But For the Sky

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Western Cape: From False Bay to Oudtshoorn

One regret we have about the start of the African leg of our journey is not renting our car sooner. Cape Town is a wonderful city, but many of its best attractions lie outside it and are only accessible by car (or expensive taxi). We spent our first two days with the car not more than a few hours from Cape Town, and could easily have spent two more.

Our first driving day, after a dicey few hours of getting used to driving on the left side of the road, was spent to Cape Town's south and east, around False Bay and Cape Peninsula. We first headed southeast along the coast, stopping a few times on the high bluffs to survey the bay for whales and surfers, unfortunately only seeing the latter. Then we turned around and headed to Cape Town's southern suburbs on the bay's western side: Kalk Bay and Simon's Town.

In Kalk Bay, we strolled around the functional fishing village's streets and admired the local crafts. We saw everything from decorative fish and giraffes to cars, boats, and (working!) model radios made from scrap metal and colored telephone wire. One thing that has come to be a theme in South Africa is the extreme recycling ethos; it seems that anything that can be reused or repurposed is, bringing a refreshing and inspiring feel to everything from crafts and toys to living spaces. We settled on a bustling outdoor seafood restaurant right on the pier for a late lunch of fish and chips. As you'd expect from a former British colony, the fish was fresh, flavorful, and fried to perfection, and every table had a big bottle of malt vinegar on it.

Fishing Boats in Kalk Bay

Fishing Boats in Kalk Bay

We next moved on to Simon's Town to visit with the famous colony of African penguins living there. These were bigger than the Galapagos penguins we saw in July, and we were able to get closer to them, but they shared the same adorable awkwardness. After watching them frolic, cuddle, and worship the sun for warmth, we moved on towards Cape Point.

Penguin in Simon's Town

Penguin in Simon's Town

Cape Point, also known as the Cape of Good Hope, is an outcropping of rock made famous by centuries of European sailors headed from the Old World to the Indies for tea, spices, whales, and other commodities. Interestingly, it is neither the southernmost point in Africa, nor the division between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, distinctions held by Cape Agulhas, about 200 km east. Unfortunately we got there too late to enter the National Park which protects the Point, but we were rewarded with a spectacular drive up the peninsula's Atlantic coast, known as Chapman's Peak drive. We spent our final night in Cape Town having dinner with a good family friend who was in town for a conference. This was the first time we'd seen any of our friends on this trip and it was so wonderful to spend time with her; it felt a little bit like being home.

Armed with a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats for the rest of our South Africa trip, we bid farewell to Cape Town and started driving north to the West Coast National Park. The park is best known for colorful wildflowers that drape its hills in Spring. We were a bit late for the traditional blooming season, but due to an abnormally long and wet winter, we had hopes that the flowers would still be around. Unfortunately that was not the case, but we were rewarded nonetheless with some spectacular scenery which we had nearly to ourselves, as well as our first taste of wildlife viewing: Claudia is learning to drive on a manual transmission, and soon after entering the park I stopped to demonstrate some point about shifting into first gear, when I turned to the side and was surprised to see three ostrich poking their inquisitive heads up mere feet from our car! We wrapped up our visit with a beach picnic and a wade in a crystal-clear lagoon of a color we thought was reserved only for the Caribbean.

Peeking Ostriches in West Coast National Park

Peeking Ostriches in West Coast National Park

Then it was on to Stellenbosch, in South Africa's famous wine region. We stopped in for tastings at two vineyards near Paarl that afternoon: Seidelberg and Fairview (the latter also had goats and delicious cheeses). The next morning we visited two more near Stellenbosch: The House of JC LeRoux, a fancy and modern sparkling wine producer, and Muratie, an old and traditional winery which also had delicious port. Being familiar with wine culture and customs from our many trips to Virginia's nascent wine region as well as California's and Oregon's, not to mention our forays into Argentinian wine in Cafayate and Mendoza, we were excited to check a third continent off our wine-production checklist. Like the rest of South Africa, we found the wineries and their employees outgoing, friendly, and refreshingly laid-back (as compared, at least, to the snooty atmosphere in California's Napa Valley).

Valley Near Stellenbosch

Valley Near Stellenbosch

Wine Bottles & 40-Year Old Cobwebs at Muratie

Wine Bottles & 40-Year Old Cobwebs at Muratie

Our next stop brought us to Montagu, a small town in a picturesque valley dotted with historic buildings. It being one of Southern Africa's premier climbing spots, we stayed at a climber-friendly backpackers' called De Bos Farm, where we pitched our tent and shared the grass with multiple dogs, horses, peacocks, and guinea hens. We were hoping to tick off some ascents, but rain changed our plans (although flipping through the guide book and not finding much in our beginner-to-intermediate range softened the blow a bit). As it is, Montagu will best be remembered for providing us with our introduction to South African cooking in a dish called bobotjie, and for its dried fruit factory furnishing us with plenty of road-snacks.

Historic Building in Montagu

Historic Building in Montagu

On the way to our last stop before reaching the Garden Route, we stopped by the famous Ronnie's Sex Shop, which our couchsurfing host in Cape Town had told us about. Apparently Ronnie's Shop was just a small store with basic goods on an empty stretch of Route 62, but one night his friends painted the word "sex" into his shop sign, and the rest is history: the place became famous and is now a divey bar decorated in panties and bras women have left there. The walls are also plastered in business cards and photos.

Ronnie's Sex Shop

Ronnie's Sex Shop

After taking a few photos, we made our way to Oudtshoorn, famous for an intricate set of caves, and for a collection of ostrich farms, of which we only had time to visit the ostriches. In the 1920s the popularity of ostrich feathers in European and American fashion created a boom in their farming in this region with the perfect climate, and made a few men, known as feather barons, very rich. Interest has waned somewhat, but the farms remain active as one of the world's biggest sources of ostrich feathers, meat, and tourism. First we learned more than we ever hoped to know about the world's largest flightless bird: for example that the eggs' shells are thick enough to support a grown man's weight, that mothers break and eat their own eggs for calcium (a revolting spectacle that we had the dubious luck to witness), that there used to be a bigger flightless bird in Madagascar, that is now extinct, and that its tiny brain weighs only 40 grams, while one of its eyes weighs 60 grams, making it a pretty stupid bird with pretty great eyesight. We then moved on to the main attraction: riding the huge beasts. Sitting atop such an enormous bird was an incredible (and incredibly strange) experience, and, well, I'll let Claudia's squeals tell the rest of the story:

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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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