Cape Town is a big favorite. Except for the gorgeous hunk of rock behind it, Table Mountain, it reminds me a lot of San Francisco. Instead of the Wharf, it has the V & A (Victoria and Alfred) Waterfront. Like Alcatraz, Robben Island Prison is not that far from shore. Instead of Sonoma and Napa, there is Stellenbosch and the Franschhoek wine route.
Figure about four days in Cape Town and its environs. To literally get a birds-eye view, take a helicopter ride and see not only Cape Town but all the way to Cape Point where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean. Views from atop Table Mountain are a more popular tourist option. Take a sweater. It can get chilly up there, especially in winter (June, July and August). The more intrepid hike the steep trail to the top (3,558 feet). Most take the gondola. It revolves until it reaches the peak. Meandering paths give a changing view of the city and the ocean. Often clouds hover below it or cling to the top like icing on a cake.
Robben Island is another “must see.” During the seven-mile ferry boat ride to the former prison, Cape Town’s stunning skyline diminishes. The island was once a whaling station, leper colony and, for 500 years, a penitentiary. The jail closed in December, 1996 and became a World Heritage Site in 1999. Tours of the jail are given by former Apartheid political prisoners.
A contrast to the gray prison are the brightly colored houses of Bo-Kaap which crawl up the slopes Signal Hill and border cobblestone streets. This neighborhood dates back to the late 17th century when Muslim craftsman, tailors and shoemakers settled here. The Nurul Islam Mosque was founded in 1844. Around prayer time, the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from one of the mosques echoes through the neighborhood.
More colorful scenery dots the eastern slope of Table Mountain at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. As you walk the winding paths of the sculpture garden, the glass house of plants or the fragrance garden, which is not always sweet smelling, a feeling of peace washes over you. At the ponds, the frogs hold a constant concert.
As beautiful as many parts of Cape Town are, remnants of Apartheid linger. Rows upon rows of shanties line the unpaved roads of Langa Township. Many black people still live in one-room with no running water. Unemployment is rampant. Amazingly, the people we meet do not seem to be bitter. Our guide, Siyabulea, takes us to his grandmother’s house. Ten people live in this one room. The kids sleep on the floor. For lack of space, the kids must always play outside. Happy Feet Youth Project is one place where the kids can go. They dance to beat of a drum for us.
An about face from the townships are the winelands where you will find the Big Five. I don’t mean lions, elephants, cape buffalo leopards, and rhinos - that comes later - but rather Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Vines spill down the mountains on family-owned wine estates near Stellenbosch. The town’s white Dutch Colonial buildings are over a century old. Oomie (Uncle) Sam’s, the town’s general store and biggest tourist attraction, hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1904. The little lady behind the counter looks like she is one of the original cashiers.
Wineries dot the landscape. Each is unique. The Bergkelder is popular with tourists, Chiseled out of a mountain, the vault-like cellar is filled with thousands of bottles of wine. Huge oval barrels are carved with the area’s history. After a snap course in winemaking, the good part comes -- sampling the grape. Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz never tasted better.
Franschhoek, 14 miles northeast of Stellenbosch, became a refuge for the French Huguenots in the late 17th century. With them came grape vines and the beginning of South African wine-making culture. The lovely village surrounded on three sides by mountains, is brimming with boutiques, backstreet vineyards and fine restaurants. My lunch at Le Quartier Francais is mouth-watering. I rate it six yums.
Prefer eating closer to Cape Town, like Constantia Valley? Cellars-Hohenort (www.collectionmcgrath.com/hotels/the-cellars-hohenort) sits on a wine estate on the side of Table Mountain. The boutique hotel has two fabulous restaurants. You can’t go wrong with any of the beautifully and deliciously prepared entrees.
To the Cape of Good Hope
The drive around Chapman’s Peak to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point loops past charming seaside towns and on undulating mountain roads that lead down to the sea. Waves pound against the rugged shoreline.
A sign posted near the entrance of the Boulders Beach African penguin colony reads, “Warning: Please look under your vehicle for penguins.” Undisturbed by peeping people, the little creatures waddle up and down the beach making heehaw sounds. Some sit quietly on their nests protecting their brood. Every now and then, brown little furry creatures with miniature flippers peek out.
Deer and the antelope play around Table Mountain National Park. Raucous baboons run across the road, pose on rocks and beg for food near the Cape of Good Hope.
At Cape Point, tourists flock behind the sign proclaiming they are at the southernmost point of Africa. High winds, shipwrecks and the Flying Dutchman have made it famous.
In 1641, Captain van der Decken, the “Flying Dutchman,” disappeared after vowing, “Even if it takes until doomsday I will sail around the cape.” Legend has it that his ship can be seen rounding the cape in the eye of a severe storm. Don’t look too carefully. Those who see it will die.
If those high winds chill you, enjoy the views from inside Two Oceans Restaurant. As we ate our lunch, a baboon came and sat on the window next to my granddaughter.
Up the coast on the Indian Ocean side, over 1,000 miles from Cape Town, sits the charming city of Durban. Golden beaches border the shore of this modern, melting pot.
The Moses Mabhida Stadium has become Durban’s iconic landmark. Take the Skycar to the top for a spectacular 360° view. A 500-step walk leads to the top of the Arch. Attached to a harness, leap 772 feet down into the stadium bowl on the Big Rush Big Swing.
Ten million Zulus make their home at the nearby KwaZula-Natal. Mingle with them while learning about their culture and customs.
There are other ways to explore South Africa. The Blue Train, a 27-hour trip (994 miles) from Cape Town to Pretoria or vice versa is a trip back to a bygone era. Snow-capped mountain ranges, desert landscapes and sometimes wild animals glide past before its windows. Considered one of the world’s most luxurious trains, amenities include butler service and outstanding food and wine. I ate so much, I thought they would have to roll me off the train in Pretoria.
Johannesburg / Soweto
Most natives refer to the city as Jo’burg. The downtown area is beginning to be revived. Tourists often prefer a visit to Soweto (an acronym for Southwestern Township). Soweto was the scene of violent protests in 1976 when many blacks were brutally killed. No whites live here. Much of Soweto does not have running water or indoor plumbing. Many did not have electricity until Apartheid ended. They are still working on getting the township these basic needs.
Soweto’s Apartheid Museum takes visitors on a journey from 1948-1994 when the color of your skin (mulattos and Indians were included) determined how you could live your life. Exhibits are depressing and shocking.
Separated by a valley, Soweto’s Diepkloof section has some very high-end homes. High walls topped with barbed wire surround them. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived in the Orlando West neighborhood. Mandela’s house is now a museum.
The Peech Boutique Hotel (www.thepeech.co.za) in Jo’burg’s Melrose area, is a delightful departure from the hustle of the city.
A bit of trivia: Some of South Africa’s best soccer players have come from Soweto.
Most people come to South Africa to go on safari. I don’t blame them. It is an amazing learning experience. Besides game drives, there are walking safaris. It is more an up close and personal thing. You learn a bit about tracking and scat. To me, it is like the difference between snorkeling and diving.
South Africa offers a multitude of safari destinations. Foremost is the gigantic Kruger National Park (covering 7,523 square miles). Abundant private reserves also dot the South African landscape that varies from mountainous to lush jungle and desert-like. Lodgings go from basic to very luxurious. Many have spas.
Morning safaris start out a little after sunrise. It is often too hot for the animals to be out and about in the afternoon. They re-emerge in the late evening. During a night safari, you might even see a lion hunt.
The Kruger, as many refer to it, has a scrubby, brown landscape. Birds, 507 different species of them, inhabit the park and the animals do not seem have a fear of people. The Big Five - lions, Cape buffalo, rhinos, elephants and leopards - are here, but leopards seem to be the most elusive. The variety of other animals make up for that.
My two favorite private reserves are Kapama near Hoedspruit and Komati Tented Lodge, Nkomazi Game Reserve not far from it in the Barberton Mountains along the Komati River.
Komati is very posh. Each tent is perched on the mountain with its own plunge pool and a stunning view of the river below. The lodge’s attention to detail is impeccable. It is possible to have a private, candlelit dinner prepared on your patio. The rushing river is dinner music. Service, food and game drives are first-class.
The section of Kapama where I stayed is modern in design - oversized tubs and an outdoor shower. Buffet dinners are served in the Boma, a tree fenced outdoor area with a bonfire in the middle. Sometimes Elvis, the resident oversized porcupine, joins diners.
But what really separates Kapama from the other camps is the Elephant Interaction program. Before this, I had seen only Asian elephants up close. They were usually chained in some way.
African elephants are larger, often nine feet high to the shoulder. Kapama’s rescued elephants are trained to imprint with humans. They come willingly and choose to sleep in opened door stables. I got to hand feed one, touch his tongue, feel the bottom of his feet and pose with him.
I love South Africa. Every time I leave, I try to figure out how soon I can return and explore more of it.
IF YOU GO
Three of my South African trips have been planned by Giltedge Africa. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Their attention to detail is impeccable. www.giltedgefrica.com
Ntaba African Safaris’ owners, Robin and Stella Mountain (“ntaba” is Zulu for ”mountain”), are native South Africans and now U. S. citizens. They have intimate, current knowledge of the southern and east African countries you will visit and every element and aspect of your itinerary, from lodges to airlines to tour guides. www.ntabaafrica.com
A division of South African Airways, the national airline of South Africa and Africa’s most awarded airline, FLYSAAVacations is highly regarded for its wide array of affordable luxury packages to Africa, and utilizes SAA’s extensive route network to create packages for travel throughout South Africa. www.flysaavacations.com