The Covenant- South Africa

During the Footsteps to Freedom tour that we took in Cape Town, I asked our guide ( who was very knowledgeable about South African history) for book recommendations on ThecovenantSouth Africa.  The first book he rattled off was The Covenant by James Michener.  This coupled with the same recommendation from my husband, I was sure I could not go wrong reading this voluminous, historical fiction novel spanning prehistoric times to the 1970’s focused on South Africa . Given the recommendations from great people coupled with our fondness for South Africa, I will try to be objective here, but a warning my judgement might be a little skewed. 🙂

Michener’s writing style makes learning South African history a pleasure even though the book is quite long- about 1250 pages. He weaves a fascinating story of multiple generations of families from diverse, ethnic backgrounds  and includes beautiful descriptions of this gorgeous country- e.g. Karoo, the veld, etc.  Some real characters that were influential in South African history are also included- e.g. Jan Smuts, Cecil Rhodes, Paul Kruger, Gandi, etc. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the midsection and the subplot were a little too lengthy and less interesting due in part to the superstitious elements which did not resonate with me.  The book demonstrates the heinous consequences of people incorrectly interpreting religious books ( interesting given the parallels with present day).  And the stories and examples used to describe how ludicrous the apartheid system was is well-done and poignant. This is a must read for anyone planning to visit and/ or wants to understand the complex and interesting history of South Africa including some of the drivers behind the reprehensible apartheid system (although the book is long and a little slow in the midsection).

Reflecting on South Africa

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.)                               IMG_3000
  • 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?



Plucking a Pearl from Oyster Bay

“With nowhere to go but everywhere…”, we left the desert and headed for the coast, specifically to Oyster Bay, 300 klicks away.  Our course weaved through a set of dramatic canyons, more ostrich farms, wine farms and finally ended in a painful, but beautiful, 25 km stretch of dirt road that intersected countless dairy farms and deposited at the end of the earth.

A Garden Route Post 4a

We stayed at a small lodge, Oyster Bay Lodge, in Oyster Bay on a gigantic estate with 3.5 km of deserted coastline.  The property was stunning and just the place to hang out for a couple days and enjoy the gorgeous scenery. There were more trail runs with the birds in the morning, picnics on the beach and cribbage in the afternoon.  (We still need to play the rubber match.)

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After a couple days in Oyster Bay, we continued along to the coast making it to Knysna for a few nights. Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Wilderness and George are all big holiday destinations with incredible coast lines, beaches filled with Great White sharks and forests filled with mountain bike trails and epic multi-day treks, including the world famous Otter trail and shorter Dolphin trail.  We were not equipped for either trail so we may have to come back one day!  We opted for a few other shorter day hikes at Tsitsikamma National Park and Goukamma Nature Reserve.  Both beautiful spots.

Tsitsikamma is well known for its suspension bridge trail as well as its waves (which are one of the most photographed spots in the country).


Goukamma was much smaller but no less spectacular.  We went out for a 2-3 hour hike and saw only 2 people the entire time.

Hand operated ferry to trail head


Just us for miles

The highlight of the Knysna area was the Heads  – the stunning outlet for the Knysna river. There was a bit of rain and wind when we were visiting which was a much appreciated break from the desert conditions over the last week, but it prevented us from our plans to see the Heads from a kayak.  But we were not too disappointed as the view from the cliffs above were fantastic.


We are moving on from the coast again and are off to the winelands next.



South African Road Trip

We set out from Cape Town with intentions of spending a couple weeks exploring the Western and Eastern Cape. We will drive to Oyster Bay just about 100km south of Port Elizabeth spending most of the time in the Karoo (a semi-desert natural area) on the way out and following the coast on the way back.

However, our first few days, we spent driving out along the coast to Stanford visiting the Hermanus and Klein River lagoons.

A Garden Route Post 1


We stopped in Betty’s Bay on the way to check out some penguins.  While there, we bumped into some Dassies (or Rock Hyrax or 20lb Guinea Pig!) and more than a few endangered Black Cormorants.



Our next stop was the seaside town of Hermanus. Only an hour away from Cape Town, this is a fantastic spot for whale watching although the summer is not the best time to view them.  The town has an amazing 10km cliff trail along the waterfront that is scattered with sculptures and dramatic views.



Our ultimate destination for the day was Stanford and the Mosaic Lodge  on the Klein River lagoon.  The lodge is situated on this gorgeous lagoon, a stunning setting below a dramatic mountain range and home to an amazing amount of bird life.


The lodge is also not too far from a dune swept beach and nature reserve, Walker’s Bay, where we spotted some whales off the coast. We didn’t see much of the whale but could see their spouts as they exploded through their blowholes. We really enjoyed our stay her and our morning runs through the fynbos (shrub land) dodging porcupine diggings and accompanied by the calls of the blue cranes (South Africa’s national bird).


It was a great start to our road trip. The scenery has been dramatic and varied.


It has been exciting learning the road etiquette and getting comfortable with the left-hand driving and the aggressive driving. Roads are generally in good condition but some of the routes includes dirt roads and most do not have much of a shoulder. There tends to be people everywhere and they often wander out in the road – even if the road is a super highway.  Drivers are fast but very considerate of others. Passing is part of the experience, but slow drivers and trucks pull over to the side for overtaking vehicles. There is none of the maddening slow drivers in the fast lanes that is a frustrating aspect of driving back in the States.

We are looking forward to the sights down the road.  Stay tuned for more photos and descriptions in the coming days.

A Little “Mother City” History

We have really been enjoying learning the history of the places we have been visiting.  Traveling provides a source of education difficult to get in school (and far more interesting), and Cape Town, South Africa has a fascinating history.  If you find yourself in Cape Town, here are a few historical tours and museums to check out.

  1. Footsteps to Freedom Walking TourHighly recommended.
  2. Robben IslandA must do when visiting Cape Town.
  3. District 6 MuseumJust OK but nonetheless interesting and informative.

Footsteps to Freedom Walking Tour was, by far, our most interesting experience.  A passionate and knowledgeable man, Ivor, led the tour.  Ivor was born and raised in Cape Town but left during the tumultuous 70’s and 80’s.  There was a plethora of information Ivor provided in the 2.5 hour walking tour.  Here are just a couple ( of the many) interesting facts shared during this tour:

  1. The tour starts at the Taj Hotel in downtown which is conveniently located near the Mandela Rhodes Place.  A partnership was established between Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust of Cecil Rhodes (also the sponsor of the Rhodes Scholarships) giving full funding for up to a maximum of two years of postgraduate study for an African citizen under 30 years of age.




2. The purple people of Cape Town:


In 1989, thousands of anti-apartheid activists took to the streets in Cape Town four days before parliamentary elections, police turned a water cannon with purple dye on them in an effort to halt the demonstrations and mark the protesters for identification and arrest. The plan backfired, however, when one protester hijacked the nozzle from a police officer and sprayed office buildings and the local headquarters of the ruling National Party.

Unesco declared Robben Island in the Western Cape a World Heritage Site in 1999. Robben Island is located in Table Bay about 30 minutes off the coast of Cape Town.  We were really looking forward to this tour and had read great things about it; however, the tour sadly did not live up to expectations.

Robben Island is the infamous place where Nelson Mandela would spend 18 of his 27 prison years.   Also, Robert Sobukwe was also imprisoned at Robben Island  (for a total of 6 years in solitary confinement and served a total of 9 years) after leading a march to local police stations defying the Pass Law.  The Pass Law was an internal passport system designed to segregate the population.  In my opinion, the tour did not do a great job of detailing the lives of these political prisoners who were instrumental in the end of apartheid.  Nonetheless, it is a must do when in Cape Town.

The tour is about 4 hours long and includes a 30 minute boat ride to Robben Island from the V&A Waterfront.  The boat ride alone makes the tour worth it providing amazing views of this stunning city.




The tour also includes a bus ride around the island with commentary on the history plus a tour of the prison by one of the prior inmates.  Again, the tour could have gone into more depth on the political prisoners that were held here and seemed to be geared too much towards kids with not enough details on the facts.  (Suggest reading the Long Walk to Freedom prior to this tour.)


District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867.   District Six was a vibrant center in downtown Cape Town. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the process of forcibly removing non-whites from District Six to areas outside the city had begun.  This obviously caused significant hardship for folks as they not only had to leave their homes and neighbors but were moved to areas that required a significant commute to their jobs.

In 1966, District Six it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. More than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers.  The museum was established in 19904as a memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six during the Apartheid.

The end of Apartheid (Afrikaan word mean the state of being apart) in 1994 and the drafting of a democratic constitution was an amazing event after nearly 40+ plus years of racial segregation.  It is a wonder that the country did not erupt in civil war during this time.   Today, despite the recent economic challenges.  Unemployment is around 40%.  Just before we arrived, the Rand plummeted and President Zuma, in the course of a week, changed finance ministers three times. Yet, despite these challenges,  Cape Town is vibrant place.  And outside investment continues to pour in with many Europeans buying holiday homes.  We were surprised at the number of cranes in the city and the amount of building happening here right now.

Roaring Waves and Stunning Views in Cape Town

We are winding down our three weeks in Cape Town and heading out on the Garden Route here in South Africa.  At times, it has felt like most of Europe and Johannesburg are here in Cape Town.  Indeed, hundreds of thousands flock to the city for great weather and holiday revelry every year. Restaurants, parks, and tourist spots have been absolutely jammed.

Besides the city’s history, the stunning scenery and not packing for three weeks, we will miss one of the best running routes that we’ve ever experienced.  Our route wound through the  Green Point Park and along Seapoint’s waterfront promenade.


Green Point Park connects to the waterfront promenade which runs from the V&A Waterfront thru Green Point, Sea Point and Bantry Bay.   Along the promenade (the pictures do not do it justice), you can hear the ocean roar, watch waves crashing and experience  stunning views of Table Mountain, Signal Hill and Lions Head.




Every day, a wonderful mix of people were out enjoying the park running, walking or biking.  There are also cruising bikes that are rented in various locations along the promenade and in downtown.


It is heavily used by all ages.  We also found the park and the promenade to be very safe.  Like any big city, Cape Town has its share of homeless and with unemployment around 40-50%, I am surprised we did not see more homeless, but we ran it almost everyday we were here and were very comfortable.  If you visit Cape Town and enjoy walking or running along the ocean, I suggest staying in Green Point or Sea Point.  You could also stay in the V&A Waterfront, but be warned that it can be very touristy there.



Spending three weeks in Cape Town has been wonderful. And while we enjoyed the many sights and scenes of the area, we also very much enjoyed the simple pleasure of a lazy day with a run on the waterfront and a stroll to our local coffee shop.

The Incredible Kirstenbosch Gardens

We appreciate a public garden but do not necessarily seek them out in our travels. As modest, amateur gardeners, we have been pleased with our cultivation of hydrangeas and cardoons in the past, but gardening is by no means a central hobby of ours.  Yet, our visit to the Kirstenbosch  (Kirsten’s Forest) Gardens of Cape Town blew us away.  What a fantastic outdoor space – 528 hectares (1300 acres) of well-designed garden in a dramatic setting beneath Table Mountain.


We spent an afternoon strolling through the well shaded paths hiding from the brutal mid-day sun of Cape Town’s summer.


A new and unique feature to the garden is the Boomslang, a walkway suspended above the tree canopy.  While it looks a lot like your typical architecture, its cable-based architecture provides a bit of action while traversing it.   A bit crowded and not too long but worth a crossing, if you are in the gardens.


Kristenboch has a lot to offer – an endangered species garden, aromatic garden, herbal and useful garden, and a massive protea garden (the national flower and our new favorite).


It also has a sculpture garden with art from many local artists.

There is a back route up to Table Mountain via the Skeleton Gorge that is a beautiful dirt trail following a river bed.

And plenty of avian activity.


We highly recommend a visit if you are in Cape Town.

Back on Bikes on the Tavern of the Seas, Cape of Good Hope

“This cape is the most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.” – From the journal of Sir Francis Drake, on seeing the Cape for the first time, 1580.

The Cape is a place of stunning beauty, scenery and history.  Today, we were treated to one stunning view after another biking from Camps Bay to Cape Point (otherwise known as Cape of Good Hope) with Bike and Saddle.  We were joined with a rider from Holland and another from Johannesburg.

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The biking began with a climb and it seemed like the climbing did not end.   Looking at the topography of area that surround Cape Town, it is pretty hard to cycle without some good climbs, but they reward you with some spectacular views. 

We started off with a small climb out of Camps Bay and then biking down to Hout Bay before cycling up Chapman’s Peak (otherwise referred to at Chappies).  



The world’s largest individually timed cycle race takes places in the Cape Town area every year with about 35,000 cyclists, and Chappies is part of the route.  Chapman’s Peak Drive hugs the near-vertical face of the mountain from Hout Bay. Hacked out of the face of the mountain between 1915 and 1922, the road was at the time regarded as a major engineering feat.



Complements of the Interwebs

The climb up Chappies starts at 15 meters, and the summit is around 166 meters. Total distance of the cycle along Chappies is about 11 kms.  Chappies is a stunning bike or drive, and a must do when in Cape Town.

Shortly after Chappies, we cycled another gorgeous coastline road to a small town called Scarborough.  Yet another climb before reaching the town of Scarborough, and a brief stop for some coffee and a delicious Green Genie Smoothie at a cool, newly opened spot, Hub Cafe and Greenshop.




From Scarborough, we cycled Red Hill Road to lunch which was the last of the climbs for the day.    Rising in altitude from 108m to 263m and is 7.6 km in length with about roughly a 4 km climb and 3 km descent down some hairpin turns to beautiful Simon’s Town. Along the way, there were countless signs warning of wild baboons. Many cautioned drivers to keep their windows and doors closed. Luckily, we were on bikes so did not have to worry about that.


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Simon’s Town is also home to the African Penguin Reserve which is another must do and is a very interesting location because it is one of the only spots in the world that you can observe the penguins at very close range without disturbing them.  The penguins were introduced in 1982 with just two pairs and have grown to about 2,200 colony.




After lunch and the trip to see the penguins, we headed out to Cape Point.   Cape Point is mistakenly thought to be where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet but in fact, the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet about 300 kms from Cape Point at Cape Agulhas National Park. Another stunning and beautiful day on the Cape!


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Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!