October 26-29, 2008
After the wine region, we drove southwest to Cape Town.
Two Days at the Backpackers
Pnina and I made plans to crash with Hannes, a guy we met through Couch Surfing (more on this below). But Hannes was already hosting some other people, so we spent the first couple of days at a hostel called Ashanti Lodge. We picked the place because in the photos it appeared to be a nice relaxing place:
But that night there was a huge party and the music was pumping loud late into the night. Pnina and I made dinner for ourselves in the kitchen and we could barely carry a conversation. Only later we realized what the fuss was about – that night was the biggest rugby game of the year (the equivalent of the Super Bowl).
We escaped the noise and sat in the yard eating dinner and chatting with Jessica, a random Dutch gal we met there. She’s a marketing person but she’s on a 6 month leave from work, of which 3 are paid! Nice. She just spent a few weeks in Namibia and she loved it except for one thing – when she was camping in one of the national parks, a guy in the next tent over was beaten up and robbed at night. That’s when Jessica stopped hitch-hiking.
The heart of Cape Town (“city bowl”) sits between a few mountains. The most well known is Table Mountain, which gets its name because it’s pretty flat at the top.
Pnina and I hiked up Table Mountain, following the standard Plettenklip Gorge trail. The climb took about 2 hours and it was pretty tough, partly because it was hot, partly because there was no shade, and partly because the whole way up was steep stone steps, with no break. But the nice thing is that we had great views all the way:
On the way to the trailhead we saw a guy walking on the road, so we invited him to join us.
This was Fernando, a Brazilian geologist who works for a petroleum company and was in Cape Town for a conference. He said his wife took the cable car up but he wanted to walk. Fernando (who is 52 but does a lot of hang gliding and mountain biking) set a pretty fast pace in the beginning, to the point where we really had trouble keeping up. We eventually split up, each going in his own pace, and we collected at the top.
We had no interest in killing our knees, so we took the cable car down. The cool thing about the cable car is that it spins while it moves, so that you get views in all directions.
Back from the hike, we rested and then took a stroll down Long Street, in the heart of the city. This place is full of hotels, restaurants, bars, and funky shops. A lot of the buildings were decorated with very cool graffiti-like art. It made us think of our friend Ann and all the “found art/typography” posts she does. Ann, you would love Long Street!
We stepped into an art hotel called Daddy Long Legs. This place is great. Kind of like the Ice Hotel in that they invite different artists and each one decorates a room in some unique way. But of course it’s not made of ice and they don’t need to rebuild it every winter. When we stepped in all the rooms were booked so we couldn’t see any of them in person. But we did get to see the common spaces:
Also, they gave us a photo album showing all the rooms and the artists who made them. We stepped out to the balcony to peruse the album, and there we met an Israeli couple, Ami and Maya:
We haven’t met a lot of Israeli people in South Africa (it’s not like South America or Thailand) and it’s cool to converse with others in Hebrew now and then. Ami spent years leading tours in various parts of Africa so he knows this place well. He said South Africa is a good place to start because it’s “not really Africa” – it has too many conveniences like paved roads and ATM’s. They said that they did the shark dive in Hermanus and it was great except that Ami got very sea sick. They also sheepishly asked us whether we noticed the turtles. We said “what about them?” They said – you know, the sex. Apparently it’s turtle mating season and they’ve encountered turtles going at it everywhere. They said that the male turtle can take up to 30 attempts to mount the female, and with each failed attempt he pushes her forward another foot. When he eventually gets on top he makes a loud groan like an old man dying.
Pnina and I spent three nights staying with Hannes Mouton, a guy we met online through www.couchsurfing.com. This was our first time trying couch surfing but we were pretty eager to do it, having heard so many good things from Casey about his couch surfing experience in Europe. It worked out really well for us too. Hannes was a fantastic host. He had a comfortable couch in his slick new loft in the Diep River neighborhood, and he spent whatever time he could hanging out with us and teaching us about life in South Africa.
Hannes is a doctor. He spent a couple of years doing typical clinic work and decided that it’s not for him. So then he found a job with a kind of consulting company helping small health insurance companies (“pensions”) with policy issues. It’s kind of like a lawyer job, but not exactly. Actually Hannes said that he’s thinking about doing a law degree.
Driving to the Cape
Although it was the middle of the week, Hannes happened to have a day off work. In the morning he went to get his visa for an upcoming trip to the US – he said the interview lasted about 20 seconds. Then in the afternoon we met him and together we drove down towards the cape (Cape Town is a little bit north of the actual cape).
I have to say that when Pnina and I first drove into Cape Town I had a bad feeling about the place, mostly because of really immense township outside the city. It felt like we were entering another Joburg. But with time I learned that Cape Town (though it still has a huge discrepancy between rich and poor) is actually a beautiful city. And this drive to the cape with Hannes went a long way towards changing my opinion. The city is surrounded by mountains and beautiful bays, each with its own character.
First stop, St John’s beach, known for its row of colorful changing booths:
Next stop, Boulder Beach to see the penguins:
These are called “Jackass Penguins” because of the sound they make (though when we were there they were silent). One nice thing about going with a local is that he knows all the right places to see the penguins, so instead of paying like most tourists we went to a nearby beach which was free and had the same penguins. Go Hannes! 🙂
Hannes gave us a history lesson about South Africa. The earliest white men to arrive were the Portuguese in the 1500’s, but they didn’t set up major colonies in this area. Then came the Dutch in the 1600’s. The Dutch were mostly interested in the spice trade in the east indies (Indonasia), but they found it convenient to set up a mid-way station to replenish supplies, which is how Cape Town came to be. “Wasn’t there resistance from the black people here?” we asked. “Yes” Hannes replied, “but guess who had gunpowder?” So the Dutch set up a growing community that slowly deviated from their kin back in Holland. The language diverged too, which is how we now have Afrikaans. Then came the Brittish, and with relative ease they beat the local Afrikaans. The Afrikaans hated the Brittish and their rule, so they moved further inland and set up farming communities. They came to be known as Boars (“boar” is the Afrikaan word for farmer). But everywhere the Dutch went the English soon followed, and there were battles here and there.
Hannes said he can trace his family tree back 10 generations to that first Dutch colony in 1652, which, he says, makes him absolutely “African”. I initially found it weird to think of a white person as African, but I guess he is at least as African as most people in the states are American.
In 1910 a couple of political parties formed. One was very socialist leaning and the other was more democratic leaning (the latter wanted to remain closer to Brittain). The socialist leaning party won, and this party eventually set up the Apartheid system where people were segregated according to the color of their skin. This lasted for many decades. From the 1960’s there was resistance from people like Nelson Mandela, and by the late 80’s the ruling party began releasing political prisoners. In 1994 South Africa had its first democratic election and the African National Congress party (ANC) took control, with Mandela as the first president. The ANC has kept control ever since, though while we visited South Africa there was news about a potential splinter party that might challenge the ANC.
Anyhow, we eventually reached the Cape of Good Hope – the most southwestern point in Africa. Hannes said that a long time ago they called it the Cape of Storms, but the Portuguese King renamed it because he had a hard time recruiting sailors to head that way. Anyhow, it was a really nice place. We hiked around the hills and then went down towards a beach area…
Pnina tried to teach us a kind of conquer-the-world/pie game. Normally you play this with a knife, but all we had was a credit card and it didn’t work at all…
For dinner we went to a restaurant called Brass Bell in Kalk Bay. The restaurant is right over the water and it’s decorated with photos of rediculous waves in that bay. It was kind of a fancy pants place and we had great food. I had warthog, Pnina had calimary, and Hannes had a local fish called Yellow Tail. Pnina’s dish was the best. This was my warthog, which tasted a lot like standard pig:
For dessert I ordered something called “chocolate potjie”, because the name reminded me of the chocolate pot dessert at B&O in Seattle. Hannes explained that when an Afrikaans word ends with “tjie” it’s actually pronounced “kie”, as in “chocolate poykie”. Strange language. Anyhow, it really was a small chocolate pot, filled with chocolate mouse. It was awesome. Hannes ordered a creme brule, which was also awesome and even more beautiful…
Waterfront and Robben Island
The next day Hannes was back to work and Pnina and I headed downtown. We walked around the waterfront area – very cool place full of shops and restaurants right by the water, with the city and mountain in the back:
This is also the launch point for the boats that take you to Robben Island – the famous prison island where Mandela and other political prisoners were held for years. As always, we didn’t make any reservations, and this time it looked like we would pay for it – at the ticket booth they told us that all the tickets were sold out. Then, while we stood there trying to figure out what to do, a random guy came along and returned two of his tickets, which we bought immediately. Sweet! On the boat we spoke with an English couple and learned that we were even more lucky than we thought because a couple of days later they were going to close Robben Island for a while in order to spray poison to kill off the out-of-control rabbit population on the island.
Robben Island is a little bit like alcatraz in that it’s an island with a famous prison on it. But it’s a much bigger island and the prison itself is not as impressive structurally – it’s a series of 1 story buildings. First we went around the island on a bus and the guide explained about the history of the place. In the 1600’s it was used by the Dutch as a stopping point on their long voyages. In the 1800’s it was a leper colony. Starting in 1959 it was used as a prison, first for standard criminals but soon also for political prisoners. The latter weren’t called “political prisoners” at the time, but they were held in the highest security areas, while the killers and rapists were over in the medium security cells. Before entering the prison where Mandela was held, we made a few stops – the village were all the wardens stay, the waterfront with the best views of Cape Town, the quarry where the prisoners were forced to mine limestone.
When we entered the actual prison we switched guides. The new guide was a former political prisoner himself. He told us that he was arrested at age 19 while trying to plan a protest to have his teacher released from prison. He and about 30 others were taken to Robben Island. He served 5 years and he said that he did meet Mandela a couple of times.
Other random things we learned from Hannes
- Why is it that in South Africa there are so many KFC’s and so few McDonald’s? Because McDonald’s set up shop only after the end of Apartheid (around 1994), whereas KFC was there all along. (does that make McDonald’s a more ethical company?)
- South Africa has its own version of Burning Man called Han. Hannes said he’s hoping to go soon.