Cape Town, South Africa is one of the few cities in this world that I have always wanted to visit. I’m not a city person, but I do like those which have a scenic location or have an energy or layered history behind them (Istanbul springs to mind). Cape Town falls into the former category, but was still not in my plan on this first visit to Africa. I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but after a week camping in Kruger National Park, I found a long weekend in Cape Town, staying in a nice room by the seaside, was just what I needed at that point in a long trip.
I flew into Cape Town from Jo’burg, but instead of checking in right away, I steered my rental car up towards Table Mountain. I took a nice walk near its base, starting in neighborhoods perched on the steep hillside. I followed a path upwards to a viewpoint of the city, with the blue sparkling southern sea stretching out before me. From here, it looked like a fairly compact, easy to navigate city, and that’s what it turned out to be.
Fog often rolls in here, and when I arrived it seemed to be doing battle with the sun. I would enter a fog bank, the temperature would drop 20 degrees Farenheit, and I would shiver. Then I would break out into warm sunshine. Ultimately, as I discovered next morning when I walked out of my small hotel in the Sea Point area, the sunshine happily won the battle. It was a gorgeous summer day, and since it was a Saturday, locals were out in force enjoying it.
I walked along the beautiful promenade that extends for a few miles along the rocky coastline. Runners, walkers, a few roller bladers and bicyclists were full of smiles, mirroring the bright blue water. Small beaches dot the coast, and it is very easy to access rocky tidepools as well (image left).
After hours of wandering and exploring the coast, I took the car and headed south down the western side of the peninsula that extends south to the Cape of Good Hope. I wanted to find a great spot to photograph the sunset, and hoped to find one of the shipwrecks that this coast is known for. I stumbled on a very popular beach at Houte Bay, and did some serious people-watching (image below). The locals were a mixture of white and black, and I watched carefully for any of their interactions.
I had noticed in South Africa that the two races do not mix unless they have to. I am sure there are those who dispute this, but I regard these folks as exceptions to the rule, this latter-day apartheid. I am not saying you won’t find some of this at home in America. I’m simply giving my impression of the separation that remains a barrier to this country’s truly putting its past behind it.
Aside from the people, Cape fur seals were riding the waves in their pursuit of fish, and birds swarmed above them in a frenzy. The image below I grabbed with my 70-200 f/4, since I had neglected to bring my 400mm. I consider myself a competent body surfer, but these seals were showing me how it’s really done. I waded into the water, but it was a very cool sea. In fact, the entire Cape Town area was reminding me of my home coastline in Oregon: rocky, tidepools, cold sea, the parallels were stacking up.
The entire area is a playground for those with a good job and income. But there are also black townships (Nyanga & others) in the area where the poverty hits you in the face. I got lost once and ended up driving through one. I wanted to stop for pictures, but without a guide I thought better of it. You can drive all the way down to the actual Cape, but this requires the whole day to avoid rushing. I skipped this, but see it as a reason to go back. By the way, the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa, it is the southwestern-most. To the east lies the southernmost tip of the continent, at Agulhas.
I stopped on the way back to Cape Town near a point of rugged coast at Camps Bay. The view was incredible. As my eyes wandered upward to the Twelve Apostles, peaks making up a big chunk of Table Mountain National Park, I thought of some history I had read of. In the early days, when a trading post was being established here, lion, leopard, and other wildlife roamed the hills. No longer; the land is relatively empty of wildlife. The well-to-do build houses where large predators once hunted. It is rather sad. But the same cannot be said of the sea, which teems with fish, marine mammals, and the famous great white sharks of South Africa. It is possible to book a scuba dive trip here where you enter a shark cage and are lowered into baited waters. I scrambled down from the road and came upon a wreck lying just offshore. I was able to get a decent shot looking north up the coast, the Twelve Apostles on the right (image below).
On my last day I drove north into the emptiness of the West Coast National Park. It is easy to get out into the countryside in South Africa. Roads are decent and if you can survive the very high average speeds that motorists travel, it won’t take much time to put many miles between you and civilization. I stopped at a fossil quarry called Langebaanweg, which lies not far from the R27 via a signed turnoff to the right. It only takes a couple hours to get here from Cape Town, so it is perfect for a day trip. Long deserted beaches of the western Cape, part of the National Park, are easily accessible as well.
The fossil site, which documents the immediate predecessors of today’s African menagerie (such as giraffes with much shorter necks than today), is fascinating and not touristy at all. There is a friendly tour of the fossil quarry, along with a small museum and restaurant, but everything is very much low-key. With my background in geology, the staff were interested in talking with me about the fascinating connections with the related mammal fossils of Oregon’s John Day country. This is just the sort of off-beat travel destination I love, where people are happy to get a few visitors, and who aren’t so busy processing hoards of tourists to spend time with you. It can make the experience a much more personal one.
Cape Town is a place where I could happily live. The environment is a clean one, with a nice balance of the city and outdoor life (like Portland, Oregon where I live). My last night there, I drove up onto Signal Hill, where because of the gorgeous summer weather many locals were gathering as the sun went down. We were all there to enjoy the stunning view of the city, the sea, and the illuminated face of nearby Table Mountain.
As the dusk deepened and “blue hour” approached (blue hour is that short time of deep blue skies just before total darkness, a time photographers love), I set up my tripod for a long exposure. The top image in this post was the result. I can feel the soft breeze when I look at this picture, and sense the southern Atlantic far below. I was to leave South Africa for Namibia the next morning, and this time on Signal Hill, this picture, was really my way of saying: ‘Bye-bye South Africa, it’s been fun. I’ll be back!