Mark Meredith returns to his childhood stamping ground.
In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my father was sent to manage the South African arm of a multinational British company in Cape Town. My mother, sister and I went with him. I was to spend five years there growing up in what I thought to be the most beautiful place I had ever seen. In March, 40 years later, I went back (with my wife) for the first time to find Cape Town changed in so many ways, but still gorgeous.
We spent two weeks there and that is about the right amount of time to see Cape Town and its outlying wine-growing regions. You could include a few days driving up the coast on the famed and lovely Garden Route past Knysna towards Plettenburg Bay, a holiday town set along stunning white sand beaches we used to visit as kids.
Table Mountain and the city
The most striking aspect of Cape Town, obviously, is its mountain. You can’t escape it, even when it has white cloud billowing over the top, the Tablecloth. The quickly changing environment on the mountaintop governs whether you can go up or not, and the cableway is often closed without notice due to cloud or wind.
I last went up in 1973 when the cable car was small and rickety and we had just a handful of passengers for company. Things are very different today. Two large circular cars rotate as they carry a never-ending cargo of humans, crammed like sardines, up and down in their thousands, from 8am to 8pm. Prebook online to avoid ticket queues.
Once at the top the views are superb in every direction, all the way to Cape Point, with the seaside suburbs of Camps Bay and Sea Point directly below, and Robben Island sitting like a large pancake in Table Bay. The mountain is pretty flat and narrow, with many pathways to explore. You may come across dassies, or rock hyrax, a rabbit-sized rodent that lives among the rock crevices on the mountain, where they are preyed upon by eagles and hawks. They are quite unafraid of humans. An afternoon visit that takes in the sunset is probably the best time to go up.
The other place for views is Signal Hill, joined to the distinctive, pointed Lions Head mountain above Sea Point. At sunset, locals and tourists in their hundreds drive up the hill to marvel at the view of the city lights, and it is quite a sight.
The city is built on a grid and finding your way around is pretty easy. We walked and took very cheap Uber rides. Most visitors head for what used to be the old docks and harbour but which is now the impressive V&A Waterfront development of shops, bars, restaurants and swanky apartments. It draws in huge numbers of tourists and locals, to what has become Cape Town’s premier entertainment and retail venue.
For a more traditional African experience of arts and crafts, go to Greenmarket Square or St Georges Mall, a street market off the square. Here you’ll find colourful batiks, masks, animal carvings and leather goods at much better prices.
On the Foreshore, on reclaimed land, is the Castle of Good Hope. The first stone was laid in 1666 and it was completed in 1679. It’s the oldest colonial building in South Africa and was used by the British as a prison. This is well worth a visit and the guided tour is good.
One afternoon, I put on my All Blacks shirt, braved the wisecracks, and went to see the Blues get hammered by the Stormers at Newlands antiquated rugby ground. All I can say is, don’t diss Eden Park. By comparison it’s a marvel.
A pleasant area to walk is alongside the impressive parliament buildings in the Company Gardens, which also has a nice restaurant. At the top end of the gardens you’ll find the National Museum and the South African National Art Gallery, the latter more deserving of your time. Our favourite museum, however, was a much smaller one, hidden away on Buitenkant Street.
Cape Town was due to run out of water shortly after we left, but the crisis was averted through strict rationing and a concerted and ongoing effort by the population to conserve. But the shortage remains,and will do so for the foreseeable future. For the visitor, it’s an inconvenience but no big deal. We stayed with friends and had to ration our use carefully: one two-minute shower every two days, catching the water in a bucket for toilet flushing. If you stay in a hotel, expect baths with no plugs and two minute showers. Public toilets and restaurant bathrooms generally only have hand sanitisers, or one tap working.
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