South Africa part 1: Cape Town

I’m about to set off for four new places, and I’ve still got a bunch of catching up to do with posts about the places I’ve already been to…

So here’s a rundown of the Cape Town portion of my Ethiopia / Tanzania / South Africa tour, and I’ll attempt to follow this with Johannesburg and possibly Benin before I leave town tomorrow evening:

Cape Town is immediately stunning. It’s nestled so perfectly between snaking mountains and shimmering turquoise sea that it seems the mountains and sea were hand-molded around the city instead of the other way around. And apart from Tokyo, I have never seen a downtown so opulent and clean. (Though Tokyo, unlike Cape Town, has neither a history of apartheid nor a continuing presence of impoverished townships just to the side of its gleaming center.)

In this sparkling setting, it felt a little strange for me to be staying in a hostel. I haven’t done that since college, and I was pretty sure it was no longer age-appropriate. But another woman in her 30’s who had recently traveled to South Africa solo recommended it effusively, as a great way to meet people to go out with at night without fearing for my safety. (There is a range of opinion about how safe or unsafe Cape Town and Johannesburg are. At one extreme, I was told to avoid walking even one block alone in the middle of the day in Johannesburg, as well as to distrust Cape Town’s sheen, behind which the danger of being mugged lurked just as ominously as in Jo’burg. At the other, I was told that all of the fear-mongering is a bunch of baloney and that if I exercised the same level of caution as I do in NYC I’d be fine. Since I didn’t know whose opinion to trust I decided to keep my options open and I booked the hostel. (But I booked a private room, which cost about as much as a hotel. It ended up being the best of both worlds – no need to share a room with strangers on different schedules, but no need to figure out my plans alone.)

That first night was a First Thursday, and the hostel organized a gallery crawl. It was like being back in college the first week of freshman year, when I went out in a pack with the entire floor of my dorm. And I have to say, on the cusp of my much dreaded Official Late 30’s, I enjoyed the throwback to my long-lost youth.

Above, here is the group before doing about seven rounds of Jager shots and eating burgers. Contrary to what you might infer about them from that, I was pleasantly surprised by the range of people. They hailed from every continent, there were 20 years between the youngest and the oldest, and many had taken time off and were on solo round the world journeys. A highly interesting bunch.

The next day I meant to climb Table Mountain but there were gale-force winds and the top of it was closed. Instead I took the city bus tour on a loop, twice actually, and hopped on and off at each place I wanted to explore further. It started at Fishermen’s Wharf and continued on through the business district, where I saw the pretty streets we had walked down the night before in daylight.

Then we drove to the Table Mountain tram base, which is about halfway up the mountain. I got out to take some pictures and literally (in the old and true sense of the word), got swept off my feet and had to hunker my body down to keep from being blown off the side of the mountain. So now I know what gale-force winds feel like.

I meant to stick around longer but it was freezing and physically impossible so I hopped back on the bus and took it almost all the way around again until I got to the Malay neighborhood of Bo-Kaap

…known for its colorful one-story houses.

Then I wended my way back to the hostel via downtown.

I arrived just in time for Cuban night at the hostel. We were supposed to go dancing after the meal but everyone ended up hanging out and drinking til it no longer made sense to go out. College throwback number 2.

The next morning I hopped on a full-day Cape Peninsula tour that the hostel had signed me up for. (This hostel saved me so much time and effort; I am now totally back on board the hostel bandwagon.) We drove all the way around the Cape and I saw Table Mountain’s spectacular-ness from every angle even though it was shrouded in clouds the whole time.

Below is Hout Bay, where some people went on a 30-minute seal-watching cruise but I opted to explore the harbor instead.

And below is possibly the most beautiful look-out point in the world. What you don’t see are the winds, which were still whipping like crazy…

… and made the half hour bike ride to the lunch spot a bit more perilous than usual. Our little single-file line of bikes kept getting blown into the middle of the road with every gust. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic.

After lunch we drove to Simon’s Town to check in on the penguin colony at Boulders Beach

… before arriving at the Cape of Good Hope, where we climbed against the ridiculously whipping wind, up many hundreds of stairs to the top of the lighthouse, for a payoff of this view.

Somewhere out there, the Atlantic and the Pacific currents meet.

Then we hiked back to the juttiest part of the cape for photo ops.

cape of good hope.jpg

(I mistakenly thought this was the southernmost point of Africa but it’s actually the most “south-western point,” which if you think about it, is nonsense).

We drove back by way of the glitzy Cape Town suburbs, which felt like Malibu meets Beverly Hills.

That night I went to dinner with two Americans staying at the hostel. I wanted to try Cape Malay food so I ordered what seemed to be the most well-known dish: bobotie, a spiced beef casserole topped with a custardy crust. It was delicious.

And the next (much less windy) morning before my flight back to Jo’burg, I hiked up Lion’s Head…

…for a view of Table Mountain, which had finally emerged from the clouds.

I went with one of the guys from dinner and a Spanish guy fresh off the plane – because as I’ve now learned, staying at a hostel alone means becoming friends-for-a-few-days with everyone else staying at a hostel alone.

Next up: Johannesburg, where the “from strangers to friends” theme kept going strong…

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