The many faces of Cape Town

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After just over two weeks in the desert and the bush, we made our re-entry into civilization via Cape Town. We both found Cape Town to be visually stunning and politically fascinating. On the visual front, it’s a cosmopolitan city sandwiched between mountains and beautiful beaches. On the political front, the city is still dealing with the after-effects of apartheid policies, as well as current political struggles. We had many interesting conversations with taxi drivers, tour operators, and other locals, but we’re still eager to learn more and keep up with the country’s progress.

Cape Town is known for its unpredictable weather, so they say that when the sun is out and the winds are calm, you should not hesitate in visiting Table Mountain. So that’s exactly what we did on our first full day in Cape Town, which happened to be a brilliant day. Table Mountain forms the backdrop of the whole city and is named for its very flat and broad top. When the fog rolls in, it tumbles over the top of the mountain and is called a “tablecloth.” There are two ways to reach the top of Table Mountain. You can either climb it, which takes about 2.5 hours, or ride the cable-car, which takes about 3 minutes. We opted for the latter option. Since it was such a clear and sunny day, the views from the top were just beautiful.


We signed up for a half-day tour down to the Cape of Good Hope, which contrary to popular opinion, is not the southernmost point in Africa, nor is it actually where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean. That honor belongs to a place called Cape Agulhas, which is slightly further south. But it is the southwesternmost point in Africa — and we have a photo with the sign to prove it. We also did a nice 15-minute climb up to the Cape Point lighthouse, which provided excellent views in all directions. Throughout the half-day tour, we saw whales along the beach, a colony of penguins, and even three baby ostriches.



Another highlight of our visit was a tour of Robben Island. This island is about seven kilometers from Cape Town and houses the prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held between 1961 and 1991. Mandela was here for 18 of his 27 years in prison. It is a very poignant and informative tour, part of which is guided by a former political prisoner. Unfortunately, we decided to visit Robben Island on a particularly windy day, so we had an extremely rocky boat ride in both directions through some extremely high swells. Quite an adventure. (I am concentrating on shuffling cards in the photo below — our strategy for diverting our focus from the rocky seas.)


On our final full day in Cape Town, we signed up for a Township Educational Tour that took us through several different townships, including Langa and Khayelitsha. We felt it was important to do this tour in order to see all sides of real life in Cape Town. In large part due to past apartheid policies, there are extreme disparities in wealth and living circumstances. Our small group tour was led by someone who grew up in Langa township and included visits to a traditional pub, government-issued housing, a pre-school, and the Philani Child Health & Nutrition Project. The tour was extremely eye-opening and informative. It is hard to believe that these townships and the glitzy beaches along the coast exist in the same city, let alone the same country.



We also had some great meals in Cape Town, which were not hard on our wallets thanks to the South African exchange rate that is soundly in our favor right now. A few highlights included: savory crepes at Harrie’s Pancakes, cob fish for me and ostrich fillet for Dan at Cafe Balducci, great burgers and an avocado/mint milkshake at Cafe Royale. In terms of atmosphere, though, my favorite was Mama Africa. Here, we enjoyed some traditional African food (bobotie and chicken curry), but the real highlight was an African rhythm band playing live in the bar.


Zoos will never be the same again

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We knew our trip to Africa wouldn’t be complete without a view of the local wildlife, and since we didn’t want to do a self-drive tour, we instead decided to book a room at a game lodge on the edge of Kruger National Park. So, after leaving Namibia, we flew back through Johannesburg, then over to Hoedspruit, a tiny airport near Kruger. As our plane approached the runway, we got our first glimpse of this wildlife — a giraffe walking down a dirt road through the brush below. This was the beginning of four great days of wildlife viewing, selections of which you’ll see sprinkled throughout this post.


Upon arrival at the Hoedspruit airport, we were greeted by a driver who took us to the main lodge at Thornybush where we awaited a transfer to our lodge, Serondella, which is another lodge in the same reserve. While waiting for our transfer, we saw warthogs on their knees munching on the courtyard grass, nyala (a small deer-like animal) wandering around, and even a group of unwelcome baboons running around the dining area. After taking a short drive to Serondella, we saw that things were no different there, though the baboons seemed slightly better disciplined. Animals were all around on the lodge grounds, though the elephants were kept away by an electric fence.


At Serondella, we quickly fell into the daily routine:

5:30 – wake-up knock on the door
5:30 – 6:00 – coffee
6:00 – 9:00 – morning game drive
9:30 – large brunch
3:30 – 4:00 – coffee, tea, snacks
4:00 – 7:00 – evening drive including sundowner
7:30 – dinner

Our private hut was great. It included a large bathtub, huge bed, and lounge area with a view of the water hole, where many of the reserve’s animals come to take a drink. We spent much of our afternoon free time relaxing and reading in the hut, taking occasional notice of the giraffes, warthogs, and baboons right outside the window.


However, while the lodge rooms and food were both great, the real highlight was the game drives. Our ranger and tracker took us and the other guests out twice a day to drive around the reserve looking for animals. All lodges on the reserve used the exact same type of vehicle, a green Land Rover with three benches of open-air seating. Our ranger explained that the animals are used to seeing these, and that they view the car and people as a single large animal that they will not attack. While the ranger had a large shotgun in the car, he said he has never had to use it, and it became clear that most of the animals were at relative ease with a car full of guests in front of them. For example, the mother cheetah we saw had no concern about us sitting right in front of her and her three cubs.


Each drive lasted about three hours and included a stop for drinks — coffee in the morning, and a sundowner in the evening. The rangers of the ten or so lodges on the reserve communicate via radio, sharing animal sightings and coordinating viewing times. The reserve has a policy of not allowing more than two Land Rovers to view an animal at a time, and since it is private, there are no other vehicles around. Because of this, the chances of seeing “big five” animals up close in their native environment is very high (though of course not guaranteed). Within three drives, Abby and I had seen all five.


The “Big Five” animals are: the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino, and Buffalo. While these animals are very impressive and well worth going out of your way to see, Abby and I also enjoyed the runner-ups in the animal popularity contest, specifically the Giraffe, Cheetah, Baboon, Impala, Nyala, Steenbok, and Kudu. The most interesting sight we saw a performance by a “Suicide Bird”, who, in a rarely seen act, impresses its mates by flying high into the air, then closing its wings and tumbling in a free-fall until it’s very close the ground, and finally re-opening its wings right before impact and flying out unharmed. We were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and to have a skilled ranger who recognized its call.


As you can see, we had an amazing time during this segment of our trip! It far surpassed our expectations.