Cape Town, South Africa
Arriving from Lesotho to Cape Town was as much of a culture shock as going from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, but the vibe’s all positive: people walking around everywhere (this makes a huge difference), scheduled bus routes and safe minibus taxis, friendly locals, and a modern, heavily-organised atmosphere that feels vaguely European. It’s also clearly affluent. One of South Africa’s three capital cities (besides Pretoria and Bloemfontein) and by far the most visited one, most visitors tend to start their Africa trips here. Locals call it a soft landing: for me, it’s a soft readjustment, a one-week staging area for me to get used to a more Western style of living again, while still having small bits of the African hustle and bustle I’ve grown used to. Even the demographics don’t feel quite African, with people of myriad races and mixes represented, and a whole lot of white people: you could mistake it for an American city, if you didn’t hear the telltale click sounds in the local African languages all over the streets. South Africa calls itself the “Rainbow Nation”, and I guess this is what it means.
This is the last stop of my Africa trip! It took a few hours to sink in. I wandered around the ultra-modern Waterfront area (not unlike a kitschier Granville Island or Halifax’s harbourfront, but supersized and with big malls) in the early morning. Table Mountain loomed overhead, as it always does, but my mind wasn’t even on that: I had just made it all the way down from Ethiopia; Kenya by land! While I can’t say it was all that difficult, I did feel elatedly proud of myself, having a moment of disbelief as I ran into a sign pointing to Vancouver: I’m finally going home!
And Cape Town actually does feel a lot like Vancouver, but in the tropics. Scenic from virtually any angle, right by the ocean, plenty of hiking around, easy transport, bike-friendly, patios and trendy restaurants, laden with hipsters, similar climate of dreary winter rain and summer stretches of sun (except generally warmer), and of a very similar size, it’s a surprise Cape Town doesn’t make those “livable city” indexes. I could easily see myself losing track of time (in fact, I did just that and missed my scheduled flight out when I got the day of the week wrong!), finding a routine, and settling here. No wonder so many people move here — I’m told many South Africans living in Cape Town aren’t even from there!
Sadly, the inequality so visible in the rest of South Africa is still here, but it’s pushed to the fringes. On my bus from Ladybrand (the nearest South African city next to Lesotho, populated by plenty of Basotho, South African, and Chinese business owners who either commute every day to Lesotho or just go to Ladybrand because everything’s cheaper there), I met Walter, a Maseru native who was visiting his wife and children for Easter and was now returning to Cape Town, where he’s lived for the last three years — unemployed, searching for work in vain. There’s no work in Lesotho, even for tech-educated people like Walter, and his knowledge is quickly becoming outdated. There isn’t much work either for transplants in Cape Town, unless you discount the many foreigners (particularly Germans, for some reason) who seem to be working under the table in hostels and bars, but that’s certainly not sustainable work to feed your family with.
A few (and I emphasize, few) white South Africans I heard from seemed unhappy as well, complaining about the Black Economic Empowerment program, South Africa’s version of affirmative action. Despite being qualified, they claim to be unable to find work, as companies are mandated to hire 80% “black” (which in this program includes coloureds and Asians), corresponding to the 80% black (90% non-white) demographic of South Africa. Given that Cape Town is particularly less black and more white than other places, the policy seems to be having an effect here. I’ve heard claims that companies have vacancies left unfilled because they can’t find unqualified blacks, and that a white brain-drain as they head abroad. On the flipside, I’ve heard those who are hired on the basis of colour often face resentment and an assumption of lack of knowledge, regardless of qualifications.
While I would never go as far, as some of them did, to call such initiatives “reverse apartheid” or “white people paying taxes for black people” (I was incredibly shocked to hear such things!), and there are some policy details often glossed over, it does seem a bit like a policy with good intentions and some questionable execution. (And no, the 80% blanket generalisation isn’t quite right. There are plenty of exemptions, mainly for smaller businesses.) Given how disadvantaged black and coloured people were during apartheid, with lower-quality education and fewer opportunities, it’s understandable that their qualifications would be lower. They need to be able to break into the industry and gain real experience in order to break the cycle, and the BEE seems like an attempt to give them that still-needed leg-up. It does all sound a bit ugly though, having to continue to make policies based on racial classifications. Perhaps someday South Africa will truly be able to move on from that, but it does seem decades away.
But so much progress has been made, and there’s a constant reminder of the past staring right at you: Robben Island, the previous apartheid-era prison that housed many political prisoners who fought for a better future, most notably Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 29 years of imprisonment in a very tiny cell with no bed (floormat instead) or toilet (bucket), and Robert Sobukwe, the man with the idea of defying race-identifying pass-carrying laws who was deemed so dangerous by the apartheid government that he was put in solitary imprisonment with practically zero interaction for nine whole years. The island itself has a strange juxtaposition of a spectacular view of Cape Town and Table Mountain, massive bird colonies including penguins, pleasant houses and a now-shuttered school in the village of wardens and residents, stone quarries which prisoners used to toil at without adequate protection (hence Nelson Mandela’s vision problems in his later years), and heavily-fortified prison buildings.
Being the beginning of winter, I had surprisingly warm and non-rainy weather for the duration of my stay, and I took advantage of that by hiking up and down both Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. The former is a strenuous way to save a few dollars on the gondola, while the second was an easier hike but with chains and ladders at the end. Either way, the views are 360 degrees on both, and truly stellar: on a clear day, you can even see Cape Point/Cape of Good Hope from the top of Table Mountain.
Speaking of which, the waters near Cape Point and the geography of the area itself create a microclimate for the Cape Town area. Being the convergence of the warm Indian Ocean and cold Atlantic Ocean means you get some weird weather — for instance, Cape Town is wet in winter and dry in summer, opposite to the rest of South Africa. There’s a tendency for a blanket of clouds to form over Table Mountain in the afternoons, and it’s kind of mesmerising to watch as it moves rather quickly.
Having met Herman on my last night in Lesotho after he rescued my passport, I met him again in his adopted home of Cape Town and he offered to drive me on his very fancy motorbike to Cape Point. What a way to get there — the Chapman’s Peak Drive is an incredible stretch of mountainside coastline, dotted with scenic (touristy) fishing villages and beaches. Unfortunately, Herman had to drop me off at the national park toll gate, 10 km from Cape Point, due to lack of time, but I was able to hitch a ride with strangers within 30 seconds — easy with an enormous queue of cars!
Clint and Rudolph, a duo of South African/Namibian friends who met in college 25 years ago and now both live in Cape Town, picked me up as they were on their way to make a braai (South African barbecue) inside the national park, but they enthusiastically went along with me to Cape Point anyway. Barely separated from the Cape of Good Hope, which is the southwestern-most point of Africa, this was the furthest point of my trip! The winds picked up too much for us to hike to the Cape of Good Hope, but I was happy to merely have a glance at it from Cape Point.
They invited me along for the rest of the day, first to make their braai. Despite some very gusty winds, we got the fire going, and had a rather unusual mix of sausages, braai bread, garlic-butter mushrooms, fire-cooked baked beans, and beer. Sure, the wind was freezing, but the dramatic scenery, crashing waves, delicious food, and hilarious company made for an unplanned and unexpected afternoon I won’t forget anytime soon.
On the way back to Cape Town, Clint and Rudolph also took me to Simon’s Town, home to a colony of African penguins. I think you guys know how much I love penguins — I was pretty much in heaven. We snuck past the gates somehow, while also managing to find public areas where we got real close to some groups of penguins, with the odd dassie as a bonus. It seems they’re pretty used to humans around, being quite unafraid, often hiding in their burrows next to pathways, or even under cars and houses. I’ve heard they march uphill through town in the evenings, but sadly we weren’t able to stick around to witness that, as we aimed to head back to town by dark and they kindly offered to take me back to my hostel, before parting ways. I gotta say though… these penguins in particular sound more like braying donkeys!
Meeting Natalie, an American visitor, Drew, a Capetonian transplant now living in America, and Sanri, Drew’s transplant local friend (see, no one’s from here!), I was fortunate enough to hop along onto a day trip to a vineyard in Franschhoek. A wine enthusiast-turned-import/exporter, Drew took us over to the Moreson estate, where I got a little too boozy after sampling five wines — some pretty generous portions for 40 rand (US$2.70). Whooooooo. The wine in South Africa is really something special, and some of the best I’ve ever tasted despite not being much of an enthusiast myself: unlike the Canadian varieties that are more conducive to ice wines than regular wines, South African grapes are grown in a very optimal and temperate latitude band.
We continued to Stellenbosch, where Drew and Sanri had a flashback to their college days. With stately, Dutch-influenced white buildings and a very ritzy-looking main street, I certainly wouldn’t have minded studying here! I mean, look at this lunch! R75 per person ($5) wouldn’t have even bought me a Subway sandwich at Waterloo.
While we sadly missed out on the Slow Food Market in Stellenbosch, held only on Saturdays, I did get a presumably similar flavour at the Neighbourgoods Market (also Saturdays) in Cape Town’s Woodstock neighbourhood — an industrial area with pockets of grittiness now turned trendy, like New York’s Williamsburg. Dozens of vendors selling fancy locally-sourced, green, organic, fair trade food items — seems close enough to good, clean, and fair to me. Why yes, I would love a beef rib bolognese fried mac ‘n cheese ball, some bitterballen, a fresh lemon-mint juice, and samples of some flammkuchen, desserts, and chocolates! Along with a market selling some pretty cool streetwear and handicrafted items, it was a struggle not to buy anything I couldn’t bring home with me.
The Woodstock area, despite being a little bit sketchy in some parts, is home to some seriously impressive street art. It’s also home to some very nice people: while photographing a colourful rhino-themed piece on the wall of what happened to be his house, Bashir invited me into his home for tea and stories of how this Muslim quarter somehow became a street art destination.
There were plenty of other neighbourhoods to wander and explore, but even with a week, I barely had time to scratch the surface, at least past what I wanted to see — there’s the colourful houses of Bo-Kaap, the ritzy food and drink places on Bree St in the central business district, and the many, many beaches stretching all the way down the peninsula, including the surfing village of Muizenberg. I was more content picking a few places I enjoyed and staying around there for much of the week, like the Green Point area I was staying in, and the nearby Clifton Beaches and Camps Bay, with gentle (but cold) waters and spectacular sunsets. Most of these places, I would consider upscale or luxury in other parts of the world, but the low rand (15 to $1) made it all too easy to succumb to indulgence: a cold-pressed juice here, a coffee there, an $8 steak dinner in town, maybe another glass of wine, $5 fish and calamari, get three gelatos for the price of one in North America, shop a little… and almost always with either a great view or great people-watching opportunities.
I suppose it was a very strange way to cap off five months in Africa! But as different as Cape Town is to everywhere else I’ve been in Africa, it’s culturally vibrant in a way that reflects its melting-pot composition, with influences (and people) from everywhere, and that everywhere very much includes East and Southern Africa. With so much time to walk around, relax, and reflect, I was hit by waves of nostalgia whenever something in town reminded me of something earlier on in my trip.
I’ll miss it all.
Ethiopia, with its completely unique culture clear of outside influences, delicious food and coffee, spectacular mountain and lowland scenery, and composition of vastly different peoples packed into one country. Even 40 days didn’t seem like enough.
Somaliland, with its curious and inquisitive population so eager to talk, and the inspiring signs of rebuilding and innovation despite international isolation.
Kenya, with its biodiversity, landscapes, beaches, agricultural ingenuity, and maturing social consciousness. And of course, nyama choma.
Uganda, for its openness in more ways than one, from friendliness to outspokenness; political discourse, serene lakes, and that whole time staying with Belinda, her family, and Collins!
Rwanda, with its thousand rolling hills, and for its remarkable story and success in healing divisions and building itself anew after utterly destroying itself.
Tanzania, with surprisingly helpful, welcoming, and chill people on the street, and the awesome island of Zanzibar.
Zambia, which I basically glimpsed through a train window, just enjoying the view on the way to a giant waterfall. No big deal. 😉
Zimbabwe, the country of blinding smiles, never-ending conversations, wacky stone scenery, and that ridiculous obsolete currency with all those zeroes.
Lesotho, being unlike any other country, almost a step sideways in time where horses still reign over cars and people ride past giant canyons and countless streams and waterfalls.
And of course, South Africa, the furthest-developed of all, a beacon of opportunity, and showing glimmers of the full potential of Africa on full steam despite the uncomfortable divisions that it’s working to undo. Oh, and penguins. I’ll miss them too.
I’m heading home just barely holding it together — my small pack, camera lens, and Ethiopian cell phone are all badly damaged. My shoes are completely torn up and even have holes after just five months. Some of my other electronics are straight-up broken. For me, it’s not a reflection of how tough it is to travel in Africa (and it isn’t, if you have the time and patience), but a reflection of how many awesome things there were that I pushed myself and my gear a step further for.
Cape Town, I’d return to in a heartbeat. This trip in general, I’d repeat in a heartbeat. And there’s so many other places I learned about that I didn’t get the chance to go to either! You’d think I’d start to run out after three times on the continent. But it’s not even a question — I’ll be back for more.