Feature Writer: Lisa Vecchio
Relaxing on the patio at The Backpack, an urban hostel in the center of Cape Town, the sun beamed hard on my face and despite the sweat seeping into my dress I pressed on. Its hard work but I embraced the heat and got on with my mission. I will get tan. Reading J. Maarten Troost’s Getting Stoned with Savages I pictured myself on the island of Vanuatu at the same time all while the Dutch guy sitting next to me interrupted at various intervals to ask about my travels. I was deep into my Kindle book again when I heard the front gate close and a voice I recognized enthusiastically shout “Lisa! We’re in South Africa!” Jaime had finally arrived.
I looked up briefly, wiped the sweat from my brow and replied passively, “Oh, hey dude.” Despite my excitement to finally meet up with my travel partner half way around the world, her arriving from New York and me from Australia, it took a few minutes to actually sink in.
I had disembarked the evening before so had slept off my jet lag and already ventured about the city a bit that morning. After waking and not wanting to indulge in an activity that I know she would want to partake in too, the hospitable receptionist suggested I spend the time at the Old Biscuit Mill markets. They’re only open on Saturday and close by 1 pm so I was in luck, she wouldn’t have been able to go at another point on our trip anyway.
Lucky for me two Norwegian sisters were awaiting a cab for the very same place so I asked them if they minded if I tagged along. I had yet to venture out into town so wasn’t really sure how it all worked, taxis, tipping, walking alone etc so as long as they didn’t mind I was going to join.
I didn’t know what to expect but being in Africa and hearing the word market I had assumed it would be some sort of bazaar selling African trinkets. I love me some trinkets. It turned out that the Old Biscuit Mill is an old mill converted into trendy boutique stores and eateries, with food stalls selling the likes of fresh coconuts to gourmet cupcakes, stinky cheeses to delectable meats, olives and mushrooms and sandwiches made to order. More or less, a foodie’s version of heaven. Interestingly enough, it also is a place where the chic and fabulous spend their Saturday afternoons sipping beers and catching up with friends. Yes, South African hipsters do exist. Who knew?
The following day Jaime and I embarked on an adventure that I can honestly say was the most physically challenging thing I had ever done – we climbed Table Mountain. Depending on whom you ask about their experience, or lack of, about climbing the flat-topped Cape Town landmark you’re bound to get different responses. Some snickered at the idea of us taking 2.5 hours to reach the summit via Platteklip Gorge, the most direct and shortest route of 3 kilometers, while others showed their shock and admiralty as they themselves have only reached the summit by the tourist shuffler known as the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway that races from the bottom up when the weather cooperates.
We prepared with 3 large bottles of water, some fresh fruit, a salad and some cheese and crackers to picnic on once we reached the top. I bent down and performed a few stretches, we snapped some photos at the onset and then we were off! 5 steps in I said, “Um, is it just me or you out of breath already too?” Jaime at least had been training for the NYC Marathon that unfortunately got canceled due to Hurricane Sandy; I had been training by lifting the pint glass to my mouth and dining out multiple times a week.
Trekking up was breathtaking as we stomped from rock to rock admiring flowing waterfalls, striking fauna and even little surprise critters that jumped out on occasion. With each steep step up, the views of Cape Town got more and more stunning. A half hour in I’m feeling mighty proud looking out but how naive I was about how much further we still had to go. Mistake # 1 may have been departing the base at 1 pm, sun at its peak, temperature in the mid 30’s Celsius, nearly 90’s Fahrenheit. Lathering on sunscreen at break times, which honestly was less then every ten minutes, I was starting to feel the burn in more than one sense of the word. At a few points I was dizzy and felt faint. Yes, breaks were good and I was grateful we brought the fruit to supplement the sugar bleeding out of our pours.
During our break times those descending the mountain would give us words of encouragement like “great job, you’re half way there!” Actually, it seemed as if no matter how much further we climbed the next person we passed would enthusiastically tell us we were half way there. Hmm, it didn’t help me feel any closer to the top. Then someone said, “Your nearly there, and there’s beers up there too!” Talk about motivation. Eventually 2.5 hours from the start, with defeated breath, dirty hands and a poor sun tan we had reached the summit!
Table Mountain provides one Africa’s most impressive views. Looking down from the top you can span Cape Town to the Camps Bay beaches to Lion’s Head mountain and Robben Island. Perched over one of the edges Jaime and finally relaxed, took in the epic scenery, and chowed down on our picnic. We calmly watched a climber abseil the side of the mountain munching on cheese and crackers. Tourists scrambled all over the plateau to admire the views, dine at the eatery and shop at the gift store. I felt small and defeated sitting on that ledge looking out, but damn proud looking around knowing that none of the fanny-pack wearing German tourists had any idea what we just did. It was magnificent.
Coincidently one of Jaime’s colleagues from an investment bank in New York was also in town with 3 other New York investment bankers. It was nice to have some acquaintances to socialize with so we met them in trendy Camps Bay for dinner that night. Lit up, streets lined with palm trees parallel to the ocean it looked as if we could be in California or Miami Beach. We watched the sun set against the backdrop of Table Mountain and it was absolutely spectacular. For a Sunday evening, Café Caprice was off the walls, lines down the street, music pumping. It didn’t seem like we were going to get in any time soon so we found a lovely little tapas bar where we sipped fine wine and made friendly conversation with the New York boys.
At this point on our trip it was time to educate ourselves a bit more on the culture. That evening we ended up on Long Street, the Bourbon Street of Cape Town with bright neon lights, club music, and street hustlers. The next morning it was off to Robben Island, which is Dutch for Seal Island, to get a better understanding of the history of South Africa.
After arriving at Robben Island by ferry, the tour began with all passengers boarding buses to separate everyone into smaller groups. Half of the tour was conducted on the bus in which the guide shared information about the history of the island and pointed out a few historical landmarks before getting everyone up to speed on island life as it is today. The other part was on foot, where we were led about the prison by a former prisoner who depicted what life was like living on Robben Island, a place that the final prisoners left as recent as 1996. At one point former President Nelson Mandela spent close to 20 years imprisoned there amongst other political activists fighting against Apartheid. Although the tour was fascinating, I left feeling a bit empty, as if critical details were left out, especially for tourists who don’t know the full history of the Apartheid era.
This was our last full day in Cape Town so we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the tourist haven V&A Waterfront. We dined on delectable sushi from Caviar for lunch, and then after the tour we roamed the tourist shops and big name retailers. That evening was our last dinner with the New York boys so they booked us in for Indian at the fine dining restaurant Bukhara. $30 each got us a spread of the best dishes accompanied by multiple bottles of wine. You can’t go wrong with the conversion rate these dates.
As it was our last evening as well, Mercury Live & Lounge was meant to be the hot place for a Tuesday. Apparently it’s the hot place for 18 year-old college students. We didn’t fit in well considering the mid-thirties men we were with had their collared shirts contrasting university boys in skinny jeans. Was it also that we were feeling our age too? That music was just so darn loud! That left only one option of The Dubliner on popular Long Street for some good old fashion one-man-band jam set and draft beer.
After checking out of our hostel, we were back on South African time waiting nearly 1.5 hours to get our car rental from Avis. We were both a bit apprehensive as it had been about 6 years since either of us really properly drove. At least Jaime had a leg up on me for actually driving once on the left hand side of the road in the UK, but then again that was still five years ago. No more than ten minutes into our drive leaving the city center I felt a whoosh then heard a hard smack. Yup, that was the passenger side mirror. In a panic I urged her to keep going as we could deal with any damage to the vehicle at a later date, but we were lucky there wasn’t even a scratch.
From there we drove to Cape Point, snapped pictures of huge rock structures at Boulder’s Beach and witnessed penguins shuffle themselves across the sand before driving to meet old friends in Paarl in the center of the wine lands (read about it here). It was day 4 and already we had experienced so much – from adrenaline rushes climbing Table Mountain to evening socializing with the New York boys to a history lesson at Robben Island.
Stay tuned to hear about our next leg on the Garden Route and then our Safari adventure.