We have basically changed our residence each month for the last seven-plus years. That has usually involved renting an apartment in some part of a city in a far away country that we have never been to before. We do our research, learn what we can and then hope for the best. We try to make sure we have access to groceries, money and public transit if we aren’t traveling in our own vehicle. The internet has made our reliance on third parties minimal. We have our favorite sites and use them to help us make the best decisions we can. Because we change venues so often there are time limitations to our research. Our budget sometimes forces us to make a few compromises that people with more money might be able to avoid but these have mostly involved inconvenience rather than safety.
I can’t say that we have ever done anything dangerous, daring or courageous during our travels. We have however travelled in many places that some might avoid due to a perceived vulnerability. We have navigated our way past political unrest in Turkey and Israel. We have managed to avoid violence in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. We have found our way around the petty crimes and scams of Morocco and avoided issues caused by poverty in South East Asia and Eastern Europe. We are not brave and rely on dumb luck as much as travel savvy. We have become increasingly confident, not due to ability so much as the fact that we have been doing this for a while and, so far, have survived.
At times, we have even found ourselves entertained by the frightened look on less experienced travellers as they cross crazy streets in Vietnam or the white-knuckled way package trip visitors clutch their belongings while walking through the crowded bazaars of Egypt, Turkey or Morocco. The wide-eyed nervousness displayed by cruise ship passengers circled like wagons in the middle of an old town square seemingly waiting to be attacked by an unseen enemy has caused us to chuckle at times. We pat ourselves on the back and feel good that we have overcome their worries. Of course, they are experiencing the shock of new cultures and are having a normal, if slightly amusing reaction to it. While entertained by others, I don’t overlook the insecurity I show when shifting a hand to cover my wallet on a crowded subway or the quickened step I adopt when traversing a darkened alley on evening walks in unknown territory.
If we have any secrets to share they would be basically don’t be too flashy, stay away from drugs, excessive drinking, illegal activity and to just keep a general awareness about what is happening around you when you are out. Remember most people are good everywhere and if you don’t look for trouble it probably won’t find you.
An underrepresented continent during our travels is Africa. We made our way through Morocco recently and explored Egypt with guides during earlier days of our travel life. Brief stops in younger days in Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Cape Verde Islands summed up our experience in this part of the world. As our journey gets closer to its end, we realize the need to get to a few of these unexplored areas before we lose the chance to go.
Cape Town seems to be the gateway city for most travellers who want to experience sub-Saharan Africa. It has physical beauty, an interesting history and has certainly been a city in the news for most of the past 30 years. It seemed to offer everything we look for in a travel destination. The cost of living was economical and we found affordable flights from Dubai. It was time to begin our research.
Escorted travel was not going to be a possibility. This meant getting to see animals in the wild was going to be most likely impossible. Also, we would have to rely on public transportation, not the best option in Africa. We were a little worried that nearly every internet search seemed to contain warnings on crime and safety in Cape Town specifically and South Africa as a whole in general. Even most of the official tourism websites urged caution. Personal websites ranged from “don’t go for any reason” warnings to a less threatening “if you get past the crime, it’s a pretty nice place” variety. It wasn’t encouraging and the more we read the worse our trepidation became. In the end, our confidence and excitement outweighed our insecurities and we booked flights and rented a really nice 15th-floor apartment in the center of Cape Town.
The sun was setting as we arrived. These first aerial views over the sea and land around Cape Town were stunning. The water was bright blue and the earth was a wonderful reddish brown with jagged mountains prominently dotting the landscape. Immigration was easy. Some areas we passed near the airports looked rough and extremely impoverished but as we neared the downtown area and Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill came into view our excitement increased. Our taxi driver gave us an excellent description of the town and its history during the 25-minute drive. He wished us well for our visit, but he also made very clear that there were dangers to avoid and things we should and shouldn’t do. The warning was friendly but stern. We enjoyed the ride but our nervousness was peaked by the time we arrived at our new apartment.
The next day we made our way out for groceries. We found that the store was nice. Prices were low and selections were good. Vegetables were summer fresh and local, baked goods were cheap and meats seemed geared around South Africans love of grilling. We noticed lots of homeless people on our 4 block trip to the market. Around boarded buildings, on sidewalks and in fields between buildings people were encamped everywhere. While a few asked for money nothing was threatening, but it did build on our wariness from the night before.
After eating we decided to check out the local area. As the name describes, the Central Business District (CBD) is the economic, transportation and historical center of the city. Modern tall buildings are equally mixed with classic early 20th century buildings in a British style. The Dutch heritage is somewhat displayed in the architecture as well. A good mix of warehouse and industrial use buildings, some repurposed as apartments are mixed with newer high rise apartment buildings. It gives off a gritty, somewhat chic, urban vibe reminiscent of inner cities in the formerly industrial cities of America. During weekdays, hip cafes, coffee shops, boutiques and a few bars do brisk business as workers make their way through their days. On weekends and at night when businesses close the area is more deserted and the area takes on a more threatening atmosphere. The homeless become more prevalent, streets look less inviting and an ominous feeling overtakes the area.
We made our way to visit the District 6 museum near our house. The interesting display of life during Apartheid gave a good background on the formerly segregated country. We had coffee at one of the many cool cafes nearby. We found ourselves chuckling about some of the obviously nervous groups and independent travellers we came across. We thought the grittiness and racial makeup of the area probably were causing a bit of uneasiness for these obviously new visitors. We made our way towards the Castle of Good Hope, the original fort that defended the city during the times it was a colony of the Dutch or English. The fort is next to the Parade Ground, an area that is filled with homeless people and probably was the reason for the tourists’ nervousness. We wanted to see the gorgeous City Hall next door that displays a statue of Nelson Mandela waving to the crowd. This was where he made his first speech after being released from prison.
While the recently rebuilt City Hall was beautiful, the street crowd around it was anything but. The sidewalk was filled with lingering people who frankly seemed surly and a little predatory. We probably should have turned around but we felt confident. That’s when I felt a tug on my camera bag. I turned to see an obviously drugged homeless person with his hand on the camera. I don’t know if he was trying to unzip the bag or just take it. I yelled at him and he stopped. He stepped back and I looked around for help. No one seemed to care. Faces looked unfamiliar and unconcerned. There were police nearby who did not seem interested. This was not something we hadn’t experienced before. Similar incidents had happened in Marrakech, Sarajevo and Barcelona. While it really wasn’t that bad, it scared me. Suddenly all of the warnings that I had scoffed at while researching the city became real. The cab drivers warnings echoed loudly and I questioned why I had even come here. It was the first day (of 30) and I didn’t want to be here anymore.
Because we really didn’t have any other experiences to counteract our unpleasant first day, it was difficult to find the enthusiasm to get back to touring the city. In order to get around, we would have to ride the bus. Buses are regularly scheduled and nice but not punctual. We were hesitant to spend long times waiting for buses in our area. Nevertheless, it was necessary so we made our way. One of our first stops was the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It is a gorgeous former shipyard and dockyard area that has now been transformed into a shopping, entertainment, hotel and museum area. One side fronts against the beautiful Table Bay and the other provides spectacular views of Table Mountain nearby. The buildings are architecturally interesting and there are always musicians, dancers or other entertainment on display. Our visit (one of several) left us with better feelings and restored our faith that our visit could be salvaged.
The first truly stunning look at the best of the Cape Town area was when we made our way to the other side of Table Mountain to Camp’s Bay. Tucked beneath a part of the mountain called the 12 Apostles it looked as breathtaking as anywhere we have ever travelled. The blue-green water was translucent and the giant rocks that surrounded the sandy cove set the perfect picture. The white buildings of the town shown like pearls against the abruptly rising monolith behind. We walked the main beach street lined with cafes and trendy shops and enjoyed strolling the walkways along the main beachfront.
Another day we rode another bus south through the trendy Seapoint and luxurious Clifton neighborhoods. Following the coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, we wound our way to the tiny town of Hout Bay. We were greeted by another gorgeous bay with a beautiful beach. We enjoyed exploring the working area of the port and watching seals cruise the area looking for easy meals from the fishing boats that call the bay home. The breeze was cool and coffee in one of the tiny restaurants was a welcome treat.
We were warned about the train station area of the town. Commuter trains here are said to be improved but still present an uncomfortable option for travel. While most trains transit no-go areas for tourists, one route called the Southern Route makes its way (slowly) toward its most southern terminus called Simon’s Town. Home to the South African Navy, Simon’s Town gives off the atmosphere of the perfect early 20th-century summer beach destination. The buildings lining the main street have wide verandas and Victorian architecture. Of most interest to the foreign visitor is the opportunity to view the penguin colony of nearby Boulder Beach. Although overcrowded with hordes of bus tour visitors, it still provided an up-close view of these odd birds. This was our first encounter with wild penguins on our travels and was a real highlight of our South African visit.
The train was virtually empty on our outbound journey but was filled with passengers returning from their work or school days towards town. Listening to the conversations of several uniformed college-age students that sat near us on the standing room only train provided us with a great opportunity to listen to South Africa’s future discussing their studies and plans for their future. It restored our sense of hope that what today may seem bleak will most assuredly be brighter in the future.
We also enjoyed another day trip to the Woodstock neighborhood. This industrial neighborhood has been discovered by young professionals, artists and hipsters and has many shops and cafes worth visiting. We visited on Saturday when a repurposed warehouse area called the Old Biscuit Mill comes alive with a farmers market and food stalls. The looks and smells of the delicious items for sale were mouth watering. Music was provided and the crowds of young urban dwellers enjoying a day off were reminiscent of our own home of San Francisco.
We made our way another day to the beach areas north of the city. The Sunset Beach, Bloubergstrand and Table View areas were each slightly rural areas of the city that featured modern designed beach houses with toney malls and restaurants. Again reminiscent of Southern California beaches we watched surfers, kiteboarders and sun seekers enjoying the spectacular weather and picture-perfect views of Table Mountain in the distance.
Of course, the highlight of our visit was the day we made our way to the top of Table Mountain. A cable car whisks visitors rapidly to the top of the 3400-foot peak. Descriptions of the views include any superlatives you could imagine. Jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, stunning, and otherworldly would not be exaggerations. A trail leads in a circular fashion and provides an incredible 360 view of the entire Cape area. As the mountain is often covered in a shrouded mist, we felt lucky that we were able to visit on a beautiful blue sky day.
I think we will always look back on South Africa as a bit of a missed opportunity. Perhaps limiting ourselves to one area of the country was not the best travel idea we have ever had. We saw such a small area of the country and even though it ranks as one of the most beautiful we have seen anywhere it really wasn’t enough to overcome our bad experiences. Because of limits we imposed on ourselves, we weren’t able to get out and experience all there is to offer. This country is attempting to overcome a troubled past that has been well covered. They are making a good effort. Unemployment and homelessness are still things that need to be overcome. If the young people we were exposed to get there way, I know they will be successful someday. I would love to come back in the future if I get a chance. Hopefully, we could get a chance to see everything this country has to show us.