But For the Sky
31Oct/11Off

Cape Town

We're sorry for the lack of updates lately, but we've been too busy experiencing all that South Africa has to offer (not to mention that much of our accommodation has been off the electric grid, running on solar power, wind power, or generators, to say nothing of Internet access). We hope to get a few posts up in the next few days as we dig out of the backlog.

Coming directly to Cape Town from Buenos Aires turned out to be an excellent introduction to this amazing continent. Although the city lacks much of the "real Africa" sensibility we would see further along, it had plenty of its own life, and the vibrant music scene, great food, gorgeous setting, and intimate and easily-navigable size made it an easy place to spend a week, and gave us time to plan our next days and weeks. We split our time Couchsurfing in the nearby suburb of Woodstock and staying in a backpackers' (what South Africans call a hostel) located between the bustling nightlife area of Long Street and the quieter upscale residential area called Gardens. Our Couchsurfing host, Will, was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and we enjoyed learning a bit about South African pastimes from him (especially rugby and cricket) as well as cooking a few meals together.

Cape Town at Night

Before we move to specifics, a few overall impressions that really struck us were how friendly the people are (there was no shortage of people offering to help us find our way or give us a ride so we didn't have to call a taxi), how beautiful the surroundings are, and how interesting the mix of African, Indian, Dutch, and British culture is. But it wouldn't be fair to only paint a rosy picture of the area; there is stark poverty as well. The area's poorest residents live outside the city in townships: huge areas crowded with small shacks that have been thrown together from scrap materials. It is striking how a township can be located right next to a wealthy area: the neighborhoods may share the same beautiful settings on hills or overlooking the water, but that is about all they have in common. In some respects Cape Town seems incredibly rich; for instance, the tourism offices are incredibly helpful and full of free materials for tourists, the roads are well kept, the sidewalks and parks are some of the nicest we've ever seen, and the tap water is drinkable. On the other hand, there are plenty of beggars as well as opportunists. An example of the latter is the parking attendants we encountered everywhere: they "help" you get into a parking spot and are expected to be paid for "watching" your car, even if it is the middle of the day, you only parked for ten minutes, and the lot is extremely secure.

The city's setting is one of its most striking qualities: with the looming cliffs of Table Mountain, Lion's Head, and Signal Hill surrounding the city, and a bustling and still-working port and coastline, it reminded us of both Rio de Janiero and San Francisco. We were able to take advantage of two of the three great spots to overlook the city: a steep but short hike up Lion's Head afforded spectacular views of both the city center and the small beach suburbs and coastline, and an evening drive up Signal Hill on our last night in town rewarded us with the beautiful sunset over the ocean that proved quite elusive during our week-long stay due to the unpredictable weather.

Claudia Standing on Cape Town

What Cape Town may lack in traditional influence, it makes up for with some of the traditional pleasures you'd expect in a city of its size. We had some great food and heard some good music, two of our biggest passions. Cape Town's most traditional food is probably a cuisine known as Cape Malay: a fusion of African ingredients with Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian spices and sensibilities. We got our introduction at a small, family-run place called Biesmiellah in the colorful muslim neighborhood of Bo Kaap, where we sampled denning vleis (a lamb dish in a sweet and flavorful sauce that tasted a bit like raisins), moong dhal (a spicy lentil dish), and koeksisters (fried dough balls). Second, while not a South African specialty by any measure, we had a hamburger so good it bears mentioning. The Royale Eatery is a pretty unassuming place, with tasteful but sparse decoration, but they really put their focus on their burger. Mine came with gherkins, and a spicy chili sauce, and Claudia got hers basted in their special sauce with grilled mushrooms and cheese. Both were cooked to perfection, juicy and flavorful, and came on homemade buns of just the right consistency. Top it off with wonderful sweet potato fries and a delicious milkshake for dessert and you've got a winning combination.

Bo Kaap House

We caught two concerts while in Cape Town. One was a band called Mr. Cat and the Jackal at a wonderful venue on Long Street, The Waiting Room. Our Couchsurfing host, Will, invited us to come to the show with him and a few friends. The band reminded us a bit of Devotchka, but with a more story-telling edge. The venue was intimate but open at the same time: the main room had sofas to sit on (a nice bonus!) and opened up to a big balcony overlooking Long Street. A few days later we caught a couple local bands at another venue, Mercury Live. Here we were reminded a bit of our age, since most of the patrons were about ten years younger than us, and at lest three sheets to the wind when we arrived at around 10 pm. It was entertaning to say the least, and we enjoyed the first band, Pretty Blue Guns.

Besides eating and seeing live shows, we also visited the District Six mueseum and Robben Island. The museum explains the history of the forced evictions of non-whites from the District Six neighborhood during the '60s and '70s. The area had been a thriving neighborhood of mixed race, but the government evicted some 50,000 people, moved them far from the city, and bulldozed almost all of the houses and buildings. However, due to the horrific manner in which people were forced out of their homes, no one wanted to move into the area because of the stigma, and today it remains mostly just a large grassy area. Another interesting foray into South Africa's history was our visit to Robben Island, which was a prison for several decades. Its most famous prisoner was of course Nelson Mandela, who was there from 1963 to 1981. While the tour itself was a bit rushed, all the tour guides are former prisoners themselves, so they are really able to speak from their own experiences when describing every day prison life.

Courtyard at Robben Island

After a couple days of strolling around the city's best neighborhoods and getting our history fix, and before we had our rental car, we decided to spend a day seeing the city's surroundings' best sites from the open-top sightseeing bus. Before taking this trip, we were under the opinion that these busses were overpriced tourist traps, but after being told by a local that it was a great experience that he and his friends sometimes even took advantage of, and that one of the two available routes made stops at the botanical garden, a winery, and a few coastal towns we were interested in, we decided to take the plunge, and we're glad we did.

Our first stop was Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, the idea of Cecil Rhodes, it's a sprawling and beautiful place that was once voted the seventh-best garden in the world. We wandered through gardens displaying scented, useful, and endangered plants, as well as a few devoted to the unique ecosystems belonging only to the cape. Did you know that South Africa is the only country which houses an entire Kingdom of plants? We then visited the Groot Constantia wine estate located in a beautiful setting in one of the area's most rich neighborhoods, Constantia. We then continued on through Hout Bay to Camps Bay, taking in the views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Twelve Apostles of Table Mountain on both sides of us.

Flowers in Kirstenbosch

Overall, we loved Cape Town, and will definitely be back for more. After all, due to the weather, we never even made it up to the top of Table Mountain! It was a wonderful introduction to South Africa and got us excited to spend a month here.

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Posted by Nick