Our last two weeks in Africa...
03.26.2008 - 04.09.2008
We finished our safari and headed for Cape Town, South Africa. As sorry as we were that our safari was over, we had heard from many people that this was a great city with a very So-Cal feel, and the perfect place to chill out after a safari. We found it a great place to chill, to surf, to golf, to shop, and for many others, to work and live. This, in spite of some of the issues we heard from the locals about current politics, the nervous anticipation of future governments, and a still existent racial divide. We were treated to great weather during our two week stay and enjoyed Cape Town immensely.
We stayed in the suburb of Camps Bay, on the other side of “Lions Head” from Cape Town city center. Camps Bay is a quaint, west facing coastal town on the Atlantic, sitting directly below the peaks of the 12 Apostles and Table Mountain. Residences and vacation homes scale the foot hills that rise from the Atlantic and slam into the base of the 12 apostles. Villas perch themselves directly over Victoria Road, Camps Bay’s main street, and the 2 km strand of white sandy beach that beckons just on the other side. Victoria Road is lined with restaurants and shops that seem busy from morning until the wee hours. During our stay, weekends filled Victoria Road, the beach, and the restaurants to the brim with tourists, sun worshipers, and folks that simply appreciate a great meal or their favorite beverage in a near-perfect atmosphere. Our Villa was perched over Victoria Rd, on the Northern end of Camps Bay, looking over a surf cove called Glen Beach. Glen Beach is rimmed with magnificent rock formations, warn smooth by eons of Atlantic surf. The Villa and its location was perfect for our family and for our visitors Anna and Fred, who flew to Cape Town from Accra, Ghana to visit. With its perfect west facing view, we saw some unbelievable sunsets from our balcony over Glen Beach.
Adding a bit of Color to Camps Bay and to all of Cape Town I suppose was a worldwide Hell’s Angels get together. Hell’s Angels leather jackets could be seen from all over the world strolling the streets in Camps Bay and Cape Town. Finland, France, England, Austria, Northland were all accounted for, as was California, Connecticut, Ontario, and New Jersey. It was funny, but North American Hells Angel Jackets feature the State, while the rest of the world just reads “country”. We actually found the Hell’s Angels we met to be fun loving, cool, and damn nice people. It was fun to have them in town throughout our stay, adding a bit of color that otherwise would have been missed.
The city center of Cape Town was a nice place, but rather unremarkable if measured by its architecture and activity. What sets Cape Town as a city apart from the rest of those in the world is its fantastic waterfront and the almost surreal location of the mountains that surround it. The city center of Cape Town sits in between a large bay and the beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain. Table Mountain rises almost vertically above the city, dwarfing the entire skyline, and making one wonder if New York or Shanghai’s skyline would look equally unremarkable in its presence. A tram runs to the top of the mountain and on a clear day, it is a magnificent place to stand. We were lucky to take the tram on an evening where the weather was perfect and we could see for what seemed like one hundred kilometers in every direction. False Bay and the Cape of Good Hope lay to the south and the city, with its millions of people and endless beaches to the north. Table Mountain regularly produces its own weather, which is a large fog bank that covers the top of the mountain, referred to by locals as “the table cloth”. We saw the Table Cloth spread out over the mountain tops a few evenings, but were lucky to miss it during our trip to the table top.
We didn’t have a big agenda in Cape Town. We had only planned on three activities besides hanging out at the beach and studying; 1) A visit to the top of Table Mountain, 2) A shark cage dive, and 3) A visit to Robben Island. Upon our arrival and discovery of our Villa’s spaciousness and location we added one more important activity, which was re-establishing a vigorous workout routine. Every morning we would rise, and do sets of pushups to exhaustion, jump rope, and then run 2 lengths of the beach. This proved to be a fun family activity that wasn’t really possible at some of our other locations. OK, that’s a bit of a cop-out. Finally our guilt of not working out for a couple of months after Australia caught up with us, and this perfect workout setting inspired us to dive back in to prepare for our entrance back into our active and healthy little town. We found a couple of other fabulous things that were “must dos” as well, like sand boarding some South African dunes and hiking Lion’s head, that we manage to find time to do as well :-)
Shark Cage Diving
We knew that South Africa was home to just about every Great White Shark documentary we had seen on television over the years. We weren’t exactly sure where these documentaries were filmed, but we knew they were close to the cape. After a few internet searches, we had found that one can arrange transportation from Cape Town to Gaansbai, about 180km south east to take a boat about 10km off the coast to swim with Great White Sharks. You don’t actually swim with the sharks, mind you. You put on a full wetsuit and weight belt, and lower yourself into a shark cage while the crew of the boat “chums” with fish parts to bring great white sharks right to you! Isn’t that awesome! We thought so. So off we went, leaving the house in the morning for the long drive to Gaansbai. We arrived, had a lunch, watched a dos and don’t video, and walked to boat. The boat had an appropriately scraggly and unaffected crew who were quite comfortable with the notion of rubbing great white sharks on the nose, and throwing Tuna heads and blood into the water to bring sharks nearby. Nearby is an understatement.
We left the protected dock and pushed the outboard motors on the way out toward “Seal Island” and area you have likely seen on the discovery channel called “Shark Alley”. The swells were pretty large and the water was very choppy. We were all a bit freaked out as the boat slammed its way through the swells. It felt as if the boat was going to break apart in the swells. We could see the top of the boat separate from the bottom on every slam. It looked like it was going to fall apart. And there are Great White Sharks in the water. AHHHH! We slowed down, and came to a calm stop. The engines idled, and we hooked up with the shark cage. The sea now seemed calm by comparison, but the swells were large enough to completely lose the other boats that were nearby as the dropped their passengers into the water as well. We took turns dropping into the cage which was a bit of a thrill as 10+ foot Great White sharks actually rubbed up against it. The sharks were so close that I couldn’t get a picture of an entire shark from inside the cage. I got a lot of pictures from outside the cage. The horrendous smell of the 10,000 seals on seal island would waft over us from time to time, which, when combined with a chum of fresh tuna heads and fish blood, made simple sea sickness seem like a paper cut in a trauma ward.
We had a blast on Shark Cage Diving and it was one of the highlights of our Cape Town activities. It’s pretty hard to describe how scary and claustrophobic it is to be enclosed in a cage under water while Great Whites swim around you. It’s even scarier getting in and out of the cage while the crew is yelling at you to “HURRY UP – SHARK RIGHT THERE!” About a week after our adventure, I ran into a story about a Shark Cage Diving boat capsizing and losing (as in death) three of its 10 passengers. It turns out that a “freak” wave capsized the boat in the exact same place we were diving only one week before. The “freak” for me was that the same boat was only 100 meters from our boat. The two pictures that follow are the boat that capsized: One from the Cage Diving Company’s own web site, and the other from our camera the week before the accident occurred. As much fun as it was, I would urge you to make sure you are comfortable with the conditions before you commit to heading out to the sea, even after a 180km drive.
Robben Island sits in the middle of Cape Town’s Bay, just a few kilometers off the coast. A visit to Robben Island was on our list of things to do, because Robben Island is perhaps the most significant acknowledgment of apartheid we would encounter on our visit. Robben Island was an Island jail, that held both political prisoners and criminal prisoners. Political prisoners were sentenced to years of detention on Robben Island, many for protesting the policies of the apartheid government nonviolently. We had seen pictures of Robben Island during our visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, but pictures couldn’t capture the raw emotion of the place. It seemed as if we took a virtual time machine, touring the jail that held political prisoners. Our tour guide himself was a prisoner on Robben Island during the apartheid era. He described in detail how he was treated, what he was allowed to read, allowed to write, and allowed to do. He described how many letters he could receive and send per year (two). He showed us the daily diet for black prisoners, and the contrasting higher calorie diet for Indian prisoners. He described what it felt like to have letters from his wife destroyed before he could read them, and letters he wrote destroyed before reaching his family. He explained how treatment like this was all part of the psychological warfare used to keep the prisoners weak.
Nelson Mandela, who was the central figure in unraveling of the apartheid government and its policies was held in Robben Island for many of his 27 years of incarceration, and we were able to see the cell in which he spent those years. What an incredible ordeal this man and this country have been through in the past 50 years. This “tour guide”, having spent more than a decade of his own life incarcerated on this Island, was very upbeat about the prospects of life for him and for all South Africans going forward. He was sure that we all left understanding that Robben Island is a tribute to all men’s strength to overcome injustice, and about the power of reconciliation, and not about the wrongs committed by a ruling class of South African’s who wished to keep the black majority forever in the dark. It was an inspirational visit.
We spent a fair amount of time at the Victoria Water Front, a fantastic collection of shops, restaurants, bars, movie theatres and attractions, as well as the Nelson Mandela Terminal, home to the Robben Island Ferry. The Victoria Water Front is also a bona fide working waterfront with fishing boats, and fishing terminals with all the aromatic sensations you would expect from such a place. We found some of our best restaurants here, and did a fair amount of shopping too. It seemed however, ironic to depart from this upscale water front, and arrive at the most notorious of apartheid prisons.
We sensed and discussed with white and black South Africans the nervous anticipation of what the future holds for this great country. All hope for a better, more unified and equal South Africa, but all worry that the time machine we took back to Robben Island won’t treat the country as well in the next 20 years. This was top of mind in most South Africans because the Zimbabwe elections were being held during our visit, reminding them all of how a shining example of an African democracy can go so horribly wrong. So many South Africans privately, (and publicly when prodded), worry that Zimbabwe’s shining example could become their South Africa as well. During the Zimbabwe election week, power outages were rolling through tawny Cape Town neighborhoods, pressing ever harder on the South African Psyche, providing another scary comparison to Zimbabwe’s hardships.
Carol saw a “Sand Boarding” activity in one of the brochures at the Villa, and called the outdoor adventure company that managed these trips. Sand boarding, as you might imagine, has something to do with putting a snowboard and boots on your feet and sliding down sand dunes. We like boarding of all kinds, so it sounded fun to us, so we arranged a trip. A young South African drove us about 50km north of Cape Town, where sand dunes were large and plentiful. We put on our snowboard boots and carried our boards about 1km out on to the crest of one of the dunes. We strapped on our boards, and slid down the hill. The hills were steep, but you didn’t gather much speed, since the sand slowed the board. We actually had to apply car wax to the bottom of the board before each and every trip down the dune. Now, there are no chair lifts in the dunes, so when you reach the bottom, you walk to the top. I don’t need to tell you how much work it is to hike up sand dunes in snowboard boots carrying a snow board. I think you can probably envision that. It was a little hot that day and we were all dripping in sweat by the end of our outing. Let’s just say it was a calorie deficit day.
Toward the end of our stay, the boys and I climbed Lions Head, while Carol and Anna did some last minute shopping, (there isn’t much in Ghana). Lions Head is part of the Table Mountain National Park, but the peak sits alone, separating the City Center from Clifton and Camps Bay. The climb took only two hours thanks to some great paths and pretty quick hand over hand climbing, (in some cases assisted by chains for a vertical wall short-cut). The payoff at the top was incredible offering even better views than Table Mountain. If you’re in Cape Town, in reasonable condition, and not afraid of heights, do this climb! That evening we were visited by some friends, John and Candy Montgomery who live in the New York City area, but have lived in, and still love Cape Town. They gave us some great suggestions about Cape Town before we left on our trip, and we were very lucky to have their visit overlap with our stay. We enjoyed some great conversation, some excellent South African wine, and a beautiful sunset.
Our family repeatedly found ourselves toasting Cape Town, one of our new favorite “world” cities, wishing Cape Town and all of South Africa good fortune and great luck in the coming years.