The many faces of Cape Town: A whistle stop tour

It was probably fortuitous that we’d saved the Proper Sightseeing for a few days in, since Mark’s epic lurgy was showing no signs of abating. Our first destination? Robben Island.

Robben Island

Much like Auschwitz, I wouldn’t regard a trip to Robben Island as a particularly bouncy, fun day. However, like Auschwitz there are some places which need to be visited, places which have played such a fundamental part in the forming of the modern nation.

The bleak harbour and breakwater
Welcome to Robben Island

Robben Island isn’t geographically far from Cape Town, a short stretch of sea, but it feels like a million miles. From the moment that the boat rounds the grey, depressing breakwater, to entering the presumably ironic gates, you get the feeling that you truly are in a place of isolation. One can only imagine how it would have felt for the political prisoners entering that place, from where there was intended to be no return. A place with no hope nor redemption.

Cell block
Watchtower

One of the most impactive points in the tour wasn’t one which I had expected- The ‘prison within a prison’ where Robert Sobukwe was held in complete isolation for years, until his deteriorating mental and physical health led to his eventual death, thankfully at that time surrounded by his immediate family.

Political prisoner cell

Deprivation and mental torture was a constant theme referred to by our guide, a former prisoner at Robben Island. Everything as an institution seemed calculated to crush the human spirit. Family visits permitted for a short period every 6 months. If you didn’t apply at the right time, or the weather was too rough, you’d have to reapply for the next slot in 6 months time. Sparse bedding, and limited communication between inmates. No comfort.

Listening to the impassioned recollections of our guide

This is a barren island, with a long history as a place of isolation, since its early years as a leper colony and subsequent use by colonial powers as a prison. Whilst we left Cape Town in the warm summer sun, the wind howling across the island made clear what a forbidding place this must have been through the winters, when prisoners were forced to construct walls in the shallow waters. We visited the lime quarries, where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners worked tirelessly for 13 years, extracting limestone which after the initial 6 months use for road stone was simply discarded in piles. Hard, pointless labour to break the spirit, which left many with lasting eyesight problems.

It was with a degree of relief that we pulled back into the harbour at the V+A Waterfront, and back into the new South Africa. If anything, I think I’d regard Robben Island as a demonstration of hope over adversity. You need to have a positive spin.

V and A Waterfront

The V and A Waterfront is magnificent. It’s not real Africa, it’s a sanitised and heavily managed version, but it’s quite simply a brilliant place to hang out for a few hours. To eat, drink and mooch- All very good and very valid holiday activities. Whilst I hate to disappoint, I really didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ so this blog won’t feature any food pictures (this time) however the depth and breadth of exceptional, economical food options in SA is amazing. Every corner of the globe is represented, and certainly down here we didn’t eat in the same continent twice… It’s possibly down to a weak Rand at the moment, but it is insanely good value for money too. We took a late lunch at a Portuguese restaurant overlooking the marina, with the eternal looming presence of Table Mountain above. It came in around £15.

Unfortunately as a slight dampener the waiter tried putting an extra fiver tip on the already generous amount I’d left. I noticed this on the card machine… Oh, silly me! He explained. Yeah, keep an eye on this. It happened more than once. I’m seriously unimpressed with this kind of shenanigan, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to grab back any tip you’ve given. But because I am a Britisher, we moved on and thanked him profusely.

I love ports, particularly big worldwide trading ports. I’m not quite sure what it is, probably something in the mix of sunshine, being by the coast and the general bustle, however places like Hong Kong, Shanghai, maybe even Saint Petersburg properly push my buttons.

Of course, you could also go on the Cape Wheel if that’s your kind of thing, but it was pretty pricey. We decided to save our aerial views, with fingers tightly crossed, for the next few days. Meanwhile, Mark was struggling a bit so I left/abandoned him at the apartment and out for a mooch down to Camps Bay again. En route I passed the Grand Africa Cafe. It seemed a pretty swanky place, but as good a place as any for a beer on the beach. Thankfully my spider senses were twitching so I asked the price of a pint before buying… 350 Rand (Nearly 20 quid). Yep, moving on…

Table Mountain

The next morning, I was up unseasonably early for holiday- Around 7.30am. I’d had the vague inkling to try to wake early one morning, since all of the guides recommend taking the first good weather window you get to see Table Mountain, as the ‘Tablecloth’, the thick cloud which frequently envelops it throughout the evening, moves in unpredictably.

Having established from the website that conditions were also good up the mountain, I bullied Mark up and we set off. Thankfully we were still relatively early arriving, so the huge snaking queue seen earlier in the day wasn’t present.

Priceless product placement…

There are various ways up Table Mountain. I’d originally wanted to hike if possible, however due to the security situation around the Park this is really something you need to do with a group. And more to the point, some of the hikes looked seriously intense! So, we took the gentleman’s option of the cable car up and back.

The queue for this wasn’t horrendous, as we’d got in quite early. The gondolas are surprisingly huge and, as a second surprise, the floor around the middle rotates, which is seriously strange when the walls and centre (where the ‘driver’ stands) don’t. In the world of cable car rides however, this was very serene… all until the final exposed ‘corner’ when a blast of wind came in through the open door, and it all felt a bit high and wobbly!

Nonetheless, we made it, and were rewarded with extraordinary, 360-degree panoramic views of Cape Town and surrounds. Nothing else to say other than…wow.

Looking down the coast towards Camps Bay, and the Cape of Good Hope.
The Lion’s Head
Surveying the whole bay, City Bowl stadium top left

We couldn’t have been luckier with the weather, and I think both of us were extremely pleased to have dragged ourselves out (relatively) early. Mark retired to the coffee shop (very civilised mountain, this) and I made my way across the mountaintop for a little wander. Being a National Park it’s renowned for some of the fynbos found there. I always marvel at plants which cling on to such a rocky, and at times desolate place and produce such beauty.

I also marvelled at the tenacity of the lesser-spotted Chinese selfie hunter. This one was a particularly rugged specimen, managing to find his way onto some seriously precipitous rocks. I hung around for a while, only to be able to update his family if the worst happened, then joined Mark for a cappuccino. Posh mountain, see.

Our wanderings took us back via the Cape Quarter shops to gather some lunch. This certainly backed up the thought that actually, you may as well eat out… a few bits of salad and a pie each came to about the price of a reasonable brunch. Lesson learnt, and enjoyed- Guilt free dining out from now on!

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

After a welcome flop around the apartment, it was time to head out again. Holidays are about relaxation but there sometimes needs to be a bit of a timetable… I definitely didn’t want to miss Kirstenbosch.

Kirstenbosch was, quite simply, everything I’d expected and more. I could have probably spent the whole day wandering around the various corners of the immense, encyclopaedic gardens. It’s a stunning space which gets used throughout the warmer months of the year for open air cinemas and concerts most nights. The entrance fee is very reasonable, and also you can hike the Skeleton Gorge route up to Table Mountain from here. Absolutely incredible.

It’s also home to various creatures including the dreamy-eyed Egyptian geese and rather less co-operative wildfowl who really, REALLY didn’t want their photo taken. And a few marauding swarms of bees, which was slightly disconcerting…

So after a magnificent Belgian meal down at the V and A Waterfront, that was our time in Cape Town over. Next up… Wine country and the Garden Route. I can’t wait!

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