Our Southern African Adventure, Part 1: Cape Town Pre-Tour

After our time in Madagascar, Rich and I headed down to Cape Town, South Africa from where we embarked on a 24-day safari through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be discussing our trip, sharing what we did, and what we saw. Today, we’ll be talking about our time in Cape Town, prior to the beginning of the tour.

I for one, was really excited to get down to Cape Town. I didn’t know all that much about it, other than that it had great surf, plenty of penguins, and loads of adventure activities, but it was the place I kept getting on online quizzes regarding where you “should really be living.” So between the outdoorsy nature of the city, and the fact that Buzzfeed seemed so insistent that I belong in that city, I was to say the least, very intrigued. Happily, it wasn’t all that hard to convince Rich to spend a fair amount of time there either, helped in part because our tour was starting in Cape Town, and because neither of us were particularly keen on spending lots of time in Johannesburg (I’m not great with high altitudes).

The view, landing in Cape Town was spectacular. Vast greenery, along with Table Mountain, the 3 kilometer long flat-topped mountain plateau, coated in what looked like a flowing waterfall of cloud, and flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head, made for a stunning backdrop, my jaw dropping as we flew alongside it.

Upon collecting our luggage we headed out of the airport, catching a taxi into Green Point, a beautiful suburban area about a forty minute walk outside of the Cape Town CBD. Due to affordability, Rich and I chose to stay at a B&B in the area, rather than a hotel or even a hostel in the area. Surprisingly, hostels in the area for a twin share cost nearly as much as a nice room with bathroom and ocean views at a B&B.

Our B&B, called Anchor Bay Guest House, was run by a lovely South African couple. The owner welcomed us in, treated us to a free bottle of wine (and some dodgy tasting peanuts), gave us a map, all of his recommendations as to what to do and see, as well as where to eat without spending a fortune at the local tourist traps. We were both blown away by his kindness and the amount of time he was willing to spend with us, answering questions, and pointing out routes to each attraction.

Highly recommended was the City Sightseeing Tour, with its offshoot wine tour. Unfortunately, bus tours have never been my idea of a good time. It was the kind of thing that less adventurous people did, an activity that lacks any soul. However with three days of solo touring to fill and a complete lack of planning prior to the trip (it is safe to assume that we were so consumed with training and planning for the race in Madagascar that we completely forgot we had another month in Africa afterwards) that we acquiesced and thought that we might as well. Besides, there were two stops that seemed like they could be interesting.

Baboons rush across a vineyard
Baboons rush across a vineyard

Day 1

So, getting up late the next morning, we headed for the V&A Waterfront to catch the bus out. We had decided to take the Blue line for the day, as it trekked through the outer peninsula, rather than keeping us within the CBD, and headed out to Cape Town’s wine country. I was hoping to get myself just tipsy enough that the long-winded and self-congratulatory bus commentary would actually seem entertaining.

The largest of the wineries that the bus stopped at, and which came recommended by the owner of our B&B, was Groot Constantia. Upon our exiting the bus, we were greeted by a sign proclaiming, “Beware of Baboons”, which we thought was a great joke.

With the goal of getting sufficiently tipsy we opted to do a tour of the winery that came with a wine tasting for 45 Rand per person (~US$4). Our guide for the day looked like a recently escaped university librarian, complete with horn-rimmed glasses, poorly executed pixie cut, stern look, and the ability to speak in such hushed tones that the light breeze coming through the windows was greatly more audible than she. Needless to say, Rich and I had to entertain ourselves, and come up with our own ideas of what all the equipment was being used for.

After leaning over balconies and staring at barrels of wine for about half an hour we headed in for the wine tasting. We were given five tasting glasses each, and while we attempted to read our guide’s lips for instructions on what each glass contained, Rich and I started shoveling in wine and crackers. I’m not much of a wine connoisseur, but I know enough to know when I’m being cheated. Of all wines, only one even tasted half decent. I’m almost certain they gave us wine from their reject stock…

As we were sampling everything, I heard our guide’s voice become audible for the first time all tour, and wouldn’t you know she wasn’t talking about wine, she was bad mouthing Chinese people. Yes, that was what she was getting excited about – evil, technology-addicted Chinese people, not the wine or the vineyard itself. As the only person of Asian descent in the room, let’s just say there was no way she was getting a tip from me.

After the tour, our stomachs crying out in hunger, we made our way to the vineyard’s restaurant in search of good food and drinkable wine. Both of us, having a significant and enduring craving for beef post-race ordered hamburgers and 250ml of wine each (wine that was not from the Groot Constantia vineyard). As we tucked into our lunch (which was quite good) we started to understand why that “Beware of Baboon” sign had been posted. Looking out the restaurant window a mass of baboons were making their way across the vineyard. Some paused to sit on fence posts, or climb up trees while waiting for others, and a couple more got into fights.

After thoroughly enjoying our wine and burgers we found our way back to the tour bus and headed to our next location, the World of Birds, the largest bird park in Africa. Having enjoyed watching the baboons, and our wine during lunch a little too much we didn’t make it onto the bus until much later than we had anticipated, so we only had about an hour at the World of Birds before we’d have to head home. Taking the advice of the woman at the ticket counter, we headed directly for what we really wanted to see at this location, which wasn’t the birds, but rather the squirrel monkey exhibit. Squirrel monkeys are tiny little guys, with massive ears, long tails, and huge brown eyes. The squirrel monkey exhibit at World of Birds was one where we could walk inside, and interact with the monkeys. As long as we didn’t have anything shiny on us we were allowed to reach out for them and have them climb onto our arms and shoulders.

Though they were not as sweet as the lemurs we interacted with in Madagascar, the squirrel monkeys were quite adorable as they climbed around, even if it was clear that they were just after anything that was hanging loose. This included the strap for Rich’s camera, which a baby squirrel monkey seemed to enjoy pawing at from a branch. I could have spent hours in there but we were ushered out after about ten minutes due to an early closing time for the exhibit.

Having another forty-five minutes or so till our bus, we started wandering about the rest of the park. The area sadly felt quite worn down. It was dirty and grey, weeds and plants sprouting through cracks in the ground, and some of the cages felt like they were left in neglect. Various species of birds were sectioned off from each other by large wire cages, but park visitors were allowed to wander between and into each of the cages. It was not recommended that we touch the birds, because they were very happy to bite anyone who wanted to take home a feather, (a lesson that a pair of German girls learned the hard way) but we could get as close as we wanted to them.

Some of the birds were incredibly beautiful, like the golden pheasant, with its bright red, blue, and gold plumage, the various parrots, and the white peacocks. I was happily bemused when as we were walking by, a parrot decided to say “hello” to me. I called Rich over to see if we could get the parrot to greet us both again, but despite Rich’s attempts in getting the parrot to communicate once more, flapping his arms around, we couldn’t get the parrot to speak again. Well, until Rich got bored and walked off, leaving me alone with it.

Unfortunately for me, that parrot seemed to be the only bird in the park to actually take a liking to me. As we crossed through one of the cages, I noticed that a pheasant was following us. I assumed that it was trying to get into the next cage over, so I sped up a bit so as to make sure we could get through the door separating the exhibits without it following us through. However, as I opened the door the pheasant lunged at my ankle, taking a nice little chunk out of it with its beak. Well, that was one less blister for me to have to worry about.

After that, it didn’t take much convincing for me to hurry up so that we could catch our bus back to the B&B. Even though the park had been a bit worn down, had I not been bitten by the pheasant nor had we a bus to catch, I wouldn’t have minded spending a bit more time there.

Rich and his new squirrel monkey friend

Day 2

For our second full day in the area, we decided to head over to Robben Island, about a forty-five minute boat ride from V&A Wharf. The island, which is a must see when you’re in the area, is best known for its prison, whose walls once held current and former South African presidents including Nelson Mandela, and Jacob Zuma.

From our B&B that morning we had a nice easy walk of about twenty minutes along the coast line to the wharf – a stunning promenade under the shadow of Table Mountain, full of shops, museums, restaurants, craft and food markets, as well as a ferris wheel. Finding our way through the promenade to the ticket booth was a challenge as tourists swarmed the area and we had to navigate our way across bridges and through malls full of curios shops.

Admission to Robben Island was not the cheapest, coming in at 250 Rand per person (~US$22.5), but knowing that this was probably one of the best places to go to get a historical perspective of the region, we climbed aboard our ferry and endured a very choppy ride across to the island.

Once arriving on solid ground, us ferry goers were ushered onto a series of coach buses, from where we were to get a tour of the island, passing through the only village on the island, looking at where some of the political prisoners had been put to work mining limestone, and checking out the Robben Island Lighthouse (the light from which was visible from our room at the B&B).

After the bus ride, we were dropped off at a prison block that once held group cells. There we were greeted by one of the island’s former prisoners, who served eight years in the prison after having been marked as a potential political dissident. Our guide took us through the prison, describing the grim living conditions they faced, often with more than twenty-five people sharing a cell, and with few amenities.

Taking us from the group cells, we walked over to the area that contained the cells of those considered to be political leaders. These prisoners were given single cells away from the group cells, so as to prevent the spreading of ideas to the masses. It was in one of these 8×8 foot cells that Nelson Mandela was kept for eighteen years. To know that someone could spend so much of their life rotting away in this tiny space, only to endure, and eventually lead the nation that had put him there in the first place with such benevolence was awe inspiring.

Once we were finished looking at these cells, we headed out, walking the path referred to as “Long Walk to Freedom” (which really wasn’t all that long) that all prisoners took upon their release, and back down to the ferry pier, to the boat that would take us back to the V&A waterfront. Unfortunately, there was no option to stay and look around further without a guide.

Arriving back on the main land, Rich and I desperately needed to do something to lift the depressing feeling of what we had just seen. For me of course that meant going to see more animals, and happily enough there was an aquarium almost right next door to where the ferry let us off. The Two Oceans Aquarium (named for Cape Town’s being located where the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans meet) wasn’t anything extraordinary, but it was a sweet little place full of beautiful fish, a few species of shark, and penguins. I thought it was quite cute, but was disappointed to find that we were in and out in less than an hour (and I was really stalling at the penguin exhibit!). Regardless, it was a nice pick me up.

View of Cape Town from Robben Island
View of Cape Town from Robben Island

Day 3

Our third full day in Cape Town was to be our last day solo before joining our tour. Since it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be allowed to go shark diving (Rich didn’t seem all that pleased at the idea of letting me go play with sharks), we made do and decided to go visit some of my other favorite critters – penguins – at Boulders Bay. Boulders is home to a colony of over two thousand penguins and is located an hour plus train ride from the CBD.

Having discussed our plans with our host at the B&B, he assured us that taking the train out to Boulders would be alright, the town where we’d be stopping was along the so-called tourist route. To him this meant that the trains out along this route were much nicer than any other train you’d get around the city. Feeling reassured that we would be alright taking the train out to Simon’s Town (we’d have to walk to Boulders Bay from there), we headed into the CBD to find the train station.

To be honest, leaving Green Point and heading into the CBD felt like entering a different country. The population of Green Point and the other surrounding suburbs appeared to be predominantly middle/upper middle class white families. However, as soon as we stepped foot into the CBD, the population was made up considerably of black middle/lower middle classes. The contrast was incredible, and we were shocked to suddenly find ourselves as the minority, after having gotten used to looking and feeling like we fit the part.

Regardless, we managed our way through the crowds and into the train station, where we were able to buy “tourist” train tickets. For 30 Rand each (~US$2.5), we would be able to travel as much as we wanted along the line that’d bring us to Simon’s Town for the entire day. Unfortunately, no one seemed to be interested in letting us know that there were first class and economy class cars on this train, and that having purchased a tourist ticket we were eligible for the first class car. Therefore as we were lining up to get into one of the first class cars, a pair of station workers prevented us from entering, telling us that we hadn’t paid for the premium car, and motioned us to the economy car. We acquiesced, thinking that the fare we paid must have been too little for the first class car anyway.

The economy car was overrun, consisting of long benches on either side of the car, with people sitting on top of one another, while vendors came through selling bags of candy and crisps. There were stickers all along the ceilings and walls advertising “safe and painless abortions by Dr. J”, as well as spiritual healers promising penis enlargement, and witch doctors guaranteeing the return of a former lover.

Having grown up in New York, with many years of riding the subway there, riding in this car wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest, had it not been for the blatant staring. As obvious tourists, several of the other passengers on the train kept eyeing us, and we noticed a man in a yellow jersey who kept trying to move closer to us every time that the train stopped and someone in a seat closer seat left. It was unnerving to say the least, and I was worried that he might stop us when we tried to get off the train at our stop. Happily though we got off the train at Simon’s Town without a hitch, but were determined to get on the first class car on the way back to the CBD.

Once out of the train station, we chose to walk the 3 kilometers to Boulders Bay, walking past the multitude of guides promising to bring us there. Nearing the end of the walk, it was pretty obvious that we were close to our destination as suddenly, there was a mass of overexcited American, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian tourists all clamoring to the ticket booth or back to the tour buses from which they came.

Paying the international tourist fee of 55 Rand (~US$5) per person, we found ourselves confined to a wide boardwalk that passed down and along Boulders Beach. Now I was in heaven. There were hundreds upon hundreds of penguins all within close range. They were sleeping under the boardwalk, hanging out next to it, sunning themselves on large rocks, waddling around the beach, or riding into the beach on icy blue waves.

The penguins in this colony are all jackass penguins. Though we had known beforehand that they were meant to sound like donkeys, thus the name, I thought that they were going to sound like donkeys in the same way that goats supposedly yell like humans. But no, when they open their beaks, they genuinely sound like braying donkeys. It was absolutely hysterical to hear that “hee-hahing” sound come out of something so tiny.

Wanting to get back to the B&B before sunset, as the CBD is not the safest place to be after dark, we headed back to the train after not enough time of watching penguins bouncing around. We got back to the Simon’s Town station with just enough time to go and ask for first class tickets, only to of course find out that we had had them all along. With mixed feelings of relief at knowing we could take up seats in the nicer cars, and anger towards the station workers who originally told us we were not allowed to sit there, we took up some nice and comfy seats up at the front of the train and enjoyed the view back to town, without having to endure people gawking at us.

The penguins of Boulders Bay
The penguins of Boulders Bay

Though there was plenty more that I would have liked to have done while we were traveling solo through Cape Town (like shark diving and abseiling down Table Mountain), I really enjoyed the time we spent there. Despite many people’s apprehensions about the area, I really found the area as a whole to be a very lovely place, and somewhere that I’d like to spend more time. Happily for us, we still had another two days left to enjoy in Cape Town, just with a tour group. We’ll fill you in on all the details of what we did with the tour both in Cape Town and on our way up north towards Namibia next time.

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