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The Tip of Africa

Written on: Sunday April 19th, 2009

Cape Town had intrigued me for a long time.  It's reputation as one of the best adventure cities in the world was the main reason that I flew directly there from Swaziland, rather than taking the coastal route across South Africa. 

The main tourist area in the city is on Long Street.  Conveniently located within walking distance to most local attractions, it was here that I found Blue Mountain backpackers, my home for the next ten days.  The hostel was an incredibly social place, making it easy to meet other travelers.  The wrap-around deck on both the second and third stories provided a perfect vantage point for sharing a beer and overlooking the perpetual craziness that occurred on Long Street.  This activity soon became a sort of ritual at the end of each evening,  allowing me to meet a slew of interesting folks.  There was Saskia, the European, guitar-learning hippy-chick, whose energy healing and spider woman abilities were brilliant.  I met Tom, the original one-armed bandit, formerly the owner and voice of Sweden's most popular rock radio station, "Bandit 105, The Rock Home of Stockholm!"  He has since moved on to other projects, with the most recent endeavor being an overland dune buggy journey from Stockholm to Cape Town!  Yeah, I know.  He filmed the entire excursion and is in the final steps of getting his travel documentary out to the public.  A short clip of the adventure can be seen at Tom's website: www.redbuggy.com.  There was Nishan, the easy going Canadian of Sri Lankan descent who was taking a break from a four month work stint in Zanzibar; Mari, the friendly, considerate German girl who just arrived from India after six months of travel; the Italian Stallion, whose questionable social skills were only compounded by a imperfect grasp of the English language; Koebus, the local Afrikaans man with a military background that included wet work in Irac; the Irish couple, he a commercial diver with unlimited energy and she laid back and visiting her man in South Africa; Brett, the hard core sky-diving, base jumping, wind suit flying American kid who came to work for a while in South Africa; Emily, the English girl who spent her time in the country half volunteering and half on holiday.  Add to this a fun and outgoing Blue Mountain staff, and the makings for a fun week were in place.

The first couple days were spent simply exploring town.  I wandered through beautiful parks, scanned various craft markets and hiked to the base of Table Mountain, searching for a few of the vast number of caches hidden in the area.  I walked to the Waterfront district, taking in the massive array of street performers searching for tips from the hoards of tourists.  I dined at outstanding restaurants and local dives.

But soon I realized that I needed to start experiencing some of the activities that I actually came here to do.  First up was a sailing trip.  While I would have loved to test my hand (and nerves) at a proper trip around the cape, I instead opted to simply be a guest on the significantly easier 'sunset champagne sail'.  I boarded the 58' schooner, Spirit of Victoria, with fifteen other passengers and we headed out.  As Federico would say, it was blowing stink, allowing us all to enjoy some proper sailing.  We headed across the bay, sipping wine and trying to keep our balance as the water splashed in our faces on a significantly regular basis.  The company was wonderful as there was a diverse mix of locals and travelers.  But the most spectacular part of the trip was looking back at the city, perfectly framed by Table Mountain in the background.  It was a gorgeous sight.  After making our way back to the docks, I went to a local microbrewery with two of the other passengers.  One of them, Jessica, was an engineer with a keen interest in adventure activities.  Needless to say, we hit it off and had an enjoyable evening discussing all of the wonders that South Africa has to offer.  It was a good ending to a fun day.

Feeling motivated to cross activities off my to-do list, I woke early the next morning and headed off for Table Mountain.  Today I will conquer you!  The walk from the hostel to the base of the mountain was a workout in its own right, as the sun was hot and the temps soaring.  Nearing the lower cable station, I was offered a ride by a local woman who, I learned, had climbed the mountain many times in her 50 plus years of living in Cape Town.  She had recommended a different (easier) route than I was planning to take; apparently there was a death on the more challenging route just yesterday, and people were nervous to hike up that way.  I conceded to her request and started off on the Platteklip Gorge trail.  It felt good as I made my way ever higher, my perpetual stride broken only to take a photograph at one of the many spectacular mountain vistas. Soon I was at the top and looking down upon the city.  Wow...what an amazing view!  Hiking across the top of the table, I realized that I still had the GPS with me, and that perhaps some of the caches I had previously plugged in were located up here.  Sure enough, there were a few nearby that I scooped up en route to the upper cable station.  I opted to take the gondola down, and as I had hoped, the views from the rotating floor were fabulous all the way to the bottom.

The following day was more of a cultural experience than a physical experience.  I toured Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty years. A short boat ride across the bay brought us to the island, where we hopped on a bus and saw the sights, the highlight of which was the actual prison and cell where the future President of South Africa was kept.  My reaction to experiencing this surprised me, as I had expected to see worse conditions.  Surely this couldn't have been so bad...after all, the backpacker places I'm staying in are more cramped and crowded!  But of course, the tragedy wasn't the condition of the jail; rather, the reason that they were put there initially.  That written, it is good to know that apartheid is over and encouraging to think that it will never take place again.

Sundays in South Africa were slow.  Very few places were open, and the streets were comparably empty.  Plus, today was dreary and rainy.  Consequently, my plans to spend the day with Jessica at the botanical gardens were canceled.  So when Mari suggested that we hit the Aquarium at the waterfront, I jumped at the chance to get out of the dorm.  The Italian went with us, making for an interesting afternoon.  The aquarium was entertaining, offering dozens of colorful displays of tropical fish, corals, penguins and other sea creatures.  Fortunately for us, today was shark feeding day!  Two divers entered the largest tank and offered chucks of fish at the end of their aluminum poles to the sharks swimming by.  They ate their share, but never attacked the food.  Instead, they simply glided by and bit it off the stick with minimal aggressiveness.  More entertaining was watching the turtles trying to sneak a bite while the divers were busy with the sharks.  Only after the sharks and rays were content did the divers allow the two turtles their own chance to satisfy their stomachs.

That evening was the weekly braai put on by the hostel.  Braai is the local tradition that would be called a BBQ or 'grilling out' back home.  Afrikans love their meat, especially boedworst, the tasty sausage consumed by the ton down here.  So when we learned that the hostel provided fresh bread, cheeses, salads and fire, we happily picked up some meat and joined the party.  A grand evening was had by all, with friendships continuing to bond stronger. Brett and I held the pool table for almost two hours, despite the handicap of Brett currently having only one usable arm due to a recent skiing mishap.  Nonetheless, we found ways around the situation and kept racking up the victories.

As is so often the case when large amounts of alcohol are consumed, people started proclaiming that they wanted to make an assault on the mountain the following day.  I was keen on this, and rounded up the group the next morning.  Mari was gung ho.  Brett wanted to give it a go, despite the one arm thing.  Now sober, Saskia was reluctant, but eventually conceded to our prodding and joined the group.  Everybody else bailed.  And to top it off, today was a brutal day to make the climb. Cold, cloudy and windy as hell, we started off from the lower cable station, taking the more challenging route on which a man died just a few days before.  The gondola wasn't running due to the sixty mph wind gusts; there were very few people on the mountain in general.  We started the hike with a moderate climb, giving me a chance to assess everybody's skill level.  Brett would be fine as long as he didn't need both arms; Mari was strong and consistent; Saskia looked nervous.  Nonetheless, we kept at it, scaling the rock ever higher.  We soon came to our first challenge: a fifteen foot scramble up a vertical face. I went first and waited on top to offer help to the others as they ascended.  Mari was golden, making it up without incident.  We helped Saskia a bit, me pulling from above and Brett pushing from below, until she was on firm and stable gorund.  Brett even managed to step and squirm his way without assistance...quite impressive considering.  This method was repeated at each of the subsequent scrambles with positive results, and soon everybody's confidence was high. We wound our way up and around the rock until the summit was finally achieved!  We walked around the top to take in the magnificent views of the city, despite the brutal cold and biting wind.  Soon we were ready to descend, and opted for the easier path.  Unfortunately for us, this path went down through an ever-narrowing mountain pass, making one hell of a wind tunnel.  All of us were literally blown off our feet by the wind, and more than once.  So the hike down was tricky.  Plus it was getting dark.  We only had two torches, but fortunately, the lights from the city provided ample illumination and we were able to walk back to the car without use of man made lighting devices.

The following day was another adventurous excursion: Brett, Mari and I went to the tip of Africa to explore the Cape of Good Hope.  We piled into Brett's peace buggy and drove to the park, where we parked and hiked up to the lighthouse.  We were rewarded with truly unbelievable views of the coastline.  Afterward, we hiked across to the actual tip.  As the winds had yet to calm and the weather was still chilly, the hike was a bit mroe challenging than expected, but so worth it as we sat atop a mountain at the very bottom of  Africa!

The next event was the unanimous favorite of the group, for today was wine tasting day!  A fifteen person van was hired with private driver to spend the day rambling amongst the vineyards to the north, sampling their nectar along the way.  Mari, Nish, Koebus, Saskia, Emily, Brett and I left the hostel at 9:00am, en route for 'breakfast' at Fairview Winery in Paarl.  We chose this one not only for its location and wine reputation, but also because it offered a cheese sampling in addition to the wine tasting, allowing us to get at least a bit of food in our stomachs on what would undoubtedly be a long day.  The wines were fab, with 'Goatfather' being one of our favorites.  We all bought additional breads and cheeses to snack upon in the bus between stops, a move that certainly yielded positive results throughout the course of the day. Our next venue was at the KWV winery.  Their wines were paired with locals snacks, such as wild game biltong and cashews.  It was fun to experiment with the different combinations and see how it affected the taste of the wine.  In addition to wines, KWV offered a brandy tasting.  Brandy is by far the most popular spirit of the Afrikaans.  They drink it in bulk.  Consequently, at the urging of Koebus, our local Afrikaans representative, we were talked into sampling these as well.  Interestingly, the brandies were paired with chocolates, making for well-balanced flavor.  Our third winery was in the nearby town of Franshhoek.  En route to it, we stopped at a grocery to pick up more staples: biltong, salmon, cheese, bread, peppers, water and brandy.  Yes, the bus was now converted into a mobile picnic.  The winery we visited was an unexpected next stop, but certainly one of our favorites.  We had the place to ourselves, moving from the indoor tasting location to the exterior patio that boasted one of the most spectacular backyards in the country.  The day was brilliant, with the sun shining down upon us as we gazed out across the vineyards to the mountains in the distance!  We tried six more varieties before reluctantly climbing back into the buggy.  Time was starting to become a factor, as it was mid-afternoon and there were still two more wineries we were hoping to visit.  Our plan was to quickly sample the offerings at the Boschendal winery en route to Stellenbosch.  Unfortunately, a group of thirty arrived just before us, resulting in a slower turn around time than we had hoped.  On the positive side, we found a couple of our favorite wines of the entire trip here, so we bought a few bottles to bring home and headed off for our last location: Spier Winery.  Speir is quite popular, taking on more the appearance of a theme park than a winery.  They have a huge restaurant, multiple bars, outdoor tented seating in comfy couches, and even a raptor conservation center and a cheetah conservation center.  Sadly, we missed last call for the wine tasting, as well as last call for the animal sanctuaries.  So we went to the bar.  A couple drinks later we were all in complete lounge mode, molding ourselves into the couches.  Eventually we mustered the motivation to head for home and got on the bus.  We still had an hour drive and multiple bottles of wine.  Inevitably, one cork would pop after another, as the bottles were passed around, the seven of us carrying on like life-long friends.  For a while the wine passing coincided with brandy passing, resulting in very few bottles remaining full.  Safely back at Blue Mountain, we took over the deck and sat for a few more hours, finishing off the remaining food and drink while reminiscing about the days' events.   It was just one of those brilliantly unexpected days...you can never plan for them...they just happen.