We pulled into the Cape Town bus station just under 24 hours after setting off from Windhoek. The overnight bus had been smooth and surprisingly restful. We had crossed the border in the early hours of the morning, complete with customs checks and security pat-downs. Given the time of day, the customs officers (the nicest I have ever met on any trip) were so excited that we were a bus of 19 people and they actually had us to keep them busy. Needless to say, our pat downs were quite thorough. We were quickly back on our way, and once we arrived, our AirBnb was a short taxi ride away allowing us to quickly settle in. We were glad to have a good week or so in one place after being on the road in Namibia for a few weeks. Our AirBnb was in the Waterfront area of town, which had a marina, shopping center and many restaurants within walking distance. We didn’t have much of an agenda for Cape Town, especially since Vivek had never been, so we spent the first day or two exploring the city. The weather was not all that welcoming with fog covering much of the city for the first two days, with light (but cold) drizzles and an overcast sky to top it off. It was quite a surprise, on day three, to finally see Table Mountain rise over the city and dominate the skyline for the first time – until that point Vivek was convinced it was a marketing gimmick. We visited Vivek’s previous company, Kongsberg Maritime, in town and met Wojtek and Pierre who were kind enough to take us around and introduce us to the neighboring wine country. Pierre, being a local, had a ton of recommendations and sightseeing tips for the city. He even obliged to take us up Table Mountain, via the easier hiking route, as we were noobies.
One of the interesting things we found in Cape Town was the Food Market culture. The couple of markets we went to were assembled in large unassuming warehouse-like buildings. On the inside, a variety of vendors setup stalls that sold a smorgasbord of food items, curios, collectables and other nick-nacks. The first of these markets we went was the one at Hout Bay called Bay Harbour Market. We had to take a pleasant bus-ride to the opposite side of the Table Mountain to get there on winding roads with a sheer drop to the ocean on one side while a mountain rose up the other. We stopped at a few of the beaches along the way to explore the town. The market itself was next to a fishing harbour in what seemed like an old storage warehouse with a few minor renovations. Once we entered, colors and crafts engulfed the air. A live band was on-site performing for the considerable crowd within, all snacking on various delicacies as they watched on for entertainment. Vendors were busy being welcoming and enlightening people about their wares in each small stall, everything from t-shirts and jewelry to steaks and sushi. We also went to another similar market, this one was called the Old Biscuit Mill, and that’s what the building was originally used for. Both the markets provided an eclectic blend of foods that we could sample, and culture we could absorb – we both came away feeling that this is definitely a trend more places should adopt, allowing for a carnival of food and crafts at regular intervals.
The weather gods blessed us with a clear blue sky and sun for our day trip to Robben Island. The tour is quite popular and even though this was not peak-season, we had trouble obtaining same-day tickets. A ferry took us out to the actual island with a spectacular view of the city as our backdrop. Upon arrival, we were packed into buses and driven around the island, shown the different sites – a church, minimum security wings, graveyards, the quarry. Our tour guide on the bus made a passionate appeal for equality as he expounded the need to have economic growth and opportunity for true freedom to prevail, but this fell on mostly deaf ears as tourists were focused on getting the right shot and pictures with the penguins. After a short break to stretch our legs and watch the few penguins on the island, we were dropped off at the maximum security prison. Our guide for this portion was, Mr. Ntando Mbatha. He was an older gentleman with a dimpled-smile, a grand personality, kind eyes and polite voice, who kept his hands on his chest with fingers intertwined, wore a beret slightly higher on his temple than most, and was a real-life “terrorist”. He patiently explained prison life, daily routines and even the bigotry driven policies for prisoners’ treatment (each prisoner was allotted calories based on how dark their skin was. For those wondering, it was indirectly proportional) . Most prisoners brought here for political dissent were charged as either saboteurs or terrorists – I guess some things haven’t changed. Labelling certain groups terrorists for political gains is common enough to be cliché, and obvious enough to make you wonder about the stupidity of people who believe it. Political prisoners here were released after the end of apartheid – which garnered both Mandela and Klerk a Nobel Peace Prize. One of the most remarkable things that happened after the end of apartheid was the reconciliation process, an exercise in restorative, instead of a revengeful, justice. Although its effectiveness is debated in academic circles, Mr. Mbatha smiling, – while being back in this place – seemed to validate it in some small measure. After the tour, we were set free on our “short walk to freedom” and on our way back to the mainland. The bus tour guide left us with his two cents as we crossed the quarry where Mandela began a rock pile of solidarity amongst all the political prisoners that labored here during their imprisonment – Have we really made progress? When I was born my mother was a kitchen maid and my father was a driver. Today, after all these struggles, my mother is still a kitchen maid and my father is still a driver, that is why I am a communist.
After a few days of early morning consultations with Pierre we finally got lucky the day before we expected to leave Cape Town. The weather cleared up enough for a hike up Table Mountain. Pierre picked us up in the morning with a plan to climb up and take the cable car down. We parked the car at the base of the Plateklip Gorge route from where the city sprawled out below us. We were off to a pretty steep start, we had to climb makeshift rock stairs and follow alongside a little stream, which we only saw occasionally but were able to hear the water gushing downhill. The climb already had our heart-rates well above their usual rhythm but after the initial ascent, the path flattened out for a short while, and we ended up right beneath the gorge. This happy flattening didn’t last for too long though since from here, the trail zigged and zagged to curb the gradient as it squeezed itself between the rocky outcropping above. The city was slowly shrinking beneath us, and above us, wisps of vapor were rolling down the sides of the table-top – this was colloquially, and fittingly, called the table-cloth. We had a few breaks along the way, mostly where I was catching up with Vivek and Pierre (both of whom always seemed to be sitting and well-rested as I came huffing up), with Pierre in his infinite wisdom and kindness providing much-needed calories. The trudge upwards continued at a steady-ish rate. We saw some people who must have been mountain goats in a different life, strutting up or down the rocks with such ease and nimbleness. I remembered our trek up the dunes in Namibia and again told myself how I needed to pick up some form of regular exercise in order to make such efforts at least a bit more graceful. It was, however, very encouraging to meet a group from the local police force, some of whom were also struggling – at least we weren’t the only ones on all fours! Just as we came up to the final part of the trail, clouds had started to settle in above us, the sides of the gorge had little trickles of condensation dripping down, causing a fine spray of water in the air and cold water trickling down the rocks, ending in small clear puddles.
The last bit of the trail ran between a narrow canyon. As we went through this, the view opened up and all we saw was a blanket of white, not much else. We had unfortunately not made it to the top of Table Mountain before the clouds did, and the entire plateau had been covered in a milky blanket. The view was, well, non-existent, but the climb had been fantastic nonetheless. After a quick bite and varying refreshments (Vivek had a coffee and we had cold sodas with tons of ice – each to his own), we got ready to take the cable car down. It was a relief to see the cable car working as I heard that the cable car may not be an option if it was too foggy. The hike down would have been a disaster! The cables stretched downwards into the fog and we couldn’t see where this ride would lead us. As the cab descended through the clouds, there was a sudden break in the mist, and the city spread beneath us once again.
The next day we picked up a rental car at the airport to slowly make our way to Johannesburg over the course of the week. We started the day by driving down to Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope. On our way down, we passed by a colony of African Penguins, which was quite exciting for Vivek as he had never seen penguins before. These penguins are much smaller than the Happy Feet variety, and unfortunately, completely tone-deaf. So tone-deaf in fact that they are also known as jackass penguins, not for their personalities but for the braying sounds they make. We arrived at the Cape Point national park in the evening, the place was an eerie mix of rolling hills and cliffs dropping into foamy waves, with wisps of mist and vapor blowing upwards. We didn’t have too much time as we needed to be out of the park before sunset. We briskly walked up to Cape Point, which had a lighthouse at the top. It was a bit of a hike up, on old uneven stairs, that took us to the top of the peninsula. On either side there were sheer drops to the enthusiastic waves battering the sides of the cliff, while ahead and below was the tip of peninsula with a narrow trail running towards it. We ran back to the car as the wind blew another wet cloud over and the cold rain descended to say hi. The Cape of Good Hope was at sea-level, no cliffs here, just a nondescript signpost telling you of your location. The waves here were quite angry too, and the cliffs rose above us, but we beat the rain. That said, the weather was slowly turning for the worse, but we managed to stay until sunset. They say you can see the oceans meeting here as a sort of line through the ocean, but neither of us saw anything, the churning sea had erased any discernible boundaries. After sunset we headed to our overnight just outside of town to then start making our way across the garden route the following day.