Visiting Cape Town, South Africa
By Diane MacEachern on March 09, 2012
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Cape Town, South Africa might not be the first place you’d think of for a holiday break, but it was almost the end of winter here on the cold and dark East Coast and my kids were facing a long vacation from school and work. Why not cash in our frequent flyer miles and head to the Southern Hemisphere? We all needed a drastic change of scenery.
Ninety thousand miles-per-ticket later, we found ourselves arriving in the South African “hotspot” to a morning of drizzle and fog. We’d endured two overnight flights and a lot of really bad airplane food. We wanted sun and heat, not clouds and cold. It wasn’t a good sign when the driver our hotel sent to claim us was a half-hour late and then showed up in a taxi that was so small, we practically had to sit on our luggage. Nevertheless, we all piled in to the car and drove for what locals call “The Mother City.”
We headed to the Ashanti Lodge, the place that was to be our home for the next seven nights. I’d had a hard time choosing accommodations for this trip. Should I stay in the City Center, close to the museums? At the Victoria and Alfred waterfront, with access to restaurants and shops? Or on the beach, where beautiful ocean views were the main attraction?
In the end, I opted for the centrally located Ashanti. Not only was it close to cultural attractions, but it was right in the shadow of the spectacular Table Mountain, a 3,500 foot high plateau that is Cape Town’s iconic symbol. Plus, the Ashanti was much cheaper compared to other locations. Part of the Ashanti is a youth hostel, so you can really go low-budget if you opt for a dorm-type room. For around $100US per night, we stayed in the lodge, where my daughter and I shared one large room with twin beds and a private bath, and my son had his own room and bath. The Lodge was also one block from a large grocery store and had a fully equipped kitchen, so that was handy.
I the rental car option since I couldn’t really see myself driving on the opposite side of the road and living to tell about it. Fortunately, between the extensive taxi system and the hop on/hop off double-decker tourist buses, it’s both easy and cheap to get around.
Our first full day in Cape Town, we walked two blocks down from the Ashanti, and hopped on the Red Bus for a city tour. We headed to the top level, slathered on some sun block, then plugged in the headsets we’d been given when we boarded so we could hear the interesting travelogue as the bus wended its way around various city sights.
We learned that 60,000 people had been forcibly removed from the “District 6” area when the townships were created during the apartheid era; I later saw many photographs and artifacts from those destroyed communities in the inspiring District 6 Museum. We passed the church where Nobel Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached about peace, brotherhood, and reconciliation.
We stopped outside the Castle of Good Hope, built by the Dutch in 1666 and now the country’s military seat. We marveled at the colorful Dutch and Victorian English architecture that graces Cape Town’s streets and reflects its colonial heritage, and watched business men and women dressed in suits and carrying briefcases mingle with shoppers wearing boldly printed dresses and shirts and balancing baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads.
Cape Town is set amidst clusters of imposing mountains that weave in and out along the Atlantic coast. We started oohing and aahing when our bus rounded a mountainous curve and headed down towards the beach. Ten minutes later, we hopped off the bus to stroll along a sun-drenched street lined with cafes and shops. With wide smiles and hungry stomachs, we sat down at a wonderful little restaurant directly overlooking the coastline. Cape Town is known for its delicious seafood, and we indulged, enjoying scrumptious shrimp salads and big tumblers of sparkling water along with the gorgeous views. After a little shopping, we hopped back on the bus when it came around again, and made our way back to the Ashanti.
The next day, we joined an adventure tour to the Cape of Good Hope. Our tour drivers picked us up at our lodge in a van already filled with other excitement seekers and pulling a trailer-full of bicycles we’d use when we got closer to our desination. The Cape of Good Hope is only about an hour and a half away from Cape Town if you drive straight through. We made a couple of very worthwhile stops instead. The first was at Simon’s Town, where we boarded a boat so we could get ride into the Atlantic and get close to huge boulders that provide places for thousands of seals to warm up in the sun before they slide off into the frigid waters again. Our next stop was Boulders Beach and the site of the largest colony of penguins outside Antarctica. We were captivated by the three-foot-tall tuxedoed creatures, who did not seem at all perturbed by the wildly enthusiastic tourists taking their pictures.
After a filling lunch of sandwiches, salads, cookies and drinks, we hopped on the bikes the guides brought for us and began pedaling towards the Cape of Good Hope. The bikes were a bit rickety – I don’t know of anyone whose gears worked. No matter. By and large, it was a flat road – we just had to remember to pedal on the opposite side, just like the drivers.
It was only a six or seven mile journey. I would have been able to cover the distance quite quickly if not for the ostriches I passed along the way. In my neighborhood in Maryland, it’s exotic to see a deer on the local bike path. Here, it was ostriches! Our guide said he thought he also saw zebra in the distance – I guess his eyes were better than mine, because I couldn’t see them and neither could my kids.
Upon arriving at the actual Cape of Good Hope, we climbed up a dustry rock face to gaze out over the awe-inspiring southern Atlantic. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed across the horizon here more than five hundred years ago in his search for treasures to return to his king. As I looked out into the distance, I could almost imagine the white sails of his flotilla billowing across the sky.
Throughout the week, the adventures kept coming. We were totally unprepared for our hike up Lion’s Head, a rocky promontory overlooking Cape Town beach. From the base of the trail, we all thought we were in for a leisurely stroll. Twenty minutes in, we realized that we were making an almost vertical climb. We didn’t have nearly enough water with us, and only a couple of apples to replenish our energy. Fortunately, we were hiking with some students from Germany who generously shared their water. It took us three hours to ascend and descend again, though we were really none the worse for the experience. We didn’t realize how treacherous the trail was until a few days later, when we read that another hiker had slipped off the trail, fallen a hundred and fifty feet, and needed to be rescued by helicopter.
It was much easier going when we took the tram to the top of Table Mountain. It was almost sunset, and clouds from behind the mountain were rolling across the ground, swirling around our feet and spilling into the canyon below before spreading out to cover the city in a soft, almost snowy blanket. The three of us stood at the look-out points, arms around each other, laughing and loving our good fortune.
Our last day in Cape Town, we boarded a boat to visit Robbin Island. Robbin Island is where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for sixteen years as a result of his efforts to fight South Africa’s discriminatory racist policies. I wanted to see the place that had not broken the man, but in fact empowered the entire anti-apartheid movement, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Upon our arrival at the Robbin Island dock, we boarded a tour bus so we could get around the island easily and hear some of its history as we went. The place is a bit like Alcatraz - foreboding yet utterly beautiful.
The tour guide - a former prisoner - took us to Mandela’s actual cell, a small cement block that still holds the three blankets that Mandela and all the prisoners used in place of a bed. We marveled at the story of how he wrote his autobiography, then made two copies. The prison guards found the one he'd hidden in the yard where he and other inmates were allowed an occasional recreational break. The other was smuggled out of the prison and into the hands of a publisher, who eventually put his calls for justice into the hands of thousands of people.
Despite a full week of exploring the city, we all felt like we'd just scratched the surface. I explored the exquisite Kirstenbosch Gardens for two hours, but could have spent an entire day. We didn't have time to get out to any of the vineyards, to go on a real safari, or to hang out at the clubs on Long Street, one of Cape Town's most swinging scenes. The kids wanted to go sky diving - fortunately for this mom, those excursions were completely booked up the week we were there. When we boarded the plane for our trip home, we all came to the same conclusion:
We'll just have to go back.
(All images taken by Diane MacEachern.)
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