Friday, February 5, 2010

Exhausting Cape Town

A compact city nestled in the bowl of Table Mountain, Cape Town is steeped in history, surrounded by natural beauty, and offers a kaleidoscope of experiences.

Known as the Mother City, Cape Town was the first permanent European settlement in South Africa, established in 1652 to replenish the Dutch East India Company’s Spice Route ships, whose sailors risked life and limb in dangerous seas at the prospect of fame, riches, and a little black pepper. Once past the Cape of Good Hope, returning sailors could stop off at the Castle for supplies and a little reverie. Set in the centre of town, the Castle still stands today with its thick stone walls and a moat designed to keep out the unknown and the undesirable. In 1659 the first recorded wine was produced in Constantia, and became sought after by the likes of Napoleon and Frederick the Great. Today wine farms still grace the sloping hills around Cape Town and the surrounding areas like Stellenbosch and Franschhoek with neat rows of vines set dramatically against the mountains where they can be cooled by the drifting sea air.

The Cape’s rugged, natural beauty speaks to its position on the southern tip of Africa – with jagged mountain peaks and sheer cliff faces that fall into the sea in red, rocky knuckles that persist in a longstanding battle against the elements, fighting erosion for as long as possible. The wind can play havoc all year round, the winter westerly bringing driving rains and the gusting summer southeaster, also known as the Cape Doctor, blows some of the freshest, cleanest air in the world to its first stop on land since leaving Antarctica. Autumn brings relief to the summertime heat, and Springtime is even more gentle, bringing lovely flowers like the white Arum Lily that grows freely all around, the Protea – South Africa’s national flower – and the triumph of all, the West Coast’s colourful wild flowers that burst like confetti once a year from the dusty, arid ground in vibrant shades of red, purple, orange, white and yellow.

Perfectly suited to a driving tour, it’s possible to whiz through the city and its surrounds in a day but a week would be more realistic if you want to do more than skim the surface. You can start by visiting the city centre, where historic Victorian buildings stand as a reminder of its European heritage, framed by the modern-day chaos of Africa. Take a walk down busy Loop Street, buzzing with energy as street hawkers sell goods on the corners to the smorgasbord of overseas visitors, each looking for the perfect souvenir, maybe a carved elephant, or perhaps a tribal mask, before returning to their 5-star hotels like the Mount Nelson where they can enjoy afternoon tea on the shaded veranda in true Colonial style. Sprinkled amongst the slow-moving crowds are the locals, weaving their way through at a faster pace, perhaps quickly popping out of their offices to run an errand or grab a bite to eat before taking the lift back up to their skyscraper offices where they’ll conduct business on the line with clients in America or the head office in the UK.

Dodging through the traffic-laden streets, full of mini-bus taxis and fearless pedestrians, you can jump in your car and make your way out of the city centre’s hustle-and-bustle. Within 10-minutes you can be standing at the mountain look-out on the ridge near Lion’s Head, or at the base of Table Mountain where you can take the cable car to the top for a panoramic view over the city, the harbour, and Camps Bay, just south of the city. Famous for its beautiful white sand beaches and popular among visiting Europeans, Camp’s Bay offers a natural shelter from the summer winds and views framed by the dramatic ridges of the Twelve Apostles, part of the Table Mountain range. The Main Road through town is a fashionable affair, where you can stop off for a bite to eat or enjoy a cocktail while taking in the view of both the place and the people.

Carrying on farther south, the winding road hugs the shoreline on your right and the mountains on your left, traversing the peninsula past Llandudno and its boulder-strewn beaches towards Hout Bay, a working fishing harbour where if you’re lucky you’ll find fresh snoek or yellowtail just off the boat. If you’re in the mood for a treat, stop off at one of the local fish shops for fresh calamari and chips you can enjoy at the water’s edge while taking in the view. Frequent cruises leave the harbour taking you just outside the sheltered zone where the waters run deep near Duiker Island, home to thousands of seals and a sometimes-pantry to the Great White Sharks who patrol this zone. Farther along, the Sentinal peak juts upwards abruptly over the sea, casting its shadow on a surf spot called Dungeons where enormous waves break a few times a year. Only visited by the sea’s most respectful and worthy pilgrims, the place feels sacred and heavy.

Back in your car, carry on along Chapman’s Peak – a magic drive where the mountains glow red and deep burnt browns in the sunset hour. Carved into the mountain-side a hundred years past, the road is an engineering feat just barely clinging to the steep sides of the near vertical cliffs it passes through, allowing your eyes a scene reserved for the lucky and for most, only once in a life time. Following the path of the road you’ll see Noordhoek with its farmyard charm and where you can kick your shoes off and take a walk along its six-kilometer long beach, so big it never feels crowded.

Jutting out on a peninsula, you can see the Slangkop lighthouse in Kommetjie. Drive up the hillside and enjoy a sundowner and another panoramic view – if you stay long enough you might be paid a visit by the Chacma Baboons who live on the mountainside and frequently drop in to town looking to grab a quick snack from an unsuspecting household or road-side picnickers. Potato chips are a favourite item, so keep an eye out for the sneaky thieves!

Driving on, more treasures await – Cape Point at the tip of the peninsula, Simon’s Town and its resident penguins, views across False Bay, gentle waves at Muizenberg – perfect for learning to surf – and across the Cape Flats towards the vineyards of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Wellington where you can sample the regional wines, fruits and cheese before returning to town, exhausted and full of memories.

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