I’ll write down some impressions of my time in Cape Town and South Africa, and follow this up with photographs in another post. I find text pretty difficult to read if intertwined with pictures too much, and there are quite some photographs I’d like to put online, therefor the separation.
Here we go.
Introduction & some random things
Cape Town is in the Southwest of South Africa, has over 3 million citizens, and is a very diverse city. The history (Dutch/English colonialization, Apartheid, etc.) is omnipresent, obviously. It has only been 20 years. There are still many townships, segregated by skin color. It’s impossible for a colored person to enter a black township, or for a white person to enter a colored township, and so forth. It’s a city full of tourism, but also full of crime (compared to European standards … compared to Johannesburg it’s as safe as it gets!).
Cape Town is at the Atlantic Ocean, and has (to tell a simplified version of the story) two mountains in the middle of the city: table mountain (about 1km high), and another mountain of which one peak is called Lion’s head (650m), and the other one Signal Hill (350m). The top of Table Mountain is usually pretty cloudy, and you only want to go up there if you can see down properly. There are two hikes up there, one takes about 4 hours, the other about 2 hours. To Lion’s Head it takes about 90 minutes, and offers a stunning sight over the island. Cannot recommend that to people who don’t feel comfortable climbing a bit or have fear of heights, the last 20 % are pretty … messy.
At the West Coast, on the West of Table Mountain, there are beautiful beaches in the suburbs like Cliffton and Camp’s Bay. Very very expensive places, but it’s amazing to watch the sunset on the beach and then drink a pricy coffee in one of the many restaurants and bars there.
Some random things:
91.3 is the radio station you want to listen to: AA (Afrikaans Alternative). Hell yeah !
[At the very moment I'm writing this I'm sitting in my room in the Upper Bloem B&B, and AA just started playing "Beautiful People" by Manson…]
When it comes to mobile phone contracts for just a few days, I can absolutely recommend the MTN network. The costs for texts and calls in South Africa are small, and you get internet without additional costs. Once I had used up my 5 Euro on the card I realized that the internet still worked – for another week until I left the Cape. How nice would be if they had free internet for mobile phones in Europe or the States ;) …
Capetonians call traffic lights “robots”.
The first thing you realize is the high amount of people with “Security” jackets at street corners. They are private security, payed for by restaurants, hotels, shop owners etc. to keep that particular part of the street clean. They wear “only” batons, but have walkie talkies, and it supposedly only takes a few heartbeats for a jeep inhabited by properly armed guards to shoot around the corner if need be. On the one hand it’s nice to know that there is security around – on the other hand it means: police are not able to handle crime. It also means: if there is no private security around, there is most likely not going to be any help. And just because there is security around doesn’t mean there is no crime. In Long Street, a place with a very high density of private security, people get mugged all the time (although usually nothing worse than theft happens, which is good).
It gets dark here around 6pm in winter, and after 6pm you don’t really walk around in the city all that much. There are some streets that are ok, especially if you’re in a group, but even in these streets you shouldn’t be out alone. A good example is long street: it’s THE street to go out in, there are a dozens of bars and restaurants and some clubs. It’s very touristy, but there are also locals aplenty. Still, a colleague got mugged there a couple of days ago at night (they took away his1 glasses and then his wallet while he was defenseless). It takes only a few seconds, too long for security to react (even if they happen to see you). And side streets are a much bigger risk even, especially if you don’t look like someone who lives here.
During the day, most areas, especially in downtown, are safe. You can easily walk alone, also as woman. However, there are some areas you want to avoid (e.g. Woodstock, Salt River). And even in some of the very good areas – e.g. Bo-Kaap, Rose Street – some of the streets might not be very safe. Katrin, who owns the bed and breakfast we stayed in, drove us down to Rose Street once, and my colleague started wandering off while I went back with Katrin. Katrin yelled out of the window that my colleague must not go this one specific street she was heading towards – it’s well known to be the place where thieves burn handbags.
You should listen carefully to recommendations of people working in tourism here. They have no reason to tell stories that scare tourists for no good reason, but have every reason to be concerned that nothing happens to tourists. They will therefor most likely give you proper advice about what to do and what not to do here. Taking cabs from A to B at night (:= in the dark), no matter where A and B are, is one of these advices you should follow, even if it’s just a 5 minutes walk.
There are trains in Cape Town, but if you are traveling on your own it is recommended to only use them during rush hour when many people use them.
Taxis are comparably cheap – you pay 1 Euro per kilometer. If the car stands in traffic, there are no costs, and if you want the cab to wait for an hour, that’s less than 5 Euros. There are only few “proper” taxi companies here, and these are the ones a decent hotel will call for you. They not only have a taxi sign on the roof, but also prices on the doors, they have a taximeter inside, and the driver will call the station as soon as you get in and tell them where he’s bringing you. The companies make sure rather successfully – by means I do not know and do not wish to speculate about – that criminals do not abuse the company’s reputation and fake their taxis. If you call a cab and you are in downtown the taximeter will start at 20 cents, no matter how long it took for the cab to get there.
What you don’t want to do is take cabs alone, unless the cab was called by your hotel or another person you trust. It happens regularly that you do not end up at the location you wanted to head, but inside in a dark side street. Most of the cabs you find in front of restaurants, clubs and other locations – even in downtown – only have a taxi sign on top, and no taximeter. If you decide to get in (only do so if you’re not alone), make sure to talk about the price immediately. Either have a map with you, or let the driver know that you know the roads well by giving him a specific route or something. The longest trip I regularly took was about 10km, and I payed 14 Euros the first time, 8 the second and 5 the third. After a week or two, you just know the roads, and don’t make an alltoo touristy impression anymore.
We had very, very nice cabbies also. One – Greg – refused to drop us off at a location we had agreed to meet friends. We had not been aware that the street corner was not in a suburb you really do not want to be, and Greg said he will get into massive trouble if something happens to us, and he will simply not let us out of the car because the area is too dangerous (there were people lying on the street, motionless … it was a pretty spooky area indeed). We ended up talking to him for about half an hour, and he told us some pretty interesting stories. He had been driving cabs in Cape Town for about 25 years. He said about twice a year it gets so bad that he has to drive into the police station to handle his passengers, but usually he gets along (he was an elderly, but tall and fierceful gentleman).
The currency used in South Africa is Rand: 10 Rand are about 1 Euro. I like to use international fast food chains to compare living standards – you get a 6-inch Subway sub for about 3 Euros, a normal menu at McDonalds for 3-4 Euros, and a menu at KFC for 4 Euros. Cabs cost 1 Euro per kilometer (no additional fees), letting the cabbie wait for an hour costs less than 5 Euros. Proper lunch in touristy areas costs between 4 and 8 Euros if you try to find places that aren’t too expensive, but if you want to buy African specialties in touristy restaurants, you pay between 12 and 20 Euros. Supermarket prices are about 30% less than in Germany, I’d say. We payed 45 Euro per person for a very luxurious double room suite in a 4* hotel (booked many months in advance), and 23 Euro per person for a double room in a lovely bed and breakfast (booked a day before we moved here). We saw “The Dark Knight Rises” in the largest cinema in Cape Town, very good quality, situated in a very fancy part of town (waterfront) – and payed 5 Euro per ticket.
The prices (for anything…) go up about 10% each year, mostly due to inflation (officially 7%). We compared prices of a 2011 Lonely Planet to one published 10 years ago: most things cost double or more today.
Renting a car for two days cost us about 100 Euros, + fuel. It’s affordable, and very cheap if you want to live cheaply. It’s a great country for backbacking!
Restaurants / Bars
Observatory is the student part of town, close to University. It’s a bit tricky to get there, usually people take a cab from downtown (about 10km). Lwr Main Road, Cape Town 7935, South Africa, is a nice place to start exploring Obs(ervatory), there are three places in that street I can recommend:
OB bar, or OC bar, or OBS – they use different spellings on different signs. It’s a restaurant on the left side, and a bar on the right. The bar has a much better atmosphere, amazing life music, cool barkeepers, nice guests, cheap cocktails (about 3 Euro), amazing and very affordable burgers and other food, and two or three times per week food specials (the ones I remember are 2 burgers for 6 Euro on Monday, 2 pizza for 6 Euro on another day). Go there. It’ll be worth your while. If you can, try to ask them whether you can sit at the bar and eat there (instead of in the restaurant). We went there twice, and ended up talking to the barkeeper and chef for a while after they had closed. The chef showed us the theatre while the barkeeper told us about his dream to open up his own place some day.
Stones. It’s basically a huge hall, with ~25 billiard tables. It’s upstairs, the crowd seems to be undergrad female and grad males. The place has a bit of a reputation … supposedly it isn’t very difficult to pick up young female students there. Judging from the level of intoxication I saw the two times we went there, I can kind of see that happening, yes. The nice thing is the music … they played hard rock and metal all night long, including System of a Down. At some point I even heard some pirate metal! Go there with nice people and you’ll have a good evening.
The third place we went to is called (I think) Tagore. A friend of mine (Juliane) got into a conversation with someone on the street (TK) and bugged him long enough to show us a nice local place until he gave in and walked about … 20m. We payed 1 Euro entry fee. It’s a very small house, packed with people, in a lot of small rooms. It’s pretty dark, there are a lot of live bands playing regularly (funk / jazz / ska). Very mixed crowd, very few tourists, but everybody was very open and nice to us. We talked to Tabs who had closed down her restaurant that was located in the second floor of the place a few weeks ago, and of course to TK who had brought us there. It was an amazing evening, if I remember correctly they open 3 times a week. You should take a look for the place if you’re in town, you basically head south on lwr main road from Stones, and then East into Trill Rd. It should be the second house on the right – you’ll hear music from the street corner if they’re open!
There are a lot of other good places in Obs, but we didn’t manage to see more. For instance, a place called Gandalf was recommended to me by my friend Lucy (apparently a place where they play metal).
Then there’s Long Street. It’s pretty much THE place to go at night – very touristy, but also full of locals. Dozens of restaurants and bars, just be careful about which place to enter. For instance there is JBurg. Girls get in for free, guys pay. If you happen to know NJ (whom we met at Rob’s Bar on Long Street, a place that has good beer and bad Karaoke on Thursdays), tell the people at the door of JBurg (whose names I forgot) that you know NJ and you might get in for free. We ended up not going because the security person in front of the Irish Pub whom we asked where to go (the Dubliner had just closed down) told us only to go to JBurg if we were able to look after our belongings carefully.
Arnold’s on Long Street was nice (it’s pretty far in the South, and has only a large “A” at the entrance), an African restaurant where we tried Gazelle, Puma, Crocodile, and two of the animals on four legs that like to jump around a lot (don’t remember the name – Springbock?). Very nice waitresses, very interesting and tasty food, but comparably pricy (I payed 12 Euro for my springbock). The best part of the evening was the face of my colleague when the waitress told her that the animal she had ordered (with a very weird African name) was in fact a Gazelle. “Oh. I don’t know if I want to eat that. They’re nice animals!” ;)
Another lovely place is called “Truth” – it’s a famous coffee place that also serves as kind-of-museum / memorial place. We found it by following the smell for a couple of blocks. It’s close to Buitengracht, just google it. It’s absolutely worth a visit – best coffee in town.
Let’s start with Cape Town and then go to the surrounding areas.
As mentioned above, climb all the mountains. I was only on Lion’s Head, but it was absolutely worth it. Make sure to check for the weather. As soon as we were on the top it started raining, and with raining I mean the South African winter rain, that comes from all directions and feels like standing under a waterfall. Although I was wearing somehow proper clothes, I was soaked within 15 minutes, to the degree that I had to pour out my shoes before entering the cab at the bottom of the mountain, and that I could wring out my underwear lateron. Even Stephan who had probably the best rain clothes an outdoor store could possibly sell was absolutely soaked after half an hour. The top 20% of the climb is basically stone and some sand, and when it gets wet it’s very ugly to climb down. Don’t do this at home.
Then there’s the South African Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, at the bottom of the Table Mountain. It’s very large, and offers a large variety of plants. I learned that there are 5 floral zones on our very planet, but there is only one within the borders of one country, and that’s the one in South Africa. There are more plants on the Table Mountain alone than on the British Isles, and in Hermanus, a small city in the South of South Africa, our Whale Safari Tour Guide pointed at a mountain and said that 1600 different plants grow on that mountain, 800 of which are endemic. In any case, Kirstenbosch is also a good starting point for the 2hours hike up Table Mountain, so you might want to combine these two.
What you also want to check out are the areas Camp’s Bay and Cliffton, rich suburbs with amazing beaches on the West of Table Mountain. And then you want to go to the Waterfront, with dozens of great seafood restaurants, North of downtown. It’s a bit touristy of course, but it’s located at the harbor and just a very nice and charming place (very decent sea food for fair prices is sold at the “Ocean Basket”, which is some kind of weird mix between fast food and fancy sea food restaurant; we also liked 4Quay a lot). Then you want to go to Bo-Kaap, the Muslim part of town. It’s where our bed and breakfast Upper Bloom was located. I’ve never ever seen such a colorful suburb in my life – pictures following soon. The houses have shiny strong colors (orange, green, purple, light red, yellow, light blue, etc), especially Rose Street is very nice.
A Buitengracht, a large street that runs from downtown to the waterfront, you’ll find something called the heritage quarter. There are very lovely restaurants there, but the place you must see is called “I <3 my laundry”. It’s run by Mico, and it doesn’t look like a laundry place at all. Amazing interior design, incredibly friendly people, and usually you’ll find guests sitting inside drinking coffee, eating, chatting, working on their (admittedly fancy) laptops. Mico charged be 5 Euros for 5kg of laundry, and when I fetched it 4 hours later everything was neatly folded and smelled wonderful. He told me I should return for their Dim Sum at some point.
I will, Mico!
The South African museum is amazing! Lots of evolution and history and anthropology. Dinosaur and whale and shark skeletons and much more. Some amazing things I learned there:
They found the skeleton of a crocodile-like animal (“Sarcosuchus”) that weighed 10 tons and was 12m long (imagine putting 7 humans on the ground, after each other, lying in a straight line). 10 tons is about 10 times as heavy as the heaviest crocodile known today. The left and right feet were more than 2m apart (try to imagine that…).
Blue whales weigh up to 180 tons (!) and are up to 30 metres long. They eat up to 4 tons of krill per day.
The Malay word orangutan means “person of the forest”.
A “teuthologist” is a squid expert.
The largest Leatherback Turtle they found so far was 2.56m long and weighed 980kg. They eat young seals, small sharks and are regularly found to attack fisherboats. (one of the two sentences is wrong!)
Layard’s Beaked Whale is a massive evolutionary riddle – I spent an hour reading up on it yesterday. It has two teeth, which make it impossible for the whale to open its mouth more than 30cm. Nobody quite understands this … read up on it, it’s ridiculous!
Outside of Cape Town, there is Boulder’s Beach where you can see Pinguins. I think it’s more of a tourist trap. Yes, these are kind of wild (bot somehow domesticated) Pinguins, but you don’t seem them very well, and it’s not very different from a zoo really. But Boulder’s Beach is an amazing beach, and absolutely worth checking out. Close to it is Simon’s Town, a very scenic place with old Victorian wooden houses. Don’t sleep there though, it’s very expensive – there’s a train station close by which will take you back into Cape Town. Hout Bay is another nice place to go to, there is a seal colony about 3km into the sea where you can take a boat trip to. And the Hout Bay restaurant “Mariner’s Wharf” is very famous and supposedly has amazing sea food (we didn’t go there, though, although it was recommended by a bazillion people). My favorite view was taking Chapman’s Road from Hout Bay to Nordhoek, at some point you can look down from a mountain into a lagoon (West Coast). You’ll find the lagoon easily on gmaps and will understand what I mean (go there!).
South of Cape Town is a large nature reserve, leading all the way down to Cape Point, what they call the “most South-Westerny point of Africa”. Although I don’t think this makes sense geographically (there is, in my opinion, no way to determine what the most South-Westerny point would be), it’s a nice drive there. We saw wild baboons (they steal food and also electronical equipment, hold on to your stuff) and ostriches, but there is a large variety of animals there. In my opinion going to Cape Point itself is not worth it, there is nothing than a sign saying “this is the most South-Westerny point of Africa”, some rocks and ocean. Rather drive around a bit in the reserve, or go to the Lighthouse about 10km away from Cape Point, which offers an amazing view of the Cape.
Other than that, we rented a car for two days and travelled East along the South Coast, to Hermanus and Gansbai, both cities famous for Whale Watching and Shark Cage Diving. On the way there we took the road along the coast (use “Pringle Bay” or a similar place as drive-through destination in the GPS), and went back through the mountains (the quicker and also very scenic road, although the coast road is my favorite). The road through the mountains is nice if you return to Cape Town in the evening, the sun will set behind Cape Town and you will see an incredibly smoggy city in the harsh light!
Whale Watching is pretty pricy (50-80 Euros), but well worth it in my opinion. It was very different from my Norwegian Whale Watching experience (which I am sure you can find somewhere hidden in the 2005 archives of this very blog). I talked to the tourguide for roughly an hour – some facts about the Southern Right Whale, the whale that is most common in the waters around the Cape:
It’s called the right whale because it was the right whale to hunt. They are curious, float on water after they’re killed, have a high oil yield, and are slow swimmers. But the waters are pretty much sacrosanct today … in fact Capetonians have in the recent past several times attacked shops owned by Chinese people to take revenge for the shark killing that happens there (I thought the Japanese were responsible for that, but either I’m wrong or the Capetonians don’t mess around with Asian geography all that much).
The whales live in Antarctica, but travel to the Cape for mating and giving birth (interval: 13 months). A pregnant female will have a “midwife whale” around, which will lift up the newly born whale to the surface so that it can breathe. Some marine biologists speculate that they like the cape because you can give birth in a current and then leave the current quickly, meaning that the placenta will stay in the current and attract sharks, while you’re savely outside of the current and the sharks can’t find your newborn. Killer whales feast on newborn Southern Right Whales, and although they’re not very common at the Cape, they are seen regularly.
Infant whales grow several inches per day, and drink about 400-500 litres of milk per day. Adults do not eat at all during their stay at the Cape.
Southern Right Whale penises can be as long as 3 metres. Mating takes about 40 minutes per male, and usually includes 3-7 males and one female. If the female starts getting headache she just turns onto her back and puts her belly out of the surface to rest – the dudes will then start bumping into her and try to turn her around if they’re not yet finished. Fitness seems to be correlated to the amount of sperm a male can store and have available, although that’s not clearly determined yet.
Most questions about the whales were answered with words like “probably” or “maybe”, especially when it comes to social behavior, but oftentimes the reply was “we really have no idea at all”. Breaching for example … it is speculated that whales see a lot better above water than below the surface, and they seem to breach more often in bad weather for orientation purposes. Some think that breaching helps whales remove dead skin from their backs, or parasites. But it’s clear that for a whale the length of 18 metres, the energy expenditure to bring it out of the water is so incredibly high that whales certainly do not show this behavior “for fun”.
Some additional random fact: there are over 30 edible fish in the waters of the Cape. Tourish and fishing are the main occupations.
Apartheid & Racism
It’s hard to judge these things as a tourist, and I guess one shouldn’t have an opinion after just two weeks. But some things were striking to me.
It has only been about 20 years since the official end of the Apartheid, which is very little time. And if you raise people in a certain way, it’s very hard to change belief systems. Bishop Desmond Tutu, South African activist and retired Anglican bishop who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid gave a speech at the opening of the ceremony, and told us how he some years ago took an airplane. When he entered the machine he saw that both pilots were black, and he cheered about it. The machine ended up in very bad weather, and he told us that, for a second, he had the thought that there was nobody to save them because there was no white pilot on board. It was a very honest and moving story, and hints at the fact that it will take many decades for these scars to heal. In fact, many people might simply have to die (and I don’t mean this in a bad way at all) for society to move on. There is just so much a human can achieve in terms of changing his opinion in a lifetime.
There seems to be a very disproportionate distribution of wealth between people of different skin color still (but that’s just my personal observation after some days, and might be wrong). To me there appear to be jobs that are mostly done by colored or black people – e.g. if you look at people working in McDonalds, or on the street as private security (they’re nearly all black). I don’t really know what to write about all of this … but if you’re interested, and are in Cape Town, there are many museums around where you can gain insights into the history of the Apartheid, most importantly the District Six Museum (a district that was declared to be for white people only in 1965/66), and of course Robben Island (and Island in the bay where political prisoners were held captive, e.g. Nelson Mandela).
If you want to live in Cape Town, google “Upper Bloem”, write Katrin, and go there. It’s an amazing bed and breakfast. It’s very affordable (together we payed 45 Euro for a double room, including very nice breakfast). It’s super clean, the people are amazing there, and very helpful. Katrin moved here 11 years ago (from Germany). The view is unparalleled, you look down from a hill into the city. I’ll try to post some photographs later. And the interior design, on top of all of that, is amazing as well ;). Friends of mine I met here only payed 39 Euros for a double room (less than 20 euros per person per night!), but they had booked like … a year in advance or so. Rumanians! They are crazy people.
Okay. Let me know if there are questions. In fact, let me know if you managed to read through all of this ;).