I have posted more pictures on my photo web site here.
Getting A Taste of South Africa
For those of you who know me will know that it’s no surprise that the food that we eat on our Excellent Adventures is pretty important. I think that one of the big reasons that we have travelled to Europe so many times is that we learned pretty early that there was just a lot of really good food to be had there. Figuring out where South Africa sat on the food map was of something that needed to be explored in detail.
When we travel to a different country, one of the things that we try and do is discover (as much as possible) what defines the people and what better way to do that than by learning about the food that they eat? As a result, I am often looking for those unique dishes that are just not possible to get at home or alternatively, a unique local variation of something that I have had before.
Case in point: we’ve just come back home from dinner at a local restaurant in Simonstown called the Seaforth Restaurant. Barb and I both caught a unique item on the menu which we both ordered called a Karol Game Pot. The description said that it was made with African game simmered in wine, apricots and vegetables. The game pot was served in a small metal pot in a delicious sauce. We asked what kind of game it contained and we were told that it was Springbok . As we have never tasted springbok before we could not easily identify it but I can only say that it had it own unique flavour and it was perfectly matched to the delicious sauce. With only two days in South Africa behind us we have been completely impressed by the local food.
About the only thing that we can say that has exceeded the local dining scene is the low cost of it all. Without a doubt South Africa is the best bargain of any place we have ever traveled to. There’s simply no comparison. I’m pretty sure that this all has to do with the falling South African currency and as a result the value that you get with the dollar is really quite amazing. The dinner that we had tonight which included a large glass of wine, two appetizers, main courses, dessert and cappuccinos came to about $65 (before tip) for the both of us. This caliber of meal would have cost about double that in Vancouver.
If it wasn’t for the brutal flying time to get here and the political uncertainty and the crime problems, South Africa might definitely be seen as the bargain vacation destination of choice by most people.
A Good Hope For The Cape
This morning began our first full day in Simonstown and our intent was to head south to the bottom of Africa.
South Africa straddles the Indian and Atlantic oceans and the point at which they meet is known as the Cape of Good Hope which is the very bottom of South Africa about a 30 minute drive from Simonstown. Along the drive to the cape we passed at least 6 tour busses coming in the opposite direction and we surmised that a lot of people take a day trip from Cape Town. After we arrived at the cape it was clear why this was such a popular destination. The spectacular views were pretty hard to beat.
Before I forget I should comment on the left side of the road driving thing. The good news is that we haven’t yet met with a head on collision and it’s becoming more and more relaxing to drive even after just one day. A lot of the challenge is driving in the city streets where there are a lot more turns where highway driving is almost exclusively straight driving and maybe the occasional lane change. Without a doubt driving a 5-speed transmission makes the whole job quite a bit more difficult but the most troublesome part of driving this car is dealing with the turn signal with my right hand. For some reason I can’t get this done consistently and the win shield wiper is getting more accidental use on this car that should ever be getting. Tomorrow morning we are moving north to our new destination in Cape Town so I need to step it up a notch to avoid any problems.
From the parking lot at Cape Point (the official name where of we were), there is a several hundred metre hike up the hill towards the top point where the lighthouse is located. There is also a funicular that you can take to get up the hill but we chose to walk. As I had mentioned before, the place was teeming with other people and a good 6-7 tour buses filled a large part of the parking lot. As a result of this the hike up the hill to the top was akin to walking along a busy city street.
Despite all of the crowd at the cape, the whole thing was completely worth it. Incredible views like this are simply not something that you see every day and if you have the opportunity this is one of those must-see destinations (assuming that the weather cooperates). The weather today for us was sunny in the high teens only that low because the was a strong wind was blowing. Being at the bottom of a continent sitting between two oceans seems to result in a never-ending wind in this part of the world.
One of the interesting features of the mountain at Cape Point was the addition of a number of baboons which lived in the area. This immediately brought back memories of a similar group of baboons which lived on the top of the Rock of Gibraltar which we visited in 2003. The baboons here also seemed to have the run of the place and could go where they pleased.
One the way back to Simonstown, we took a detour to go to a small cove about 5 kilometers from Cape Point and in the parking lot of this cove were two huge ostriches walking along the side of the parking lot like it was perfectly normal (which obviously it was). It continues to amaze us how these wild animals just run around wild in public places. In Canada, we would only see such animals in zoos or otherwise in captivity.
The experience of seeing the wild animals in close proximity will almost certainly be the most memorable part of this trip and something that we both look forward to in the safari part of this Adventure which will start next week.
Cape Town Experience
This morning we departed our hotel in Simonstown and began our drive north to our final South African destination: Cape Town.
Under normal circumstances the drive probably should have taken about an hour but with us getting lost 2-3 times and stopping at the side of the highway a few times near the town of Llandudno which had absolutely spectacular scenic views of the turquoise coloured water it was more like about 2.5 hours before we pulled into our villa which, coincidently, is called An African Villa .
An African Villa is a completely renovated and modernly decorated late-1800’s Victorian mansion that has 12 guest rooms and our with a view of Table Mountain from our balcony.
Table Mountain is the defining feature of what most people think of when they envision Cape Town. It’s the picture on the front of any Cape Town guide book and the first thing on the list of things to do when you arrive in Cape Town. As I had mentioned before the large mountain the background of the city reminds me very much of the Vancouver skyline but sitting in my room right now looking up at Table Mountain as I write this I can say that there is a much more imposing closeness of Table Mountain as there is no body of water that separates the mountains as there is in Vancouver.
A cable car goes up to the top of the mountain and if you are lucky, you will be rewarded with unobstructed incredible views of the city and surrounding countryside. In October, the likelihood of getting such an unobstructed view is very small as the weather is often rainy or cloudy or windy and the cable car is shut down in such windy weather. However, yesterday when we arrived we knew that we had the perfect weather and immediately made it our priority to get to the top of the mountain. It was the best decision that we have made of our trip.
Sidebar: on the subject of weather there had been a lot of discussion when we were planning our Excellent African Adventure of exactly how warm (or more accurately how cold) it would be in Cape Town when we arrived. On average the weather has been between the high teen and mid-20’s but overall sunny and warm all of the time. We have been wearing shorts almost all of the time since we arrived but the strong winds sometimes require the need for a light jacket. On the way home from dinner last night we were commenting that there was an almost tropical warmth in the air the way that we had felt at night in places like Hawaii and the Cook Islands. However we should point out that most people have been telling us that it has been unseasonably warm lately and in the next few days things are supposed to get closer to normal – whatever that will mean.
Getting back to Table Mountain, it doesn’t take too much thought to figure out that the near perfect flat landscape at the top of the mountain has given Table Mountain it’s name. Once you are up top you can walk around the top of the mountain and enjoy the views of the surrounding city from a variety of lookout points. Paths go off in many directions and overall it’s very easy to get around. You wouldn’t be able to get around in a wheel chair but it’s no problem getting from side to side of the mountain.
On of the interesting features of the cable cars that goes up and down the mountains is that it solves the problem of everyone wanting to take pictures from the relatively small window that looks out the back of the car overlooking the city. The solution that they have is that the entire floor inside the car rotates as the car goes up or down the mountain so that during the entire ride you will see exactly a 360 degree view and the open window will eventually just come by you allowing you to take your pictures. It’s a very clever idea.
Without getting into too many words to describe the views from the top of Table Mountain, suffice to say that the views are spectacular and if you have the opportunity to be in Cape Town and the weather cooperates that this is a must-see site. The whole thing is a bit on the touristy side but sometimes playing the tourist and just shamelessly cranking off picture after picture just makes sense.
Yesterday evening was our first night in Cape Town so we had to figure out where to go to dinner. Upon the advice of several sources we ended up at what is known as the Waterfront area (the official name is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront ) to find a place to eat.
A large section of the Waterfront area is a shopping mall which is open late every night so there is quite a few people inside given that it was a Wednesday night. In addition to the usual variety of stores there are several restaurants inside with many of them of the seafood variety.
Now I have to admit that under normal circumstances the idea of eating mall food was not something that I normally would even consider when we are in a foreign city and are trying to get a taste of the city’s unique culinary flavour. To me, mall food is what you eat when you’re hungry after spending a few hours shopping when convenience is the primary feature. Nonetheless, we were here and it was late and we were hungry. It was too late to back out and start looking for another place.
The first sign that something unique was up was that there was lots of people at their tables with bottles of wine. Ok, that’s not something that you’re going to see at the food fair at a mall in Vancouver! We decided to go to a restaurant called Willoughby and Co. which on the surface seemed like just another mall restaurant with most of the tables in the walking section of the mall. It also specialized in seafood and had several types of sushi on the menu as well.
Overall we were quite impressed with the meal that we had at Willoughby and Co. Barb’s entree of salmon tartare (pronounced: tar tar) which is raw, ground salmon was first rate. The whole dining experience was very different than I ever would have expected at a mall restaurant and it’s gotten me thinking that there’s a whole lot of other things that I can’t assume about seemingly similar things here in South Africa.
Most people whom we talked to when we were in the planning stages of this trip said that if we were going to be in the Cape Town area that we had to go to the nearby wineries on a day trip. I didn’t learn this until very recently (ok, last night) but South Africa has been a wine producing country for several hundred years. So today we had set aside the day to take a drive east to the heart of the South African wine region. In particular, our destination of choice was the town of Franschhoek .
It took about an hour to drive out to Franschhoek and overall I found that driving on the local highways to be generally a positive experience and the highways were in good conditions supporting the maximum speed limit of 120 km/hr. There has been a lot of construction on the highways and in the Cape Town area in general and I suspect that this has a lot to due to the FIFA World Cup coming to South Africa in 2010.
Of course there’s a whole separate discussion that I’m not going to get into about South Africa’s ability to successfully pull off a world class event like the World Cup but that’s probably a topic left for someone else’s blog.
We stopped in the town of Franschhoek (the town and the region share the same name) with the intention of having lunch there but decided that we weren’t that hungry since we had a large breakfast at the Villa just a few hours ago. So we passed some time in the town looking in some of the galleries and other local shops. We ended up only staying a short time as the heat didn’t really lend itself to just walking along the street (it was easily about 25 degrees by mid-afternoon) so we decided to move on to some of the wineries.
We stopped at one nearby winery but left unhappy after tasting a few of their wines. The real place that we were looking to go to (more for food than for wine) was a winery called La Petite Ferme . Make no mistake about it, the food that we were to have at La Petite Ferme was worth the entire day’s drive. The wine was pretty good as well.
Barb and I sat outside in the back of the restaurant while we waited for our table. The restaurant was booked solid and we had to wait until 2:30 to get a table. Obviously, lots of people were in on the secret of the food at this place. While we waited out back, we got to take in the following view of the local wine valley:
Barb and I too a look at the menu and we both came to the same conclusion what we wanted: the ostrich. What we were served looked and tasted closer to beef but had a unique taste all its own. It was served with an apricot wine sauce that was a perfect compliment to the ostrich meat on a bed of quinoa and spinach. I wouldn’t be overstating it by saying the the food at La Petite Ferme was in the top 10 restaurants that we have ever eaten at in the world. Well, maybe top 20. We out out a lot.
So How Bad is Bad?
For those of you who are long time readers of my blog you probably have figured out that I try to stay fairly positive in my comments about whatever place we happen to visit and almost never touch on any serious social problems that happens to be relevant to that country or city. However I need to break from that tradition because with the case of South Africa the day to day issues are so far to the surface and affect the day to day lives of people that I cannot ignore it and still claim to present any sort of true reflection of what it was like here.
As I stated in Part 1 of this Adventure series, there has been no other place that we have travelled to that has prompted us getting so many warnings about our personal safety before we left. From the time that we left the Cape Town airport driving to our first destination of Simonstown we could see immediately that this was a place that you had required some extra attention.
So, the natural question that might be on everyone’s mind is: how bad is bad? Well, the answer to that question is that it really all depends on what we’re talking about.
Upon arrival into a South Africa city like Cape Town, you are immediately on your guard from the fact that on virtually every street corner there are what appear to be poor black homeless people attempting to sell you something at your car. There is some analogy to what we have in Vancouver where people approach your car to wash your windshield but this is really at a whole different level here. You cannot travel on any street or major highway and not see large groups of people walking along the sides of the road or what appears to look like just hanging out. Later on I realized that part of the source of this issues is that I saw really no developed public transportation in Cape Town and much of the working people rely on either the trains or “taxis” which usually happen to be vans or pickup trucks that were packed with 10-12 passengers.. Considering how large Cape Town is this the lack of a real public transit system is sorely lacking considering that most of the poor black live far out of town.
On our way out of Cape Town heading south on our arrival we had a chance to see a township with for ourselves. The word township has a specific meaning in South Africa and my best explanation is that that it is an area of town or a whole town itself that is exclusively comprised of poor black people. The roots of these townships go far back in history rooted in apartheid but the end result is that a large part of the population live in these slums. From my purely visual perception, the township reminded me of a refuge camp that I have seen on the news in some war-torn country. The word shanty-town would be a word that I would use to describe it.
The issue of personal safety and overall security is a topic that seems to be of high importance to understand. Most of the larger homes in South Africa are built around high walls and locked gates. One of the first things that we were taught when we arrived at our villa in Cape Town is how to unlock the metal gate to the front door. Places in town that were safe to visit and places to avoid, what times of day to not be outside were all part of our orientation when we arrived.
Pretty much everywhere that you park your car you will be approached by someone who is wearing a high-visibility vest with something on it like “car attendant” or “security” or “car guard” written on them. We came to learn that in the vast majority of cases these “guards” are just individuals who are looking for a few Rand to watch your car for you. Nonetheless in the short time that I have been here I have come to expect that someone will be around when we get out of the car. This one fact took some getting used to.
All of these issues are obviously complex and based on the unique history of South Africa and have no simple solutions. I want to stress that my observations are based on us being in South Africa for a very short amount of time and as such my observations may be out of context with the reality of the real situation. I encourage any of my readers who can provide a better insight into these subjects to post their comments on my blog.
Goodbye South Africa
Tomorrow morning we leave Cape Town and move onto our next destination in Tanzania where we will begin our safari.
In the five days that we have been in South Africa, we have seen first hand many of the things that we have been told about by the people whom we know who have come from this country and live in Canada now. In virtually every case – we have heard time and time again the store of people who have left South Africa due primarily to personal safety issues and either the threat or real personal experience with crime. Until we came to this country, we really didn’t understand what people have given up by leaving this country. In just the few days that we have been here we have seen that there really is no other place like South Africa. The combination of history, climate, culture and the natural environment make South Africa a unique country in the world that has something really special that I have never seen before. If I were born in this country and had to make the decision to leave I can now appreciate that this would be a very difficult decision.
Now, I’m not going to try and convince you that in five days that I have all of South Africa “figured out” but I’m going to take away some memories of this country that we will have with us for a long time.
Some time tomorrow we will have arrived in Arusha, Tanzania for the start of our safari. The only unknown is that for the first time on any of our Excellent Adventures, I’m uncertain as to what Internet access we will have. As such I’m not sure when my next posting will occur. As I have my laptop with me I will continue to compose my new blog postings so worst case scenario I will do a “batch” update when I next get Internet access.