Try and describe the unique southern African metropolis of Cape Town without mentioning its imposing Table Mountain backdrop and it would be like describing an elephant without its trunk.
Even so, the magnificent, often mist enshrouded, cliffs that soar a full kilometre into the sky, are not the only fascinating feature of this cosmopolitan enclave nestled comfortably on the far south western tip of the great African continent. The "Mother City’s" rich history, cultural and political independence, stunning location and mild climate qualify Cape Town as one of the world’s truly great cities.
Like so many African ports, Cape Town began as a strategic and economic colonial outpost. Ironically, the port was established on the strength of glowing reports of the bay that reached the opportunistic Dutch East India Company when one of their vessels, Haerlem, foundered there in 1647. The attractive, fertile land and largely cooperative, if somewhat gullible, native "Hottentots" enabled a refreshment station to be set up in the 1650s to service the many ships plying the trade routes between Holland and SE Asia.
As a direct result of its location, function and traffic, a startlingly diverse population gradually evolved, incorporating examples of the many European, Asian and African cultures that were continually traversing its busy harbour. Despite South Africa’s turbulent history, Kaapstad has maintained a relatively stable and racially harmonious constituency. Its largely liberal inhabitants kept themselves mostly at an arm’s length from the turmoil and bitterness that swept much of the rest of the province over the centuries, even if it meant fighting it off at times.
The Afrikaner independence movement was born out of the wider Cape Colony in 1837. When the mainly farming and god-fearing, Dutch-descended Boers became disgruntled with liberal British rule, they pushed off to the uncharted innards of the Transvaal in an act now known as "The Great Trek" to set up their own republics.
The famous statesman and entrepreneur, Cecil Rhodes, who formed the scholarship that bears his name, was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890-96 and died there amid scandal in 1901.
Tourism has certainly become one of the city’s great strengths, drawing nearly one million visitors per year from around the globe. With a head-spinning assortment of activities ranging from the mammoth Cape Argus Cycle Classic, a world class aquarium, Ratanga Junction Theme Park, Newlands International Sports Arena (mainly cricket and rugby), motor racing at Killarney, water sports of all kinds plus others like horse-riding, flying and 4WDing.
A day trip around Cape Town is a whirlwind, eye-popping affair as you venture to pristine beaches and the homes of the Capetonian glitterati at Camps Bay, through lush verdant forests, past historic naval and fishing villages like Simon’s Town and Hout Bay, to staggering seaside vistas that stretch all the way to the Cape of Good Hope.
Short cruises are also popular out of the serene little harbour at Hout (Wood) Bay, and for less than A$10, you can jump aboard a launch to see the ludicrous overpopulation of Cape Fur Seals on nearby Duiker Island that, courtesy of the ample food source, also boasts a healthy representation of voracious Great Whites. While you are on an aquatic fauna roll, be sure to visit the little colony of Jackass Penguins near Shelley Beach, named so no-doubt, for their distinct ass-like outbursts.
For an alternative view of the city, pop out to Robben Island, a short 10 kilometres off the coast. Variously a ship’s larder, insane asylum and military prison at different times, it once housed Nelson Mandela and is now a popular stop on the historically persuaded visitor’s itinerary.
No visit could be considered complete unless one rides the breathtaking revolving cable car to the top of Table Mountain. Not the tourist doddle it may appear, the sheer slopes are plagued by sudden and violent windstorms that are heralded by an ominous siren at the top station. The entire flat top of the feature can also be quickly enveloped in dense mist and cloud, locally called the tablecloth, that may appear mystical and surreal at sea level, but is a damn nuisance when trying to enjoy the view from atop.
Lucky day-trippers, not hampered by the aforementioned hazards, can occupy themselves walking around examining the many rewarding vantage points or observing the unique flora and fauna. The latter consists mainly of furry little dassies, several lizard species and feral Himalayan Goats or tahrs. Adventure-prone types can throw themselves off the summit in the company of like-minded abseilers in a seemingly suicidal display that really looks much more dangerous than it is. The better heeled can partake in a helicopter observation that affords a unique perspective guaranteed to equip any visitor with ample dinner table yarns to last a lifetime.
After your adrenalin-filled sightseeing, wrap up the day lounging around the superb Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens. Pleasantly shaded from the late afternoon sun, this park contains some of the most impressive specimens of the abundant local flora. Open-air concerts are also a feature of world-class location.
Shopping: another inescapable pastime for the modern adventurer is well catered for in Cape Town. There are all the usual malls and markets, with the crowning glory unlikely to be surpassed by the Victoria and Alfred (yes, Alfred) Waterfront where the Gucci-gazers and Versaceophiles are not going to be disappointed. Be careful not to pay too much for any of the mass-produced "native" artefacts abundant throughout South Africa and do some serious homework before taking on the diamond and gem traders that abound downtown.
Driving is not too arduous around town, but South Africans, both black and white, are a bit complacent about road safety. Speeding, jaywalking, drinking and unroadworthy vehicles are too common for anybody’s liking and the public transport system is pretty ordinary by Australian standards. Minibus taxis, although cheap, are something of a lottery. The advice being if you don't like the look of one, don't get in it! The more reliable operators work out of the major hotels.
On the South African measuring stick, Cape Town is a safe city, but all the usual precautions apply. Don't walk after dark, especially alone, and don't carry unnecessary valuables. When driving, lock all your doors and it is quite acceptable to run a red light late at night rather than sit vulnerable to carjackers.
In spite of the tribulations in the rest of the country, Cape Town is experiencing a healthy renaissance, driven mainly by tourism. Some of the credit must go to the recently revitalised Cape Town Tourism operation run by the dynamic Sheryl Ozinsky. Fresh from the complete reorganisation of Cape Town’s Symphony Orchestra and the creation, from scratch, of the Two Oceans Aquarium, Ozinsky is applying her trademark zeal to the post of Tourism Director. "We have to respect each other and the people who visit our city and truly believe that we all stand to gain from making Cape Town a safe and attractive place."
Be sure to visit Cape Town Tourism’s plush new location in Burg Street for the multitude of experiences available.
Story by Roderick Eime
Photos by Roderick Eime and SATOUR
Background image by Runic Design
[Commissioned for Honda - The Magazine. Please, no mirroring or reproduction.]
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