Cape Town: A guide for nervous travelers

I’ll be honest here: when I was first invited to South Africa back in 2014, the thought of spending time in such a notoriously crime-riddled country gave me the willies.

To add to my anxiety, virtually everyone I spoke to about the idea warned me about muggings, car-jackings and murder. The consensus was that if I went to Cape Town, I’d get stabbed, robbed and then left for the baboons.

Not particularly encouraging.

Then it dawned on me that virtually everyone who had given me their sagely insights into South Africa had never actually been there.

On the top of Lion's Head in Cape Town

That’s the thing with fear. It goes hand in hand with ignorance and thrives on bad news. We tell ourselves stories until we believe them. If I’d paid attention to any of these people, I never would have discovered one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.

And I never would have learned whether the rumours about crime in South Africa were true.

It had started with an invitation to a wedding. One of my best friends, Jennifer, had gone to Cape Town some years before for a six-month volunteering program. Jennifer had loved it there so much, she ended up staying as a resident. Naturally, I figured that if the place had charmed her enough to live there, it couldn’t be all that bad.

Jennifer and Moses on their wedding day, with Jenny's mum Christine giving her away

I left the chilly shores of England in January 2015, flying to Cape Town on a trip that would change my life.

Work less, play more: Mark in Gordon's Bay

Gordon’s Bay

I got picked up from the airport and together we drove to Jenny’s place in Gordon’s Bay, about an hour’s drive from the city. Gordon’s Bay isn’t really known as a tourist destination; it’s a quiet suburban area with beautiful, breezy beaches (everywhere in ZA is windy, most times of the year) and amazing views of Table Mountain across the bay. It made a good launchpad to explore the areas east of the Cape peninsula and further afield, like Hermanus or Gaansbai (for shark cage-diving… more on that to come in a future blog!) as well as being close to Betty’s Bay for penguin-spotting and walks in the fynbos (Afrikaans for “fine bush”, which has nothing to do with 70s porn movies).

A view across Gordon's Bay

Cape Town: Getting around

Having a car is essential if you want to get around in Cape Town and the surrounding region, as the rail links aren’t all that great, although there’s quite a good bus service around the centre of the city. Cape Town’s airport is about 20km outside the city limits, with good bus links and UberBlack cabs that can take you into the city centre in less than 20 minutes. For fares and other information, head to Cape Town’s tourism website.

Kalk Bay near Cape Town

Trains in Cape Town

Whenever I fancied a trip back into Cape Town city centre, I had to make a nail-biting journey by train, which passed through several less-desirable areas of Cape Town’s suburbs. To add to the anxiety, Jenny and her partner had warned me never to be on the train after sunset, as more crime tended to happen then.

Imagine my horror when I was late back from a sightseeing trip one day and ended up on the return train to Gordon’s Bay as the sun disappeared behind the mountain. I watched with barely contained panic as the light got dimmer and dimmer, and the train crawled through one poverty-stricken neighbourhood after another. Every new passenger who got on became a potential mugger.

The sun sets over Gordon's Bay

Night fell, and still the train crawled back to Gordon’s Bay, passing ruinous, ramshackle townships and occasionally pausing in dubious-looking stations. Hooded youths lurked on the platform or wandered nonchalantly into the carriage. It’s likely there weren’t many people with ill intent that evening and I was merely judging on gangster appearances, but I think most of my grey hairs came from that train journey.

Thankfully, I made it all the way to Gordon’s Bay without incident, although Jenny’s visible relief that I’d survived the trip told me that my worries weren’t misplaced.

Before I get to some more crime-related experiences I had, perhaps I should describe some of the things to see and do in Cape Town.

Lion’s Head Hike

I had made a new chum on the flight from London (pretty standard for me) and got invited to a hike with him and his partner within a week of arriving in South Africa. Thomas and Damian took me for a long walk up Table’s sister-mountain of Lion’s Head, for spectacular views of Cape Town, Camps Bay and the Twelve Apostles. The hike is less than an hour to the top and makes a good plan B if it’s a little too blustery to take a cable car to the top of Table Mountain.

A view of the Twelve Apostles and Camps Bay from Lion's Head

Thomas, Damian and Mark at the peak of Lion's Head

We spotted some of the local residents too: rock hyraxes (also called dassies) which lounge around the boulders all over Table Mountain looking slightly embarrassed that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to their nearest living cousins, African elephants.

A rock hyrax or dassie on Lion's Head

Wine-tasting at Groot Constantia

Thomas and Damian also invited me for a spot of wine-tasting in South Africa’s oldest vineyards of Groot Constantia, where we ‘sampled’ (hic) a few glasses of Pinotage, a wine native to the region, blended from “Hermitage” and Pinot Noir varieties of grape. I still can’t remember how I got back to Gordon’s Bay that particular evening.

WIne tasting in Groot Constantia

Food and drink in Cape Town

I soon discovered that Cape Town is a world leader when it comes to food and drink. One of my best experiences was on Long Street, in the Royal Eatery where I had one of the best vegan burgers I’ve ever tasted. There’s plenty for carnists too: ostrich and beef patties galore on their huge menu. There were so many restaurants and cafes offering fabulous things to eat, I couldn’t possibly mention all my favourites here in this blog. Instead, check out this comprehensive list of places for superb meals.

Long Street in Cape Town

The Waterfront

The V&A Waterfront is another good place for food and drink (as well as shopping and entertainment), although it has the same sort of touristy, commercial vibe that makes me want to run back to Table Mountain and hide under a rock somewhere. A highlight for me was watching the sea lions splashing around in the harbour, rather than shopping for tat in the scores of gift shops. We also hopped aboard a big wheel and enjoyed views of the mountain with its famous “Tablecloth” pouring over the top, a sight I never got bored of during my whole time in Cape Town.

A view across the V&A Waterfront to Table Mountain

Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens: music and flowers

Besides taking me to see the Waterfront, Jenny and Christine also introduced me to the delights of the Botanic Gardens of Kirstenbosch on the south-eastern slopes of Table Mountain. We explored this UNESCO World Heritage Site by day, wandering among the 36-acre gardens and spotting lizards, sunbirds and other wildlife of the fynbos.

A sunbird in Kirstenbosch, Cape Town

Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, Cape Town

Protea flower in Kirstenbosch, Cape Town

By night we enjoyed a music gig in the grounds, listening to South African folk-pop artist Matthew Mole with the incredible mountain view behind the stage. Summer concerts at Kirstenbosch are a much-anticipated event in the calendar here. Tickets can be bought online at the Inside Guide website.

Kirstenbosch Summer Concert

Watching the summer concert with friends

Cape Peninsula Tour: Perfect for nature lovers

As a nature-lover, one of the highlights of my trip to Cape Town was the Cape Peninsula tour which I booked through the Baz Bus company. The bus picked me up from my hostel in central Cape Town and provided meals throughout the day as part of the package.

On the Cape Peninsula Tour

We drove along the Atlantic seaboard, taking in the jaw-dropping vista of the Twelve Apostles en route to Hout Bay. Swapping our bus for a boat, we then had a short trip to see colonies of fur seals only metres from the deck.

Fur seals in Hout Bay, South Africa
A boat trip in Hout Bay, South Africa

Next up were the penguins on Boulder Beach at Simon’s Town; I always think these little birds look so incongruous on a white, scorched beach instead of huddled an iceberg somewhere.

Jackass penguins at Boulder Beach

You can see the colony from a wooden decking which weaves into the dunes, so the birds can chill out on the sands without being harassed by hordes of idiots taking selfies.

Jackass penguins at Boulder Beach, with another kind of jackass :-D

You can also head to this website to find out more about seabird conservation in Southern Africa.

Our bus took us into the Cape Point Nature Reserve, where we disembarked and saddled up for a cycle ride, right through fynbos where bontebok (a kind of antelope), ostrich and zebra roamed. With unique flora and fauna, this World Heritage Site is a nature enthusiast’s paradise.

Cycling through Cape Point Nature Reserve

After that, we regrouped at the Cape of Good Hope, which was first thought to be the most southerly point of continental Africa, until another smart-alec travelled a bit further south-east and discovered Cape Agulhas. Still, Good hope is pretty impressive, with a feeling of being between two oceans at the edge of the world, as the wind buffets you from all sides.

At Cape Point with the tour group

Looking back across the Cape Point National Park

Hanging onto my hat at Cape Point

The region around Cape Town blew me away (almost literally) with its range of landscapes. From the misty peaks of Table Mountain, through lush fynbos filled with flowers to golden beaches stretching for miles, this part of the world is incredibly photogenic.

One of South Africa's stunning beaches

Seaside spots around in the Western Cape

Jenny and I made a few trips to the seaside south of Cape Town: Kalk Bay is a quaint postcard fishing village of boutique shops and seafood restaurants. We ate at the Brass Bell, something of an institution in the town with its tidal-pools and amazing views, as well as lush food like fish and chips and seafood pizza.

Scenes from Kalk Bay

Jenny’s brother Simon and I also went to Muizenberg, which draws the surfers with its long strand and impressive waves. Head to the African Soul Surfer for accommodation, surf school and seriously healthy food.

Muizenberg beach, surfers haven

Camps Bay is closer to the city and has more of a Miami beach feel, with white sands and palm trees and very classy restaurants all along the seafront. Head here for cocktails and enjoy a South African “sundowner” (an evening drink while you watch the sun set) if you’re feeling rather sophisticated.

Camps Bay near Cape Town

Things I didn’t do, but wish I had

No matter how long I stay in a place, there are always things I miss, or never get around to doing. Unbelievably, the Table Mountain tour is one of those things. Despite almost a month in Cape Town, I just never found myself in the city when the weather was clear or calm enough to venture up to the ‘Tabletop’. Head to this site to book your tickets (although as I click on this link to check it, even now it reads “closed due to adverse weather conditions”. It really is pot luck getting a trip up there). I meet people who rave about how exciting the cable car journey is and harp on about the astounding views of the city from the summit. Bah. I’m pretty sure I’ll head back to Cape Town, and next time I’m determined to experience the mountain, even if I practically sh*t myself up there due to my irrational of fear of heights.

The Tablecloth of Table Mountain

One place I really wish I’d seen is Robben Island. This former jail for political prisoners is now a museum, with guided tours given by former inmates. You can also take a cycle tour round the island (there are no cars, only buses) to explore the geology and wildlife.

District Six Museum is another eye-opening showcase of South African history, which tells the story of an area that was once a thriving part of the city, until the Apartheid Movement removed and displaced the population there and bulldozed what little remained of the community. Sobering yet compelling stuff.

Somewhere that has survived South Africa’s darker years is Bo Kaap, a vibrant example of Malaysian Islamic culture in Cape Town. I missed the museum, South Africa’s oldest mosque and the paintbox houses. Talk about a missed photo opportunity!

Photo of Bo Kaap by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

I was also advised to check out the market at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, which rivals London’s Borough and Spitalfields markets for sheer volume of mouth-watering food and convivial atmosphere. With festivals, crafts and live music, I have no idea how I managed to miss this gem in Cape Town. Don’t make the same mistake as me!

Crime in Cape Town

The bottom line is, yes, there’s crime in Cape Town, and quite a lot of it. There were several times when I felt nervous, particularly in the evenings when all sorts of shady characters seemed to be skulking about, even downtown on the main drag.

Long street in Cape Town

With such disparity of wealth in South Africa, thefts, gang-related incidents and general thuggery are commonplace. It not hard to see why there are so many desperate, dysfunctional people about. Something that really impacted me in South Africa was the sight of opulent, white-walled mansions or well-to-do streets, with high walls, razor wire and electric gates separating them from acres of wretched shanty towns, piled up on the hillsides around the affluent areas like mountains of rubbish.

When we first drove from Gordon’s Bay to Cape Town, the route took us along the N2 highway and past the largest township in South Africa: Khayelitsha. 2.4 million people live in this squalid neighbourhood, with 70% in shacks and over half with no running water. Oddly, almost all the corrugated iron roofs had a satellite dish or tv aerial (no doubt television provides a much-needed form of escapism in this sort of environment).

Khayelitsha near Cape Town

Despite being a hypocrite in that I was one of the very tourists gadding around Cape Town and drinking "sundowners" in swanky places like Camps Bay, I was disturbed by the disparity in South Africa.

During my stay in Cape Town, I heard of companies operating guided tours into these townships, where rich (usually white) tourists can pay to visit these impoverished neighbourhoods. Why anyone would want to observe other humans living in squalor is beyond me. No doubt some of these tours work with local people to bring revenue that supports them, but I still find the idea weird and distasteful.

If you visit South Africa and want to make a lasting difference to these communities, (one that doesn’t emphasise any kind of ‘us and them’ mentality), learn more about the Khayelitsha Project and contribute directly to their betterment.

Art made by a local resident of Khayelitsha

Wherever you travel in South Africa, Cape Town included, being streetwise is key to minimise any risks. If you bumble around staring at your mobile in the dodgier parts of town or happily snap away at the township folk as the sun dips over the mountain, you’re pretty much asking for a mugging. I also heard stories first-hand from naïve young backpackers who had been distracted while withdrawing cash from ATMs, only to find their card had been stolen. Another guy I met in a hostel told me about being held at knifepoint on the high street; a situation easily avoided if he hadn’t been wandering around Cape Town at 3am after the clubs closed.

Would I head back there, despite these terrible stories?

Mark looking amazed at Lion's Head

Too right, I would. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful, most interesting places I’ve ever visited. If you have a bit of common sense and alertness while staying in this city, you’ll have no worries.

And if all else fails, just head out into the fynbos and hang out with some baboons, preferably with a few extra sandwiches.

A mother baboon and baby at Cape Point

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