Join travel writer William Gray as he explores South Africa's colourful capital, Cape Town, and its surrounding areas
Past experience has taught me to grit my teeth and ignore queue-jumpers. But whoever designed Table Mountain’s new cable car has come up with something far more satisfying – a revolving floor. No sooner had the guilty party elbowed their way to the prime viewing position than they were magically spun away and, for a few mesmerising seconds, I had one of the world’s finest panoramas to myself.
Below me, Cape Town lapped the lower flanks of Table Mountain, spilling towards the harbour and the dragon-backed ridge of Lion’s Head and Signal Hill. Smudged by midday haze, Robben Island languished in Table Bay, while further north, a thin line of surf swept the Atlantic coastline of South Africa’s Western Cape Province.
I had been warned not to delay going up Table Mountain: “If you can see the top, go for it,” seemed the general advice. But I needn’t have worried. As the cable car reached the summit, there were only a few tattered remnants of the notorious ‘tablecloth’ – a dense cloud that can drape the 1,073m massif for days on end.
A mountaintop, especially one so flat and prominent, had seemed the perfect vantage from which to plan my exploration of the Cape. But as I walked from one precipitous viewpoint to another, I felt giddy with the immensity of it all. My eyes wandered from distant mountains rising like smoke beyond the Cape Flats to the bold ocean, searing blue against the cliffs of Camps Bay. A week’s car hire seemed pitifully inadequate.
When the Dutch East India Company established a permanent settlement on the shores of Table Bay in 1652, Cape Town became a hub from which explorers, traders, missionaries, farmers and dreamers radiated out into the ‘great unknown’ of the African interior. Smooth highways have, of course, long replaced the wagon-wheel ruts of those pioneer days, but this beautiful and diverse corner of South Africa still emanates a powerful lure for the traveller. I decided to start my journey where it all began – the harbour.
I was intrigued to discover how, in 300 years or so, a ramshackle cluster of wooden inns full of prostitutes and scurvy-ridden sailors could have evolved into the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront with its exclusive boutiques and piped music. Although its port is still very much a working one, Cape Town’s bawdy reputation as the Tavern of the Seas rapidly dwindled when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, providing ships with a short cut to the Indian Ocean. In the early days, however, every merchant and privateer would weigh anchor in Table Bay to stock up with food and water before sailing on to reap the trade riches of the Indies.
One of the first Europeans to stray inland from the original Dutch settlement was Simon van der Stel, the colony’s governor. I drove to Groot Constantia, the magnificent vineyard and gabled homestead that he created on the sheltered southern slopes of Table Mountain. Fresh spring foliage speckled avenues of oaks leading to the main house – its immaculate whitewashed walls shining like fresh snow against the dark bulk of the mountain.
Even when he retired as governor, van der Stel refused to return to Europe – and I could see why. He had found his own private Eden. By the time of his death in 1712, the fertile valleys to the east of Cape Town had also been settled. Gradually, the European colonists claimed Africa’s remote southern tip as their own. The indigenous Khoikhoi, a race of semi-nomadic herders, were driven from their homelands by guns and diseases to which they had no resistance, while the Cape’s big game suffered a similar fate.
“People lived here at least 80,000 years ago – probably earlier.” Michael Lutzeyer’s voice echoed through the large cave, his words subsiding into the perpetual whisper of surf and wind that filled our ears. Beyond the narrow, boulder-strewn entrance through which we had just scrambled, grey cloud sagged over Walker Bay, its metallic surface streaked white by the brisk southerly. The weather had deteriorated rapidly in the 24 hours since my excursion up Table Mountain.
Michael led me to the back of the cave where a small excavation revealed layer upon layer of shells, like flaky chocolate in a slice of exotic gateau. These, he told me, were the accumulated remains of the cave dwellers’ seafood diet.
Along with their team of specialist guides, the Lutzeyer family has long recognised the archaeological and natural significance of the Cape. In 1991, they purchased Grootbos, a 19th century farm 160km east of Cape Town, and transformed it into a private nature reserve.
I quickly realised that Grootbos was not your typical African game park. During one drive my guide stamped on the brakes to allow a dung beetle to trundle across the track ahead of us. “Look at that,” he said. “It’s one of our ‘Big Five’.”
Along with many of the nature reserves in the Western Cape Province, the emphasis at Grootbos is on vegetation. Although fynbos (the collective name for plants growing in the region) only covers a mere 0.4% of the earth’s surface, it still forms the richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms with over 8,500 species.
Grootbos’ botanical guide, the aptly named Sean Privett, led me on a floral safari. Every few steps he would pause to show me the delicate nodding flower of an erica or the dramatic pincushion bloom of a protea.
“Bush fires are a major factor in all this diversity,” he explained. “Some plants have evolved thick bark to protect themselves; others harness the heat to jettison their seeds.”
For several hours, we crawled on hands and knees amongst the small wonders of the fynbos, squinting through magnifying lenses and cooing at each new discovery.
As dusk approached, it was time to focus on another, quite different, natural spectacle. We had barely reached the low cliffs jutting into Walker Bay when the first plume of spray was sighted beyond the ranks of breakers. The sun had nuzzled into a gap in the clouds, highlighting the whale’s hazy breath before it was shredded by the wind.
Each year, between July and November, hundreds of southern right whales migrate from their polar feeding grounds to give birth off the south-western Cape, making it one of the best land-based whale-watching locations in the world.
“There’s something very special about watching them from the land,” marine biologist, Helen Heydenrych, told me. “I never feel we’re intruding on them.”
Like all the resident experts at Grootbos, Helen’s passion and knowledge for her subject was impressive. As we sipped sundowners and watched half a dozen whales cavorting in the sea, their tails and flippers waving in the air, Helen breached the awesome topic of cetacean sex.
“Did you know that southern right whales have the largest testes of any animal?”
I said it wouldn’t surprise me, but was staggered to learn that each one weighed over 500kg. Helen went on relentlessly, spouting shocking statistics of penis length and lactation rates. “New-born calves need 600 litres of milk a day,” she told me, but by then I was lost for words.
The following morning, I drove back towards Cape Town along the coastal road that skirts the imposing ramparts of the Kogelberg Conservation Area – famed as one of the most spectacular routes in the Cape. Overwhelmed by the dramatic scenery, coupled with numerous sightings of whales close inshore, I dawdled from one parking layby to the next. At Somerset West, I headed inland and (by happy coincidence) reached the wine-growing centre of Stellenbosch in time for lunch.
True to form, the Cape weather had changed abruptly from the previous day and the town was revelling in spring sunshine. ‘What a lovely day!’ enthused a sign outside a pavement café. ‘Sit down and take the time to enjoy it.’
It was the perfect excuse to mull over the region’s bewildering choice of vineyards – most offering wine-tasting and fine Cape cuisine.
An hour later, none the wiser, I wandered down oak-lined Dorp Street, nosing in and out of expensive art and craft galleries. Dating from 1679, Stellenbosch is full of well-preserved buildings, from whitewashed Cape Dutch homesteads to Georgian and Victorian town houses. At times, I felt I was walking through the set of a historical melodrama rather than a real-life African town. Uncle Sammy’s Shop only added to the confusion. Preserved in the pioneer-style of a cluttered general store, it sold everything from women’s tights, shark’s teeth and biltong (dried meat) to ancient custard-powder tins, carvings of African birds and catapults.
By comparison, Boschendal estate sticks to what it knows best – chardonnay. I stumbled upon the winery in the Drakenstein Valley, east of Stellenbosch – the dazzling white homestead ringed by mountains like a pearl in a jagged oyster shell.
I sampled ten wines, acting out the nose-dipping, mouth-swilling connoisseur for the benefit of the stern waitress, before drifting down the ubiquitous avenue of oak trees where tables were laid for lunch. I ordered salmon and trout quiche and a glass of Le Bouquet, peered dreamily through the trees at the rugged Hottentot-Holland Mountains and promptly dozed off.
There were huge blocks of orange sandstone that squeezed the path into a mad series of switchbacks and hair-raising scrambles. My shirt was drenched with sweat from the two-hour trek, while my hire car had shrunk to a satisfying speck in the valley below. Any twinge of guilt I may have felt for the indulgent afternoon of wine tasting two days earlier had been rapidly purged on this Cederberg hike.
Around 200km north of Cape Town, the 71,000-hectare Cederberg Wilderness Area is the walking Mecca of the Cape. A short distance above me the Wolfberg Cracks, a prime attraction for hikers, cleaved axe strokes through the mountaintop. The largest was 30m deep, but its entrance was so clogged with rocky debris that I was forced to slither like a lizard over some of the larger chunks.
Beyond this barrier, the sky narrowed to a slit of blue and I felt a growing sense of claustrophobia as the walls closed in on me. I reached a point where I could touch both sides of the Crack with outstretched arms and then, abruptly, the trail emerged on a strange plateau of wind-gnawed rock formations – a chaotic memorial to time and weather.
There are many ‘lost worlds’ in the Cederbergs. A short distance beyond the spectacular Pakhuis Pass, on a dirt track that leads to the 1830 mission settlement of Wupperthal, I parked beneath a clump of blue gum trees at the start of the Sevilla Trail.
Sporadic ‘footprint markers’ daubed on boulders led me to a low escarpment and the first of several smooth rock faces, where I crouched and stared. Sometimes the images would leap out at me – a hunter with bowstring drawn or a group of prancing zebra. But more often than not, the rock paintings were faint and elusive – a fading legacy of the San artists who created them up to 30,000 years ago.
Along with their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the southern San have long vanished. Some of the youngest examples of their simple, but haunting, rock art depict sailing ships, people in Dutch costumes and men with rifles – innocent records of the 17th century European invasion that would lead to their massacre. The San that escaped being shot and stuffed as hunting trophies were enslaved and absorbed by neighbouring tribes until, today, their cousins are found only in the inhospitable deserts of the Northern Cape, Namibia and Botswana.
Ironically, the ecofriendly ‘bushlore’ evolved by the San still thrives on the streets of Clanwilliam – the gateway to the northern Cederberg. Outside the 1864 Dutch Reformed Church, I was assailed by a street vendor preaching the natural virtues of the Cape aloe.
“We call it our first aid plant – a pharmacy on a stick,” he told me. “It can cure anything from sore throats and eczema to acne and haemorrhoids.”
The salesman showed me the natural gel that is found inside the aloe’s fleshy leaves and the crystals that are formed by boiling the plant’s bitter sap. “Just a little will detoxify you – too much and it becomes a powerful laxative.”
Suitably equipped to cope with any ailment that could possibly befall me, I set off for Cape Town on the final leg of my journey. But instead of driving directly down the N7 highway, I turned west towards the coast, lured by the prospect of one of the Cape’s most spectacular natural wonders.
It was crammed onto a small island connected by a causeway to the fishing port of Lambert’s Bay. I could hear them first – a clamour of squawks and gurgles – but the nesting colony of 17,000 cape gannets (one of only six worldwide) assaulted more than just my ears. The odour from hundreds of years of accumulated guano struck my nose like a well-aimed fist. My eyes welled from the sting of ammonia, blurring the horde of golden-capped heads and dagger-sharp beaks stretching from my feet to the booming Atlantic breakers.
Loitering on the periphery of the gannet colony were African penguins, cormorants and kelp gulls – all standing motionless as if they, too, were transfixed by the sight and smell.
Such a plethora of bird life is sustained by the rich fisheries of the cold Benguela Current that scours South Africa’s west coast. Just south of Lambert’s Bay, I consumed more than my fair share of the ocean’s bounty at Muissboskerum, an open-air beach restaurant. For around £6 you can gorge yourself on steamed mussels, freshly baked bread and nine varieties of local fish baked over glowing embers.
But the following morning I discovered that there was another price to pay for this teeming sea. When cold, moisture-laden air blows in from the Atlantic it condenses along the coast as thick fog. I feared a murky anticlimax to my Cape travels as I continued south towards West Coast National Park.
Skirting Langebaan Lagoon, I drove along the Postberg Peninsula that juts into Saldanha Bay. A track led to a small sandy cove scattered with smooth granite boulders where wild Atlantic surf whipped the sea into a thick froth. From a nearby headland I peered through a brief window in the fog.
Far to the south, Table Mountain crouched low on the horizon, its base dissolved by haze and distance. Beyond, even fainter, I could just make out the Twelve Apostles, a line of smaller peaks marching south towards the Cape of Good Hope.
Through veils of fog, I watched the tip of Africa drift in and out of view – never clear long enough for me to quite believe my eyes. Even now, more than three centuries after the first colonisers stepped ashore, a distant, fleeting view of Table Mountain can prove an irresistible lure.