South Africa’s Mother City has long been known for its beauty and diversity, but three years ago it gained fame for surviving “Day Zero”, the date in April 2018 when Cape Town’s water supply was supposed to run dry following a long drought. I was there at the time. It was one of those occasions when it felt slightly uncomfortable to be a visitor, given that water restrictions for us were nowhere near as harsh as locals had to endure.
Challenged to conserve water, the city’s residents pulled off a near miracle. Day Zero kept getting pushed back and in the end it never happened. A year later, confident but not complacent, Cape Town was on a roll again. But then, the following year, another challenge in the form of COVID-19, this time shared with the rest of the world. Now, Cape Town is open to visitors again, albeit with conditions.
Cape Town was South Africa’s first city, established in 1652 as a staging post for ships bound for the East, steaming along the spice trade route.
Colourful, brash and a true melting pot, Cape Town may at first appear to resemble similar, striking harbour cities elsewhere. Think Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Sydney – all ethnically diverse and with impressive backdrops. But Cape Town’s fusion of cultures and cuisines combined with its African roots give it a vibe that cannot be found elsewhere.
The V & A waterfront has been tastefully restored and lacks the tackiness of some harbourside developments in other parts of the world. I stayed at the Portswood Hotel, from where you can conveniently access the waterfront via a set of steps. V & A stands for Victoria and Alfred, not Albert, and is named after Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, who first visited Cape Town in 1860.
There are numerous restaurants and bars scattered around the waterfront, many offering fine dining with splendid views, but also plenty of more casual hangouts. If you prefer to just sit and watch, you can enjoy the entertainers who perform traditional African music for the crowds.
Or if you are of the right marital status, you can simply relax at the establishment below!
Other attractions include various markets and stores, the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre, Two Oceans Aquarium and the Cape Wheel, which provides 360-degree views of the waterfront and Table Mountain.
Across the bay is Robben Island, site of the infamous former maximum-security prison whose most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela, jailed there for 18 years.
No visit to Cape Town would be complete without a trip up Table Mountain. The cable car is the easiest way of getting up there and the ride itself takes about five minutes but depending on queues the wait can be much longer.
Cable cars depart from the lower cable station on Tafelberg Road, about 3 km from the city centre, and tickets cost around US$20. You can also walk up the one-kilometre-high mountain if you’re very fit, but the walking distance is more like three kilometres. There are several hiking trails with the most popular and the most direct being Platteklip Gorge.
The cute little critters above are known in South Africa as “dassie” but their proper name is the rock hyrax and they are endemic to several countries in Africa and the Middle East. Unfortunately for them they are the favourite prey of the black eagle, but the rocky crags and boltholes of Table Mountain afford them considerable protection.
Situated at the eastern foot of Table Mountain is Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, where the visitor centre is an attraction in its own right.
Rated as one of the best botanical gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is open every day from 8am to 7pm during summer (September to March) and 8am to 6pm during winter (April to August) in normal times. Entry costs around US$14.
The CBD is the heart of the Mother City and, again, it’s different to that of other similar cities. From Greenmarket Square wander down bohemian Long Street and marvel at the mural-laden walls of traditional South African restaurant, Mama Africa. Here you can enjoy springbok, warthog and kudu steaks, as well as seafood and curry. With live bands and Africa-themed wall decorations the atmosphere is uplifting. Yes, it’s a magnet for tourists, but hard not to like.
Originally and sometimes still known as the Malay Quarter, the Bo-Kaap is an area of steep cobbled streets and colourfully painted houses, set on Signal Hill with Lion’s Head a scenic backdrop. The Bo-Kaap is the historical centre of the Cape Malay culture in Cape Town, and the Bo-Kaap Museum is the oldest original house in the area, dating back to the 1760s.
In this area you can find the delicious koeksisters, a South African pastry based on donut dough, braided and generously coated with syrup. If you like donuts you’ll love these.
The best way to get an overview of Cape Town is to take the ubiquitous hop-on hop-off bus. I found the one in Cape Town to be the best of many that I’ve taken in cities around the world. It takes you through the city and along the rugged Atlantic coast, taking in the beautiful beachside suburbs including Camps Bay, Clifton and Bantry Bay.
I also took the big red bus out to the wine region, which includes the towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl.
I visited Vergenoegd Wine Estate in the Stellenbosch Winelands where, apart from excellent wine tasting, you can thrill to the sight of 900 Indian runner ducks, which help to keep the vineyard free from snails and other pests and enable the estate to restrict use of chemical pesticides to a minimum.
Indian runner ducks are an unusual breed in that they stand upright like penguins and instead of waddling, they run.
The estate features classic Cape Dutch architecture and the countryside around the winery is breathtaking.
Last year I was supposed to go back and drive the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, but of course it didn’t happen. Maybe next year.
Photos © Judy Barford