A New Year’s resolution I intended to keep was travelling to a new continent. Africa seemed daunting, but I gathered that South Africa – Cape Town, in particular – was unlike the rest of the continent. As the plane descended on South Africa’s oldest city, my eyes gravitated toward a massive, distinctly flat-topped mountain in the distance. It was Table Mountain, welcoming me to the Mother City.
Mother City, as Cape Town is affectionately nicknamed, is divided geographically by Table Mountain. Upon landing, my friend and I hailed a cab to get to our vacation rental in the Atlantic Seaboard side, where hills and beaches overlook the Atlantic Ocean. Our home for the next week was in Green Point, right by the colossal Cape Town Stadium built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. We dropped off our bags and walked towards the water.
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront was the prettiest working harbour I had ever seen. A pedestrian swing bridge, a ferris wheel, an abundance of restaurants and shops and the diversity of people had me feeling I could be anywhere in the world, but towering Table Mountain reminded me otherwise.
Getting around Cape Town is easy and economical with Uber, considering US$1 is worth about 14 South African rand (RM4.2). We made our way southward to the affluent suburb of Clifton, which has white sand beaches named 1st through 4th and separated by falls of granite boulders.
Strolling further south we arrived at Camps Bay, Clifton’s equally chic but more social sister. As the setting sun basked the roughly dozen-peaked Twelve Apostles mountain range in a pinkish hue, the restaurants and bars came alive. We had big plans the next morning and tried not to stay out too late – but Cape Town was irresistible.
By the time we got to the foot of Table Mountain it was late morning, and too warm on the February summer day to sell ourselves on hiking. Fortunately it’s impossible for the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway to be a bad choice – the cable cars transport visitors to more than a thousand meters above sea level while the floor rotates, providing 360° views of the new seventh wonder of nature.
Our half day plan turned into almost a full day. One side of the flat but uneven summit hovers over the Twelve Apostles and False Bay; another over Table Bay and the iconic peak of Lion’s Head mountain between the seaboard and City Bowl side we had yet to explore.
“Two tectonic plates collided, created a huge explosion and rocks came up from the ocean. It’s God’s creation, ” Table Mountain tour guide Antonio Fortune said. “It’s a place to come clear your mind.”
Back down, we ventured around the mountain-bordered City Bowl. With the central business district, Long Street nightlife destination and Bo-Kaap, a former township with brightly coloured cottages, the bowl is the urban and bustling counterpart to Mother City’s leisurely seaboard.
With the thought of Africa comes the thought of a safari. The closest one with the “Big Five” game animals – lions, leopards, elephants, black rhinoceroses and Cape buffalo – is a ways from Cape Town, and South Africa isn’t known for safaris compared to other African nations, so we opted for a different kind of safari.
Among the more than 100 wineries rooted east of Cape Town in Stellenbosch and the Cape Winelands is Waterford Estate, which offers a unique wine safari. We boarded an open-air jeep and our guide, Devon Anderson, drove us to the vines.
“Do you have the Big Five here?” I joked.
“Leopards only, ” Anderson said, stopping to pick up something less rare – porcupine needles.
We paused for wine tastings with the perfect pairings
For all its beauty, Cape Town can’t, and won’t, hide some of its ugly past.
From the manicured V&A Waterfront, ferries whisk visitors away to the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years before becoming South Africa’s first black president and fighting to dismantle the institutionalised racial segregation of apartheid.
Upon docking, all visitors were filed into buses and transported through an entrance that reads, “Welcome. We serve with pride.” Inside, ex-political prisoner Ntando Mbatha greeted us.
“Want to go to jail?” Mbatha, 59, said. “Must be brave. Please follow me.”
Mbatha ushered us into a barbed wire-lined building.
“Look around. There are five towers, heavily armed. Double fence, ” he said. “Another measure of making a point that prisoners do not escape, do not swim to Cape Town.”
Prisoners were dehumanised, reduced from a name to a prison number, Mbatha said. In a room with bunks, Mbatha explained that he was detained at age 24 for struggling against apartheid and served his sentence after Mandela’s stay. Then he led us to a pale green building and pointed out Mandela’s cell – small and nondescript compared to the rest in the row.
“When we first came here it was very militant. We are blessed to have leaders like Mr. Nelson Mandela who taught us reconciliation, ” Mbatha said. “I will show you your way out and then you will be free from my prison.”
The southwestern-most point of the African continent lies 65km south of Cape Town, with gems along the way. Rather than rent a car, we booked a Cape Peninsula tour through Escape to the Cape. Our guide Russell Conway Prime, 49, picked us up in a nice sedan and showed us around his neighbourhood, Muizenberg. On the fair sand beach sat a row of red, blue, green and yellow beach shacks that colored it as an especially happy place, until Prime shared its history.“Before 1994, I couldn’t surf this beach. I could go with my friend but I couldn’t cross the line. It was a white beach, ” said Prime, the “coloured” son of an indigenous mother and an English father. “We would still come here if we were in the mood to be involved with the police. We were already on the way (out of apartheid) so what the heck.”
Continuing along the shoreline we reached Kalk Bay. Tunnels and train tracks ran next to this beach and the sand was darker.
“Kalk Bay was a coloured beach. Small little beach. The water wouldn’t hold any more children, ” Prime reminisced. Coloured people “still go there religiously, ” he said. “They don’t have to any more but it’s all they know.”
Further down the peninsula, Boulders Beach is reserved for black-and-white African penguins. The colony of birds with pink eye patches, even females keeping their fuzzy feathered babies warm, do not shy away from humans gawking from the boardwalk. On the beach, they swim and waddle right up.
Africa’s southwestern-most tip is commonly misperceived to be where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. It’s actually where ships start moving more eastward than southward. A Portuguese explorer rounded the cape in the late 1400s and gave it a name that stuck as the Cape o f Good Hope. We experienced its microclimate, getting battered by wind and rain as we stood at the wooden marker and rugged edge. Modern township
Under apartheid, all non-white people were confined to living in townships. We visited Cape Town’s oldest black township, Langa, via Siviwe Tours. Our guide, Nathi Gigaba, 33, showed us a hostel like the one he grew up in. Wendy Gqirana, 37, invited us to the next step up housing option – a shipping container she shared with her husband and three children.
“This is how we live, ” she said, exposing everything stored under a bed. “You feel the heat, well, you just open the window.”
Children played ball on the streets and hung out on porches of government-owned apartments. From one apartment emanated Drive, a deep house track by South African DJ-producer Black Coffee and world-famous DJ David Guetta. Around the block sat the gated homes of doctors and lawyers who serve as role models to children and what they can achieve with hard work.
“Townships are developing to where people don’t want to move out, ” Gigaba said.
In a communal shack, men passed around a bucket of sorghum grain beer and we partook in a sip. It embodied the native Xhosa language term ubuntu.
“I am because you are, ” Gigaba explained. “It’s what makes it easy for us to be tolerant of one another.”Lion’s Head
Lion’s Head had looked majestic yet conquerable from atop Table Mountain, so we set out to climb it on our last day in Cape Town. The roughly hour-long hike starts with an incline over Signal Hill, also known as Lion’s Tail.
At a rocky juncture, we were faced with taking the advised trail spiralling around the peak or a climb-to-the-top option with the sign, “use ladders, chains and stapels at own risk”. Most people took the less-advised route, so we braved it. Gripping onto rocks and handles, I balanced my slight fear of heights with peering down in awe at Mother Nature.
The reward for reaching the small top of Lion’s Head was a panoramic perspective of the places we had gone – the City Bowl, seaboard, peninsula, Robben Island and above, Table Mountain shrouded in its “tablecloth” of clouds.
“So you’ve seen the subtle side and the dramatic side, ” I remembered Prime saying. “She has lots to offer and she’ll have you coming back for more.”
I didn’t just believe that Cape Town is unlike the rest of Africa. I was convinced it is unlike anywhere else in the world. – The Orange County Register/Tribune News Services