A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Cape Town

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I attacked Cape Town with fervor this past week, and ticked the checklist of must sees: flora and fauna at Kirstenbosch gardens—check, Houts Bay harbor—check, Table Mountain—oh yes, check. Add to that much wandering the streets and chatting and the only thing left for this week is Robben Island and a township tour.

As such, this week’s musings read more like a rundown of things to do in Cape Town edition—it’s been a great week. Each day I worked in the early mornings, sipping excellent coffee at one of the many trendy coffee shops (CT definitely holds its own in the coffee department!) and I took to the streets to wander and photograph in the afternoons.

Table mountain vista.
So, that’s not me, but she looked so peaceful there on the ledge looking out from Table Mountain into the Cape Town Harbor.

Walking the City

The city’s wide range of ethnic groups are still largely separated, and each neighborhood is steeped in its own culture, food, and religion, giving distinct vibes to the various areas of town. And as such, it’s through the sum of each quarter and suburb that the city’s long history unfolds, a fact that has made my two weeks here more interesting that I had imagined.

A walk to the waterfront from my hotel passes the District 6 Museum, a museum built to honor the former District 6 residents who were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated when the government declared Disctrict 6 a “whites only” zone during apartheid. The government razed their homes and history to the ground in the 70s and moved the residents to the townships outside of town. Now, much of District 6 itself is still a wide expanse of rubble-strewn land, neither trees, nor homes, nor people populate the noticeably empty hills.

Another day, I wandered away from the Central Business District; the indistinct city architecture—tall buildings and weaving cars—suddenly dropped away and low-slung, colorful houses marched up a sharply sloping hill in the Bo-Kaap area of town. This section of the city drips with Indian and Malay influences. The Cape Malays settled this gorgeous section of town, building beautiful mosques and a creating a cheerful rainbow of colors throughout the neighborhood. My love for Indian food is no secret, so I grabbed a mango lassi and walked the streets until late-afternoon, when I was told it was no longer safe for me to be in the area.

The very pretty Bo-Kaap area of town.
The very pretty Bo-Kaap area of town is just off of the CBD and its quiet streets were settled by the Malaysian, Indian, and Indonesians who were originally brought to Africa as slave labor.
A brightly colored door in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town.
A brightly colored door in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town.

This is a common refrain during my time here. Leaving Bo-Kaap last week was my first true reality check. The city feels so developed at times, and it’s easy to forget that the wealth disparities and recent past make it dangerous past dark. Though this is true for many big cities, the vehemence of the warning is more pronounced here. I chatted with a grandmother on her steps in Bo-Kaap, and as our conversation wound down her son stepped outside and issued a gentle, firm warning that the lowering sun was my indication that it was time to head back to my hotel.

Locals from all areas of town take a moment to warn me of the dangers if they see me out past 5 pm, though if I take a more hardened “city-look,” head down and walking purposefully, no one comments. But if you look friendly and like a tourist, you’re warned that it’s best you stick to the Waterfront or more touristy areas of town past dark. These past weeks have reminded me of my travels in Guatemala, which is the only other country I’ve visited where I was so frequently warned of the local dangers (women on the chicken buses in Guatemala often passionately warned me that the country was too peligroso for a solo woman).

The Lighter Side

Those are pieces of the city though, and the lighter side of it all is the beauty at every turn. The city’s natural geography is a big part of the draw and the defining physical feature, and crowning glory, is Table Mountain, the most famous UNESCO World Heritage site in South Africa. The mountains are visible from most roads all over the city and the shifting moods of Cape Town’s weather mean you never know when you turn a corner what will happen on the face of the mountain. At one moment, clouds pour over the cliff-face like a living, flowing tablecloth—the mountain’s eponymous natural phenomenon—and just an hour later the mountain clears with crisp late-afternoon sunshine.

Before Gary left, we took the rotating cable car (so cool!) to the top of the mountain, to Table Mountain National Park, where we hiked around for a bit and found the long-range view out toward Cape Point.

My conclusion: you just can’t take an ugly photo of this city.

View from table mountain out into the Atlantic Ocean.
A flat wave of clouds begin to roll in over the edge of Table Mountain.
The view of Cape Point from Table Mountain, Cape Town.
The view of Cape Point from Table Mountain, Cape Town.

What’s Next

My time is ending and I have a flight to East Africa this weekend. The Great Computer Debacle of 2014 (that’s what I’m calling it now), coupled with the sheer size of this continent made me reconsider going fully overland and instead I fly directly to Nairobi, and from there I will travel overland through that region until I leave Africa in June.

Also, thank you for the dozens of emails and recommendations about the computer situation! They didn’t honor my international warranty on the PC, and they held it hostage for an extra week just for funsies, so I bought a Mac. The sad reality of import fees and taxes meant that a very low-end PC was $700+  USD, but the Mac came with all the higher end specs and, as a foreigner, I can claim back my tax (14% VAT here) at the airport. It seemed a wise move in terms of value and ease. At the end of the day, I needed something now that would get me back on the road so I could catch up on client work and move onto the projects and initiatives you all have recommended in East Africa.

Jumping shot on Table Mountain!
Thanks to Gary, I have another jumping shot to add to the folder! :)

Before I leave, I have three things left: the boat to Robben Island, a township tour, and a morning volunteering at a food bank nearby. I waffled on the township tour when I first arrived because I wasn’t sure about the ethics, but the realities seem a bit different from the slum tourism debates in India and other places. Here, locals living in the townships have urged me to go visit, to hear their stories and support their businesses and developments.  As such, that’s on the docket tomorrow and I’ll share more about it next week, and I’ll be writing from Kenya!

Cheers and hope you have a wonderful weekend. :)


36 thoughts on “A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Cape Town”

  1. Awesome pics, especially the jump … good to see the other brighter side! That house looks so cool!! Thanks for sharing your amazing your experience, would love to hear more from you!!

  2. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to go to Cape Town! It’s definitely on our bucket list…. may need to move it up a little higher on that list!

  3. We will be visiting Cape Town in October when my husband has a conference there. You’re right, I have never seen an ugly photo of this City.

    • It really just has so many different pretty parts — from the beaches to the mountains and the historic areas of town — have a wonderful trip in October and safe travels!! :)

  4. Oh one of my favourite cities!! It’s so beautiful – you’re right, you can definitely not take a bad photo of this place! :-)

  5. Amazing jumping shot! I feel to live the moments…:) Excellent post Shannon. The photos are really astounding. I have keen interest in photography though I am a newbie, but I cannot resist myself to comment on any photos and visit blogs on photography.

  6. I didn’t know that neighborhoods are so different one from the other over there! Also, lovely colourful homes… Feels very attractive, makes me want to try Cape town!

    • Because of the colonial history, there was a lot of segregation, which today is evident in the architecture — it’s a fascinating way to learn more about the country’s history.

  7. You
    must have had so much fun! I never thought of Cape Town as a place I’d like to
    visit. But it sounds like a great adventure.

  8. This is the year I was supposed to visit Africa. The plan was to visit Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania but due to my mother’s pending back surgery my plans are on hold. I’ll keep reading your blog and live vicariously through you.

    • I am so sorry to hear about your mum, but I will send her thoughts for a speedy recovery and hope that next year you can make it here! :)

  9. Fantastic pictures! I love the bright houses. They remind me of Rainbow Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Cape Town is on my list because I hope to volunteer at the penguin conservation center, but these pictures may just convince me to visit a little sooner than I’d thought!

    • Now you’ve put one on my list, though I have briefly visited Charleston, I haven’t seen this Rainbow Row! CT is a great city and you should definitely up that in the plans, it’d be incredible. :)

  10. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Nairobi. I was there in January and thought it was great but had some of the same strange feelings about how modern / developed it was in comparison to the extreme poverty in some of the slums and in rural areas of Kenya.

    • Thanks Kara! A post this week will cover my initial impressions — like you, there were some moments that set me back a little as I saw the contrasts. Thanks for reading! :)

  11. I enjoyed reading your take on Cape Town. I just returned from there a few weeks ago, also traveled as a solo woman. I would’ve loved to have been able to join you in your random chats with the locals. I tried to take a tour through a township, but the company stopped doing that portion of the tour as visitors weren’t comfortable with it. I did drive through one briefly, and felt like I didn’t belong. I have a lot of respect for these people and felt like I was waving my ‘privilege’ and ‘opportunity’ in their faces. I really wish I could’ve spoken with them however. If you get to, pleas post how it went. Have a wonderful time, it truly is a beautiful city!

    • So sorry that it seems we just missed each other, I would have loved to do some of the daytrips with another traveler! The township tour was odd, I will write more about it next week, but if they are not done in partnership with the people then it’s very difficult to reconcile the tour with ethics. I would love to meet up if our paths ever cross!

      • Me again, just read your other post on the townships. I completely felt the same way. It was amazing being there but all the same, it was strange. I’m so glad I went though. We go to Africa to experience & to be challenged, regardless of whether that is good or bad. A lot of what you’re feeling emotionally on your trip I felt as well. I think it’s important to experience everything. And when I look back at it all, it’s the good that stays with me and makes me smile, but it’s the bad that pushes me, energizes me, motivates me, to do good in this world, and makes me stop for a while and appreciate what I do have. :)

        • Thanks for coming back and weighing in on the township visit. I did enjoy learning about the projects, and I can see some value in that exchange of people sharing their stories and bridging the cultural divide, for me though, I just wasn’t sure that was what has happening for the vast majority of visitors. Again, appreciate you thoughts. Like you, the visit and the emotions and thoughts it stirred in me are sticking, and that has value too.

  12. Beautiful pictures Shannon! Thanks for sharing the beauty and history of this city! Definitely on our list of places to see…along with everywhere else. :D

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