TRIP REPORT: SOUTH AFRICA & MADAGASCAR – SEPT/OCT 2015
Part 1: PRETORIA AND CAPE TOWN
Is there an anti-dote for jet lag? Not really. The best you can do is to stay up when it is light, and try to sleep when it is dark outside. Your body’s natural circadian rhythms will adjust on its own. It takes several days to overcome skipping across seven or eight time zones, which is why the first day or two of an Africa trip can be rough. My best advice? Rest up for a couple of days before you go on safari. In cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg or Nairobi you can find many interesting things to explore while you recuperate.
So it was that I found myself on a mid-September day enjoying breakfast on the patio in the cool, dry air of a spring day in Pretoria, having been wide awake since 2 am. It was about as perfect an African morning as you can imagine, with the softest of breezes carrying a hint of smoke, Jacaranda flowers and freshly mowed grass. Add a clear blue sky and you have a typical spring morning in the highveld. For a Houstonian, this is simply gorgeous weather, Southern California-like. Minimums around 50F, afternoon highs of about 80F.
My accommodation for the three nights in Pretoria would be Castello di Monte – an elegant and quite imposing Italianate villa in Waterkloof Ridge, an eastern Pretoria suburb. The property is roomy and quiet in a beautiful garden setting, with some pretty views from the balcony, towards the north. Don’t feel like venturing out into Pretoria much in search of sustenance? Don’t worry. Castello di Monti’s more than capable kitchen can whip up something delectable for breakfast, lunch & dinner.
A table d’hote 3-course dinner at about $20.00 per person on the night I arrived, included a choice of two entrees, a beef or fish main course and a couple of desserts. It was all good and deftly served in the softly lit main dining hall with piped classical music blending with the muted conversations of a few fellow guests. Over the course of three days there I heard mostly American and English accents, with some Afrikaans as well. Castello di Monti would be the perfect choice for a night or two at the start of a Southern Africa trip, or as a stop-over before or after a Blue Train or Rovos Rail trip.
An apartment in Cape Town
On Sept 18 our group assembled in Johannesburg Airport for the SAA flight to Cape Town. As always, it took almost exactly two hours to cover the 1,000 miles between the two cities. Once we had collected our luggage in Cape Town Airport (it took too long!) it was a quick 20-minute drive to the V & A Waterfront where we were going to spend the next five nights.
Our serviced apartment at 106 Juliette turned out to be ideal for us, with 3 en-suite bedrooms, one with a safe. The apartment had a well-equipped kitchen, a spacious lounge with HDTV, properly functioning high-speed internet and a pleasant enough view over the V & A Marina, with the One & Only Hotel visible in the background. It was quiet and peaceful and we felt totally safe due to the high level of security; two of us had to be photographed for temporary access cards. Other than the door to our apartment being left wide open one morning, security was indeed tight and you couldn’t move around without an access card.
Table Mountain Cable Car trip
Our first day in the Cape was a clear, crisp morning with not a cloud to be seen and practically windless. Which means just one thing: Table Mountain. A quick Uber-ride later, we were in line to buy tickets for the 4-minute one-way revolving cable car ride to the top of the mountain. Apparently the ride had been shut down for the previous two days and there was clearly a backlog. Dozens of buses were dropping off multiple dozens and even hundreds of visitors, all with the same goal. Get up the mountain. There were two lines: one for people who had pre-booked online and others who had not. On this specific day it didn’t really matter which line you were in – it took the better part of 2 hours to get to the front of the line. If you do want to beat the crowds go on a week day (not Saturday or Sunday) and be there early.
No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the view of Cape Town, Table Bay and the surrounding areas from the top of Table Mountain is as fresh as a newly baked cookie. I have been looking down over it off and on for 50 years, first having traveled to the mother city as a youngster. The view hasn’t changed much. The city itself has grown somewhat but the view of the bay, the coastline, and distant Robben Island is just as pretty as ever.
It is now easier to get up there than before. The older versions of the cable car were much more likely to be forced to a halt by high wind and would sometimes remain inoperable for several days. The current roomier gondola can take as many as 60 persons at a time and the interior rotates, for great views in every direction.
Noticeably, photography has become much more ubiquitous over the years, since the advent of cheap point and shoot cameras and of course, smart phones and other digital photo devices. Everybody’s a photographer now and over the space of a few hours on the top of the mountain, I witnessed dozens of landscapes, portraits, selfies, selfies-with-a-stick and even some action pics (‘jump’!) being taken. Some of these no doubt better than others. Between the four of us we made some pretty decent captures too!
Sanlam Cape Town Marathon
The next morning two of our group tackled the 26.2 mile (44 km) Sanlam Cape Town Marathon, spending 4 hours or so traversing the streets of Cape Town and parts of the Cape Peninsula in the company of several thousand other runners. As marathon weather goes, it was not ideal with the starting temperature around 60F, topping out at around 72F later in the morning. The race was well organized with packet pickup at ‘The Lookout’ which is walking distance from the V & A Waterfront.
If you’re not quite up to the full marathon distance, there is also a 10km Peace Run, on an out and back course along the Green Point and Sea Point promenade, a wide, flat brick walkway which is almost never without some runners, walkers, bicyclists, kids and dogs enjoying the gorgeous setting.
The four of us enjoyed a post-marathon cold beer and burger – or fish & chips – at Mitchell’s Tavern, a popular venue judging by the number of patrons we saw there throughout the day and night.
Chapman’s Peak Drive
By mid-afternoon our rental car was dropped off and we went on a sight-seeing excursion along the Atlantic Beach drive, through cosmopolitan Sea Point, Green Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton, Camps Bay and via Hout Bay up into the hills and on to Chapman’s Peak Drive.
It has been several years since I last drove this route and some significant changes had been made. For one thing, Chapman’s Peak Drive is now a tollway with tariff of ZAR40.00 per person per entry (less than $3.00). In a couple of places the road now runs under an artificial overhang, protecting the cars and their inhabitants from falling rocks, a real hazard here.
These structures do not detract from the experience. Driving over Chapman’s Peak is still an exhilarating, even heart-stopping experience with a cliff-face sometimes mere feet from the vehicle on one side and an abyss on the other. The narrow winding road exposes new and different views to both passenger and driver constantly with glimpses of cliff-sides, distant coastlines, shimmering water and sky combining to create an unbeatable natural kaleidoscope.
We were fortunate to find ourselves at a viewpoint close to the crest of the pass just as the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. A long orange line stretched out over the water for a few minutes before the sun disappeared into the water. For a couple of minutes the dozen or so onlookers stood around and enjoyed the rosy afterglow. Then the darkness set in rapidly. Quietly we all got back in the car and drive back to Cape Town. A sunset like that puts everyone in a contemplative mood.
Dinner this evening was at Meloncino which has become a favorite of ours over the last few years. It is a reliable Italian restaurant in the Victoria Wharf section of the V & A Waterfront. Many of the tables have nice views over the city & Table Mountain but more importantly, the food is good! This time around we tried some lamb chops, steak and a pasta dish and we rated it as one of the best meals of the entire trip.
No Sharks Today – Wine Country instead
This day was supposed to have been devoted to a Great White Shark cage-diving outing out of Simon’s Town with ASEC but it was cancelled due to a prematurely early end to the season. We will be trying again in 2016.
Instead we opted to drive out to the Cape wine lands, first along the N1 to Paarl and then the R45 to Franschoek. Franschoek is unquestionably the prettiest of the wine lands towns, surrounded as it is by the craggy peaks of the Cape Fold Mountains, one of the oldest geological structures in Southern Africa.
The town itself is still quaint even though it has become a popular tourist stop. En route into town we made a quick detour to La Residence, a superb boutique hotel, famous for hosting celebrities like Elton John. We peeked into his favorite suite – the Maharani – which like all the other La Residence rooms was exquisitely furnished in Liz Biden’s signature style, with individual handpicked antique pieces, vivid colors and lots of imagination and verve.
At L’Ormarins Estate – now part of the Rupert empire – we walked through the superb Franschoek Car Museum where about 80 cars (from a collection of nearly 300) are exhibited in four purpose-built halls. From Model T Fords to Nelson Mandela’s BMW, a McLaren F1, Ferrari 250 GT SWB and an exquisite 1929 Mercedes Benz S-Type. My personal favorite? A shiny Shelby Cobra looking fast and aggressive even in such a demure setting.
The L’Ormarins red wines are of a consistently high quality and their Optima, Cabernet Franc and Syrah were impressive as before. Likewise the white wines which included a Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Uncharacteristically the tasting experience seemed disorganized and disjointed. There were no crackers or bread or cheese available to cleanse the palate between varietals and it took nearly 20 minutes to get an order of 3 different teas, apparently due to an issue with the labels. For a winery of this quality and reputation the Rupert organization really should get this right. We enjoyed the intimate setting and the wine expert was quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic but the execution and ‘choreography’ were a major fail.
Wine-tasting at The One & Only
By late afternoon we were back in Cape Town and seated around a table at the luxurious One & Only Hotel, a stone’s throw from the heart of the Waterfront. In front of each of us was an array of delicately stemmed wine glasses and a platter with several different types of cheese. We were there to enjoy the One & Only’s Signature winetasting which we proceeded to do under the guidance of one of the hotel’s knowledgeable sommeliers. Starting with an elegant South African sparkling wine from the Graham Beck stable, we steadily tasted our way through a chenin blanc, a viognier, a chardonnay and a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon. Interspersed with much playful conversation and laughter and a sliver of blue cheese or brie every now and then. The next hour or so slipped by very quickly.
Sea Point Promenade and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
This morning we retraced the route of the 10K Peace Run, spending about an hour running along the Sea Point Promenade, the noisy waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing into the seawall right by us.
The occasional cyclist and walker passed us by, and there were several hang gliders landing in short intervals at the small park adjacent to the promenade. Once or twice a deliberate detour over the surf and across the waves elicited squeals from the hang glider passengers who no doubt did not relish the prospect of landing in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
We stopped to check the temperature of the water, looked at a couple of art installations and peered through a ‘gun-sight’ at the Rhinosaur sculpture, a chilling work of art which symbolizes the imminent demise of Southern African’s rhino population as a viable species in the wild. Depressing thought.
Back in the apartment and a light breakfast later, we piled back into the car for a trip to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Of all of Cape Town’s many attractions, this one is my favorite. It attracts more visitors than any other sight in the Mother City. Even so, there are no long lines here; at worst it takes a few minutes to buy a ticket. No 2 to 4 hour wait here like at Table Mountain Cable Car!
We arrived at Kirstenbosch in late September which is arguably the very best time of the year to be there; less than a month after the end of the rainy season with the full spring bloom effect visible everywhere. I had not seen Kirstenbosch in such splendid shape in many years. There were blazingly colorful displays of red, yellow, purple and orange to be seen all over the place. The Namaqualand daisies, vygies, pincushions, arum lilies, watsonias and many other species were in full bloom.
We wandered around for several hours, enjoying each beautiful visa, every now and then looking up at the mountain slopes dominating the scene. Finding a Protea Cynaoroides (King Protea) in bloom was a highlight, as was a walk across the Boomslang canopy walkway.
We finished off our Kirstenbosch experience with an enjoyable lunch at Moyo Restaurant; everyone tried the quasi-traditional fare with innovative expressions of old favorites such as as bobotie, samoosas, pap and boerewors rolls.
Our Cape Town stay came to an end with a dinner at the always reliable Baia restaurant at the V & A Waterfront. I enjoyed reconnecting with some old friends and we all enjoyed Baia’s expertly grilled Kabeljou and langoustines, among others.
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