The Jewel of the Western Cape

Day 650 – 10 December, 2016

I’m sitting in the lobby of my hostel in Cape Town, trying to gather my bearings and reacclimatize to having internet for perhaps the first time in Africa when I notice a guy wearing a Kansas City Royals t-shirt, essentially emptying his wallet for the concierge while she is booking him on every tour the city has to offer. This guy is on vacation, I thought. But I was intrigued by the Royals gear. In another lifetime, I was born and grew up for a spell in the heartland of Kansas and believe me when I say it is rare to meet another one this far away from home.  

His name was Steven and he was tagging on some extra days in South Africa following a work trip with Garmin GPS. He had grown up in Junction City, Kansas, the next closest dot on the map to my hometown of Manhattan. What are the chances?? Just knowing this, I instantly knew that he would be a genuinely nice person, as all midwesterners are known for being exceptionally “nice” and “warm-hearted.” He was in his mid-30s so without him telling me, I also knew that all of his friends at home have probably been married with kids for at least the last 10-12 years and that he seemed to be itching to see what else the world has to offer. His job with Garmin allowed him to travel to some pretty interesting places and do a quick tour before or after his work meetings, but I could tell Steven felt like that wasn’t enough.  

His enthusiasm was contagious. He had a week to try and see as much as possible and after booking tours for shark cage diving, sand boarding, skydiving, wine tasting, and cycling Cape Peninsula, he still planned to fit in time to climb Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, get a tattoo, and sample the city’s nightlife. I was exhausted just hearing about his itinerary, but decided I would take time out of my busy schedule of sitting and wandering to join him for a couple of these. Cape Town is chock full of activities so I quickly learned there is no rest for the weary traveler. 

Besides meeting Steven, Cape Town was an unorthodox reunion of sorts with my friends from the Acacia Africa tour I had started in Kenya and Uganda. Beginning in mid-October, I had toured on the first 18 days of a 60 day overland adventure Nairobi to Cape Town. Of the original 13 travelers I met in Kenya, 8 of them had journeyed almost the entire length of the continent while I was volunteering at N/a’an ku se – through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. As it happens, the truck arrived in Cape Town the day after I did so before I knew it, we had the band back together – Julie, Larissa, James, and Jess were all booked into my hostel, while Dane and Jodi, Craig, and Joel stayed elsewhere.

First stop was Table Mountain for sunset. The mountain gets its name for the tabletop shape of its summit, from which you can see for miles in every direction. We took the cable car about 700m to the upper cable station and walked around the perimeter walkway to several viewpoints before the sun finally disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean. Bold rock dassies ducked in and out of natural cracks in the cliff side, coming out only to munch on the abundant yellow flowers. I had often heard this city was a favorite for many people. Seeing it from this vantage point, I could see why and was eager to explore further.

Over the next couple of days, Steven and my Acacia friends signed on to some other activities that weren’t topping my list. Meanwhile, I passed through the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, the historic hub of Malaysia in South Africa. I went shopping for new hiking shoes at the V&A Waterfront, where they had recently erected their 20 meter Christmas tree, reminding me that it was summer and it was indeed Christmas…weird. I couldn’t reconcile that anomaly. And I went for a run along the waterfront path, young and old and fat and thin and black and white and rich all taking advantage of the cool ocean breeze. The only demographic missing from the scene were the poor. Marginalized to the townships of Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain, among others, poor South Africans (nearly all of them black) will be born, work, dwell, and die on the outskirts of the city. It’s an unmitigated truth for the 55 million citizens. Because the residents of the townships are all marginalized and discriminated against in traditional circles, many have decided to operate outside of the mainstream on their own terms with pop-up businesses, restaurants, guesthouses, and tours for international tourists. I didn’t go on one of these tours because it felt like exploitation of the poor; however, after spending six more weeks in South Africa, I realized that these township tours are almost always operated by the very people I didn’t want to exploit. In many cases, the money they earn goes directly back into the community itself.

Nevertheless, as was so common in all of Africa, the Western Cape was full of contradictions. Some of the best wines in the world originate from Stellenbosch, 50 km to the east of Cape Town. Steven and I joined a group of eight on a van tour of some famed wineries in the area, including Lovane Boutique Wine Estate, where we were given a flight of chocolates with a sparkling varietal first thing in the morning. Other stops included Annandale Winery, where our tastings were paired with beef biltong and designer chickens behaved like teacup yorkies begging for handouts from the picnic table, and another place that I forget the name (let’s be honest – it was the last place and we all know that few people remember the name of the last place). I do remember, though, that there were zebra and kudu grazing from the back of the property and lavender hydrangeas completed the scene. With false expectations, I optimistically carted a few bottles back to my hostel, obviously forgetting that I either had to drink it or carry it. Luckily, I had Acacia friends who were happy to play drinking games on the floor of our dorm room and helped consume the rations.

No surprise to me, but the next day I awoke with a raging headache. Steven only had two days left and he refused to let me forget that we were going to climb Lion’s Head, the peak that resembles a crouching lion. Best to climb Lion’s Head at dawn or dusk, I took my sweet time to finally get out the door so that Steven and I started walking from our hostel at 91 Loop at exactly mid-day. From the map, Lion’s Head seemed like a short jaunt, a couple of miles to the starting point. Our route took us through neighborhoods that were quiet and affluent until the map went rogue and sent us on a shortcut up a hill on a dirt path. Sticking to the road would require a switchback uphill of another mile or so. The shortcut is right there and would save us a ton of time…. I had an uneasy feeling. There were three utility workers about halfway up the hill – it should have seemed innocent enough, yet it felt like a trap and my gut was telling me we should hurry. Or perhaps it was because alarmists were constantly preaching the unsafe nature of unpopulated areas. Steven probably thought I was being irrational as we tiptoed past the idle workers who barely looked away from their ham sandwiches. In a country that is legendary for the number of violent muggings and assaults, I was so eager to get back to the main road that I stubbed my toe on a tree root, causing the sole to promptly fall off my shoe. Is this what is deemed as lousy timing? Not even to the base of Lion’s Head and my shoe was in tatters by the time we reached the road. At least those workers were distracted by bacon…..(cue eye roll now).

Steven suggested we go back. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t even an option. I just needed some tape. I asked the first people we saw, who of course, didn’t have any tape. As I scuffled along at a painfully slow pace, I asked the next guy we saw who happened to be sitting in his car with his camera set on a tripod nearby. Tape? Sure! This guy had a brand new roll of black electrical tape and he insisted I use as much as necessary to fix my shoe. These hiking shoes had been to close to 40 countries, trekked to Machu Picchu, through Patagonia, jungles in Borneo and 875 km across the country of Spain. They had run with cheetahs and most recently been peed on by baboons. But now they were packed and taped in a geometric pattern to make them last for one more triumphant tour.

We circled the cone-shaped mountain on wide switchback trails; paragliders were sailing from the halfway viewpoint. The weather was perfect and the views showcased Table Mountain to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. I made an amateur mistake by deciding to take photos on our descent instead of that moment while we were walking up. The perfect sunny day was about to change. Reaching the summit required some easy scrambling over rocky ledges; my shoes never would have survived without the tape. Steven and I reached the top only about an hour after I had taped my shoes, but that was exactly the the time that the clouds rolled in and completely shrouded the rest of the world from our view. The temperature dropped and I was completely chilled to the bone while we patiently waited for our luck to change. Pacing from one vantage point to another was futile. A chameleon watched me from a nearby perch and I watched him dance away into the fog. Steven and I took turns standing on a protruding ledge and snapping photos in the brief seconds when the clouds thinned out. This must be why a mid-day visit to Lion’s Head is not recommended. We gave it our best shot.

As the week wore on and Steven and I spent more time together, his thoughts were drifting toward a round the world journey of his own. He liked his job, but was convinced (as I was) that there is more to life than the 9-5 routine. On an impulse, he decided to get a tattoo. A symbol that was boldly displayed on the wall of the hostel, it was an incomplete red circle with a red dot in the middle. It is meant to signify that home doesn’t need to be just one place; it can be many places. This resonated with Steven and his mind was made up. I had been toying with the idea of another tattoo myself so it didn’t take much convincing to go under the gun as well. I knew exactly what I would get, but where did I want to get it? Just moments before we were due to begin, I sent a text to my brother back in Florida. Your cheetah tattoo is on which shoulder?, I asked. The left, he wrote back.

For Steven’s last day in South Africa, we did a full day excursion to the Cape of Good Hope and all the other stops on the way. These included a stop at Hout Bay to take a short boat ride to the sea lion colony, viewpoints and cycling along Chapman’s Peak Drive, the lighthouse at Cape Point, and the penguin colony at Boulders Beach. Steven really wanted to see baboons and we did get a brief glimpse, but mostly he had to settle for bold ostriches that weren’t the slightest bit bothered by our presence.

Albeit brief, it was reinvigorating to have so many friends in Cape Town that week. Each day, more and more of the Acacia friends were departing for home or onward adventures. Larissa left, barely making it home before her sister’s wedding in Sydney. Then Dane and Jodi went home to Melbourne, but not before getting engaged at Cape Point the day after we returned. Jess went home to the UK to celebrate Christmas with her family. Steven returned to Kansas City to make arrangements for further travel. James flew to Sri Lanka for the next leg of his world tour. Then only Julie and I remained. I would be leaving the city for the more rural parts of South Africa, while Julie would be flying to the UK for work and beginning a new bus trip in Moscow for her job as a Trip Coordinator for Topdeck. She and I had both had to say goodbye to many people in the previous couple of years and had grown hardened to the sentimentality. This whole group was full of great friends, but the reality is that we may never see each other again. Julie asked me if I still get emotional when I have to part ways with people I’ve met. My gut reaction was no, but that’s mostly because I try not to think about the fact that we will never be together with the same people under the same circumstances ever again. All the same, though, I can keep hope alive that even while several years may go by we are tied together by a common interest of travel. If our paths cross again, I have no doubt that we will pick up right where we left off.

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