Alright, strap in guys, because this is a long one! This is also my final post from my South Africa trip, which concluded in the capital of Cape Town. As I explained in the last post, Hermanus brought the group tour to an end, with just the drop off in Cape Town the following morning. Beyond that, everyone had decided for themselves how much longer to stay there for. I had booked two extra nights, giving me an afternoon, full day, and morning (roughly 48 hours total) to explore the city before I’d have to head to the airport for my flight home. So, there’s a lot I managed to squeeze in!
The drive into the city took us along some stunning coastal roads as we continued west, and we were dropped off outside a centrally located hostel in the city, which allowed us to see a little of it as we drove in. Cape Town is miles bigger than anywhere else we’d been on the trip (technically Durban has a bigger population but I didn’t see enough of the city to get that impression), with higher, more modern buildings, and lots of wide highways and flyovers. It was definitely still smaller than many other cities I’ve been to though, with a population of less than half a million, pretty similar to Edinburgh, so it wasn’t overwhelming. From there we all splintered off, sharing taxis, and checking into our own accommodation – I was in Zebra Crossing Backpackers, a cute little place where I’d upgraded to a single room after two weeks of always sharing, and located near Long Street, about halfway between the harbour front and Table Mountain.
Speaking of Table Mountain, this was my first activity in the city. It often gets a layer of cloud descending over the top, sometimes called the ‘tablecloth’, so I’d been advised that if the weather was clear, go up straight away, as there would be no guarantees of getting that again. Cape Town weather is very changeable – and also very, very windy it turns out, which was unexpected! So anyway, I met up with one of the guys from the group again, and we took a taxi to the base of the mountain. The cable car is the most popular way to go up and down, but we’d decided to test ourselves and hike instead, mostly to be able to say we had. If I’d had more time in the city, I’d have chosen one of the longer routes that winds around more of the mountain’s national park, but since we were on limited time, we chose the most direct route, up Platteklip Gorge, which is also the easiest option if you don’t have a guide, since it’s busy with other people and you can’t really get lost.
I’m not going to lie, that hike was tough. Probably the hardest one I’d done on the entire trip. It was much shorter than say, Drakensberg, but it was basically straight up at a 45 degree angle the whole way. The path zig zagged back and forth, and there were lots of big steps up over rocks, which definitely took more energy out of you. Plus, it was mid afternoon and very hot and sunny, making us even more tired. My heart was pounding and my legs were aching, though my lungs were coping well which I was pleased about, but half the battle was psychological, as you can see the top the whole time, and it seems so far off in the beginning. If you can go all the way up without stopping, it probably takes an hour and a half I’d guess, but I had to take so many breaks, meaning it took us closer to two hours (although the internet had said 2-3, so we were still faster than that!).
It was worth it at the top though! The mountain is flat up there, and there’s loads of open space to wander over and admire the views from all sides. The Twelve Apostles rise up behind the table, partially hidden in the clouds, and then the view opens up the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Town itself on the other side. There were lots of information boards scattered around as well, but I think my brain was too fried from exhaustion to take note of any of them. We could see the neighbouring, smaller Lion’s Head mountain, Robben Island, the Green Point World Cup football stadium, the waterfront, everything! We slowly traversed the mountain top towards the cable car station, where there was a shop and café to take a break, and replenish our sugar and energy levels! We bumped into a few others from the group as well, with many of us taking advantage of the good weather. Hiking back down was absolutely not on my wish list though, so I braved the cable car back down – while everyone else crowded the windows, I stayed firmly in the centre, as my fear of heights really doesn’t lend itself to these situations! It was a short ride though, and I was soon back on solid ground.
I parted ways with the other guy for now, as I’d decided to make use of the City Sightseeing bus system, which has several routes covering much of the city, so I bought a two day pass for it. I don’t often do these, usually favouring walking tours instead, but Cape Town is kind of spread out, and I would have had to take taxis instead, so this way I got to take in the views better form the top deck, and learn some information along the way. The red route would take me from Table Mountain to the V&A Waterfront, where a few of us were meeting for dinner later, via the Atlantic Seaboard. It passed many beautiful beaches, with expensive homes built into the steep hills behind them – a big selling point for me, as if I lived here, I’d be heading to those beaches all the time! It passed Lion’s Head and the football stadium up close, before finishing at the waterfront. The V&A Waterfront is a development of shops and restaurants, but includes local craft stalls, a food market, and street buskers. It’s a cool area just to wander through, as I did for a while, before stopping to watch some live music on the central stage, so I can see why it was so popular and busy, especially in the evenings! I met up with some of the group there, for dinner and a few drinks, before we parted ways, as many were leaving the next day.
The following morning didn’t get off to the best start. After Table Mountain, the other attraction I’d been most recommended to go to was Robben Island, just off the coast of the city, where political prisoners, including Mandela, were held during apartheid, and now the tours are led by those same former prisoners. Having not had much history on the trip so far, I was definitely intrigued by this, and had booked tickets early, as it sells out. Unfortunately though, winds were too strong, making the sea rough, so my time slot was cancelled, and there were no other spaces that day. As I would be leaving the next day, I had no other choice but to skip it and take the refund. I was definitely disappointed, but again, something I’ll have to try to do if I go back in the future! I was still able to see the exhibition at the ferry gateway, explaining a little about the island’s history over the years, as it was used for other prisoners centuries ago, and for lepers for a time, before becoming the political apartheid prison, so that was very interesting!
The bus ticket I’d bought the day before including a boat cruise though, with the choice of harbour or canal, so I decided to give that a try instead – I didn’t think I was going to have time for it, but now I had a few hours spare. I chose the harbour option, which was a half hour cruise, and the audio guide explained the history of the harbour and many notable buildings around the area, including the V&A. This made mention of the city’s colonial history, V&A standing for Victoria & Alfred, her second son who visited the harbour during its construction in the 19th century. It also talked about the Antarctic expeditions that leave from here, and the natural wildlife – there were some fur seals bobbing about in the water too. After that, I grabbed some snacks from a supermarket in the area, and then took the blue bus line. This is the longest route, that goes all the way around Table Mountain, to some of the other attractions further out of the city. As we travelled around the mountain, the clear sunny skies soon disappeared behind thick, grey clouds, obscuring Devil’s Peak almost entirely – it was startling how different it could be on one side of the mountain compared to the other. The bus passed Mostert’s Mill, the Presidential Genadendal Residence, and the University campus including Groote Schuur Hospital, where the world’s first heart transplant took place.
I disembarked at Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, on the slopes of Table Mountain National Park. The Cape Floral Region covers much of the Cape Peninsula, and the Gardens are home to many of the plants in this rich ecosystem. I spent a little time wandering through them, along hidden paths, under leafy canopies, and alongside calm ponds, all on gently sloping hills. My main purpose for coming here though was to meet up with Emma, a friend of mine who I’d met while teaching in Hong Kong, originally from South Africa but she now still lives in Hong Kong. We were very lucky that our trips managed to coincide like this, as I hadn’t been sure we’d get the chance to see each other, and it’s been a couple of years now! She was having a picnic there with several other friends from in and around Cape Town, and had invited me along. After being so busy for the last couple of weeks, it was nice to just relax outside for a few hours, and especially to catch up with her again, even if it did get a little chilly in the shade!
Around mid-afternoon, we left Kistenbosch again, and I continued the blue bus route all the way around Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles, back into the city. We passed Imizamo Yethu, a township just outside the city, where you can hop off and take a guided tour, but I wasn’t going to have enough time for that unfortunately. The bus stopped in Hout’s Bay for a while, which was slightly annoying as it felt like a waste of time, before continuing up the Atlantic Seaboard, joining up with the same red route I’d done the day before, although I was pleased to notice that some of the audio commentary was slightly different this time. The sun was back out on this side as well, so it was a nice ride sitting on the top deck! I got off at the V&A Waterfront again, and went for another look in the craft market, having only passed through it quickly the night before. By this point of my trip, I had currency to use up, so I splurged on a couple of things, including a small wall print and some jewellery.
It was getting late in the afternoon now, but I figured I’d have just enough time to check out the yellow route on the bus, the only one I hadn’t done yet – I hadn’t originally planned to do all the routes, but since Robben Island had cancelled, I’d had to switch my plans around a bit anyways. I had hoped to do the free walking tour of downtown, but I’d missed the last one due to the bus stopping so long in Hout’s Bay, so the yellow route was the only other way to see it and get some information at the same time. I was glad I did though, as the audio guide told me a lot more about apartheid than I’d come across so far. The downtown area includes District Six, a large plot of land where the first houses were demolished during apartheid, to force all people of colour (not just black people) out of the city centre, and the land now remains empty as a reminder. The only buildings left are a church and a mosque, which no one could bring themselves to tear down. The route also passed by several other churches and museums, the Town Hall, and the Castle of Good Hope, taking half an hour or so, before returning me to Long Street. After that, I didn’t do much else besides grab some food, and wander back to my hostel for an early night!
On my final day in South Africa, I would have to leave for the airport early afternoon, so I still had the morning free. I had decided to do a Cape Peninsula tour – mostly to go see the penguins, but there were some other interesting stops as well. Normally these are full day tours, but I’d found a half day option with African Eagle. I had assumed this would cover less ground than a full day option, but it turned out we did all the same stops, expect any lunch break, we just had far less time at each one. It definitely felt a bit rushed, especially with the driver constantly reminding us to be quick or making comments about beating the larger coaches so we weren’t delayed. I would recommend setting aside a full day for this, if possible, to be able to relax and take your time a bit more, as I felt quite stressed at times, but for the limited time I had, this did cover all the main places, and the guide was very informative as we went.
We drove south out of the city, past Hout’s Bay again, to travel along Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the most scenic drives in this area. We made a quick photo stop looking back over Hout’s Bay, a very impressive viewpoint indeed! Then, the road continued along the hillside, almost carved into the rocks, with roofing installed over it to protect vehicles from the rocks overhead. We continued along the western coast of the cape, passing many scenic towns and beaches, down into Cape Point National Park. First, we stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, which in all honesty, was kind of disappointing. This is the most southwestern point in Africa, but it’s just a rocky beach with a sign showing the coordinates – after Cape Agulhas, not that exciting. It was a brief stop though, just for photos, before rushing on to the next stop.
Cape Point was definitely more interesting to me, the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula. Here, the vans all have to drop off in a car park and then it’s a short uphill walk to the lighthouse overlooking the Point. We did all have to walk quickly to get up and back in time, but I managed fine. The lighthouse has one of the those signs, displaying distance to other cities around the world, and looks down to the rock jutting out below, which is the very end of the cape. The views here are also much more impressive, looking out to the Atlantic Ocean and a nearby beach on the west side, and into False Bay on the east, and another shoreline all the across the bay. It was a much more scenic spot than Good Hope was, and I enjoyed the brisk walk up and down hill, to stretch my legs after being in the van all morning.
Finally, we drove out of the national park again and continued back up the eastern side of the cape, to Simonstown. This seemed like a very picturesque location, with cute houses and shops, looking out on to perfect blue waters, an idyllic seaside town. I imagine this is where the full day tours stop for a couple of hours, to have lunch and do some shopping and relax a while, and I certainly would have liked to have spent longer there. But, time wasn’t on my side, so we all prioritised the main attraction of the town, Boulders Beach, where a colony of African penguins live! I had only discovered there were penguins in Africa a couple of weeks before taking this trip, so I was pretty excited about seeing them, and it was the main reason I’d wanted to do this peninsula tour. The beach itself was very pretty, white sand and turquoise waters, and there were dozens and dozens of penguins to be found there! Many were lounging in the sun, or sitting on their eggs in their nests, but I very much enjoyed watching those in the water, almost using the waves to surf their way on to land, before uprighting themselves and waddling over the sand. We had about twenty minutes to watch them and take photos, before returning to the van and racing back up the road to Cape Town itself.
From there, I had some lunch back at the hostel, having already checked out my room that morning, and then was able to change and organise my bags a little before heading to the airport, to catch that long flight home again. It was an interesting trip, and although I would have changed the itinerary on some of it, as previously mentioned, I could still appreciate this beautiful country. I would have liked to have experience more history and culture as well, but I appreciate that it still a raw subject for the country. There’s definitely a few things I’d look to go back and do in future, hopefully as a self-drive trip with one of my friends from there. I enjoyed the whole experience overall though, and it was definitely a much-needed break to reset and recharge, after a busy few months of work!
Click here for the entire South Africa series.