Cape Town is the oldest true city in southern Africa, home to more
than 3 million people, most of whom are non-white, and yet it is not
conventionally African. Cape Town was founded by the Dutch in 1652
and taken over by the British in the early 19th century. Nearly all
of the families who live in Cape Town emigrated from Europe, India, or
some other part of Africa.
Like San Francisco and Sydney, Cape Town combines a dramatic
oceans-and-mountain physical setting with a vibrant culture and some
When to Go
Cape Town's climate is very similar to San Diego's. The land is hot
and the sea is cold. The nicest months are the African summer,
September through early May. The winters tend to be comparatively
cloudy and rainy, but the weather can be pleasant at any time of year.
You're probably staying near the V&A Waterfront development,
essentially an indoor-outdoor shopping mall with private security
guards everywhere. There is no shame in spending a morning taking photos of fellow tourists and
locals here. As you're in a comprehensive shopping mall, complete
with supermarket, mass market camera shops, and an outdoor adventure
store, this is a good place to purchase anything that you might have
forgotten. Americans should be forewarned that prices are comparable
to Europe; it is best to bring absolutely that you might conceivably
need from home. The waterfront remains a working port facility as
well, so if you need some barnacles removed from your trawler, you can
get that done while visiting the multiplex cinema.
Two Oceans Aquarium
Located at the V&A waterfront, the Two Oceans Aquarium is the
largest public aquarium in Africa. The photos below were taken a
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, (buy from Amazon) on a full-frame camera. If possible,
bring a rubber lens hood so that you can place the front of the lens
up against the aquarium acrylic and avoid glare. If you left the hood
at home, shield the acrylic from glare with your hands.
Get Back Up in the Air
After a 12-hour flight from Heathrow or Amsterdam, the thought of
getting back into an aircraft may be daunting, but it is the best way
to appreciate the geography of the area. Cape Town is spread out like
Southern California. Cape Town is not at the point where the Indian
and Atlantic Oceans meet. Nor is Cape Town at the Cape of Good Hope.
Only from a helicopter or small airplane can you appreciate how the
city is built and how it relates to the stunning geography.
Helicopter tours are available from the V&A Waterfront, probably close
to your hotel, and light airplane rides can be obtained from the
flight schools at Cape Town International Airport.
Downtown Cape Town is architecturally undistinguished, but a
pleasant enough place to stroll around and shop for crafts in the
central market. People with money prefer to live on the beach or up
in the hills. Look for local characters such as the Egg Man.
A classic day trip from Cape Town, covered in every guidebook, takes
you to Cape Point, the actual Cape of Good Hope, which happens to be a
beautiful and dramatic place to hike. On the way down and back,
you'll drive through quaint coastal towns, see penguins, and, if you
stop, have your car ransacked by baboons. Stop in Kalk Bay for
breakfast or lunch.
Lion's Head Hike
Ready for some exercise? A 15-minute drive from downtown puts you at
the trailhead for the hike to the top of Lion's Head, a hill in front
of Table Mountain. The guidebook lists this as a 45-minute walk to
the top. Carrying a digital SLR and any extra pounds this would
qualify as a death march pace. Allow three hours round-trip. There
is some scrambling over rocks and climbing with the aid of chains.
Locals do the trip in flip flops and stay at the top until sunset.
"How do you find your way back down?" I asked a woman. "By taste and
smell," she replied.
When you're done, come back via the beach road through Camp's Bay, which has some excellent open-air fish restaurants.
Signal Hill Drive
If after the Lion's Head hike you swear that you will never climb over
rocks again, the short drive from downtown to the top of Signal Hill
will be a nice contrast.
The classic lazy photographer's trip, of course, is cable car to the
top of Table Mountain. Allow a few days and some flexibility with the
weather; the mountain is often covered in a cloud (the "table cloth").
Part of what tourists coming to South Africa want to see is the
black/white economic divide. This is hard to photograph in any part
of Cape Town that your hotel concierge would permit you to visit. In
fact, if you look around at the V&A Waterfront, within the good
restaurants, in the clubs, and along the beaches, you'll see mostly
white faces. The solution to seeing a township and not getting mugged
or killed is via an organized half-day tour, available from your hotel
or the sightseeing booths in the V&A Waterfront. There are white
folks who go into the townships regularly to do business.
Nonetheless, before you consider leaving the organized tour, do a
Google search for Amy
Biehl (also read a CNN
story that does a bit of follow-up on Amy's killers, who were
pardoned after a few years in prison, and were back on the street:
"Manqina was found guilty last year of raping a disabled teenager").
West Coast National Park
A 90-minute drive up the coast takes you to West Coast National Park,
notable August through September for the wildflower display know as
The Stellenbosch wine country starts just a one-hour drive east of
Cape Town. The towns of Stellenbosch and Franschoek have some
attractive old architecture and the terrain is similar to California's
Napa Valley. Unfortunately, the area has been over-photographed and
is too similar to wine-growing regions in other parts of the world. A
pleasant day trip, but could be skipped if you want to concentrate on
more photographically interesting areas.
Cape Town does not have the reputation for violent crime that
Johannesburg does, but statistically it is similar, which makes it one
of the most crime-plagued cities in the world. This is not the place
to be carrying a big camera bag and changing lenses, unless you have
two burly assistants or are intimately familiar with the
neighborhoods. Carry a smaller body, such as the
Canon EOS 5D (review), and
a wide-to-telephoto such as the
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM (review).
Cape Town is in the same time zone, more or less, as Western Europe.
There are no direct flights from the U.S. The easiest way to get to
Cape Town is plan to spend one or two nights on each end of the trip
in London or Amsterdam. The flight to Cape Town will then be an easy
overnight non-stop. Expect to pay dearly, unfortunately. Africa is
the most heavily regulated air travel market in the world and
consequently the most profitable for those lucky carriers who have
obtained government permission to fly there.
Plan on renting a car for trips beyond the city center and
waterfront. Taxis are efficient and reasonably priced, but the locals
all drive themselves everywhere. A quasi-organized parking racket
operates in which a person in a bright orange vest, often a recent
immigrant from the Congo, will watch your car and collect about US$1
when you're ready to depart.
A rental car will cost roughly double what you would spend in the
U.S. for a comparable vehicle.
Getting Around (uh, in the evening)
Cape Town has a lively party scene, especially in the summer, and is
known for an abundance of attractive single women. The clubs that are
listed in guidebooks will serve a mostly white crowd. The HIV
infection rate among South African whites is approximately 1/20th that
of South African blacks, but that is still much higher than the
prevalence of the disease among middle class Americans. Having sex
with an African permanently disqualifies you from donating blood in
It isn't particularly safe to be walking or driving around at night in
any case. "Remember that all over Africa, the predators come out at
night," a local reminded us. Car jackers attempted to prey on him
only once in the last few years and it was around midnight. South
Africa has the highest rate of violent crime in the world. Robbery and
rape are very common. The murder rate in South Africa is
approximately five times that of Brazil (source).
Statistically, it would be safer to serve a combat tour as a
U.S. soldier in Iraq than to live for ten years in Cape Town.
A GSM mobile phone from the U.S., e.g., T-Mobile or AT&T, will work
fine in Cape Town. Expect to get charged at least $1 per minute and
also to pay handsomely for data services. If you're going to make a
lot of calls, it is probably best to purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM card.
South Africa is hooked up to the Internet via a fiber optic cable to
London. From a technical point of view, they could have the same
Internet speeds and fees as the U.S., China, India, Senegal, Mexico,
Singapore, and Western Europe. Some good friends of the
government, however, have a monopoly on backbone telecommunications
services. These well-connected folks, with whom it would be illegal
to compete, have decided to charge literally 100 times the world
standard prices for Internet. Your hotel will have a terribly slow
connection to the public Internet; it would bankrupt them if you
watched a streaming Netflix video. A top university with 30,000
students will have a 500 kbit connection, 1/60th the bankwidth that an
American household would get with Verizon FiOS. In 2007, only two
percent of the nation's public schools had Internet access.
Don't expect to upload your photos from an Internet cafe; you'd be
there for a month if you wanted to transfer a few hundred RAW files.
A simple task, such as purchasing an airline ticket, that would take a
minute or two on a U.S. broadband link, will take more than half an
hour from a typical hard-wired South African connection.
Business hotel with a very competent staff:
Cape Grace ($500+/night); in the waterfront area
so that you can walk around at night
Bay Hotel, same area as the Cape Grace, much larger, with
convention facilities, much better views of the water.
Cape Town is home to some of the world's better restaurants, at prices
about half of what you'd pay in big American cities and one quarter
those of Europe. Try to make all of your reservations at least two or
three weeks in advance, especially in the peak summer season.
Ginja. Downtown. Best food.
La Colombe. In the Constantia Uitsig winery
on the other side of the mountain. Best environment and experience;
make sure to book lunch or an early enough dinner that it will still
be light out when you get there.