Words printed on the back of one of those red double-deckers that carry tourists across the Mother City. I turn my head to read them just as I cross a street at Camps Bay and have the unexplainable feeling that someone wanted me to see them there and then. They were meant for me. I had been in Cape Town for less than three hours and that was precisely what I was thinking in that very instant, that Cape Town was all I needed. Some brilliant local Marketing team (South Africans all wizards, hey) had accessed my thoughts and spelled them out for me, set them where I could see them. I never found that bus again to take a snapshot of this, to me, very personal message.
A month later, back to business and with Cape Town very much behind geographically, the feeling stays strong. With everything it has on offer, Cape Town is without a doubt one city I might always miss and long to get back to. One cannot have enough of it. With its unique blend of mountains, Ocean, white sand beaches, wide open plains, the sound of the waves braking against the rocks, the rebel wind always messing up your hair, with its rising, shining and setting sun which brings with it the most creative and mind-blowing colours, the playful clouds dancing on the bluest boundless sky, the infinite water – Cape Town is more, much more than the perfect postcard view. Cape Town has a unique pulse to you it and you can only feel it if you live it. There’s the scenic drive. The roughness and wilderness of the land. The incredible quality and power of light. The negotiated bits of freedom. The mix of people, food, languages and traditions. It hosts the most amazingly arched rainbows. Oh, and there’s also the wine. Cape Town can make you live several holidays (or lifetimes?) into one.
As a tourist, Cape Town is best enjoyed by displaying a laid back and modest attitude. Don’t be the obvious tourist if you can help it. I was most comfortable just carrying my credit card with me apart from the beach items. Remember you’re in-between Europe and Africa and that too many people struggle with serious issues such as hunger in the midst of all that seductive beauty and diversity, so you’re better off not drawing too much attention on your possessions. Discretion and cautiousness are key.
The Incidental Tourist blended together some of Cape Town’s essentials; make sure you don’t miss these ones: http://bit.ly/1RRPyFE. Luckily, for those who don’t want to rent a car or have never driven on the British side of the road, Cape Town has a fairly good transport system and most day activities include pick up and drop off.
Since it was my second time in Cape Town, I made some other discoveries of my own. I had never tried surfing before and was rather convinced I never would, for having been hit in the head and taken off my feet permanently by the strong Atlantic waves whenever I tried to go for a swim. But have no fear, there are many surf schools which are well-trained to make you enjoy the surfing experience. I spent a wonderful few hours with Stoked School Surf. They take you to Muizenberg (pronounce as if the “i” was before the “u”), where the waters were surprisingly warmer. They have you wear this strange suit that weighs at least as much as you do and carry a board that is definitely larger and clearly heavier than anyone my size. And then they have you paddle.
In the Ocean, every single wave seems compelled to break into your face for some reason. Now, I’m not the paddling type of person; this usually requires muscles and vigorous arms, none of which I truly own. During the first 15 minutes I was positive beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would drown and in-between braking waves made solemn promises to myself to ponder more on my choices and the impulses to always try something new. Simply lying in the sun would have been so much more reasonable and enjoyable. Meanwhile, I was paddling against the waves, feeling grateful whenever one just lifted me up and carried me further instead of crushing into me and propelling me back to the shore before I realized what was happening to me. It is one of the most demanding sports I have ever tried.
That until some minutes later I managed to push myself up on my feet and float. I even managed to look left and right and see the waves guiding me, carrying me now gently. I had found balance. Now, once this happens, you’ll probably not want to get out of the water anymore. Not all waves are surfable, I found out. You have to wait for the right one, patiently. And when it comes, you only have few seconds to stand up and enjoy one of the greatest feelings of freedom there is other than a hearty canter. One gets pretty addicted to it. Chances are you’ll find yourself eager to surf another wave, and another and another (and most likely get very dizzy while waiting and looking at them coming) and experience sadness when the instructor waves (haha) that you can only ride a last one before going out of the water. This was money well spent (+/- 45 euros).
However entertaining trying to keep your feet on a floating board and drinking fair amounts of salty water may seem, my favourite activity in Cape Town and surroundings is no doubt wine tasting. If there’s one thing South Africa is not short of, it’s wine farms. Here’s an interesting fact: there are roughly 900 of them in the Cape Town area, half of which within less than 2h drive. Load shedding? Who cares when there’s so much wine to make you forget about it? An estimated 1,400 types of wines are available just for you.
After a classic one day wine tasting tour with Wine Flies, I decided to book a two-day wine tasting tour with the same guys called “The Forgotten Route”. I was completely seduced by this incursion into South African richness and diversity that Wine Flies offers. It would be reductive to view this as a wine drinking experience. The tour is travel in time, an original and unforgettable journey that is informative, entertaining and local. It takes you through vineyards bordered by mountains, you’ll taste sense-awakening red wine and homemade cupcakes, you’ll embark the famous Shosholoza Meyl train and cross the Karoo to Matjiesfontein – a city filled with ghost stories where you overnight and enjoy a braai under a starlit sky (weather permitting). There will certainly be laughter around the fire and good memories to carry back.
In my eyes, South Africa’s Karoo is a place like no other. It’s where freedom becomes an almost tangible reality and exposes its share beauty: endless sky and Earth uniting somewhere in an incredibly far distance. Only there can one understand and appreciate the meaning of deep quietness and the charming eeriness of the wide open.
I came back to Brussels with a basketful of sweet Cape Town memories (and a luggage filled with sand from Camps Bay, Llandudno and Clifton 4th beaches which had willy nilly glued to my belongings). I took the aerial cable to reach the top of Table Mountain, this time to discover there was indeed a view – possibly one of the most spectacular in the world (last time I hiked it, but the place was so foggy I couldn’t see my feet), watched the sun setting from Signal Hill (take a ride with the night bus), had seafood, game, potjekos and happily found the curry chicken with pap on the Shosholoza Meyl train (the food is unbelievably good and cheap), listened to Jeremy Loops rehearsing for his concert in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, had Hunter’s Dry on a balcony overlooking Table Mountain, listened to the sounds of Xhosa clicks on my bus rides (use a rechargeable MyCity card for easy travel in the city), saw a shark up close (yes, yes, shark cage diving with a wakeup call at 4 am), and finally visited Robben Island. When in Cape Town one never runs out of options. I know I always have something to come back to.
On the one side, Table Mountain. On the other, the Atlantic. They melt into one, building on the strength and character that makes this city a breathtaking place. No doubt, Cape Town got into my skin with its range of seductive exhibits. It is a place of unique variety. Apart from the stunning vistas, Cape Town has a lot to come to terms with. But if you are a nature and wildlife lover and still want to be in a city, Cape Town is a hard one to beat.
I stayed at the Amber Tree Lodge, a most charming hostel I cannot praise enough set in a wonderful location with numerous restaurants and a MyCity bus stop right across the street.
Another early morning wake-up call and a busy day ahead: we start with a vigorous hike up the Table Mountain. But where is Table Mountain? For having seen it so many times from afar and even yesterday when we arrived in Cape Town, I could have sworn it was there. Somehow, it had disappeared in the dense clouds that were hovering above our heads and the mist that decided to ruin our hike that day. Going up a mountain we couldn’t even see: we were bound for another once in a lifetime experience.
Misfortune rarely comes alone, so I have to drag myself with high fever, too. It is cold, humid, windy, foggy and the grey air smells very much like upcoming rain. Since we had experienced lovely hot weather all the other days, we are not properly dressed for the hike either: in short, all is wrong. However, we climb.
Table Mountain is not very high (only 1100m and the top is, no surprise here, flat as a table), but that does not make the climb any easier. The rocks pile up in an irregular flight of stairs that make me discover muscles that I had never suspected to have before: some steps are smaller, some much bigger, meaning that it is impossible to find a repetitive rhythm to which the feet could eventually adjust. Though we are not in high altitude, we are soon left breathless. Not by the view, though, since we are not able to see anything one meter in front of us. This said, despite the exceptionally crap weather that denies us an enjoyable walk, the path is busy with locals jogging up and down the mountain. Whom we don’t truly see until they come really close to us, gradually starting to look like human figures as they run their way through the mist.
We, on the contrary, go up pole pole style, following Takalani’s advice more than ever, the one behind the other. Again, the same pattern occurs: some go faster, some very slow and others are somewhere in the middle. At one point I am alone, or maybe not, but hard to tell in that fog. I hear the baboons somewhere close. For all the love I have towards my camera, I do consider to use it as self-defence device, if need be. The mist gets us terribly wet and the cold bites into the skin when we stop. We forget that the view was the initial and probably the only reason for our climb, without which the purpose of us being up there gets blurry, too. Unless a miracle happens, there will be no picture with the view today. Having put that aside, the remaining motivation is to reach that flat top as soon as possible and have a hot chocolate. Only chocolate could make things right again.
There was only one path, so in theory it would have been hard for me (or anyone to that) to get lost, though I couldn’t see or hear anyone around. I would, however, perfectly manage to lose myself on the mountain during the Inca trail in Peru 8 months later, as I was travelling with 15 other people and 3 mountain guides. When there’s a will, there’s a way! Still, two of us are missing; we would find them safe and sound at the descent, so we are again “all in” as Takalani makes sure when he locks us up in the truck. To get down, we used the Aerial Cableway, which, I read on Google later, offers a splendid view of the area. Now, we might have been dropped in a bottomless pit. Table Mountain just wouldn’t reveal itself to us that day.
Takalani, whose face expression reflected nothing else but sheer joy after such an invigorating morning start, drives us out of Cape Town. The sky finally clears out and the sun shines once more. Outside, the landscape is racing past the window. What I see is beauty beyond belief: string of beaches of white and golden sand, green mountain crests, still steaming with mist in the distance, the Ocean in at least two-tone colours that could have been photoshopped – was I hallucinating from the fever?
Everything is visually so rich with diversity that we are literally stupefied and some of us cannot hold it anymore. Juliana sticks her head out the window and yells: “South Africa, I love you! I will be back, I promise.” Juliana and her family are from Singapore and they have been travelling extensively around the world. They placed South Africa in the top three countries that delighted them the most. For the record: I am not the only SA freak!
In and out the city there’s constant movement. People were practising water activities that I could not even name. Others were jogging, roller blading, ski boarding, doing yoga, chasing seagulls or simply walking, admiring the high waves of the Atlantic. Though I was stuck in the truck, I felt carried away by all that inspiring energy and was envious of this sort of freedom that seemed so natural and accessible to all.
Takalani parks and starts pouring instructions into us. We’re exhausted from the hike and we would have gladly just fainted somewhere in the sun. But there’s more walking to be done. We are at the Cape of Good Hope, Bartolomeu Dias’s discovery in 1488. Before going past the Dias beach, a superb spot for surfers and an enchanting sight for any landscape-hungry tourist, we climb upwards to the Cape Point lighthouse. As if the feet could still respond to my will. Now we have a view!
That day, we also paid a short visit to a penguin colony. In the evening, Takalani holds a speech to mark our last dinner together. Apart from his sincere appreciation of having guided such a wonderful group like ours, he asks THE question that must have crossed our minds more than once during this tour:
“Why do you people want to walk? I’ve been walking my whole life. I walked to go to school when I was a child. I walk as a tour guide. I walk all the time. You must be sitting down too much in your countries.”
Takalani is a very lucid person. A man a few words, but which he uses well. Who knows what humour is and “most especially” when to use it. Who, apart from doing a great job at driving around a bunch of people coming from everywhere and showing them his country, also knew how to treat us all as individuals, paying attention to pronounce our names correctly though we had constantly messed up his. Who at 32 has developed more skills than most men in Europe and who did his tasks without showing how difficult they really were. A person whom I find reliable enough to cross the whole of Africa with. Maybe Takalani did not do all that walking for nothing: he did go to the right school.
The next morning is day one till departure. To lighten up the spirits a little bit, Takalani drives us to a wine farm where we have wine tasting at 10 a.m. The five samples that we are allowed to sip cause me to laugh at any remark that could have potentially been a joke. Some go red in the face. I would stick to Pinotage as my favourite discovery, though I’m sure that more extensive research would have been necessary to find the perfect flavour. We also visit Franschhoek, another very different looking site from what we’ve seen before. European Africa greets us once more. The houses must have been pretty expensive in that area – everything was neat, cute, flowery, white, and Frenchy. There’s no debate as to South Africa’s beauty and variety (or I’m ready to defend them fiercely) – it could be a place for everyone.
Back to our Cape Town base, we have dinner right across from the building where we were overnighting. Out of the hundreds of choices that I am sure the city has to offer, the great majority settles for the safest and easiest option. My friend from Escape4Africa, who had patiently taken me through all the booking procedures before I arrived and ensured I’d make it back to Europe as the living proof that survival is possible, is kind enough to take me to a random club for a beer – a bit further than the fence that was withholding me.
Next morning I pack, to go home this time. No more eccentric trip to breathtaking places, no more animal, no more danger, scorpions and everything that fascinated me so much as a visitor to this country. I will be flying for 19 hours and a half with Turkish Airlines, via Istanbul. There’s still time to take a bus tour of Cape Town. From the top deck, I try to memorise and immortalize the city with my camera. We go past District Six which inspired District 9 – one of the most successful local movie productions, and I discover where Wilbur Smith’s residence is – one of the greatest adventure writers alive, whose sagas, I believe, may easily turn into an African blockbuster at least the size of “Lord of the Rings”, should his books be adapted into a film one day.
One hour to go. I step off the double-decker and spend it sitting in the grass and looking at the ocean. I’m not sure one can have enough of that view, of the waves that rise, foam and then disappear. I stopped taking pictures because the essence of Cape Town is hard to frame into series of snapshots. One more look behind. I did not visit Robben Island on purpose. With the self-promise that I will go back. Time will tell.
I saw “Searching for Sugar Man” some six months after I came back from South Africa. I did not realize how much the place had stayed with me until the opening scene of the documentary plunged me back on the same road that I was now taking to Cape Town with the Drifters. I remembered the excitement which took over all of us at seeing Cape Town from afar.
Considered to be one of the 10 must-see cities in the world according to Lonely Planet 2014, Cape Town has such a variety of visiting sites and activities to offer that spending only three days there felt like what Al Pacino was referring to as “the goof of all time” in “The Devil’s Advocate”: “Look but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, but don’t swallow.” We knew for sure that the following days would leave us drooling over everything we would not have had the chance to experience.
No hurry to get to the city center though. The road from which Cape Town looked like a white line drawn between the ocean and the sky was an ecstatic experience in itself: on the left side of the truck, the rays of sun were sparkling in the blue and green water of the Atlantic; on the right side, huge rocks were reaching towards the light-blue sky. We might as well have been transported on a magic, though bumpy carpet. It felt strangely close to flying.
Lovers, passers-by have drawn hearts or written their names with black marker on the stones that border the side of the road. It is an unexpected sight. Maybe they, too, caught in the beauty of the place, set their minds on returning someday to look for lost traces.
Cape Town, contrastively, has the vibe of a city that moves into the future, as we were to see later on. When we arrive at Sea Point, we only have time for a very quick shower, an absolute must for everyone’s sake. The road had been long and we had all been generously stewing in the overheated army truck. It’s summer in December in South Africa. We rush out and take calculated turns to shower so as to be ready at the appointed time. One of the best things about organized group tours is that the schedule must be relatively respected by everyone. We rarely end up waiting for someone and never for too long.
The drawback, however, is that you are equally dependent on the group to some extent, which largely diminishes freedom of movement, but does not incapacitate it. Just in case the thought might have slipped anyone’s mind, we are set into the touristic context and are brought to the notorious (I believe, since South Africans tend to do the “Aaaa” sound when I mention it) restaurant “Mama Africa”. We take several taxis to get there. I quickly befriend the black taxi driver: he speaks French and has already been to Belgium. He leaves me his card in case I might need a ride later. He does not like Cape Town and had been trying to get out of there for seven years. I am on holiday, so for me all is pinkish, even in the darkness of the streets on which he’s driving us. Being a tourist is a privileged position.
My first memory of “Mama Africa” is the live music and the truly exceptional singer animating the evening. The drums were loud and the singer’s voice was powerful enough to crack the walls. Maybe it had. He was not using a microphone (or else we might have gone deaf) and was waving his arms around freely, making up his own show. I bet he could have been hired by any European opera; I have never heard anything like it before. His notes were absolutely hair-raising – my indicator that something is close to perfection. The food was good but the show was even better. All the more so since Takalani, manifestly sensitive to the African beat, started to dance, joining the group of entertainers. It was a great night.
I did not realize that half of the group was already gone, so much was I enjoying myself, when I saw Janos’s panic so clearly disturbing his face expression and heard him say: “Where’s everyone? Where did Takalani go? How do we go back?” He was losing it. Takalani was in fact gradually sending back part of the herd by taxis, and he did so discretely with those who had finished and paid for their meals. I was lost to the African music and did not realize he was calling it a night. Until Janos’s face called for immediate attention: there was “emergency” written all over it, red light and everything. While I was happily relaxed and would have gladly been ready to discover a local night club or any other less touristy location, Janos was scared to be left behind in the big wild city of Cape Town at night.
I start to laugh, enjoying this unexpected reaction which catapults me to the opposite pole, making me look naively trustful all of a sudden. “Hey, it’s all good, even if they go away, we can stay longer. I have the number of a taxi driver, he seemed all right and he’ll drive us to the B&B.” The moment creates an opening for me to make fun of Janos for the rest of our days in South Africa and my guess is that he was grateful that the trip was coming to an end.
When we entered the Drifters B&B’s courtyard at Sea Point it was 10 p.m. The Germans were out having beer around the table, while the others disappeared in their rooms. I was among the last ones to be transferred from the restaurant. In that pleasurable warm breeze, livened up by the holiday mood and the excitement of a place I had not yet had the chance to explore, neither the courtyard, nor the room loomed appealing to me. Our B&B was just one minute away from the main ocean promenade. I ask if anyone wanted to have a walk but all I get back is dumbfounded looks as if my question had some sort of perverted indecency about it.
“Now? But it’s dangerous! “
That was enough for me to grab my camera, wish my companions a very nice evening and go towards the secured gate beyond which my freedom was waiting. Groans and words of discouragement, like I was about to jump off a cliff. Before I leave the scene, Dieter, 50 something and some experience of how to enjoy life, volunteers to accompany me. Janos is suddenly encouraged by our joint suicidal impulse and decides to come with us after all. I feared that the stress would cause him to talk even more and probably faster, if such a thing was even possible.
Few things are as magic as being by the side of the Ocean on a warm summer night. We had ice-creams and walked the streets until we found a local bar and had beers. People were very friendly and smiled to us – Janos let his guard down.
“I actually think that Cape Town is a rather safe place. I feel safe here. I’ve been in other European cities and it didn’t feel as safe as here, “ he says. Dieter and I exchange looks. Subsequent burst of laughter, of course.
We were the only ones in our group to have experienced a tiny little bit of Sea Point, Cape Town by night. After having been in the wilderness, it is the human jungle that was putting my travel mates’ touristic zeal to a test. Ever since, people’s choices of destinations and the complexity of travelling as a social behaviour have been fascinating me. Like Rodriguez, I wonder. It took some of us as much as 19 hours flight to go back to places we call home. Table Mountain’s next.