We are in a bar in Hong Kong’s Soho district. ‘Do you ever feel homesick?’ a friend asks. It’s six years since I lived full-time in South Africa and I’m about to reply ‘no’ when the bartender serves our G&Ts. In that moment I’m sipping a sundowner on Blouberg Beach as twilight washes Cape Town’s Table Mountain from soft shades of pink into purple. Every fibre of my being is desperate to breathe in fresh, salty air.
The answer’s obviously ‘yes’. My friend snaps me back to reality: ‘You’re all misty-eyed – and you return often. So, what makes Cape Town that special?’
Where does one start? Cape Town is regularly voted among the most beautiful cities on the planet. Summer days are more than 14 hours long. It’s a city of magnificent beaches and dramatic mountain scenery; there is an abundance of cafes and restaurants; the surrounding winelands are just phenomenal.
I stop listing reasons and suggest, ‘let me take you there.’
Blouberg – my home for a decade – is a good place to orientate yourself. It’s from here that you get those iconic views of Table Mountain across the bay with Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, in sight, too. Wedged between the foot of the mountain and Table Bay is Cape Town’s lively CBD, harbour and the V&A Waterfront. See that peak to the west of Table Mountain? That’s Lion’s Head. From the top there are spectacular views of the City Bowl and Table Bay on one side, and the Atlantic coastline on the other. We’ll buy a bottle of pinotage – made from South Africa’s signature red wine grapes – and walk up one afternoon to watch the sunset.
One way to avoid the busy summer holiday roads is to take a train along the Southern Line, which runs from near the foot of Devil’s Peak on the east side of Table Mountain all the way down to Simon’s Town. The joy of taking this train is that there are 28 stops along the way, so perhaps we’ll do a street art tour or browse designer shops at the Old Biscuit Mill in hip Woodstock. After passing through the leafy suburbs of Rondebosch, Newlands and Constantia we’ll hit the False Bay coast at Muizenberg.
It’s here that the journey becomes really special, and we’ll ride with the windows down, a sea breeze blowing through our hair. There can hardly be a train route more magnificent: from Muizenberg until the track ends in Simon’s Town, the train fringes the coast and sea spray from the Atlantic wets one side of the carriages while on the other, the craggy Table Mountain range, carpeted in the hard-leafed fynbos shrubland found only around the southern tip of Africa, runs like a spine through the peninsula all the way south to Cape Point.
Let’s have a lazy lunch in the boho fishing village of Kalk Bay – coffee and a pastry at Olympia Cafe or fish and chips at the Brass Bell, a restaurant surrounded on three sides by tidal pools and waves. Back on the train we’ll glide through sleepy Fish Hoek and Glencairn, and end our journey at the historic naval base of Simon’s Town. We could wander the town and its museums, or kayak to watch the colony of very casual penguins that nest at Boulders Beach.
There’s so much to see around Cape Town but it’d be a pity to not explore farther, so let’s hit the road. We’ll be heading through wide, open spaces and classic road-tripping territory, and we’ll need an appropriately South African playlist: jazz by Hugh Masekela, pop by Johnny Clegg, afropop beats by Brenda Fassie and a cappella hits by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Turn up the volume, china (note: we have adopted a version of rhyming slang – ‘China plate’, shortened to just ‘china’, means ‘mate’).
One of my favourite routes – after the dramatic Chapman’s Peak Drive on the west side of the Cape peninsula – is the 650-kilometre-long Route 62. You’ve heard of the Garden Route, right? Well, Route 62 runs parallel to the Garden Route but 100 kilometres or so inland, linking the quirky dorps (Afrikaans for ‘villages’) between Montagu and Port Elizabeth.
Montagu is a pretty town with wide streets and old Cape Dutch buildings set against a backdrop of towering Cape Fold mountains. It’ll take just over two hours to get here from Cape Town via the picturesque winelands – Stellenbosch, Paarl or Franschhoek, depending on the road we take. Then we’ll continue east.
It’s best to take two or three days to trundle along Route 62, stopping often. We’ll be driving through the arid Little Karoo, a rain-shadow desert that’s home to the biggest variety of succulent plants in the world. We can sample wine and olives at vineyards and farms around Barrydale and Calitzdorp; and pop into padstalle (roadside farm stalls) that sell homemade delicacies like rusks (hard biscuits), dried fruit and biltong. We’ll stop for lunch at Ronnies Sex Shop in Barrydale; the quirky pub is a popular stop along Route 62 for its milkshakes, small bites and the oddly photogenic collection of underwear hanging from the ceiling. In Oudtshoorn, there are ostrich farms and impressive rock formations in the Cango Caves; and photogenic windmills throughout the route. The mountains here will blow your mind: they’re part of the Cape Fold belt and in some places you’ll see curved lines of once-horizontal rocks that have crumpled like tissue paper.
Eventually we’ll drop into Port Elizabeth on the coast – so let’s fly from there to Nelspruit, because a trip to South Africa won’t be complete without spending time in the bush. Hearing a lion roar just outside camp is one of those bucket-list moments; you can feel the sound waves rippling through your body, leaving you with little doubt as to who’s the king of the wild.
We’ll base ourselves at Skukuza in Kruger National Park, as one of the best places to see lions is in the grasslands along the tar road between Skukuza and Satara camps (elephants, too). We’ll drive another morning from Skukuza to Lower Sabie camp, because the riverine bush along this route is said to have more leopards per square kilometre than anywhere else in South Africa.
Kruger is about 18 times the size of Hong Kong. You might be tempted to explore as much of it as possible, but I’ll suggest we slow down. Sit quietly and allow all of your senses to tune into the bush – listen to the insects and birds; smell the dry grass; feel how the air changes when you walk under a tree. You’ll soon realise that what makes a park special isn’t just ticking the Big Five off your list.
‘Excuse me madam, would you like another G&T?’ The barman’s voice pulls me back into Hong Kong but as soon as my hand touches the new, cold glass the bar’s walls dissolve into acacia trees and golden strands of grass, and I’m standing, G&T in hand, watching the sunset over the African bush. There’s not another soul in sight, and a lion’s roar rumbles from the distance.
Cathay Pacific launches a seasonal three-times-weekly service to Cape Town on 14 November
Need to know
Robben Island robben-island.org.za
Table Mountain tablemountainnationalpark.org
Southern Line trains cttrains.co.za
Street art tours animatours.co.za
Old Biscuit Mill theoldbiscuitmill.co.za
Simon’s Town kayaking tours kayakcapetown.co.za
Road conditions are generally good in South Africa and, unless you want to drive some of the more dramatic mountain passes along Route 62, a saloon will be fine. route62.co.za
Ronnies Sex Shop bar, Barrydale www.ronniessexshop.co.za
Skukuza in Kruger National Park sanparks.org
Get out of the city: try Montagu for mountains, Paternoster for wild beaches, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch for wine
Tap into local knowledge. Ask your hotel or host for suggestions on after-dark activities, as different areas in Cape Town have different drawcards, from sunset picnic concerts to theatres to full-moon hikes
Buy a local SIM card. Vodacom and MTN are two big providers with kiosks at the airport
Eat out as much as possible – don’t skimp out on trying aromatic Cape Malay cuisine, meats cooked on the braai, biltong (meat jerky) and ocean-fresh seafood
Waste water. The city’s water crisis is over, but it’s still prudent to watch your water usage
Forget two useful numbers: 10177 is for the ambulance or fire department, while police can be reached on 10111
Throw cigarette butts out of the car window – you will be fined
Procrastinate – if you plan on taking the cable car up Table Mountain, go on your first clear, calm day. The cable car is often closed due to strong winds