An Absolutely Incredible 10 Days in Cape Town

It started, as so many of our trips do these days, with an excited squeal from Lauren.

“THAT’S SO CHEAP!”

Ever since she discovered the Secret Flying site, those three words have tumbled out of her mouth on a very regular basis.

In this case, it was return flights from Lisbon to Cape Town, via the Angolan capital of Luanda, for under £250 per person. For a total of around 18 hours in the air, that was, indeed, very little money.

And hey, it’s not like TAAG (the Angolan national carrier offering these ridiculously low fares) has ever had an accident, right? Or been banned from flying into EU airspace due to safety concerns?

Oh well. We’ve flown worse airlines in the past. Probably.

Lauren ended up taking an earlier flight to check out Mozambique for a couple of weeks (yes, Secret Flying again), and so it was I found myself heading for the airport alone one brisk January evening, armed with just a carry-on bag, a credit card, and the knowledge my plane was probably unlikely to end up in several pieces somewhere across the African continent.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Instead, after an uneventful overnight flight on a clean, new-ish Boeing 777 (highlight: There’s Something About Mary featuring as a new release on the inflight entertainment), we touched down right on time in Angola.

There hadn’t been much information online about Luanda’s airport, but after being lucky enough to visit four times in six weeks earlier this year, I’ve learned about as much as I want to about the transit experience there. So, as a total side note, I thought I’d write it down in case you’re ever as fortunate as me.

Things to Know About Luanda’s Quatro de Fevereiro Airport

  • You need a yellow fever certificate to leave the airport, and officially, to board your onward flight. I transited through on the way to and from both South Africa and Namibia, and was asked for my certificate twice. If you don’t have the vaccination or an exemption, and the paperwork to prove it, your trip plans may change in a big hurry.
  • There’s always a mad rush from the plane to the transit area. By transit area, I mean a little mosquito-filled section of the airport beside the doors, with a long line of tired passengers. They’re all waiting to pass through a single X-ray machine and metal detector, which are generally being ignored by the nearest staff member. Once, I got through in 10 minutes. Other times, it took an hour.
  • If you can, check in for your onward flight ahead of time, and have a printout of your boarding pass (or better, a physical copy from the airline). I only had it on my phone, which meant somebody then disappeared with my phone and passport, eventually returning with a boarding pass 20 minutes later. It wasn’t nerve-wracking at all. Much.
  • Don’t expect much from the terminal. It’s hot and sticky, with few seats, and fewer amenities. There is a lounge available, where for $30 USD you’ll get air-conditioning, power sockets, Wi-fi, no bugs, and the most depressing ham sandwich you’ve ever seen. I swapped it for a shot of whiskey.Luanda airport flight info error message
  • There isn’t a great deal of English spoken, and most announcements are in Portuguese. Keep an eye on the screens, although there aren’t many around (and when you do track one down, you may find the gate information obscured by a warning message about a counterfeit version of Windows.)
  • The screens didn’t really matter all that much, though, since pretty much everything seemed to depart from gate 4. Even when three flights left within fifteen minutes of each other, staff chose to herd everyone into a single crowded waiting area and shout instructions about which bus went to which plane, rather than use another gate.

 

As bleary-eyed as I was when I finally got to Cape Town early afternoon , I couldn’t help but notice one thing: the city was every bit as beautiful as it was made out to be. On the ride into the city, I just kept peering out the window at Table Mountain, its famous ‘tablecloth’ of cloud on full display that day.

Speaking of the ride, locals recommend using Uber to get around the city, and I have to agree with them. The cars were everywhere in Cape Town, and I took at least a dozen of them during my time there. They were always spotlessly clean, reasonably priced, and safer than both regular taxis and the bus service. Trips from downtown to Lion’s Head, Table Mountain and Camps Bay cost around $5 USD, while 40-minute journeys to the airport and Noordhoek were still under $20.

We stayed on Buitenkant St, roughly halfway between the castle and Company’s Gardens, and it was fine, if slightly sketchy at night. If visiting again, I’d probably look to stay a bit closer to the bars and restaurants on Kloof St, but they were still within an easy walk.

Truth Coffee

The best part of our apartment’s location? Being opposite Truth Coffee, an award-winning steampunk-style cafe and coffee roastery. I may have had a coffee there every day, and brunch far too often. It was just that good.

 

So, What to Do in Cape Town?

Other than a day trip or two, we’d decided not to go elsewhere in the country. I’d visited South Africa a couple of times in the past, but had never been to Cape Town, so wanted to explore as much as possible.

Towards the end of our indefinite travels the year before, we’d both been guilty of slacking off, so exhausted from endless movement we barely saw the places we visited. With several months to recover, though, the energy and motivation had returned, and we were out exploring for most of every day. Here’s what we got up to.

 

Bo Kaap Walking Tour

First up was joining the free walking tour through Bo Kaap. Found on every postcard, this part of town is famous for its colourful buildings, stretching away up Signal Hill like an over-excited rainbow.

As the story goes, the colours started with a doctor who painted his house red so patients could find it easily, at a time where street numbers weren’t really a thing. The idea took hold, with more and more people following suit, until you get the riot of painted walls you see today.

Bo Kaap

Originally known as the Malay Quarter, this once-impoverished Muslim neighbourhood is facing issues with gentrification, like so many other places around the world. Community leaders are resisting for now, but how long before big money completely takes over?

We enjoyed the history and gorgeous buildings, and our enthusiastic guide, but walking around in a group of 20+ people was… well, as enjoyable as walking around in a group of 20+ people always is. Not very. We went back for an hour in the morning a few days later, and things were much calmer.

 

Lion’s Head

View of Camps Bay from Lion's Head

We pulled on our walking shoes the next day, and headed up Lion’s Head. One of the two must-do hikes in Cape Town, it’s shorter and easier than going up Table Mountain, so seemed the perfect warm-up for the main event a couple of days later.

Taking an Uber to the starting point (“Lion’s Head Parking”), we set off on a flat trail under cloudless skies. The skies stayed the same for our entire hike. The trail got steeper after about twenty seconds.

The 5km path loops right around the hill as you climb. On the upside, this means you get a full 360 degree view. Table Mountain dominates to the south, with great views of Camps Bay below. To the north lies Signal Hill, while downtown Cape Town stretches away to the east. To the west? Ocean. A lot of ocean. Next stop: Uruguay.

On the downside, while half the hike is in the shade, you’re fully exposed for the other half. It was the height of summer when we were in Cape Town, and the South African sun doesn’t screw around that time of year. Start early in the morning, and wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen.

It took a couple of hours to do the round trip, which included plenty of time recovering admiring the view at the top. While I wouldn’t say any of it was “difficult” — especially if you take the slightly-longer path that doesn’t involve scaling chains up and down the side of a ridge (no joke) — it’s definitely rocky and quite steep in parts. The hardest bit is just below the summit, so expect to do a bit of scrambling for those few minutes.

Probably under the watchful eye of a hyrax.

Hyrax on the path

You don’t need much in the way of equipment to walk up Lion’s Head — I had proper hiking shoes, but saw plenty of people doing it in sneakers. Pack your camera, some snacks, and more water than you think you need. Oh, and your phone, to call an Uber to get back into the city. You could walk back as well, if you weren’t quite sunburned and tired enough yet.

If you’ve only got time or energy for one hike in Cape Town, I’d suggest this one. The views are arguably at least as good as from Table Mountain (you’re not as high, but you can actually see Table Mountain rather than just stand on it), and while it’s quite a bit easier, there’s still enough of a challenge to make it feel like you’ve achieved something.

In my case, that achievement was mainly sweating through my t-shirt.

 

Camps Bay

Camps Bay

Camps Bay had looked so appealing from the top of Lion’s Head, we had to check it out the following day. It’s a chilled-out, family-friendly sort of beach (at least during the week), and we spent a solid couple of hours working on our tans, reading books, and continually trying to decide whether it was too early to stop doing both and go get an ice-cream instead.

In the end we somehow skipped the ice-cream, in favour of what turned out to be excellent Greek food at Mezepoli, right on the main beachside road. The location meant it was a bit over-priced, but it was still affordable, all our dishes were excellent, and the drinks were cold and forthcoming. If we’d been staying closer to Camps Bay, I suspect we’d have eaten there several more times during our trip. Definitely recommended, just like Camps Bay itself.

 

Table Mountain

Table Mountain with cloud

Table Mountain absolutely dominates the Cape Town skyline. I’d seen photos of it before, but never quite realised just how visible it is from pretty much everywhere. There was no way I was leaving the city without checking out the view from the top, and although you can take a cable car up there, I’m a sucker for punishment. No, if I was heading to the top, I’d be using my feet, thanks.

Note 1: If you’re going to hike up Table Mountain, can I suggest not doing it on a 36C / 97F degree day?

Note 2: If you’re going to hike up Table Mountain on a 36 degree day, can I suggest at least leaving the house before 9 am?

Note 3: If you’re going to hike up Table Mountain on a 36 degree day and not leave the house until 9 am, can I suggest at least making sure the stupid Uber driver doesn’t drop you off a half hour walk from the starting point?

Yeah.

There are a bunch of routes to the top, but we opted for the quickest and easiest one, heading up the Platteklip Gorge that splits the cliffs in two. As I learned that day, “easiest” doesn’t mean “easy” when you’re being slowly fried by the sun while climbing 700m over just three kilometres. It was a genuine slog for almost the entire two hours, and being deep in a gorge, there’s not much in the way of views until you reach the top and everything opens up in front of you.

Looking back down Platteklip Gorge trail

Still, all the sweat and aching calves was worth it once we stumbled out onto the plateau. It’s huge — 3km from side to side — and varies a lot from one end to the other. Many people get terrible photos from the top, because that famous tablecloth of cloud blows in, but the upside of all that beating sunshine was perfect views for us.

We dawdled around at the top for at least a couple more hours, checking out the various trails, grabbing some lunch at the cafe, and watching people trying to fall off the mountain while taking selfies. Who needs television when there’s free entertainment like that?

My knees — and apparently, every-single-part of Lauren — weren’t very interested in enduring the 1800 steps back down to the bottom, so we joined the line of people for cable car tickets. Let’s just say it wasn’t hard to tell which ones had hiked up, and which ones were returning the same way they’d arrived. Two hours up, two minutes back down again, and we were done.

It was definitely time for a drink.

 

Signal Hill

Sunset from Signal Hill

When the evenings were this warm, and the views this good, there was basically no way we weren’t going to have a picnic somewhere. Signal Hill turned out to be the spot, so we grabbed wine and supplies from the supermarket, and took an Uber to the parking lot at the top about an hour before sunset. Note: even if you’ve got a car, I’d suggest either going very early, or just take an Uber. The parking spots all filled up quickly, and we saw a lot of tickets on cars parked illegally along the narrow access road.

The picnic was everything we might have hoped for. Perfect weather, a stunning sunset, and a quiet patch of hilltop all to ourselves. Bliss.

 

Visiting the Penguins at Boulder’s Beach by Train

All the penguins, Boulders Bay

If you’re a total penguin fan like me, one of the coolest things about Cape Town isn’t even in Cape Town at all. Instead, it’s in the small town of Simon’s Town, about halfway down the Cape Peninsula, where a colony of 3000 African penguins have decided to make their home.

Since there’s plenty of food nearby, and they’re totally protected, these little guys are having the time of their lives, just like all the tourists that crowd the walkways and beaches to see them. You can even swim with, or at least near, them — they’re pretty used to humans, and since they’re about a million times more agile in the water than we are, can easily slip away if anyone’s getting a little too close.

Most people get down to Simon’s Town by rental car or on a tour, but after a bit of digging, we discovered another option. Cape Town’s trains are more of a commuter service than anything else, but they do run down the peninsula, stopping at several spots including Simon’s Town. Even better, there’s a tourist pass, letting you get on and off as much as you like during off-peak hours for 35 rand (about $2.50 USD). The trains run from Cape Town’s main station at least once an hour, and you just ask for the hop-on, hop-off ticket at the counter. So that’s what we did.

The trains were a bit beaten up and covered in graffiti, like commuter trains everywhere, but on the way south, in the middle of a weekday morning, they were almost empty. The first part of the journey wasn’t super-exciting, all suburbs and countryside, but once the tracks joined the coast at False Bay, things got much prettier.

Not that we had much time to enjoy it — engineering works meant the line was closed from Fish Hoek, just a couple of stops further down the line. A replacement bus ran the rest of the way to Simon’s Town, but we skipped the first one in favour of fish and chips on the beach instead. After all, what’s the point of a hop-on, hop-off ticket, if you don’t hop on and off?

Eventually getting to Simon’s Town, we walked the half-hour to Boulders Beach (hint: I’d take the cheap white minivans next time, which run from the station to the beach and cost about 50c). Once there, we started spotting the occasional penguin nesting in the undergrowth as we wandered along the boardwalk, and wondered whether we really needed to pay the money to go down to the beach. The answer, once we did so, was clear. YES. Absolutely.

Single penguin in the water

There were penguins everywhere. Standing on rocks, waddling up and down the beach, zipping around between people as they waded in the water. Despite the crowds, they seemed perfectly content doing their thing, patiently waiting for people to walk in front of them before continuing on their way.

The area is split into two main sections, the beach at the far end, and a series of walkways and viewing points beforehand. You’ll get some great views from the platforms, although you might have to wait a bit to get photos that have more penguins than humans. We spent a couple of hours at Boulders Beach, snapping photo after photo, then just sitting back and watching our new black and white friends go about their business.

I could have sat there all day, and if we’d been staying nearby, or had our own transport, I probably would have. The trip back was uneventful, although since it was early evening, the bus and carriages were much more packed. Still, everything seemed perfectly safe — if you’re considering a similar trip yourself, you should be absolutely fine if you take the same basic precautions you would on any large city transport service.

In a trip full of highlights, the penguins at Boulders Bay were a total standout. Highly recommended!

 

Valetine’s Day Picnic at Cape Point Vineyards

Cape Point Vineyards picnic

If you hadn’t guessed already, picnics are a Big Deal in Cape Town. There are even companies that’ll arrange gourmet picnics for you, and all you need to do is show up.

Our last full day in town was Valentine’s Day, so we obviously had to find a way to celebrate. We both like picnics… and wineries… and sitting in the sun with a good view. How about a picnic in the sun at a winery, you ask? What a damn fine idea.

So, out to Cape Point Vineyards we headed, down the Cape Peninsula around 40 minutes south of the city. We’d booked a spot a couple of days earlier, and when we arrived, out came the fancy cushions, and a picnic hamper crammed with oysters and cheeses and all the other delicious foods. Add in a bottle of wine or two, a view out to the ocean, and well, that’s basically my perfect afternoon right there.

We’d expected to be there a bit over an hour, maybe two at the most. Three hours, several drinks, and far too much food later, we rolled ourselves off those fancy cushions and finally thought about heading back to town. If you’re looking for a romantic — or just fun and delicious — way to spend a sunny Cape Town afternoon, you should totally check out a winery picnic like this.

 

And with that, our time in Cape Town came to an end. Had we still been nomadic, there’s little doubt we’d have stayed much longer, months instead of days. It’s a fantastic city, with great food and outdoor lifestyle, glorious summer weather, and a vast amount to see and do.

Before we left, we wondered whether we’d run out of things to do if we stayed in Cape Town the full ten days. As we headed back to the airport, we both commented that we felt we’d only just started to scratch the surface of what was on offer, and how much we’d both like to return.

If another one of those crazy-cheap Secret Flying deals pops up again any time soon, let’s just say Lauren won’t be the only one squealing with excitement.

I’ll totally be joining her.

 

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My Absolutely Incredible 10 Days in Cape Town

2 Responses to “An Absolutely Incredible 10 Days in Cape Town

  • Nice post, brought back memories of our 3 month stay early last year. The geographic beauty is stupendous and no other city has such great hikes minutes from the city center. Lion’s head is incredible, we also did some hikes up Table Mountain (try the India Venster hike next time. Gets the adrenaline pumping).
    One thing I can recommend: City Sightseeing has different hop on/hop off bus routes including one that goes to the vineyards of Constantia. Great wine and there’s a great restaurant there. Nice not having to drive after that experience. The vineyards in Stellenbosh also great and they have another wine tour you can take there that brings you to different wineries. We also rented a car and drove through the Garden route and across the mountains into the Karoo. Incredible experience.

    Interesting about Luanda airport. I think I’ll skip any transit through there…

  • There is just tons to do in Cape Town … glad you enjoyed your time there so much!

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