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Cape Town: Our Beginner’s Guide
Posted By Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott On August 23, 2013 @ 6:44 am In Africa,South Africa,Travel | 21 Comments
Cape Town. You may come for beauty, but you’ll leave with a story.
Cape Town, a city we had heard so much about over the years, but for so many reasons never took the opportunity to visit – until recently. Like most, we were originally attracted to Cape Town for its natural beauty – think Table Rock cut by coastlines – but we also knew there was more behind that exterior.
Once we arrived, landing on what was to us a surprisingly foggy morning, our curiosity set loose to its people and to its context — the collision of past and present merged with hopes and dreams of where it may go in the future. Cape Town’s complexity sits right on the surface, drawn from history, geography and a diverse group of residents whose families have called Cape Town home for centuries.
Just as we struggled to a put a finger on what we were experiencing, Mariette, a Cape Town native captured it apropos to our experience, “Cape Town’s beauty is in its imperfection. In its chaos comes creativity.”
The density of experiences in Cape Town span the spectrum, from township walks to wine tastings, from outdoor adventure to food market hip. Particularly when you’re faced with limited time, making decisions regarding what to do across the sprawling Cape Town area can overwhelm.
This is our basic grok of Cape Town in just a few days.
If you want to skip ahead:
We arrived at Cape Town airport at 9 AM. By 1 PM, we were squeezing into wet suits and jumping into frigid waters to snorkel with seal pups. That’s what happens when you have a local friend waiting for you to arrive and excited to show you her adopted home (thanks, Kerry!!).
In full disclosure, when we heard that the water was a frosty 13 degrees, we had our doubts. We really do not like cold water. But once you’re suited up and you’re in the water, you easily forget about the cold since you’re surrounded by playful seal pups swimming under, over and all around you.
The seal pups really get this close. And even closer!
If you want to fall in love and be overwhelmed by a little wildlife in a stunning setting, it really doesn’t get any easier than this.
These curious little guys came right up to us, looked right at us with their big, black eyes, did a twist and then were off again to play some more. The whole thing was addictive. Even though it was essential for our bodies to rest and to recover from the chill, we were resistant to being called out of the water more than 45 minutes later.
Goofing in the surf.
The seal pups are out swimming near Hout Bay between mid-March and the end of May. You can still swim with seals at other times of year, but you won’t experience the fun of the pups. What makes the young ones so great is that they haven’t developed the inhibitions of their parents, so they are simply more fun, innocent and trusting.
And don’t worry about sharks – we’re told this particular area does not attract sharks because it’s too shallow and cold.
And if you happen to be in Hout Bay on the weekend, be sure to check out the market. It’s chock full of freshly prepared foods, local crafts, great coffee and a particularly friendly atmosphere.
Practical Details: We highly recommend this seal pup experience with Steve Benjamin from Animal Ocean. Cost: 600 RS Disclosure: We received a 50% media discount.
Table Mountain. No matter where you are in the city, you can see it. This is how locals orient themselves. Everyone talks about Table Mountain being a “must see” in Cape Town. Honestly, we didn’t really believe it until we were on top of it all, drawn up by an absolutely astounding cable-driven gondola ride on a perfectly clear morning.
The views are stunning. But don’t make the same mistake we did and spend too much time at the first few overlooks. Pull yourself away from each one and make certain to walk all the way around to every spot just to see how the landscape and perspective changes around you. Remarkable.
On the western overlook you’ll see Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held during apartheid. Gazing out at the island, we imagined with impossibility what prisoners must have thought peering out to Table Mountain every day.
“During the many years of incarceration on Robben Island, we often looked across Table Mountain at its magnificent silhouette. To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return,” Mandela wrote.
Practical Details: Book your tickets online to avoid the lines (and it’s cheaper, $19 round-trip). Go as early in the morning as possible to avoid haze and heat. The cable car stops running during bad weather, so if the weather looks sketchy, call ahead to be certain the park is open.
“The beauty of Cape Town lies in its people. We use the universal theme of food to encourage people to interact, to help visitors find this beauty,” Monique Le Roux, founder of Andulela, explained. This is the reason why the cooking class is held in regular Cape Malay family homes. The goal: go beyond the kitchen, beyond the recipes.
Colorful Bo Kaap, the epicenter of Cape Malay in Cape Town
Who are the Cape Malay? We wondered. We had no idea, so when we met Sabz, our guide, at the Bo Kaap Museum, we buried him with questions. Here’s what we learned.
For the most part, the Cape Malay are descendants of slaves that the Dutch brought to the Western Cape from places like Indonesia and Dutch Malacca (present-day Malaysia) in the 17th century. In addition to working the fields, those slaves also built much of Cape Town. Today, the city features a large Cape Malay community, descendants of those early slaves, many of whom still live in colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood.
After picking up a few key spices at Atlas Spices (a truly phenomenal spice shop where you can stock up – we highly recommend the 12-leaf masala), we arrived at Anima’s door. She welcomed and ushered us in, spices in hand, with a friendly chuckle.
We began our course with snacks – samosas and daachi (fried chili bites made from chickpea flour, spinach leaves and spices).
Amina explained: “Daachi are a popular snack during Ramadan. Every house in the neighborhood prepares something special to break the fast, and we prepare A LOT of them. We take plates of food to all of our neighbors. In return, our neighbors bring plates of food to us. This system is in place not only so we have lots of different dishes to break the fast, but more importantly so that none of our neighbors will go hungry during Ramadan. It’s how we take care of each other.“
Over the next few hours we learned how to fold samosas, roll and knot roti dough (“beat it like Michael Jackson,” Anima said), and cook a rich Cape Malay chicken curry. She offered instructions, but allowed us to make our mistakes so we could learn for ourselves firsthand what works and what doesn’t.
Anima also reminded us, bringing it all back to what the essence of cuisine, cooking, creating: “It’s about having fun. We all need to remember to have fun.”
A life lesson by way of the Cape Malay kitchen.
Practical Details: Cape Malay Cooking Safari is organized by Anduela Tours. When we met Monique, the owner, she expressed the following goal: To bring people together to interact and connect over a shared human theme – food. Cost: 660 Rand per person.
Disclosure: Cape Town Tourism arranged our tour and provided it to us for free.
We make one request of you if you are interested in taking a Township tour in Cape Town (or anywhere else, for that matter): book a tour that is either done on foot or bicycle. Please do not book a tour that has you going through the township in a car or tour van. First, this prevents you from interacting and engaging with the township and its people, which is the real reason to do a tour. Furthermore, it looks like you are going on safari, faces and camera pressed against windows.
While walking is our preferred method of getting around urban areas, bicycles give the opportunity to cover more ground while still staying close to the street action. That’s why, when considering how to see Masiphumelele Township, we opted to take it in by bicycle.
In the course of a few hours, we rode with our guide (a resident of the township for eight years) through the streets – big and small – to visit a preschool, a sangoma (medicine woman), a local restaurant, and other random stops and chats along the way. The goal: understand a township and what it means in the context of South Africa today.
For more description and detail on who we met and what we learned during the tour, read the full article on the Masiphumelele Township tour.
Practical Details: We booked our tour with AWOL Tours who partners with BEN (Bicycle Empowerment Network) as a local township partner and provider. About 80% of the money stays in the community of Masiphumelele going to the guide, preschool, sangoma, and restaurant.
Cost: Prices start at 550-650R ($55-65)/person. We paid 760R ($80)/person including lunch and everything above (but excluding transport there – we had a rental car).
Disclosure: We received an educational/media discount of 50%.
Coincidence of our schedule, but it felt a bit odd to go from walking a township to wine tasting within an hour, but that’s the diversity and spectrum possibility of a Cape Town experience. Our late afternoon arrival in Constantia, one of the wine regions closest to downtown Cape Town, allowed us a brief chance to visit Groot Constantia Winery, Cape Town’s oldest winery dating back to 1685.
But for as short as that visit was, we’re grateful we did it because it gave us a completely different perspective on South African wines than we’d otherwise have just tasting what’s available for export on wine store shelves in the U.S. and Europe.
We found out even more about South African wine throughout our visit to the country, and we grew surprised further still. From white varietals to red, South African wines struck us as of remarkably high quality and value given the price. Why were we so surprised? Not sure about you, but the South African wines that make it to export and neighborhood shelves don’t often feature high quality price ratios (QPR).
If you’re into coastal road trips, then Cape Town certainly delivers. We began ours in Cape Town with stops at Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Chapmans Peak Drive and Noordhoek before reaching Cape Point, where the famous lighthouse stands and where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans do not actually meet, contrary to the prevailing myth.
It’s all beautiful nonetheless.
On the return to Cape Town we stopped by Boulders Beach to see the African penguins. Warning: you could spend hours watching these guys. We were tempted, but they needed to go to bed.
Practical details: You can rent a car (see below for details) and easily make this drive yourself or you can take a tour. Our tour was with Escape to the Cape and lasted a full day with a lunch stop at Cape Point.
We were surprised at how easy and inexpensive it was to rent a car in Cape Town. And we did everything at the last minute – about 12 hours between the time we reserved it and picked it up. The price from major rental car companies was pretty similar – $25-$30/day. We ended up going with Budget because of convenience of location and cost. Most cars are manual transmission, so it may cost more if you require an automatic.
The fun comes after you pick up the car and you realize you have to drive on the left side of the road!
Photo credits: Underwater photos courtesy of Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean.
Disclosure: Most of experiences above took place when we visited Cape Town independently just prior to the #MeetSouthAfrica campaign. Our visit to Table Mountain and Cape Point were provided as part of that campaign, which was brought to you by the South Africa Tourism Board and supported and managed by iambassador. The seal pup trip, township tour, wine touring in Constantia and rental car were paid for by us. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.
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