Joburg Expat: Getaway to Cape Town

February 6, 2011

Getaway to Cape Town

For our family, one of the best parts about moving to South Africa has been the easy access to some of the world’s greatest travel destinations. Where else can you get to the bush to see lions, a top ten diving location and tropical beach, or one of the most beautiful cities of the world, all within just a few hours? I suppose it’s one of the benefits of expat life, as you tend to use your (most likely) limited time to the fullest (if this is your first time as an expat, doing so is my number one advice to you), but I do feel that Johannesburg is an especially well suited home base for expat travelers.

My only gripe has been that Africa is NOT cheap by any means. The deeper the bush, the more expensive it seems to get. The one exception, in my opinion, is Cape Town. Not only is it a beautiful city to visit, it is also very affordable compared to all the other destinations out there. If you’re going to live in South Africa, you should plan to visit Cape Town, and not just once.

Our Kulula plane at Lanseria
I explored Cape Town together with my sister in law last October. The best way to get there from Joburg is with Kulula (R600 pp), which has the advantage of bypassing Johannesburg International Airport (OR Tambo). You fly out of Lanseria airport, which is a less than half hour drive from the Northern Suburbs like Dainfern. (Mango and 1Time also have good rates but I’m not sure if they also fly out of Lanseria). We had an early morning flight, which was perfect. All of the traffic on our way to Lanseria was going the other direction and after just 2 hours flying time we landed in Cape Town mid-morning, practically an entire day ahead of us. We wasted no time. Off to Thrifty (R700 for 3 days) to pick up the car I’d reserved, and then with the help of our Garmin to the Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront. This immediately became my favorite place in all of Cape Town, without having seen the rest. There are lots of artsy stores to stroll through, Marimba bands and A Capella choirs on every corner, the beautiful harbor with all its bustle and a very intriguing swing bridge, and all this with the majestic backdrop of Table Mountain.

V&A Waterfront with view of Table Mountain
While we were finishing our lunch at a nice restaurant on the water, we took a quick look at the sky to see what Table Mountain looked like. It’s rare to have a clear view down, and a friend had counseled us to go there right away if visibility seemed in any way decent. It looked fairly clear, so off and up the mountain we went. The one thing I had not considered in my travel plans was that Cape Town is a very hilly city. Yes, I knew about Table Mountain, but I imagined everything else flat. Well, let me tell you, it is not, which you will find out soon enough, if like me you’re so foolish as to opt for the slightly cheaper rental car with a stick shift! I haven’t driven one in years, and particularly not one that is wired the wrong way around, i.e. forcing you to shift gears with your left hand. Add to that all those steep hills (comparable to San Francisco, I would say) of Cape Town, and let me just say it was not a pretty sight (or sound) how I was bucking and stalling along that first day. Rental cars in Cape Town are very affordable, so I suggest you pay the few bucks extra to get an automatic.

View from the top of Table Mountain
We were lucky: Clouds were drifting in so there were no lines at the gondola base (we were told the wait can be over an hour), and we caught a glimpse of Cape Town from above before the “Tafeltuch” or table cloth settled over us. We poked around a little bit in the very nicely laid out Table Mountain Park (paved walkways everywhere, and stroller friendly, I took note – several years ago I would have been very grateful for such knowledge), but to be honest, it was windy and freezing and we were ready to get back down into the sunshine.

The place I had booked for our stay (without any research, I literally googled “Cape Town guest house and clicked on one of the top three) turned out to be perfect. On the mountainside, just above Kloof Street with all its restaurants, and with a nice view. It’s called Bayview Guest House and we paid R480 per person per night including a delicious breakfast.

The next day we got up fairly early to tour the Cape Peninsula. If you plan this, make sure you reserve an entire day, as the distances are much bigger than it looks like on the map. We basically toured it in a clockwise fashion, starting with Kalk Bay, where we happened to stumble upon an old coffee mill at an antique store, something I had wanted for a long time. From there we drove to The Boulders to see the African Penguin colony there, a must see. First, you just don’t expect penguins in Africa (at least I didn’t), and second, the landscape is beautiful. Shortly thereafter (or was it shortly before, my memory is terrible) we stopped for lunch, and it was awful. Our one bad pick the entire trip. The view was nice, but the food and service mediocre. I think it was in Seaforth. From there we drove into the Cape Peninsula National Park (now part of Table Mountain National Park), to which you could dedicate an entire day by itself, it is so beautiful. I’m terrible at remembering numbers and facts as well, but the Cape flora is a thing unto its own, there are so many unique species of plants not even found in the rest of the world.

African Penguins at The Boulders

View of Cape of Good Hope from Cape Point

Africa's Southern coastline

But our mission that day was not the flora. We wanted to stand at the Cape of Good Hope to say we’d been there. So we followed the twenty buses which had suddenly materialized, and along with about two thousand Japanese and French tourists first trekked up to Cape Point (a lighthouse overlooking the Cape from above), then down to the actual Cape. A bit of trivia: The Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost point of Africa. Those honors go to Cape Agulhas, about 150 kilometers to the east-southeast. Which explains why I was so confused taking pictures from Cape Point and seeing a long coastline stretching southward, or so it seemed.

Heading back toward Cape Town, we had to forgo scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive, which is already on our next Cape Town list, because we didn’t want to miss another scenic event, watching the sunset from Signal Hill. We made it in time and even managed to bring a bottle of wine and leftover food from the night before at Bukhara on Church Street (their slogan is “Arguably the finest Indian cuisine on planet Earth” and I tend to agree) to join all the other revelers spreading blankets (and huddling under them – Cape Town is not really a warm place!). A perfect ending of the day.

Daily catch at Kalk Bay - we could have had one for R30!

That's me at the V&A Waterfront
We had to head back to Johannesburg the next day, but managed to spend a few hours at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, another must-see place in Cape Town for all its beauty. The setting against Table Mountain is spectacular, and it is laid out beautifully. We also enjoyed the exhibit of African sculptures sprinkled throughout. There was barely time for a last lunch at the V&A Waterfront (and another longing look at some beautiful artwork at Fine Art Portfolio (where I got the idea for my township and zebra paintings) before we headed back to the airport and, from there, to Lanseria and Johannesburg.

As I said, you absolutely must see Cape Town and we’ve already made plans to go again this year, this time with the kids. We’ll make sure to add Chapman’s Peak Drive, whale watching in Hermanus, Robben Island, and perhaps a brief visit at Groote Schuur Hospital, where Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant to our itinerary. The vineyards in Franschhoek might have to wait for yet another trip.

Just to get an idea of Cape Town, here are some maps - which, admittedly, I found on another website to which I would gladly link if I could remember where it was: