Travel Writer Carrie Hampton takes us on a journey of discovery to find out why Cape Town is so captivating and why so many people arrive but never leave.
The Cape of Contrasts: An Insight Into Cape Town
It is not just seafood, steaks and great wine in a Mediterranean climate that revives the many sailors who have journeyed to Cape Town for hundreds of years; it is the energy radiating from the city's icon; Table Mountain. Table Mountain has been likened to a fortress, a sleeping goddess, the stairway to heaven, guardian of the city, a warrior and watcher of the south. It seems to fit all of these descriptions and certainly lends itself to being the central character in many a tale. The mountain is also considered sacred for the forces at work behind nature - the invisible behind the visible.
Table Mountain is made of sandstone and granite, both containing large amounts of quartz, which means that in effect it is a giant crystal. The enormous concentrations of natural energy released over the perfect Feng Shui city of Cape Town, are said to enhance psychic abilities and healing powers. As a result, Cape Town is considered to be an excellent place to practise alternative therapies and African medicine.
To absorb some of this energy, take a trip up to the top of Table Mountain in the 4-minute rotating cable car. From this vantage point a kilometre above sea level, the continent of Africa spreads north before you. Turn south and see the mountains taper down to the end of the earth at Cape Point, then let your eyes seek a watery horizon south and west towards Antarctica and Argentina.
Cape Town is a city renowned for being laid back. Fast-paced visitors have no choice but to get used to its measured slowness and unhurried service, and might even come to like it. Perhaps it's the average 8˝ hours of sunshine a day that makes Capetonians so calm, or the subtle swish of the ocean and inaudible hum of the mountains. But relaxed doesn't necessarily mean lazy, as the number of hikers, joggers, cyclists, surfers and horse riders attests. Capetonians have developed the ability to switch from inaction to top speed without losing their cool.
Oh yes, Capetonians are cool alright, perhaps the coolest dudes in the whole of South Africa. Johannesburg residents find Capetonians far too laid back for their liking, adding that the reason Cape Town is called the 'Mother City', is because everything takes nine months to happen!
Most tourists can't sit still for very long because there is so much to see and do here at the south-western most tip of Africa. Cape Point is not, as some people think, the southern most point of the continent; this accolade goes to Cape Agulhas a couple of hours drive east and just a little south. Nor is it the place where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet; satellite images of the ocean currents show that this honour also goes to Cape Agulhas. There is however, a distinct difference in water temperature between the freezing South Atlantic on the west arm of the Cape Peninsula and the warmer waters of False Bay to the east. It is not uncommon to see a distinct colour line in the ocean when looking out to sea at Cape Point, giving rise to the impression of a meeting of oceans.
With water temperature firmly in mind, it is wise to choose a swimming beach on the False Bay coast like Fish Hoek or Boulders beach. The coves at Boulders have the added attraction of a large breeding colony of African penguins. Expect to be sunbathing or swimming while penguins wander or dart past; it's a charming and sometimes disconcerting experience.
The most popular Atlantic beaches like Camps Bay beach and Clifton's four coves are closer to the city. The beautiful swathes of pale sand are full of sun worshippers, yet there is hardly anyone in the water. Put a toe in the ocean and you will know why - it's freezing! Most people concentrate on getting a good tan, walking their dog or playing beach volleyball. Others strut around looking beautiful or stroll over the road to the street cafes and restaurants spilling onto the palm-lined boulevard.
There is no such attempt at flirting with fashion on Cape Town's South Peninsula, where the drum beats to a slower rhythm and surf dudes take chilled out to its ultimate level. This includes their language and eves dropping a conversation in Noordhoek, Kommetjie, Scarborough or Kalk Bay may make little sense without a good translator: 'Howzit broer' (how are you my brother/friend) could be answered with 'Kief man' (fine thankyou). "Lekker" is a good standby word meaning good, nice, fine, lovely or anything positive, and can be used to answer just about any question.
It's not only the South Peninsula where you may having trouble understanding the language, the centre of Cape Town is awash with a multitude of languages and accents. Notice the clicking sounds of Xhosa (the largest African tribe in the area), the distinctively clipped South African version of English, and Afrikaans as spoken by Afrikaners of Dutch origin as well as the local Cape Coloured population. You will also hear French from Congolese immigrants and Portuguese from Mozambicans and Angolans. And of course all the European languages from tourists and those who came, bought a house and stayed.
One of the best places to encounter this unique slice of Cape Town life is in Greenmarket Square. This has always been the heart of the city and trading wagons have crossed its cobblestones for hundreds of years. Stallholders shout their wares with heavy African accents, or spirit you to their stands with wide smiles and colourful curios. This is as good a place as any to buy wooden masks, stone sculptures and any manner of gifts, but don't forget to barter - it's expected.
Another top destination frequented by visitors and locals is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Shops, restaurants and bars surround the working harbour where tugboats, pleasure craft and racing yachts moor side by side. The V&A is a one-stop shop for pleasure; eating, drinking, shopping, boat rides, open-air theatricals, amusements to keep children busy and special events staged all year round. One of the most popular excursions from the V&A Waterfront is to Robben Island, for a tour of the prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.
The vision of Table Mountain from Robben Island is probably the most inspiring in the Cape and Nelson Mandela was not oblivious to its powers. He said, " Table Mountain is a symbol of human capacity for hope and freedom. Whether for the Khoikhoi tribes fighting colonial domination, for Indonesian and Malaysian slaves who for generations have buried their leaders and holy men on its slopes, or for twentieth century political prisoners. It is a sacred precious place. To us on Robben Island Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return."
It is this beacon of Cape Town that entrances many people who visit the shores of the Cape. Although they can't precisely say why Cape Town holds a special place in their heart, those who live here know that it is the unseen energy of Table Mountain that is responsible. Try and resist it if you dare.
Cape Town's Top Ten Attractions
SA Travel Tips
- Giving a 10-15% tip is usual for restaurant service, drivers and guides.
- If buying a property you want it to face north to catch the sun
- If you are from the northern hemisphere, your sense of direction will probably be 180 degrees out (as the sun arcs in the opposite way and confuses your instinct)
- South of the equator the water goes down the plughole clockwise
- Taxi cabs don't drive the streets waiting for you to hail them, you should organise one in advance
- There is an old custom of firing a cannon over Cape Town at noon every day, so don't think you are under siege when you hear a very loud boom.
- You can claim back 14% VAT on purchases, given back to you in any currency, so long as you show the receipt and the goods when exiting the country.
- You can draw cash from bank machines with an overseas bank card or credit card
- You cannot pay for petrol with a credit card, you will need cash
Cape Wine Routes
The Cape Winelands has 17 wine routes containing hundreds of estates offering tastings. Only 20 minutes from Cape Town is the Constantia wine valley, where the first vines were planted by the Dutch East India Company in 1655. It is said that Napoleon would drink nothing but Constantia wines and the one he favoured most called 'Vin de Constance' is still available, albeit considerably improved.
Stellenbosch is now considered the capital of the wine industry with beautiful old estates and some new trendy ones in the mountains and valleys of this genteel area. Pop over the Helshoogte Pass and you enter Franschhoek, literally translated as French corner. Taste noble cultivars in classic style in this beautiful valley hemmed in by mountains. Estates have distinctly French estates names like Dieu Donné (God Given) or Haute Espoir (High Hopes).
Neighbouring Paarl lies beneath a giant batholith rock glinting as if dotted with pearls, in whose shadow is the headquarters of KWV - major marketers and exporters of South African wines. Further afield, but well within reach, are the other wine areas all amongst breathtaking mountainous scenery.
Cape Culinary Mix
The Dutch established Cape Town to provide fresh produce for spice trading ships between Europe and the Far East. So it's no surprise that today Cape Town's cultural mix finds strong expression in its cuisine. Various European traditions - originally Dutch and English, but increasingly Mediterranean - merge with African ingredients and flavours and Eastern traditions brought by slaves from Malaysia and Java.
Cape Town's chefs embrace the latest Asian and Pacific Rim trends, with Thai and North Indian cuisine well represented. You can trace your own spice trails across Cape Town, and dine with a different cultural emphasis each night.
© copyright Carrie Hampton, email@example.com, www.travelwriter.co.za