“Oh my God.”
You hear it often in Cape Town. You say it, think it and do everything but put it to music and sing it.
It’s hard to tire of the bracing ocean breezes — the Atlantic on one side, the Indian on the other. Hard to get used to the Twelve Apostles, peaks that run along the Cape Peninsula stretching from south of Cape Town. Hard to take for granted Cape Point where the oceans come together in a wild, breathtaking crescendo.
Cape Town is one of those lucky places. Lucky with natural beauty. Lucky with good things to eat and drink. Lucky with a double dose of “Oh my God.”
We recently returned from a trip to Africa that included a three-day safari in South Africa, two days in Maputo, Mozambique (formerly a Portuguese colony), and then eight days in and around Cape Town.
“Why?” friends asked before and after the trip. Why South Africa? Why fly halfway around the world? (It was a 10-hour flight to Paris and then 11 hours to Johannesburg.)
This is why: If you like to travel, and if you have ever spoken to anybody who has been to South Africa, and especially Cape Town, they get a faraway look and say the same thing: “That was my favorite trip of all time.”
I understand that look now — the “Oh my God” one. It’s worth hurtling across the heavens at 500 mph for 21 hours at 40,000 feet to get there. “Stunning,” “gorgeous,” “breathtaking” — there aren’t enough adjectives in the vocabulary store to describe the setting.
“Breathtaking” starts with Table Mountain. You can see it from everywhere, from rich neighborhoods like Sea Point to the townships, and from Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.
Table Mountain belongs to everybody, said MC, who guided us around Cape Town for two days. Its beauty is accessible to everybody and it may be the one thing they can all agree on in a country that still has fresh wounds from longtime racial inequality.
Travel has the bitter, the sweet and everything in-between. Cape Town is that and more. “More” has to include the townships and if you go to Cape Town, visit one.
The townships are segregated urban areas that, from the late 19th century until apartheid’s end in 1991, were reserved for non-whites. During apartheid, blacks were evicted from "white only" areas and moved to the townships often located on poor and forgotten land.
MC, who is a preacher, historian, joke teller, family man and a wealth of information about South Africa (he was recommended by Molly and Bruce Busacca’s daughter, Sophia) gave us a tour of Langa, the township of 80,000, in which he grew up.
We attended a Sunday service at his church, the African Methodist Church. The service was moving, so were the people, and the music was so good, I almost started singing in a tribal language I didn’t know. The spirit was flowing through me.
MC showed us where he grew up as one of 10 children living in two rooms. It was easy to get the tour — his sister still lives in the house.
Cape Town is deep in things to do and see including Bo-Kaap, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, above the city center center and known for its brightly colored homes and cobblestone streets.
The Company's Garden, a park and heritage site created in the 1650s by the region's first European settlers features 300-year-old silk, oak, magnolia and cypress trees.
The Rhodes Memorial on Devil’s Peak has a magnificent view facing northeast. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden is made for a picnic and for several hours of “I’m so glad I’m alive,” time.
Just when you think Cape Town couldn’t get any prettier, drive an hour to Stellenbosch, part of the South African wine country, and then cast out along the Garden Route with lagoons, pristine beaches and forested cliffs meeting the sea (the countryside looks made up, drawn by a gifted watercolorist). The Garden Route stretches 190 miles along the southwestern coast of South Africa. It’s like the Garden of Eden with a beach.
We stayed there in a guesthouse in Wilderness that had an entry in the guestbook from Ley and Lillian that read — “Now we know what Paradise looks like.”
I recommend a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Geographically, Robben Island is to Cape Town what Alcatraz is to San Francesco, a 30-minute ferry ride away.
The tours are led by former political prisoners (the prison is closed) and our dignified guide who had perfect posture had spent seven years on the island and sounded like Morgan Freeman. The tour was fascinating and our guide deserved a standing ovation.
When we walked outside and looked back at Cape Town, there was Table Mountain. I wondered if in Mandela’s hardest and most miserable days, whether he was able to gain some solace from Table Mountain.
We bounced between social responsibility and eating and drinking like we were going to the chair. South Africa is a bargain, starting with grilled prawns over a bed of risotto, two glasses of Graham Beck champagne and a bottle of wine for less than $50. Anywhere else, that’s $150.
The food is amazing. I know you may not want to fly 21 hours and cross two time zones to eat chicken livers sauteed in brown sauce because you may not even like sauteed chicken livers, but I had the most amazing ones at The Lighthouse Cafe, in Simon's Town, near Cape Point. Our waiter’s name was Trust and I trusted him with my chicken livers, which I backed up with an order of lightly battered fish and chips.
People in Bakersfield love breakfast, and I had the best breakfast I’ve ever had at Boschendal Farms in the wine country, which included eggs, sauteed mushrooms, baked beans, bacon, sausage, homemade wheat toast and a flat white (the Australian/South African version of cappuccino now readily available in American coffeehouses).
Traveling is not all sauteed chicken livers and full moons over the Indian Ocean. Our Capital One card was hacked and some lucky soul used it to buy $1,200 worth of building supplies and a $3 Happy Meal at McDonalds. Fortunately, the bank called us and we didn’t have to contribute to a building project in Cape Town. I would have been happy to have bought the Happy Meal, however.
The card mess-up wasn’t critical until we went through a patch of being unable to withdraw money at the ATM. I thought I might have to write one of those emails: “I’m stuck in Cape Town. My wallet has been stolen, our credit cards have been hacked, and we’re holed up in the America embassy. Please send money.”
Eight days in Cape Town is not enough. Want some hiking? You’ll get all you want climbing Lion’s Head and Table Mountain. I thought I was going to lose Sue on a stormy day on Lion’s Head (2,195 feet) and I nearly took a knee on Table Mountain (3,558 feet), while Sue regained her hiking form.
Mountain biking, yes. Walking along the beach, yes. Museums, yes.
In the District 6 Museum, we saw this poem by the artist Peter Clarke:
“Undoubtedly we live in a time of storm and stress.
But this weather will not last.
Nevertheless, the tide will turn.”
Cape Town — the bitter and the sweet. We would return in a heartbeat. “Oh my God” it’s beautiful.