January 14, 2010
South Africa part one: Cape Town
Thirty-six hours of travel, twenty-two of them in flight, landed us tired, smelly and jet-lagged in the noisy chaos of Cape Town airport. Cape Town airport is supposed to have been renovated for the soccer world cup, but in that case someone should tell the scaffolding guys to take their stuff home. Cape Town domestic was full of dust, people and a hot gusty wind; eventually we found our pick-up and left.
Cape Town is actually quite a big city, but its heart, and the bit most people think of, is the area around Table Mountain and the waterfront. Being a sub-tropical city perched beside a cold sea (the Agulhas current runs past the Cape, and it’s cold, less than 15 degrees Celsius most of the time) Cape Town has weather like Auckland on crack; different every day, changing in hours or minutes from grey and rainy to pounding tropical sunshine. Table Mountain itself looms over it all like a mad sandcastle, or something rejected from the Mordor set for looking unrealistic. Topping out at a smidgen over 1000 metres tall, you could have breakfast at Cape Town’s thoroughly urban waterfront and be on top of the mountain for lunch if you were even moderately ambitious. The last 700 metres is almost vertical, the slope itself scattered with blocks of stone fallen from the cliffs higher up. Clouds swirl and boil around its edges and ravines every time the wind changes, including the famous tablecloth. Lion’s Head Rock makes for an equally-improbable sentinel, although if we’re talking lifelike rock formations the lion’s backside is more realistic than its head: oddly enough, that bit is called Signal Hill.
The tablecloth was down when we took the cable car to the top of the mountain, although we still got good views on the way up, and an otherworldy experience walking around on the Mountain’s flat top. The view is interesting: despite its importance as a port, Cape Town doesn’t have a natural harbour. Ships waiting to dock just anchor out in the bay, and the port itself is composed of artificial piers. Not far out in the bay is Robben Island, where Mandela was so famously imprisoned (note for young players: if you want to take a trip to Robben Island, you need to book well in advance, like we didn’t). The Mountain itself (and the other peaks in the area) is composed of extremely hard grey sandstone, uplifted from the seafloor in relatively recent geological times. Unsurprisingly it’s studded with fossils and strange inclusions.
Being good biology geeks, we also did Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, and being New Zealand biology geeks we spent a lot of time going “hey, that’s a weed!”. They weren’t of course, rather they were plants native to the incredibly diverse Cape flora that have done rather well for themselves in other parts of the world. Agapanthus is from the Cape, for instance.
Getting around in Cape Town was interesting. As tourists, we like to walk to see the sights. Apparently white people don’t walk in South Africa; the pedestrians in Cape Town were overwhelming black. Actually I have more to say on this, but it’s a topic for another post. Public transport isn’t great. Ten years ago the taxi-van drivers were engaged in a pitched war (bombs, shootings) with the bus drivers, the upshot of which is no local bus services other than a couple of tourist-oriented circular routes. Locals get around by driving, or in South Africa’s famous taxi-vans (if they’re poor) or taxis (if they’re well-off). The taxi-vans are commonly referred to as “black taxis” and although they have a somewhat dubious reputation, the single one we caught wasn’t bad; unlike a proper taxi you negotiate the price up front, which I quite like. Cape Town in generally felt fairly safe: my better half used to live near Johannesburg, and she got twitchy a couple of time by force of habit, but to me it felt the same as any other city. Keep your brain half-way switched on and your eyes open, and you should be fine. On a related note, though, lots of the natural attractions that Cape Town is famous for aren’t in town at all. If we’d stayed longer, or if we go back, a hire car seems like a good idea.
I’m interested by the smell of new countries. The area around Cape Town had an amazing smell, wild and pungent and animal. I would have said it was the smell of millions of wildebeest and every other animal that stalks the human subconscious, but when we got more into wildebeest subconscious-stalking country it wasn’t there. So I don’t know where it came from, but it certainly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and said “Africa!” to me in no uncertain terms.
We left Cape Town on the silver-service Premier Classe sleeper train, bound for Port Elizabeth.
Update: pics on flickr.