South Africa, situated at the tip of the African continent, has all the assets to charm its visitors: vast spaces with enchanting landscapes, national parks rich in fauna and flora, golden beaches stretched beyond the horizon, deserts, mountainous zones, animated and multiracial towns. The natural and cultural South-African riches are summed up in two adjectives: surprising and fascinating!
Given the vastness of this country (1’220’000 km2, more than 2 times the size of France) and its diversity, it was impossible for us to explore it in two weeks. This first voyage is thus uniquely consecrated to the Cape Town region, the most beautiful according to the tourist guides. Just like the majority of travelers in South Africa, we were above all motivated by the observation of the fauna. Since this region does not provide the possibility of observing the “Big 5” (the famous “big five”: elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard), our first goal was to admire as closely as possible the famous great white shark, living legend and black sheep of the fauna family. Elsewhere, the Cape region offers fabulous opportunities in terms of eco-tourism: an exceptional marine fauna and multiple-facets landscapes.
We would have also much liked to dedicate more of our time to its population, but the numerous constraints linked to our time schedule and mostly our security did not allow us to share privileged moments with its multiracial population. Armed with all our photographic equipment, we have been often warned about the insecurity prevailing in this beautiful country. To the extent that our natural optimism has been transformed into a chronic paranoia, and not making it any easier for us to meet the people bruised by so many years of apartheid. Even if fifteen years have gone by since its abolition, South Africa has much to do to eliminate the social and economic segregation still well present, if not omnipresent! It is impossible to remain unmoved by the social situation of this country. Everyday, we have been confronted to the indecent contrast between the wealth of the white population and the appalling situation of the big majority of the black population. It is difficult not to think how much the latter’s journey is different, how much its battle for the freedom to live in dignity is tiring. South Africa is without any doubt on the road to an inter-ethnic reconciliation, but the way to go is still long to be able to conquer all disparities.
A voyage uniquely dedicated to these people, so wealthy in terms of cultures but with a painful past, will be necessary to learn about them and thus better understand them.
Usually, we appreciate venturing off the beaten path, but for a first voyage, it is impossible to give a miss on these ‘must-be-seen’ places, which are Cape Town and its famous “Table Mountain”, Simon’s Town and its penguins, Stellensbosch and its wine route or still the mythic Cape of Good Hope!
Before reaching the heart of Cape Town, we need take the motorway linking the airport to the town-centre by following the sadly famous townships, vast groupings of shantytowns. A sordid image of South Africa: kilometers of dilapidated houses made up of bricks, planks or iron sheets in which the majority of the Cape inhabitants live.
A striking contrast since the Cape is considered as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is true that the city-centre is pleasant but we are left quite perplexed as to its high “ranking”. It is without any doubt because of its location facing the ocean and lying at the foot of "Table Mountain". An emblematic mountain whose peak reaches a height of 1086 metres and which, offers a grandiose panorama on the city.
Capital of the province and first tourist destination of the country, its population is of 3, 1 million inhabitants. Yet, the city seems surprisingly small, the city centre is surrounded to the south and west by mountains, and to the east are stretched the immense townships that we have just passed through. The town has preserved its ancient buildings while at the same time, offering the infrastructures of a modern metropolis with unmistakably blue-glassed buildings. Near the harbour, the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, a modern and highly tourist commercial complex but nonetheless pleasing, stretches along the docks. It is without any doubt one of the most animated and busy places of Cape Town. Well-stocked shopping arcades, souvenir shops, a spectacular aquarium and numerous restaurants attract visitors while the chorals liven things up in the pedestrianized streets.
In the distance, “Robben island” appears in the bay. Located at 12 km from the coast, it provided shelter during apartheid to a jail where political prisoners were imprisoned. Nelson Mandela spent 21 years of his life there…
The Cape of Good Hope Peninsula
The spectacular Cape of Good Hope is situated at approximately 70 km from the Cape. The road leading to it borders the Atlantic coast and offers astounding landscapes: superb bays, steep cliffs, gigantic beaches. Mother Nature is unveiling its charm a few kilometers away from the Cape!
The coastal road “Chapman’s Peak Drive” is without any doubt one of the most beautiful in the world. Nine kilometers of sheer happiness between Hout Bay and Noordhoek, 114 bends cut in the cliff, which dives into the sea far below. A road that clings to the mountain, reveals breathtaking panoramas, and finally leads to an immense and beautiful beach where huge waves are crashing.
From Noordhoek, we rapidly reach the entry of the natural reserve of the Cape of Good Hope, which unveils a beautiful moor landscape with razed vegetation, with rocky and flowery grounds. The end of the world is not far! First, we came to Cape Point, a welcome zone for tourists: vast parking, restaurant and funicular… What a pity! We were looking forward to something wilder, less concrete where everything is organized to greet a horde of tourists. Even the baboons have taken up residence there; they can be seen walking on path in search of food or objects left around carelessly by distracted tourists.
At the summit of Cape Point, the view is magical, on one side the Atlantic Ocean and on the other, the Indian Ocean, separated only by a rocky and dizzy protuberance. Lower down, gigantic waves are crashing against the cliffs while a flight of cormorants skim the foam to get back to their nests. An enchanting sight! Winding paths lead us to different sighting places, one more beautiful than the other. We have to go back down to reach the mythical Cape of Good Hope, a big rock surrounded by small shingle beaches where ostriches welcome us. Contrary to the common belief, the Cape of Good Hope is not the far most point of the southern part of the African continent but is the dividing point of the waters of the two oceans. The true headland of Africa is Cape Agulhas, located at approximately 180 km farther East, but of minor interest.
The journey back is made through the Eastern coast (Indian Ocean), much more urbanized. An inevitable stop at Simon’s Town to observe a colony of Cape penguins (Spheniscus demersus). In 1983, a pair of these charming web-footed birds came on “Boulder’s Beach”, won over, they brought over their likes… and today, they are more than 2000! The space has been made up in such a way that the visitors can observe the penguins living in the wild but without disturbing them, bridges and barriers prevent access to the beach. Prefer instead the neighbouring beach, “Foxy Beach”, where they can be observed without any restrictions. Further East, at Betty’s Bay (Stony Point), there is another penguin reserve, which we have better appreciated since it is wilder. Located in complete nature, close to the ocean, it is the shelter of an impressive colony of penguins and diverse species of cormorants. We can also observe rock hyrax (Procavia capensis).
Stellenbosch and the wine route
40 km to the East of Cape Town, the university town of Stellenbosch is our starting point for the wine route. We discover one of the oldest towns of South Africa, small and peaceful; it is the shelter to numerous historical monuments. We continue our way until the valley of Franschhoek by taking a winding path running between mountains and vineyards. All along the way, vast wine-producing properties followed each other. Gabled houses are hiding behind the surrounding walls and wrought-iron gates, their walls whitewashed and crowned with a thatched roof; an evidence of the Dutch colonization during the 18th century.
The town of Franschhoek (the “French corner”) is found in the heart of the wine-producing regions. The French Huguenots settled down towards the end of the 17th century and brought with them their wine-producing expertise. Everywhere, French names are evidence of the town’s origin: “Petite Provence”, “Le Bon Vivant”, “Chamonix”, “La Rochelle”. Surrounded by mist-covered mountains, the region is lush and welcoming. We are in spring, the budding season for the vines. In some months, they are going to be decked in their most beautiful colours.
We leave behind Franschhoek to reach other regions further to the North of Worcester, Wellington and Paarl, by traveling along several cols, one of which is the famous “Bainskloof Pass”: steep, twisting and wild as we like it. It is quite common to come across families of baboons along the roads. The panoramas giving on the valley are astounding; everywhere is a stretch of vines beyond the horizon. Most of the properties are opened to the public; on reservation, the visitor can have a meal and taste the several local nectars. The wine amateur will be much happy here and can stay behind for several days since this wine-producing region is so immense, interesting and welcoming.
The province of the Western Cape represents scarcely 11% of the surface area of South Africa. It covers nevertheless a surface area of 130’000 km2 (similar to Greece) and we will need atleast one month to explore it fully and appreciate its numerous attractions: its landscapes, fauna and people. Alas, we did not have much time, and we went back with the feeling of leaving many things behind and having only lightly touched this region. But it is true that we have spared more (too much?) time to the observation of whales and great white sharks!
Text & photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra