This is part 8 of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here.
My last day in Cape Town was an ambitious one, but I was pretty successful. In the morning, I did Table Mountain, and then in the afternoon I did a loop of the northern part of the center city. I started out at around 9:30, and Ubered from the Protea Victoria Junction to the African Pride 15 on Orange. I had planned to just drop my bags, but to my surprise they said my room was ready. I didn’t dilly-dally too long, though, before taking another Uber to Table Mountain.
Table Mountain is a massive flat-topped mountain that looms over the entire city of Cape Town, just south of central Cape Town. (Confusingly, Table Mountain National Park, refers to discontinuous park areas all the way down the Cape of Good Hope.) The majority of visitors take the rotating cable car up the mountain (warning, there can be long lines on a clear day in peak tourist season). For the more industrious, there are a number of trails you can take to the top. The most popular trail goes up Platteklip Gorge – it’s one of the shortest timewise; my research suggested there were easier, longer trails, and prettier trails. But given I wanted to maximize my time, I figured it would do.
Somewhat annoyingly, though I had set the destination for my Uber as the parking lot for the trailhead, he dropped me off at the visitors’ center/cable car entrance. It was actually a 15-minute walk from there to the trailhead. But I made it, and on the way ended up getting some of the best shots of the day, as you’re already pretty high up over the city.
I had a little bit of trepidation about the Platteklip Gorge hike. Lots of info on the web recommends it, but many other sites warn you that it is not an easy hike. I asked some people I met in Cape Town, though, and they suggested it wasn’t so bad. I figured I’m reasonably fit, and have done plenty of 2 hour hikes, and would bring water and dress appropriately, so I would be fine. Now, I was fine and never at the point where I was in danger of health and safety. But the hike was brutal. The hike is more or less straight up, until the very end, where it is even straighter up. And then you reach the plateau, and you think you’re done, but there is a final small section where you need to use a chain to pull yourself up the final feet.
There definitely was a sense of purpose and accomplishment as I made my way up. It wasn’t that sunny, thankfully, but about 2/3 of the way through, my shirt was so drenched with sweat that I just took it off – hoping I could just buy a clean shirt at the top. I easily went through my two bottles of water. I didn’t take any meaningful breaks in the first 60 minutes or so, but you saw a lot of people taking rests starting 10 minutes in. There were people in dress shoes and fashion sandals dressed in business casual that were ill-equipped. At the same time, you saw people walking their dogs up and down the trail; I heard one guy say it was his second trip up and down of the morning; a couple was jogging down the rocky trail with no shoes on (and not out of poverty—they were in Lululemon). The trail was well-marked, though, and for the most part it wasn’t difficult to keep your footing.
One thing that helped motivate me on the trip was an Argentine rugby team. I don’t know if they were high school or college age, but to help me feel less lecherous, let’s say college. They were all in matching outfits of white rugby shirts and shorts, and I’d say the main pack was about 15 minutes ahead of me on the trail. So at every turn, I could see the pack in white. And even when I couldn’t see them, I could hear them. As one would expect from a rugby team, or a bunch of 20 year old Argentine guys in a group, there was a lot of chanting and singing.
I probably started at a bit too fast a pace, as I did the 2.5-3 hour hike in ninety minutes. Whoops. My sweatiness may have also been impacted by the fact I had started my anti-malarials pre-safari. Unfortunately, as I got close to the top, the weather started to turn. And in keeping with my bad weather luck for my trip, by the time I reached the summit, the visibility was zero. 🙁 There were a bunch of tourists up at the top who clearly did not hike, including Asian tourists with selfie sticks, and a large group of German tourists who were absolutely drunk at 11am, drinking beer from the on-site restaurant.
My rugby team friends were also on top. Purely for explanation, I took some pictures. 🙂 I also took a video of one of their group sings from the top.
After buying a clean tee (overpriced but one I’d wear again) and changing at the bathroom, I went to what they call the “Wifi Lounge,” which has a small coffee shop with pastries, sandwiches, and chips, and is also where you can buy tickets for the cable car back down (135 ZAR). (There was no way I was walking back!!) There was a surprising number of people working on laptops there; I don’t know if they were waiting for people or what, but it seemed odd that you’d take the cable car up on a cloudy day to sit in the small café. There was also an Australian woman berating the African staff that the temperature in the café was too warm.
After a snack and more water, I headed to the cable car. The line was pretty short and I was able to get on the first one that arrived. Some of the drunk Germans tried to get on the cable car with cups of beer, but were turned away, thankfully. Close quarters with them yelling and drinking beers would not have been enjoyable.Despite the weather, it was still a cool ride down the mountain. The car rotates so you get a number of different views; you also don’t have to worry about people pushing to get a good view. Here’s a brief video:
I Ubered back to the Orange on 15 and, after an awesome shower, walked next door to the Company’s Garden. The Company’s Garden is an urban park, which, as you may guess from the name, got its start as a growing garden for the Dutch East India Company. By the 19th century, it became more of a park and botanic garden. I tried to find more information about what the Garden was like during apartheid, though I can’t imagine it was convenient for many Blacks given its location. Moreover, there are a number of statues in the park of prominent racists, most prominently, Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes would be rolling over in his grave now, though, as I found the park itself to be one of the most integrated places in Cape Town, with white, Colored, and Black families all enjoying a Sunday.
Less integrated, but still enjoyable, was the Company’s Garden Restaurant. The sun had come out, so there was a wait to be seated, particularly at the outdoor tables – though I didn’t wait long. The salad I had wasn’t anything remarkable, but the setting was relaxing and good for people watching.
I walked around the park a bit more, enjoying the little escape from the city. There are some interesting buildings surrounding the park, including the South African Parliament, the Iziko South African Museum, and St. George’s Cathedral. One building I really want to go inside the next time I’m in Cape Town, which unfortunately was closed on Sunday, is the Iziko Slave Lodge. Now a museum of social history, the building has served a big range of uses since it was built in 1679 – starting as a place where the Dutch East India Company corralled slaves, convicts, and the mentally ill, and later becoming a variety of government buildings, including the Old Supreme Court, a post office, a library, and, since 1966, a museum.
As I exited the Garden into the city, I was right smack in the middle of the CBD, which was completely dead on a Sunday. I made the short walk over to Bo-Kaap, the area of Cape Town formerly referred to as the Malay Quarter. The area has historically been the center of the Cape Malay community – descendants of slaves from Southeast and South Asia who practice Islam. The area is known for its brightly colored buildings and a mosque that dates back to 1844. There’s also a museum, but, as with most else in Cape Town, it was closed on Sunday. I didn’t bother with the few craft stores that were open, and it was hard to take pictures because of the busloads of tour groups wandering around.
I then looped back up towards the 15 on Orange, and took a detour up Kloof Street in the Gardens district, which was the most alive part of the city on Sunday, and the only place I saw lots of cafes and restaurants open and busy. (The boutiques and such were closed.) There was also a Kwikspar and a Woolworth’s Food where you could pick up groceries (and where I got some safari snacks and breakfast for the morning). In addition to a bunch of local places, there was a huge Pizza Hut, a Nando’s Peri-Peri (a South African chain that is also randomly big in the DC area), and a “New York Pizza” place. I didn’t try any of those, but stopped at a pizza and wine bar and had a cappuccino before walking back to the hotel for a nap and quick workout.
For dinner, there weren’t a ton of options, as most of the places I wanted to go to were closed on Sunday nights. There was one place over on Kloof Street, Arnold’s, that seemed to have decent reviews and served South African cuisine, so I figured that would work. Alas, it turns out I was the only one under 70, there were no outdoor tables, and it basically was a diner. It was weird because all of the other restaurants on Kloof Street seemed to have younger, hipper crowds, but they were burgers, sushi, or mediocre Italian – and I figured I should try a “South African” meal.
I wanted to try the braised springbok – an antelope that is the national animal of South Africa. Alas, they were out, so I went with the “gemsbok Wellington” – a play on beef wellington made with the meet of the gemsbok, or, Oryx, which is a much larger antelope, and, incidentally, the national animal of Namibia, where I’d be heading the following morning. It tasted like meatloaf, and not very gamey, but that probably was the preparation.
I honestly had no idea how safe it was to walk back the short distance to the 15 on Orange, but I figured it was fine. There were a few aggressive panhandlers, but I grew up in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, so I’m fine with that. Perhaps after bars and restaurants were closed it would have been different, but at around 9pm there were a few police officers and the ubiquitous “car guards.” Throughout South African cities, there are informal self-employed “car guards” who will “direct” you into a parking spot, and then keep an eye on your car in exchange for a few bucks. Of course they don’t force you to pay, but it is reportedly worth it. There’s an interesting article on the practice from the New York Times from a few years back.) And then it was time for some emails and then to bed, before a morning trip to the airport.
In all, I loved Cape Town. And although I was there five nights – the longest length in time I’ve spent in years in a single city – I don’t think it was enough. I’d want to explore of District Six, check out some of the beaches, wine country, and re-do the Cape of Good Hope. I don’t know what it was about the city, but it’s richness in architecture, history, nightlife, and natural beauty combine to make Cape Town a phenomenal destination. I’m actually thinking about returning in November as part of a Cape Town/Victoria Falls adventure!
Next up, a review of the three Protea/Marriott hotels I stayed at in Cape Town. Hopefully the next blog posts will move more quickly.