Getting to South Africa is no easy-or-short-matter. Penny and I had not enjoyed European ventures passing through Heathrow Airport, London (endless security clearances and passport scrutinizes) so Penny came upon a link between Atlanta, Georgia and Johannesburg, South Africa.
The journey proudly claimed to be the world’s fourth longest flight at 14.5 hours. While 2016 travel niceties include individual seating entertainment including movies, HBO and a plethora of listening options simply sitting for that amount of time gives back, bottom and legs a series of challenges. That notwithstanding there is a sense of exhilaration leaving one’s home continent, crossing the South Atlantic, and arriving on a new continent.
From Johannesburg to Cape Town was a pleasantly short hop on South African Airways. A brand new aircraft, an upbeat flight crew, and a meal that felt as if an onboard chef had produced it in the galley!
Our three-day trip at the Taj Hotel was flawless. We had a twelfth story room with a spacious balcony that looked at Table Mountain, the natural skyline structure that is most identified with Cape Town. The hotel was a fusion of the elegant and the majestic with marble pillars and vaulted roofs. Entries on “tripadvisor” uniformly commented on a five-star institution. We concur.
On our first day Penny visited St. George’s Cathedral next door to the Taj. After the squeeze and bumps of trans-Atlantic travel Penny found the cathedral gave off a calm yet welcoming aura. It used to be the spiritual home of Desmond Tutu, a former Archbishop of Cape Town, and winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 1984. We liked exploring the Central City area and with temperatures in the seventies strolled through a park called “The Company’s Garden”. These gardens were set up in 1652 by the East India Company as a fruit and vegetable center and now serve to be an arbor of greenery, slap bang in the middle of a bustling city.
Another favorite place was the Greenmarket Square full of craft stalls, art – deco buildings, and cafes. Being exposed to what seems like a tidal wave of African craftwork can be intimidating. We heard one buyer beware tale from an out-of-town South African couple. They had bought a large carved giraffe from a similar stall several years ago and suddenly found their house had a termite infestation. Guess what? The pesky creatures had been incubating, if that is the word, inside their giraffe!
The two most popular visitor attractions of Cape Town are very different in their nature. One is to take a European style cable car up to Table Mountain and get a panoramic view of the seas that hosted such famous Portuguese sailor/explorers as Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias in the 15th century.
The other is to board a ferry boat and visit Robben Island, the prison home of the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) who became president of the Republic of South Africa following the collapse of apartheid in 1992. Actual prison guards lead the tours. The lines of people waiting to make these visits gives some sense of the immense stature of a man for whom – and this was born out by conversations with South Africans of different races and socio-cultural-economic backgrounds – a nation felt admiration, affection and a familial attachment.
And then there is the “Heart of Cape Town Museum” shaped out of the events of Dec. 3, 1967 when South African surgeon Christian Bernard performed the world’s first human to human heart transplant. If your body is up to it the museum uses a fully restored operating theater, via a two-hour tour, to relive the tension and drama of that occasion. Not for the fainthearted!
We embraced the outdoors and traveled around, and through, Table Mountain National Park. We took a boat out to see seals on, not surprisingly, “Seal Island.” As just months earlier we had checked out colonies of seals at Jolla, California we made the profound tourist observation that, “One seal pretty much looks like any other.”
Also in Table Mountain National Park we spent time at “Boulders”, home to a thriving colony of African Penguins known as Jackass Penguins because of their donkey-like braying. “Boulders” is an exciting example of protecting an endangered species. In 1982 there were only two breeding pairs. Today the penguins number 2200.
Table Mountain National Park’s premier draw card is a beach walk to Cape Point, the most southern land mass of the African continent. I had thought that the presence of baboons, with a predilection for pilfering and absconding back packs and picnic hampers was the only threat.
Suddenly I found myself buffeted by gusts of wind that literally had me grounded in the twinkling of an eye. I’ve often become amused by weather correspondents on national TV commenting about raging winds and tempestuous weather. They bend, twist, grimace and control themselves like tightrope walkers. I now hold them in high regard. As for Penny she commented that the elderly bald man in the sitting posture was, “having an episode.”
Cape Town has so much to offer that we would suggest a stay of seven days. It is the safest city in terms of crime within South Africa and the clusters of activities--Central City and the Waterfront for example--makes the pressing dilemma choosing out of a sea of attractive options.