, several floors offering African curios, paintings, clothes and leather goods. There were so many corners and small rooms, there was always something more to see. However many had the same sort of items, some of higher quality than others. This probably lacked the charm of Greenmarket Square but certainly provided plenty of choice.

As the clouds were clearing we decided we had to go up Table Mountain one more time by the more conventional method. The cable car is surprisingly quick but the best thing is it revolves so that everyone gets to see the views below. We emerged at the top to far ranging views both to the North, with Robben Island in the distance, and to the east where the sun was setting. There are short walks around here but we had had our fill from our previous climb. Instead we took plenty of photos, each time finding a slightly different view which deserved another photo. From here we could also see clearly Lions Head and Kloof Nek below. Our visit was only interrupted by another group of Chinese tourists’ photo-taking, seemingly something we couldn’t get away from in Cape Town! Interestingly the cable car was being opened until 10pm from the next day, allowing sunset picnics in the most splendid surroundings. Another one to add to the list for next time…

We were moving over from the City Bowl to Bantry Bay today, this time staying at the Avanti Guesthouse. On arrival we were greeted by Maria who gave us the biggest welcoming hug and congratulated us on our marriage. Along with Johan they run this small guesthouse with a really friendly manner, making us feel more like visitors in their home rather than tourists (which we were in a way as they also live there). We had many long chats with them over breakfast about all sorts of things and couldn’t get enough of their hospitality. We will definitely also be sending them some wedding photos for their guest book!

After the hectic schedule we had been following, now was the time to relax and we spent the next day at the beach. We walked round to Clifton beach and found a nice spot on this sheltered part of the coast. For the rest of the day we read, slept and people watched, interspersed by the occasional retreat backwards as the tide came in. We later realised that it was easy to spot the locals from the tourists, as they were the ones who had set up near the wall at the back of the beach as soon as they arrived! The water was icy cold since this was the Atlantic coast but a few brave souls tried it out (tourists again I imagine!) Later on we walked down to Camps Bay and joined the locals at one of the beachside bars and to do more people watching. We needed the rest after all the activities we had done.

We returned to the waterfront for dinner, but with no restaurant in mind we more or less stumbled across Baia and although it was packed we managed to get a table. I had read the recommendations for this being the best seafood restaurant and we were not disappointed. This had the freshest, tastiest fish and the largest portions in the whole of our trip, and that is saying something! I had the seafood platter of prawns, langoustines and crayfish and my wife had the sole in breadcrumbs. There was some confusion when ordering as the waitress insisted that the small portion (1 sole) was too small and she thought that we should go for the double portion. However when it arrived it was huge so we could only conclude that Capetonians have big appetites when it comes to seafood! My langoustines were sublime, the juiciest and largest I have seen, while the crayfish was really meaty and fresh. The prawns were huge as well and normally I would have been pleased just to have got those, but the other 2 really shone out for me. Yet again we were amazed when the bill arrived as we had no idea of the prices - it was half of London prices yet the food was more than twice as good. I was so stuffed after that meal that I couldn’t face any more seafood for quite a few days after. Being a big fan of seafood and always trying it out on holiday, I can honestly say Baia is my new no.1 and I don’t expect it to be beaten for a while.

So we ended 6 days in Cape Town on a real high. Although it is actually quite compact and you can see all the sights in a few days, there is so much to do (or not do if you just want to relax). We found that Cape Town has a real personality to it, not just the people but everything about it makes it a unique place. You know when you are there and you don’t want to leave. This is itself is quite an achievement when there is something as imposing as Table Mountain towering over the city but as the locals prefer to think of it, Table Mountain is very much part of what it means to be in Cape Town. Appropriately enough, this being Africa where there are so many symbiotic relationships in nature, the city and the mountain also draw on each others strengths to create a unique experience for tourists and locals alike. Maybe this is the reason the city has developed with such confidence and diversity, ensuring it continually has something new to offer, both for first time visitors and returnees.

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    Thanks so much for this chapter of your report! It's bringing back many memories of our time in the area last year.

    We had a similar experience at Boulder's Beach but were overrun by a single very large group of Japanese tourists. The group were quite raucous and seemed completely unaware of the presence (and possible needs) of other visitors so we waited patiently until they moved on before we really relaxed and enjoyed the experience.

    I'm very impressed by your hike up and down Table Mountain. I simply don't have the fitness required to do this but I can imagine it must have been amazing. My sister, who visited just a month or two before us, opted to abseil down the side of the mountain. She loved it but I don't think it would suit me at all!

    Glad to hear you enjoyed Baia - I'm one of many voices who have recommended it and it's nice to hear the quality remains consistently high.

    You managed to include some experiences we simply didn't have time for (we tend not to squeeze much in during a day as I have low stamina and we travel in a rather slow, ponderous style) and your report gives me food for thought for our next visit to Cape Town, whenever that might be.

    Thanks again!

    Kavey (just about to move on to Chapter 5)

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