Travel: Bus & boat from Botswana; Flight from Livingstone to Johannesburg; Flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
Accommodation: Southern Sun Waterfront
Welcome to the final instalment of my Africa series! In today’s episode we have left Chobe National Park in Botswana for Cape Town. I hadn’t felt that the trip had been very tour based up until this point, despite being escorted. This changed in Cape Town however, as a lot of the sightseeing was based on driving around to different locations. As a result, the entire tour group was packed into a coach and we met our guide for the next four days – John Mason (who was very lovely and looked like Hagrid).
Unfortunately, South Africa doesn’t have the best reputation for safety in the media. The stories over the past few years have circled around kidnappings, the Anni Dewani murder case and Oscar Pistorius’ trial. Our other guide (Colleen) acknowledged the fact that Cape Town had its issues with crime, and gave us the following tips for avoiding any nastiness –
- Don’t accept help from anyone while using an ATM
- Keep to highly populated areas
- Use the safe in the hotel
- There is safety in numbers
Our first day in Cape Town was all about the capes, bays and beaches!
Camps Bay & Hout Bay
Our first stops during the tour were the highly fashionable areas of Camps Bay and Hout Bay. Camps Bay is a popular destination for people looking for a secluded beach area. Colleen told us that the area had boomed in terms of expensive real estate, and this was perfectly understandable due to the stunning views.
Hout Bay is a beautiful residential area and fishing centre, with a 1km long beach surrounded by mountains. Although there were extremely strong winds when I visited, I could see that during the warmer months it would an amazing place to go hiking or spend a day on the beach.
Simon’s Town & Boulders Beach
Simon’s Town has a naval background; due to the high winds near Table Mountain, Simon’s Town became a harbour for the Dutch East India Company during the winter. John Mason told us a story about a dog called Just Nuisance. During the Second World War, this Great Dane was formally enrolled into the Navy and given the title Able Seaman. He was so well loved by all who knew him that when he eventually died, he was given a full military funeral, attended by 200 members of the British Royal Navy. He has been immortalised in the form of a statue in Simon’s Town and there is even a book about his story!
While in Simon’s Town we got the opportunity to sample some of the local sea food and a traditional dessert called malva pudding.
Just around the corner was Boulders Beach, which is home to an amazing penguin colony. The penguins at Boulders Beach are African penguins (an endangered species and the only kind to breed in Africa). They used to be known as Jackass Penguins because of the distinctive braying sound they make when they communicate. At the time we visited the penguin colony, there were a number of fluffy chicks emerging from their nests, still not waterproof because of their greyish down plumage.
Cape of Good Hope National Park
John Mason used the driving time between stops as an opportunity to tell us all about the history of South Africa. The original European invaders of South Africa were the Dutch. As a result, there is a lot of Dutch and European influence in Cape Town. In the 17th Century, the Dutch brought the Malay people in from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. These people were mainly slaves but some were people in political exile. After slavery was abolished, the Cape Malay people set up their own communities and live in the area known as Bo-Kaap to this day. The Muslim influence is felt throughout Cape Town, due to the number of mosques around Signal Hill and with most restaurants offering halal food.
Our final stop on the tour was at the Cape of Good Hope National Park. This national park is home to a variety of different animals such as bonteboks, elands, zebras, ostriches, dassies and baboons. Here you can take the Flying Dutchman Funicular up to the top of the view point and make the most of the hiking trails. The Cape of Good Hope is also home to the most south westerly tip of Africa, Cape Point.
That evening, we made our way to the V&A Waterfront for dinner. Originally a harbour, the waterfront was transformed into a haven for shopping and eating and now attracts over 23 million visitors a year. This really is the place to be, with plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs or indulge in some retail therapy (take advantage of how cheap everything is in Rand!)
On our second day in Cape Town, we drove east towards the famous Cape Winelands. On the way, our bus stopped at the prison that held Nelson Mandela for the last period of his 27 year imprisonment. This is still a working prison, but they have marked the release of Mandela with this massive statue of him.
Franschhoek was once the home of several French Huguenot families brought over by the Dutch in the 17th Century. The French heritage of the town is immediately obvious in the architecture, street names and large Huguenot memorial and museum found on one side of the town. The memorial was made to symbolise freedom of religion; the statue carries a broken chain in one hand and the Bible in the other.
The next stop on the tour was the university town of Stellenbosch. This historical town literally seeps academia and intellectualism from its pores and the local architecture is created in the classic Dutch and Victorian styles. You could easily spend a whole day in Stellenbosch, exploring the different parts of the university, the museums, shops and traditional homes. Unfortunately we only had a couple of hours, but this was enough time to grab an ice cream, do some souvenir shopping and take in the sights.
The Stellenbosch Winelands are world renowned and a popular tourist destination for those visiting Cape Town. We visited the Neethlingshof wine estate, which was established as far back as 1705. As a non-drinker, I wasn’t that excited about visiting this estate but the beautiful location definitely made up for my lack of interest in wine tasting.
We had lunch on the estate, and I got to try the traditional Cape Malay dish of babotie. After this, we began our tour of the factory, learning about the production of the wine and how it is sold out of the estate.
Neethlingshof grows, produces, bottles and labels all of their wine themselves, with a team of 250 people during the harvest. Because the soil, climate and and vines are so perfectly matched for one another, the estate is able to produce a large range of white, red and dessert wines.
At the end of the tour, the majority of the group went off for the wine tasting but the bar was kind enough to give me a glass of delicious white grape juice as an alternative. Despite my initial reservations, I was glad to come to the winelands because not only did I get to witness the stunning scenery, I also got an insight into one of South Africa’s biggest industries.
In 1963, Nelson Mandela and seven other political activists were sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy against the state. No trip to Cape Town is complete without a trip to Robben Island, home to the famous prison that held Mandela for 18 of his 27 years in incarceration. This island was named Robben Eiland (meaning Seal Island) by the Dutch in the 17th Century.
Another famous political prisoner was Robert Sobukwe. Sobukwe campaigned for black South Africans to liberate themselves from the oppression they were suffering. His skills as a great orator meant that he inspired the birth of movements such as the Black Consciousness Movement. He went on to become the President of the Pan Africanist Congress and as part of this, organised and encouraged a protest on the Pass Laws.
Our guide told us that during the apartheid, every black person had to carry something called a ‘Dompas’ which they had to present to the police at any given time, if they were asked for it. Dompas was a colloquial term for a kind of internal passport. If they did not have the pass they had to pay a fine of 60 Rand, and if they didn’t have the money they would have to go to prison for 6 months. Sobukwe emphasised the importance of African pride. He started a nationwide protest by entering an area that was not permitted under his Dompas. He encouraged others to do the same, which led to a massacre and his imprisonment for incitement.
During the bus tour, the guide showed us the limestone quarry where Mandela and his fellow political prisoners had been forced to undertake hard labour. They had to mine the limestone by hand with no protection. They were originally told that this ‘assignment’ would last for 6 months but they ended up mining in this quarry for 8 hours every day for 13.5 years. The glare from the white limestone damaged their eyes and the dust damaged their lungs and tear ducts. It was said that although Mandela occasionally became emotional, as a result of the exposure to the limestone dust, he was not able to cry. During this labour, Mandela and his comrades found a cave in the quarry where they would meet to advance their education and continue making their plans together.
The wardens lived on the island as well, often with their whole families. This had become a sort of community, with a church and a school on the island for the wardens’ children. Robben Island has only ever seen one successful escape; a convict who had managed to swim 7km to the mainland and disappear.
Once we came to enter the prison, we met a man who had been in prison on Robben Island for fifteen years as a political prisoner. He gave a talk about the conditions of the prison and the way that different races were treated. There was a difference between the ‘coloured’ people and the ‘bantus’ in everything from diet to punishment. We also got an opportunity to see Nelson Mandela’s cell.
Visiting Robben Island was a very moving experience, and one that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Cape Town. In my opinion, coming to South Africa and not learning about apartheid and the struggle of Black South Africans would be a great disrespect to the country and its people.
On a less serious note, I thought I had seen every animal possible during my African adventure. On the ferry back to the mainland, we heard screams and a large splash towards the back end of the boat. Everyone naturally assumed that someone had gone overboard, until a pod of WHALES started leaping out of the water!! Our guide reminded us that whale watching costs around 800 Rand normally, so we had been very lucky to see these creatures for free.
All week we had been trying our best to take the cable car up Table Mountain, but the high winds had meant that it was closed. Luckily on our penultimate day the mountain opened and we were able to spend some time up in the clouds. The cable car is actually super cool – it has a rotating base so no matter where you stand, you get a panoramic view of the ascent.
Once at the top, we could explore the Table Mountain National Park and saw one of the more unusual animals; the rock hyrax or dassie! Aside from admiring the views, there wasn’t much to do at the top, but I would definitely say it was the worth the trip.
For our final dinner in Cape Town, we headed to an Italian restaurant called Col’cacchio where I had the best pizza of my life. Cape Town’s food game is strong!
On our last day in Cape Town before flying home, we had a morning free to explore as we wished. The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens are world renowned for their sheer size and the variety of rare and indigenous plants that are grown there.
The national plant of South Africa is the king protea, which can be seen a lot in the national parks. My favourite plants however, were the pincushion protea and a flower called Mandela’s Gold (a version of the ‘bird of paradise’ flower which was bred in honour of Nelson Mandela). John Mason had told us throughout our trip that the national parks of South Africa had become overrun with imported flora and fauna. Large efforts had been made by the government to return the natural plant life of the area to its original condition.
It was with a heavy heart that I packed my things and returned home from what was honestly the best trip I have ever taken, and may ever take in my life. Although I spent 2 blissful weeks travelling around Southern Africa, I do feel like there is something left for me out there and I look forward to the day that I can return and learn more. In particular, I wish I’d had a chance to learn more about the native people of this region; the Bushmen, the Khoikhoi, the Zulu and the Xhosa people.
Finally, I just want to give a shout out to Colleen Webster for taking such great care of the group during our tour, and treating us with such kindness and good humour. If you ever want to take a trip to Southern Africa with Riviera Travel, make sure you ask for Colleen. If you look back to my first instalment in this series, I was questioning the pros and cons of travelling in a tour group. Although I’m still very much a lone wolf, as a first introduction to this part of the world it was perfect.
John Mason kept repeating a phrase that was used by the native African Bushmen as a mantra of their culture; “everything is ours and nothing is mine”. I just wanted to end on this note because it feels very topical at the moment. While the whole of Europe is scheming about how they can close their borders to refugees fleeing horrific suffering and war, maybe now is the time we should start thinking more like the Bushmen?
Thanks for reading,
~ Plane Emoji