Prior to arriving in South Africa, we were not sure exactly what to expect and received mixed feedback from people that had previously visited. People spoke of poverty, security, and the dangers of driving although more spoke of the diversity, scenery, and history. It was not that long ago, there was a regular state of emergency in South Africa and protests, riots and killings were a regular occurrence. The 70’s and 80’s were terrible times here but even as late as the early 90’s, there was trouble. However, in 1994, South Africa drafted a democratic constitution that helped facilitate a pivotal change allowing for the transition from apartheid rule to a democratic nation. Nelson Mandela’s leadership, the end of apartheid and the 2010 World Cup (and many other factors) have had a significant impact on the culture here. Yet, one still feels the tension beneath the surface and the disparity among the population is visually apparent all over the country.
After having spent five weeks in South Africa, in our opinion, it is a stunning and beautiful country, diverse is so many ways- e.g. landscape, population, weather, etc.- with a lot to offer travelers. We spent three weeks in Cape Town and the surrounding areas- e.g. Cape Point, Stellenbosch, Hout Bay, Simon’s Town, and two weeks in the Karoo and the Garden Route. We could have stayed longer in South Africa and Africa as a whole. (We already want to return to the Western and Eastern Cape Winelands, spots missed on the beautiful Garden Route and Cape Town, in general. Also, in terms of Africa as a whole, we plan to visit places like Namibia, Madagascar, Mozambique and St Helena, an island off the coast of Africa which is building its first airport and flights from Johannesburg to St Helena will start this year.) We definitely suggest getting out there and visiting South Africa. Not only is this a gorgeous country to experience and explore, but right now, the exchange rate is so favorable against the USD, once you get here, you can have a 5 star vacation at a low cost.
Security should be a concern and one needs to be aware at all times while walking in the city and driving in the country. Nothing should be taken for granted. Common sense should prevail. But having said that, it is certainly possible to be comfortable and enjoy your visit.
When traveling, there is often the option to “go deep” in a region or “go wide”. We are certainly very thankful for having the opportunity to spend quality time in Cape Town and the surrounding region. Here are some of our reflections on our visit:
- The scenery is stunning between the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Table Mountain, Overberg Mountains, False Bay, Swartberg Pass.
- Mountains dominate the Cape Town cityscape. In addition to the well-known Table Mountain, one is constantly treated to views of Devils Peak, Lions Head, and the 12 Apostles – from everywhere, city center, on the coast, from the water, and on all of the inbound and outbound highways – it is wonderful.
- Keep an eye out for the “tablecloth” that blankets Table Mountain on a regular basis. Dense fog accumulates and spreads out quickly on Table Mountain. We witnessed it several times, and Table Mountain never disappoints offering stunning views.
- South Africa has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world-e.g. Coney Glen Beach in Knysna, The Head in Knysna, Oyster Bay, Walkers Bay Nature Reserve in Hermanus, etc. However, one needs to be careful of sharks on most beaches. Sharks are so prevalent that a shark flag system is used and shark spotters are positioned on or near the beaches.
- Our new favorite phrase is “Pleasure” (Pronounced Pleeeesure). It is the way it is pronounced as well that makes this word special. It is used in lieu of you’re welcome and much nicer, in my opinion. I don’t think we have heard it in London or Sydney as much. We heard it all the time after we thanked someone.
- “Just now”, a local phrase, not to be confused with right now as it could mean 5 minutes from now, 5 hours or 5 days and I think we experienced all definitions.
- This is a car-oriented culture, and drivers are aggressive. Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way. There is a limited bus and train system which we used very little. Uber is great and very affordable for inter-city transit.
- Although drivers are aggressive, they share the road. When someone would like to pass, the driver in the lead pulls over to the side allowing the other car(s) to pass. If only the Pacific Northwest would adopt this practice.
- Hitchhiking is very common here among the locals- women traveling solo, women with children and men are seen hitchhiking on the side of the road everywhere. Some holding cash in their hands to entice drivers. It is the non-official transport network.
- Constant attention while driving is required here. It is not unusual to see people walking in the middle of roads, running across the road or on the sides of highways. (We have enjoyed living without a car. The two weeks on the Garden Route was the first time we used a car in about 3 months.)
- Keep your eyes out for baboons in the road as well. We only saw baboons on the road twice during our time in South Africa but they are everywhere. Think of them as the “raccoon of Africa” only with longer claws and sharper teeth. They are after our food that we leave in cars, garbage cans, and along the roads.
- Be sure to stop at train tracks. There are no blinking lights or automated gates to alert drivers to oncoming trains. It is quite unnerving.
- People are generous. One morning we went to our car at a place we were staying on the Garden Route, and the young kid had washed our rental car for us. (Although Chris thinks they may be more entrepreneurial and looking for innovative ways for tips)
- Gas stations typically have not one but two or three attendants to service your car. One to pump the gas and the other to clean the windshield or check the oil, water, air pressure. It feels like the 70’s back in the States!
- Open bars and “free mini-bars” are the norm in places along the Garden Route. From water to wine to tawny ports, all are free and as much as want. It is very inviting.
- Personalized service on the Garden Route was a regular occurrence as well. At one place we stayed in Prince Albert, the owner made dinner reservations for us in advance without asking us. It was much appreciated since we arrived on a Sunday night in a sleepy town with not much open. At another place, we had a gorgeous rose arrangement in the room. (I thought they were fake roses, at first, but no, they were real.)
- Security is everywhere in Cape Town and surrounding areas- e.g. security personnel at grocery stores, security gates to enter spas, 24-hour armed security at apartment buildings and restaurants, and aggressive barb wire is everywhere. Even the vineyards, 50km outside of Cape Town, have barb wire surrounding the grapes.
- Wi-Fi is atrocious in this country. It could be the geography and population, outdated telecom laws or something we missed. But it is awful. The free stuff is bandwidth-limited and most of it is not free. It is very different from the most of the rest of the world, and the country would do well to address – both for tourism and more importantly, local growth and innovation.
- Mandela’s vision was for a rainbow nation. And while the sentiment is often quoted, as a traveler, we experienced something different. We were constantly confronted with two different classes of living standards. It was most prominent in tourist areas. As example, wherever there was a scenic, coastal hamlet, you could be sure to find a township 10km down the road housing the workers that support all the restaurant and hotels.
- For carnivores, there are a plethora of unique meats to try here- kudo, springbok, ostrich.
- Ostrich farms in the Karoo area are plentiful. The meat is lean and tasty. And it is lower in fat and cholesterol as well as higher in protein, calcium and iron as compared with other meats. Maybe we should eat more ostrich in the States? We really enjoyed all the meat but especially the springbok and ostrich carpaccio.
- Even the most popular snack is meat. Biltong is a tasty, cured and dried meat much better than jerky, in our opinion. We need to figure out either how to make Biltong or get in the States. It is super tasty.
- Bobotie is a favorite dish of Capetonians, the national dish of South Africa, and definitely worth a try. It’s a baked dish of minced beef and lamb with curry spice, yellow rice and topped with egg custard. Bananas, coconut, and chutney are served as sides for topping Bobotie.
- Wine and wineries are abundant here with the oldest vineyards dating to the 1650’s. An incredible amount of it is sold to the UK and not available elsewhere but the industry growth is strong and the geography wide – we will see more South African wine everywhere in the future.
- Pinotage, South Africa’s unique varietal, is a grape that is a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut. It is our new favorite wine, for sure.
- Cape Town is crazy busy during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. With Cape Town in the same time zone for most of Europe and easy overnight flights from most major cities in Europe, there are a lot of Europeans here during the holidays. Plus many from Johannesburg travel to Cape Town for the holidays.
- One can here a loud blast every day at noon in Cape Town. Don’t fret as it is the cannon that has been fired for hundreds of years, initially for sailors to set their watches. Today, local Capetonians still look at their watches to make sure it is set to noon.
- Most of the geraniums purchased in the States and Europe originated in South Africa.
- Protea, South Africa’s national flower, is a stunning flower with over 2,000 species. We admired these flowers everywhere we went.
- With the USD at an all time high against the rand (the finance minister was changed 3 times in a week prior to our arrival), hotels, restaurants, wine are super affordable.
- There seems to be a strong undercurrent in the country for President Zuma to step down. The changing of the finance minister three times in one week and the plummeting of the rand (local currency) seem to be driving this sentiment.
- Despite the financial challenges for the rand, Cape Town seems to be going thru a bit of a renaissance. Older buildings are being torn down and new ones going up. This was especially prevalent in Green Point, one of the neighborhoods we stayed.
- Cape Agulhas is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, not Cape Point.
- Sports are huge here, especially cricket and rugby. We went to a soccer game and cricket match. Average cricket match starts at 10 am and ends around 5 pm. You would have to love this sport to sit in the Newlands stadium, as nice as it is, for this long.
According to a recent survey, 41% of Americans did not take a single vacation day and 17% of Americans took less than five vacation days. Europeans, on the other hand, have four weeks vacation plus holidays and take their vacation seriously. If you do not have any vacation plans yet, take your vacation this year, and we highly recommend visiting Cape Town and the Western Cape region. (Think Southern California but less people, more culture, better beaches and more stunning mountains.) Cape Town is a gorgeous and very livable city with stunning coastline and mountains. Maybe a good place to spend six months a year when you retire?