January Travelogue (Part III of III)

Cape Town, or, maybe this should have been split into four parts

Wednesday morning dawned sunny and bright, but we didn’t notice because we were in a black bedroom. That’s right. The room we had originally been assigned in Daddy Long Legs had a problem with the sink, so we stayed in the black and white Protea Room instead. It was bigger and more interesting than the one we had to return to later that day. (Our room for the rest of the stay was called Traveldog and had a blue puppy motif – fine, but not nearly as creatively decorated as some of the rooms.) Since we had had a lot of early mornings recently, we slept in a bit, had a leisurely breakfast at an excellent vegetarian café on Long Street (Portobello), and made our way toward The Waterfront.

Protea Room at Daddy Long Legs
Protea Room at Daddy Long Legs

Before leaving Malawi, we had reserved tickets for the 3 PM tour of Robben Island, so we had some time to kill. While I was picturing the Waterfront as a collection of cute little shops, it is basically a giant, tourist-oriented mall with lots of chain stores. We tooled around for a while anyway, and I found a Moleskin planner, which I had asked Elizabeth to bring but she was unable to find in DC. Since we had a late breakfast, we went with a light lunch – I had ice cream! This was my first ice cream in months, since it doesn’t really exist in Malawi (see previous dairy lament). Then we checked out the Nelson Mandela museum at the Robben Island Gateway while we waited to be herded onto our ferry.

Far from home (Cape Town Waterfront)
Far from home (Cape Town Waterfront)

Robben Island has a long history of being a place of banishment/imprisonment from the mainland. It had previous incarnations as a colonial prison, a leper colony, a military outpost (WWII) and was a political prison during apartheid. Today it is a museum and a must-see on tourist lists, though most of the tour takes place on a bus. I didn’t feel that I really got to experience “being on” the island and I wasn’t very moved by the experience (though I had expected to be).

WWII Gun Emplacement on Robben Island
WWII Gun Emplacement on Robben Island

I couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause – it may have been the lack of historical context provided on the island, or the fact that the recounting of the prisoner experience made it seem not so bad, compared to what other South Africans face in their daily lives, or that we were rushed by Mandela’s cell in a mandatory visit.  In short, it felt like a tourist experience instead of a thoughtful reflection on the historical importance of the island.  The whole tour was very hurried, because the island tries to accommodate as many visitors as it can (at $18 a ticket). We got back to the Waterfront about 6 PM but decided that we were both done with what it had to offer, so walked back to our hotel. Dinner was at a burger joint, recommended by the receptionist at our hotel. I enjoy a good burger every 6 months; this makes me a bad vegetarian but is good for my borderline anemia. Or so I say.

Mandelas cell on Robben Island
Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

Thursday was the first “unplanned” day of our vacation, so we took the opportunity to see some of the many sights and museums that Cape Town has to offer. We started with a walk through Company Gardens, which were originally started by the Dutch East Indian Company to provide food for the Cape Colony in the 1650s. Today, Company Gardens are more flower-oriented, and a number of museums and government buildings surround them. (Think a smaller and more tended version of the National Mall.)

Pigeons roost on Mr. Rhodes
Cecil Rhodes in Company Gardens

Next, we stopped at the District Six Museum, a tribute to Coloured residents that were forced out of their city homes to Cape Town’s suburbs during the 1960s apartheid regime. (Coloured is a widely used term in South Africa, and generally refers to people of mixed heritage descended from freed slaves rather than native African people. Slaves in the Cape Colony largely came from Indonesia. Wikipedia has a decent article that explains more.) The museum mixed personal narratives with historic facts and was, I thought, a good way to learn more about South Africa’s tumultuous history, which is otherwise fairly easy for the casual tourist to ignore. I would recommend this museum over a trip to Robben Island, if one has to choose. (Plus, it’s MUCH less expensive.) We headed next to the Gold of Africa Museum – an interesting contrast to District Six, to say the least! Photos weren’t allowed, and I didn’t want to be tackled by a security guard so I abided by the rules. We saw some very intricately wrought jewelry from all parts of Africa, including earrings the size of dinner plates and a ring with a decorative mudfish the size of a fist. I guess gold doesn’t inspire modesty!

From here, we stopped next door at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa, because the door was open and I like to duck into places. A very knowledgeable volunteer appeared when we entered and told us all about the church, which is one of the oldest in South Africa. It was built to look like a barn from the outside, because religious freedom wasn’t tolerated in the 1770s, when it was built. We had a look around, and also learned that Strand Street (where the church is located) used to be along the beach. Much of lower Cape Town was reclaimed from Table Bay during the apartheid era.

From here, we were on to the Bo-Kaap Museum. Bo-Kaap is a section of the city traditionally inhabited by the Cape Malay, Muslim descendants of Indonesian slaves. The museum was small and not overly exciting; we had been warned about exploring the area on foot so didn’t see much more of Bo-Kaap. After a short break at our hotel, we headed for Table Mountain. The weather was a little iffy, with clouds (also called the “Table Cloth”) rolling in and out, but since we had plans for Friday and Saturday, we went up anyway. An up side to the bad weather was that the mountain wasn’t swarming with tourists; we had our own private cable car on the way up (and only shared with two other people on the way down).

Elizabeth enjoys the view from our private cable car
Elizabeth enjoys the view from our private cable car

It was COLD at the top of the mountain; I was definitely the chilliest I’ve been in Africa. I put on both my fleece and a nylon rain jacket, which cut the wind quite effectively. The view from the top of Table Mountain was lovely – when we could see it. I also have a lot of photos of mist! Though the view was obscured, the mountain was also a great place to see some of the flora and fauna of the region. The Cape has its own floral kingdom with a lot of biodiversity, so while I saw a lot of pretty things, my Iowa-bred plant identification skills were not very useful here. We stopped for dinner between the mountain and our hotel and retired early, as this was a day with a LOT of walking.

Cape Town from Table Mountain
Cape Town from Table Mountain

On Friday morning, we hopped on a train for Stellenbosch, one of the Cape’s best known wine-producing regions. We had looked at a number of wine tours, but since our pocketbooks were getting slim at this point, decided to use the Vine Hopper, a hop-on hop-off “bus” (that was actually a suburban). We killed an hour or so wandering around Stellenbosch, then headed off for the wineries, perched in the hills of the surrounding area. We stopped at Hidden Valley, Alto, Bilton, and Klein Zalze; Alto was particularly notable for its port and Bilton for its wine and chocolate pairings. Klein Zalze was the largest of the wineries we visited and it definitely had more of a corporate feel. Their spit buckets were black plastic – classy! The Vine Hopper dropped us back at the train station in time to catch the 5:15 back to Cape Town.

Artsy wine photo
Artsy wine photo

One thing I was really looking forward to in Cape Town was Thai food, so finding some became our adventure for the evening. We ended up at Yindees, where I had the best panang tofu EVER. Whether it was the best ever because it was well-prepared or because I really wanted it to be remains debatable, but it was delicious!

Saturday required another early wakeup for our tour of the Cape Peninsula. Our guide picked up two other students – one Brazilian, one Swiss – and then we all headed out of Cape Town. Our first stop was in Hout Bay, a former fishing village and now bedroom community for Cape Town, where a colony of seals live. No one in the group wanted to do the optional (read: pay more) tour of the seal island, so we walked along the shore, checked out the boats and the one seal that could be posed with for a fee, and then went on to a shark lookout point.

Boats in Hout Bay
Boats in Hout Bay

The waters near False Bay are great for surfing – and also for sharks. Therefore, the region employs “shark spotters,” who perch atop cliffs overlooking the water and keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Other places in South Africa, like Durban, use off-shore nets to keep sharks away from surfers, but Cape Town is a popular gathering place for whales, which would also get caught in the nets. Apparently the shark spotting program is fairly successful, but I decided not to test it after our guide regaled us with the tale of a surfer who lost a foot last year.

View from the Shark Spotter Lookout Point
View from the Shark Spotter Lookout Point

From there, we were on to Boulder Beach and its colony of penguins. I have a TON of penguin pictures; they were pretty cute! African penguins, also known as Jackass penguins, are found only along the southwestern coast of the continent. These weren’t as active as the arctic penguins I’ve seen (not in real life, only at the Henry Doorly Zoo), but they were still fun to watch. We ran into a tour of Cornell and University of Toronto alumni on Boulder Beach – so someone DOES go on those absurdly expensive trips advertised in the back of the alumni magazine!

Penguins at Boulder Beach
Penguins at Boulder Beach

We spent the afternoon in the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve. We had a little bike ride before lunch, then went on to the Cape of Good Hope – the most south western point on the African continent. We hiked over to Cape Point, taking in some stunning views along the way. The shoreline was rocky and dramatic, and though it was hot out, there was a great breeze coming off the water. Most of the climb was uphill!

Off Cape Point, currents from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.  (Can you see the waves breaking at sea?)
Off Cape Point, currents from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. (Can you see the waves breaking at sea?)

After the nature reserve, there were a few more stops on the way back to Cape Town, including at an ostrich farm and a whale sighting (from very far away), but the reserve was definitely the highlight of the trip. We took some time to chill out and shower after the tour, and then went to a touristy game restaurant to celebrate Elizabeth’s last night in Cape Town. She had an adventurous charcuterie plate, which included crocodile, springbok, ostrich, and kudu, and also had warthog as the entrée. Who knew ostrich was a red meat?

Elizabeth displays four types of meat
Elizabeth displays four types of meat

We headed out early on Sunday morning, wanting to get a nice brunch in before Elizabeth had to leave for the airport at noon. I had waffles on the brain, but soon realized that there were no waffles to be had in Cape Town – at least none within walking distance of our hotel. We eventually found a bakery that served pancakes, which would have been more accurately called crepes. Since Elizabeth was already looking for an excuse to come back to South Africa, we decided that she should open a waffle and dessert shop on Kloof St. (If anyone is interested in an offshore investment, you know who to contact.) After checking out of our hotel room, we played speed Scrabble in the lobby until her taxi arrived.

Representing the Alma Mater at the end of Africa!
Representing the Alma Mater at the tip of Africa!

I then got in my own taxi to Rondebosch and the University of Cape Town, where I would spend the next few days. My taxi driver could NOT find the All Africa House, the building on UCT’s campus where I was supposed to stay, so I saw Middle Campus about six times – all while the meter was running, of course. I spent the rest of Sunday afternoon exploring campus, doing some grocery shopping, and reading my book.

I spent Monday in a variety of meetings for Telluride, which sponsors a fledgling exchange between the University of Cape Town and the University of Michigan. My Tuesday interview plans were canceled at the last minute, so I spent much of the morning at the nearby Cavendish Square mall, indulging in all the consumerism I miss in Malawi. (Not really, but I did buy new jeans and a computer printer and got a haircut.) In the afternoon, I caught up with Nate about his exchange experience, and spent the evening hanging out in nearby Observatory with Nate and his friends. I even met one Nebraskan who was very surprised to learn I not only knew where Scotts Bluff was, but also had visited. (To be fair, what I remember most vividly about that Nebraska vacation is walking around some fossil beds in ridiculously hot weather, terrified that I would be bitten by a rattlesnake.)

I dont know what this flower is, but it was pretty
I don’t know what this flower is, but it was pretty

Wednesday was my last day in South Africa, and I spent my morning walking around Rondebosch, writing postcards, and buying a few grocery items that I wanted to take back (including blueberry jam and, yes, cheese). In the afternoon, I shared a taxi with another All Africa House guest to go to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which Elizabeth and I had wanted to visit but decided a prohibitively expensive taxi ride from Cape Town proper. I enjoyed a few hours walking around the grounds and photographing South African flowers, but was glad we hadn’t blown a lot of money to see them. My last night in South Africa was spent doing laundry – with a real washer and dryer! – which I enjoyed a truly inordinate amount.  (It’s amazing, the things you miss!)

Kirstenbosch Gardens
Kirstenbosch Gardens

I was up before the crack of dawn on Thursday, and realized only after I was at the airport that arriving more than an hour early for my flight was completely unnecessary. During my layover in Johannesburg, I spent a few of my last rand on a Cosmo magazine for a friend, but was unable to find a copy of The Economist. I definitely should have bought the one I saw in Cape Town! The flight to Lilongwe was uneventful; I arrived back at home around 2:30 PM. My luggage arrived too, and this time nothing seemed to have been pilfered. (My Leatherman was stolen from my checked luggage somewhere between Lilongwe to Durban, and I am still disgruntled.) So, now: AmyinMalawi is back in Malawi!

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4 Responses to “January Travelogue (Part III of III)”

  1. Nancy M Says:

    Enjoying your travelogue. I’m fascinated by the black and white room and curious about the lamp (?) in the corner. A real lamp outlined in neon or just a neon art piece? Stay well and safe.

  2. amyinmalawi Says:

    Thanks, Nancy! It’s a rope light outline of a lamp, but served pretty much the same purpose.

  3. Rachel Says:

    I would be loving the washers and dryers too. You forget about the luxuries you have until you go without them.

  4. Nancy M Says:

    So, Amy, I’m hooked on this hotel. What size was the room? More furniture? A window? How do the costs compare with American accommodations?

    Wonderful weather for February here in the midwest–60’s yesterday, 50’s with a cool breeze today, and possible rain tomorrow. Saw several vees of geese this morning sort of flying north. We, of course, have no snow, but Kristine said the sidewalks in I.C. were all streams as there was nowhere else for the water to go.

    Wrestling sectionals were today. We seem to have no one advancing to Districts. Girls BB Districts begin this week and the boys the next.

    Take care.

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