There are three things you should know about Cape Town. First, it is a stunningly beautiful place. Second, a mountain runs smack dab through it. And third, if you really want to experience its rich culture, contact Deon Kitching.
While I’d been to Morocco for five hours a few years back, this was my first real visit to Africa, and Cape Town was a great place to start. The city itself is very cosmopolitan, but not overwhelming, and based on the country’s British lineage, there was no language barrier.
It is perched on the far southern tip of the continent, right alongside the Atlantic Ocean. You also have a number of nearby mountains, and the combination of water and peaks reminded me a lot of Vancouver, British Columbia.
During my eight days in the South African wonderland, I was in the capable hands of Deon, who is the founder and CEO of Embrace South Africa Tours, and also a pastor. The company’s early tours consisted of faith-based packages and voluntourism vacations, and while those are still popular, Deon he has added deep-dive cultural programs that offer a fresh look at South Africa, and that’s the type of tour he set up for me.
On the pages of Courier, I typically write a lot about 21st-century travelers’ desire for unique, authentic and highly localized experiences, and Deon delivered that in full. To wit, for most every tried-and-true Cape Town tourist hot spot we visited, there was another encounter that included meaningful conversations—often one-on-one—with friendly people. Plus, Deon is one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met, and that was reflected in how he crafted my itinerary.
The cape of good views
The first full day of touring started with a gondola ride up Table Mountain, and it offered the unexpected bonus of helping this map geek get his bearings right away, which was great. The combination of stunning views, excellent hiking trails, and crisp, clear air didn’t hurt, either.
That evening, Deon had arranged for us to join one of his pastor friends for a braai. A braai is a South African tradition—think backyard cookout—that focuses on the grilling of meats and leisurely conversation. I’m a fan of both, and our evening of eating and chatting with the couple and their teenage daughters helped give me a perspective on real life in Cape Town.
The following day, it was off to Boulders Beach, a park in coastal Simon’s Town that is a protected refuge for thousands of African penguins. As we made our way along the boardwalk perched a few feet above the sand, we watched the tiny creatures strutt, scratch, contort and relax along the rocky shoreline.
We then headed on south to the Cape of Good Hope, and the drive itself was a treat. The main road stays pretty close to the ocean—think the Pacific Coast Highway in California—and the sweeping views are stunning.
A very special Sunday
Deon had arranged for us to attend worship at JL Zwane Church a few miles north of downtown on Sunday, which offered a chance to experience another aspect of local life. Even though I didn’t fully grasp everything that was going on—I’m a little rusty on Afrikaans—the joy and passion the congregants had as they sang, danced and worshipped was contagious.
I also got to sit in on an hour-long session with leaders from the church, who discussed the role JL Zwane has played over the last two decades in shedding light on the AIDS crisis. Nombeko Mpongo, who works as an HIV-AIDS activist, has been leading the charge for the church, and hearing her stories was both eye-opening and encouraging.
We headed to nearby Langa Township, which is the oldest black township in Cape Town, for a tour and lunch.
The restaurant was packed with a cross-section of noisy, happy locals, and the delicious food was complemented by some tasty tunes from a merengue group. When the band played Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” the energy surged even higher, and every little thing was absolutely gonna be all right.
That memory of that dining experience was one I’ll treasure for a long, long time, and I would bet even the most intrepid of travelers would never end up at this magical place … unless they know Deon.
Getting a history lesson
During visits to Robben Island and the District 6 Museum over the next couple of days, I got a lesson on Cape Town and South Africa’s apartheid history.
You take the ferry from Cape Town out to Robben Island, which is the maximum security prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of the 27 years he was incarcerated during apartheid rule. Seeing the tiny cell where Mandela stayed, as well as the general conditions at Robben Island, gave me even more respect for this extraordinary man.
The first-person stories from Noor Ebrahim, the main tour guide and de facto proprietor at the District Six Museum, were even more chilling. District Six was a “colored” residential neighborhood in the city center that Cape Town officials declared a whites-only area Feb. 11, 1966. Over the next decade, more than 60,000 of its inhabitants were relocated to townships on the outskirts of the city.
The Ebrahim family had owned property and lived in District Six for a number of years before the forcible removals began. During our tour, Noor shared many personal stories from that tumultuous period, including one about the day their house was torn down.
He said his father wanted to be there, so the two of them made the dangerous journey back into the restricted area. Noor said he’ll never forget seeing tears stream down his dad’s face as the workers bulldozed the family house; “It was the first time I’d seen my father cry.” Hearing this very personal and very poignant tale put a face to the apartheid struggle for me.
And that interaction was a pretty perfect encapsulation of my visit to Cape Town. While I encountered lots of history, lots of great attractions and lots of natural beauty, the connections with the people that Deon orchestrated helped give those things a much more personal—and unique and authentic and highly localized—feel.
NOTE: My visit to Cape Town also included spending two nights in Paarl, which is half an hour east of the city, for wine touring and volunteering at a cheetah sanctuary. To read more about those adventures, see "The time I walked a Cheetah."
Top Photo: Cape Town as seen from Table Mountain
Photo by CC Flickr/Paul Scott: bit.ly2J3TRIB
Additional photos by Pat Henderson