South Africa: Cape Town

29th June - 13th July 2002


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I decided to leave Storms River Village and travel to Cape Town. Public transport from the village looked non-existent; there was no minibus taxi park, in fact I never saw a local minibus taxi in the village during my stay. The only minibus I ever saw in the village was the Baz Bus. This was not the way I liked to travel, so the Baz Bus was not a viable option for me. All the minibuses and busses kept to the main highway, the N2, and didn't appear to stop in the village at all. The owners of the Rainbow Lodge told me that a bus from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town stopped in the village once a day. I chose to hitch hike instead and to travel west as far as Knysna, where I planned to stop for a night before taking an Intercape bus the rest of the way to Cape Town. The owners of the lodge disapproved of my plans to hitch a ride on the N2. They recounted countless horror stories they had read about in the media of people hitch hiking and coming to an unfortunate end.

I thought the challenge of hitch hiking would add a bit of excitement to what had become an easy, rather non-eventful journey across this country. I left the lodge at around 09.00 and walked through the village and back to the junction on the N2, where I had been dropped off a few days earlier. There was a steady flow of traffic, but no one looked like stopping. After a while I saw the Baz Bus approaching, I tried to hitch a ride, I thought it would make a good story, the day I hitched for free on the Baz Bus. The driver didn't slow down and as he drove past me, I waved as a dozen white faces peered out the windows, watching Africa flash before their eyes. A little over an hour standing beside the highway, my luck changed. A car pulled up to the junction from the village and saw me standing there; he pulled over and offered me a ride to Knysna.

The driver of the vehicle turned out to be a white student visiting Storms River with his family for a holiday. He was studying at the university in Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town. I asked if he was driving back there today. He wasn't, he was just bored and had decided to take the car down to Knysna for the day. Knysna is about 70km west of Storms River and the journey didn't take long. On route we passed the Baz Bus again, which was waiting at a junction to turn out on to the main highway; I waved again as we drove past. Along the way a troop of baboons were causing traffic chaos. They were sitting alongside the road, the large males slowly crossing the road or walking down the middle. They seemed to be completely oblivious to the passing traffic, which had to brake sharply and swerve around them. After successfully dodging the baboons the rest of the journey was plain sailing and we reached Knysna late in the morning.

Knysna is one of the major tourist towns along this stretch of coast, known as the Garden Route. The Garden Route runs from the Tsitsikamma National Park in the east, 200km west to Heidelberg. The coast is separated from the interior by a range of mountains were rain falls all year round on the southern, ocean facing slopes, which are covered in lush green forests. The interior, north of these mountains, known as the Karoo, is dry and treeless, a stark contrast between the coastal strip. This dramatic change in vegetation and climate occurs in little more than 20km. Hence the Garden Route was named, published and advertised as the number one destination to visit in South Africa and today is the most popular place to visit. I was dropped off in the centre of Knysna, along main street and walked the short distance to the Highfield Backpackers Lodge. The town was bustling with people, thronging along the main street, which was lined with various craft shops, restaurants and bars. There was a definite holiday feel to the town. When I checked into the lodge I found out that I had arrived on the first day of the annual oyster festival. Accommodation was in short supply but I managed to get a spare room up in the attic of the lodge. I only booked in for one night and made arrangements to book a bus ticket to Cape Town the next day. If I had not been so travel weary after spending almost twenty four weeks travelling overland from Kampala I would have spent more time along the Garden Route exploring many of the beautiful coastal towns and national parks. Cape Town, the destination of this trip, was now within my grasp, just a days bus ride away. I felt drawn towards this city, like a magnet, after so long dreaming about this day and the successful completion of my trans-African journey. I spent my afternoon strolling around this small, but busy town and the evening exploring the various bars and nightclubs the town had to offer.

I woke the next morning feeling slightly better than expected after the previous nights tour of the town. I soon checked out and walked down to main street to wait for the Intercape bus to arrive at around 10.00. It was another bright sunny morning, there were about half a dozen other passengers waiting patiently for the bus. It showed up on time, I climbed aboard and took my seat excited with the knowledge that by the time the sun had set on the day I would be in Cape Town. The journey was very comfortable and pleasant. The memories of my previous bus journeys on this continent seemed a long time ago now. In some ways I missed the chaos of those journeys, the colour, noise and the whole unpredictable nature of the journey. Today, though I was happy to be sitting in this modern bus with the knowledge that I would arrive at my destination today and on time.

Our route today followed the N2 all the way to Cape Town, passing through Wilderness, Albertinia and Stormslvei on route. By late afternoon the bus wound its way up into the Hottentots Holland Mountains and we drove through Sir Lowry's Pass. As we emerged on the western side of the mountain range the bus slowed and I was greeted by the most spectacular view of Cape Town I could of ever wished for. The sun was low on the horizon disappearing behind the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, casting the whole scene in an orange glow. Almost immediately below us False Bay stretched around all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. Around the bay, the area known as Cape Flats, home to the majority of the black residents in an unimaginable sprawl of townships, including Guguletu, Khayelitsha, Mitchell's Plain and Nyanga. Punctuating this whole scene is Table Mountain, standing proudly, looking over the city. It was an emotional moment for me as I glimpsed my first view of this city, twenty-four weeks after embarking on this journey from Kampala. Within an hour I was disembarking from the bus at the main bus station downtown, alongside the railway station. It was early evening and by now dark. I took a taxi north to Observatory and to the Green Elephant Hostel that had been recommended to me by the manager of the Rainbow Lodge in Storms River. I wasn't exactly sure where I was going and after a day of travelling the taxi fare seemed worthwhile to finish off my journey quickly. After a bit of wandering about I found a taxi, jumped in and headed out of downtown. The driver was friendly and welcomed me to the city and gave me a street map so I could navigate to Milton Road.

The Green Elephant is a nice, relaxed place to stay run by the owner Robin and his eccentric tree-climbing dog, Defa. Robin is a very experienced traveller, often disappearing off on adventures across Africa and beyond. On the wall of the bar is a photo of Robin on Mount Everest planting the new South African Flag deep into the snow. In a frame next to it a letter from the former president, Nelson Mandela, thanking Robin for a copy of the photo. The Observatory district is the university part of town, with the Cape Town University just a short way along the main road from Milton Road. This gave the area a relaxed feel with plenty of facilities you would expect to cater for a student population, namely a good selection of bars and restaurants.

That evening I met some of the other guests staying at the hostel, either upstairs in the lounge and television room or in the bar downstairs playing pool. As well as other travellers there were also students from Europe staying waiting for the start of the new term at the university. I met Frank and Chris that evening, both from Germany, Chris was going to study at the university and was looking for an apartment to rent for the term; Frank had just flown into Cape Town at the start of an extended holiday. I also ran into the infamous Defa, Robin's dog, patrolling the corridors and the garden, tail wagging continuously. I joined Frank and Chris for dinner that night at a local restaurant where I ate the most amazing butternut soup I have ever tasted; I made a mental note to experiment back home in my kitchen with some butternut squash and a blender.

This city should have been the end of the road for me and I should have booked a flight home from here. I didn't though; my plans were flexible enough to continue this journey. I planned now to go Namibia and travel north along the western coast of southern Africa. So many people I had met had told me how beautiful Namibia was with stories of vast deserts and stunning scenery; a complete contrast to the countries I had travelled through along the eastern coast of Africa. I would now book a flight home from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia when I reached the city in a couple of week's time.

I spent six days in Cape Town, my longest city stay since I left Dar es Salaam back in April. The weather was going to govern what I would do on a day-to-day basis. It was the middle of winter, the nights were cold and the days unsettled with weather systems rolling in from the Atlantic bringing rain and leaving Table Mountain cloaked in cloud. I decided that the first morning I woke up to bright sunshine I would climb Table Mountain. My first day was a typical winters day though in Cape Town; it was cold, grey and raining lightly. Chris had just bought a car, a VW Golf, so together with Frank we went for a drive down the peninsular towards Cape Point. It was a Sunday morning, the city was quiet as we drove through downtown and along the M6 through the suburbs of Sea Point, Clifton and Camps Bay squeezed between the ocean and the steep hills of Lions Head and Signal Hill.

We continued south to Hout Bay, a small town set on a cove with a fishing harbour and marina and on up Chapman's Peak Drive from where there is a popular viewpoint looking back across the bay. Even on a grey, damp day like today the views were impressive, the surf crashing onto the beaches below us. The road from here was closed and apparently had been for some time after major rock falls early in 2000. We wanted to get to Simon's Town for lunch and had to double back to Hout Bay and take the M63 cutting through the hills to Constantia and the eastern coast of the Cape.

Simon's Town is named after Simon van der Stel, the Dutch governor of the Cape who decided to use the bay as a winter anchorage after it was discovered by a Dutch East India ship in 1671. In 1768 the Cape colony transferred into British hands and Simon's Town became a naval base for the South Atlantic Squadron. The town was ceded to the Admiralty in 1895 and remained a British Territory until 1957 becoming an important base during the Second World War for repairing damaged ships. Today, on this grey Sunday lunchtime with the rain still gently falling, I felt very much at home walking along the main street lined with Victorian era buildings. As we looked for somewhere to eat lunch we walked past the Lord Nelson Inn; I could have been walking through an English seaside town. By the time we had finished lunch it was still raining, the low cloud obscuring the hills; we decided to return to Observatory and the Green Elephant.

The following morning I woke to find the weather had changed dramatically. The sky was clear and blue, the sun rising behind Devil's Peak, which towers over this part of city. Today would be my mountain climbing day. There are numerous trails leading up Table Mountain as well as a cable car. The most popular, and easiest, hiking trail up the mountain is through the Platteklip Gorge, a fissure in the vertical rock face a few hundred meters north of the cable car station. By the time I reached the start of the trail the morning was wearing on and with it the cloud was beginning to build. It's between a 600 - 700m vertical climb to reach the summit of this flat-topped mountain at almost 1,070m above sea level, which towers over the city below. The trail winds it's way up the flank of the mountain until it reaches the Platteklip Gorge, from where the trail leads steeply up through this ever-narrowing crack in the rock. It didn't take me long to reach the summit, I was still feeling very fit from my previous mountain treks. The trail lead towards the cable car station next to the mountain top restaurant and souvenir shop. The views were stunning and worth all the effort climbing up here. From this vantage point I had a 360' view looking east towards Cape Flats and False Bay; south along the spine of mountains stretching down to Cape Point; west overlooking Camps Bay, Clifton and the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean and north over the city centre and Table Bay. My ascent was timed to perfection. As I was in the restaurant having lunch and a cold beer, the cloud rolled in and the views disappeared. I hiked back down the Platteklip Gorge and took a bus back into the city, leaving the mountain shrouded in cloud.

I booked myself on a tour of the local vineyards, it seems that this tour is almost obligatory for any wine loving tourist arriving in the city. Frank also came along and the two of us were the eldest people on the tour and supposedly the most sensible. The tour took all day visiting three vineyards including a lunch stop at the second one. The wines we tasted were wonderful and plentiful. As well as consuming many different varieties of wine the tour also educated us on the production process involved, including the making of Champagne (sparkling white wine, for the purists). By the end of the tour we were singing along to Moby in the back of the minibus drinking a nice bottle of Pinotage, a grape variety I had encountered, and fallen in love with, for the first time in South Africa. By the time I stumbled back into the Green Elephant I was in a very unfit state and soon fell asleep.

The next morning I met another guest in the garden as I woke myself up with the first of many cups of tea that morning. I was sure I had met him somewhere before on my travels through Africa, so I asked. I was sort of right I had met him last night on my return from the wine tour and had apparently talked for almost an hour in a drunken stupor about how great South African wines were. I apologised.

After spending a day sobering up from the wine tour and trying to remember which were my favourite wines, I booked myself onto a tour of Robben Island, the former prison home of Nelson Mandela for 27 years. The next morning, another clear, calm and sunny day, I made my way down to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, a tourist development around the still working port, packed with shops, bars, restaurants and tourists. I was booked on the 10.00 ferry and tour of the island, which departed from Jetty 1 for the 13km sailing to the island. The catamaran took about twenty-five minutes to make the crossing. The views looking back towards Table Bay with the city nestled below Table Mountain and wisps of high cirrus cloud streaming across the blue sky were stunning. From out to sea I could really appreciate the setting of this beautiful city.

The previous day Robben Island had made the headlines in the national newspapers when the prison guides, the former prisoners, went on strike. According to the papers tourists were stunned to find that the guides had locked themselves into the cells and had gone on hunger strike. They were protesting about the management of the island, now a museum and the allegedly misappropriation of funds. I did not know when I arrived at the V & A Waterfront whether the tours were still continuing, luckily they were.

The island has been used for many purposes since white settlers first arrived at the Cape. At first the authorities used the island for convicts and later as a leper colony and a home for paupers, cripples and the mad. A military base was established on the island during the Second World War and remained there until 1960 when the military handed the island over to the Department of Prisons. The island then entered its most infamous period and became best known as the place where the prominent members of the ANC were imprisoned. Towards the end of 1996 the prisoners were removed from the island and the government approved plans to turn the island into a National Monument and National Museum. On the 1st December 1999 the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to the islands isolation over the years it has also become a major wildlife site with over a hundred species of bird and a large breeding colony of Jackass Penguins.

As the passengers disembarked at the small harbour on the island we were divided into separate groups and assigned a former prisoner as a guide. Our group first took a bus tour of the island visiting the former leper colony, the small village on the island while being given a history of the events that took place on the island. We also stopped at the lime quarry and were told of the conditions endured by the prisoners as they were forced to work. We completed our circuit back at the prison and were taken inside. Our guide apologised because he felt weak, after beginning a hunger strike the day before. He did not have the enthusiasm for the job today and went through the paces without doing much talking. I felt rather disappointed by the end of the tour and didn't gain much of an insight into conditions and life at the prison.

Upon my return to the mainland I stopped for lunch at the V & A Waterfront and sat outside in the warm sunshine with a cold beer. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest colonial building in South Africa. Work started on the castle in 1666 by Commander Zacharias Wagenaer and took until 1679 to complete. The stonewalls of the castle are built in the shape of a pentagon, each being 150m long and 10m high. At each star point is a bastion named after the titles of the Prince of Orange who ruled Holland at the time, Buren, Catzenellenbogen, Nassau, Oranje and Leerdam. The entrance to the castle is between Leerdam and Buren bastions. The entrance originally faced the sea between Catzenellenbogen and Buren but was moved in 1684. I crossed the moat that surrounds the castle and walked through the entrance and into the garden court. Straddling across the centre of the castle compound is the Kat, built in 1691 when Van der Stel was made governor and served as the Governor's residence until British rule. Under British rule the castle served as government headquarters.

Today the Kat is home to two museums, the William Fehr Collection and the Secunde's House. I entered the William Fehr Collection through the impressive Thibault and Anreith pediment entrance. The collection reflects the social and political history of the cape with paintings by John Thomas Baines and William Huggins, Japanese porcelain and Indonesian furniture. I found the paintings the most interesting, showing scenes and landscapes of Cape Town during the 18th and 19th century. These paintings really brought to life the colonial history of this part of the world. On the first floor of the building is a huge hall with a dining table that can seat 104 people. The whole museum collection was by far the finest I had seen for a long time.

After six enjoyable days in Cape Town I decided to leave and begin my long journey north to the Namibian border. I booked myself on an Intercape bus to Springbok. The bus went all the way to Windhoek, the Namibian capital, but I decided that Springbok would make a good stop for the night, before continuing my journey on local transport to the border and my first destination in Namibia, Keetmanshoop. The journey north from Cape Town along the N7 was very comfortable, stopping frequently at service stations so that we could stretch our legs and buy refreshments. The further north we travelled the drier the landscape became until we reached the semi-arid region of Namaqualand, of which Springbok is the regional centre. The bus arrived in Springbok just after the sun had set, the low rocky hills glowing in the last rays of sun as the stars began to emerge in the clear deep blue sky. I walked to Annie's Cottage, which allegedly had backpacker accommodation at reasonable prices; it didn't. I finally ended up at another guesthouse, which too was full, but the elderly lady who ran the place gave me a key for a small apartment up the next street. I made myself at home before wandering into the town centre to a local diner for an evening meal. I found Springbok to be a very different town to all the others I had visited on my travels across this country. It had a frontier feel and definitely still felt like a mining town. The first European run copper mine was established just outside the town in 1852. Today the town is a major service centre for the surrounding copper and diamond mines.

I woke early the next morning. It was still dark. As the whole of South Africa is on the same time zone, the sun didn't rise until after 07.00. I dropped the apartment keys into the letterbox of the guesthouse as I walked out of town and back to the N7 to hitchhike to the Namibian border. From my enquiries the previous night I found that there was no local transport going north, only the Intercape bus I got off of last night. It took over an hour to walk back out on to the N7 at the northern junction to Springbok. There I stood waiting for a ride. Traffic on this road was very light; I could see down the road for almost two kilometres and quiet often there wasn't a single vehicle in sight. After an hour and a half, a pickup driven by three local black men pulled over and offered me a ride to Steinkopf for thirty rand, so that they could buy breakfast. After waiting so long I decided to pay for the ride and climbed into the back of the pickup. Steinkopf is only about 50km north of Springbok, but at least it would be a change of scenery and would get me on my way to the border.

It didn't take long to reach Steinkopf and I was dropped at the main junction on the N7. A small group of men were standing here beside the highway trying to hitch north as well. I decided to start walking north, so as not to be in competition with them for the very few vehicles that had made it this far north. After a while I stopped and waited. Hardly any traffic passed along this road. Most of the vehicles were travelling south and were white owned 4WD returning from Namibia at the end of the South African school holidays. After twenty minutes the second pickup travelling north pulled over. It was driven by a white mine worker and was going to the border town of Vioolsdrif. I climbed into the back and watched the desert landscape streak past, a preview of what I would find in Namibia. 75kms later I was dropped at the South African border post next to the Orange river, my journey across South Africa at an end and a new journey in a new country about to begin.

I continued this journey in Namibia.

Continue reading this journey: Hitchhiking to Luderitz