I wasn’t sure what to expect of Cape Town. I had visions of mist-shrouded, rugged mountains rearing up over a coastal city lined with white sand beaches. But was that Cape Town? Or somewhere else? Was I getting it confused with Rio de Janeiro?
And Nelson Mandela. His name and/or image seemed somehow associated with the place. But that could just be an association with South Africa?
And was it the Dutch who were there? Or was it the British?
All these ideas spun around in my head, confusing me. Cape Town is just so far from everything – it’s like Australia in that way; on edge of the world – that I had little to go on, little foreknowledge to rely upon. I was in the dark.
But keen to be enlightened.
The mist-shrouded, rugged mountains are certainly there. Hard to miss. See them as soon as you step out of your door in the morning. See them from the plane before you land most likely. Although it’s clouds that enfold them – they make their own – rather than mist.
If you’re in a ship, and several miles out at sea, and you turn your head to take a look at this coastline, then these mountains appear to have a wide, flat top. Hence the name: Table Mountain. Up close the mountains are wild, craggy, precipitous. A great place for lovers of the outdoors.
Get to the top with a cable car. Walk the multitude of trails. Enjoy the stunning views. Spot the hyrax.
Rock Hyrax, dassies to the locals, are the small, perpetually-grumpy-looking terrestrial mammals that inhabit the summit. Their closest living relative is the elephant. Perhaps that’s why they’re so grumpy?
Lion’s Head, one of the lower peaks of the Table Mountain range, is named so because it is thought to resemble a crouching lion or sphinx. The low ridge that comes off it and trails away to the north was called Leeuwen Staart by the Dutch, meaning Lion’s Tail.
Nelson Mandela served 18 years of his 27 year jail term in the prison on Robben Island, which is otherwise just a low, flat, featureless island seven kilometres offshore from Cape Town. Many other political prisoners were held here over the years, including Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, and Jacob Zuma, current president of South Africa.
The island was used as a prison – along with other purposes, such as leper colony, mental institute, military base, and quarantine station – from as far back as the 1600s. It shut it doors for good in 1996.
Nowadays it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has become a major tourist attraction. Tours are led by former political prisoners who provide an interesting insight into the workings and historical significance of the prison. Tours of the island stop at Nelson Mandela’s cell, as well as the quarry where he was sent to do hard labour.
Company’s Garden, Cape Town
It was the Dutch. They were the first European settlers on the Cape.
The Dutch East Indies Company established a colony here in 1652 to be used as a way station for ships plying the spice trade route. Ships would layover at Cape Town for a few days and stock up on victuals before continuing on to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).
Company’s Garden is a large, leafy public park, eight hectares in size, situated in the very centre of Cape Town. It was created by Dutch settlers in the 17th Century, and abuts many grand historic buildings, including the Houses of Parliament, Slave Lodge (where slaves were housed during the 17th-19th Centuries), St George’s Cathedral, the Great Synagogue, and the Iziko South African Museum.
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town
The Dutch were the first Europeans on the Cape, but the British snatched Cape Town from their grasp in 1795. They lost it back to the Dutch in 1803, but got it back again in 1806.
Construction of Victoria & Alfred Waterfront kicked off in 1860. The first port constructed was named after Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; the second was named after his mother, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
The port buildings have been repurposed in modern times and are now filled with shopping malls and restaurants. It’s a very popular spot for tourists, and you can also spot the odd South African Fur Seal using the waterfront facilities.
Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
These colourful houses are part of Bo-Kaap, also known as the Malay Quarter. This neighbourhood is the historical centre for the Cape Malay community, who were first brought to the Cape as slaves from the Dutch East Indies.
Auwal Mosque, on Dorp St, was built in 1794, and is considered to be the oldest mosque in South Africa. Aside from the mosque the district is predominately residential.
Truth Coffee, Cape Town
A more recent addition to the city.
I wouldn’t ordinarily include a cafe in a post, but never before have I seen the steampunk genre done so well, and thus I thought it deserved a mention.
Just around the corner from downtown Cape Town are the affluent beachside suburbs of Clifton and Camps Bay.
These are without a doubt the prettiest beaches in Cape Town, with clean white sand, clear water, and picturesque parklands.
The display of wealth here can be a little unsettling though, when you consider the enormous conglomeration of slums and shanty towns on Cape Flats, where unemployment is as high as 50%, and where 30% have to walk more than 200 metres to access water, are located less than ten kilometres away.
Chapmans Peak Drive
Rent a car (or jump on a tour bus), head south past Clifton and Camps Bay, continue past the scenic promontory of Oudekraal and the small village of Llandudno, and you’ll eventually arrive at Hout Bay, where there is another pretty beach and many more rugged mountains.
Chapmans Peak Drive is a scenic roadway that winds its way around the very edge of the coastline. It was closed for several years due to rockfall, but it’s open again, and offers superb views of Hout Bay. Enjoy the views of the mountains. Enjoy the views of the coastline. Enjoy the views of the sea. Enjoy the views of the sun-baking agama lizards.