David Rich 1000 Words
The Island, the Cape, the Mountain & the Town
The world's premier cities are eclipsed by number one, though no one agrees which city that is. Sure, Sydney has a bridge and an opera house, a few islands in the bay, and beaches where locals surf, catch rays, and occasionally pursue politically incorrect others. San Francisco offers a bridge, a bay and an island with an abandoned prison. Rio poses below a pointy hill topped by a kitschy statue, offering a beach littered with dental-floss bikinis. Istanbul sprouts bridges, one floating, and two slinky mosques. But the most photogenic, by far, is Cape Town, with historic island, starkest cape, flattest mountain, and happeningest town.
Robben Island is a must-see bit of detritus, where the former Tsotsi, the Mandela named Nelson, was locked in a tiny cell for eighteen years. The Island tour grabs voyagers on Cape Town's posh waterfront and whisks hundreds via double-decker ferries to the Island, past fabulous views of a crew-cut mountain and gorgeous bay.
Upon arrival the island bus circuits an emerald green mosque built as a tomb over Muslims who died at hard labor in the Island's lime quarry. Every day the prisoners, mostly dark-skinned Christians, broke rocks in the quarry, digging lime under the furnace of the merciless African sun, without shade, water or respite for urination. For relief they skulked into a cave now made huge by years of prisoner toxicity.
The historic reality of Robben Island is vividly described by the tour guides, all former prisoners and classmates of Nelson Mandela. The island's use has progressed from bad to worse to good, from leper colony and refuge of the insane to political prison and now, a World Heritage site. The sole comic relief is provided by black and white birds suffering sunstroke, tottering down the thoroughfare like mad dogs and Englishmen, looking remarkably like penguins.
Because South Africa lacks public transportation, except for ubiquitous black taxis mostly shunned by tourists and lighter locals, checking out the thirty mile- (fifty kilometer-) long Cape requires joining a tour. And what a tour it is, from the wide expanse of Hout Bay and the road winding far above for a bird's eye view, to the penguin colony ensconced in sandy nests a few miles south at Simon's Bay, where East Indiamen shuttling to and from China, sheltered from winter gales. The penguins look delectable, but apparently aren't. They're too greasy and fuzzy for decent victuals, not nearly as tasty as KFC.
The Cape's bottom fifteen miles consist of starkly windswept tundra called fynbos, accessed by no public transportation whatsoever. This remote portion offers fabulous views across deep-blue bays and a national park encompassing Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, Africa's southwesterly-most point. The Park enjoys deserved adulation, consequently jammed with tourists in high season, watching the surf break in fluorescent shades of blue, gawking from serpentine trails engineered to best display vertigo cliffs of yellow, frothed by white.
The flat-topped mountain called Table glowers above Cape Town like Mesa Verde (green table in Spanish) towers above my home town of Cortez, Colorado, admittedly in a rather different setting. Instead of surrounded by 14,000 foot (4200 meter) peaks like Mesa Verde, Table Mountain stands utterly alone, churning the weather for the town below. The locals brag that the weather often turns treacherous on Table Mountain, changing a minimum of four seasons in twenty-four hours.
The Mountain is often slathered with a tablecloth of cloud, but more frequently swept by winds nicknamed Cape Doctor, souring off Table Bay to scour the City's 116 square miles (300 square kilometers) free from all pollution. The best part of the Mountain is not the cable car rigged for sissy tourists, but the invigorating four hours it takes to hike to the top while enjoying phenomenal views of the surrounding hillocks, the town and the castle below. The 350 classified routes to the top offer orchids, hundreds of daisy variations, and silver trees, all subject to nibbling by Himalayan goats whose ancestors escaped from a Cape Town zoo.
But beware, because sissies sometimes win. During my Cape Town stay the local newspaper headlined two hikers, only one of whom made half the climb intact before he was rescued by helicopter. Meanwhile, his buddy had plunged to a crushing end.
Cape Town is parked equidistant between Table Bay and Table Mountain, abutting both, encircled by the ridges of Lion's Head and Lion's Rump. The Rump ran afoul of political correctness and was renamed Signal Hill. It features a cannon on top that pops promptly and daily at noon, saying, Go to lunch.
The city offers perfect spring weather year-round, ignoring the occasional winds approaching hurricane force. Shop for African crafts and colorful ostrich eggs painted with brilliant scenes of Africa. And enjoy the seafood restaurants, accompanied by a glass of local wine. The surrounding countryside has sprouted world class vineyards, accordingly priced.
The City is populated by the most sophisticated and erudite people in Africa, truly no big deal. But go anyway, to enjoy the ambience, food, shopping and above all, location, setting and over-priced hotels, the most photogenically situated on earth.
When you go: Fly to Cape Town or Johannesburg from any major European city or with a single connection from the States. Delta recently began nonstop service to Cape Town with roundtrip flights under $1000. Hotels are expensive, on par with Europe. Even backpackers hostels charge $40 for a room without en-suite facilities, for one person. If you must have a bathroom, pony up the Rand. Public transportation around South Africa is easy and relatively economical by Greyhound, Intercape and other carriers, but they skip tourist outposts such as the Cape. However, the Baz Bus provided a shuttle through all South Africa tourist areas, plus through Swaziland and parts of Mozambique. See www.bazbus.co.za, also pricey. It's cheaper to fly than to take the Baz Bus. High season is December, January and March. I have no idea why February isn't part of high season, or why the weather is often nicer in April.