With my first safari experience under my belt in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, it was time to move on to South Africa. My first stop would be Cape Town and my expectations were high. Everyone I knew who had been to Cape Town raved about it.
I arrived late at night after a long day of travel that included a prop plane flight to Maun, Botswana; an electrical fire and evacuation of the terminal in Maun; a flight to Johannesburg; and finally, a flight to Cape Town. I took a taxi to my hotel near the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront – the Protea Hotel Cape Town Waterfront Breakwater Lodge. Protea is part of the Marriott family, so I was able to use points for my stay (fun fact: Marriott points go much further in Africa than they do at home!). Unfortunately, I arrived so late, the hotel restaurant was already closed and there was nothing within walking distance at that hour, so I went to bed hungry.
Day One in Cape Town
For my first full day in Cape Town, I booked a morning tour and cooking class with Cape Fusion Tours. My guide, a white South African woman, picked me up from my hotel promptly at 9 a.m. and immediately delved into a historical overview of the city. It did not take long for me to realize how little I really knew about South Africa aside from being aware of its history of apartheid. One of the things that struck me right away was that my guide used the word “coloured” to describe South Africans of mixed race. That is not a word I am used to hearing used in the United States today and it initially made me a little uncomfortable. I listened intently as my guide rattled off two centuries’ worth of South African history in about 20 minutes, truly absorbing only a fraction of the major players and incidents preceded apartheid and vowing to learn more.
After a stop at a crowded coffee shop, we drove around the area known as District Six and dropped into the District Six Museum. This was high on my list of must-sees in Cape Town, so I was disappointed when we only spent a few minutes in the lobby. Given the timing of my visit and other activities I had planned, I wouldn’t have another chance to visit. District Six was a lively inner-city neighborhood populated by about 60,000 people in 1966. My guide raved about the music scene, likening it to New Orleans. Under apartheid, though, it was designated a “white area” and those thousands of people were forcibly removed, their homes bulldozed. The demolition led to an outcry throughout South Africa and beyond and as a result, was never really redeveloped as planned. Much of it still stood vacant when I visited in 2017.
Our next stop was at the home of Gamidah Jacobs in the very colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood. And when I say colorful, I mean colorful: if you have seen a picture of Cape Town with rows of homes painted bright green, pink and blue, you’ve seen a picture of the Bo-Kaap. This is the heart of Cape Town’s Muslim community and many, if not most, residents are descended from slaves brought in by the Dutch from India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and other parts of Africa. They became known as the Cape Malay and I was going to Gamidah’s home to take a Cape Malay cooking class.
Gamidah was an absolute delight and it was a wonderful introduction to Cape Town and South Africa to get to spend a few hours in someone’s home, learning how to cook their native cuisine. I admit, I don’t cook much at home. But I love taking cooking classes and food tours when I travel to learn more about the local culture and cuisine. This is especially true since I have Celiac and must be careful to avoid anything with gluten. With Gamidah, I learned to make a chicken curry, samosas (which I couldn’t eat because they’re made with wheat flour), a flatbread made from chickpea flour called socco and chili bites, which were sort of like spicy falafel. And spoiler alert: I actually made the chili bites once I returned home!
After lunch, I did a short walking tour of the Bo-Kaap and then decided to make the most of the sunny afternoon and head up to Table Mountain, the most iconic landmark in Cape Town. While I had thought I might spend a day hiking to the top and back down again, the weather forecast for the next couple days was questionable and I didn’t want to miss the chance to take in the view on a clear day. Once I disembarked the cable car at the top, I realized how ill-prepared I was to fully explore: I was wearing jeans with the temperature well over 80. I forgot sunscreen. I didn’t have any water. And, because I arrived late in the day, I didn’t have enough time to make the short hike to Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain. At least the views did not disappoint!
For my second day in Cape Town, I got out of the city and took a group tour along the Cape Peninsula with Daytrippers. This was a whirlwind day, but an easy way to see all the major sights on the peninsula. We stopped first at Houts Bay, where we took a boat ride out to see the seals. Then we did an optional bike ride in Cape Point National Park to a spot for our picnic lunch. From there, we drove to the Cape Point Lighthouse, where we hiked to the top for some incredible views, followed by a short hike out to the Cape of Good Hope. Finally, we barely made it to Simon’s Town and Boulder Beach before it closed. I may have cried if we hadn’t made it because Boulder Beach is where you get to see hundreds of penguins up close. We had about 30 minutes there, but I probably could’ve spent hours.
The questionable weather I’d been anticipating arrived on my third, and last, full day in Cape Town, but luckily the wind and rain stayed away long enough for me to take a trip to Robben Island first thing in the morning. The island had been home to political prisoners for centuries before Nelson Mandela arrived in 1964. The last political prisoners weren’t released until 1991 and the island became a museum, and later a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 1999. Visiting the island requires a short ferry trip (which can be very weather dependent) to the island. Once there, you take a bus tour around the island and finally, a tour on foot of the prison building itself. While former inmates typically lead the prison tours, my group was instead led by a twenty-something who seemed to step in at the last minute because there weren’t enough guides available. While she did her best to describe what the inmates, including Mandela, would’ve experienced, it certainly wasn’t the same as hearing it firsthand.
After returning to Cape Town, I grabbed lunch and then started a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour with City Sightseeing. This was a great value as it included three possible routes, plus two free walking tours and an optional township experience add-on. I started with the free historic walking tour, then took the blue route to the Imizamo Yethu township, where I ended up with a private walk through the township by a local resident. Imizamo Yethu was settled in the 1980s by Xhosa job seekers coming to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape (Xhosa is the second largest ethnic group in South Africa after the Zulu). Small shacks packed tightly together on a hillside house some 30,000 people. Most lack running water, electricity or a sewer system. On my tour, I visited several shops and a preschool and day care and had a chance to speak with a few residents. While I stayed in poor rural villages in Mali in 2014, I don’t think I’ve seen so much urban poverty so up close before (and I took no pictures out of respect for the residents).
If I Had More Time
I was able to see a lot in Cape Town in just three days, but it was very rushed. Five or six days would have been better. With extra time, I would have been able to visit some museums, including the District Six Museum. I could have spent a day visiting the nearby wineries and another day hiking up to Table Mountain. And I would have had more time to simply wander and get a better feel for the city. Of course, now I have a reason to go back some time soon!