Cape Town

After an overnight flight from Cairo to Johannesburg, a connecting flight took us to Cape Town. I’ve heard many wonderful things about Cape Town, and was quite excited to arrive. Our taxi driver from the airport gave us a bit of history and pointed out some of the sights along the way toward downtown.

Table Mountain is the flat-topped backdrop to the city. When the winds are just right it’s covered in a veil of clouds locals call the “tablecloth.” On a clear day we took the cable car up for a walk around the top and some incredible 360-degree views. Table Mountain is also a popular hike, and one day I’d like to return and climb it on foot. We chose not to this time for a variety of reasons including weather, our schedule, general laziness, and safety. While we probably would have been fine, our research turned up multiple reports of hikers getting mugged. For all its beauty Cape Town – like much of the rest of South Africa – has a significant crime problem.

View of Table Mountain from our apartment’s balcony. A good place to sit with a glass of wine!
View of Cape Town from Table Mountain
Cape Town viewed from Table Mountain. Cape Town Stadium, built for the 2010 World Cup, is visible on the left.

The unemployment rate in South Africa is 29%, and the country has not fully healed from the horrific institutionalized racism of colonialism and apartheid. There remains tremendous inequality. These and other factors create a fertile ground for crime and violence.

Unfortunately the government doesn’t seem to be effective in solving these, or other problems. Our apartment was near the parliament building where the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) is given. By chance we were there during SONA and had a front-row seat for pageantry and parades. We also watched the SONA on TV. It was a circus; an opposition party, in matching maroon outfits, caused enough disruption that the speech itself started more than an hour late. (Interesting example of rules of order though, and how they may not cover every situation. The chair was unable to kick out the disruptors and the disruptors kept calling “point of order” erroneously. )

One good thing about the SONA was that load shedding was canceled for the day. Load shedding is the much-belittled practice of rolling blackouts, necessary because the state-run power company can’t reliably generate enough electricity to meet demand. These blackouts have been happening for years, and locals around the country use a phone app to learn about (and plan their days around) upcoming load shedding. While we weren’t directly impacted by any of the load shedding, we were left wondering how an industrialized economy could be stuck in this situation. Like everything in South Africa, it’s complicated. The reasons are plentiful, and sometimes humorous: “the coal got wet because we left it outside in the rain.” Corruption, poor maintenance, and inept management play a factor too. I’m baffled there isn’t more renewable energy generation. South Africa gets plenty of sun, and Cape Town is so blustery that I think wind might have been invented here.

We found ourselves at the V+A waterfront a number of times. The V+A is a massive retail + restaurant complex that would be at home in any US coastal city. (In fact many of the wealthy, more suburban areas equally felt like they could be in the US. This is in very stark contrast to the shantytowns in the suburbs). The main draw for us was the shopping, which we needed in order to replace some clothes and buy some gear for an upcoming safari. Nate and I also visited the aquarium at the waterfront, where we saw plenty of penguins and other aquatic critters.

Table Mountain from the V+A Waterfront. The clouds sometimes pour off the mountain in slow motion. It’s mesmerizing.

The V+A is also the departure point for the ferry to Robben Island. Robben Island, located several miles offshore, is the island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years (he was also held at other locations). Today it is a museum and memorial. Unlike Alcatraz it is not a fortress, but nonetheless imprisonment here was a rough, miserable existence. Visitors are given tours by former political prisoners who served time on the island who describe firsthand the miseries of malnourishment; forced labor without proper equipment; and how they found ways to encourage and educate each other without running afoul of the guards. The tour was a sobering experience. I wanted to ask our guide, who was imprisoned on the island for more than 10 years, why he would return to the place where he suffered so much for so long. I suspect others have asked the same question, and before I could ask he explained, “I am here to reconcile what has happened.”

Our guide on Robben Island, who was once imprisoned in this dormitory

The District Six museum is another place of remembrance and reconciliation. The museum offers a glimpse into the bustling life of District Six, an area of Cape Town that was once a proverbial melting pot of cultures. Then in the 1960s the government declared it a “whites only” area. By 1982 tens of thousands of people had been forcibly relocated far away from the city, their homes in District Six bulldozed to rubble. With the end of apartheid, some residents have returned but much of the area remains undeveloped.

One of Lauren’s goals on the trip was to see penguins in the wild. We’ve been close a few times (in Ecuador and Argentina), but never made it to a penguin colony. To remedy that we rented a car and drove south to the penguin colony at Simon’s Town. The penguins are pretty hilarious waddling around the beach.

Penguins on the beach at Simon's Town, South Africa
Closeup of a penguin, Simon's Town

A bit further down the road from Simon’s Town is the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern-most point of Africa. The Cape is far more significant to sailors than to landlubbers, and the kids rolled their eyes when I tried to explain the role it played in global trade before the Suez Canal opened. The Cape is also home to some gorgeous scenery, with azure waves casting white foam as they crash into the cliffs that rise out of the sea.

View of the Cape of Good Hope from Cape Point
The Cape of Good Hope
Sign at the Cape of Good Hope
Cape Point, showing both lighthouses
Cape Point in the foreground. The Cape of Good Hope is to the right, out of the frame. The southern tip of Africa is roughly straight ahead, beyond the mountains on the horizon. There are 2 lighthouses in this picture. Can you find them?

3 replies on “Cape Town”

Lauren’s WOD bookclub is currently reading Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime.” His childhood was in Johannesburg, and he shares vivid accounts of the chaos and violence after the end of apartheid between the ANC and the Inkatha party (Mandela was freed from Robben when Noah was only 5)…. this history is all so fresh.


No way! I read it a few months ago and then read the kids the young adult version, too. I learned so much about apartheid from that!


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