Cape Town: At the Edge of the World

Getting out of Lagos was a Homeric epic.  Traffic and the airport was our Scylla and Charybdis, and Penelope, our stewardess, awaited us in the airplane, fearful we would never arrive.  We weren’t sure, either.  After a two and a half hour voyage across Lagos (for what should have been thirty minutes), it took us three and a half hours to traverse the airport’s line labyrinth and board the plane.  Nigeria has perfected the art of airport frustration.  The wait for the check-in counter alone was 90 minutes, and the technology they were using seemed no different than when I flew to Disney World in the fifth grade.  The Herculean labor of reaching the maroon uniformed woman at the entrance to the check-in corral was crushed by something very unexpected: as of June 2015, children travelling into or out of South Africa must come with an official copy of their birth certificate.  Without this, you cannot fly into the country, no exceptions.  No one had mentioned this new regulation, and we were scheduled to board the plane in mere hours.  For a moment, there was a silent panic between Sarah, Adrian, and I.  I looked beyond the check-in guard to a South African woman ahead of us, a mom of one of my students, who had been eavesdropping. “You’re fucked,” she whispered knowingly.  

Not a shabby door prize for waiting in line

Not a shabby door prize for waiting in line

It seemed the Fates had cut our vacation thread, a week in Cape Town, South Africa, short.  The only chance we had, the gate keeper said, was to produce unabridged birth certificate copies.  Sarah dashed up to an airport office, commandeered a computer and searched her Google Drive, where fortunately (thank you, Sarah and Google Drive) she had copies stowed away.  Monster conquered.  Our next labor was the immigration line and another hour.  Even the Nigerians, used to their country’s bureaucratic shenanigans, were getting agitated.  A fight broke out as people with flights in the process of boarding began cutting in line.  By the will of the Gods, we completed our airport tasks and immediately walked onto our plane at 10:10 (we left for the airport at 3:30).  We stood in yet another line upon arrival in Cape Town, this time at the car rental counter.  The difference?  We waited for 30 minutes and as an apology for our time, they upgraded us to a Mercedes.  “Shall I drive?” Adrian asked.  It was worth the wait.

The front door

The front door

Cape Town has been credited numerous times as among the most beautiful cities in the world, and although I haven’t visited enough of the world’s cities to be objective, it gets one of my votes.  It may not have a deep history or detailed architecture, but the clean and organized urban center and its suburbs are draped around the base of the majestic Table Mountain and its neighbouring cliffs and peaks.  We were staying in a house we found on Airbnb, set in the beautiful residential area of Hout Bay.  Not only was the house lovingly structured and decorated, but the family who lives there have two young children as well, so toys and a huge trampoline were ready for Cian and Áine to investigate.  Adrian has travelled with us and the kids more times than we could recall and has earned seclusion when the child rearing gets real, so we gave him the master bedroom, looking out onto the beautiful Cape mountains.  We stayed in the eccentric, refurbished attic rooms.  The house was the ideal place to return after sightseeing for a relaxing end to the day.

Our first order of business upon arrival was to catch the world rugby cup match playing that afternoon.  Sarah, usually very tolerant of Adrian and my’s antics, was originally not feeling very tolerant of us heading off to a pub a few hours after getting settled in.  However, she and the kids were exhausted by the travel, so we were dropped off at the nearby Pakalolo bar to get us out of her hair.  It was an important game, with Wales (yay!) playing South Africa (boo!) for entrance into the semifinals.  Adrian is obviously an England fan, but as they were out of the running, we both wore Welsh red colors, confronting a sea of Springbok green.  South Africans take their rugby very seriously, so as they saw us approach the bar, we could see their “are you kidding me?” faces.  Everyone, however, was a good sport.  As we all cheered on our respective teams (and nodded to the well-made plays of our opponents), the pub was thick with excitement and suspense.  There was no other place I would have rather watched that game when Wales lost.

Cian's baptism- watching Ireland vs Argentina the next day at the pub.

Cian’s baptism- Ireland vs Argentina the next day at Dune’s pub on the beach.  Don’t worry, he’s drinking Sprite.

Look and sip

Look and sip

We spent our first full day in Hout Bay, eating and relaxing at Dunes restaurant, enjoying our newly borrowed home, and goggling over the cheap prices of South Africa.  That Monday we drove into Stellenbosch, Cape Town’s wine country, to the much recommended Spier Winery.  Our dilemma was what to do with the kids- they conveniently had a playground situated inconveniently out of view from wine tasting.  “Why not have the kids do the wine tasting, too?” the receptionist said.  What??  Yes, there was “wine” tasting for children.  While we adults sampled a variety of Spier’s delicious offerings surrounded by their meticulously manicured grounds and the mountainous backdrop beyond, the kids enjoyed grape juice selections with us, one of which was made with Chardonnay grapes (which Áine liked the most, just like her mom).  From wine tasting, we headed to the waterfront in downtown Cape Town to stroll the boardwalk, glimpse into the shops, take a quick ride on the ferris wheel and grab a bite to eat.

Views from Chapman's Peak

Views from Chapman’s Peak

Our next Cape Town adventure was the Cape Point penninsula and the Cape of Good Hope.  To get there, we drove south over Chapman’s Peak, which offered amazing views of the ocean and its rugged coastline.  We stopped on the way down in Simon’s Town to the aptly named Boulders Beach, where a colony of endangered African penguins take refuge.  The beach itself was stunning, with rounded boulders of various sizes scattered onto a clear shoreline.  It looked almost artificial, like the backdrop of an aquarium penguin display.  Instead of walking the prescribed boardwalk, of course, we scrambled over the boulders and waded into the chilly waters, bucket brigading the children over the more treacherous spots.  The penguins were unruffled by our presence, and sat calmly while we got close and took pictures.

Cape Point Lighthouse

Cape Point Lighthouse

From the penguins, we continued down the peninsula to Cape Point, part of Table Mountain National Park.  As we passed through the entrance, we entered a surreal landscape of rock outcroppings and alien-looking plants in front of sweeping rock cliffs and sloping hills.  We drove through to the base of Cape Point and Two Oceans Restaurant, where we stopped for a delicious lunch overlooking False Bay and watched pods of whales breach as they passed through.  After, Sarah and the kids took the funicular to the top while Adrian and I hiked the brief slope.  From there, we walked together out to Cape Point, the working lighthouse and the vast oceans beyond.  It may not be the most southern tip of Africa, but looking towards the Southern Ocean and west into the Atlantic, with the wind blowing hard and cold and the waves crashing violently on the rocks below, it truly felt like peering off the edge of the Earth.

We stopped at Camps Beach for lunch and a bit of beach romping

We stopped at Camps Beach for lunch and a bit of beach romping on our way to the gondola

We continued our tour of Table Mountain National Park the next day, taking the large, rotating gondola up the side of Table Mountain itself and witnessing the breathtaking views of Cape Town and the surrounding countryside.  The top of Table Mountain was blustery and cool, probably the coldest we have felt in years.  One of the most fascinating features of Table Mountain is the Table Cloth, a sheet of cloud that rides low atop the plateau and falls down the edge of the mountaintop, vanishing as it drops in elevation.  We hiked the moonscape, watched the clouds moving quickly just above our heads only to slide off the mountain, and marvelled at the technology (and ascent angle) of the gondola.  As the wind picked up during the afternoon, the temperature dropped, and a crowd of tourists lined up to leave, so waiting for our turn to descend became colder than we expected.  In all, Table Mountain is incredible and clearly the core of Cape Town.

A glorious reunion

A glorious reunion

Our final day came with a surprise for us all.  We got word that Cian’s kindergarten teacher from Indonesia, Ms. Elsa, would be in Cape Town this very same week, surprising her daughter for her birthday.  Elsa is dear to each of us, and she holds a special place in Cian’s heart.  She also worked very closely with Adrian and I as we were all vice principals in Jakarta.  As librarian, Sarah knew everybody well, especially Elsa.  Elsa planned out the day, proud to show off her homeland, which started at Cheetah Outreach, a cheetah education and conservation program.  Before our car was parked, the kids had jumped out, raced over to Elsa, and jumped into her arms.  It was an emotional moment- no one ever forgets their kindergarten teacher.  We had a quick tour of the Outreach grounds, then an opportunity to get close to the cheetahs.  The cats are shot by farmers to protect livestock, so Cheetah Outreach is raising and training Anatolian shepherds to guard the farm animals and repel cheetahs from farmlands harmlessly- the cheetahs simply avoid the shepherds.  It’s a smart strategy for both African pastoral farming and environmental conservation.  Then back to Stellenbosch and another winery, this time Blaauwklippen (Afrikaans is a bizarre language).  We experimented with a wine and chocolate tasting while Cian and Áine fed the winery’s farm animals.  When the kids asked why they couldn’t do a wine tasting this time, we had to quickly explain to Elsa, who’s eyebrows shot up at the question.

Underneath the beauty of Cape Town, it was apparent that post-apartheid South Africa is still dealing heavily with socioeconomic disparity and racial tension.  Along with beautiful, Cape Town also makes the top ten most dangerous cities of the world, particularly for it’s night crimes, muggings, and violence against women.  Shanty towns reminiscent of Soweto were regular sights throughout the city, just next to wealthy, white neighborhoods.  The more affluent the section of the city, the smaller the number of indigenous Africans (except those working retail for the white customers).  Fortunately, our stay could have never felt more safe.  We found everyone hospitable, helpful, and proud to show off their city.

Tranquil mornings of egg sandwiches and coffee as the sun rose above the mountains before planning our day’s South African adventure had come to an end; suddenly, it was time to return to Nigeria.  The empty duffle bags we brought were now stuffed with hard to find or expensive supplies and replacement toys.  As we returned to the airport, we agreed that we had only scratched the surface of Cape Town.  With shockingly affordable prices, modern conveniences and products, sweeping vistas, and a host of things to do and explore, Cape Town will get a return visit.

8 thoughts on “Cape Town: At the Edge of the World

  1. John, once again, all these blogs are fascinating to read! Glad you and the family are well. I loved your description of the wild game meats. Need your new email address! All is well here in Tolland, CT. Miss you! Jackie Culver – Tolland High

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    • Hey, Jackie- great to hear from you! I’ll email you soon. I was hoping to try some game meats sometime soon, but didn’t think it would be seven in one sitting!
      I’m hoping to come visit over our Holiday break. Thanks for reading!!

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  2. John, An amazing place. Thanks so much for sharing the journey. I especially liked the cheetahs, and the views of the Tablecloth. Matt is headed to India/ Nepal in a couple of weeks. Sometimes I think the most fascinating experiences may come from those edgy places of the world, so different from our culture. But then there are parts of American culture I would gladly ditch. Sometimes it’s hard to fathom the heart of the human experience in our mad rush for more development and never-ending growth at all costs. Cheers for your journeys and may we all evolve to the level of civilized wine tasting you document here, kids included!

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    • I agree- it’s those edgy places (I like that term!) that make you appreciate how incredibly diverse we humans are. Progress for progresses sake- it’s a soul crushing, vicious cycle.
      The wine tasting was great, and our host at Spier Winery was excellent and patient. The kids felt so adulty!
      Thanks for reading and I hope we get a change to get together soon!!

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  3. This area of South Africa looks wonderful! Photos are great.. did you buy many CD’s of the music?? I am assuming Aine wanted to bring a cheetah home…Very impressive area!!!
    Mom

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    • No, but Sarah is kicking herself for not buying the CD of the band we saw at the waterfront in that video. They were really talented and entertaining.
      Aine brought two cheetahs home…in stuffed animal form!

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