South Africa is a popular and varied travel destination and, arguably, Cape Town is the flagship city. Cape Town is an interesting and complex place to visit. On one hand the scenery, natural beauty and fine food make it a great holiday location and on the other there is the undeniable stamp left on this city from its turbulent political history.
What confronts you first in this nation is still how racially defined the poverty is. This is despite South Africa’s genuine efforts to move forward from its rocky apartheid past. When restrictions on where you could live were initially lifted people moved for the simple reason that they could. Since then the townships have developed and many families have chosen to move back with improved standards of housing. Travel to some of the townships is an option but for safety do not attempt this on your own.
Victoria and Albert Waterfront
Informally it has been suggested the the Victoria and Albert Waterfront (V&A Waterfront) is one of the most visited destinations in South Africa. It is certainly a well developed entertainment area with restaurants and shopping. The backdrop of Table Mountain also ensures it is one of the most recognisable images in the city. Many of the city’s hotels have shuttle services to the V&A Waterfront and due to the well executed security this is one of the safest places to explore after dark.
This complex city has so much more to offer and it is well worth taking the time to explore not only Cape Town but some of the surrounding towns.
Suburbs such as Bo-Kaap hold the history of slaves that were brought to South Africa to work. They came in ships from Malaysia and people were gathered along the way, including from Sri Lanka. Last names of the people were never recorded so many today cannot trace their ancestry. While walking around the suburbs with photographer James Gradwell, we meet Zaney a local self-appointed guide. We hear stories of how the local people are now happy because the children have the opportunity to be educated and land ownership is now possible.
The area associates itself with the Malay community and many of the locals are known as Cape Malays. The shops are full of the Malaysian influence in the food available. Delicacies that would be equally at home in Kuala Lumpur and add an sense of the exotic. The suburb is deeply religious, mainly Muslim and there are about a dozen active mosques in the area.
This suburb is very photogenic as the streets are cobblestoned and the houses painted in a mixture of vibrant colours.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
The Kirstenbosch Gardens are, justifiably, the city’s pride and joy. As you walk around there are tourists and locals enjoying these interesting and well kept gardens. If you have the time it is worth the stroll as the gardens are spectacularly set at the foothills of Table Mountain. One of the unique features is a Braille Trail where the visually impaired can navigate around and read in braille or large print about the gardens. A walk to the 19th Century Colonel’s Bird Bath takes you through a fern lined path that is a green oasis.
No trip to Cape Town is complete without a journey up to Table Mountain. It is best to keep your timing flexible however as the weather plagues this mountain and the cable car closes. For those who seek some old fashioned hiking there is the option to get to the top via a couple of tracks. This too of course is weather dependent and not advised to do on your own. Another excellent view over the city and Table Mountain is from the top of the Lion’s Head.
There are excellent views from the high plateau and you really get a sense of the derivation of the name Table Mountain. The viewing platforms provide ample photographic opportunities. Watch the spots on the rocks where you may see the local Dassies. They look like a cross between a squirrel and guinea pig.
Cable Beach is a spectacular beach and popular destination, particularly in summer. There is a collection of trendy cafes and restaurants along the main street to take a break from the surf. Boulder Beach makes for an interesting seascape with the grandeur of the Twelve Apostles as a backdrop.
The Garden District
The Garden District is a essentially an upmarket residential suburb at the base of Table Mountain. The district makes an excellent alternative for places to stay in Cape Town and has some of the cit’s best local restaurants. The leafy streets and grand homes look like they could be in any well to do suburb around the world.
The townships are where the majority of Cape Towns residents live. They are an excellent way to get a better understanding and insight into how everyday life is lived in the city. Tour companies regularly visit Langa, the oldest township in South Africa or Khayelitsha, the second largest township in South Africa with over 400,000 residents. Typically, local residents who have grown up in the township will guide visitors through.
Langa, like many of the townships, developed as a suburb based on race. Langa appears to have a strong sense of community and pride. Today there are three types of housing. The new wealthy have built and purchased homes that are middle class. There are many who are in professional or government jobs such as teaching, law, medicine or banking.
The next type of housing are government flats consisting of four rooms and one bathroom. Each room has four beds and often four families living in it. Children often sleep on the floor in the communal dining / living space. Conditions are crowded and has lead some to prefer to build their own shacks. These are very small and built out of whatever can be found. All have shared services for water and toilets but most have electricity sourced either illegally or officially.
It is not only the poverty that strikes you when visiting the townships but also the scale. This is particularly true for Khayelitsha, which you can view from some of the sand dunes. Shacks can be seen as far as the eye can take you which all seems overwhelming. The government is under significant pressure to improve the quality of life but progress is slow and the population of the townships is increasing faster than improved housing can be created. A sobering experience to visit but helps balance the journey.
Robben Island has also seen its share of hardship and suffering if you haven’t seen enough. From 1636 this island off the coast of Cape Town has served as a prison. Mostly famously Nelson Mandela spent 18 years here. The last of the political prisoners were released in 1991 so you won’t be bumping in to any. These days it’s a museum and you can pop in for a visit and try to walk in the shoes of these men. The former Governor’s House is now a hotel and conference centre.
A trip to Cape Town would not be complete without a day trip to the Cape. More on that to come in ZeeGlobe’s around Cape Town story. Also see the ZeeGlobe Blog for more pictures on the penguins at Simons Town.