Cape Town has always held a special place in my heart. It was the place where I first tasted independence, that somewhat scary but ultimately rewarding experience that comes when you have the freedom for self-discovery. As my university town, I grew up, figuratively anyway, in the shadow of Table Mountain. Having not been back for 15 years, I was determined to squeeze it in to our South Africa travel plans somehow, and it was well worth it. Although we only had three days there, we jammed it full of highlights, caught up with friends and family and indulged in both the nightlife and the spectacular natural beauty of the land.
We arrive at dusk. Cape Town is settling into its evening jewels as we make our descent. The omnipresent mountain, with its craggy sides and the flat top that gives it its name, is a darkening backdrop to this illuminated water-side city. In the western sky, the sun has set into the ocean, and the horizon is a smouldering palette of pinks, oranges and greys. It’s beautiful, even from on high.
Like many places in South Africa, Cape Town is a town of stark contrasts. There is natural beauty in abundance, a lively food scene and enough historical attractions to keep even the most ardent student of history happy but there is also poverty and desperation, and the traffic is horrendous. You can skim the surface here – enjoying the bars and beaches, wines and African crafts, and we mostly do. But, you can also scratch below the glittering façade and see what everyday life looks like for its varied population. Our social activist teen pushed us in that direction and by moving out of our comfort zone we gained a richer and more rounded experience of the town.
To start though, we visit the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, nestled at the eastern base of the Table Mountain. It is spring and the gardens burst with colour. Pretty streams and old baths, an ancient cycad forest and the tree canopy walkway occupy our time and attention. Various sculptures dot the landscape and the sound of laughing children on school excursions float in the air that feels fresh and full of optimism.
We are drawn, of course, to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a pivotal attraction point in Cape Town. We sit in the sunshine against the backdrop of Table Mountain, eating lunch and listening to live music – a four-man percussion and rhythm ensemble playing an upbeat tune on xylophones and drums. It feels uniquely African, and joyful. Here we explore the wonderful arts and crafts markets and shop up big to bring a piece of Africa home with us.
The Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Arts – Africa) grabs our attention and inspires more than a little awe. The building itself is spectacular – a mesmorising architectural feat that transformed soaring old concrete grain towers into a space that is full of light and sound. Looking back, I have a sense of floating in the space. The main exhibition is a showcase of William Kentridge, a prolific artist whose underlying political commentary is unsettling. (He did much of it during the apartheid years, calling out the absurdity and cruelty of this horrific political regime).
In stark contrast to all of this, we visit Imizamo Yethu – an “informal settlement” directly across the road from one of the richest suburbs in Cape Town – Hout Bay. Here, crammed into a small space on the side of the mountain, we pick our way through narrow muddy pathways that wind through what are primarily ramshackle tin shacks crowded together, like birds huddling in the wind. Our guide explains that people create their houses from whatever bits of materials are to hand, presumably putting them up wherever there is an available shard of space. Residents share inadequate sanitation supplies, and cold water taps provide hydration and washing opportunities. We are welcomed into homes that shine with care and hope despite the dire circumstances these poor people have been born into. The view from the township is one of space and luscious green grass, for across the road the horses of the rich stand in wide spacious paddocks, complete with stables that offer more comfort and luxury most people here have. No wonder people get cross.
My favourite part of this tour is a visit to the pre-school. The kids are exuberant and lively, with smiles that glow from lips to eyes. They demand our hands to play jumping games, and spontaneously deliver hugs and high fives. The number of children crammed into this small space would give Australian regulators nightmares, but there is no doubting the passion of the teachers and staff as they care for their high-spirited charges.
As in all communities, even one that is demonstrably poor, there are people who are doing better than others. The pub is thriving and the local internet café boasts a steady stream of business. Dogs roam the street and neighbours call out to each other. Some people are lucky enough to have traditional houses – made of bricks, with proper front doors (apparently the work of an Irish charity). The local church provides succour, handing out care packages from charities and showcasing some of the local arts and crafts. I spend big as a way to give back. At the end of the tour our guide thanks us for our bravery… they are words that floor me.
Cape Town itself, the city centre, is vibrant and full of life. Business is booming and the streets burst with people going about their business. But, lulled perhaps into a false sense of security, we nearly get mugged while standing outside the main train station looking somewhat confused and cashed up. Years ago, a taxi driver taking us to a similar place in Rosario, Argentina gave us a stern warning. “Cuidado, cuidado” he said, making a strange wavy movement with his hand. Watch out. Beware. Crooks about. So, it’s a lesson we know from old – in places with rampant income inequality, you need a bit of cuidado about you, especially at train stations. The intervening years of suburban complacency have clearly dulled our travel-senses. I ward off the “aggressive beggars” with the large painting I had purchased at Green Market Square earlier in the day.
The night life in Cape Town doesn’t disappoint. We bar and restaurant hop through the heart of the city which teams with life. The Gin Bar – a light and airy space with a wide selection of gin-cocktails; The Commissary – an intimate, low lit restaurant above a graffiti covered stair well serving excellent food and great wine; The Shortmarket Club – somewhat more sophisticated and high end for dessert. Through it all we felt safe and sated.
To round off the trip, we hike up Table Mountain. Yes, you can take the cable car or walk up easier pathways that wind step-like around the back of the mountain. But in the company of a local, who may well be part dassie, we opt for a frontal assault. Despite dire warnings of steep rock climbing and difficult navigation, our friend shrugs. He runs up here, apparently, and perhaps he is telling the truth because on our 4-hour climb we pass people doing exactly that. Still, there were some hairy moments for a little soul like me who is a tiny bit afraid of heights. Chains had to be used and there was some tentative shuffling across a narrow ledge to reach the end. But we made it and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city so ripe with hope – if only more could be done to provide willing people with economic opportunity.
On the way home we stop at UCT – our old uni campus – and sit on Jamie stairs and reminisce about those long ago days of heady freedom, with just a few assignments, a part time job and exams to cope with. What a privilege it was to have attended this beautiful campus and what a gift it was to make life-long friends who still travel with us along this journey we call life.