I should probably begin by admitting that I have had a permanent smile on my face since I got my first view of Table Mountain on approach to landing in Cape Town. So, since I have clearly lost all sense of objectivity, I can only say that Cape Town is simply fabulous. Simply, utterly fabulous.
I landed a little after 3pm today after connecting through Johannesburg on South African Airways. When we landed in Cape Town, I could see that the top of Table Mountain was crystal clear – not a cloud in the sky. Not only was this a welcome relief after the jarring cold of Berlin, but it was especially notable because from everything I had read, this is unusual.
Normally, there is a persistent blanket of clouds that touches just the top of the mountain, known locally as the “tablecloth.” When the tablecloth is present, the top of the mountain is closed and you can’t hike or take the cable car up.
My initial plan for Cape Town definitely included hiking up Table Mountain but I had planned to do it tomorrow morning after a good night’s sleep. However, from all my preparation for this city I knew that if the mountain is clear now, better to hike now. Wait and you could miss out entirely.
So, I checked into my hotel, the lovely Westin Cape Town, around 4pm and asked the concierge if I still had time to do the hiking trail up the mountain before sundown? She said sunset was at 8pm and yes, I still had time if I hurried, the hike takes about 3 hours. She called the mountain office to confirm that the conditions were still clear and expected to stay that way (often the winds pick up when the clouds come in and people actually have to be rescued off the trail – I did NOT want to be one of those people). Conditions can change on a dime up there, but I was lucky, the weather stayed clear throughout my ascent.
Hiking Table Mountain
I hopped in a cab and headed to the entrance of the hiking trail the concierge has recommended. According to her, this is the only trail that does not require real rock-climbing gear (this concerns me a little but I say nothing – I have run marathons, I can hike a simple mountain…right?). I start out with enthusiasm which begins to wane after about an hour.
The hike is literally straight up, there are no level areas to catch your breath. As a result, after the first hour I begin to stop every so often to “take in the view”. I am suddenly very glad I thought to bring a bottle of water. I press on and am actually mildly enjoying the hike for the next hour or so.
At the 2 hour mark, I am approaching the top and the trail gets even more treacherous. There are points where a brief loss of balance could send you hurtling off the side of the mountain – did the guide books really recommend this? I often have to critically assess the trail to determine the best method of climbing up to diminish the odds of falling off the darn mountain (am beginning to feel a bit like a real mountain climber now).
At this point, mountainside rescue is starting to sound appealing. The only thing keeping me going is the fact that it would take much longer to try to go back down the mountain than to continue climbing up. I pass several hikers on their way down from the top and they tell me it is not much further now. I don’t even care if they are lying, I need the encouragement.
Finally, after almost 3 hours, I reach the top. Even with the occasional stops, I still did the hike in about 45 minutes less than the concierge said it would take (this gives me a small amount of pride). At the top the view is amazing but the temperature has dropped drastically and the wind is brutal. Now that I am no longer keeping warm by hiking up a mountain, I wish I had thought to bring a jacket. I decide to tough it out, the sunset is only 45 minutes away and I worked hard to get here.
The top of the mountain is flat there are numerous viewing points on all sides so I wander around and check them all out. Each view is better than the last. It really is beautiful up here. I am reminded of Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro (where the Christ the Redeemer statue sits overlooking the city). The view is very much like that, with the ocean and the city below. Of course, I didn’t hike up that mountain so I appreciate this view much more.
There is a party happening at the peak for sunset. There are a ton of people and they have picnic baskets and champagne, the mood is festive. (Suddenly realizing a picnic basket would have been a good idea to bring, too.) The next time I come here (and there will be a next time) I will plan better…and take the cable car.
Once the sun sets, I take the first cable car back down and head back to the hotel to shower for dinner. I walk over to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area for what turns out to be a fabulous dinner. Back at the hotel later, I fall into bed for some well-earned rest. Tomorrow, I have scheduled a tour of Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. The island houses the prison where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 18 years. I am told it is the most poignant part of any visit to Cape Town and I am looking forward to seeing it.
Day 2 in Cape Town – A Tour of Robben Island
Since my Robben Island tour isn’t until 4pm, I sleep in a little before deciding to return to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area for some lunch and shopping. It is another beautiful day but the “tablecloth” is firmly entrenched over the mountain and I am glad I tackled the hike the day before. The waterfront area is lively with lots of street performers and tons of people wandering around. I enjoy a relaxing lunch, buy a few souvenirs (my ability to shop is severely limited due to suitcase size) and then walk over to the Robben Island Museum to catch the ferry to the island.
For nearly 400 years colonial and apartheid rulers banished those they regarded as political troublemakers, social outcasts and the unwanted of society to this small, rocky island in Table Bay known as Robben Island. In its history, the island has housed slaves, leprosy sufferers, the mentally ill, prisoners of war and most recently, political opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa and Namibia.
During the apartheid years, Robben Island became internationally known for its institutional brutality. Some freedom fighters spent more than a quarter of a century in prison for their beliefs, Nelson Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned there. After the defeat of apartheid, the last political prisoners were released from the island in 1991. In 1996 Robben Island was declared a National Monument and Museum and in 1997 it opened to the public. Two years later it was declared a World Heritage Site. Today it is the most visited monument in South Africa.
As our ferry boat approaches the island, you immediately get a sense of the remoteness from the energy that is Cape Town. Though it’s only a 30 minute boat ride away, it seems as though you’ve left the country entirely. The first part of our tour consists of a guided bus ride around the island to see the lime quarry where the prisoners labored, the 19th century lighthouse, the island church and WW II fortifications among other things. A vast amount of wildlife flourishes on the island from ostriches to antelopes to African penguins.
The second part of the tour is a walking tour through the high-security wing of the prison conducted by a former political prisoner there. Our tour guide is Glenn (his English name). Glenn spent 6 years on Robben Island for treason, 8 cells down from Nelson Mandela. As he walks us through the facility his descriptions of each area give an emotionally vivid picture of what life was like here. It is obvious his years on this island still haunt him but his choice to lead tours there seems oddly therapeutic. Having former political prisoners leading the tours is fascinating and allows the visitor a much truer sense of the place. Toward the end of the tour, Glenn walks us past Nelson Mandela’s cell and then leads us down the hall to his own.
The tour concludes in the courtyard and then we board the ferry for the ride back to Cape Town. It’s hard to imagine what this beautiful place was like only 20 years ago during apartheid. I conclude the day with another great dinner along the waterfront and then head back to the hotel to upload pictures.
Last day in South Africa – The Best of Cape Town’s Beaches
My wake-up call comes at 7:30am and I leave the hotel by 8. My first stop is Camps Bay Beach, just on the other side of Table Mountain. It’s a beautiful beach but the water is freezing – and once again the “tablecloth” is in full effect over the mountain. I take in the beauty for about an hour and then continue on to Clifton Beach which is about a 20 minute walk away. This beach has come highly recommended by a KLM flight attendant I met at the hotel who spent all day there yesterday. The walk is lovely and the weather couldn’t be better.
Clifton Beach, as it turns out, is peppered with large boulders in the water and on the sand that lend it a really dramatic look. I take some pictures and then promptly park myself on the sand for a little while with a book. I catch a taxi to the hotel around noon to shower and check-out and then it’s off to the airport.
A perfect morning and just what I needed considering the next 30 hours will be spent in transit between here and Cairo with connections through Johannesburg and again through Paris.