A Tale of Two Cities: Cape Town
Cape Town, South Africa, nestled at the base of Table Mountain, is ridiculously scenic. Table Mountain itself looks like someone carved out a section of the Grand Canyon and plonked it down in the middle of the city. It is part of a national park with no development allowed (although there is a cableway going to the top as a concession to tourism) and consequently, the Cape Town skyline ends in a more or less straight line close to its base. The line is rudely interrupted by 3 towers that, in an act of “architectural terrorism” (in the words of Capetonians), built their bases well below the designated line, but proceeded to extend skyward. The mountain offers superb hiking opportunities right in town. The huge and lovely Botanical Gardens showcase the unique flora (over 2000 endemic species) of this region. The coast line alternates between beautiful white sand beaches and boulders, perfect for an afternoon of relaxation. The Victoria and Alfred waterfront (like a larger version of San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf) is also good for whiling away a few hours. The vibe is Californian, the architecture is European, and the people are delightfully laid back. South Africa has almost 40% unemployment, but you would never know it looking at the prosperity around Cape Town.
We stayed in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. I am used to considering the suburbs of the United States somewhat bland, but I’d be happy to be live in the suburbs of Cape Town! A short stroll through the sand dunes took us to a seemingly endless beach with a gorgeous view of Table Mountain. We spent many blissful hours walking for miles on this beach. The water of the Atlantic is freezing — even colder in summer than winter due to the southeasterly wind, blowing straight from the Antarctic. The water temperature does not deter the dozens of kite surfers and wind surfers in their wetsuits — this region has an international reputation for its exciting wind sports. The beach was never crowded, but on our last evening, when the mists suddenly descended, it was completely deserted. It was eerily beautiful — the dunes and waves fading away in the whiteness as dusk descended.
History of Apartheid in Cape Town
We came face to face with Cape Town’s recent history of apartheid on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years. The island is a thousand hectares, so the maximum security prison is a small part of it. Before being used as a political prison, Robben Island was used to incarcerate leprosy patients (in cruel conditions) in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. The tours are given by former inmates of the apartheid era — an inspired touch. The stories were eye-opening, and tough to hear. Not for the last time, I considered how difficult must it have been for people to live in harmony, after it was all over. The island is just offshore, but the seas are so rough that it is difficult to imagine how anyone would escape (though it has happened). On our boat ride back to the mainland, the winds picked up, throwing up solid sheets of icy salt water that rained down on the passengers on all 3 levels of the large boat.
Around Cape Town
A must-do day trip from Cape Town, Table View National Park, which includes the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of the continent of Africa, has a significance beyond the wild and wonderful vistas. South Africa has certainly done a great job of protecting some of its most beautiful landscapes from urban sprawl. The most charming part, I have to admit, was Boulder Beach, with its colony of African penguins. These wild birds were surprisingly tame, and waddled right up to us, or continued to sun themselves meditatively as we climbed up the boulders next to them. Cute attack!
Another must-do is a wine tour. The Cape region of South Africa is deservedly well known for its wine, and there are many operators who will be happy to drive you around the vineyards of the region, sampling your fill of wine, cheese and biltong.
A Tale of Two Cities: Johannesburg
Joburg, or Jozy, as the locals call it, is very different from Cape Town — a far cry from a colonial, gentrified city. Instead, it feels gritty — a city in which “real life” is being lived, complete with rubble, trash and traffic jams. Joburg had colorful graffiti around every corner , more greenery than I expected, and cheerful bustling people of all shades. We were pre-warned about how dangerous the inner city would be, and took appropriate precautions, but honestly, the only thing I found a bit discomfiting was the contingent of heavily armed guards on the subway.
History of Apartheid in Johannesburg
Joburg had its origin as a gold mining town, but it’s most enduring impression for me will be what I saw at the Apartheid Museum. The experience starts right at the entrance, where you are assigned a race (white/ non-white) and have to enter through your designated door. The museum uses black-and-white blown up images, video footage and searing excerpts of writing to take us through the events and atrocities from the British-Boer war through the many years of apartheid to the South African constitution being created in 1994. One is left silent and sad, and wondering about the powers of forgiveness of the human spirit