Cape Town


Relaxing on the patio at The Backpack, an urban hostel in the center of Cape Town, the sun beamed hard on my face and despite the sweat seeping into my dress I pressed on. Its hard work but I embraced the heat and got on with my mission. I will get tan. Reading J. Maarten Troost’s Getting Stoned with Savages I pictured myself on the island of Vanuatu at the same time all while the Dutch guy sitting next to me interrupted at various intervals to ask about my travels. I was deep into my Kindle book again when I heard the front gate close and a voice I recognized enthusiastically shout “Lisa!!!! We’re in South Africa!” Jaime had finally arrived.

The Backpack, Cape Town

The Backpack

I looked up briefly, wiped the sweat from my brow and replied passively, “Oh, hey dude.” Despite my excitement to finally meet up with my travel partner half way around the world, her arriving from New York and me from Australia, it took a few minutes to actually sink in.

I had disembarked the evening before so had slept off my jet lag and already ventured about the city a bit that morning. After waking and not wanting to indulge in an activity that I know she would want to partake in too, the hospitable receptionist suggested I spend the time at the Old Biscuit Mill markets. They’re only open on Saturday and close by 1 pm so I was in luck, she wouldn’t have been able to go at another point on our trip anyway.

Lucky for me two Norwegian sisters were awaiting a cab for the very same place so I asked them if they minded if I tagged along. I had yet to venture out into town so wasn’t really sure how it all worked, taxis, tipping, walking alone etc so as long as they didn’t mind I was going to join.

I didn’t know what to expect but being in Africa and hearing the word market I had assumed it would be some sort of bazaar selling African trinkets. I love me some trinkets. It turned out that the Old Biscuit Mill is an old mill converted into trendy boutique stores and eateries, with food stalls selling the likes of fresh coconuts to gourmet cupcakes, stinky cheeses to delectable meats, olives and mushrooms and sandwiches made to order. More or less, a foodie’s version of heaven. Interestingly enough, it also is a place where the chic and fabulous spend their Saturday afternoons sipping beers and catching up with friends. Yes, South African hipsters do exist. Who knew?

The following day Jaime and I embarked on an adventure that I can honestly say was the most physically challenging thing I had ever done – we climbed Table Mountain. Depending on whom you ask about their experience, or lack of, about climbing the flat-topped Cape Town landmark you’re bound to get different responses. Some snickered at the idea of us taking 2.5 hours to reach the summit via Platteklip Gorge, the most direct and shortest route of 3 kilometers, while others showed their shock and admiralty as they themselves have only reached the summit by the tourist shuffler known as the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway that races from the bottom up when the weather cooperates.

the view from the top of the Table Mountain Cable Way

The view from the top of the Table Mountain Cable Way

We prepared with 3 large bottles of water, some fresh fruit, a salad and some cheese and crackers to picnic on once we reached the top. I bent down and performed a few stretches, we snapped some photos at the onset and then we were off! 5 steps in I said, “Um, is it just me or you out of breath already too?” Jaime at least had been training for the NYC Marathon that unfortunately got canceled due to Hurricane Sandy; I had been training by lifting the pint glass to my mouth and dining out multiple times a week.

Jaime climbing along meets some other hikers

Jaime climbing along meets some other hikers

 

Trekking up was breathtaking as we stomped from rock to rock admiring flowing waterfalls, striking fauna and even little surprise critters that jumped out on occasion. With each steep step up, the views of Cape Town got more and more stunning. A half hour in I’m feeling mighty proud looking out but how naive I was about how much further we still had to go. Mistake # 1 may have been departing the base at 1 pm, sun at its peak, temperature in the mid 30’s Celsius, nearly 90’s Fahrenheit. Lathering on sunscreen at break times, which honestly was less then every ten minutes, I was starting to feel the burn in more than one sense of the word. At a few points I was dizzy and felt faint. Yes, breaks were good and I was grateful we brought the fruit to supplement the sugar bleeding out of our pours.

Snacking, enjoying the view

Snacking, enjoying the view

During our break times those descending the mountain would give us words of encouragement like “great job, you’re half way there!” Actually, it seemed as if no matter how much further we climbed the next person we passed would enthusiastically tell us we were half way there. Hmm, it didn’t help me feel any closer to the top. Then someone said, “Your nearly there, and there’s beers up there too!” Talk about motivation. Eventually 2.5 hours from the start, with defeated breath, dirty hands and a poor sun tan we had reached the summit!  

Top of Table Mountain

We finally reached the top!

Table Mountain provides one Africa’s most impressive views. Looking down from the top you can span Cape Town to the Camps Bay beaches to Lion’s Head mountain and Robben Island. Perched over one of the edges Jaime and finally relaxed, took in the epic scenery, and chowed down on our picnic. We calmly watched a climber abseil the side of the mountain munching on cheese and crackers. Tourists scrambled all over the plateau to admire the views, dine at the eatery and shop at the gift store. I felt small and defeated sitting on that ledge looking out, but damn proud looking around knowing that none of the fanny-pack wearing German tourists had any idea what we just did. It was magnificent.

 

On top of the world!

On top of the world!

Coincidently one of Jaime’s colleagues from an investment bank in New York was also in town with 3 other New York investment bankers. It was nice to have some acquaintances to socialize with so we met them in trendy Camps Bay for dinner that night. Lit up, streets lined with palm trees parallel to the ocean it looked as if we could be in California or Miami Beach. We watched the sun set against the backdrop of Table Mountain and it was absolutely spectacular. For a Sunday evening, Café Caprice was off the walls, lines down the street, music pumping. It didn’t seem like we were going to get in any time soon so we found a lovely little tapas bar where we sipped fine wine and made friendly conversation with the New York boys.

 

Camps Bay, Cape Town

Camps Bay on a Sunday night

At this point on our trip it was time to educate ourselves a bit more on the culture. That evening we ended up on Long Street, the Bourbon Street of Cape Town with bright neon lights, club music, and street hustlers. The next morning it was off to Robben Island, which is Dutch for Seal Island, to get a better understanding of the history of South Africa.

Robbin Island

Our Robben Island Tour Guide

After arriving at Robben Island by ferry, the tour began with all passengers boarding buses to separate everyone into smaller groups. Half of the tour was conducted on the bus in which the guide shared information about the history of the island and pointed out a few historical landmarks before getting everyone up to speed on island life as it is today. The other part was on foot, where we were led about the prison by a former prisoner who depicted what life was like living on Robben Island, a place that the final prisoners left as recent as 1996. At one point former President Nelson Mandela spent close to 20 years imprisoned there amongst other political activists fighting against Apartheid. Although the tour was fascinating, I left feeling a bit empty, as if critical details were left out, especially for tourists who don’t know the full history of the Apartheid era.

Bukhara, Cape Town

Group dinner at Bukhara

This was our last full day in Cape Town so we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the tourist haven V&A Waterfront. We dined on delectable sushi from Caviar for lunch, and then after the tour we roamed the tourist shops and big name retailers. That evening was our last dinner with the New York boys so they booked us in for Indian at the fine dining restaurant Bukhara. $30 each got us a spread of the best dishes accompanied by multiple bottles of wine. You can’t go wrong with the conversion rate these dates.

As it was our last evening as well, Mercury Live & Lounge was meant to be the hot place for a Tuesday. Apparently it’s the hot place for 18 year-old college students. We didn’t fit in well considering the mid-thirties men we were with had their collared shirts contrasting university boys in skinny jeans. Was it also that we were feeling our age too? That music was just so darn loud! That left only one option of The Dubliner on popular Long Street for some good old fashion one-man-band jam set and draft beer.

After checking out of our hostel, we were back on South African time waiting nearly 1.5 hours to get our car rental from Avis. We were both a bit apprehensive as it had been about 6 years since either of us really properly drove. At least Jaime had a leg up on me for actually driving once on the left hand side of the road in the UK, but then again that was still five years ago. No more than ten minutes into our drive leaving the city center I felt a whoosh then heard a hard smack. Yup, that was the passenger side mirror. In a panic I urged her to keep going as we could deal with any damage to the vehicle at a later date, but we were lucky there wasn’t even a scratch.

Boulder's Beach, Cape Town

Boulder’s Beach

From there we drove to Cape Point, snapped pictures of huge rock structures at Boulder’s Beach and witnessed penguins shuffle themselves across the sand before driving to meet old friends in Paarl in the center of the wine lands (read about it here). It was day 4 and already we had experienced so much – from adrenaline rushes climbing Table Mountain to evening socializing with the New York boys to a history lesson at Robben Island.

Stay tuned to hear about our next leg on the Garden Route and then our Safari adventure.

A lekker reunion


In the summer of 2006 I was introduced to a culture I never knew existed. Whilst living in London an American friend had befriended a colleague who invited us to a South African bar in Leytonstone called Zulus (now unfortunately the Red Lion). It seemed like nearly every South African in London flocked to East London where they could bunch up 12 people in a 3 person flat and pay cheap rent – so Zulus was perfectly situated.

Zulus was a hole in the wall where Afrikaans from across London would meet regularly, braii (BBQ) next to the sand volleyball courts out the back, and sip on Savanna’s. Downstairs was a pub decorated in African trinkets with zebra fabric and wooden statues. Upstairs the club got too rowdy for my liking. At Zulus, you’re more likely to hear Afrikaans spoken over English. And it became our world.

From there slowly but shortly my close friends and I became dear friends with a household of South Africans. There were 6 guys and 3 girls living in poorly reputed Forest Gate in East London, and about 45 minutes west on the Tube sat our sad dwelling otherwise known as the Crack House on the cusp of posh Maida Vale and decrepit Kilburn Park. We were similarly 5 girls and 3 boys shacked up into 4 bedrooms.

Nearly every weekend we made the trip east, or vise versa, and became immersed in their South African customs. Days were spent laying in the sun, braiiing over wood boards in the backyard and learning how to say Afrikaans sayings like Hoe gaan dit? and lekker. At night, it was off to Zulus where we would be a select few American girls trying our Afrikaans out on foreign boys and dancing the traditional, ballroom-esque dance of langarming. Other weekends a handful of them would shack up at ours, bodies sprawled out on couch cushions haphazardly on the floor after hosting our traditions of an American BBQ with red Solo cups and beer pong.

Christmas 2006 was my first Christmas away from home. Although sad to be away from friends and family, my best friend Emily and I couldn’t have had a better second option spending Christmas in Forest Gate amongst a plethora of South Africans who cooked us a traditional feast before heading off to Zulus and dancing the night away. Just 5 months later our Visa’s had expired and we had to head back to the States. Saying goodbye to our colleagues and closest American friends was hard, but saying goodbye to the South Africans was equally as depressing. We swore one day we’d make it to South Africa to see them again and experience their culture in their own country.

Prior to meeting them I had encountered a few South African whilst living in London in 2003 and Scotland in 2005, but experiencing the Afrikaans culture was very new to me. Friends and family at home curiously questioned when I told them about my new friends whether they were black or white. The ignorance of white African’s living in Africa was not assumed. Do they make clicking noises when they speak? I had never before heard of Apartheid – how is it that us Americans have been so sheltered from far-off monumental global affairs? I don’t recall my high-school history class going into detail about Nelson Mandela and the race struggle that is still so apparent today.

Since returning from London, both myself and my good friend Jaime have ventured overseas nearly every year continuing our travel legacies. This past November was the year, and Jaime and I prepared for our trip to South Africa. With only 16 days to make the most of an enormous country we planned and detailed our route. We’d spend a handful of days in the cosmopolitan of Cape Town, where mountains and sea create a unique city like none I’ve experienced anywhere before. From there, we’d drive to the wine lands to meet up with our old friends the boys, before road tripping the Garden Route on the Eastern Cape and ending with a 4 day safari in Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park.

Prior to arriving I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was told Johannesburg was a dangerous city, ranked 50 on the global scale and even walking around during the day was unadvisable, so we chose not to spend time there.  A ranking of 50 is bad, but my college city of Baltimore is rated worse. Carjacking and mugging is common in general apparently, and the police are corrupt. You’re better off paying off a cop to avoid a night in the slammer then facing what’s on the other side.

With blacks as the majority they rule the country. But did that mean we necessarily should have something to fear? Many acquaintances we met along our travels were bitter – with the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program stating that those disadvantaged by Apartheid are given preference for jobs before a white person – our friends fled to London in their 20s claiming there was no work and earning the pound allowed for a solid sum to send home to their families. In South Africa, a black person is black, a mixed person is colored, and Indians and some Chinese are classified under this rule. Saying your black or white isn’t taboo. You don’t look over your shoulder wondering if someone overheard and thinks you’re being racist. It is reality and government decisions are based on race. With that said, many question current policy leaders.

The reality for us then constituted, what is safe? Are we supposed to tip toe around and fear everything and everyone? What happened to giving the benefit of the doubt first, and judging second? This was a topic Jaime and I discussed in detail every night before we went to bed. Even locals say they fear walking the streets. Is this all a bit of paranoia or is it really as bad as they say?

Amongst the various travelers we met on our journey, from a middle-aged Afrikaans couple, to Irish sweethearts, a young South African miner to random people on the street – it was always a topic of conversation. “Two young white girls like you have to be careful.” “Don’t stop for anyone, lock your doors every time you get in the car, and hide the GPS.” “Take a taxi, even though its two blocks, always take a taxi.” Ultimatley, we opted for better safe than sorry. But I still question, is that a way to live? We felt it from the bottom of the country all the way to the top. In the end however, the people we met from tour operators to restaurant owners to taxi drivers to people in bars, the South Africans provided a warm and interesting experience.

Cape Point

L&J and Cape Point

On our fourth day we rented a car in Cape Town and headed to Cape Point, one of the most southerly points in Africa. I let Jaime do the driving at the onset and played navigator often providing friendly reminders about being on the other side of the road despite the GPS as we headed south. By the time we reached Cape Point the fog and rain had cleared and we hiked to the top of the lighthouse, weary of the Beware of Baboon signs sticking out from the bush. The guys had warned us to leave early, the 3 of them calling throughout the day pressing how horrific Cape Town traffic could be. But at this point, we were already late.

South African Baboons

Baboons!

Driving out from the Cape Point lighthouse traffic was a stand still. Would you believe it? Baboons! A truck was stopped just two cars ahead and had baboons hanging off its passenger side. Others aimlessly walked in the road, then scurried into the bush with a baby clinging to its chest. We sat there for about 15 minutes, snapping photos and admiring the vulgar, aggressive animals. Yup, we were definitely going to be late.

Finally, hours later we arrived at our old friend Cedric’s house in Paarl, situated in the center of the beautiful wine lands. Standing in the driveway awaiting our arrival with a beer in his hand, I nearly cried when he picked me up and spun me around. “I know you like beers,” he said, and we went inside.

After a bit of catching up, we were desperately late arriving to the braii at Jacques after 8 pm. Then again, we were on South African time. Being with Ced and his wife Althea, Jacques and Felicity and their new daughter Mackenzie, and Derek and his girlfriend felt like old times in London. We sat for hours reminiscing about the these times – each of us remembering different stories in a variety of detail. I even thanked them for speaking English with us around, as it is their second language. By the time the braii got going, and man do South Africans like their meat, it was after 10 pm on a Tuesday night. They say South Africa comes second to Argentina when it comes to meat consumption.

south african friends

Old friends, good times

Since leaving London at some point over the past 6 years we’ve all grown up a bit, but it still was as if none of the important stuff had changed. The guys are all married now, in their mid-thirties, and Jaime and I despite our cubicle-life, Ced’s right, we do like beers.

Paarl winelands

Paarl winelands

The following morning Ced and Althea took the day off of work to tour us around the wine region. From Paarl to Stellenbosch we took our time sampling wine and cheese from 4 different wineries, while Ced kindly did the driving. I was delighted to be introduced to pinotage, a South African red staple, which a bottle from Rhebokskloof Estate had to come with me.

snoek

Snoek!

That evening, we sat around the braii in the front yard as Ced cooked the snoek, a common fish found in the southern hemisphere and we had another late dinner relaxing in the summer breeze. The next morning, saying good bye was sad, it all went so fast. From here on out we were on our own in South Africa again, and Jaime and I began our road trip on the Garden Route, just her and I on the open road.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on Cape Town, the Garden Route, and our African Safari.

Good Hope FM

Road tripping to Good Hope FM