Cape Town had a big reputation to live up to. Named by The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph as the best place in the world to visit in 2014, it served as our final destination on our four-week journey across the southern part of the continent.
Up, up, up we go to Table Mountain
With the afternoon free to ourselves, we set our sights on Table Mountain. Despite warnings about the distance and steep grades from the somewhat unhelpful staff at our hostel, we decided to ignore them and walk from our hostel’s doorstep to the top of that mountain.
I have to admit it was a more difficult hike than I thought it would be. That being said, Sophie and I had unknowingly trained ourselves up for this exact hike with countless lunges and squats and handful of long runs throughout the trip.
Traversing across the mountain via the Upper Contour Path to Platteklip Gorge, we booked it up the mountain from Lower Cable Station in just shy of two hours. Our reward was some breathtaking views.
First impressions of Cape Town
After a final dinner with the group, many hugs, and Facebook friend requests, we switched to our new hostel 91 Loop in the heart of the business district. Sophie and I were officially on our own. It was both freeing and overwhelming.
There’s so much to do in Cape Town. It was a challenge to figure out how best to spend our two days. My goals included as many of the following as possible:
- Township tour
- District Six Museum
- Free walking tour
- Robben Island
- Botanic garden
Luckily an STA representative was sitting in her office in our new hostel. Despite our tall order, she made it all seem possible. She directed us to our best option of a hop-on, hop-off city sightseeing tour to knock off both the botanic garden and the township tour.
The blue line’s ‘Mini Peninsula Tour’ was also a great way to see some suburbs of Cape Town. So, off we scurried to buy our tickets for those iconic cherry red double decker buses.
One sightseeing bus tour, please
Our first stop was the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, where we aimlessly meandered through the garden, enjoying the greenery. While Sophie will point out that I was originally less than thrilled to add this to our to-do list, it ended up being something I really enjoyed.
The garden’s biggest emphasis is on the importance of cultivating indigenous plants. Unknowingly, I had just read a book on that very topic.
That book, Unbowed, is a memoir written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. The founder of the Green Belt Movement, this incredible Kenyan environmental activist wrote the beautiful yet tragic story about the destruction of her homeland through deforestation. She shared how foreign trees contributed to the overall destruction of Kenya’s environment as she knew it. She started the Green Belt Movement to introduce back and restore the health of her family’s home. It was kind of a happy accident to see this place educating the South African community on the same message that Wangari was so passionately voicing in Kenya.
Our next stop was supposed to be the Imizamo Yethu township. There, we would be picked up by a local tour guide who would take us around. A township, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an underdeveloped area established during apartheid for non-white groups.
Today these areas still experience overcrowding and poor living conditions. Shacks are built illegally with no regulation, leading to lack of access to basic resources like sewage, electricity, and clean water.
High crime still exists in the area, so it wasn’t safe for Sophie or I to go alone. Unfortunately, there was no tour guide waiting at the bus stop and our bus driver wouldn’t let us out and waited only 15 seconds before moving on.
A quick readjustment of plans, we got off at the next stop to see Hout Bay, a suburb of Cape Town.
Nearing the end of our daily tolerance of sightseeing, we hopped back on the bus, sat back, and enjoyed the rest of the bus ride to our end point of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. With African music playing in my ears, I got a much better sense of “the real Cape Town,” watching the daily life of locals from my birds eye view. All with the childlike joy of sunshine warming my face and a breeze cooling me down.
Bo Kaap colors speak to its history
Every little block in Cape Town has its own attitude, most likely in part to apartheid. Many have since embraced their heritage since reunification.
One area in particular that unabashedly wears its history on its sleeve so to speak is called Bo Kaap. This area is iconic in Cape Town because of its idyllic cobble-stoned streets and colored houses.
But to really understand this area, you have to look beyond its vivid facades. Beneath those layers of paint is a history lesson.
In 1760, a man named Jan de Waal bought a block of land in the area that is now Bo Kaap. He extended his ownership and built small huurhuisjes, or rental houses, on this land. He rented out these houses to his slaves.
At this time, the Dutch were accustomed to slaves. The local’s resistance made it easier to import their slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia, and other parts of Africa. The Cape Malays — as they were known — turned this area into a cultural home for themselves for over 300 years.
In 1950 the Group Areas Act, a main law of apartheid, designated this area as a Muslims-only area. A unique place, this was the only area so close to downtown for any working class communities.
After apartheid, it is said that those people who bought their houses back from the city took paintbrushes and the brightest color they knew to celebrate their freedom. This may not be the first time these houses had seen such vibrancy, as their ancestors had celebrated Eid, a Muslim holiday, in the same way.
What we’re left with today is a perfectly mismatched neighborhood with a cheeky vibe.
Unfortunately today, many people are being forced from their homes once again. An anomaly, the lower class community still lives in this area so close to the center city. That’s all changing now. Because of its location and kitschy nature, Bo Kaap is succumbing to the unrelenting hands of gentrification. Higher rent is forcing traditional Cape Malay families out and white South Africans in. It’s become such a problem that even Huff Post has something to say about it.
A free walking tour to remember
One of the best traveling tips I can give anyone is to look up free walking tours for any city you are visiting. These tours are always the best and they operate on a tips basis, so you pay what you can. Having done half a dozen of these already, I have to say you’ll learn things that you didn’t know you didn’t know.
We ended up choosing the Apartheid to Freedom tour, though if I’m being honest, I would have done all three had we had the time!
On this tour, we took a journey through the city’s dark past into its brighter future. I’ll admit that I was woefully ignorant of apartheid and its impact on the people of South Africa.
This tour deserves its own post, so I’ll keep my comments to a minimum for now. The same is true for our Robben Island excursion. There I heard the personal story of one political prisoner, Ntando.
A much-too-quick ending to our Cape Town adventures
I think the biggest takeaway from our time in Cape Town was something that our tour guide mentioned. Apartheid has shaped the culture of the people, and not always in a negative way. He spoke of how this horrible ugly thing still unifies them to this day. It’s something the community has survived together. It’s made them stronger.
I saw the South African people as a family looking out for each other. They’ve been through and overcome something that the world can’t understand. It binds them as a people and makes them stick together: white, colored, asian, or whatever. As a tourist, I felt like I was included in this community. People that Sophie and I interacted with had our back: telling us what to do, what not to do, where to go, and where not to go.
Cape Town is a beautiful city filled with people who survived a terrible history together. They chose to take pride in those events instead of ignoring it. It’s a beautiful lesson every nation should learn from.
All that’s said and done, we never did get to my Cape Town bucket list. Alas, it’s for the better. Now I have to go back.