literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

Get Away: Cape Town, South Africa

Get Away: Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town from the boat

I visited Cape Town in the spring of 2009 with my family. I was 21 years old and a junior in college. It was spring break and we decided to visit my aunt Ghazala, who lived in South Africa with her husband, Salman, and son, Hisham. At the time, they had already left Cape Town for Johannesburg, but we took a side trip to the coastal city. Prior to arriving there, I thought it would be another city somewhat like Joburg, modern with touches of a backward past. How wrong I was. Driving through Cape Town makes for a confusing experience. The city is thoroughly European, and the people are a mix of that continent, Africa and Asia – but they all consider themselves to be African. Buildings are quaint, for lack of a better word, and the roadside foliage is lush. At the time, there were soccer stadiums in various stages of construction in preparation for the following year's FIFA World Cup. One of the most spectacular ones was directly on the coast, and we could watch the sun set over it from our contemporary first-floor apartment.

My trip to South Africa was, in no exaggerated terms, life-changing. The experience of setting foot on Africa is wild enough as it is. These days, people vacation in Kenya like it's no big thing, and visiting North Africa has always been en vogue. Traveling to the South, though, is practically absurd. The nearly 30-hour journey is exhausting, and when you get there, Africa is nothing like what you expect it to be. As you flit about the modern city of Johannesburg, you're reminded to keep your windows rolled up at stoplights or someone may snatch your purse from your lap. Around Cape Town, the place looks somewhat dusty until you turn up a side road and arrive at a Vietnamese restaurant.

As I read Rian Malan's The Lion Sleeps Tonight, I couldn't help but agree with his assertion that South Africa is not only not what you expect but also not what you believe it to be. It is a country of contradictions, unpredictable in nearly every way, and all the more exciting for it.

This is a departure from my usual Get Away posts, but this week, I'm going to share some personal photos from my 2009 trip to South Africa. I'm focusing on the Cape Town portion here, since it's the place I learned from and loved the most. Please note that the place I regret I won't be able to show you is a waterside restaurant called Bertha's in Simonstown, the place where I had the best meal of my life, where a platter of towering fresh seafood was delivered and devoured in record time. Basically, I was too busy eating to take pictures. You'll have to go there to experience it yourself.

Please note: These are personal photos from a family vacation, so if you do choose to share, do so with care.

(Click images to enlarge.)

Let's start on Table Mountain:

A cablecar ride up to Table Mountain

Table Mountain is the backdrop to Cape Town, so named for its flat top and renowned for its views of the city and surrounding water. You can reach the top via cablecar (like we did) or by climbing the vertical face of the cliff like a crazy person. From the top, you can see all of the metropolitan area, dassies (these quick little hamster-type things), various flora, the clouds that roll in every afternoon and, of course, Robben Island.

Me conquering Table Mountain

Table Mountain

Table Mountain

Robben Island, of course, is the waterlocked prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. Living locked in a cell with barely enough space for a yoga mat, he, with his fellow prisoners, engaged in laborious tasks day after day until he was released in 1990, after a total 27 years in jail. Perhaps the most striking thing about Robben Island, in addition to the horrible tales told my our guide, an ex-prisoner, and the creepy facilities that housed so many men, was the fact that Cape Town, that beautiful, glittering city on the coast, is visible from the island. Next to that and an endless sky, the physical walls of the prisons seem like the less restricting factor.

From the boat to Robben Island

Guide and ex-prisoner at Robben Island

Inside Robben Island

Mandela's cell

Watch tower, Robben Island

While a trip to Robben Island will leave you moved, amazed, and grateful for your life, a trip to Cape Point surprisingly elicits similar emotions. It was on the way to this place that we stopped at Bertha's for that beautiful meal. Once there, a trolleycar took us partway up the cliffs, after which we climbed what seemed to be an unnecessary number of steps. Atop the cape is a lighthouse around which are thousands of names carved into the walls and stone. A thin white line in the water marks the points where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans' opposing currents crash into each other, and, staring out at the expanse, you really feel like you've reached the edge of the world. It is a beautiful place that succeeds in at once dwarfing you and proving the might of the human mind – that despite a world such as this, we have figured out how to traverse it, to get even a girl from Chicago to the South of Africa in really no time at all.

Cape Point

Left to right: me, my aunt Ghazala, my mom, and my sister Safiya.


Cape Point

Cape of Good Hope

Your turn: Have you been to Cape Town? Share your experience in the comments.

Book Recommendation: The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Høeg

Book Recommendation: The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Høeg

Eat Your Words: Diction and Score

Eat Your Words: Diction and Score