4 mins

Rainbows over Cape Town

Our intrepid Wander Woman discovers what lies at the end of an overland adventure through Africa

Coloured Houses Cape Town (Marie Javins)

One piece of advice that I always give to tourists heading to Cape Town is this: the second you have a clear windless day, go up the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. You may not get the chance again.

I hadn't taken my own advice. I'd done laundry instead of grabbing my chance on the first day, when the weather was perfect. 24 hours later, the cape was covered in fog and rain.

Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed on Saturday morning and walked over to Tourist Information, where I was to meet a guide for a walking tour. I could take a minibus along Long Street as I had dozens of times before, but I couldn't remember how or where to catch it. And I hadn't yet noticed that brand-new bus lines that had come to Cape Town along with the World Cup – these wonderful things could zip me all the way from a block below Kloof Street to the V&A Waterfront and back.

"It's only you today," said the South African guide who met me to lead me around the City Bowl and Bo-Kaap neighborhood. "No one else is here because of the rain!"

He offered an umbrella but I'd brought my own. We sloshed off into the pedestrianised centre of downtown, where we saw monuments and markers, historic buildings, and a statue of Cecil Rhodes before heading up the hill to Bo-Kaap, the colourful Muslim part of town.

A sliver of sun peeked out just as I realised I'd been to Bo-Kaap before, but had completely forgotten about my previous visit. If I didn't keep blogs, I wouldn't remember where I'd been most of the time. 

And finally, I left my guide and headed to Greenmarket Square. I was looking for a mask for a friend. I first tried an African art store, where I had a great time chatting with the shop owner.

"Where do you get your masks?" I asked him.

"Congo, Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria," he said.

"Do you go yourself?"

He sighed. "Yes. It is difficult."

"I KNOW! I just came down via Congo! Do you go around via Cabinda?"

He did. For him, getting an Angolan visa is a lot easier than it is for me.

"I go into remote villages. People try to charge me a lot, so I have to use local helpers. And then getting them across the borders..."

Ha. I laughed. I knew exactly what he meant.

"Yeah, I had some problems with that in Kinshasa."

"One time, I had all this art I'd collected in Nigeria. And I got to the ferry in Calabar, and the customs man saw my bag and said does this belong to you? I had to leave it. I said I didn't know who it belonged to. Now I learned how to do it right. I pay a Nigerian to carry the bag across the border, and no one checks then."

I wanted to buy one of his beautiful masks, but they each cost hundreds of dollars. I took my leave and instead went to one of the tables in Greenmarket Square.

Where there were all kinds of masks. Some of them were just carbon copies of local South African tribal masks, but many were rare pieces from West Africa. A Senegalese man told me his grandfather was the one who transited around Cabinda, collecting art piece by piece.

In the end, I bought from him.

Over the next few days, I chose activities that wouldn’t be affected by the relentless rain and chill, such as touring Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated. And then, I went on a winery tour up to nearby Stellenbosch.

I don’t even drink alcohol, but learning about the wine process was still fun – and anyway, there was also free chocolate and cheese tasting – plus, it was mostly inside.

My fellow tasters were a British man in his early 30s and a young Indian-American woman who’d gone to high school two blocks from my apartment. We were shuttled around from winery to winery, tasting some good, some bad, and the occasionally icky South African wines. We toured facilities, ate delicious bobotie for lunch (it's a meat and curry dish), and gobbled up mounds and mounds of cheese at a winery that featured goats on a tower in the yard.

The wine tour was fun because the people I was with were smart and sociable. I missed having friends who are more than typed words on a page. I missed them more when I got back to Cape Town Backpackers, where a guy in the kitchen was serenading everyone with tinny music from his phone. And he kept drowning out what the soft-spoken Congolese security guard was telling me, which I really wanted to hear as it was his history, and he had been a mercenary soldier in Angola for five years before his mother had sent him from Kinshasa to South Africa to keep him out of trouble.

I crossed the street to the smaller guest house where my room was before darkness fell, since I had to do a hundred little things and pack before leaving for Madagascar in the morning. The rain still hadn't let up. I hoped I'd be back one day, and that Cape Town would be none the worse for wear, and that I'd get back up the cable car on a sunny day.

I looked up at fog-shrouded Table Mountain one last time.

And was surprised that I could see it.

Along with a rainbow.

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

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