Cape Town

Many say Cape Town is the most beautiful city in South Africa. Those from the city claim that it is the best on the continent, but Africa is so diverse, I wonder how can that be. Wherever the truth lies, I am happy to begin my journey through South Africa's "mother city."

The flight to South Africa is brutally long. I left JFK around 10:30 in the morning on an overcast, foggy morning. We flew into darkness, through the entire night, and greeted the following morning over Namibia. The total flight time was fifteen hours to Johannesburg. Then, I had a three-hour layover, giving me enough time to get through passport control, baggage, customs, and on to the domestic terminal for the two-hour flight to Cape Town. Door-to-door it was a little over 24 hours of travel—by far the longest flight I'd experienced.

I didn't end up sleeping on the plane too much. I never do. But, I was having a good time with my neighbor, Dina. She was from Long Island and was heading over to see the country and its wildlife. She and I were both a little nervous about our visit, so it was nice to talk to someone who shares that. She arrived at her destination in Johannesburg while I continued on to Cape Town, but we agreed to contact one another once she returned to Cape Town later in the week. My companion from Jo'burg to Cape Town was a Bavarian on business. We discussed social safety nets, taxes, and our respective leaders while he guzzled a couple beers.

By the time I arrived in Cape Town it was about 3 pm local time. I jumped in a taxi, the first contact point for a new land. My driver's name was Gladstone, and he was very talkative. As we sped through the townships that surround the airport I was a bit taken aback at the township scene. Yes, there are shanty towns, but I must have seen ten people indiscreetly peeing along the side of the road within the first five minutes of the taxi ride. And, I saw a few children squatting with toilet paper in hand in the middle of a grassy field, no bushes to hide behind.

I arrived at my hotel, the Cape Manor, where I finally relaxed in a horizontal position. By late afternoon, I was eager to venture out. I wanted to survey the area while it was still light out, just to get a feel for where I am. It was a bright, sunny day, the first of many to come this week—good light for photography.

I walked over to the conference hotel so that I know where to walk early Monday morning. Along the way, I stumbled upon a narrow, steep street lined by small houses.

I headed for the beach to take in the Atlantic from the opposite side of the world. Cape Town is at 34° South, the same latitude as Los Angeles, but in the southern hemisphere. Like Southern California, the climate on the west coast of South Africa is warm and dry and the sky is deep blue and mostly cloudless. Also, like the west coast of North America, the water along the coast here is cold. And, the beach here is particularly rocky.

From this spot, I gazed back toward the Sea Point neighborhood.

I returned to the hotel to get a local map and ask about walking around the area after dark. The receptionist seems overly eager to please and seems to have a crush on me. He has this twinkle in his eye whenever he sees me, and this twinkle could be the result of a genuine, good-natured eagerness, or it could hint at some disreputable thoughts on his part. Let's see how the rest of the week pans out.

Cape Town Map

Looking south toward Cape Town. My hotel is in Sea Point on the coast with Signal Hill separating me from downtown Cape Town.

Gold Fish Taxi Card

Fish's card. If you need a taxi in Cape Town, call him up.

With night falling, I headed out to explore downtown Cape Town. I walked the Main Road around Signal Hill, which took me by the waterfront, and eventually into the city center. It was a long walk, and by the time I reached downtown, it was dark. I walked over to Long Street, known for its nightlife, and it was pretty dead. I walked the strip, and there were several bars open, but everyone was glued to the television. There are three national obsessions: football, rugby, and cricket. Tonight, it's the rugby match between South Africa and New Zealand, and the city has come to a halt. I'm told Long Street will be jammed with people later, after the game, but for now it's pretty empty.

I decided to head back to the Sea Point area, but this time I'll take a taxi. I picked one up on Long Street and so began a taxi relationship for my time in Cape Town. My driver's name was Fish. He was originally from Ethiopia and was very helpful. I took his card and I will call on him again.

What shall I do tomorrow? The conference starts on Monday, and I have tomorrow to adjust to the time difference and see more sights in Cape Town.

On Sunday, I decided to go to the top of Signal Hill, one of the peaks that surrounds Cape Town. Today, one of the largest sporting events in Africa has its finale in Cape Town, the Cape Argus Cycle Race. With over 30,000 participants, the race is a major event in Cape Town today. The cyclists ride a 70-mile loop with winning times coming in around three hours. I woke up late this morning as the race was passing by my hotel, so I got dressed and went down to see what all the hubbub was about.

I decided to do a little hiking today. I walked up Glengariff Road looking for the trail up the mountain. It looks like the road to the trail—I hope I was correct, because it's getting awfully steep. It's like the "Streets of San Francisco" here. Thankfully, the trailhead was here and I proceeded up. There is a ring of trees at the bottom of the hill and, once through them, it's up the gradual trail to the top. The trail reaches the top at a point between the Lion's Head and Signal Hill. So, I had to walk the road back to Signal Hill, but the view was nice.

Looking toward the east is Cape Town, inside the bowl and surrounded by Table Mountain, the Lion's Head, and Signal Mountain.

Robben Island lies off the shore of Cape Town and is a constant reminder of South Africa's sordid past. Many of the country's political prisoners were incarcerated there, including its most famous resident, future president Nelson Mandela. The island is now one of South Africa's top tourist destinations, but, like a scar, serves to remind all who visit that bad things once happened in this idyllic setting.

After sitting at the top for about an hour, I decided to go down the mountain on the opposite side so I could land in Cape Town proper and maybe hit Long Street again to meet some of the locals. When I asked the information officer where the trail was, he seemed hesitant to show me the way. To get to downtown Cape Town from here, one must pass through the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, which is a poorer neighborhood that many tourists pass on.

From the trail, I was able to see the Bo-Kaap before I descended into it. The area was a township that was integrated into the city. Parts of the area are very poor, and I had more than a few kids ask me for money on the streets. Breaks my heart to see kids so young without ambition, not because of their own laziness, but because they do not have the luxury to think about such things.

Cities in South Africa are a lot like the U.S.—there are nice areas and unsafe areas. All of this segregation boils down to economic disparity, and that is most evident here. A few blocks through the hills above the Bo-Kaap and suddenly there are art galleries and electrified-barbed-wire-topped walls that surround houses and apartment blocks. It is a country of walls.

I reached Long Street and, this time, it was busy. I stopped in some of the bars and met some of the locals. Got a lesson on the game of cricket, talked vintage cameras with a French ex-pat, and hopped along to a few other bars before the evening was out.

Can't stay out too late, though. Tomorrow morning the conference begins.

The conference ran Monday through Friday, with evenings out and Thursday afternoon off. Not much sight-seeing during the day, but I did take these from a room on the fourteenth floor of the conference hotel. Some shots of Sea Point.

On Thursday, after my noon talk at the conference, we had the afternoon off. I planned to hook up with Dina, the woman I met on the plane to Jo'burg. She was staying at a hotel on the waterfront. I lugged my computer back to the hotel, changed, and gave her a call. I was a bit late in getting over there, so walking was not going to be an option. I looked for a taxi on the Main Road in Sea Point, but there were none around. So, I decided to take a minibus taxi.

Minibus taxis pick up people along the way into Cape Town and can hold about a dozen people. The fare is five rand and you hand the money to the guy sitting behind the driver. If you're sitting by the door, you have to open the door for everyone and let them in. You also have to collect the fares and make change. Luckily, I was put in the front seat, the last available seat.

I hopped out at Portswood Road and walked down to the Commodore Hotel where Dina was staying. I told Fish, my taxi man, to meet us there around 2:30. We'd agreed to pay him R1000 to take us down to the Cape of Good Hope and back.

After getting a falafel to go, we headed to the cape. We drove through Cape Town, and took the M4 south along the Indian Ocean side. I was taking photos out the car window.

Where is the boundary between two oceans? Don't they just gradually merge with one another? Or, do currents define these boundaries? People here insist that the Cape of Good Hope, this tiny spit of land on Africa's southwest corner, is the defining boundary between Indian and Atlantic. Seems improbable to me, but people do refer to the west side of the cape as the Atlantic side, and the east side as the Indian side. The water on the Indian side is warmer than the Atlantic side, and the towns on the Indian side are more industrial than the scenic Atlantic side.

Map of the Cape of Good Hope

Our trip to the Cape of Good Hope.

Once we arrived at the cape, part of Table Mountain National Park, it's a long, treeless road to the cape itself. There are almost two capes—the land forks—and they are equally south. On one side of the fork, the road descends down the seaside cliffs to the beach. On the other fork, one proceeds up the trails to a mountain peak. Of course, baboons make themselves at home wherever they like.

From the top of the mountain, the view is spectacular. Around the small lighthouse, there is a sign with distances to various cities. New York is over 12,000 kilometers away, about 7,800 miles from here—the farthest I've traveled from home.

The hills on the cape are covered in fynbos, the dominant plant in the Cape Floral Kingdom. One of six floral kingdoms worldwide, the Cape Floral Kingdom contains more plant species than the Amazon, and fynbos account for 80% of the plant varieties and cover half the area of the kingdom.

Having soaked in the view from the cape, we drove north to the penguin colony in Boulders. This is one of two mainland colonies in South Africa. Most of the colonies are on offshore islands, but two, on opposite sides of False Bay, thrive after years of protection. Boulders is surrounded by towns, so there is not a lot of room for these penguins to roam, but I guess they do most of their roaming in the ocean.

Our driver, Fish, was very patient as we gawked at our first wild penguin sightings. Both Dina and I were snapping photos and watching in awe. Fish was very nice and ferried us around for the afternoon. And, we called on him a couple more times before departing Cape Town.

As we drove through these seaside towns, I kept wondering how people who build houses on the side of these mountains don't end up with boulders rolling through their living rooms. Boulders litter the slopes, surrounding these new houses. I, for one, would be a little nervous living here.

For the drive back to Cape Town, we took the scenic Atlantic road, which traverses Chapman's Peak. Adding to the natural beauty of the landscape was the late afternoon sun, which blanketed everything in vivid, orange light.

On the way down Chapman's Peak, the last overlook is toward Hout Bay. A southern suburb of Cape Town, it lies on the opposite side of Table Mountain. We stopped to take in the view, but the wind was fierce. I could barely get the car door open.

As we drove down the mountain, the Sun began to set over the mountains surrounding Hout Bay. It was an incredible sight to see. I only wished we weren't speeding along in a taxi.

As we continued on, we found the coast and passed into sunlight once again. We drove through Camps Bay, a seaside town south of Sea Point known for dining on the sea as the sun sets over the Atlantic. I can see the attraction.

As the sun set a few minutes later, we stopped and watched from the side of the road.

We finally made it back to Cape Town and Fish agreed to drop us at Dina's hotel, then come back for us to take us downtown for an evening out. We decided to dine at Addis in Cape, an Ethiopian restaurant recommended by my Lonely Planet book, and trusted by our Ethiopian taxi driver. The food was delicious, and the wine was nice too. Dina and I talked for awhile over a slow dinner. I had a really nice time.

After, we stopped in the small club called Joburg. I'd visited the other night with friends from the conference and we had a fun time drinking and dancing. We did not stay, but Dina used the restroom while I took a photo of a rather excited Bart Simpson on their wall.

We did decide to grab a drink at a bar called Neighbors. A nice, relaxed joint which was quiet enough to carry on a conversation with someone.

While taking us home, our taxi driver was hopelessly lost in the waterfront area, where Dina was staying. (I wish we had Fish driving us!) At one point he pulled over to ask a bunch of taxi drivers chatting on the roadside and they asked him to fork over some cash for the information. We eventually found the place, but it was pretty frustrating. He was from Zimbabwe and talked about how "Uncle Robert," referring to their current leader, should be executed for what he's done to the country. Interesting conversation

Friday was the final day of the conference. It was a full day, and I had another talk to deliver at the end of the day. We ended at about 4:30, and I had a few errands to do before meeting up with Dina again. I wanted to get a road atlas for the two-week road trip that will begin tomorrow morning, and I wanted to get a pre-paid cell phone so that we can call places along the way if we need to. This cost R400 for the phone, and another R52 for airtime. All told, about $65 USD. In case I'm back there one day, my number in South Africa is +27 082 202 3084.

I also needed to get some clothes cleaned. I dropped the laundry in a nearby wash-and-fold where they charge R45 for 4 kilograms of clothes, which is exactly what I had. Unfortunately, I was not able to get to the place in time this afternoon to pick them up, so I'll have to get my clothes tomorrow morning before I head to the airport to pick up Jackie and our car.

Dina was not in when I called, so I decided to walk back to downtown Cape Town. I walked along the water once again to take in my last Cape Town sunset.

I headed to the Waterkant area and stopped into the Manhattan Cafe, how could I not? It is the bar-restaurant I visited earlier in the week, so the bartenders knew me when walked in. I'm guessing not too many people from Manhattan visit the Manhattan Cafe.

While I was there eating, Dina called me so she came to meet me. She ate and we had another drink nearby before returning home. I have to get up early to meet Jackie and I still had a lot to do before I leave for the airport. But, I'm excited to begin my two-week journey to discover South Africa outside the cape.