The Block Island Times

Cape Town sojourn

By John Spier | Mar 21, 2014
Photo by: Courtesy John Spier

I flew to Cape Town, South Africa, in January to help a friend sail his new catamaran to the Caribbean, but when I arrived, the boat wasn’t finished or launched yet. The several days I had planned to spend there turned into several weeks, an unexpected gift of time that turned out to be a real blessing despite the havoc it will wreak on my spring schedule.

Cape Town itself is a vibrant, attractive modern city, known as a center for arts, design, culture, and cuisine, blended with African culture and historic European-type neighborhoods. The waterfront mixes a modern mall, five-star hotels and restaurants, craft and produce markets, a working commercial shipyard and dry dock, marinas, fishing wharves, museums, a stadium, the ferry terminal... all in a pedestrian friendly downtown locale. Of course, a short distance from the city are the townships, appallingly impoverished slums to rival anything in the third world. These are no place for tourists to venture, and after dark the divisions become blurred. Homes and businesses in Cape Town are fortified with electric fences, broken glass, razor wire, and armed guards.

The troubled history of this country is never far from the surface; despite the multi-cultural and racial blend of the city, you can hear the divisions and resentments in people’s speech, and in some cases sense the underlying hatred and fear. The official end of apartheid in 1994 seems like yesterday to many South Africans, and they are still trying to find their way in a new world.

Although I enjoyed Cape Town, what made my time in South Africa so pleasant and memorable was not so much the city as the mountain parks in and around it, and the surrounding seashore and countryside. At first glance, it seems desert-like and dry, but this corner of the African continent is actually one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Called fynbos in Afrikaans, the biological richness of the area is thought to have hosted the first seacoast habitations in human history. On one of my first days in the country, we four American members of the crew hired a professional guide for a hike around the peninsula that encompasses the Cape of Good Hope. Our guide was a great resource, showing us trails along the coast unknown to the crowds from the tour buses, and introducing us to the flora, fauna, and natural history. After that excursion, one or two of my crewmates and I spent the next several weeks hiking extensively around the region.

Table Mountain itself is iconic in Cape Town, dominating the city skyline with its sheer cliffs, flat top, and almost daily cloud cover (the tablecloth). Thousands of visitors take the three minute cable car ride to the top, where they have the refreshing freedom to buy glasses of wine at the concession stand and drink them sitting on the unfenced edges of thousand foot cliffs. Fewer visitors make the climb on foot, and fewer still seem to climb the mountain the way we did, via a three hour trek through the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and up the ravines and cliffs on the back side. A few days later we climbed the mountain again from the front, a short, steep 2,000 foot vertical pitch up Platteklip Gorge that took about an hour.

After our Table Mountain adventures, we sought out other hikes in the region, some from an excellent guidebook and others suggested by local hikers and guides. We could hire a taxi very inexpensively to take us to trailheads 10-20 kilometers from the city, and take day-long walks that often climbed mountains and skirted along escarpments with stunning views over the distant coastline. On one memorable day, we drove for several hours inland to a nature reserve near Franshhoek, where we made a 16 mile (round trip) hike to a mountain overlooking South Africa’s famous wine country. There was a canister in a cairn on the mountaintop, with a logbook showing that the last visitors had been there six months previously. Without exception, the trails that we hiked were picturesque, well built and maintained, and spotlessly clean. They showed signs of occasional use, but we almost never met other people.

For variety, we also walked extensively throughout the city, and on one day, down the promenades and famous beaches south of Cape Town: Sea Point, Camp’s Bay, Bantry Bay, Hout Bay. The beaches are beautiful, with white sand, big rock formations, and heavy surf rolling in from the southern ocean. The water, however, is bone chillingly cold; a few steps ankle deep is enough!

Interspersed with all of this fun and adventure was boat work: commissioning and fixing systems, flushing and filling tanks, loading mountains of gear and provisions, and doing all of the last minute preparations for six thousand miles at sea. Eventually, almost everything was ready, and late in the evening on Feb. 12, we cast off the lines and set out. But, that’s another story for another time.

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