Cape Town and its Many Activities
What is one of the most painful things in life? Commuting. Everybody hates sitting in traffic, in limbo – not here, and not there. Sitting in an airplane can arguably be considered worse. You’re not able to stop whenever you want to grab some food, you are 100% in the hands of the pilots & flight attendants. Chicago to Zürich, Zürich to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to Cape Town… Why the hell would anyone voluntarily spend 48 hours in transit to another country?
After 48 hours in airplane limbo, I finally had arrived at my destination. I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming beauty of Cape Town, or South Africa in general. Views of the Atlantic Ocean were seen on the drive in. Towering mountains seemed to protectively enclose the city. Table Mountain, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, had clouds clinging to its peak, rolling off the top of it like a cloud-making machine.
I’ll admit, I needed to chill out before exploring the city. I arrived in the late afternoon and had an early rise for a shark cage diving tour with White Shark Diving Company in Gansbaai the following morning – my 26th birthday.
Arriving at my hostel, I unpacked some things, grabbed a quick dinner down the block and passed out.
A quick note, though. Backpackers in Green Point (B.I.G.) is an incredible establishment, and the hostel I remained at during the entire duration of my time in Cape Town. The staff is extremely accommodating, the layout makes it easy to make new friends, and there are outings every evening where a member of staff goes out to dinner with willing groups of tenants.
Maybe not the most flattering picture, the B.I.G. is seriously incredible. They have dozens upon dozens of pamphlets of activities to do (skydiving, tours, shark cage diving, etc.) and since they are affiliates with the companies, they call and book for you. You don’t have to do anything yourself except show up and pay for the tour.
My first activity? Shark cage diving.
White Shark Diving Co.
My 26th birthday and I was awake at 7am to get picked up by White Shark Diving Co. Our driver, Andy, was a spiritual wealth of knowledge, and while most of us were suffering from jet lag and a case of rough-mornings, he made the two hour trip quite enjoyable.
When we arrived at Gansbaai, we received a complementary brunch, along with some rules and information about the great white sharks we would [hopefully] be seeing. Our instructor, Mary, informed us that orca whales have strangely been eating the livers of great white sharks, so they had been scarcely seen in the area for over a month.
Soon enough, we were in a boat and driving fifteen minutes out to jump into a cage with one of the deadliest creatures in the ocean.
When we dropped anchor, someone immediately yelled “Great white!” Everybody rushed for their wetsuits, while I struggled to put in contacts. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I was the first in the cage.
Two groups took turns getting in and out of the cage. The first round was incredibly active – we saw great whites multiple times, along with plenty sandbar sharks. When I was first in the cage, I was in the middle so I would see mostly the profile of the sharks. My second time I was positioned right at the edge of the cage… which is where they drag the bait. I feared for my life as a great white came right at me.
White Shark Diving Company put together a really nice video with a GoPro available for purchase at the end of the trip – if you want to see that shark, it’s at 2:31 on this video.
Driving Back from Gansbaai
Andy drove us back to our hostels once the trip was finished, but not after stopping at multiple destinations so we could get some scenic pictures.
First, we stopped to see Southern Right whales breaching. What a truly magical birthday it was becoming.
While I took probably too many pictures of these whales, this is my favorite. The monochromatic colors matched by the calm, sinking tail of a Southern Right whale. How cool!
We also stopped at a spot where rock dassi hang out. What are they? These cool mini-bear, squirrel things!
These little critters look pretty standoffish, but if you have food, they’ll jump onto your shoulders from overhead rocks. Our driver Andy had three on him at once, feeding them chunks of bananas. I crouched down without food and one hopped onto my lap.
Fashion model superstar extraordinaire. Wow wow wow.
I would say my first full day in South Africa was a success… and I hadn’t even done anything in Cape Town!
When I got back to the B.I.G. (Backpackers in Green Point hostel), it was time for dinner. A group of us went out for burgers and I made friends with two French Canadians from outside Quebec. We hit it off quite well and made plans to climb Table Mountain the following morning.
Bo-Kaap & Kirstenbosch
What I learned in my short stay in Cape Town is that while you might have plans, and have scheduled tours or fun activities… Cape Town is in charge, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Sophia, Frank, and I met up in the morning after our hostel provided breakfast. We drove up to Table Mountain only to find out the cable cars were closed due to strong winds – an occurence that would be quite repetitive throughout my stay.
Instead, we drove down to Bo-Kaap, a neighborhood in Cape Town with brightly colored homes: painted to identify each person’s trade years and years ago.
We stopped for tea, and decided the sun was quite brutal. Reconvening after noon, we went for a delicious lunch and then headed to Kirstenbosch gardens – a sort of alien plant sanctuary on the base of Table Mountain.
I wish I had taken pictures of the plants, but for whatever reason I didn’t. They were all so foreign and alien-looking, but when you see so many strange plants at once, they almost start to feel not quite as special. Regardless, it was really neat to see them. While we weren’t able to hike Table Mountain, we were at least able to take the trails up to the base of the mountain at Kirstenbosch… so there’s that.
Paragliding Off Signal Hill
I’ve yet to mention my travel companion, Elyse, because the day we went paragliding was the first day we actually spent together! We were initially supposed to go shark cage diving together, but she had fallen ill, and I didn’t want to reschedule since it was my birthday. So she rested up, and then went the following day. So my third full day in Cape Town was our first day spent together. What a way to start it!
We took an Uber up to Signal Hill to prepare for our paragliding experience. Between Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill, Signal Hill is definitely the smallest. It’s not even really a mountain, just… well, a hill.
Still a lot bigger than the hills in Illinois. Actually the only hill I can think of is a garbage dump.
ANYWAY, we got up to Signal Hill and while I thought I would be a little scared, I wasn’t at all. My company was called Cape Town Tandem Paragliding and it was a really enjoyable experience.
Once you’re hooked up to all the gear, you walk forward a little bit so the wind picks up the parachute. Then you’re told to start run, run, running! Within three or four steps, we were already off the ground. And then it became quite peaceful.
Purple flowers littered the mountainside, and the buildings looked like toys from the sky.
The guy I was flying tandem with was from Iceland, which was pretty cool considering the same time a year prior, I was exploring Iceland for the first time.
At one point, he let go of the handles and let me steer the ship for a few moments. As we neared the end of the flight, we turned around over the Atlantic Ocean… this is where it got crazy. The winds picked up as we lowered and it felt like a roller coaster – easily my favorite part of the flight.
And just like that, it was over! In the picture above, you can see Lion’s Head in the background, a foreshadowing of my evening hike.
After paragliding, Elyse and I went over to Camp’s Bay to get our tan on and then in the evening, we went with a group at our hostel to hike Lion’s Head for sunset, or “sundowners” as they call it in South Africa.
It has been a while since I’ve seen a proper sunset, especially over water. In Chicago, the sun rises over Lake Michigan, and I’m never awake early enough to see that.
The hike, I will say, was considerably brutal. I wouldn’t say I’m out of shape, but I’m also addicted to nicotine so high altitudes and lack of oxygen can get a bit intense. At some points during the hike, I was literally grabbing onto chains and rock climbing to get to the next plateau.
But it was worth it.
We had some moments of worry, but we made it to the top in time for sunset. It was beautiful, and calm, and very reaffirming of the decision to take this trip. Surrounded by new friends, pushing experiences to new heights.
I got up early the next morning to go on a tour of the Cape Peninsula with Lucky & Lost tour, where we would go see penguins at Boulder’s Beach, and… well, that’s all I really knew going into it.
The penguins were so. cute.
And there were so many of them.
The picture honestly doesn’t do it justice. There are so many, and they’re so cute but also kind of jerks. They’re all fighting each other and waddling around bashing into one another. I saw a couple banging. Really cool.
I need to note that the guide of Lucky & Lost, Ziggy, was so lekker. Lekker is a word used quite often in South Africa meaning… well, everything. Awesome, sexy, cool, you name it. It’s just a positive, commonly used word there that Ziggy introduced our group to.
Table Mountain National Park
Our tour was an all day affair, so we stopped for lunch after seeing the penguins as we entered the Table Mountain National Park, and then proceeded to go for a hike of the peninsula, ending at the Cape of Good Hope – the most south-western point in Africa.
The hike was beautiful.
During our time in the national park, we saw large antelope, baboons, and ostrich. I didn’t include a picture but I saw many, many more on my Kruger safari a few days later.
Our tour was concluded by a beautiful scenic drive through Chapman’s Peak – known for being one of the most scenic drives in the world.
This is my favorite shot from my time in Cape Town.
The day after the Peninsula Tour, Elyse and I were supposed to go seal snorkeling, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to strong winds. Luckily, this was the first and only time one of our activities were cancelled while in South Africa.
Our remaining days we spent relaxing and shopping for souvenirs. We went to the V&A waterfront, which is a huge mall right on the ocean with artisan shops as well as commercial shops. I also was able to haggle successfully for the first time at Greenmarket Square – I got a gift down from 450 Rand to 70 Rand. So 34 USD to 5 USD. Nice going, me!
The day before leaving, we went to Camp’s Bay to relax by the beach, which was quite relaxing but also HOT. It was nice to relax before flying to Johannesburg where we would then get picked up for our 3-day safari.
Things to Mention
I want to mention that Cape Town is a mix of privilege and poverty. While there are many people who live in million dollar homes, there are those outside the city living in literal shacks. When I went to the market to haggle, there were a number of people persistently begging for money. One person was quickly following behind me, begging. I thought I might get robbed or stabbed, until I firmly said “no,” and she shuffled away.
In talking to a new friend from Cape Town, I was told that everyone she knows has in some way or another been affected by crime. People who live there take Uber at night – that’s just the way it is. Cape Town is an amazing, incredible, breath-taking city, but it’s important to pay attention to the dangerous underbelly and history as well.
I also need to note that there are so many behind-the-scenes components to my time in Cape Town that made it so magical, most importantly the friends I made while there. Our hostel, the B.I.G. made it so easy to talk with people by providing the opportunity to go out to dinner with others.
Talking to people from different countries was such an eye-opening, humbling experience and verified my love for travel. There are others, my age, half-way across the world doing the same thing I’m doing. People who come from different places, yet, who I am able to connect with – oftentimes better than people in my own city.
All in all, Cape Town is quite lekker.