South Africa's Mother City: Cape Town

Our travels to South Africa stemmed from a family wedding that we were going to attend there. Traveling to South Africa had always been on our to-go list and the wedding helped make it happen.

Days leading up to our trip departure, we exchanged emails with D & N (whose wedding we were attending) and mentioned to them our travel plans and itinerary which involved traveling to different parts of the country and then capping off the trip with their wedding. While D & N are both Londoners, N is native South African and in one of the email exchanges she said to us, "Thank you both for taking the time to investigate and explore South Africa. People tend to be too scared to. I guarantee that you will love it and it means so much to us that you will be there."

South Africa is a beautiful country with beautiful people and it is not what people generally expect it to be. Infrastructure is excellent with roads and highways in very good conditions. In fact, the restrooms along the highway are cleaner than some of those in Malaysia (come on, Malaysia, you can do better!). Both Johannesburg and Cape Town have world class airports. Tap water in South Africa is safe to drink.

After our incredible safari, we hit up Cape Town. Thanks to the digital and internet age, we did extensive research for our trip and got incredible local advice. Understandably, many people get nervous traveling to South Africa and many ask questions along the lines of, "How safe is it traveling about? Is it safe to walk on the streets in Cape Town?" A good rule of the thumb is that just like how you would not be walking the dark alleys of Chicago, London, or New York City at night, you would not want to do that either in Cape Town. We live in a big city like Chicago and while there is crime in every big city in the world, taking precaution is common sense but do not let paranoia prevent you from enjoying it. In Cape Town it is safe walking around during the day and advisable to take a taxi at night.

Cape Town, known as the Mother City of South Africa, was so much more beyond our expectations. The city is beautiful in many aspects and a very unique one in itself. The best way to describe Cape Town might be that it felt like a "mini London" with a Mediterranean climate. As capital of the Western Cape province as well as the legislative capital of the country, Cape Town is heavily European in a South African atmosphere and hospitality. Given the history of the country, there is a strong Dutch and British influence in South Africa most reflectively seen in Cape Town. Buildings with colonial style architecture that could be spotted along the city streets could easily have been found in London.


Colored people make up the largest majority of the Cape Town population, followed by Black South Africans, White South Africans, and others such as Asians. The term colored is used to describe persons with mixed Black and White heritage and we were told by locals several times that the term colored is not to be considered as derogatory. In conversation, a local said to us, "For example, we call President Obama a colored person".

From its history of Dutch and British settlers, we also learned from conversations with locals that in Cape Town about 60% of white South Africans are of Dutch descent while 30% of them are of British descent. With other sizable minorities such as the Cape Malays and Indians who are descendants of slaves brought in from the bygone era, it is not surprising that when we asked N for food recommendations she responded that South Africa's best cuisines are very much derived from influences such as Dutch, British, Malay, and Indian. How amazing is it to have a country so wholly South African and yet defined by its multicultural roots in history?

It is impressive of Cape Town to maintain so many national museums and historical sites within just a few block radius from each other. South Africa in present day is so largely defined by its history that the museums are doing a wonderful job in preserving and paying tribute to historical changes.

The Slave Lodge is a museum permanently dedicated to the history of slavery with exhibitions describing the change from human wrongdoings to human rights. The Slave Lodge museum is housed in the original premises where thousands of slaves were housed and held captive in the 1600s by the Dutch East India Company.

We were at the Lodge courtyard when we saw a group of children on a school field trip to the museum. We quietly joined in and stood at the side in one of the exhibit corners where the children were seated on the floor as their teacher spoke to them. On the exhibit wall was a very large world map that marked the movement of slaves and traders brought in from and to different countries in the world. Today, people are descendants of that migratory process. The teacher proceeded to ask the children, Where are you from? Then she gestured to the map and said, When people ask me where I am from, I say 'I am from everywhere'. She repeated herself and said, "I am from everywhere".

That really struck a chord with T and I. We stood there processing what the teacher was trying to convey to the children. It does not matter what you are, black, white, or colored. We are from everywhere. We are descendants from everywhere. Our forefathers are from everywhere which ultimately is the commonality among every person. T said to me, "Amazing. This is what they teach children today." I had only wished that when growing up in Malaysia people never tried so hard to differentiate themselves according to their ethnic groups. It does not matter if today I am Chinese and you are Malay because hundreds (or thousands) of years ago, chances were that we had a common ancestral lineage from different parts of the world and we are from that same "everywhere".

Another site we wished we had time for was the District 6 Museum (another reason to return to Cape Town) dedicated to the history of apartheid. Cape Town is made up of six districts and District 6 in particular was where the apartheid started when about 60,000 residents were forcibly removed from here in 1966.

The view of Cape Town is largely dominated by the majestic Table Mountain. At almost every corner of the city, the backdrop of Table Mountain was never far from our eyes and its presence was never difficult to miss. The name Table Mountain was derived from its largely flat top sandstone formation. Currently standing at a little more than 1000m above sea level, we were told that Table Mountain used to be even higher but the natural process of erosion has brought down its total height above sea level. We took the cableway up to Table Mountain for an incredible 360° view of Cape Town.

Once we were atop Table Mountain, the change in weather was significantly felt. We knew in advance that weather conditions vary between ground level and the summit, with the latter potentially about 5°C colder than at base and we brought our jackets with us. It was balmy on the city streets but once we were at the summit, it was cold and very windy. But the clear blue sky and incredible views of Cape Town made up for it. There are different walking paths atop Table Mountain with each path offering different lookout views including Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners (including current President Jacob Zuma) were once held captive, Cape Town waterfront, and Lion's Head.

Robben Island
Cape Town waterfront
Lion's Head

The varying flora and fauna species on Table Mountain include the Dassie, an African rodent.

For those seeking an adventure, abseiling or rappeling down Table Mountain is an option that is led by a professional group. Another alternative to taking the cableway up and down Table Mountain is by hiking.

We hit up Greenmarket Square which is made up of many vendors selling curios and handcrafted African souvenirs. I had always wanted a handcrafted giraffe statue as a home decor and so we set out to Greenmarket Square in search of one. Many of the vendors sell similar items but not identical and Greenmarket Square is a very good option if you are looking for a good variety of handcrafts within one location without having to go to different curio shops in the city.

When we walked past each vendor, they gave a little hello and welcome in hopes that we would be potential customers. We walked by a vendor the first time, left, and then returned to that vendor since he had items that caught our eyes the most. The vendor sensed our interest and took out his calculator. Bargaining is expected so the original prices are jacked up. Having experience with vendors and the bargaining culture in Southeast Asia, we put on our bargaining skills as well.

Situated at the edge of City Bowl (aka city centre) on the slopes of Signal Hill is the colorful neighborhood Bo Kaap which is home to the Cape Malay community in Cape Town. Residents of Bo Kaap today are descendants of Malays from Malaysia who were brought in as slaves by the Dutch in the 1700s. Each home boasts its own unique color contributing to the vibrant color of the streets. Rich in history, Bo Kaap has a strong Muslim presence. Cape Malay curries have become an institution of the local food scene today in South Africa. A visit to Bo Kaap is not complete without a visit to one of its restaurants and we did just that.

Many establishments close on Sundays except for the larger ones. Showing us how the streets were relatively less vibrant that day, the hotel concierge told us that people generally spend their Sundays at church and at home with the families. He then commented that we made the right decision in heading to Victoria & Alfred Waterfront on a Sunday. He was right. Located by Cape Town's working harbor along with the symbolic Clock Tower, the V&A waterfront remained bustling on Sunday with crowds of people everywhere looking for a mix of shopping, restaurants, and exceptional views with Table Mountain as the backdrop. Seafood lovers are in luck as a majority of the dining establishments focus on fresh seafood.

Smacked in the heart of the city is the Company Gardens which offers a scenery of lush greens nestled among some of the museums and historic sites, perfect for anyone looking for a temporary break from all the bustle.

1 comment:

  1. I'm living my South African "holiday" through your photos and blog!